From Peter Widdowson
SIR: As the long and revealing correspondence, sparked off in your pages by Tom Paulin’s review (LRB, 17 June) of Re-Reading English, which I edited, seems on the point of exhausting itself (if not others), I wondered if I might make a retrospective reply. I am grateful to the LRB for reviewing the book at all. The THES, so far, has ignored it – which is odd given that the book is about the place and function of one of the largest and most popular subjects in higher education; and the TLS has, I gather, finally found it an unequivocally hostile reviewer so that it will be well and truly smashed there. (Perhaps they are already making ‘Faculty at War, II’?) I am also grateful for the space given to the letter-debate – which has lifted a few stones.
Tom Paulin’s original review was not, of course, a review at all: rather, it was an exhibition of his own deepest hopes and fears. Tom is a nice man, probably SDP (by which I only mean Severely Deficient in Politics), and a poet in a world where poetry doesn’t count for much. He’s got to protect his own patch, because if that failed he might have to ask himself the ‘overwhelming question’: what is he actually doing? His patch is, I think, identified by a significant phrase in the review where he writes of there being ‘in every generation … a number of gifted reviewers’. Tom wants to be one of those. (‘What do you want to be when you grow up, Tom?’ ‘Well, Dad, I’d quite like to be a gifted reviewer and poet.’) It is this ‘man-of-lettersism’ which lies behind his hostility, diversely, to Leavisian ‘English’, to David Lodge, and to my colleagues who are questioning the naturalised subject of ‘English’ and its canon. What he really objects to is anyone who takes the business seriously. Hence his shocked suggestion that we are attempting to destroy our own profession: it is his perception that if the profession were to be properly serious, then ‘men of letters’ would be marginal to it. Poor Tom’s a-cold! This accounts, too, for his quite unforgivable characterisation of contemporary students as a ‘blank generation’. My feeling is that they too are serious, and find an amateurist enthusiasm (it used to be called ‘Appreciation’) no longer strong enough meat. They, too, are asking questions about their society and culture, and they’re hard questions to answer. Why are there no jobs? Why cut higher education? Why read literature? A ritual wheeling-out of ‘Art’ (of which, by the by, I really don’t have a ‘deep hatred’ – I reserve that for those who use the term unproblematically to sustain an élite), and then enthusing about it, simply isn’t an answer, and the students are too sharp to be fooled by it.
If Tom Paulin feels that this is a parody of his version of ‘English’ I apologise, and merely note that I was forced to guess at what it might be because the truly determinate absence (sorry, that’s ‘gobbledeygook’) in Tom’s piece is any stated notion of what he thinks ‘English’ is, or of what he is himself about.
In fact, another hint of it – of what we might call the ‘insouciant’ school of English – is offered in Paulin’s poem Oxford v. Cambridge v. Birmingham’ in a later LRB (LRB, 2 September). (In passing, the poem admonishes ‘the puritan/or the man who fucks texts’. A whole new dimension opens up here for the sex-aid industry!)
Now that the academics are switching
into self-destruct and gibberwick
I’ve fallen in love again
with a rich old library
and those darkblue bindings;
I’m bending the knee now
to letter and copy-text,
the fine print of the spirit.
We can only hope that – unlike Leonard Bast in Forster’s Howards End – a shelf-ful of ‘Culture’ doesn’t fall on his head.
However, I should acknowledge one kind thing Tom’s review said about us (although it wasn’t meant that way). He called us a ‘dissident intelligentsia’. That seems to me a compliment. But who, in the present social and political situation, would want to be a member of an ‘established intelligentsia’? On second thoughts, however, perhaps that was a silly question: many of our colleagues must have voted for her in 1979, and no doubt will again.
The worms that came out from under the stones in the letters that followed this review share its basic assumptions, even when they appear hostile to aspects of it. What they confirm is the view of the contributors to Re-Reading English that traditional notions of English (and of higher education more generally) are at a crisis point. Scholasticism, snobbery and élitism result in a failure to relate to – indeed a deep disdain for – the material world which sustains such postures in seemingly independent luxury. Education cuts, politics, student experience and culture, television and communications technology, etc – these things are not to do with Books. At such a point, there has to be a critique, an opposition and an alternative. These, Re-Reading English – and ‘New Accents’ as a whole – offer. It’s no surprise to me that the book and the series are denigrated; if they weren’t – by the likes of Spice, Barry, Bristow and Josipovici – there would be something very seriously wrong with them. The positive gain is that the symptoms of crisis are exposed in their letters, are publicly stated, and therefore can no longer be discounted as the wishful thinking of a ‘dissident intelligentsia’. We can now directly experience the ingrained class-snobbery of an established ‘English’ in Nicholas Spice’s easy assumption of ‘the frustration, anger and narow-mindedness of an essentially petit-bourgeois mentality’ (LRB, 15 July). How Spice has reached this ontological understanding is revealed a sentence later, in his unquestioning use of the Arnoldian term ‘philistine’: he knows it because Arnold told him so. We can also experience the élitism and self-protectiveness of the cult academic in Joseph Bristow’s fear that his students – by way of the ‘reductive’ and ‘simplistic’ ‘New Accents’ volumes – might know as much as he does and argue back (Vol. 4, No 14). His tyro’s fascination with ‘the genuinely tough theoretical arguments’ suggests how little he wants others to find them not so difficult after all, or to question their worth. Equally, his sonorous rhetoric – ‘in these times of recession when economic pressures are weighing heavily on the academy’ – implies exactly how he is able to propose the censorship of students’ reading (‘Students must be fairly warned against “New Accents” ’). (Sir Keith) Joseph Bristow should go far; he is clearly a ‘centre of excellence’ in himself already. We can experience, too, the political naivety (or disingenuousness?) of traditional ‘English’ in Peter Barry’s concern that proposals in Re-Reading English ‘violate the citizen’s basic right to receive an education which isn’t propaganda’ (Vol. 4, No 15). If he really thinks that education is, or has ever been, politically neutral, then he shouldn’t be teaching in higher education (or perhaps that is why he is?). Lastly, we can experience a more up-market version of the Bristovian paradigm in Gabriel Josipovici’s unhappy little letter (Vol. 4, No 16). Again we have the pseudo-political gesture: ‘the Government, as we all know is doing its best to destroy the universities as centres of serious scholarship and learning.’ (‘Sir Keith, what about cutting Gabriel J.?’ ‘Heavens, no, he’s that cosmopolitan Man of Letters who believes, as he said recently in the LRB, that “academics are now well enough paid” not to have to do anything but “write books they really feel they want and need to write”. He’s also terrified of cheap and accessible books for students because they might demystify the “mysteries” of his trade. He’s one of us, leave him alone to form a centre of excellence, write whatever comes into his head and teach a few rich kids. That’s higher education at its best.’) Josipovici’s concern is with his own patch, too: ‘New Accents’ threatens it, threatens it with exposure to rigorous questioning as to its place, function, point and validity.
What, of course, gets left out of all this ‘debate’ are the issues themselves. Margaret Atack has made the most important point: the discussion about literary theory – and ‘New Accents” supposed dilution of its academic essence – distracts us from the political and institutional perspectives on education and on ‘English’ (Vol. 4, No 18). A number of points arise here – directed more to those who have supported us in these columns than to the paranoid few. First of all, there should be a much fuller exploration of what we have in mind to replace a moribund ‘English’. Is it ‘Cultural Studies’ or ‘Media and Communication Studies’, as people keep darkly hinting? Is it an ‘alternative’ canon? Is it the existing canon, differently ‘read’ and taught? What is meant by a ‘socialist pedagogy’? What is a ‘materialist criticism’? These questions demand discussion. Second, we must recognise that in the present circumstances divergence and change are at best remote and at worst indicators to government of where the cuts should fall (so that the ‘centres of excellence’ can continue to mould next year’s élites). Third, in part because of this, we should acknowledge that education (and English) is politics: the activities of the UGC and NAB ironically assist here, by bringing into sharp relief just how determinate is the relation of this bit of superstructure to economic base. Who goes, and why, is politics. Student grants, and who gets them, is politics. Two-year courses in the public sector, three-year courses in the universities, is politics. ‘Teaching’ in the one, and ‘research’ in the other, is politics. Student places is politics. Mobilising against an ideologically-motivated reduction of higher education provision in Britain is politics. Forget Tom Paulin: we ought all to be a ‘dissident intelligentsia’ now.
Thames Polytechnic, London SE18