Friday, January 31, 2014

Pop-cultural flotsam

Mark Edmundson's meandering mess of an essay at the Chronicle has attracted a lot of ridicule in the corners where I hang out on the internet, and it is indeed a doozy. Though I'm often impatient with Edmundson's take on the humanities--both his fuzzy celebration of their value and his dour certainty that they're doomed--I respect him as a writer and have usually felt that his heart is in the right place: he values the humanities; I value the humanities; and the fact that he has a national audience probably helps all of us.

But this. . . well, even before I got to the really outrageous part, I was embarrassed for him. It's a self-indulgent and not entirely coherent account of Edmundson's time at Yale and how alienated he felt from both the tweedy profs with their sherry and the undergraduates he regarded as an undifferentiated mass of Skull & Bonesmen headed straight for Wall Street and/or the C.I.A. Edmundson was different--what with his black leather jacket--and so felt some initial sympathy with the rise of theory, which seemed sexy and young and opposed to all that fusty establishmentarianism. But! Over the years he came to see the nothing and the nihilism at the core of theory, and his essay concludes with the sorrowful realization that the tweedy fuddy-duddies had it right all along. But alas, the fuddy-duddies are all dead, and now "[f]ew professors in my field, literature, believe that they can distinguish rigorously between pop-culture flotsam and the works of Milton. Few of them know how to mount an argument that values Wyatt's poetry over a video game."

Um. Say what?

That last quotation is the portion of the essay that has received the most scorn, and rightfully so. Some of Edmundson's defenders claim he's merely being hyperbolic, and though I'm not convinced that he is--wild claims of this sort have been a staple of conservative critiques of the academy* for decades--whether Edmundson literally means that there are legions of literature professors who can't discriminate between the value of Paradise Lost and a video game or whether he means merely that they can't mount a coherent argument for the value of any canonical author, he's wrong.

Most professors know how to argue for the worth of whichever texts are canonical within their particular area of expertise, and most do so explicitly or implicitly one semester after the other. One reason is that we tend to be hired within traditionally-defined subfields ("Victorian Novel," "Modernist Poetry") and tend to be expected to teach bread-and-butter genre or period surveys. This means we do a lot of thinking about what our students need to know and what it would be irresponsible to leave out; we also--and especially if we happen to teach any subject that isn't immediately appealing to students--tend to think about how to make the case for those texts. Believe me: even at the most elite schools, students do not arrive convinced of their need to study Chaucer or Milton.

At less-elite institutions this is doubly true. (I've had students who assume "British Literature"--all of it!--is strange and foreign and totally distinct from any American literature ever.) At RU, Shakespeare is a required course, but I still consider it my job to make the case, actively and every day, for why Shakespeare is worth reading. I do not assume it. Canonical works only remain canonical because new generations of readers continue to fall in love with them and continue to believe in their worth; if your only argument for Shakespeare's canonicity is "because generations have said so," or even, "because I love him," you've lost. And lemme tell you: if I couldn't make the case for Milton, my classes would get cancelled. I only get to teach Milton because I sell him, hard, to students who have frequently never heard of him.

But I want to move away from the question of whether professors still recognize a canon and toward an interrogation of what we're doing when we dismiss some works as "pop cultural flotsam." I'm not sure what Edmundson intended to include in this category, and his vagueness is probably strategic. But as someone who works on an earlier period, I've long noticed that conservative critics who inveigh against the teaching of pop culture, ephemera, women and minority writers (and so on) do not take quite the same position when it comes to very minor writers who happen to be part of the establishment. So, early modern ballads, sermons, and the works of fifth-rate playwrights are so interesting and so worthwhile and even an important work of recovery (because: OUR HERITAGE!), but Mary Wroth and Margaret Cavendish--nevermind Toni Morrison, August Wilson or The Sopranos--aren't important enough or central enough to the culture.

Now, I'm not claiming that this is how Edmundson feels--I don't know his opinions about any of those works or writers--but I'm uncomfortable with any sweeping dismissal of popular culture. The fact is that virtually all serious scholars work on noncanonical texts at least some of the time (I wrote almost an entire book about 'em!), but not all noncanonical texts get sneered at as "flotsam." I can tell you that I've never once had anyone assert the triviality of the material I work on: it's old enough and aligned enough with traditional sources of power (the court, the church) that it reads as serious and important. But I'm not sure it's intrinsically any more or less valuable, as a subject for analysis, than 1950s sit-coms. Part of the question is what one does with the texts in question.

Some uncanonical texts are useful primarily for contextual or historical information (to see the evolution of a particular writer's works; to study the conventions of a genre; to understand the period's attitude toward gender, money, science, religion), but many are aesthetically interesting in their own right to a greater or lesser degree. I teach very few of the noncanonical texts I work on, but I'll assign the occasional sermon or excerpt from an ars moriendi manual, just as some of my colleagues show the occasional clip from a sit-com or bring in a series of midcentury advertisements.

The formal and interpretative skills that scholars bring to Shakespeare or Faulkner can be applied to any aesthetic object, however low or high, serious or pop-cultural, but only the best will keep yielding new meanings. Some of our t.v. shows (and, who knows? maybe even video games) will last or will be rediscovered by future scholars. Some of our "serious" novels and films will not. In the meanwhile, we study and we teach what seems most meaningful, most illuminating, most worthy. Most the time, those are canonical or critically-acclaimed texts. But real humanists know when and how to attend to the flotsam and ephemera.

*H/t Phoebe, who has anatomized the conservative critique of academia in this post and later ones.


Bardiac said...

Yes! You should publish this in the Chronicle. You hit both the ways that canonical works are important, but also the ways that non-canonical works are worth reading and teaching.

Historiann said...

Which corners of the internets are ridiculing Edmundson's essay? Links? Posts?

Because I don't think the internets this morning are quite snarky enough. I need moar!!!!

Congrats on the book, BTW. I wrote about you on my blog today.

Flavia said...


We-ll, I'm thinking mostly about Facebook (where I can neither confirm nor deny to starting a snarky thread on this post myself, though the conversation happened over several different people's and groups' pages). There's also some snark--as well as some kinder criticism--in the Chronicle's comments section, but there's also so much idiocy and nastiness there that I don't recommend wading into those waters!

And thanks much for the post about the book; have delayed doing so here until it's available for purchase on Amazon.

Comradde PhysioProffe said...

I may be misremembering, but I recall being taught that Shakespeare's plays were considered contemporaneously to have been "pop cultural flotsam".

Contingent Cassandra said...

Well said. Admittedly, I've got a dog in this fight, since I do recovery work (on the sort of texts that are usually considered as unworthy of notice: by women, sentimental, narrowly political/activist, religious, or all of the above), but it strikes me that the other major value of bringing in lesser-known works that are in some way usefully parallel and/or in counterpoint to the well-known canonical ones, is that such juxtapositions force students to practice interpretive skills that they're otherwise more and more sorely tempted to bypass by looking up the "right answer" on the internet. Of course they need to know about the much-discussed canonical works (and, gradually, to learn that there are multiple schools of thought about them), but they also need some fresh material to work on, and contemporary ephemera/flotsam/jetsam often serves that purpose very nicely, while deepening understanding of the canonical text. Ideally, in other words, it's not an either/or, but a both/and.

P.S. Congrats on the book! I want to read it (even though it's entirely out of my period, though close enough that I guess I could consider it background -- pretty deep background).

Flavia said...


That's an excellent point, and something I meant to bring up in the post itself. "Pop cultural flotsam" may be too harsh, but plays were definitely a popular, democratic kind of entertainment, and ranked very low in the literary hierarchy (comedies especially). I think t.v. today isn't a bad analogy, insofar as some very talented people at the top of their game are working in the medium. . . but there's also a lot of dreck. It's so popular a form that it's not quite respectable.

Novels, of course, were regarded similarly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: as a low, popular genre mostly read by silly bored women. There are scholars still alive who helped establish what we now consider the canonical novels of those eras. And even the Romantic poets, if I remember correctly, were not studied seriously until the 1960s or so.

The bigger point here is that English as a discipline basically didn't exist 100 years ago, and although a handful of writers have been considered "greats" for a long time, most of the canon is quite recent and unstable. Yesterday's pop-cultural flotsam is tomorrow's classic.


the other major value of bringing in lesser-known works that are in some way usefully parallel and/or in counterpoint to the well-known canonical ones, is that such juxtapositions force students to practice interpretive skills

YES. This is a great point. One of the best ways of showing students why X is considered canonical is to show them other contemporary works in the genre--but, as you suggest, this also means allowing students to educate and cultivate their own taste, which means sometimes they'll fall in love (and you might, too) with a "minor" work that speaks to them for some reason. And that's as it should be. One of the reasons the canon changes is that tastes and interests change. I have some old anthologies of Renaissance literature from the 1950s and 1960s, and it's really interesting to compare them with those from the second millenium.

(And thanks!)

undine said...

Teaching the lesser-known works is important. I have some class exercises where the students are to ferret out contemporary works and figure out where the authors either went wrong or might be undeservedly obscure.
And congratulations on your book!

Sapience said...

I'd add that one of the things I want to teach is not just the static greatness of Milton or Shakespeare or Chaucer, but the way that people later (and people NOW) still use and react to those texts--and that means teaching pop-culture engagement with Shakespeare and Milton and Chaucer. I want students to ask, WHY does that death metal band or that former alternative punk rocker decide that they want to do a concept album based on Paradise Lost? Pop culture's engagement with literature isn't just proof of relevance (though it is that, too). It's also a set of models for engagement. I want students to feel and believe that they potentially have the power to absorb, know, and rework Shakespeare the same way Shakespeare absorbed, knew, and reworked Chaucer or Ovid.

Withywindle said...

I may respond to this at greater length at some point, but I'll just make a brief query here: what conservative critic of academia argues that "early modern ballads, sermons, and the works of fifth-rate playwrights are so interesting and so worthwhile and even an important work of recovery (because: OUR HERITAGE!)"? I can't offhand think of any.

Flavia said...


I'm sorry if that was worded poorly. To be clear, I know of no contemporary, published, conservative critics of the academy who have made this claim explicitly in print--mostly, such writers are all about propping up what they understand to be The Canon.

But I know a great many people in or tenuously connected to the academy who are interested in minor works such as those you quote, but who consistently speak about the marginality of work on women writers of the period (or the kinds of texts associated with women: recipe books, letters and diaries, etc.). As I noted, as a grad student I got patted on the head by greybeards for the kind of work I was doing on minor works in unliterary genres. There's also related grousing in some corners about the loss of the minor male writers who used to appear in older anthologies, like the ones I mention in an earlier comment.

Anecdata, I grant you. But the assumptions and prejudices at work there trouble me.

Withywindle said...

I think I would therefore say that this seems more like an intramural fight within the (largely left-liberal) academy.

I would also distinguish between interest in ballads (cultural broadening away from a traditional canon), interest in sermons as a genre (which is either very, very old-fashioned or very newfangled and revisionist, no?), and interest in minor playwrights (which doesn't challenge canons the way either work on ballads or sermons would). I'm still thinking about how each of these interests would relate to a CCOA, but I'm not sure how useful it is to lump them together as part of some sort of establishment. Or if it is useful in the English department, I'm not sure how much it translates to the History department.

Flavia said...

Oh, and Sapience, I meant to respond earlier:

Your position on pop-cultural adaptations is interesting. I guess I feel that to teach any canonical work to students these days is already--if one is a good teacher and if one has students who aren't taking classes out of some duty-bound sense that they must know The Canon--not teaching a static sense of their greatness. For students to be engaged by Milton, they do have to believe that he's accessible and relevant in some way, and as a teacher I try to make those connections.

So, I'll certainly mention various pop-cultural adaptations, to convey that they exist and that there are people out there making these works their own, but beyond using them as a provocative warm-up question I don't teach them in their own right. That's not a criticism of your approach, but the limits of the semester and the curriculum mean I'd rather focus on primary texts unless I'm teaching a course on adaptation, or afterlives (as I might well do someday!).

Flavia said...


Some of this may be an intramural fight, but to the extent that Edmundson's critique aligns with conservative critiques of English departments, I think it's appropriate both to call it conservative and to note those overlaps with concern.

(And FWIW, as I note at MSI's, I consider myself relatively conservative when it comes to curricula. I believe that contemporary pop culture can be taught with rigor, so in that way I'm not a conservative. . . but if we're actually talking about changing disciplinary curricula in a major & widespread way, I'm almost certainly going to object strenuously.)

Doctor Cleveland said...

Actually, I think Flavia's point about "minor" canonical writers goes right to Edmundson's agenda. Edmundson doesn't just contrast pop-culture to Milton. He contrasts pop culture to Milton and Wyatt. One of those things is not like the other.

Wyatt is an important writer (and I do teach him, as I think Flavia does), especially to specialists in that field. But he's not a household name like Milton. He's less canonical.

Cultural conservatives typically claim that women/minorities/popular culture are being taught instead of major figures like Shakespeare or Milton. But that's clearly not what's happening. Milton is fine. Wyatt is the endangered species.

The "dead white males" getting cut from syllabi and squeezed out of anthologies are the second- and third-tier dead white guys. Women and minorities got added to the reading list alongside the same helpings of Shakespeare and Milton that have always been there. The space for women's voices comes from bumping minor white male poets off the list. No more space for Herrick, Southwell, or Daniel.

[Similarly, Hemingway and Faulkner didn't get cut from courses on the American novel to make room for women and African-Americans. John Dos Passos and Thomas Wolfe did.]

This is easily documented. Just go through the various editions of The Norton Edition of English Literature published over the last several decades. You can see the number of pages devoted to women and minority writers growing, the pages given over to minor white men shrinking, and the major dead white men (Shakespeare, Milton, Spenser, Donne, etc.) holding steady or even gaining. (The newer editions, for example, include all of Milton's Paradise Lost. When I was an undergrad it only included about two-thirds.)

What cultural conservatives are really fighting for is affirmative action for the less impressive white men.

Flavia said...

Dr. C:

Thanks for this--that's a very smart reading.

Edmundson's reference to Wyatt always felt weird to me, but I couldn't quite put my finger on why. I think you've nailed it.