The Joys of Smaller Libraries and the Woes of English Departments

Work has been going swimmingly in Omaha for the last few days at Criss Library at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. While almost all libraries have their ups and downs, I’ve come to really enjoy working in Criss, which does a lot of what 21st-century university libraries can and should do well. When it’s sweltering outside (as it has been the last few days in Nebraska), libraries serve as chilled temples of quiet and reflection. Criss does it well: coming in, you enter through an especially cold vestibule, snapping you awake from the humid torpor you can fall into marching to the place. Inside, while I am slightly disturbed by the ratio of computers to books, the library does a good job holding an open stacks collection (something Oxford only has recently wised up to after eight centuries) along with plenty of computers, scanning and printing stations, VCR/DVD viewing stations, and rentable laptops and iPads for users to amuse themselves with. There may not be enough dedicated space for reading per se (as opposed to dozens of computer stations that are taken for granted), but at least the collections are good. While not so patronized by the homeless as the Los Angeles Public Library, Criss Library, as a public institution, maintains a bank of public use computers that, as far as I can tell, are hogged for most of the day by the city’s unemployed 25-35 nerd demographic which luxuriates in the air conditioning as it plays MMORPGs for hours on end. But as someone with my own secret shames, who am I to judge? Add to this mix a decent café, and you can spend the whole day there, as I often have. On top of it, the library, as I have been exploring, has probably the world’s leading library of Afghanistan-related material, and the good folks at Special Collections are in the process of cataloging the papers of Senator Chuck Hagel, a Republican who has donated his materials to the library.

MMORPGs: the real reason to seek out vast quantities of unsupervised time in Midwestern libraries

In sum, Criss Library works for me as a library at a smaller university because it’s able to combine a lot of functions. As one of the librarians there, Jim, explained to me today, they see scholars coming in from around the world to work with the Afghanistan collection. For example, the head librarian for the collection, Shaista Wahab, and I started talking about Soviet advisors in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and we began speaking about Viktor Korgun, a Russian Orientalist who ended up serving in Afghanistan as a Komsomol advisor in the 1980s and has now made a career for himself as an expert on all things Afghan-related. He had, Shaista explained, been to visit once a few years ago. Any time a small university can find ways to bring together refuge Afghan intellectuals and Russian Orientalists under one roof with its undergraduates, all the better, I say, especially for the undergraduates involved. With all of the computers, the public use area, and the café, moreover, one doesn’t develop in Criss the sense one can get in some archives or, unfortunately, parts of the Bodleian at Oxford – that you really are this barren scholar slaving away in a dusty corner of the universe unknown and uncared about by others. At UNO’s library, I’m always running around from Special Collections to scanners to the microfiche reader. I can grab a chai tea from the café, pop my computer open to high-speed wi-fi, and make microfiche copies of Arthur Paul’s diaries all in one go. This combination of comfort, technology, and serious work remains, for me, a unique feature of American libraries; in Russia, one is always worrying about finding a power outlet or not freezing, and most German libraries I have worked in find a Lutheran way to combine mandatory lockers for everything, no wi-fi, and lousy cafés to throw me off balance when I work. True, what I just described isn’t the same as serious reading. But I think it’s only a good thing if librarians and administrators find ways to create spaces where people from different walks of life and interests – the MMORPG crowd, undergraduates, children and senior citizens, researchers – can hang out under one roof, all engaged in different tasks but not visibly segregated from one another.

The STABI, in Berlin: love the architecture, love the plants, but please, for the love of God, get wi-fi and better food

Somewhat related to this discussions of what universities could do better is a review I just read today, Joseph Epstein’s review of a new Cambridge History of the American Novel. Ostensibly a review of the new collection, Epstein’s piece is actually a longer meditation on the role that English Departments play in American universities today, and whether their concerns are, well, interesting or relevant. He argues, somewhat tendentiously but in large part rightly based on my experience, that

A stranger, freshly arrived from another planet, if offered as his introduction to the United States only this book, would come away with a picture of a country founded on violence and expropriation, stoked through its history by every kind of prejudice and class domination, and populated chiefly by one or another kind of victim, with time out only for the mental sloth and apathy brought on by life lived in the suburbs and the characterless glut of American late capitalism. The automatic leftism behind this picture is also part of the reigning ethos of the current-day English Department.

True, parts of Epstein’s argument are tiresome and play to the home-court advantage he has writing in the Wall Street Journal. Nowhere in his piece, as far as I can tell, does he actually present an argument as to why a focus on race, gender, class, disability, or migration status is itself illegitimate when it comes to writing about literature. True, as someone who approaches a lot of other fields of scholarship with a historian’s mindset, I’m often a bit bewildered or just confused when I see others writing about homosexual undercurrents in The Great Gatsby (the example that Epstein rags on as outlandish, with reference to how Nick Carroway views Gatsby) without investigating how Fitzgerald thought about homosexuality in his other works, or contemporary attitudes towards same-sex relations in the New York metro area at the time. We should, I think, reject or question the ulterior agendas of commentators who are quick to dismiss any focus on gender, race, class, etc. questions in literary or historical scholarship; part of the responsibility of an intellectually honest Right in American intellectual life would have to involve engaging with these questions without being quick to drop the labels of “Leftism” or “Marxism.” At the same time, the possibility of an open and frank conversation also requires readers to equally be suspicious of those with the alternative agenda: reading, as Epstein suggests, the entire history of Western civilization as one unending parade of rampage, carnage, and violation of subalterns’ rights. If there is good evidence to suggest that 24 or True Lies played into an American “imperial project” (a term that Epstein derides), go for it: but make sure you base it in a contextual, textured reading of the environment that your sources emerged from. In short, I think a focus on empiricism and historicism in scholarship could help English departments out of the morass Epstein sees them as in.

You're fired: True Lies (1994), which showcased new and creative ways for cruise missiles to take out Arab terrorists: evidence of an "imperial project"?

Perhaps the bigger problem that Epstein hits on in his piece is something that I’ve felt more keenly aware of in the last few days working with the Arthur Paul collection. As I have mentioned in previous posts, scholar-adventurers or guerilla historians of the past like Louis Dupree were awesome because it was just obvious from their work that they loved their subject (in Dupree’s case, Afghanistan). Dupree died in 1989, and while looking through various other papers in Omaha, I came across a very beautiful tribute to him given by Ralph Braibanti, the late professor of Islamic Studies at Duke. In it, Braibanti wrote:

Few men have had the fortune to so identify themselves with a little known culture and then in crisis to interpret that culture to the world and influence its national destiny. We are reminded of Henry St. John Philby of Saudi Arabia, of the Venerable John Batchelor’s devotion to the Ainu of Japan, of Lafcadio Hearn and Ernest Francisco Fenollosa, who convinced the Japanese in a moment of uncertainty that their literature and art were treasures of civilization, of Homer B. Hulbert of Korea, J.C. Furnivall of Burma, and of Sir Aurel Stein of Central Asia. […] Like Dupree, all these men internalized the character of the culture they studied and came to love. Their flesh remained English or American but their souls were transmuted into Arab, Ainu, Japanese, Korean, Afghan.

Beautifully written, and that embodies a lot of what I’d hope to be able to myself. But more to the point, what worries me about English Departments as I have seen them, and a problem Epstein identifies, is that they have become “Schools of Resentment” without offering anything to take Western cuture’s place. They specialize in tearing down cultural accomplishments, without offering anything serious in its place, or, when they do, offering an uncompelling paean to indigenous cultures that to me lacks the passion of men like Hulber, Furnivall, or Stein. For example, I recently had the chance to look at an issue of the South Atlantic Quarterly courtesy of Shane Boyle; Shane even contributed a piece to a part of the issue, on the tuition crisis at the University of California. The main part of the issue, however, focused on indigenous law as an alternative legal tradition to that of the Anglo-American West. Many of the pieces, written by professors of English, Comparative Literature, Gender Studies, and Performance Studies, followed much the line that Epstein describes in his piece: the West has always been an imperialist power, they took the land from the indigenous peoples of the Americas, and Western law is an artifice designed to perpetuate existing inequalities against women, racial minorities, the disabled, and LGBTQ members of society. Even if parts of this argument are true, the bravado and lack of contextualization with which these scholars stated their case took me aback. In place of the existing oppressive institutions, the authors suggested greater attention towards, for example, the legal system of the Diné (Navajo).



Gogol's Nose: A part of human culture, but not how I would force others to live

Parts of this argumentation strike me as compelling. There are plenty of aspects of consumerism and materialism in the United States and Europe that I do not find especially compelling personally, and I find the greater emphasis on harmony with nature that some American indigenous communities promote to be an appealing alternative to living in polluted societies built around mass production and consuming as much as possible. At the same time, though, I was worried by the overall ethos these writers’ essays represent. Few of them evinced a deep knowledge of Navajo law in detail, and, as a fellow reader of the journal noted, maybe the Diné aren’t satisfied with their own traditions – maybe they want to have institutions that more closely approximate American, or Belgian, or German courts, rather than institutions based on seniority, kinship, and religion, etc. For many of these scholars, whose departmental affiliation with English Literature appears dubious to me, the indigenous cultures of North and Central Native Americans is not, as it was for the scholars that Braibanti cites, something that they fell in love with, tried to re-interpret, and watched grow and change. Dupree could accept an Afghanistan that had a space for private enterprise, American-style, at the same time that he appreciated the culture of the bazaars. A real love of foreign cultures, like one of people, accepted that they change while still retaining key features. Cultures and people mature, although sometimes they don’t act their age, too. To copy Braibanti’s phrasing, a really curious individual finds a way to show to the Germans, the Russians, the Persians, whoever, that their culture is not just German, Russian, or Persian culture, but world culture, human civilization.

But the tack of the scholars of English I have read, contrary to this, seems to be a glorification of indigenous cultures in one stage of their development. The point of their analysis is not to show how Native American culture is really world culture, but rather to insist on the locality, specificity, and perhaps hegemony of indigenous cultural and legal constructs for the rest of mankind. If the really curious individual admires the Arabs for the contributions of Islam to human civilization, the bad scholar equivalent insists that Arab culture or Islam as practiced by Arabs is the only legitimate way to live – better than Western civilization, at any rate.

Part of improving what English Departments at universities can do – and providing Americans with a more cosmopolitan door to global affairs and other cultures – will have to involve transitioning from the one viewpoint (Schools of Resentment that do not actually seek to engage with foreign cultures) to the other (a lifelong fascination with the uncanny in other cultures – a practice that, as Braibanti suggests, was historically practiced by white Anglo males, but a tradition that should be as open to all comers as possible.)


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