The Love of Argument: A Response to Michael Bérubé

(x-posted to The Valve)

In this essay, I want to offer a response to Bérubé’s new book What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts, rather than writing a review. My review is quite simple: if you are an academic, or are concerned about the prominence of left-wing politics in college humanities courses, you should read Bérubé’s book. It is a decisive refutation of David Horowitz’s charges, and (as others have written) a marvelous account of how English professors actually teach their courses.

In my response to Bérubé, I will focus on the fact that Bérubé considers himself to have a vested interest in argument qua argument, and specifically in the continuance of certain political debates that have a long history in the United States. Bérubé’s love of argument is representative of a widespread trend in both academia and the blogosphere. In my opinion, this bodes ill. Argumentation is a regrettable means, not an end; believing otherwise leads one to fetishize intelligence, misinterpret opponents, maintain incompatible ideas, and worse.

I will try to outline, briefly, a different account of what should be liberal about the liberal arts.

* * *

Bérubé opens his book with a story about a volatile student named John, who became increasingly outspoken about his conservative beliefs over the course of a class on postmodern literature.

John’s story begins when Bérubé is explaining the historical context for a reference (in Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo) to something resembling the Black Muslim movement. Bérubé lectures on the comparisons that were made between the Church of Latter-Day Saints and the Nation of Islam, and John responds by “snorting loudly and derisively” (2). John exclaims, “That’s completely ridiculous!” (2). The class ignores this outburst, but Bérubé initiates a conversation with John after class, correctly intuiting that he is smoldering about the incident.

John tells Bérubé that “membership in the American community requires one to subordinate his or her ethnic or national origin” (2). Bérubé responds,

Your position has a long and distinguished history in debates over immigration and national identity. It’s part of the current critique of multiculturalism, and to a point I have some sympathy with it, because I don’t think that social contracts should be based on cultural homogeneity.

The problem with seeking John out, and re-assuring him in this way, is that Bérubé is unwittingly misunderstanding John. Bérubé sees John as a representative of a “long and distinguished” position in debates over the social contract, which means that he is thinking of John as an unliving piece of discourse. The proof that he has started to think of John this way is his response: “I don’t think that social contracts should be based on cultural homogeneity.” This is not extemporaneous speaking. Bérubé has clearly pondered this issue, and winnowed his thinking down to one dense nugget that already takes John’s views somewhat into account. The problem is that John probably can’t scan this pre-fabricated statement, and moreover he isn’t going to lie there passively like some library copy of Edmund Burke. As far as John is concerned, the time to overthrow identity politics is right now — and not to Bérubé’s well-considered liking, either, but in toto. Thus, all John takes away from their conversation is the idea that he was right to feel aggrieved.

Bérubé says as much:

We parted amicably, and I thought that though he wasn’t about to agree with me on this one, we had, at least, made our arguments intelligible to each other […] But the dynamic of the class had been changed. From that day forward, John spoke up often, sometimes loudly, sometimes out of turn […] he occasionally spoke as if he were entitled to reply to every other student’s comment—in a class of seventeen. (5)

Bérubé spends the rest of the term doing damage control. He has to use all sorts of subtle devices, often behind John’s back, in order to make the course valuable to the rest of the students without making John feel oppressed. I admire Bérubé’s resourcefulness as a teacher and his obvious compassion for his students. However, I think the problems John created were an inevitable result of the disconnect between John’s world, in which one argues to win, and Bérubé’s world, in which one argues merely to make one’s arguments intelligible.

Bérubé elaborates on this criterion of mere intelligibility a little later in the book, when he goes into an extended analysis of the discussion of foot massages in Pulp Fiction. Jules and Vincent argue about whether a foot massage is sufficient grounds for “Marsellus to throw Antwan off a building into a glass-mutherfuckin-house, fuckin’ up the way the nigger talks” (from Bérubé’s quotation from the film on 234). Vincent, having just trapped Jules into admitting that he (Jules) wouldn’t give a man a foot massage, goes on to explain the hidden sexuality of foot massages. Jules responds, “That’s an interesting point.”

Bérubé’s take on this is crucial:

I acknowledge that Jules’s is not the most eloquent of demurrals/deferrals […] Yet in one way it is superior […] for it leaves open the possibility that Jules himself may be mistaken; he is not convinced by Vincent’s argument, but he has understood it as an argument, and he appears to have taken it under advisement. (235)

Bérubé is doing two things here. First, he is showing us how Vincent uses Jules’s heterosexuality (and possible homophobia) to make Jules admit something about foot massages. That is a perfectly good example of what we might call an “immanent” form of argumentation. Second, he is demonstrating his approval of the scene’s open-ended resolution. Unfortunately, though, we really have no idea whether Jules’s comment means a) that Jules now agrees with Vincent, but is saving face, or b) that he can’t think of how to argue back, but isn’t going to change his mind. Bérubé’s comment on the scene allows (b) total legitimacy, since all Jules is really required to do is understand Vincent’s argument “as an argument.” In that case, the two positions become something like complementary tiles in a mosaic of argument, rooted perhaps in the differing, contingent histories of Vincent and Jules. (Also, Bérubé is so intent on preserving them in direct opposition to one another, that he doesn’t ask whether Jules may be talking about a reasonable standard of punishment in addition to doubting whether a foot massage is sexual. The two characters may be talking right past each other as much as arguing.)

Thus the romanticization of argument leads to an aesthetics of ambivalence. Bérubé models this kind of ambivalence in his own discussion of William Dean Howells’s novel The Rise of Silas Lapham. Bérubé, after asking his students a series of questions about their sympathies, find that they are

basically echoing Silas Lapham’s ambivalence about society and culture (or, if you like, its contradictions), endorsing both the novel’s portrait of social mobility and its image of simple country people with their simple country culture. Very well, so they find Howells’s account of Silas more compelling than mine. That’s understandable: Silas is Howells’s creation, not mine. (157)

This is just to Bérubé’s taste: he is at odds with his class, the novel is at odds with itself, and Howells too is “rather ambivalent” (157). He concludes, “That’s why I think this is so fascinating a book” (158).

“Interesting” is a more common term in academia than “fascinating,” but the purpose of the two words is the same: to put an end to discussions without resolving them, as though one had a personal stake in seeing both sides of every argument persist.

The political consequences of this position are fairly predictable. Bérubé writes,

I often wish I had more conservative colleagues in literary study. I’m serious about this. I don’t mind in the least having substantial political disagreements with colleagues, just so long as they’re smart colleagues who hit the rhetorical ball back over the net with gusto and topspin. (83)

Bérubé is trying to assert his solidarity with “conservative American economists who believe in honest budgets and honest business practices” and “conservative American environmentalists who respect scientific evidence,” but finds that almost none exist. He doesn’t examine the possibility that (for example) the contradictions between conservative notions of self-determination, and environmentalist warnings about global warming and etc., are becoming too great for these amiable instances of self-limiting conservatism to survive. Similarly, he sees no contradiction between embracing the free market, as conservatives do, and shunning the sort of practices that enriched the executives at Enron.

As with the student John, the problem here is seeing discourses like “conservatism” as static objects with an enlivening role to play in the tennis game of democratic debate. In fact, as globalized markets become more and more competitive, and environmental pressures become increasingly severe, the right wing responds dynamically to protect its core values, and the resurgence of the far right in the United States is part of that response. Thus the shift further right isn’t just an outbreak of lunacy, as Bérubé (quoting Brian Leiter on “bonkers” Republicanism) seems to want to believe.

I have no interest whatsoever in seeing right-wing positions (say, for example, the “flat-rate” income tax, or the privatization of social services) preserved out of respect for their long and distinguished histories. I am only willing, as a private citizen, to continue to participate civilly in debates over taxes, social services, abortion, etc., because it is my hope that these debates will one day be ended, replaced by a steady state of reasonable policy and maximal human welfare.

This desire for an eventual political consensus may strike Bérubé as a textbook Habermasian fantasy. I would counter that the fantasies of his text are much less appealing. Occasionally, the text desires its own defeat, as when Bérubé spends a great deal of time applying Richard Rorty to politics and academia, only to allow a student who finds Rorty incoherent to claim the last word.

Bérubé also seems to countenance some kind of forcible solution to an argumentative impasse: this is a fantasy of cutting the Gordian knot, as Mia Wallace does when she dismisses the debate between Vincent and Jules. Bérubé talks both about Harrison Ford shooting an adversary in Raiders of the Lost Ark, instead of fencing with him, and of potentially excluding Hitler from the roundtable of liberal discussion. I think it is reasonable to claim that the Habermasian fantasy of consensus gives one more patience in looking for the kind of loophole Vincent exploits with Jules, no matter how dogmatic or dangerous the opponent.

I should add that I see definitive limits on the amount of “intelligence” one can muster in defense of right-wing arguments, since they always reason from false premises. I write this with a wincing awareness that it shows some disrespect to conservatives. I apologize for that, because this isn’t the forum for arguing the specifics of the issues. I am just very disturbed by the genteel notions of abstract “smartness” which have replaced other ideas of what literature and criticism can be and do, and which have prevailed because abstractable “intelligence” fits in with the valorization of argument as a permanent condition. The demand for originality can be just as good a goad as the experience of opposition — a better one, even, if the opposition reasons poorly.

* * *

As a teacher of English, I intend neither to protect students like Bérubé’s John, nor to impose upon them a set of contrasting views. My problem with John’s remark (“That’s ridiculous!”) has already been discussed somewhat by Dr. Virago. “That’s ridiculous” isn’t a reading of the text. What Bérubé calls the “capaciousness and uncontainable mimesis” (11) of literary study seems to me to be the standard for objectivity in professors and students alike. Ideally, John’s frustration with identitarian positions would lead him to the fact that “reductive brand[s] of nationalism [are] ultimately undermined in the course of the narrative” (2), and pursuing this thread would ultimately make him a good reader and a more insightful observer of situations beyond the text.

I would have no difficulty teaching a poetry course exclusively on Alexander Pope, T. S. Eliot, and Alfred Lord Tennyson, if some rationale for such a course existed. I would trust my students to discover Pope’s critique of the cult of virginity, Eliot’s hatred of the consequences of mechanized war, and Tennyson’s occasional outbursts against the bourgeois. In other words, I would trust that mimetic readings, and the exchange of views in the classroom, would produce the sorts of sympathies that Bérubé advocates in Rortian terms for his son and for all people. If one of my students chose to write about Eliot’s “crisis of faith,” with its potentially conservative implications, I would have no problem accepting her argument. The contexts Eliot provides justify his journey to faith in a manner incommensurate with the Left Behind series. If this throws us back upon the thorny problem of selecting a canon, so be it. I would rather face that problem, than the task of treating the political views of myself and my students as complementary aesthetic objects.

I am not suggesting that something like “Eliot’s hatred of the consequences of mechanized war” is a particularly interesting reading of Eliot. However, my definition of “interesting” involves a closer, more daring exposition of some feature of the text, one that still never loses touch with its most blatant properties. It has nothing to do with creating irresolvable arguments about Eliot. Bérubé wants to leave Howells at the point where the contradictions of Silas Lapham are at their most fascinating, whereas I want to see whether students can move towards interpretations that make sense out of an apparent muddle. If their sympathies are really with Howells’s Silas, and not Bérubé’s, let them prove that the value of his text lies in its ability to reconcile the apparently opposite modes of pastoral rurality and social climbing, in ways that go deeper than the overt marriage plot.

Literature is a site for the expansion of sympathy; as a statement, that is nothing new. As a phenomenon, it is one of the more rewarding things a teacher can observe in her students. Literature is something else as well. The suspension of the self necessary for the best mimetic readings (as well as the best intellectual work period) is, in the case of literature, also a very subtle elucidation of the self. John might have achieved this sort of subtlety studying how <i>Mumbo Jumbo</i> subverts the identitarian nationalisms he despises. Therefore literary studies can be a proving-ground for a more familiar synthesis of selflessness and enlightened self-interest – the realization that I am one among many, but no less than that. That realization has always been the firmest ground of support for policies that promote the common weal.