Saturday, March 27, 2010

Charles Bernstein's Academic Anxiety

A Short and Easy Commonplace Book

So there I was, gently noodling my way around the internet in search of nothing in particular, when I ran across the site of Gerald Bruns, one of my old profs in graduate school. I haven't really kept up with him personally, though I do tend to read his work when it comes out, and since he's always got something interesting to say, I thought I'd poke around a bit and see what he's been up to. One page on the site struck me, since it offered a small selection of quotations that seemed to serve as Gerry's personal credo. Here's the first quote from the little collection, which Gerry called "A Short and Easy Commonplace Book":

The world has become chaos, but the book remains the image of the world: radicle-chaosmos rather than root-cosmos. A strange mystification: a book all the more total for being fragmented. At any rate, what a vapid idea, the book as the image of the world. In truth, it is not enough to say, "Long live the multiple," difficult as it is to raise that cry. No typographical, lexical, or even syntactical cleverness is enough to make it heard. The multiple must be made , not by always adding a higher dimension, but rather in the simplest of ways, by dint of sobriety, with the number of dimensions one already has available--always n -1 (the only way the one belongs to the multiple: always subtracted). Subtract the unique from the multiplicity to be constituted; write at n -1 dimensions. A system of this kind could be called a rhizome. A rhizome as subterranean stem is absolutely different from roots and radicles. Bulbs and tubers are rhizomes. Plants with roots or radicles may be rhizomorphic in other respects altogether: the question is whether plant life in its specificity is not entirely rhizomatic. Even some animals are, in their pack form. Rats are rhizomes. Burrows are too, in all of their functions of shelter, supply, movement, evasion, and breakout. The rhizome itself assumes very diverse forms, from ramified surface extension in all directions to concretion into bulbs and tubers. When rats swarm over each other. The rhizome includes the best and the worst: potato and crabgrass, or the weed. Animal and plant, couchgrass is crabgrass.

Good stuff! From Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari's A Thousand Plateaus, which I'd just taught a few weeks ago. "So," I thought, "Gerry's made the heterogeneity of rhizomatic thinking his credo!" I felt confirmed in this thought when I saw the next quote, from an essay by Charles Bernstein:

Within the academic environment, thought tends to be rationalized--subject to examination, paraphrase, repetition, mechanization, reduction. It is treated: contained and stabilized. And what is lost in this treatment is the irregular, the nonquantifiable, the nonstandard or nonstandardizable, the erratic, the inchoate.

Poetry is turbulent thought, at least that's what I want from it, what I want to say about it just here, just now (and maybe not in some other context). It leaves things unsettled, unresolved--leaves you knowing less than you did when you started.

There is a fear of the inchoate processes of turbulent thought (poetic or philosophic) that takes the form of resistance and paranoia. A wall (part symbolic, part imaginary) is constructed against the sheer surplus of interpretable aspects of any subject. You fix upon one among many possible frames, screens, screams, and stay fixed on that mode monomaniacally. Such frame fixation is intensified by the fetishizing of dispassionate evaluation not as a critical method but as a marker of professional competence and a means of enforcing a system of ranking.

That's from "What's Art Got To Do With It?" — Bernstein's plenary address to the Northeast Modern Language Association (NEMLA) conference back in 1992. And it certainly seems to affirm the notion that Bruns is waving the banner of interpretive and evaluative irresolution.

The third quote, while much briefer, and considerably more cryptic, further affirmed the sense that Bruns wants to support thought that does not seek resolution. It was a single, uncharacteristically short sentence from Adorno's Aesthetic Theory: "Only what does not fit into this world is true." Here we have a gesture toward the idea of negative dialectics — toward, that is, the idea that any whole or totalizing system of thought leaves something out, that (in Adorno's famous inversion of Hegel) "the whole is the false." Truth, in this view, can't appear whole in this world — it is something evasive, excessive, and ultimately beyond representation. It can't be reduced to formulae, or made manifest in any final way.

So there I sat, people, a bit too pleased with myself for having found the string that binds those three gems together. But it wasn't long — about the time it takes to take two sips of coffee from a travel mug— before an incongruity struck me.

On the one hand, we had Bernstein, contrasting the "turbulent thought" of an open-ended poetry against the kind of thought we get in "the academic environment," thought which fears irresolution and multiplicity in favor of " paraphrase, repetition, mechanization, reduction." For Bernstein, academic thought is devoted to the quantifiable and the standard, and it walks in fear of the inchoate. This is odd, in that all of Bruns' quotes on the value of the irresolvable and the inchoate come at least in part from academics: Deleuze had taught at the Sorbonne, and later at the University of Paris VIII (Vincennes/St. Denis), where he wrote the book from which Bruns' quote is drawn. Guattari spent most of his career at the La Borde Clinic, which was both a functioning clinic and a para-academic institute, where research was conducted and where training took place in philosophy, psychology, ethnology and social work. When Adorno wrote the book that would be published after his death as Aesthetic Theory he was a professor at Frankfurt. And Charles Bernstein had been the David Gray Professor of Poetry and Letters at SUNY — Buffalo for two or three years when he skewered academic thinking as devoted to reductive standardization.

Here's one problem: if Bernstein is right about academic thinking, then we have to see him as a non-academic. This might be plausible: he'd only been a professor for a few years when he made his statement, and we might plausibly see him as in-but-not-of academe. But here's another problem: Deleuze and Adorno aren't marginal academic figures. In their own lifetimes, and certainly by the time Bernstein made his NEMLA plenary address in 1992, Adorno, Deleuze and Guattari had become some of the most influential figures in academe, making a huge impact on multiple disciplines in the humanities and social sciences in many nations. And they didn't just speak of the kind of thinking that exploded reductive, standardizing, paraphrasable interpretations: like Bernstein, they wrote in styles that set out to frustrate attempts at reduction, standardization, and paraphrase.

I think Bruns' point in bringing the three quotations together was simply to emphasize, and advocate, the kind of thinking they liked. But the juxtaposition (perhaps fittingly) doesn't allow us to settle easily into approval of all three statements. We are faced with a choice: either Bernstein is wrong about the nature of academic thinking, or Bernstein, Deleuze, Guattari, and Adorno have to be defined as non-academic figures.

It may just be possible to take a figure like Bernstein and argue that he's not really an academic, despite the fact that he's held very swank academic appointments for more than twenty years. In the article "Charles Bernstein and the Professional Avant-Garde," for example, Alan Golding has made an argument for Bernstein as having a "non-normative status" in academe, largely on the basis of Bernstein reflecting critically on his own academic status in his poetry and critical writing. I find Golding's article provocative, and his readings of Bernstein both subtle and insightful, and I'm glad he takes issue with those who would sneer at Bernstein for becoming a professor. But I just can't buy the notion that Bernstein is somehow not quite academic because he parodies, and is critical of, academe in his writing — if I bought that line of argument, I'd have to say that David Lodge isn't really academic because he writes satirical campus novels like Trading Places and Small World. But even if we can make the argument that Bernstein and his "turbulent thought" aren't representative of academe, we'd have a far more difficult argument to make in putting Adorno, Deleuze, and Guattari outside academe. In addition to their training and (with the partial exception of Guattari) their careers, there's the matter of their influence. They are among the most cited figures in several fields, and those citations do not in any significant portion consist of dismissals and attacks.

To understand just what's going on when Bernstein sets academe up as something it does not seem to be, we need to take a closer look at the piece from which Bruns drew his quotation.

Bernstein Tells the Northeast Modern Language Association All About Academe

Despite a few glaring self-contradictions (such as the competing claims that academe values "principles of critical self-evaluation" and that academic thinking is "unable to confront its own inevitable positionality"), the lines of battle are pretty clearly drawn in Bernstein's NEMLA plenary address of 1992, "What's Art Got to Do with It? The Status of the Subject of the Humanities in the Age of Cultural Studies." On the one hand, we have the "professionalism" of "the university environment," where thinking is inherently reductive and as such "antipoetic." The procedure of academic thought, according to Bernstein, is "to elect one interpretive mode and apply it, cookie-cutter like, to any given phenomenon." If you want to think like a professor, according to Bernstein all you need to do is this: "You fix upon one of many possible frames." This insistence on single-minded, narrow, method-driven frame of thought leads to an "academic culture of imposed solutions at the expense of open-ended explorations," perhaps because Bernstein's academics want to reduce phenomena to determined meanings, and shriek when they see "the sheer surplus of interpretable aspects" of their subjects."

Against these unappealing academics, Bernstein places a poetic tradition, in which thought is much more open. "The poetic," says Bernstein, "is both a hypoframe, inhering within each frame of interpretation, and a hyperframe, a practice of moving from frame to frame." Unlike academics proper, the poet is multidisciplinary in his individual thoughts, and is happy moving from one frame of reference to another: his thinking is a "an art of transitioning though and among frames." He has "context sensitivity" and "allows different contexts to suggest different interpretive approaches while at the same time flipping between different frames."

This ought to give us pause. I mean, Bernstein's dichotomy seems to make a straw-man out of academe. I suppose one can find some instances of the cookie-cutter approach he sees as endemic to academe. I think immediately of one of the most misguided publishing ventures of recent memory, the Bedford Critical Editions of classic literary texts. These were an attempt to emulate the success of the Norton Critical Editions. Unlike the Norton editions, though, the Bedford editions didn't collect prominent pieces of existing criticism to package with the text itself. Rather, they published commissioned essays, each of which was meant to represent a particular theory — so you'd get your novel, along with essays purporting to be "a feminist reading" or "a Marxist reading." But the very fact that Bedford failed to make significant inroads against the Norton editions, with their less mechanical, more intuitively interdisciplinary and miscellaneous commentaries, shows that academic culture was not predominantly a phenomenon of the kind Bernstein claims it is.

Moreover, Bernstein's characterization of academe is at odds with the work of a figure Bernstein actually cites in his essay: Stanley Fish. While Bernstein sees Fish as an academic of the reductive sort, we need look no further than the opening pages of one of Fish's most famous essays, "Interpreting the Variorum," to see how far off-base Bernstein has gone. "Interpreting the Variorum," which appeared in Critical Inquiry in 1976, was a kind of über-review of a collection of several centuries worth of commentaries on Milton's poetry. Fish surveys the long conflict of interpretations, and the deep history of different forms of interpretation ("frames" in Bernstein's terms), and tells us that the problems of interpretation simply do not lend themselves to resolution:

In short, these are problems that apparently cannot be solved, at least not by the methods traditionally brought to bear on them. What I would like to argue is that they are not meant to be solved, but to be experienced (they signify), and that consequently any procedure that attempts to determine which of a number of readings is correct will necessarily fail.

Fish can hardly be seen as without influence in academe, and like those other influential academics Deleuze and Adorno, he believes in a multiplicity of meanings, supports a multiplicity of "frames" of understanding, and welcomes the inchoate and inconclusive.

One could wear oneself out citing academics, prominent when Bernstein gave his address, whose ways of thinking are utterly unlike the "cookie cutter" reductiveness of what I can only think of as Bernstein's academic straw man. Even the New Critics, antiquated and marginalized by the 1990s when Bernstein wrote, did not believe that meanings must be "subject to … paraphrase." One might wish to remind Bernstein that they considered paraphrase a heresy. Or, moving to "The Humanistic Intellectual: Eleven Theses," an essay that appeared in 1989 (the year Bernstein entered the academy), one could point out that no less prominent an academic than Richard Rorty argued that the social function of academics in the humanities was "to instill doubts in the students about the students' own self-images and about their societies" — a goal best accomplished by "keep[ing] the humanities changing fast enough so that they remain indefinable and unmanageable." This is hardly the academic world Bernstein depicts. And it is an image of the academic humanities upheld by no marginal figure, but by one of the most influential thinkers of the late twentieth century.

The Skeptic and the Guys in Lab Coats

"Okay," says the skeptic. "Maybe Bernstein is wrong about Rorty's humanities, and about the social sciences where Adorno, Deleuze and Guattari have had so much influence. But he's at least right about the sciences, right? They want to reduce everything to a single, unified theory, a single master frame, right?" Well, no. I mean, I'm no expert on the philosophy of science, but Peter Medawar is, and here's what he has to say about the notion that science is all about reducing multiple frames of understanding to a single frame (it's from his book Induction and Intuition in Scientific Thought, which appeared in 1968 — this isn't some newfangled view that came about only after Bernstein's complaint about academe):

Reducibility; emergence: If we choose to see a hierarchical structure in Nature — if societies are composed of individuals, individuals of cells, and cells in their turn of molecules, then it makes sense to ask whether we may not "interpret" sociology in terms of the biology of individuals or "reduce" biology to physics and chemistry. This is a living methodological problem, but it does not seem to have been satisfactorily resolved. At first sight the ambition embodied in the idea of reducibility seem hopeless of achievement. Each tier of the natural hierarchy makes use of notions peculiar to itself. The ideas of democracy, credit, crime or political constitution are no part of biology, nor shall we expect to find in physics the concepts of memory, infection, sexuality, or fear. No sensible usage can bring the foreign exchange deficit into the biology syllabus, already grievously overcrowded, or nest-building into the syllabus of physics. In each plane or tier of the hierarchy new notions or ideas seem to emerge that are inexplicable in the language or with the conceptual resources of the tier below.

So even the lab-coated guys with the good calculators resist being categorized as the hidebound, narrow-minded jerks that populate Bernstein's imagined academe. They're as interested in multiple frames, and as wary of reducing matters by single-framed, cookie-cutter thinking as humanists and social scientists.

Status-Shifting and Self-Doubt

So why does Bernstein present such a distorted version of academic thinking? It's possible that he's simply ignorant of academic thinking, but that hypothesis seems both extremely uncharitable and unlikely to the point of impossibility. In fact, Bernstein cites plenty of academic thinkers in his NEMLA plenary address. The strange thing is that when he approves of them, he positions them as outsiders, at war with what he imagines to be the dominant norms of academe. So when he tells us he admires Roland Barthes (from the Centre national de la Recherche Scientifique and the Collège de France), Stanley Cavell (who was Bernstein's thesis advisor at Harvard), Erving Goffman (from the University of Chicago), Michel de Certeau (from the University of Paris — VII, and other institutions), and Luce Irigaray (from the Centre national de la Recherche Scientifique) he has to pretend they aren't creatures of the academy, and to deny their status as some of the most influential academic thinkers of our time.

So what gives? Bernstein works in academe, and seems to admire the kind of thinking that academics do — but he refuses to see it that way. Instead, he mischaracterizes academe as a place inimical to the kind of thinking he admires (which he claims is the special province of poetry, and of a few thinkers who, despite their academic status, are somehow meant to be anti-academic).

When we find that someone's statements about the world are inaccurate without being ignorant, one course of action is to stop looking for explanations in the world outside that person, and look instead for some inner cause. That is: if Bernstein is wrong about academe, but has knowledge of academic thought, the explanation probably lies in some inner need, on Bernstein's part, to present a distorted view of academe.

If I had to venture a hypothesis about why Bernstein distorts academe, I'd look at his unusual career trajectory into the academic world. Unlike most academics, who go to graduate school with the hope (however farfetched in recent years) of going on to a career as a professor of physics or French or creative writing or what have you, Bernstein began his career as a poet outside of academe. He wrote his books and led an active poetic life while working from the early 1972 to 1989 as a medical writer and an arts administrator, and only then found his way into academe. While he'd been an engaged student at Harvard as an undergraduate, he didn't go the usual route of the Ph.D., and I think this shows in his attitude to academe, which seems fraught with the kind of anxiety one might expect when someone leaves one status behind and takes up another, without the usual certification.

The sociologists Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb get at this sort of status-anxiety issue in their study The Hidden Injuries of Class. Here they examine the psychological consequences of changing work status, mostly by examining blue collar workers who transition into low-level white collar work. It's not that Bernstein has changed social class per se (medical writers, arts administrators, and English professors all fall within the professional classes), but he did shift from one status system (that of corporations and non-profit agencies) to another (the world of the universities, which is stratified in different ways, and by different criteria). And what happens to Bernstein seems very like what happens to the workers described by Sennett and Cobb.

Consider the case of Frank Rissarro (not an actual name: Sennett and Cobb change the names of their subjects to protect their privacy). Rissarro's father was a laborer, and he himself held a job as a meat-cutter for most of his working life. At one point, after he failed to raise the capital to start his own small business, a friend introduced him to a local bank manager, and he got a job in the office helping people fill out the loan forms that a higher-level official would review for approval. In many ways, Rissarro is satisfied with his new life — but because he arrived among the other bank workers by a non-standard route, he feels the need to defend the kind of life he left behind, and to denigrate the norms of the system he's joined. "I'm working, like I said, with fellows that are educated, college boys, in the office," says Rissarro, "I go in at nine, I come out at five. The other fellows, because they got an education, sneak out early and come in late. The boss knows I'm there, a reliable worker. 'Cause I had the factory life…" Even though Rissarro chose to leave his old life for a new opportunity, he sees his old life as having a kind of legitimacy that the lives of those around him in his new career don't have. "These jobs aren't real work where you make something" says Rissarro, "it's just pushing papers." This is how Rissarro deals with the anxiety of not being a 'real' banker (an anxiety caused by his non-standard, and late, entry into the field). He needs to denigrate the new norms, even as he conforms to them. It's how he can feel legitimate: he's a representative of his old set of values in this new world of mere paper-pushers.

The analogy with Bernstein is this: like Rissarro, he enters a new field late in life, without the usual educational certification. Like Rissarro, Bernstein associates virtue with the way of life he's left behind (for Bernstein, this is the extra-academic world of poetry). Like Rissarro, Bernstein decides to read the kind of work he sees being done in his new environment as more-or-less worthless (Rissarro's paper-pushers become Bernstein's narrow-minded, "cookie-cutter" thinkers). There's a sad kind of self-loathing at work in both cases, a kind of self-doubt (the autodidact, says Bourdieu, is constantly on trial in his own mind). An unfairness, even a distortion, of the activities of those around them serves as a way to compensate for these anxieties and doubts.

Maybe I'm wrong, here. But I can't see any other explanation, beyond a defensive self-justification, for Bernstein's almost deeply skewed description of academic thinking. And I suppose this post is a kind of defensive move of its own, since I don't like to see academics (a group that includes me, many of my friends, and some relatives) so inaccurately maligned. I mean, there are plenty of good reasons to malign academe. Bernstein's doesn't seem to be one of them.


In other news, if you're interested in the crowd I write about in Laureates and Heretics, you'll want to have a look at the anthology Five American Poets just out from Carcanet. An American edition is, I'm told, in the works, but you can order the British edition now. It's an updated version of an anthology from the seventies, and contains work by John Matthias, John Peck, Robert Pinsky, James McMichael, and Robert Hass.


  1. Academia is the favorite whipping-person of academics. It has long been so; the forms keep changing but the gesture remains.

    Good piece, this.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. An interesting slip:

    I wrote "respectful" when I meant "respectable."

    But "post-avant" poetry IS respectful, now, too!

  4. You mention, Bob, that Charles used to be the David Gray Professor of Poetry and Letters at Buffalo. You might have mentioned, too, that he is currently the Donald T. Regan Professor of English at Penn. It isn't Charles's fault, certainly (there is no *individual* fault for U.S. "post-avant" poetry having become a thoroughly recuperated and respectful affair), but it does seem a bit situationally ironic that the most prominent U.S. exponent of radical poetics now sits in a Chair named for one of the central figures in the Iran-Contra scandal: the Secretary of the Treasury and later Chief of Staff in the Reagan Administration. Almost as ironic as Charles dramatically banging away (but not *too* hard) at the podium with a hammer while declaiming Marinetti's Futurist Manifesto, at its 100th anniversary celebration last year at.... the MoMA.

    In somewhat close relation to what you write, I thought I'd share this epigram, from my book Epigramititis: 118 Living American Poets. It is written, all in all, with sympathy and affection:

    "Charles Bernstein"

    Pity the aardvark;

    he seems at once lost in the zoo

    and strangely at home, too.

  5. Actually, I think you could make a solid case for defensive self-justification. In another sense, your analysis of class dislocation is very valid, in a way that seems to be to have become common among those leading lights of the "outsider" post-avant who are now the "insiders" of academia, and winning all the literary awards, etc. There is a need to still portray themselves as permanent outsiders, as perpetual avant-garde, even though they are now the establishment.

    Octavio Paz wrote about what he called "avant-gardism" along lines very critical of the post-avant, although Paz wrote long before the post-avant achieved their academic apotheosis:

    Many have commented on the disappearance of a true avant-garde and its replacement by avant-gardism. . . . I see this as a prolongation of experimentation usually leading further on from collage and montage into ever-increasing fragmentation and eventually into a degenerative disease which, adapting an already common usage, I call "disjunctivitis." The argument, used by some producers who, correctly locating the seats of available power in the academy, have ensconced themselves therein every bit as much as the establishment "mainstream," to the effect that the disruption of the common linguistic coin is part of a war against "late-capitalist" discourse is singularly inept. I do not see oppressed workers of any kind devouring the products of avant-gardism. The death-of-the-author thematics, as commonly adapted, are another inanity: when society does its very best to homogenize us, what is wrong with a strong, knowledgeable, and responsible ego crying in the darkening wilderness?
    —Octavio Paz

    It seems to me that Bernstein, among others, scrambles very hard to justify himself, therefore, because he has now become what he was formerly rebelling against. It does indeed lead to some very twisted psychology.

  6. Robert... please post a new post, or get rid of this one. I keep thinking of the personal dimension, if you know what I mean. This is too much like vultures of the mind.

  7. Hey Henry,

    I actually don't quite know what you mean (which probably points to some of my many limitations). But I'm hoping to clear the decks for some new blogging this weekend.


  8. Oh! Wait! "Vultures of the mind"! You mean Gray's Ode about Eton College, right? I should get that: I'm teaching the poem on Tuesday. Anyway, his vultures are "Disdainful Anger, pallid Fear, / And Shame that skulks behind" -- hmmm. Is this meant to refer to Bernstein's dismissive comments about academe? Or is this an insight into my motives for trying to show that his argument is wrong? (I don't experience myself as angry or afraid, and I'm way past shame...).

    So I'm groping toward knowing what you mean.


  9. Love your psychologizing here. Poo on those educated people who come in late and sneak out early.

  10. Anonymous5:32 PM

    Although there may be flaws with Bernstein's logic, the sweeping rejection of his argument is not particularly persuasive either. Indeed, "framing" the argument as being just about whether Bernstein IS or IS NOT an "academic" or on the "inside" or "not" is unproductive. Bernstein's argument addressed important issues, and to completely overlook that for an expedient argument about his status indulgently precludes an important discussion. More to the point would be to consider the perceived relationship between what is IN and what is NOT. Bernstein makes good points, but he overgeneralizes, which is the extent to which the above article is an apt critique of his piece. Nevertheless, the relationship of the 'institution' to society is a profoundly important one, particularly in an American society that is becoming so aggressively materialistic that education and its discontents are highly commodified. I recommend Jerome McGann's recent book: "Are the Humanities Inconsequent?" addresses this issue quite effectively.

  11. Hi Anonymous,

    Thanks for this. I do hope that the argument I made wasn't primarily about whether or not CB is an academic -- I'd hoped to point out that what he calls academic thought is a kind of straw man, and that the "turbulent thought" he saw as largely extra-academic was, in fact, often done in the academy.

    Also, since Bernstein gave that talk in 1992, I like to think there has plenty of time for discussion in the intervening 18 years, and that my criticisms of his point haven't somehow foreclosed any arguments about what he says. I like to think I may have even started a small one.

    I agree that the relationship of the institution is an important one. I'm more or less convinced by Frank Donoghue's book The Last Professors, a book that maintains that the university is under threat from the logic of the marketplace. I like McGann's work, though, especially on Romanticism, so I'll be sure to check out his book.