The Work of Literature in an Age of Post-Truth, by Christopher Schaberg

Book of the week: Charlie Pullen on what it means to read and teach literature in an era when opinion trumps fact

September 6, 2018
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In 2016, the Oxford English Dictionary chose “post-truth” as its word of the year. A term “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”, post-truth has come to be regarded as a defining characteristic of contemporary culture. While it had been in use for years before 2016, researchers at Oxford Dictionaries observed a sharp increase in its application as a word used to describe our current political moment: the “post-truth politics” associated with the referendum on membership of the European Union in the UK and the election of Donald Trump as president in the US.

“This is the age”, writes Christopher Schaberg in The Work of Literature in an Age of Post-Truth, “when what is truthfully stated or factually reported can be dismissed as ‘just words’ – as Trump put it in his first presidential debate with Hillary Clinton.” It is a time when we seem to have a new relationship with truth, when what is deemed to be objectively true is no longer granted the status of fact but of opinion. Schaberg reminds us of Jeff Bridges’ line in the Coen brothers’ 1998 film The Big Lebowski: “That’s just, like, your opinion, man.” For Schaberg, this nonchalant attitude encapsulates the ease with which facts can be brushed aside when they do not suit a politician’s agenda. From climate change to inequality, he claims, grave issues no longer need to be taken seriously or dealt with at all.

The Work of Literature is an urgent and searching reappraisal of what it means to read and to teach literature in this post-truth context. Schaberg, who is a professor of English at Loyola University New Orleans, is motivated to write by something like a crisis of faith in his discipline and profession. Working on the book while on sabbatical, Schaberg is so disturbed by Trump’s behaviour that he is forced to ask himself: “How am I supposed to keep teaching – not to mention reading – literature, when the highest public office of the United States is held by a person who is utterly unbound to the words he says?” Schaberg’s insecurity is only compounded by Trump’s own admission that he does not read whole books. With a non-reader in the White House, Schaberg asks, what place do books occupy in what he calls “our cultural estimation”?

His slim and highly readable book is the product of a teacher’s attempt to become re-enchanted with his trade. It is a polemical and quite personal meditation on the challenges facing university English studies now, and an experiment in finding a way to articulate the value that literary scholarship and teaching has when it appears to be under threat, not only from the discourses of post-truth but also from increasingly instrumentalised notions of higher education in institutions that are obsessed with measuring employability, usefulness and students’ short-term satisfaction.

Sure enough, Schaberg is dispirited, but he is also idealistic and even utopian in his belief in the power of education, and especially humanities education, to profoundly alter and improve the lives of people and the world they live in. Rather than “a concentrated site for focused job training”, he argues, the university is, or should be, “a place where we might fully be, and fully re-imagine things altogether – and for the better”. If the university is a space for critical and imaginative thinking about how people want to live, then it is obvious why Schaberg would see English studies, with its central focus on critical thinking, as fundamental in that mission. He defines critical thinking, a notoriously woolly term, as “a comportment toward the world as it is, with a mind to changing it for the better”. For a man who admits that he is kept awake at night worrying about the pointlessness of his career, Schaberg is nevertheless unwavering in his commitment to the work that he believes reading and teaching can do.

In a culture gripped by speed – quick results, instant gratification, constantly updated news stories – Schaberg sees English studies, a discipline rooted in ways of paying careful attention to language, as a much-needed refuge. “Sometimes,” he writes, “it seems the most important thing I can do these days in my classes is preserve a space for slow reading.” It is one of the joys of The Work of Literature that we can encounter Schaberg’s enthusiasm and reverence for what is perhaps the fundamental skill of English studies: close reading. This capacity for close or “slow” reading is what he aims to instil in his students. He sees his teaching as a lesson in “how to decelerate before meaning, to not rush to judgement or opinion”.

An English degree, in Schaberg’s view, should teach students to “read well: that is, slowly, profoundly, attentively, prudently, with inner thoughts, with mental doors ajar, with delicate fingers and eyes”. It is this skill of slow reading, or what the critic James Wood would call serious noticing, that emerges as the great work that literature and literary studies can do in our age of post-truth.

Yet it is becoming harder to find a space for this kind of ruminative and open-ended teaching in the modern university. Schaberg is at his best when articulating how universities should safeguard the chance for students to remain uncertain about their futures and interests, to “wander and stumble into things”. While he insists that a more exploratory education would create truly flexible graduates, he is disappointed that university managers and marketeers remain silent on “the messy time and space required for awkward mental developments and incremental personal growth”. Above all else, Schaberg can be credited for writing a book that celebrates a messy education that allows for wandering and stumbling.

Schaberg’s writing is similarly speculative. The book is a collection of essays in the true sense of the word: short, necessarily inconclusive experiments in thinking and trying out ideas. It is not unusual to finish one of the pieces (never more than a few pages long) with a sense that no explicit point was made. They are exploratory, and the effect is cumulative; you come to the end feeling like you have had a good walk around inside his mind. While verging on the autobiographical, with Schaberg recalling his student days, they are also strewn with amusing anecdotes (a trip to Walmart with the philosopher Slavoj Žižek is a particularly memorable if bizarre example). The Work of Literature does not offer, therefore, the sort of formal advocacy that we get from other books addressing the politics of higher education and the value of the humanities by, for instance, Bill Readings, Stefan Collini and Helen Small. But that is not a criticism. It is candid and relaxed, and full of insight, as well as Schaberg’s enthusiasm for and anxieties about literature and literary studies today.

Although it will not settle the debate, the book makes an evocative and smart contribution to conversations about what universities are for and what they should be like. As Schaberg puts it, the university “is a mess, but one that I’m still glad to participate in – if not ever finally clear up, exactly”.

Charlie Pullen is a PhD candidate in English at Queen Mary University of London.

The Work of Literature in an Age of Post-Truth
By Christopher Schaberg
Bloomsbury Academic
176pp, £64.00 and £19.99
ISBN 9781501334306 and 4290
Published 26 July 2018

The author

Christopher Schaberg, the Dorothy Harrell Brown distinguished professor of English at Loyola University New Orleans, was born in a blizzard in southern Michigan and grew up around Lansing and Detroit, as well as in Connecticut, before settling on the Leelanau peninsula in north-west Michigan.

He remained in Michigan to study at Hillsdale College, “a campus famous for its Austrian economics backbone and conservative politics. But [it] had a wonderful liberal arts core, with plenty of professors from across the political spectrum. I gravitated towards a dual degree in English and philosophy, although I always felt like I read literature as philosophy, and philosophy as poetry. The small classes and close mentoring that I received provided an inspiring model that continues to inform how I teach and care for my students.”

Having written books on airports, Brad Pitt and, now, the value of literature, does Schaberg see any through line in his intellectual development?

“I’ve never seen the subjects I’ve [written] about as being altogether separate or distinct,” he responds. “Indeed, careful readers will see Brad Pitt pop up in my airport books, airports appear in the Brad Pitt book, and film and mobility studies have cameos in my new book. (And environmental thought runs through all my work.)…The Work of Literature in an Age of Post-Truth is in some ways a manifesto against compartmentalisation, and I suppose this theme is reflected in my writerly trajectory.”

In today’s world, he says, “the ability to slow down and focus” can be “a welcome alternative for young people who will become the generation to sort through (and hopefully remake, for the better) the mess we’re currently in…There’s something about putting the brakes on this communicative steamroller that is the internet, smartphones, social media, the whole bundle – pressing on the brakes is something the humanities at their best can do.”

Matthew Reisz

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