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Literature Departments and the Practice of Theory
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Literature Departments and the Practice of theory

Two years before returning to Frankfurt after the end of the Second World War, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno published their now classic Dialektik der Aufklärung (1947), translated as Dialectic of Enlightenment.1 Their argument is extraordinary, unfolding the inner tendency to self-mystification of the faculty of Reason, but in a tone that reads like the internal monologue of Reason's very self. It appeared in print almost concurrently with the waves of shock and horror at the gradual revelation and documentation of the slaughter of Jews in the "Final Solution" of the Third Reich, itself carried out as if Reason had required it. Of course Adorno and Horkheimer knew of the Nazi persecutions of the Jews, for it had driven Adorno to England in 1934 and then the United States, where he joined Horkheimer—who had gone directly to Columbia University in 1933, not only for his own survival but to ensure the continuation of the Institute of Social Research. For Horkheimer, here was the stunning intellectual lesson (well in advance of Hannah Arendt's better known treatment of thoughtlessness as lending a banality to evil2 ): that the uncritical trust in what was already accepted as Truth does the work of evil for it. This Horkheimer had anticipated in his assertion several years earlier that "[t]he real social function of philosophy lies in its criticism of what is prevalent."3 The unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust were carried [End Page 1237] out, after all, not by manifest monsters but ordinary people just doing their jobs, thoughtlessly, as Arendt asserts of Eichmann, but stunningly, with the support or tacit acquiescence of people as distinguished for their thinking as Martin Heidegger and Pope Pius XII.4

Forty years ago, it would have been almost superfluous even to mention these circumstances as they had become, from about 1948 to the mid 1960s, an indelible fact of intellectual and moral life. For the French, the horror was compounded by the dismal record of collaboration under the Vichy regime, while in England and the United States, the pretense to moral superiority so often claimed by the victors in war still had to confront the chilling memory of appeasement and inaction and the shameful dispossession and incarceration of Japanese Americans during the war. But any reader of a daily newspaper since 1989 knows the repetitions in Cambodia, in Rwanda and Burundi, Bosnia, and now Darfur. Genocide has not stopped; neither have slavery, torture, and the legion of abominations that attend unchecked power, commonly shored up by appeals to religion and the prevalent philosophy of the moment, to assert that the powerful are, in fact, the party of Virtue.

This matter bears mentioning not as a prelude to tedious and tendentious moralizing, but as a contemporary reflection on the social and political context of the forty years between the end of World War II and the breaking apart of the Soviet communist alliance in central and eastern Europe so conveniently symbolized by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. For it is also the period of time during which the Literature department, most commonly an English department but less frequently one of Literature or Comparative Literature, became what seemed a permanent fixture of academic and educational life.5

To be sure, the traditions of education in the North Atlantic, from their roots in the Latin Schools of the Renaissance, had always been essentially literary education, from the Humanist recuperation of the literature of the ancients that was one of the two main engines of intellectual revival—the other being the Copernican revolution in science—to the massive build-up of private and public institutions of education since the late eighteenth century meant to prepare children for citizenship and to train the leaders of the future. To be educated meant, in the common phrase, to be "well read." But particularly in the United States, the soldiers returning from World War II, fortified by the GI Bill which supported their ambitions to become educated, created just the conditions under which a heretofore crabby and conservative movement of American agrarians, expatriates, and marginalized [End Page...