Commentaries - September 2007

When I reviewed Gerald Graff's book on "teaching the conflicts," I had as much space as I needed (I was writing for Review and its editor Jay Hoge gave me no limit). In part because Graff's idea had already received a great deal of attention, I decided to set his argument in the context of the Cold War-era political correctness debates. It was an odd gesture, because nowhere in the book does Graff refer to anticommunism or to pedagogy in the 1950s.

Here are the first two paragraphs of my piece:

Saul Bellow was surely right when in May of 1994 he noted for a New Yorker writer that the culture wars of the nineties have their rhetorical and logical origins in the fifties — in the "super-charged battles between anti-Communists and anti-anti-Communists." I take this cue (though little else, I'm afraid) from Mr. Bellow. He is right to imply that while so much has been said and written about political correctness in the eighties and nineties, little has been done to put the debates in the context of anticommunism. Though Bellow believes anti-anticommunists were largely influenced by Stalinism — here's where, unsurprisingly, he parts with the left — he does concede that what little anti-anticommunist resistance there was in the 1950s arose because some liberals didn't enjoy "being forced to line up" in the rush to consensus. To Bellow those who in the late forties and fifties fashioned liberal anticommunism (those who did "line up" — Bellow scornfully says many indulged in "opinion- consumerism") had earlier been the not-altogether happy participants in the Popular Front, New Deal Democrats among them. More interesting is Bellow's notion that those who formed anti- anticommunism had been either outright communists earlier, or liberals whose liberalism became "liberal fanaticism" when in the 1950s they refused to participate in McCarthyism. These anti- anticommunists, Bellow suggests, are the principal forerunners of advocates of "political correctness" forty years later. Bellow sees in contemporary liberalism a radicalism of people stuck on slogans, labels and rigidified positions ("mindless ... medallion-wearing ... placard-bearing" folks), and evidently he deems this group more properly the inheritors of anti-anticommunist Stalinism than of anticommunist liberalism — as if the latter ideology did not have an ideology, had no slogans, bore no placards. This PC genealogy is the key, I think, to discerning the positions taken in the newest outbreak of culture wars. PC bashers inherit from the fifties the anticommunists' assumption that the most powerful anti-anticommunists are Stalinists-become-"liberal fanatics," while anti-PC bashers inherit from the fifties the anti-anticommunists' assumption that the most powerful anticommunists are liberals become more truly themselves. At issue, primarily, is which group gets to claim as its rightful heritage from the cold-war era the notion that intellectual and social culture benefit from radical dissensus, disagreement, and difference. Yet in the fifties almost every anticommunist at one point or other argued *against* dissensus for the sake of the necessarily greater disagreement with Soviet (or "world") communism (e.g. limits on the right of American communists to teach in the universities, for the sake of national security), while, even if only for strategic reasons, the anti-anticommunists were the ones incessantly arguing for the right (indeed the usefulness) of radical dissent, including that of communists.

Although Gerald Graff, as he wrote Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education, was surely aware of a cold-war context for his contention that, for instance, intellectual extreme opposites "need" each other to make their positions meaningful, it was never his purpose to make his argument depend on such awareness. Yet Beyond the Culture Wars would benefit from this focus, and since, moreover, so much has been written about Graff's book since its publication in 1992 in relation to the political correctness, canon revision and multiculturalism controversies, I intend here to concentrate on restoring what I take to be the crucial though perhaps necessarily unspoken cold-war background to Graff's proposal. The 1950s' relevance to what Graff nicely calls "teaching the conflicts" reveals both the value of Graff's insights about the cultural resistance to intellectual many-sidedness and the limitations of a liberal pedagogical idealism that is trying too hard to avoid the old communist-anticommunist contest. Despite what I take to be implicitly his acuity about the effects of cold-war consensus on the universities, and of red-baiting on intellectual culture at large, his promotion of an argument-counterargument structure to literary education too often neglects the fact that equal-time liberalism has a cultural precondition rendering free and open colloquy not so easily made free and open. Graff would say (rightly, I think) that the precondition must itself be taught, but the resulting meta-pedagogical involution, however boldly self-conscious, is not without its own politics.

Here is the text of the whole review.

"We cannot bear to face our knowledge that the satisfaction of our desire for justice, which we confuse with our desire for vengeance, is impossible. And so we invent as a victim the most comprehensive image which our reason, however deranged, will permit us: the whole of a people and the descendants of that people; and count ourselves incomparably their superior because we stop short of the idea of annihilation."

This was James Agee, on American public reaction to Nazi atrocity films (May 19, 1945, in the Nation magazine).

Yes, that's Bill Gates at right, tossing a floppy disk into the air.

On Tuesday, September 18, at 7:30 PM, the Writers House will feature film-maker Sarah J. Christman and her film Dear Bill Gates.

The 16 mm film is 17 minutes long and was made in 2006. It's described this way: "A simple correspondence evolves into a poetic visual essay exploring the ownership of our visual history and culture. Combining original and archival film, video and images from the internet, Dear Bill Gates draws unexpected connections among mining, memory and Microsoft." More here.

Sarah Christman is a Philadelphia based independent media producer whose films have screened internationally. She has edited for both television and independent film, including the High Definition media arts channel Moovlab. Sarah received her MFA in Film & Media Arts at Temple University. She is the co-founder of Memory Bank Media, a post-production studio that specializes in the digital preservation of home movies and photographs.

My interview/conversation with John Ashbery, which took place on March 26, 2002, is available as a RealVideo recording. It was delightful — utterly — lthough I wouldn't say that J.A. answered my questions about his poems with any sort of directness. Not that I was expecting that.

"When one goes at ideas directly," he once said, "with hammer and tongs as it were, ideas tend to elude one in a poem. I think they only come back in when one pretends not to be paying any attention to them, like a cat that will rub against your leg." There he's circling around, but I'll note that (a) his topic is the circling-around of good writing, and (b) it's about as precise a way of describing his poem's relation to ideas as he could give.

Someone once said to him, "I remember having writing teachers insist, 'Write what you know!'" Ashbery's response: "But one doesn't know anything! That's the problem." What does it mean to know something? Still more tentatively: What does it mean to learn something?

As he put it once in a poem, in school all the thought gets combed out. In "What Is Poetry" — the title is not a question but the phrasal description of a category (and categorical problem) — he wonders if poetry is

Trying to avoid

Ideas, as in this poem? But we
Go back to them as to a wife, leaving

The mistress we desire? Now they
Will have to believe it

As we believed it. In school
All the thought got combed out:

What was left was like a field.

When I saw what Erica Baum was doing with photography a few years ago, I knew that it was closely related to what I was trying to teach my students about modern and contemporary poetry, so I invited Erica to visit us at the Writers House. It was a great visit.

Her photographic art captures only alphabetically related terms and puts them into new context. Her photographs are archaic storage systems of knowledge yielding randomly found commentaries, creating landscapes of words, as "subject headings" appear over the vistas of information sheets formed by unexposed cards in card catalogue drawers. How much a particular set of words is revealed, by the angle of the shot, is the essence of Baum's humor. "The self-consciousness" entailed in the act of cataloguing the catalogue, wrote Christopher Chamgers in NY Arts (9/13/97), "intimates the transcience and fragility of human accomplishments. It is our learning that makes the endless concatenation of teaching ironic."

In Baum's art, "the act of information retrieval is turned into a journey," writes Josefine Raab, " — of seemingly unknown destination." Baum will produce a picture of related terms (words and phrases) in alphabetical order, so that for instance the term "Subversive Activities" will appear next to "Suburban Homes" (from Untitled [Suburban], 1997, gelatin silver print, 20x24 inches, shown at Clementine Gallery, New York). The result is what Alice Thorson sees as "a form of found minimalist poetry." Words photographed from an index are lineated like poetry, for example:

cause of, 59-63
what to do when lost in, 185-186

Baum's photographs of such index fragments appear to have been taken from grainy and enlarged photocopies, a setp that engages them in a dialogue with abstract painting while also invoking the pervasiveness of technology.

Baum exposes a Dadaist absurdity perhaps closer to Fluxus puns than to Duchampian metaphysics. Textual without becoming didactic, Baum's linguistic play is informed by the poetics of our era.

"Fragments of an index," Baum writes (in a statement dated April 2000), "reveal the unexpected fictions, rhythms and poetry hidden with a book's internal system of reference ... A tension is created between what is absent, the book, and what is present, the concatenation of sounds and meanings wrenched from their source ..."

Here's more.