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  • Negative Capability Reclaimed: Literature and Philosophy Contra Politics
  • Ihab Hassan

I began a few years ago to try to make space in my reckoning and imagining for the marvellous as well as the murderous.

Seamus Heaney

Two concerns cross in this essay: the first, explicit, regards the current condition of the academic humanities, their idioms and axioms, especially in America; the second, implicit, regards my own need to confront criticism, its abstractions that now enable, now disable, the profession and even more the experience of literature. Such concerns must mix speculation and autobiography, mix the pride with the pathos of mind.

But I should admit it from the start: my title cries paradox. Negative capability reclaimed? Can reclamation dwell in “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason,” as Keats thought, and can a critic aspire to the condition of a poet, in whom the “sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates consideration”? 1

Mine, I repeat, is a hybrid critical discourse, touched by exasperation more than mystery. Yet negative capability can still serve us as emblem of certain qualities, attitudes, dispositions that we bring to literature, without turning that happy phrase into yet another slogan. Beyond the arrogance of transient ideologies, beyond the mawkishness of self-regard, negative capability may offer us a kind of patience, perhaps ascesis, the intellectual and, yes, spiritual equivalent of discipline in our moment. [End Page 305]


Stated baldly, my proposition, which I will need continually to texture and qualify, is this: the prevalence of politics, the obsession with power, the unrelieved pressure of both in the university, skew our language, thought, values. Thus the ancient quarrel between poetry and philosophy, between Homer and Plato, now cedes the field to a nastier agon between both and politics as GRIM (my acronym for the Great Rumbling Ideological Machine) grinds on. These are no abstractions; the clamorous evidence is all about, indicative even in its triviality, banality.

Take a book blurb. Kathy Acker endorses a new, and quite intelligent work, entitled Male Matters, thus: “Calvin Thomas is able to hint at a way out of the prisonhouse of straight male identity.” Granted, this is but an ad in a university press catalogue. But what does the language reveal about the assumptions of academic discourse? “Prisonhouse,” really, for all unfortunate, straight males? Is a generalization of this kind permissible when blander generalizations about other groups raise such a hue and cry? Will straight African-American or Native American males feel “offended” by the statement? Or is it all a matter of restitution, categorical loyalty, political commitment? And when will that supreme fiction, the white, straight, bourgeois, rational male “subject” cease to prop up every ideological complaint?

Thought blends into hype; words writhe; stereotypes become as transparent as the stereotypes they once repugned. But let us consider an example worthier of criticism. In his Inaugural Lecture as Robert Wallace Professor at the University of Melbourne, entitled “The Departure of English?” (the question mark risks disingenuousness), Professor Simon During inelegantly states: “The academic appropriation of the avant-garde transfiguration of values is happening as what I am calling the departure of English—in the relative decline of literary studies and cultural studies’ emergence.” 2 Professor During thus assumes, on behalf of cultural studies, the mantles of Friedrich Nietzsche, Arthur Rimbaud, Alfred Jarry, Hugo Ball—where is Antonin Artaud?—and Walter Benjamin, though none really had a mantle to bequeath. For a moment, the mind reels: Nietzscheans and poètes maudits, Pataphysicians and Dadaists, as apostles of cultural studies, of political correctness, group think, and GRIM? Involuntarily, the lines of William Butler Yeats, in “The Scholars,” sing out: “Lord, what would they say / Did their Catullus walk that way?” [End Page 306]

We are all free, of course, to reinvent our ancestors and to derive later authority from what an earlier generation derided—free, this side of ludicrousness. But Professor During’s argument, a sort of academic conceit, discourages mere ridicule; it has pedagogical consequences. Thus he continues: “I am certainly not claiming a causal relation between modernism circa 1900 and academic cultural studies today. Rather I want to argue that cultural studies...

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