Sunday 22 September 2002

In the realm of no senses

Loren Webster and Jeff Ward continue the discussion on sentimentality, as Joe Duemer points to the superb analysis of the sentimentalist warblogger narrative at Liberal Arts Mafia.

Since I hardly disagree with either Loren’s or Jeff’s positions, perhaps this argument is taking place along two parallel paths. Whereas Joe pointed out—and I picked up on—the connection between sentimentality and brutality in warblogging posts, Loren and Jeff argued for sentimentality as a valid human response to lived experience (Jeff would use sentiment as a synonym for feeling). But Joe and I are criticizing (as Jeff acknowledged) an excess of unreflective feeling, not feeling per se.

And if Loren found himself “a little surprised by [his] own actions in defending the word” and by being labeled a “sentimentalist,” I can only wonder at the irony of my newfound guise as the Scrooge of Blogaria, denigrator of human feeling and thoroughly unsentimental modernist.

Fifteen years ago I quit a well-paid, tenured, enjoyable position as a lecturer in photography in a university art school because I no longer had the energy or inclination to argue with the ideologues who had taken control. Nowadays I rarely think about that unhappy period of my life but Mark Krupnick’s essay Why Are English Departments Still Fighting the Culture Wars? brought it back in a rush:

The usual explanation for the divisiveness in English is twofold. First, starting with the invasion of French poststructuralism in the 1960s, advanced literary interpretation changed from being formalist in method and traditionalist in ideology to a brand of French theory whose major distinguishing characteristic seemed to be that it required you to spend more time reading the theorists than reading the canonical texts of Western literature. The second major explanation for the culture wars is that they basically have been about politics, set off when ’60s radicals took their battles from the streets into university departments.

But the culture wars have petered out in many departments. Why so much less so in English? I suggest that the bitterness of the canon wars, and so much else in academic literary studies, has had a great deal to do with the kind of people who become English professors.

“Formalist in method and traditionalist in ideology” perfectly describes the way I chose to teach photography. In first year it’s common for photo students to try all kinds of wacky “techniques” as they regurgitate every hackneyed picture they’ve ever seen. But, at the beginning of second year, they frequently ask a crucial question: what should I photograph?

My reply was always the same: “Photograph what you love or what you hate, what inspires or terrifies you, what you yearn for or seek to understand.” And I would quote Lisette Model’s famous dictum:

The camera is an instrument of detection.. we photograph what we know and what we don’t know… when I point my camera at something I am asking a question and the photograph is sometimes an answer… In other words, I am not trying to prove anything. I am the one who is getting the lesson.

Not surprisingly this was anathema to the theorists and I was frequently attacked for holding an idealist or transcendentalist position. Yet my only concern was that photography students use their cameras to engage their world with passion and commitment—for me, photography was a primarily a method for exploring ideas and emotions.

Krupnick argues that “the role of moral tutor in the United States has fallen to professors of English nearly as much as to the clergy” and I may well have (unconsciously) taken on that role, a photographic variant of Krupnick’s “archetypal English-department academic,” who,

in contrast to academics in other fields, is involved in a quest to know himself or herself and arrive at a more intimate relationship with the good, the true, and the real. So English professors tend to experience alternative approaches to the truth as they see it as a personal affront, and cause for counterattack. The personal truly is political.

Rather, I saw the postmodernist position not as a personal affront but as rigid, unimaginative, and inappropriate for young students with a relatively constrained view of what could be possible in life and in art. Even had I wanted to, there was no point in staging a counterattack. I knew I was outnumbered when one of my brightest students recounted how Dr So-and-So from the Art Theory Department had told her that feelings were a bourgeois illusion, that she should work to embed in her photographs references to key theorists. I resigned and started working in multimedia and then Web development, not unlike Mark Krupnick, who jumped ship to teach religious studies. Again he could be writing about what happened in the art school:

The baby boomers have prevailed. Now there are fewer clashes within cutting-edge English departments, because nearly everyone is a theorist or cultural-studies specialist. The victors don’t always present a pretty picture. Baby-boom and younger academics in English often project a sanctimony about their secular political-cultural convictions that I never see when my Divinity School colleagues touch on their religious beliefs. Their moralism strikes me as being at odds with their obsession with intradepartmental power plays and their rapt attention to new fashions in criticism and whatever will advance their careers.

It’s a story in which there are no winners, only losers. The students lost most of all.

Later.

Though I started out with Jeff’s and Loren’s sentimentality posts in the back of my mind, the teaching experience pushed to the foreground. Not necessarily a bad thing, given their backgrounds and interest in literature. I’m intensely curious to see what Loren, Jeff, and Joe think of Mark Krupnick’s essay.

But I still want to address Jeff Ward’s two long posts about sentiment, feeling, and sentimentality. I’m aware of how deeply my own attitudes have been formed by my fascination with Japanese culture and aesthetics, most specifically Motoori Norinaga’s conception of mono no aware, which roughly corresponds to lacrimae rerum, the pathos of things (or in Nancy S. Dye’s phrase: “the fragility and suffering that define being human”).

I’ve been wanting to write about mono no aware for a while. Now I have a good reason to make a start.

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Comments

There seems to be no path for the young through the thickets of postmodernism. I've only ever seen it dumped on students like a truckload of garbage.

Which is not to say that guiding young people through *any* highly complex thought structure is easy, just that the postmodernists seem not to want to actually *do* it.

I've been thinking about teaching lately (now that my husband's started to do it), and now I'm going to have to write about it. Drat you, Jonathon, you keep *doing* this to me! :)

Posted by Dorothea Salo on 23 September 2002 (Comment Permalink)

"It's a story in which there are no winners, only losers. The students lost most of all."

I can corroborate your last statement. I was a photography student in Toronto 16 years ago. I found my classmates divided into two groups: those who knew for certain that they wanted to make a living as a professional photographer (either a photojournalist or a commercial photographer), and those who thought of themselves as artists (usually with a political agenda they wanted to popularise) who just happened to pick up a camera.

I didn't feel like I belonged to either group, so after my first year I enquired about switching out of "still photography" and into "media studies", another programme offered by the Film & Photography School.

I was asked to show the head of media studies my portfolio, which I willingly did. Upon looking at a self-portrait taken next to the ear of an enormous gargoyle at the top of one of the city's skyscrapers, he turned to me and asked "How long has your father had a hearing problem?"

That was too much for me. I wanted nothing to do with the pseudo-psychology of theoretical media studies, and since I couldn't find a way to fit in, I left the course half-way through second year (I already had a degree [in Psychology as it happens], so I didn't "need" the photography qualification).

I wish someone had told me then "to photograph what I love, or yearn for, or seek to understand", but at least I got as far as realising that the choice of subject is the really difficult question.

Posted by Kevin Laurence on 24 September 2002 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour