Wednesday, January 28, 2009

More on Updike, with Nicholson Baker

There have been some wonderful tributes to Updike around the horn, but I think my favorite feature so far has been the Guardian's moving montage, "John Updike: A Life in Pictures," a chronological journey that well captures Updike's charm and humanity.

But I thought Nicholson Baker's terse, profound comment on NPR best captured the sense of what we've lost: "It's just shocking when a very intelligent person is no longer looking out at the same world that you are."

That took me back to Baker's U and I (1991), his hilarious, self-absorbed-yet-generous, back-handed homage that chronicles a young writer's obsession with the elder statesmen ("U" being Updike, and "I" being Baker). Reading the opening chapters on the day of Updike's death was eerie, as Baker is struggling with whether to write an essay on Updike while he's still alive. Startled and prompted by the death of Donald Barthleme, Baker comes to a realization:

I suddenly got a glimpse of how disassembled and undirected and simply bereft I would feel if I were to learn suddenly through the Associated Press of Updike's death.

I remember that sensation. It was exactly how I felt upon learning of the death of Jacques Derrida, while engaged in finishing a book entitled Jacques Derrida: Live Theory. And it was exactly as Baker commented: what one couldn't quite get used to was the fact that one would no longer hear from this writer, no longer get their take on the world we shared. The spigot had been turned off (and goodness knows both Updike and Derrida has voluminous wells and unrestricted spigots). Sure, the archives will for years yield hitherto unseen materials, but these would never be new observations of the world continuing to unfold. And one would have to learn to write of them in a different tense: every present would have to be turned into a past.

Baker's U and I attests to this in a long meditation on a curious phrase of criticism:

That phrase which reviewers take such pains to include when delivering their judgments--when they say that among living writers so-and-so is or isn't of the first rank--had once seemed to me unnecessary: the writing, I had thought, was good or bad, no matter whether the writer was here or not. But now, after the news of Barthleme's death, this simple fact of presense or absence, which I had beun to recognize in a small way already, now became the single most important supplemental piece of information I felt I could know about a writer: more important than his age when he wrote a particular work, or his nationality, or his sex (forgive the pronoun), political leanings, even whether he did or did not have, in someone's opinion, any talent. Is he dead or alive?--just tell me that. [...] The living are always potentially thinking about and doing just what we are doing: being pulled through a touchless car wash, watching a pony chew a carrot, noticing that orange scaffolding has gone up around some prominent church. The conclusions they draw we know to be conclusions drawn from how things are now. Indeed, for me, as a beginning novelist, all other living writers form a control group for whom the world is a placebo. The dead can be helpful, needless to say, but we can only guess sloppily about how they would react to this emergent particle of time, which is all the time we have.

So while Baker was contemplating a posthumous piece on Barthelme, his thoughts turn to Updike: "How fortunate I was to be alive when he was alive!" And the drive to produce U and I stems from an urgency and a hope: "All I wanted, all I counted on, was Updike's immortality."

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

John Updike, RIP

I could only respond in a gasp of surprise upon seeing the news of John Updike's death. He was, without question, one of America's great "men of letters," if you'll forgive the cliche. I appreciated his fiction and stories (I notice one of my earliest blog posts was on Updike's Early Stories), some his poetry, and even more so his criticism (just last night I was reading from his latest collection, Due Considerations). But his work for me always had a feel of an older generation without being old enough to seem exotic or distant enough to be a glimpse into foreign worlds--and yet, it also didn't feel like he was unveiling the world I inhabit. James Wolcott, while recently reviewing The Widows of Eastwick, provided an insightful analysis of how younger generations of writers related to Updike's towering presence, casting a long shadow over the American literary scene.

And yet I have always appreciated that Updike valued literature as a means of delight. Updike believed in fiction. As he noted in a late piece for "This I Believe" on NPR (included in Due Considerations):
A person believes various things at various times, even on the same day. At the age of 73, I seem most instinctively to believe in the human value of creative writing, whether in the form of verse or fiction, as a mode of truth-telling, self-expression and homage to the twin miracles of creation and consciousness. The special value of these indirect methods of communication -- as opposed to the value of factual reporting and analysis -- is one of precision. Oddly enough, the story or poem brings us closer to the actual texture and intricacy of experience.

In fiction, imaginary people become realer to us than any named celebrity glimpsed in a series of rumored events, whose causes and subtler ramifications must remain in the dark. An invented figure like Anna Karenina or Emma Bovary emerges fully into the light of understanding, which brings with it identification, sympathy and pity. I find in my own writing that only fiction -- and rarely, a poem -- fully tests me to the kind of limits of what I know and what I feel. In composing even such a frank and simple account as this profession of belief, I must fight against the sensation that I am simplifying and exploiting my own voice.

In a way, I'm still reeling from this news. It's surprising how the loss of such a figure can make one feel lonelier, that somehow a conversation has been shrunk, cut short, while there was still much more to say.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Inauguration Poem by Elizabeth Alexander

Much could be said about today's events, but not by me. Let me just highlight Elizabeth Alexander's poem for the inauguration, with a lilt and rhythm that, it seems to me, calls to mind a marriage between the Beat poets and hip-hop.

Praise song for the day.

Each day we go about our business, walking past each other, catching each others' eyes or not, about to speak or speaking. All about us is noise. All about us is noise and bramble, thorn and din, each one of our ancestors on our tongues. Someone is stitching up a hem, darning a hole in a uniform, patching a tire, repairing the things in need of repair.

Someone is trying to make music somewhere with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.

A woman and her son wait for the bus.

A farmer considers the changing sky; A teacher says, "Take out your pencils. Begin."

We encounter each other in words, words spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed; words to consider, reconsider.

We cross dirt roads and highways that mark the will of someone and then others who said, "I need to see what's on the other side; I know there's something better down the road."

We need to find a place where we are safe; We walk into that which we cannot yet see.

Say it plain, that many have died for this day. Sing the names of the dead who brought us here, who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges, picked the cotton and the lettuce, built brick by brick the glittering edifices they would then keep clean and work inside of.

Praise song for struggle; praise song for the day. Praise song for every hand-lettered sign; The figuring it out at kitchen tables.

Some live by "Love thy neighbor as thy self."

Others by first do no harm, or take no more than you need.

What if the mightiest word is love, love beyond marital, filial, national. Love that casts a widening pool of light. Love with no need to preempt grievance.

In today's sharp sparkle, this winter air, anything can be made, any sentence begun.

On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp -- praise song for walking forward in that light.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Fish on the Fate of University, Inc.

As per usual, Stanley Fish's latest column on higher education is provocative, and not a little disheartening. Riffing on Frank Donoghue's book, The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities, Fish documents the decline and irreversible trajectory of higher education which has hitched its wagon to pragmatist "training" and job certification for the corporate world of production and consumption. In short, the "university" is well on its way to being a very expensive and very snooty vo-tech school. Fish always tries to be unsentimental and "realist" about these matters, but it's hard not to detect just a twinge of disappointment and a whisp of lament. Asking about the possibility of "restoring" the classical vision of education's "inutility" (and I would add, the correlate classical vision of education as formation), Fish turns to Donoghue:
In a new book, “The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the University,” Frank Donoghue (as it happens, a former student of mine) asks that question and answers “No.”

Donoghue begins by challenging the oft-repeated declaration that liberal arts education in general and the humanities in particular face a crisis, a word that suggests an interruption of a normal state of affairs and the possibility of restoring the natural order of things.

“Such a vision of restored stability,” says Donoghue, “is a delusion” because the conditions to which many seek a return – healthy humanities departments populated by tenure-track professors who discuss books with adoring students in a cloistered setting – have largely vanished. Except in a few private wealthy universities (functioning almost as museums), the splendid and supported irrelevance of humanist inquiry for its own sake is already a thing of the past. In “ two or three generations,” Donoghue predicts, “humanists . . . will become an insignificant percentage of the country’s university instructional workforce.”

He goes on to suggest that this trend is over a century old, and can be seen most recently in the astronomical rise of adjunct professors on large university campuses. And according to Donoghue, the prospects are particularly dark for my field. Citing the founder of the abominable University of Phoenix, Fish notes:
Sperling understands the difficulty of achieving accreditation for his institution as a proxy “for cultural battles between defenders of 800 years of educational (and largely religious) traditions, and innovation that was based on the ideas of the marketplace – transparency, efficiency, productivity and accountability.”

Those ideas have now triumphed (Carnegie and Crane are victorious), and this means, Donoghue concludes, “that all fields deemed impractical, such as philosophy, art history, and literature, will henceforth face a constant danger of being deemed unnecessary.” And as a corollary “professors will come to be seen by everyone (not just those outside the academy) as unaffordable anomalies.”
Embedded in there is a bitter irony: Sperling's corporate critique of classical educational traditions rightly links this model to a correlate and intertwined vision of religious education as primarily the formation of a certain kind of person. Indeed, one might argue that the last gasps of this "classical" model unhooked from religious commitments and practices was always and only a model living on borrowed capital and borrowed time. (One could quite easily generate a story along these lines with the help of Charles Taylor's own story in A Secular Age.)

But here's the irony: today, religious colleges have bought into this corporate, instrumentalized picture of higher education as aggressively as anyone. This partly stems from the decentralized, "marketplace" configuration of higher education in the United States which forces Christian colleges to "sell" themselves as a viable and promising option for the student "consumer." (I grant that this decentralization also makes it possible to have "thickly" religious institutions.) It also stems from the fact that Mommy & Daddy, who are so often paying the bills, have imbibed and absorbed this instrumentalist expectation that education be "useful" (read: will pay the bills and secure "success" as measured by the metric which is late modern consumer capitalist "happiness"). And so they want to hear that utilitarian message from Christian colleges--which is at least one of the reasons that we see pre-professional programs gobbling up the energy and space of Christian colleges that, nostalgically, describe themselves as "liberal arts" institutions (yes, I'm speaking about my own home institution, Calvin College , among others). Or why the cash cows of "degree completion programs" have become the lifeline of smaller Christian colleges and universities. In such an environment, even the humanities have to "pay up": they have to prove their worth as measured by fiscal utility.

This is why the most intense and concentrated articulations of this instrumentalized vision of Christian education are found, not in the upper echelons of the academic division, but in the Admissions department (and its cognate, Public Relations and Student Life, which are the "face" of the college to the prospective educational consumer). Analyze the admissions literature of just about any Catholic or Christian college or university, especially those that bill themselves as "liberal arts" institutions and watch for the buzzwords. (It would be particularly interesting to compare this literature to the same sorts of information that was provided 50 or 75 years ago, by the same institution.) This also explains why PR departments will only promote faculty research and activity that seems "interesting," useful, and "safe."

[It should be noted, by the way, that this is not a critique of the general task of sharing information about our institutions to prospective students. I have no brief with getting the word out; the issue is how we do this and how we portray the mission and task of our institutions. (For a very helpful discussion of the difference between "marketing" in the mode of consumption and "marketing" in the mode of disseminating information, see Todd Steen and Steve VanderVeen's nice little piece, "Will There Be Marketing in Heaven?" in Perspectives.)

Now, the really haunting question is: what do we do now? What do we do in the face of this? Well, probably for the most part, I'll live off my hypocrisy, continue to inhabit the instrumentalized college & university as a tenured professor, and snipe at the margins, thereby comforting myself by thinking I'm playing a "prophetic" role [LOL!]. For several years, I would say I've "deluded" myself (Donoghue's term) by thinking that a small cadre of committed folks might be able to stem the tide and redirect our institutional behemoths to remember who they are, and Whose they are. I'm a little less sanguine about that these days--well, actually, I'm a LOT less sanguine about that.

And so I find myself with strange, haunting, ridiculous thoughts, upon which I'll never act: that maybe the space for "education" now lies outside the institutions that bear its name; that a tiny band committed to this vision would be better "educated" outside the mechanisms of accreditation and certification; that even Christian higher education finds itself in a "monastic" moment, calling for strategic and intentional abstinence and reorientation because of our collusion with University, Inc.; that perhaps we--professors and students alike--are called outside the safety of our institutions into experiments we have not yet imagined; that perhaps the fate of University, Inc. need not be confused with the "end" of education.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Devil Reads Derrida: forthcoming

The new Eerdmans catalogue includes information on a new little book of mine that will appear in April. The Devil Reads Derrida: and Other Essays on the University, the Church, Politics, and the Arts, gathers together a number of my "popular" pieces that have appeared in magazines and other periodicals ranging from the Christian Century and Harvard Divinity Bulletin to Christianity Today and The Banner. In short, it's a book without footnotes. And it includes a new introduction that articulates my vision for Christian "public intellectuals," utilizing Little Miss Sunshine as something of an allegory.

I take this sort of "outreach" scholarship seriously, and enjoy it very much, and so hope this book might fall into the hands beyond the usual suspects of students and scholars. Here's the description from Eerdmans:

The Devil Reads Derrida brings together essays and articles written for a general audience by a notable young voice in the church and the academy. A specialist in French philosophy and postmodernism, James K. A. Smith has also consistently sought to speak to the church as the most important “public” for his work.

This book brings together some of Smith’s most significant forays into the public arena, focusing especially on discipleship, the university, and politics and the church. It also provides a selection of his criticism, including essays on Harry Potter, A History of Violence, the poetry of Franz Wright, and much more.

Smith’s work as a Christian public intellectual brings theological wisdom into the service of lived discipleship. Whether grappling with the Wild at Heart phenomenon or the challenges of secularization, dealing with sex or consumerism, or commenting on The Devil Wears Prada or American Beauty, Smith tackles each issue with clarity and insight, with scholarly rigor — but always with an eye to Christian discipleship and the life of the church.