In response to:
Is There Hope for English? from the May 27, 1976 issue
To the Editors:
In his review of Richard Ohmann’s English in America [NYR, May 27], C.L. Barber, a Professor of English and member of the editorial board of PMLA, writes: “Ohmann wants a closed-corporation image of the MLA, and so emphasizes the fact that after the crisis well-known scholars mostly from major schools are still being elected to its executive committee. Counter to this is the fact that the essays in the ‘new’ PMLA are frequently written by unknown and untenured people from little-known places.” The stylistic gracelessness speaks for itself. As for the “fact,” it may well be true; but Professor Barber’s interpretation of it is nullified by another fact known even to many outside the profession. Publication of an essay in PMLA is often a help toward moving from a “little-known place” to a “major school,” and is always a giant step in any careerist’s rise to the blameless mediocrity of tenure.
It is misleading for him to describe twenty-six out of sixty-three authors (a year’s crop) as “untenured, or students, or unaffiliated.” It is more misleading to say “Reading as an editor….can be discouraging, but more of the work than one assumes from outside does have something vital to say about literature.” I do not know what he imagines himself to mean by “unaffiliated” (unless perhaps unemployed) or “from outside.” The fact, which he carefully does not mention, is that the “new” PMLA considers manuscripts only from members of the MLA.
In short, PMLA is merely a recruitment filter for the upper ranks of what is a corporation closed, indeed, not in its membership—else it might have died out as quickly as it has deserved—but in its principles.
My classification of your reviewer as typical of the inbred frivolity that plagues departments of English in American colleges and universities should not be taken for unconditional agreement with Ohmann. I believe he pushes literary study too far toward politics, though not nearly as much too far as Barber recoils in the opposite direction. And where these two agree, on the usefulness of present institutions such as tenure, I dissent altogether. From bitter personal experience, I am forced to support John Silber’s view (“Tenure in Context,” in The Tenure Debate, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1973). Tenure protects no freedom which is not merely “academic” in the third dictionary sense; and tenured professors are a worse menace to the freedom of their untenured “colleagues” than the most reactionary board of regents.
New Boston, Texas
C.L Barber replies:
Professor Jameson is quite right that during the present period we must work to protect younger radical faculty from discriminatory dismissal. To do so we need not only responsible liberal principles but job openings, for those unemployed as well as those as yet without tenure. Hence the need for a united front to change national priorities which I spoke for in my review.
His letter does not cheer me about the prospects for such a coalition. It was not I but Ohmann’s book that implied incompatibility between awareness of our exploitative society and teaching “the radical potential in literature,” by its caricature of English in America as nothing but “New Criticism” solipsism and composition-handbook sophistry. I brought up Jameson’s excellent study of Marxist theory as an example of radical thinking actually alive in our literary study—and in PMLA. I was writing about Ohmann’s book; Richard Ohmann himself obviously does not need Professor Jameson held up as an example.
Now Jameson repeats Ohmann’s caricature: “the entire [sic] force of the Anglo-American critical tradition has been marshalled” to neutralize the way literature calls in question the institutions from which it emerges. To sweep so much psychological, existential, and symbolic reading into a dust bin is just the sort of simplistic gesture Jameson’s The Prison House of Fiction skillfully puts into perspective. His critique shows French structuralism taking literature out of history by synchronic analysis which sees language as its subject matter, and he suggests “a profound consonance” with “a world saturated with messages and information, whose intricate commodity network may be seen as the very prototype of a system of signs.” But he is alert for internal contradictions and counter tendencies. A generous recognition and development of similar tendencies in our own criticism is what is needed, not polemic dismissal of it.
For Marxism, Jameson suggests, “the ultimate system of systems would be history itself.” Cogent Marxist historical theory of literature can become important on the “battleground of rival ideological paradigms.” But the only way that I can imagine its having a significant impact, beyond a caucus little different from a coterie, is by its partisans teaching literature first for its own sake, in social occasions embedded in history and made possible by the resolute use of our academic freedom to show what literature implies about fellowship in living and the failure of it. Then the antidogmatic thrust of literature can become a living force, and so a political force.
Mr. Gabbard is disgusted that teaching too is a business. There is no escaping the fact that the MLA is a professional association. Mr. Gabbard is right that only members can contribute to the Publications of the MLA. I regret this—and forgot it! But it is both a seventy-year-old tradition and a practical matter. The journal is supported by membership dues, and in addition it is made possible by thousands of hours contributed gratis by members who read the seven hundred odd articles submitted each year. Two readers’ comments on each essay are made available to its author, usually verbatim. Though ambition, fear, disappointment are often involved, the process is a communication network which frequently makes for satisfying long-distance conversation about common interests.
There are many who choose not to belong to MLA—which is PMLA’s loss. That one can live in the profession without either MLA or PMLA—and thrive—is surely a good thing, as important for our frail, spotty democratic health as the fact that anybody can join.
Tenure is a mixed blessing. But Jameson’s letter shows the necessity of it. He disdains literary study as “a polite social occasion.” Tenure is necessary so that the occasion can be as impolite as necessary.