Getting with the Program: A Response to Brian Lennon

Getting with the Program: A Response to Brian Lennon

2009-09-05
Riposte to: 

Loren Glass argues that Brian Lennon’s review of The Program Era is a “symptom of the very crisis he so ruthlessly anatomizes.” Glass suggests Lennon’s review exaggerates the anti-institutional quality of Mark McGurl’s work while displaying its own anti-institutional bias against naming “the System” it describes.

It would be difficult to exaggerate the ambitions of Mark McGurl’s truly groundbreaking study, The Program Era, but Brian Lennon seems to have managed to do it. While I heartily agree with Lennon’s appraisal of McGurl’s book as “a remarkably generous, unusually inclusive, and irresistibly buoyant work of literary criticism and scholarship,” I’m less confident that it lays out “a road to redemption” for literary humanists, although it may well lead to some more sociologically sensitive scholarship, and possibly, as I will discuss below, better dialogue between academic critics and creative writers. Lennon, while clearly appreciating both the novelty and importance of McGurl’s argument, further burdens it with affective investments and political implications which, as he alternately acknowledges and ignores, both its tone and method belie. The Program Era powerfully reveals to us the central role which the profession of creative writing has played in determining the formal and thematic preoccupations of post-war American fiction. This argument dictates that we reconsider both the history of twentieth-century American literature and our relationship to its writers and readers in the institution that has been centrally responsible for its production and evaluation, but Lennon wants to go further, projecting The Program Era against the ground of a “masocritical” melancholia which magnifies the political stakes of an argument whose implications are, at best, reformist. Since the other title Lennon reviews fits more snugly into his critical frame, I will be focusing solely on his discussion of McGurl’s book.

The tonal dissonance of this discussion emerges from what I will call, borrowing from Pierre Bourdieu, the anti-institutional mood of Lennon’s theoretical discourse, which places both books under his review in the long historical shadow of May 68 and its attendant disappointments. According to Bourdieu, the events of May 68 were made possible by the “structural downclassing” produced by the rapid expansion of the college student population, which diluted the value of academic degrees and multiplied the number of ill-defined academic positions which “allow their occupants to surround themselves and their future with an aura of indeterminacy and vagueness.” Bourdieu’s description of the “maladjusted expectations” of the occupants of these positions illuminates, I believe, Lennon’s appraisal of McGurl’s work: “driven by intellectual ambitions which have not always been able to find fulfillment in works able to give access to acknowledged positions in the intellectual field, the new agents of symbolic manipulation are led to live out in a state of unease or resentment the opposition between their own representation of their task as intellectual creation in its own right and the bureaucratic constraints to which they must bend their activity. Their anti-institutional mood, constituted essentially in their ambivalent relationship with a university which has not fully recognized them, cannot fail to be recognized in all the forms of protest against cultural hierarchies of which the revolt of students against their academic institutions no doubt represents the archetypal form” (Homo Academicus 175). What Lennon diagnoses as melancholia I understand as the persistence of this anti-institutional mood, and insofar as McGurl chronicles the positive achievements of the post-war expansion of the university in the United States, the critical genealogy into which Lennon inserts The Program Era generates a cognitive dissonance between the accuracy of his analysis and the inadequacy of his theoretical frame.

This dissonance is economically encapsulated in Lennon’s willed misreading of McGurl’s opening claim that “postwar American literature can profitably be described as the product of a system” (x) and of McGurl’s methodological reliance on systems theory to analyze that system. While McGurl’s deployment of both term and method are deliberately measured in both scale and scope - he specifies “a system” in lower case and uses the theory only selectively - Lennon amplifies and generalizes the term to “the System.” For Lennon, “creative writing in the university is a System, nested in the System of the university itself - and on, and on, in a structure for analysis terminable but interminable.” Lennon kicks off his review by symptomatically deferring denotation of this System, and the challenging discussion that follows is in the end more concerned with the interminable unpacking of this term than with directly engaging McGurl’s argument, which begins to look strangely modest by comparison.

McGurl concludes his study with an important meditation on the neglected notion of scale in contemporary literary studies which illuminates my reservations about Lennon’s review. Defending the space of the classroom as a legitimate unit for literary analysis, McGurl notes that “the commitment to one scale of analysis over another on the part of any give literary critic is usually intense enough that the question of scale as such never even arises. Perhaps, if it did, it would seem absurd to want to grant one scale of analysis priority over another.” He then concludes, with characteristic ecumenicism, “there is…no one proper scale of literary analysis” (401). Rather, different scales of analysis yield different, but equally valid, insights. Significantly, McGurl, despite the ambition of his book, does not offer a single, large-scale method or approach as trumping or transcending all the others. Lennon’s review, I would offer, is mobilized by a desire for that transcendent method though, like the System whose scale it might match, he symptomatically, indeed systematically, neglects to name it.

Why not? After all, there are a number of terms to choose from: Neo-Liberalism, Corporate Capitalism, Managerial Capitalism, Late Capitalism, or just Capitalism. And to name the system is also, correlatively, to name the method specifically designed for its critique: Marxism which, according to Fredric Jameson, constitutes that “untranscendable horizon that subsumes such apparently antagonistic or incommensurable critical operations, assigning them an undoubted sectoral validity within itself” (The Political Unconscious 10). That Lennon can perpetually gesture toward, but never fully settle on, either of these terms is, of course, a crucial symptom of the very crisis he so ruthlessly anatomizes as well as a rhetorical marker of the anti-institutional mood that deprecates not only the depredations of capitalism but all bureaucratic forms of organization.

McGurl doesn’t name the System either, but that’s because, for him, it’s not the problem. While his argument does lead him to make some larger claims about the inequities of the global economy and the hidden injuries of class, his book is far more sanguine than Lennon’s review implies. The Program Era is in many ways a success story, revealing how the American university expanded democratic access to the means of literary production while simultaneously shielding it from the immediate exigencies of the marketplace. Thus I fundamentally disagree with Lennon’s contention that we are obligated to contravene McGurl’s conclusion that we would be traitors to the system of mass higher education if we denied the quantity and quality of fiction it has patronized. On the contrary, I believe McGurl is daring us to agree with him. The Program Era, while critical of the constitutive inequities of capitalism, nevertheless disavows the declension narratives that have tended to dominate studies of both creative writing and the university, and asks us instead to appreciate, if not indeed to celebrate, their combined literary achievement.

And this resistance, not to the system but to the temptation to analyze it in transcendent terms, could in fact be the basis for a certain rapprochement between academic critics and creative writers, but it can’t for that very reason derive from Lennon’s utopian hope that creative writing will set us “free.” Rather, it would be based in the more modest collegiality of McGurl’s tone and, it should be added, the accessibility and liveliness of his prose. Indeed, it is partly on the level of style, both its practice and its appreciation, that McGurl’s book offers us some hope, not for revolution but for reform. The Program Era is a critical book that creative writers might actually enjoy reading, not only because it’s well-written but also because it appreciates the quality and quantity of what they have written without reducing it to the illustration of an ideological critique. In its careful calibrations of both tone of voice and scale of analysis, The Program Era deliberately refuses any promise that we can go outside and play, but rather asks us, since we’re in here now, to work better together. Like Barack Obama, who plays an important supporting role in Lennon’s lengthy review, McGurl offers us a principle of hope without a promise of revolution, and the challenge his book presents for literary humanists is comparable to the concession Obama requires of the American left: can we be satisfied to work within the system?

Works Cited

Pierre Bourdieu, Homo Academicus, Peter Collier, Trans. (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1988).

Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1981).