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Against Academic Tyranny

[By Jerry Ward]

Although
the Django Unchained syndrome will have
a short life, it should convey a powerful lesson to scholars who teach American
literature and culture:  Americans are
exercising their First Amendment rights and speaking slantwise against the
tyranny of literary and cultural criticism. The particulars of the syndrome
will evaporate with the advent of Women’s History Month 2013. Reawakened
interest in “History” and the sentient histories we inhabit, however, will
prevail a bit longer.
Scholars do not always know, as they argue
about the validity of responses to a work of art, what is best.  Myopic albeit practical concerns regarding
promotion and tenure, possession of authority, and esteem among their
multiracial colleagues too often alienate scholars from their students and the
general public.  They forget the
excellence of Barbara Christian’s 1987 essay “The Race for Theory”  and of pioneering work by Carolyn Rodgers and
Stephen Henderson regarding speech and music as interpretive referents;  of  Louise
Rosenblatt’s Literature as Exploration
(1938),  LeRoi Jones’s Blues People ( 1963),  Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970), 
George Kent’s Blackness and the
Adventure of
Western Culture
(1972), Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain:
The Making and
Unmaking of the World
(1985),  Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992), Kalamu
ya Salaam’s What Is Life?: Reclaiming the
Black Blues Self
(1994), and Charles W. Mills’s The Racial Contract (1997).  These works and others assert the centrality
of reader or viewer responses in our interpretations of literature and
non-literary writing, and in interpretation of history as narratives of lived
experiences.

The
professional scholars dwell in dream-sprinkled elite and middle-class cloisters
and worship the mysteries of the canon. 
They forget the primal obligation of women and men to communicate with
men and women.   Isolated by obtuse clerical
languages, they minimize how self-publishing, the interests of global
capitalism, newspapers, the spectrum of music and entertainment, specialized
non-academic magazines, and the ocean of Internet social networking actually
shape public tastes, consumption, and responses.  Either by intention or by accident, they are
agents of academic tyranny.  Significant
numbers of Americans have revolted against such tyranny. They have become
students in the public sphere.  They
refer to findings and opinions offered by traditional scholars and soi-disant public intellectuals, but
their conclusions tend to be radical
in the most positive sense of that word. 
They teach themselves the contradictions.
“Students,”
according to Richard Schramm, National Humanities Center vice president for
educational programs, “learn subjects like history and literature best when
they are put in the position of scholars 
—  that is, when they study
primary resources, draw their own conclusions from sometimes ambiguous or conflicting
evidence, and make arguments that organize a host of details into a unified
statement” (“Focus on Close Reading, Primary Documents Aligns Well with New
Standards,” News of the National Humanities Center, Fall/Winter 2012,
page 5).  Unlike the students Schramm has
in mind, independent students are not bound to formalist assumptions in their
quest for knowledge.  They penetrate form
to access content and to discover how content has been socially
constructed.  They are not stymied if
they lack the jargon of literary and cultural criticism, if they can’t twist
their mouths around tortured propositions. 
Their ordinary, everyday language is sufficient.
Key
documents for understanding what is happening in the revolt against academic
tyranny are Louise Rosenblatt’s The
Reader the Text the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work

(1978) and Edward Said’s The World, the
Text, and the Critic
(1983). Americans who engage in democratic criticism
are experimenting with what Rosenblatt called “efferent reading” (focus on what
one carries away from one’s reading) and “aesthetic reading” (focus on what one
experiences in the process of reading). 
Redesigning an insight Said had about what traditional criticism must
think itself to be, participants in the Django
Unchained
syndrome really do make critical thinking “life-enhancing and
constitutively opposed to every form of tyranny, domination, and abuse; its
social goals are noncoercive knowledge produced in the interests of human
freedom” (The World, the Text….29)
Behold, however, an irony of irony. Democratic criticism in the interests of
freedom of thought must deal with contradictions that are undeniably coercive.  That is the price of the ticket for passage
to brutal honesty.
A
film is only a film.  Our momentary
fateful attraction to a film’s disturbing properties can be an empowering
example of the work we must undertake in the face of overwhelming human
problems —global warming as Nature’s revenge and our ecological
irresponsibility; genocide and systemic oppression; diabolical trends in
capitalism, criminalization and mass incarceration; ethical issues embodied in
technological and scientific progress; violence, terrorism, and the gap between
poverty and wealth.  We have to triage
our commitments.  Art is necessary and so
too is minimizing academic and other forms of tyranny. The sooner we digest
what Barbara Christian said eloquently in “The Race for Theory” and what David
Walker appealed to the citizens of the world to do, we increase the probability
of winning the absurd game of human survival with brutal honesty.