- The Condition of English: Literary Studies in a Changing Culture
Ever since the publication of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (1987), a new academic genre has emerged: the professional memoir. This is the semi-autobiographical, part-sociological reflection on the humanities by post- or near-retirement professors, scholars whose eminent writings and powerful positions distinguish their ruminations, or at least grant them historical value. The popularity of the genre indicates that many professors wish to conclude their careers with institutional commentaries, not scholarly masterworks, that the profession of literary and cultural study has itself become the object of ultimate concern. One might assume that the “professor—examine thyself!” mode is just another version of academic narcissism, a confessional criticism for the emeriti. But in fact, the authors of academic memoirs tend to despise me-style criticism, targeting self-based teaching and scholarship as one of the woes of higher education, whether they are grounded in therapy culture, identity politics, or bare careerism. With nothing professional to gain from these backward glances, they offer their [End Page 1153] reminiscences as impersonal summations of thirty years of crisis and complacency in education, composed by insiders who lived through the theory enthusiasms of the seventies, the political resentments of the eighties, and the studies fragmentations of the nineties.
The genre lends itself to lament and nostalgia, especially for those who have grown estranged from their own profession. But Avrom Fleishman’s The Condition of English usually avoids the idiom of complaint. “Mine is not a ‘narrative of decline,’” he avows (65), and though he mistrusts the consequences of radical politics and postmodern theorizing for the humanities, he eschews the “tenured radicals” thesis of conservative harangues. When Fleishman does turn autobiographical—chapter 4, subtitled “Educating a New York Jewish Radical,” recounts the author’s upbringing and career—the narrative serves a critical, non-narcissistic purpose. Specifically, against the multicultural insistence on the recognition of identity as the cornerstone of education, Fleishman describes how his fixation upon his Russian immigrant, Zionist, communist identity (he idolized the Red Army) fueled his post-war political enthusiasms, but narrowed his experience. Only when he interacted with New School lecturers (he mentions Harry Slochower) and Columbia professors (Trilling), who shunned ethnic and political solidarity, did Fleishman outgrow his provincialism: “I can date the beginning of my intellectual liberation to this period of relaxing my ethnic ‘identity,’ class ‘commitment,’ and other early acquired social armament” (77). Entering the upper reaches of higher education required a personal adjustment: “The important thing was to do [intellectual] work well and to define myself by it. Not collective identity but professional accomplishment became the motivating ideal self-image” (78).
Fleishman singles out professionalism here not just for personal reasons, but for disciplinary reasons, for it marks the fulcrum upon which his argument about the condition of English turns. The argument begins by expounding the rough quasi-philosophy common to practitioners today, what he calls “the English ideology,” a shaky cluster of four epistemological ideas and certain “fluid . . . mental attitudes” that bolster them. The ideas are: one, that truth cannot be established for verbal statements; two, that “there can be no nonhistorical foundation for transhistorical truths” (2); three, that social phenomena are political constructs serving the interests of dominant groups; and four, that “social rules are only apparently collective in origin and are thus inevitably unequal in application” (3). Too unsystematic and contradictory to count as a philosophy (negating truth and politicizing choice, it can only be considered an anti-epistemology), the English ideology is more a hazy worldview, an outlook whose “adherents . . . are less converts to a political program than carriers of attitudes toward life” (13). Although they espouse with a tiresome concord the ideas noted above, English ideologues neither concoct a social doctrine to be disseminated to the public nor organize themselves into activist groups outside the academy. Instead, they harbor a set of “attitudes”—sensitivity to aggrieved groups, responsibility [End Page 1154] to the environment, sympathy with leftist politics (while displaying little leftist radicalism...