In this Dawn to be Alive: Versions of the “Postcritical,” 1999, 2015

by Nathan K. Hensley

The February 1999 issue of the lit-crit insider publication Lingua Franca would have arrived to Vassar’s English department in the cold and lightless months of my senior year.  The issue’s striking cover showed flailing men tangled in rigging, barely clinging to a shredded hot air balloon. This vivid image of lost buoyancy would have made the issue stand out from the other quasi-professional literary publications—New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, TLS—fanned onto the public table in Sanders Hall.

The headline was “The Department that Fell to Earth: The Deflation of Duke English, ” and the story it advertised was incandescent. Written by the then 25-year old David Yaffe, the article remains a spectacular piece of inside-baseball academic journalism, a masterpiece of that lost genre.

In the hyper-gossipy, anthropological style that made Lingua Franca famous, it tracks the slow and seemingly inevitable breakup of the literary theory dream-team Stanley Fish had assembled at Duke in the mid-1980s. By the late 90safter the Sokal Hoax, in the midst of the Bad Writing Contest, at the late apex of the culture warsa pitched battle between appreciation and critique, cultural stewardship and an allegedly violent “Literary Theory” had infiltrated the pages of even the most mainstream publications. Duke was the imploding star at the center of the liberal arts’ black hole, a tidy emblem for Harold Bloom’s “School of Resentment” and ground zero of “the cuckoo’s nest that is the academy,” as the Baltimore Sun wrote in 1996, reporting from Durham, “where … the study of literature has been hijacked by desperately stupid ideologues whose narrow, doctrinaire interpretations of masterworks are turning off a generation of readers.”  The New York Times ran the Duke storya story about the internal politics of an English departmenton its front page. 

Yaffe was already in Durham researching his Lingua Franca piece when the Times story hit. His own article’s headline shimmered with overtones half biblical and half financial, of error corrected and irrational exuberance chastened.[1] All this would have resonated with what I’d already learned from my writing workshops and meetings with faculty, class discussions and beery conversations with fellow students only marginally more informed than myself: literature was being beaten into submission, manipulated, ravished, abused, “deconstructed.”

It’s hard not to think of today’s menu of methodological options when reviewing these earlier anticritical posturesjeremiads with which, I hasten to add, I was in full, if ignorant, sympathy. So when I saw a drawing of a demolished balloon and skimmed a story that was (in Yaffe’s words) “less a morality tale than a postmodern pastichea dizzying refraction of the familiar narratives of academic dissension in the 1990s”when I read that the theory bubble, always empty, had now burstI probably smirked.

This online forum was convened to address the so-called “postcritical turn” in literary studiesthe new literary modesty, as Jeffrey Williams has recently described it, or what I would call anticritical method: a movement that gathers into a capacious embrace Latourian description, surface reading, distant reading, data mining, the various object-oriented ontologies, book history, brain scanning, and “the new materialism,” among other approaches, all in an effort to depart from those hermeneutic and political approaches that, it is claimed, seek to assert mastery over their objects or otherwise diminish the autonomous power of literary artifacts. In considering my own response to these new turnsI’ve also engaged them here and hereI found myself questioning their alleged newness, and also questioning the logic of methodological “turns” in the first place. I thought about my own formation as a reader and thinker.  This began when I was a literature-loving undergrad at Vassar, trained in close reading, creative writing, and loose talk about “the aesthetic,” and ended up at Duke, of all places, which I found to be less a cuckoo’s nest than a place of exhilarating intellectual creativity and rigorous experimentation. All of which matched perfectly with the affective allegiances I’d always had for what I still think of as literary thinking. And so I wondered again, as I have many times: Critique versus fetishization? Loving literature versus hating it? Vassar versus Duke?  It has never held up. 

Maybe some history was in order. Like everybody in the Vassar department in those days, I wanted to be a novelist, or maybe a poet (could you be a poet?): I was drawn to literature because it was a medium for concept-making; I found pleasure in it as a mode of thought and practice. Though I’d strayed to English from philosophy, I did not ask many questions about what literature was, or where it had come from. I knew that the books I liked best could pose philosophical problems but had more wit than Kant; they didn’t announce answers in numbered paragraphs, but staged questions formally, lyrically, without resolving them into tidy maxims or portable lessons. They demolished moralizing. They implicated you. Literature, I reasoned, could do things that other ways of thinking couldn’t. My assimilation of this aesthetic ideology was aided by the fact that during my entire college career I read, by rough count, zero works of professional literary criticism. This perfect innocence regarding the disciplinary conventions of literary studya kind of enchanted, Edenic imbecilitytaught me to rely on my own reading of literary texts and, for good or ill, to trust the ideas sparked in that encounter. But it also left me defenseless against the culture-war polemics that were in those years taking such lavish and paradoxical pleasure in “the Death of Literature.”

In the late 1990’s supposedly aesthetocidal environment, the story of the Duke department’s dissolution made for scintillating reading. The rumors were of homophobia, homophilia, overpoliticization, anti-intellectualism; I remember learning about an evacuated curriculum, emperors without clothes, and imperial ambition among faculty members angling to become brand names. Yaffe recalled that his editors had sent him on a hatchet job. “That was a very difficult article to write,” Yaffe recalled,

because Lingua Franca’s agenda was to just demolish this place. They thought that the things that were going on at Duke were so precious and narcissistic: they just did not respect those people; they just thought they [the Duke faculty] were part of the problem. They thought that that facultyalong with many, many other peoplewere responsible for bad academic writing.  That to go into the belly of that particular beast was to go into the microcosm of the problem. 

Yaffe’s Lingua Franca piece was generated out of the conviction that the Duke story was a microcosm or allegory for larger changes to the discipline of English and even, by extension, to American culture as such. The Times reported that one catalyst for the meltdown was the star-system Fish had employed. “But Duke’s difficulties,” it continued, “also reflect tensions in English departments nationwide at a time when many have been struggling to redefine their mission.” Speaking to the Duke Chronicle in 1998, Fish himself testified with unsettling prescience to the methodological pluralism that remains a key challenge in justifying literary studies to those outside its ranks, and that arguably provides the rationale for our own colloquium here. What are we doing when we do literary studies now? “If people could figure out what English departments were supposed to do for the 21st century,” Fish said in 1998, “everyone would be very grateful to whoever figured it out.  Ethos? Sure. Overarching mission? Sure. I haven't seen any in the marketplace recently” (Rubin).

My point in reanimating this earlier moment of debate about the nature and function of literary studyabout the proper relation between reading subject and literary objectis not just to note that my own formation coincided with it. It is also to wonder aloud whether, for many of us who came to intellectual maturity in the 1990s, those debates might serve as a point of comparison for our newer controversies over method.  As John Marx and Mark Garrett Cooper have recently shown, we are always in a crisis of the humanities, but might attention to the Duke story, and to the earlier moment of unrest in the literary academy it seemed to catalyze, reorient in a useful way the debates about method and readerly affect this colloquium is convened to evaluate?

It seems to me that any genealogy of the postcritical undertaken in 2015 should map not just the personal experiences and dispositional idiosyncrasies that have led us to our current procedures as individual readers and thinkers. It should also plot those individual stories within a larger institutional narrative of critical activity in the American academy.  It must go further, I think, to place that narrative within a yet larger one that would chart the relation of the academic humanities to social life more broadly, and begin working to take account of those intricate relationships of mediation. Loving objects or hating them?  Critical or anti-critical? Couldn’t criticism find a way to be bothor neither? And shouldn’t the case of the culture wars teach us that the choices we make about those questions of “mere method” in fact disclose our positions on much larger issues, political ones, that have to do not with reading or theory or even critique at all, but with how the literary humanities relate to social life as such? 

A short blog post could never hope to answer such questions, and barely has enough room to pose them. So instead of providing a false conclusion I will simply add two further notes toward what could, in some other venue, become a comparative history of anti-critical thinking, 1999-2015. Thomas Pfau was an untenured assistant professor at Duke when he was quoted in Yaffe’s piece in the context of a dispute with Sedgwick about hiring. Pfau is now Alice Mary Baldwin Professor of English and Professor of German at Duke, as well as a Member of the Divinity School Faculty there. I asked Pfau by email whether, at a remove of some 16 years, the Duke story had any historical significance now. “I don't know that too many people remember what happened here almost twenty years ago,” he wrote. “[But] I see Duke’s upheavals of that time as the point where literary studies formally entered into a prolonged phase of senescence, which continues to this day…. My prognosis is that literature will always flourish, but that its role in the academy will continue to shrink in the years to come. The same erosion of (perceived) relevance is likely to occur in history, cultural anthropology, and other interpretive fields.” 

A requiem, then? Fish, for his part, seemed to concur with this assessment but, unlike Pfau, seemed untroubled by it. When I reached him on the phone in Florida, he spoke with wit and intelligence about theory’s adoption in the US, about the erosion of cultural capital as a force in American life. I asked him whether it might be possible to reverse the slow attrition of humanistic study in the modern academy; whether literary studies might ever again matter enough to stand as front page news. What response is possible? “I don’t see any response,” he said. “I don’t see any response … that could work. Aside from a wholesale restructuring of the universities that would take them back to the past. And the budgetary issues of modern universities have made it less and less likely that these departments [in humanities] can flourish as they once did. I myself, from a position of some distance from these matters, I don’t see much hope.”

Two requiems? Lingua Franca’s attempt to call into being an earlier version of postcritical reading took as its emblem a picture of explorers wrongly leaving solid ground, and being justifiably, even comically punished for this transgression. In the introduction to Eighteenth Century Fiction and the Invention of Wonder, Sarah Tindal Kareem uses another image of a falling man, Baron Munchausen, to describe not improper ambition or overweening pride but openness to the new. Unlike Lingua Franca’s flailing Victorians, Kareem’s explorer dangles hesitatingly halfway between sky and earth in a state of productive uncertainty, an in-betweenness she glosses as a “com[ing] undone,” an “enchantment” (34).


Could it be that those of us raised in the twilight of the 1990s theory warsthose of us dangling, by sheer accident of time, between the alternatives of security and risk, of conservative protection and a radical remaking, of critical iconoclasm and curatorial fetishismmight find ourselves positioned to think beyond those alleged alternatives? The story of Duke’s dissolution in the late 1990s has personal significance for me, but in the broader history of literary-critical method, it also stands as one of those moments of danger that Walter Benjamin says gather historical processes into a crystal of consequence. Where can we go from thereor from here?

I asked Fish what the culture war coverage of the Duke story had missed. “There’s a line from Wordsworth somewhere,” he said, “that captures what I felt about being there, ‘Bliss was it in those times to be alive.’” Google confirmed that Fish had slightly skewed a moment in one of the French Revolution books of the PreludeBook 11in which the older Wordsworth, having renounced his earlier dalliances with radical politics, remembers his younger self as he gazes on the aftermath of Revolution. This younger version of the poet, not yet disillusioned by post-Revolutionary failures, doesn’t see a worrisome overturning of solid verities but a moment of exhilaration and freedom, when the dissolution of past forms shone out as pure and bracing possibility:

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,

But to be young was very heaven! O times, 

In which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways

Of custom, law, and statute, took at once

The attraction of a Country in Romance;

When Reason seemed the most to assert her rights,

When most intent on making of herself 

A prime Enchanter—to assist the work

Which then was going forward in her name. (XI, 692-700)

Wordsworth was nearing eighty when he stopped work on The Prelude; Fish is now in his mid-seventies. I repeated the line to him, to make sure I had it down. “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive.” If the Duke English story were retold today, I asked, should that be the headline? He laughed. “Yes, yes,” he said. “I guess so.”

Fuller versions of my interviews with Stanley Fish, Thomas Pfau, and David Yaffe are available at my website, here. I thank all three of them for sharing their recollections with me.

Works Cited

Aucoin, Don. “Study of Literature Hijacked, Professor Says.” Baltimore Sun. September 15, 1996. Web.

Delbanco, Andrew.  "The Decline and Fall of Literature."  New York Review of Books 46.17 (November 4, 1999). Web.

Marx, John and Mark Garrett Cooper. “Crisis, Crisis, Crisis: Big Media and the Humanities Workforce.” differences 24.3 (2013): 127-159. Web.

Rubin, Richard.  “English Professors Respond to Report. Duke Chronicle. August 31, 1998.  Web.

Wordsworth, William. The Major Works. Stephen Gill, ed. New York and Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 2008. Print.

Yaffe, David. “The Department that Fell to Earth: The Deflation of Duke English.” Lingua Franca 9.1 (February 1999). Web.

[1] I asked Yaffe where the idea for the Lingua Franca cover had come from. “That was funny about that,” he said. “I originally had a different title for the article. But [the editors] had all these delightful nineteenth century images of people falling out of air balloons. They told me about them on the phone, said they were going to use one. And they told me that I had to change my title to match. And I said: ‘Okay, why don’t you call it ‘People Falling Out of Hot Air Balloons.’ And they laughed.”


Nathan K. Hensley's picture

Nathan K. Hensley is Assistant Professor of English at Georgetown University. His current book project explores how Victorian writers expanded the capacities of literary form to account for the ongoing violence of liberal modernity. A second project, now in its early stages, brings literary methods in dialogue with Victorian and contemporary ecological thinking to investigate how the nineteenth century imagined catastrophe.

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