Remembering the Early Days of SCE
Do not cite without permission of the author.
Thank you for this opportunity to remember the early days of the Society for Critical Exchange. In these remarks, I'll try to navigate between the Scylla of nostalgia (although they were good times) and the Charybdis of Monday morning quarterbacking (although there is much that I wish we had done differently). What I shall do here is trace the parts of the processes of professionalization by focusing on one SCE Conference in September, 1981.
I'll begin with issues of class. We four founders—Leroy and Annie Searle, Jim Sosnoski and I—had a vexed set of relations with academic hierarchies. Our degrees were from state universities and those of us who were employed tended to work at state universities as well. We were the recipients of fellowships—but we knew that without them we could never have attended graduate school. Not well-born, we were nonetheless willing and intellectually able to do the difficult reading that theory required. I'll add that we also believed quite simply that theory (especially in its breaking with the new criticism's tacit privileging of taste) would help us to make the world a better place for women, minorities, and persons who did not hold Ivy League degrees. (We were young.)
In Politics of Knowledge and elsewhere, Dick Ohmann elucidates interconnections between the new criticism and the cold war. What the new Criticism calls “fallacies,' Dick reminds us, were efforts to connect a literary text with events or persons in the world. No one has done that account better then he, and I won't rehearse it here.
Our hope was that theory would level the field. And soon the Society attracted many members whose degrees were far more prestigious than ours, and who worked in far more prestigious venues. (We were immensely pleased.) What brought us together were the texts we read and talked about. Our readings in Derrida, Lyotard, Jameson, Deleuze, Spivak, Foucault, Said--were complex and demanding. To read them required knowledge of other texts—continental idealism, Marx, Freud. Theory allowed us to work with the notion that it was not only not gauche—but actually laudable—to discover that outside the text lay (not only) materialist analyses, but also men and women struggling to survive.
But as Jim has explained, our concerns were not only with the topics for English Studies to consider, but also with the structure of those considerations. Among the most important of our attempts to change those structures were a series of conferences we organized at Indiana University , with the energetic co-operation of David Bleich and the financial support of IU's Department of English chair, John Eakin. The design of these conferences became a kind of trademark for SCE.
In what follows, I'll describe the conferences generally, and then focus on one—the 1981 Conference on Theories of Reading. That conference, I think, contained in microcosm most of the aspects of professionalization and institutionalization we shall be discussing in Philadelphia .
For each of the conferences, we chose a topic and invited major speakers not to present a paper in the rhetoric of the definitive, but rather to speak extemporaneously about a set of questions we posed. The notion was that if a person “wrote a paper,” he or she would then be firmly committed to defending the thesis of that paper and to publishing it as written. We wanted exchange —a willingness to listen to other points of view. Often, we invited speakers whose work was not specifically identified with the topic but who we thought might have interesting things to say.
There were usually three or four plenary sessions (which we called “phases”) at which major speakers presented their own point of view and addressed those of others. These sessions were followed by several breakout sessions called “caucuses” in which attendees would formulate questions and challenges to the keynote speakers' positions. After caucusing, the conferees would return to point to issues that had not been discussed, challenge those that had, and so forth. This effort, too, was directed at diminishing the rhetoric of the definitive. At most academic conferences, we thought, international luminaries gave papers and the audience listened. It was easy for a speaker to ignore or ridicule or otherwise squash questions from the audience. Our objective was to make such gestures difficult. Hence the caucus sessions gave the “non-internationally-luminous” conferees a chance to formulate challenges carefully, and present them in a forum in which the luminaries sat in the audience and the caucus members took the stage. Before readily available word processing, these questions and challenges were prepared on a typewriter (one for each caucus was borrowed from the offices of members of the IU English Department) and duplicated on a mimeograph machine—or maybe a ditto machine. In SCE Reports 11, Rick Barney wrote (about the Reading Conference) that the “exchange between panelists and caucus members proved to be the most lively and fruitful and significantly, the discussion was sparked to its greatest intensity by questions from the caucus on politics” (100). I shall return to those challenges later.
First, though, I note that breakout sessions sometimes included briefing sessions or overviews of the conference issues. These were, remember, the days before the internet. MLA (although Dick Ohmann and his fellow radicals were energetically democratizing it) still tended to meet primarily in New York and Chicago . It was difficult for persons who did not teach on the East coast, and/or whose libraries did not subscribe to NLH, Critical Inquiry and Diacritics, to find out what “cutting edge” theorists had to say. Even if they could get to New York and listen, or subscribe to NLH and read, it was often hard to enter the Theoretical Parlour in medias res. At one conference, for example, John Paul Riquelme offered an overview that carefully pinpointed differences among all of the conference speakers. My recollection is that it was beautifully done, clearly presented and the result of days and hours of work. Such work did not result in publication; nonetheless, people were willing to do it.
These efforts at “dissemination” were not limited, of course, to SCE. Ralph Cohen's work on New Literary History, as well as the work of the School of Criticism and Theory (new in 1977), were efforts, not so much to bring theory to the hinterlands (or the masses) but rather to make sure that English studies properly professionalized itself by raising its questions and answering them in a disciplined, logical and well-informed way. From one perspective, we were already professionalizing. Notwithstanding our need to insist that one need not have gone to Yale to read Derrida or Harold Bloom, nonetheless we wanted to maintain intellectual standards—standards of discourse, standards of argument, standards of definition. We wanted everyone to have access to a not-yet-institutionalized place where he (and even she) would be required to read and argue “well.”
Finally, each conference ended with a Phase entitled “Research Proposals” in which both panelists and caucus members discussed priorities for future projects and evaluated both the design and the content of the conference as a whole.
The Conference on Theories of Reading , 1981
Our choice of topics for SCE conferences and SCE Reports were usually spot on. That is, the issues and bodies of work that we chose to discuss— Narrative, the Subaltern, influence, dissemination, Foucault, Said, Derrida, and so forth—even after thirty years, tend still to be part of the discussion. At that time, 1981, the notion that “meaning” is appropriately construed as a function of reading (rather than as a function of intention) was still quite fervently contested. “Reading theory,” “reception aesthetics,” “reader-response criticism,” and “reader response theory” were terms that variously pointed to the work of such thinkers as David Bleich, Stanley Fish, Wolfgang Iser, Inge Crosman, Susan Sulieman, Jane Tompkins, Steven Mailloux, Hans Robert Jauss, Norman Holland, Louise Rosenblatt, Rob Crosman, John Paul Riquelme, and many others. I suspect that not all of these names will be familiar today. The dissertations that we now direct still make use of conceptions that we associate with Derrida and Foucault, but it has been a long time since I've encountered a graduate student who wants to work on Wolfgang Iser. And although Stanley Fish and David Bleich are often cited, those citations do not usually come from Is There a Text in This Class? or Subjective Criticism. A few years ago, as we served together on a committee to write the Ph.D. exam in theory at Purdue, Vince Leitch suggested the question, “Whatever happened to Reader Response Theory?” The candidate, needless to say, chose to write about Fredric Jameson, but I've been brooding about Vince's question for some time. With thanks to Vince, I'll suggest that the SCE Conference on Theories of Reading can offer an interesting window into the processes that might provide at least a partial answer to that question.
Our choice of Theories of Reading was an easy one; the issues were hot and the conference drew a large crowd. Usually I only helped to organize the conference, but this time I also participated as one of the speakers. It was my first bit gig, and it came thanks to David Bleich, because he knew that I had recently returned from a summer (1978) at The School of Criticism and Theory (located then at the University of California, Irvine), where I had studied with Wolfgang Iser and Fredric Jameson. It had been (even by School of Criticism and Theory standards) an amazing summer. Iser's Der Akt des Lesens (Munich: Wilhelm Fink: 1976), which he was in the process of translating into The Act of Reading (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1978) served as the text for his seminar. Jameson taught from his working manuscript of The Political Unconscious (Cornell, 1980). In California , over teeming ashtrays and empty bottles of Inglenook Cabernet Sauvignon, we talked about meaning and tried to pinpoint the political differences between Iser (the liberal who taught at an East German university) and Jameson (the Marxist from Yale). The men themselves, although they shared our softball games and wine and cigarettes, carefully avoided disagreement (and exchange). I realized that The Political Unconscious was, in a way, a theory (or at least an account) of reading. Both men sought to explain what happens when human beings encounter literary works—and why. Iser looked to (universalized) accounts of consciousness; Jameson studied historical changes in readings—but was himself accused of idealism by the more courageous of us.
Returning from Irvine to my ordinary life as a faculty wife and part-time instructor of English at Miami University (5 sections a semester at $800.00 each), it occurred to me that what Iser called a “functionalist model of the literary text” could help me teach the second semester of what we then called “freshman comp”—the writing- about-literature half of the required first year course at Miami. Iser's names for the activities of reading—consistency building, closing gaps, etc.—were teachable, I thought, as moments in a reading process—not unlike the “process accounts” of writing (like that of Linda Flower and John Hayes) that then characterized what was beginning to be called “composition studies.” Moreover, it seemed to me, Iser's “moments” were pedagogically preferable to the new critically inflected “properties of texts”–i.e., character, plot, theme, etc.--around which most such courses were routinely organized at the time. If, for example, instead of teaching “simile,” one taught “consistency building” as, in Iser's view, a set of instructions for creating meaning, then one could encourage students to ask, not “what does rose mean?” (and despise themselves for not knowing) but rather “ how is the speaker's love like a red, red rose?” What Iser's term could not help me explain and teach, however, was what to do when the students' answers differed from one another.
But Jameson could. My extrapolations from The Political Unconscious explained differences in readings in ways that Fish's term “interpretive communities” could not.
It occurred to me then, although I could not articulate it this way at the time, that class accounts for differences in readings.
It was on the basis of my work with Iser that David Bleich asked me to be a plenary speaker. Also, I was inexpensive. (Iser himself had returned to Constance and could not make the trip for what SCE had to offer—which, if I recall correctly, was basically nothing. IU picked up domestic travel but there were no honoraria, even for plenary speakers). Jane Tompkins and Stanley Fish had also been invited, and declined.
In addition to such economic considerations as the ones I've just described, our selection of plenary speakers addressed other issues. We wanted scope—in the sense that we sought persons who could address reading theory from several perspectives that we later called “disciplinary.” We wanted to include women. Thus it was that the speakers at the Conference on Theories of Reading included:
Barbara Herrnstein Smith.
At the time, Smith taught at the University of Pennsylvania . It seemed to us that her (at the time) most recent book, On the Margins of Discourse , was, in effect, a book about reading theory—and she was willing to use her own personal travel budget to attend.
At Yale, Brooks was working on Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative, which was published by Yale University press in 1984.
Gallop was working on her Reading Lacan. . She was at that time teaching at Miami University and we felt that she would be a good representative speaker about relations between deconstruction, psychoanalysis, and reading. Her talk was her reading of Paul De Man's reading of Derrida's reading of (if memory serves) Hölderlin.
Along with Susan Sulieman, Crosman had compiled The Reader in the Text: Essays on Audience and Interpretation ( Princeton : 1980), one of the first anthologies of reading theory. Crosman's talk covered the panoply of reading theorists; she had no particular theory of her own to promote.
Harst was a professor of education at IU who studied reading among elementary school students. We were particularly interested in not limiting the discussion to the reading of literary texts by professional readers and their students.
In the 1930's Rosenblatt, as a professor of Education at Columbia who had studied philosophy at the Sorbonne, Rosenblatt had written Literature as Exploration . In it, her distinction between efferent and aesthetic readings among secondary school students had helped her readers to understand that differing purposes for reading resulted in and accounted for differing readings. Rosenblatt's work was unknown outside schools of education until Susan Sulieman and Inge Crosman (on a hint from David Bleich) rediscovered it. In her afterword to The Reader in the Text. Sulieman thanked Bleich for bringing Rosenblatt to their attention and explained that the older woman's work would be useful to persons who thought about teaching.
Fetterley's The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction was among the first book-length studies in the first academic wave of feminism . I remember particularly Fetterley's reading of Hemingway's story, “Indian Camp.” She wrote that, in order to read the story “correctly, in a new critical way,” a female reader would need to position herself so as to agree that a woman's cries of pain in childbirth were unimportant. Declining to do so, Fetterley specifically asserted that she did not believe that Hemingway could have “intended” such a reading. At the time, most male readers simply dismissed her book as a series of deliberate misreadings.
In my plenary talk, I remember asking “what is a theory of reading a theory of?” And which discipline, therefore, would have the task/power of revealing its secrets. We could speak of reading as a kind of problem solving behavior, as psychologists do; or as an exercise of consciousness, using the tenets of phenomenology; or as the expression of a psyche; or as decoding, or as semiosis, etc. It never occurred to me to talk about my freshman comp course.
The plenary exchanges involved both theory and pedagogy. Some attendees, in other words, debated the extent to which Iser's conception of “gap” was an accurate account of Ingaarden's points of indeterminacy and whether Fish was correct that Iser was only demonstrating what formal criticism looks like in “consciousness.” Some people thought that “reader response” was at the top of a slippery slope that would ultimately descend into a situation that would permit and even require the acceptance of any student reading, no matter how bizarre. For the most part, the plenary sessions were informed and cordial. In spite of our efforts, they were not significantly dissimilar from an ordinary academic conference. (These talks do not survive. There were no hard drives on which to save them.)
The post-caucus exchanges, though, were memorable, even without hard drives. Rick Barney writes
One of the questions [brought forward by the political caucus] is example enough: “Why weren't the political implications of reader-response theory—for instance, the freedom of the reader, the formation of interpretive communities and their selective inclusion and exclusion of readings, etc.—explored? What are the implications of this evasion?” ( SCE Reports 11, 101.)
Such questions about pedagogy and power, Barney continued, while important, nonetheless “prevented” theoretical elaborations of the conceptions at issue. And so they did. And some people thought that was OK while others did not.
Looking back, I remember one particularly sharp post-caucus “exchange” between Rob Crosmann and Barbara Herrnstein Smith—one that opened up a discussion whose effects are visible, and still problematic, today. The topic, as I recall it, was David Bleich's Readings and Feelings. In that book, Bleich describes classes that he taught at Indiana in which students read Frost's “A Drumlin Woodchuck,” D.H. Lawrence's “The Rocking Horse Winner,” James's “The Turn of the Screw.” Bleich's assignments asked students to write “affective” and “associative” responses to Frost, to suggest “the most important word” in “The Rocking Horse Winner”, and the most important “aspect” of “The Turn of the Screw.” The ensuing writing provided data on which Bleich built to find psychoanalytic accounts of students' readings, accounts that, he said, could illuminate “subjective criticism.” Rob Crosman described such an assignment. He had asked his students to read and write about Faulkner's “A Rose for Emily.” One of Crosman's students, a young woman, wrote that she sympathized with Emily because Faulkner's protagonist evoked memories of her grandmother. Specifically, the student recalled, she once saw a grey hair on her grandmother's pillow. That grey hair reminded the student of the one on Emily's pillow that the Yoknapatawpha townspeople found beside the skeletal remains of her husband. As Rob Crosman expatiated upon the pedagogical usefulness of the student's “identification” with Emily, Barbara Herrnstein Smith asserted with her accustomed wit and logic that the identification was pedagogically and theoretically useless. Crossman persisted, explaining the importance of fostering the student's authentic voice as a precondition for the confidence she would need to learn to develop her writing in an academic environment that she perceived as hostile.
Crosman at the time taught in a community college, and he wanted to make a set of circumstances in which his students could perceive themselves as audiences for works of art. In fact, that was precisely how he saw his responsibility—not so much to raise his students' class consciousness in a Freireian way—but rather to raise their sense of their “right” to read the canon.
Smith's students, she admitted, considered themselves entitled readers, and would not, in general, perceive the simple datum of a strand of hair as capable of warranting an argument about an interpretation of Faulkner. Actually, she continued, she really didn't teach many undergraduates and so the problem rarely arose. But if she did teach undergraduates, and if such a question were to arise, she would say not that the reading was wrong but that it was illogical or uninteresting. Moreover, she continued, the question before us was not about teaching, but rather about the definition of reading: what, she asked, is the phenomenon ? The profession of English Studies, she asserted, needed to debate it. Crosman, it was implied, was welcome to be in the debate about theoretical issues, but not to talk about teaching.
In the heated exchanges that followed, Barney writes
The underlying political nature of the discussion, especially as it bore on economics of the profession, also became particularly clear when Barbara Herrnstein Smith and Peter Brooks, representatives of the nation's more prominent institutions—the University of Pennsylvania and Yale—were repeatedly singled out by heated criticism for their view that studying students was not necessarily important for developing a theory of reading. (One political caucus question to them read: “Does a disinterest in student ‘readings' of literature imply a political unwillingness to share power with the young?' ( SCE Reports 11, 101.)
Exasperated, Herrnstein Smith replied,
OK. Fine. Power. Pow, pow, power! I love it!
That particular exchange has stayed with me. In retrospect, it seems worth “reading” with all the tools that we worked so hard to develop. First, the challenge: in reproducing Rick Barney's account, I was at first inclined to put a [ sic ] after “disinterest” just to show that I know the distinction between disinterest and lack of interest. But of course, this unidentified caucus-member's usage is a moment (as we used to say) that reveals contradictions that have their source in history. I have been describing SCE encounters with theory and class, disciplinarity and institutionalization. There were efforts to maintain a kind of disinterestedness in our own inquiry—even as the named objects of those inquiries shifted from “intention” to “form” to “reading,” to “meaning” and so forth. I think it fair to say that we tried to constitute “exchange” as a kind of disinterestedness that would be subject (like disciplines) to the conventions of logic and debate.
But the caucus-member's word—and Barbara Herrnstein Smith's reply—revealed differance within the Society for Critical Exchange. Strong and angry emotions—about class and power—entered our carefully choreographed “exchanges” about theory. The conflict/exchange now turned on the exercise of symbolic power, not merely the accumulation of it. The problem is captured in Barbara Herrnstein's remark: “OK, Fine. Power. Pow, pow, power! I love it!”
There was resentment in the caucus-members accusation that the powerful panelists lacked interest in class conflict and in the relative powerlessness of community college teachers and their students. There was resentment as well in the reply. A disinterested inquiry into the multifarious processes that go by the name of “reading” seemed, after all, to be precisely what had been called for. And that disinterested inquiry, so it was thought, had the best shot at leveling class differences— eventually.
But I think it would do us all a disservice to say simply that the exchange devolved into a time-worn conflict about who had the power to set the agenda. I'd prefer to look at the history in which this conflict had its source.
Our Conference on Theories of Reading took place at the beginning of the Reagan era. A few months after this conference, “A Nation at Risk”
was published. Among the “risks” that the report enumerated was this one:
Business and military leaders complain that they are required to
Soon thereafter, William Bennett (widely understood to be the principal author of “A Nation at Risk”) was appointed Secretary of Education. Bennett and the Department of Education focused on reading skills in primary and secondary schools. Thereafter, George H. W. Bush asked to be remembered as the Education President, and Barbara Bush made reading her special interest as First Lady. George W. Bush proposed and signed the No Child Left Behind Act (with an emphasis on phonics and testing). Laura Bush works with school libraries.
Bennett's agenda was to make sure that business and military leaders would have no cause for future complaint about soldiers and workers who could not follow instructions. The economy required workers who could read for the intention of those “written safety instructions” (at least while OSHA regulations were in force). The military, too, needed soldiers who could read and follow instructions (just in case there should be a war). Both (insofar as they are separable) required persons who would not raise questions about the extra-textual context of what they read. No Child Left Behind's emphasis on phonics, as against whole-language reading pedagogies, helps significantly in this regard. Phonics (and here of course I simplify) encourages first and second graders to “sound out” what the letters say. Whole Language (again in general) teaches young readers to “figure out” what the text might “mean.”
For Lynne Cheney, there was another job. She made sure that the teachers of the teachers of those five and six year olds were not rewarded with federal dollars for producing and investigating non-canonical readings of canonical texts or even for canonical readings of non-canonical texts. In other words, it might be said that she did her best to prevent the trickle down of theory. And she was pow, pow, powerful.
It seems to me now that the Back to Basics movement in primary and secondary education, and the Reagan administration's antipathy to theory, managed to suppress inquiries into what we called Theories of Reading but not other theories. As Jim points out NEH funds were denied to VOCAT, and it certainly became more difficult for deconstructionists and Marxists to find federal monies. But there were still Guggenheim and ACLS grants for such work. Not for reading theory though. The institutionalized humanities seemed uninterested in funding disinterested studies of what happens when human beings read.
And the society? Several years after the Reading conference, the agenda for a meeting of the SCE Board at an MLA included a proposal for the society to take over the sponsorship of the journal Reader (which co-incidentally, had been founded by Rob Crosman at just about the time of the SCE Conference on Theories of Reading). The board outvoted me to decline. My sense was that my fellow board members did not perceive the journal's prestige to be adequate for SCE sponsorship. Moreover, (again in my view) they felt that the journal's questions were insufficiently complex, sophisticated, theoretical, for SCE to bother with. Reader is now housed at the University of Pittsburgh .
Meanwhile, various cognitive “disciplines,” especially psychology, have studied how student readers “succeed” or “fail” to produce “correct” readings of texts—like written safety instructions. Schools of Education teach their undergraduates how to teach phonics. Some of them even have exchanges about the relative merits of phonics and whole language. Cultural studies explains “meaning” as a function of class, race, and gender—but I've found scant attention to the processes through which those readings occur--not since Raymond Williams. Departments of English compete to offer multifarious readings of literary and non-literary texts. In my department, at least, little attention is paid to instruction in reading practices. Terry Eagleton speculated in After Theory that reading theory, unlike deconstruction, psychoanalysis, etc. was both a part of the elitist theory boom and the populist movement. Conditions in the Thatcher/Reagan era were such that only one aspect was capable of surviving. The several reading theories that flourished in the early eighties were eventually conflated and reduced to “reader-response criticism,” connected with teaching, and relegated to the adjuncts who teach introductory courses.
It is, I think, an intersection of Reaganomics and the professionalization of English Studies that can best explain “whatever happened to reader response theory?” The Society for Critical Exchange was a site for many of these interconnections. Many of its members worked to change or at least to examine power relations in the academy. To some extent, I think, we were successful. (Pow?)