I was an undergraduate at the University of Chicago’s English department during the early ’90s, a time and place that made me the unwitting victim of the large-scale warfare going on among cultural academics at the time. (Roger Rosenblatt did a nice sendup of it in his recent novel, Beet, which I’ve noted before.) I dutifully hunkered down with a copy of Cultural Studies, accepted Jean Baudrillard‘s every lecture about the tacky, shallow culture I grew up in, pretended to know what Fredric Jameson was on about, then gurgled up a B.A. paper about White Noise that I’m sure I’d be horribly embarrassed to read now.
And I abandoned any ambition I may have had about continuing in academia. Would I have reconsidered had I known the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics was around? As the Philadelphia Inquirer‘s Carlin Romano notes in a field report from the ALSC’s recent convention in Philadelphia, the organization was founded in 1993 precisely to get away from the jargon- and j’accuse-heavy world of college lit departments.
The article’s headline suggests a “culture war armistice,” but the article doesn’t delve too deeply into how hot the war became. And I’m curious to know how much of the tensions between the ALSC and the Modern Language Association (MLA) revolved around matters of race and gender. Many of the arguments at the time involved blowing up the traditional canon and decoupling lit studies from dead white guys—a noble goal, though at the time it made this young straight Midwestern white guy feel a little guilty walking into the classroom at times. Romano’s interviewing suggests that the the MLA and ALSC got along on that front, but it was such a fraught time that I have my suspicions:
Opposing “identity politics” – which drove some academic departments to represent almost every ethnic literature on syllabi and through faculty appointments – the ALSC, without opposing broadening, stood for diverse critical approaches.
It urged avoidance of jargon, attention to details of texts before burying them in subtexts, and respect for commonsense interpretations of literature.
The group’s founders, [ALSC President Morris] Dickstein said, “were sticking more to aesthetic criteria than a kind of affirmative-action view of the canon. I don’t think anyone had a problem with the figures who were rediscovered for multicultural reasons, like Zora Neale Hurston, who turned out to be really good.”