3.897 silence vs. utility (89)

Willard McCarty (MCCARTY@vm.epas.utoronto.ca)
Wed, 3 Jan 90 20:23:41 EST

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 3, No. 897. Wednesday, 3 Jan 1990.

Date: Wed, 3 Jan 90 09:20:13 CST
From: Alan Kennedy <ak2w+@ANDREW.CMU.EDU>
Subject: silence vs utility

[The following thoughtful message I have plucked from the ENGLISH
electronic seminar. It is in response to the long silence suffered (or
enjoyed) by that group, and although Humanist does not share that
problem, what Alan Kennedy says is worth republishing here. My apologies
to Humanists who are also members of English. --W.M.]

I've been a member of ENGLISH virtually since its inception. I once
wrote a long piece about why people were not posting items to ENGLISH,
but I thought better of it and didn't post it. I moved to the U.S. this
last year and reestablished my connection with ENGLISH to see if
anything is going on. It isn't. I think of it as potentially a useful
place for me to post job ads and other such self advertisements. (By
the way Carnegie Mellon is now offering an enriched Masters programme in
literary theory and cultural theory, and in rhetorical theory and
professional and creative writing--in addition to our two Ph.D
programmes in Rhetoric and in Literary and Cultural Theory. We like to
think we have one of the widest ranges of choices for students, and that
we are still in the forefront of curricular initiatives. Tell your

The piece I didn't post said, roughly, that the bulletin board was
reproducing in public the silence and isolation we all seem to crave so
much. I thought it was a form of mental retentiveness; or a
manifestation of a fear of post- structuralism in the form of atavistic
self-possession. I thought part of the problem was that we are all so
possessive of, and vain about our 'insights' that we didn't want to
share them with anyone else (someone else we might have reason to
mistrust?). What would happen in promotion cases etc if we all did our
writing in the bb arena? What would happen if one of us happened to put
out some small but brilliant off-the-cuff apercu, and then somebody
somewhere else wrote a book on the subject before we had the time to
claim the idea as our personal property. Professional fear I guess.

But now I'm less sure. The silence in here, for three or four years
now? makes me think that we just don't have anything to say
to each other. And I'm more and more convinced that we don't
have anything to say not because we're stupid, but because we don't
know what we are supposed to be doing. I make this comment fresh
from a session I organized at the recent MLA in which one of the
focal speakers was Jerry Herron of Wayne State. He elaborated some
of the ideas in his recent book 'Universities and the Myth of
Cultural Decline': many of us feel a need to defend an idea(l) of
culture that was dead when Arnold tried to revive it. We waste
our time struggling with a manufactured fear so we won't have to
face the real question: what kind of work are we supposed to be
doing? What are we for, now?

The answer I tried to propose was very general: the job of an English
department is to address as wide a range as possible of the multiple
'uses of literacy' (thanks again Richard Hoggart). This means, in part,
that English depts need some constructive accommodation between
Rhetorical theory and the newer Literary and Cultural Theory. And that
we need to address anew what it means to be, and produce, critical
agents. Rhetoric is a body of theory about the production and uses of
meanings. So too is literary and cultural theory. If the old avatar of
departments of English produces so much silence, and if that silence
really comes from a lack of sense of purpose, then there ought to be a
wide-ranging discussion of the possible 'uses of literacy', even if only
to suggest to the world that we not only don't buy into the Bloom/Hirsch
proposals, but we also have some real alternative visions.

One final note: one of the things about 'uses' is that some kind of
community is needed to make 'use' possible. If we don't have any uses
for ourselves it is hardly surprising that other folks wonder what we
are supposed to be doing. One answer to some of the questions I posed
above (what would happen if we wrote and posted messages to a bulletin
board like this?) is that we might some possible definition of our
utilities, and some related sense of community.

Alan Kennedy
Head, English Department
Carnegie Mellon University
Pittsburgh, PA 15213