Friday, July 25, 2014


1. Arnold's touchstone theory — Deaf and dumb cultural conservatism 2. Arnold, Eliot, and New Criticism — The Theory Revolution — Humanism at the scene of instruction; 3. Touchstone practices of reading — Personal relationships with texts; 4. Monumental reading — The necessity of close reading — Two touchstones cross the same commons; 5. The figure — Dramatic reading — Imaginations haunted by spectral figures; 6. Four objections — Objection 1: Esotericism — The elitism of strenuous study — Objection 2: Hero-worship — Knowingness and theories of human motivation; 7. Objection 3: Whitewashing history — Conflict: You can only fight whitewashing with elitish strenuous study — Creating the historical sacred; 8. The common reader and scholarship — Objection 4: Figuralizing violates technical niceties — Anti-romanticism: A land without heroes; 9. Afflictive reading — Obsessives can be annoying, though — Critical thinking and instruments of self-enlargement

Indeed there can be no more useful help for discovering what poetry belongs to the class of the truly excellent, and can therefore do us most good, than to have always in one’s mind lines and expressions of the great masters, and to apply them as a touchstone to other poetry. ... [W]e shall find them, when we have lodged them well in our minds, an infallible touchstone for detecting the presence or absence of high poetic quality, and also the degree of this quality, in all other poetry which we may place beside them. (Matthew Arnold, “The Study of Poetry”)
David Bromwich calls this Arnold’s “touchstone theory,” and it’s the locus classicus of the neo-cultural conservative’s idea of the “Western canon.” I don’t think there have been many actual mandarin cultural conservatives who have wielded this obviously silly theory—not even Allan Bloom, I should think—but one does find it in any number of the jingoistic defenders of “culture” that pass for American neoconservative intellectuals. I suppose it is not hard to tell how little use I have for them. The silliness is encapsulated in “infallible”—really? Do no wrong? Worse than thinking, like your child or your guru, that anyone or thing could be infallible is the epistemological problem scared up by the application of the concept: if infallibility is the prize, how does one get to be one of these touchstones? The trick is that if there were independent criteria from the touchstones, then we wouldn’t need the touchstones. So the problem is precisely how to pick out a touchstone when all you have as criteria are your touchstones. At best, that’s a deaf and dumb cultural conservatism that no one has ever followed, even if it’s what comes out of their mouth.

2.      Matthew Arnold’s legacy somehow got bound up with T. S. Eliot’s cultural and political conservatism, and both of them with what literary critics call New Criticism. Both Arnold and Eliot are more interesting than the Theory Revolution of the ‘60s and ‘70s gave them credit for, and New Criticism generally got a bad rap. The effect of this triple rejection was to make reading an impersonal activity. This is ironic, given that Arnold’s touchstone was there precisely to correct against personal taste in favor of disinterestedness. However, the Theory Revolution was in part an attempt to correct against the un-disinterested blocking of candidates to the “canon of great literature” such as, say, women, blacks, gays, etc., etc. It was Anti-Old White Dude. And because the touchstone theory so obviously blocked from view any actual criteria for induction into the canon, universalist and unhistorical criteria of all kinds became suspicious. This was how formalist New Criticism came to be rolled up in this. New Criticism was supposed to be just you and a poem, performing an act called “close reading,” but the Theory Revolution said, quite rightly, that you and the poem are always against the backdrop of historical circumstances. Texts are always in contexts—we cannot shut our eyes to it as the New Critics advise.

But with the Theory Revolution, the combined effect that some onlookers have put in different ways was to subordinate the text to the context—to make the context the primary object of investigation. This was largely an unintended consequence, but it’s why when you obligatorily study literary theory now, you learn theories as different modes of unpacking texts. Many of these courses are taught with one central text, and then each section you learn and apply alternately Freud, Lacan, Derrida, de Man, Kristeva, Greenblatt, Foucault, etc. This is fine as far as it goes, but what happened in the journals was that the focus became the jockeying of modes. Battles over interpretations became implicitly battles over theories (or even, over one’s favored theory-guru), rather than battles over readings of texts. The texts themselves got lost. [1]

What happened with Arnold, Eliot, and New Criticism is a tempest in a teapot. The only reason it might be of concern outside of the discipline of literary studies is because of a phenomenon Harold Bloom crystallized years ago in a passage Richard Rorty liked to quote:
The teacher of literature now in America, far more than the teacher of history or philosophy or religion, is condemned to teach the presentness of the past, because history, philosophy and religion have withdrawn as agents from the Scene of Instruction, leaving the bewildered teacher of literature alone at the altar, terrifiedly wondering whether he is to be sacrifice or priest. (A Map of Misreading 39)
I take it Bloom means that the torch of humanism, or “liberal education”—i.e. the reason why you have to take General Education credits—is now being held by only denizens of English departments. The 400 meter relay has turned unexpectedly into a dash. Rorty quoted the passage in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature in 1979 because he thought he was witnessing (or rather, had witnessed) the unfortunate abdication of this responsibility by his colleagues in philosophy. What he didn’t realize was that literary studies was heading in the same direction. [2]

3.      The problem with the state of literary studies as it relates to wider responsibilities to the community is that English departments teach students sets of reading practices. [3] They still do, but these practices are different than the ones they used to teach, and it seems to me that many of them are arcane. One of the bits of useful wisdom flattened out from Derrida—or really, the general milieu of mid-20th century French theory—was that the world is usefully seen as a text, and our relationship to it as one of reading. One thing this highlights is the importance of assumptions in guiding reasoning, for those assumptions can give rise to different interpretations of the same phenomena. Once we flatten reading out this way, however, then all the humanistic disciplines, and really, all the disciplines generally, teach students different sets of reading practices, practices with which to read the world around them, practices that help shape and give meaning to the world. [4]

My concern here is with something like a “touchstone practice of reading.” This is something I think was much more natural to previous generations, and is something like what we meant by “erudite.” We don’t get it anymore from our English departments because too often we aren’t encouraged to have a personal relationship with the text. It’s too analytical. Who cares about analyzing the (obviously sexist) gender dynamics of Richardson’s 18th-century novel Pamela? It becomes an exercise in telling you something you already know—though maybe you didn’t. One can find wisdom this way, but it’s an indirect search for historical distance that then becomes the true object of the exercise. And it’s that very indirectness that attenuates the probability of learning the lesson and of (impatient undergraduate) students having the patience required.

Having a personal relationship with a text means being allowed the space to not get anything out of it. This is the problem with teaching literary studies in the educational setting: you have to give grades, which means you need to have assignments, which means you need to assign them tasks to complete. That inherently turns the relationship with the text into a pragmatic, utilitarian relationship: “okay, text: I need something from you—so please hand it over.” That’s not a great way to begin a friendship. [5]

4.      What I have in mind as a touchstone practice of reading comes in three different species. The first is roughly the one Arnold professed: “have always in one’s mind lines and expressions of the great masters.” This species (unbelievably) is like what Bloom had in mind when he defined antithetical practical criticism as “the art of knowing the hidden roads that go from poem to poem.” [6] For this species, the practice of close reading is very important. I’ll call this monumental reading—passages fall off from the textual whole, fragmenting themselves, and landing like epitaphs to considerations one finds by the way-sides. Typically, these passages stick in your craw; they generally find you, not the other way around. Sometimes a great reader will show how a passage sticks; great readers help you read by making inroads, showing off the difficulty while at the same time making it easier. These aren’t keys to locks, but more like maps to difficult terrain—you are still called upon to travel the distance. The trick with great readers is that their fragments become yours, though the fragment feels as if it was always yours.

The practice of close reading is important because the only way to turn on a touchstone fragment is to read it. In the process of reading it one calls out the power one sees working in it—a thought, an image, a theme, a feeling, an argument. The reason one seeks such power, of course, is to use it. But this isn’t the pragmatic, externally imposed use one finds in exams (though great teaching plants the seeds of this internalized use). Touchstones help you think, often by antagonism. Take Emerson’s “one can’t spend the day in explanation” (“Self-Reliance”). This bugs me deeply. One can’t spend the entire day explaining yourself, but couldn’t this turn into a copout? The problem with the fragment is that it is covering just the bit that seems so deeply subversive: Emerson’s heroic plea for solitude—whim. “I shun father and mother and wife and brother when my genius calls me. I would write on the lintels of the door-post, Whim.” Nothing poses the problem of genius so distinctly. What you do best, your vocation, your calling, your inner self—all of your explanations and defenses of your withdrawal from your responsibilities could amount to nothing more than a whim, to caprice, to a conceited fantasy that is a fig leaf covering naked desire and mere wish-fulfillment. But what else is there to do? You can’t spend the day in explanation.

In monumental reading, the power that is pulled is put to use on either yourself or another fragment. All that is required for monumental reading is that the two touchstones cross the same commons. And this generally happens unexpectedly, and only after much practice. Do readings like the above riff on Emerson happen the first time around? Generally not, not on call, or a whim. It’s because the passage has been bouncing around my head, and against other passages, for so long. And this “bouncing” is writing. The transition from reading to writing is where the power occurs—the process of reading and writing, the friction between the two, is what generates the power. Otherwise the text will sit inert. It is during that process of transitioning a text from something read to written that allows other fragments to flow in. It is only by reading the fragment above that a break might open up and, in this case, a Freudianism might slip in. Will it pay off? Will Freud help me understand Emerson better, or the two of them to understand genius or explanation or the balance between solitude and society? Perhaps. But only if I move to read Freud.

5.      The second species of touchstone reading is located in the notion of the figure. I adapt the concept from crossing Rorty with Lionel Trilling. Here’s Rorty on the literary ironist’s contextual definition of a figure:
We ironists treat these people not as anonymous channels for truth but as abbreviations for a certain final vocabulary and for the sorts of beliefs and desires typical of its users. The older Hegel became a name for such a vocabulary, and Kierkegaard and Nietzsche have become names for others. If we are told that the actual lives such men lived had little to do with the books and the terminology which attracted our attention to them, we brush this aside. We treat the names of such people as the names of the heroes of their own books. We do not bother to distinguish Swift from saeva indignatio, Hegel from Geist, Nietzsche from Zarathustra, Marcel Proust from Marcel the narrator, or Trilling from The Liberal Imagination. We do not care whether these writers managed to live up to their own self-images. What we want to know is whether to adopt those images – to re-create ourselves, in whole or in part, in these people’s image. We go about answering this question by experimenting with the vocabularies which these people concocted. We redescribe ourselves, our situation, our past, in those terms and compare the results with alternative redescriptions which use the vocabularies of alternative figures. We ironists hope, by this continual redescription, to make the best selves for ourselves that we can.

Such comparison, such playing off of figures against each other, is the principal activity now covered by the term “literary criticism.” (CIS 79-80)
I think one can see how everything I said about reading and writing gets reapplied in this context. The reason why this form of abbreviation makes sense is because Rorty thinks of individuals as “incarnated vocabularies” (80). I want to call this species of touchstone reading dramatic reading. These are tales of the mighty dead doing battle with each other on the stage of your imagination. This is one reason why having a personal relationship with the book is important: it’s how the stage gets set up in the first place. And though we might always reserve the right to have personal favorites, our pets and darlings, Trilling’s criteria are important for rendering the imaginative space of the ironist:
Instructed and lively intellects do not make pets and darlings and dears out of the writers they admire but they do make them into what can be called “figures”—that is to say, creative spirits whose work requires an especially conscientious study because in it are to be discerned significances, even mysteries, even powers, which carry it beyond what in a loose and general sense we call literature, beyond even what we think of as very good literature, and bring it to as close an approximation of a sacred wisdom as can be achieved in our culture. [7]
“Spirit” seems to me a very precise word in this context. Turning an author, or character, or any individual for that matter, into a figure is very much a process of spectralization—our imaginations are haunted by these spectres. And very often we don’t know why at first. People are figures in another very precise sense as well—the names are figurative, they are symbols, tropes, metaphors. That’s why the author’s actual life matters little in this kind of reading, for their afterlife is in our minds—and in, I should add, how we use them to change the world.

6.      There are four things that speak against dramatic reading that I think are important to retail. (Some of these apply equally to monumental reading, though I won’t specify which and how.) Three of them are important. Two are tied to one’s opinion of the intellectual current we still call romanticism. The third is a pragmatic concern about the process. The fourth is technical, and important only in regards to how we are taught literature today, for it only makes sense in the context of some opinion about romanticism.

To disentangle what I regard as four separate objections, it will be helpful to note that Rorty’s notion of a “figure” is derived from Trilling. (So, I’ve really crossed Trilling with Trilling.) Rorty quotes the above passage from Trilling at the end of “Nineteenth Century Idealism and Twentieth Century Textualism” in Consequences of Pragmatism. The essay is an important precursor to Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, and in it Rorty identifies the proclivity to figuralize with romanticism, and notes that Trilling distrusts this tendency. This distrust, Rorty says, comes from an instinctive democratic attitude. It’s the same Rousseauvian attitude that motivated Kant’s understanding of morality. Everyone, Kant thought, could act morally because morality was relatively simple. You didn’t need to study for it. So the idea that there’s “a sacred wisdom which takes precedence over the common moral consciousness” (CP 158) repulses people like Kant and Trilling. The elitism in the figularizing process is located in the “conscientious study” bit, what Trilling calls “the redemptive strenuosities of the intellectual life.” This makes whatever it is the “instructed and lively intellect” is after an esotericism, the kind of thing that breeds priesthoods.

The democratic attitude’s anti-esotericism is one source for being suspicious of figuralizing, and thus dramatic reading. Another, slightly different source is suspicion of hero-worship. One can see in hero-worship a kind of elitism, but the suspicion of heroes is more general than anti-esotericism. The Founding Fathers aren’t priests, though their image seems sacred. Esoteric priesthoods arise in response to the sacralizing process. You need a hero first, then you can have a priest. Because this suspicion of heroes is more general it has manifested itself in different ways. One important way is the movement by historians of different grades to “expose” the Founding Fathers and the myths that have clothed them. Another way, typically found in the academy, is the attitude of knowingness. Rorty calls knowingness “a state of soul which prevents shudders of awe. It makes one immune to romantic enthusiasm.” [8] In the academy, this knowingness often attends having some theory of human motivation: utilitarian, Freudian, Marxist, Foucauldian, etc. You always know why people really do things when you have such a theory. But sometimes it manifests itself as ironic detachment—sometimes numbed, sometimes haughty, but always dry.

7.      The suspicion of heroes that attends the historian’s exposés is motivated by a good fear of whitewashing history. The figuralizing process does move you away from the “what happened” to something we can just call “significance.” Good history needs to make that move or else all one has is a chronicle, like early tablatures of how much grain was taken in by taxes. But if you get caught up in the significance of events, you can sometimes lose your hold on those events, like a balloon having its tether cut. This is the third objection, which is pragmatic. Recall Rorty’s description of the figure as an abbreviation of a vocabulary. The pragmatic concern is that the figuralizing process tends to whitewash events and persons because you forget (or never learned) how you got to the abbreviation.

This is a real concern, just as the threat to our democratic attitudes is and heroes turning into gods are. The pragmatic concern, however, is where we see the first two concerns come into conflict. Because the only way to make sure heroes don’t turn into gods is to make sure that the historical tether stays in place. But we don’t have those tethers at our finger-tips—it requires historical work, conscientious study. [9] And so generally, returning to dramatic reading, the only way to fight against whitewashing is to read again. Rorty was often criticized for taking liberties with his figures, and I think rightly so sometimes. Sometimes you need to stop and unpack that abbreviation to make sure it’s the thing you say it is. Dramatic reading requires conscientious study because it’s the only way to form the historical sacred: heroes with warts, mysteries that aren’t mysterious because ineffable (and thus watched over by priests) but because they are difficult (and thus to be worked on by honest inquirers).

8.      Trilling’s concern was that books were being taken away from what Virginia Woolf called the “common reader.” This concern has been resurrected by anti-Theory Revolution literary critics like Harold Bloom, Robert Alter, Andrew Delbanco, and Bromwich. Trilling was worried that academic knowingness was creating distance between the books and nonacademic readers, the uninitiated. This is what’s behind my lament in section 3 that we aren’t encouraged to have personal relationships with books anymore. As scholars, we need, quite rightly, to know things about texts. But this can get in the way of why we should read the text in the first place. And this is how the unimportant technical objection to the figuralizing process comes up. It’s unimportant because it can be brushed aside, but it is important insofar as English professors are the only ones at the Altar of Humanism in the Scene of Instruction. Before I got into all this, I knew someone who’d dropped out of UW-Madison’s first tier literature program. Why? “Because I didn’t enjoy reading anymore.”

The technical objection comes up when you recall Rorty saying that ironists “treat the names of such people as the names of the heroes of their own books. We do not bother to distinguish Swift from saeva indignatio, Hegel from Geist, Nietzsche from Zarathustra, Marcel Proust from Marcel the narrator, or Trilling from The Liberal Imagination.” Perhaps there is no problem with Swift, Hegel, or Trilling, but identifying an author with a narrator is a big mistake we teach all students in Literature 101. The author is not the narrator, the poet is not the speaker. An older style of criticism often didn’t care, and made such identifications willy-nilly. But, technically, we need to pause before making those inferences. “The speaker” is a technical device for referring to the voice out of which the poem emits, and it’s important because identifying traits of that voice is terribly important to figuring out what the poem is about. But if you too quickly assume that the voice is the poet’s, you might import all kinds of things you know about the poet into your understanding of the poem—and it might be wrong. What if a male poet wanted to write from a female point of view? What if a typically optimistic poet wanted to write a poem that is ironically tragic, but you miss the irony because you too quickly assimilate the poem to your assumed picture of the poet?

“Narrator” and “speaker” are useful devices to check your entitlement to inferences about the author or poet from material found in their books. Rorty says the ironist is blithe about this, but the devices are important to the figuralizing process insofar as the Hawthorne of The Scarlet Letter might be a different figure from the one of The Marble Faun. They aren’t really, I would assert, but you won’t know that until you do the work. The trouble with many academicians, though, is that they use the technical point to implicitly block the process of figuralizing, to stop dramatic reading. Dramatic reading is difficult, and requires time, but its excesses need room to spill so the seeds of a love of reading can be sown. Getting bogged down in technical details can strangle it in the crib. It’s the how while forgetting the why, the inverse of the problem of figuralizing. This implicit blocking only makes sense in the context of an anti-romanticism. And indeed, all-too-knowing exposers of the past have run rampant over many of our studies, as if the reason to study Emerson was to expose some of the racist attitudes that still attended the prophet of self-reliance. [10] The knowing attitude wants a land without heroes, and perhaps only demons. Dramatic reading is antithetical to that.

9.      If monumental reading is about identifying with pieces and parts and dramatic reading is about identifying with the whole, then the last species of touchstone reading combines the two. I’ll call it afflictive reading. This is the kind of reading and writing that is marked by an obsessive return to the pieces and parts of a single figure. For whatever reason, returning again and again to read and relate the writings of this figure helps you identify who you are and where you are. Afflictive readers aren’t necessarily group-worshippers; they might never want or need to talk to others about their obsessions. Their imaginations are simply haunted, afflicted by the presence of this other imagination, for good or for ill, as demon or hero. Sometimes the obsession takes the form of an implicit inquiry, an extended, attenuated etiological investigation to discover just what that reason is for the obsession.

Afflictive readers, like all obsessives, can be really annoying. Talk about anything, and their obsession is bound to come up. When I was young, my High School Sunday School teacher asked us to think about what the difference was between a cult and a religion. His answer was that being in a cult meant being a member of only one group, at its limit. If Erin—our representative cheerleader—was only a cheerleader, then you might say she was in a cheerleading cult. But no, she’s a cheerleader, a Christian, a member of the Hill family, etc., etc. The spiritual affliction of a single figure can become cult-like in this way—you might only have one hero, one affliction. The best remedy for this is to read widely. Maybe you continue to return over and over to the same person or thing, but you will at least have the perspective to see better why your obsession is worth obsessing over. Hero-worship is best if it’s pantheonistic. Even if you have a Zeus, you’ll only understand why he’s Zeus by comparison with Apollo and Athena.

I’d like to think that touchstone readers with their obsessions are in some way better off than those without such obsessions. But my democratic fiber resists the thought. In colleges, we like to think we’re there to teach “critical thinking,” but when it comes down to it, critical thinking isn’t ours alone. But still...there must be value in some people being capable of long chains of inference, in some people devoting themselves to conscientious study to make sure the tethers stay in place. Jefferson and Hamilton thought education to be massively important to the democratic process, and the laments of the academic class about our continued illiteracy have to be understood as Jeffersonian expressions. [11] The fear some of us have about literature is that a formerly important instrument of self-enlargement might be passing with no replacement. It isn’t all the English professors’ fault, but some of them aren’t helping.


[1] I’ll add that this made critical battles essentially philosophical battles. And philosophical battles fought by people untrained in philosophy are dangerous—like giving automatic weapons to people who haven’t been to the firing range, innocent bystanders and users alike are going to get hurt. The great always rise to the top—Stanley Fish, for example, is as philosophically sophisticated as they come, with no philosophical training. But so much of it is dreadful, and written with a brazen self-confidence that one finds awkward if one has read any philosophy at all.

[2] There are, however, hold-outs everywhere. I had several professors of history at UW-Madison as an undergrad who I would count as having held that torch, but they were largely old. Indeed, there were several political theorists in the Poli-Sci department that I would also count. The theorists were anomalous (and all fled or retired), but my experience with history professors leads me to think that history hasn’t quite left the altar. Bernard Bailyn, an eminent and aging historian, in a short pamphlet recording an extended interview, On the Teaching and Writing of History, gives me hope that undergraduate history education is happening as he teaches and thinks about it—after all, he has had many graduate students.

[3] There’s something also to be said about the production of K-12 English teachers from university English departments, and thus the relationship of what has happened at the university level to K-12 education. But my sense of this is dim, and it is further mediated by my sense that K-12 education has in general much bigger problems having to do with funding. In my experience in a School of Education, though, my sense was that the prospective English teachers—who were, after all, only going to have a B.A. in English—hardly knew who Derrida or Foucault were, and didn’t care if they did. But if you were going to get a job at the university level from 1980 on, you had better. The relationship between lower and higher education is less like trickledown than it seems like some cultural conservatives feared in the Culture Wars of the 1980s and 90s. (For more on the Culture Wars of recent memory, see my forthcoming “The Legacy of Group Thinking.”)

[4] For two good statements by Rorty of what happens when you treat everything, including fossils and other lumps, as a text (and how unradical at a disciplinary level such a redescription is), see the third section of “Method, Social Science, and Social Hope” (in CP) and “Texts and Lumps” (in ORT).

[5] There’s something further to be learned about the type of person that does, then, go in for academic, humanistic study. After all, if it’s the utilitarian and pragmatic reader fulfilling short-term goals that is rewarded at the lower levels (writing papers, finishing a class), then since there are no short-term goals fulfilled by going into it as a business (i.e. money), who is it that is going into humanistic study? What kind of profile do these graduate students have? I think one answer that goes a long way to explaining why all these kinds of post-Theory Revolution alternatives to humanistic reading took off is power—some people enjoy the feel of dominating a text. (It’s similar to the feel of winning an argument.) Power is the impulse at work in the strong poet of Rorty’s Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, which for Rorty is the Shelleyan unacknowledged legislator of the world. So one explanation is that these theory-gurus started purveying strategies for dominating texts (some more unintentionally than others). The theories appear difficult on the outside, but once you get the hang of deconstruction or Foucault, it becomes easy to endlessly reapply to texts—thus, each time, giving you that high of domination. Combine that with the mid-range reward of a job for being able to do this easy thing, and you have what happened to English departments. It happened to philosophy as well, when logical positivists declared that philosophical problems were really linguistic problems—thinking that dissolving the philosophical problems would be really easy after that. However, in both cases, what gets you high easily at first becomes more difficult after a while if you take too much of it. If that isn’t precisely the case at the individual level, it is at the institutional level, with people increasingly wondering whether there’s a larger point to the activity besides the ephemeral power-high.

Power, too, seems antithetical to being friends, and that’s a deep question Rorty’s perspective opens up on the practices of reading. There’s nothing friendly about the strong poet’s approach to opening up new vistas of thought (though it is quite personal). But must we all be strong poets, and thus unfriendly? Must we be strong all of the time? The patterns I outline as touchstone reading below are something I believe are useful to all readers, and especially the amateur connoisseur who has no interest in power (or, very little at least). One might, however, in response to the impulse of power located in Rorty’s conception of the strong poet, deny the premise that power, and thus cruelty, is at the heart of our creators of new vistas of thought. The denial of this premise can be found in many post-Marxist utopic visions (those that turn away from Marx’s violence), but it is especially common in feminist thinkers. This is the line of thought in Dianne Rothleder’s book, The Work of Friendship: Rorty, His Critics, and the Project of Solidarity (1999). As I hope I’ve suggested, I take this to be a very fruitful line of thought to take to Rorty’s work. For example, Annette Baier’s feminism, praised by Rorty, could be brought into closer contact, like her work on the concept of trust and its masculinization through its assimilation to the contract rather than the personal relationships of a family.

However, Rothleder takes the easy route of criticism, rather than pushing Rorty to his limits. She says, “What we need to ask is why the ironist would want to redescribe others in terms that, if made public, would humiliate?” (64) The answer implicit in her discussion is power—we would do it because it makes us feel powerful. And we need that power, in Rorty’s vision, to overturn the bad in the world. Rothleder, I think, avoids saying “power” out loud, though, because she isn’t convinced that power is needed for the work of revolution (whether conceptual or political). The ironist would risk humiliating because what the ironist really wants to be is a strong poet. (Rothleder conflates the two, but that’s mainly Rorty’s fault for having deployed the terms somewhat inconsistently.) But Rothleder avoids facing the problem of utopic change without power by calling the strong poet’s impulse the “Bloomian desire to destroy otherness in order to be original” (64). That’s true, and self-centered, but that originality and cruelty might have great public utility is left unsaid. So Rothleder needs to deny the premise that change requires power, and is thus in some sense a cruel act. Instead, Rothleder focuses on the terms of cruelty and humiliation, and their forced semi-privacy in Rorty’s utopia, saying, “what is sad about the reasoning here is that the desire not to be cruel seems to come not from a goodness of heart, but from a fear of one’s own suffering” (64). Rothleder is correct here, and cites CIS 91 for evidence, but she again avoids the more promising avenue of reflection, which is that this idea isn’t Rorty’s, but the feminist political theorist Judith Shklar’s. Shklar didn’t think this was sad, but the centerpiece of liberal thinking about politics—the “liberalism of fear” (from the essay of that name, collected in her Political Thought and Political Thinkers). Rorty’s line of thought about this, whether heart or fear, is in fact more complicated than Shklar’s seems at times, because of Rorty’s commitment to moral sentimentalism. (See especially “Human Rights, Rationality, and Sentimentality” in Truth and Progress.)

What further stunts Rothleder’s take on Rorty is that she misses Rorty’s own tenderness over and against the power-mad strong poet. The image of Proust is juxtaposed with the power-strong Nietzsche-Heidegger-Derrida sequence in order to talk about the difference between a tender focus on “beauty” and a tough focus on “the sublime.” It is these passages in CIS that have gone underrecognized in attempting to understand Rorty’s strong poet and ironist, and they bear directly on practices of reading, for beauty is to friendship what sublimity is to power. Read this discussion about power against my discussion of Rorty at the beginning of “Asceticism and the Fire of the Imagination,” and particularly thinking of the line “a lyric which you recite, but do not (for fear of injuring it) relate to anything else.” I don’t talk about power there, but perpendicular issues across these central passages.

[6] Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence, 96. Bloom did not mean just allusion, or a narrow definition of it, but something much more pregnant and difficult to make out. Reading through Arnold is one way of putting this dark line to use, though I do not think it travels as far into the darkness as Bloom wished.

[7] “Why We Read Jane Austen” in The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent, 519

[8] “The Inspirational Value of Great Works of Literature” in AOC, 126

[9] You might wonder about the rejection of heroes entirely, which came in two flavors. I regard the form of knowingness that attends theories of human motivation as anti-democratic esotericism (did you understand Foucault right off the bat?), and so disregard them because what I’m concerned with is the attempt to be anti-esoteric with regards to people. The problem, I’m suggesting, is that it takes quite a bit of work to get to know people.

[10] Edgar Dryden lamentingly retails some of these attitudes in the recent history of Americanist criticism at the beginning of his Monumental Melville.

[11] I’ve learned most about Jefferson and the other Founders from Judith Shklar. For a review of her use of Madison, Hamilton, Jefferson, and Adams, see “Shklar’s Vision of American Political Thought,” sections 5 and 6. What’s most interesting to me about the antithesis of Jefferson and Adams on education is how education comes out—as it has here—as anti-democratic in some manner, though in Hamilton’s sense education and information is what makes things more democratic. And indeed, that seems a core American democratic value—the right to education as egalitarian.

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