Today’s New APPS Interview is with Jonathan Kramnick, Professor of English at Rutgers University.
Thanks very much, Jonathan, for doing this interview with us today. Why don’t we start by talking a little about how your work brings philosophy and literary study together?
Thanks for the opportunity, John! I'm very happy for the chance to talk with you here. I think the simplest way to answer your question is that I'm interested in how literary form approaches problems that are also of importance for philosophy and at times the cognitive sciences. For example, my recent book, Actions and Objects from Hobbes to Richardson (Stanford, 2010), is about what counted as an action in the long eighteenth century. It puts poetry and fiction alongside philosophical essays while also drawing freely from contemporary philosophy of action and mind, including figures like Anscombe, Davidson, Chalmers, and so on. These are household names in analytic philosophy of course but are somewhat unusual in literary study, where the philosophical points of reference are more commonly from the Continental tradition. I know this is a hot button issue in your discipline and one this website is particularly interested in having a nuanced take on. I'm happy not to have that burden and just to work with the philosophy I find most compelling and useful.
Indeed, the way the analytic vs continental thing was refracted through philosophical reaction to the literary theory appropriation of French thought in the 1970s and 1980s is a long, complex, and really quite over-determined story. So I can imagine it’s a breath of fresh air for you to get outside all that and just plain read some other people.
That does look like it's worth digging into. Tell us a little here what you think about “interdisciplinary” work. That’s a fair way I think to describe your work, but that term itself carries a lot of baggage, doesn’t it?
Interdisciplinarity is all the rage these days, but it poses some difficult questions. From the vantage of the humanities, there's always the risk that one or another more empirical discipline will be brought in to corral, set limits to, or scold us. So I prefer to think that any contact between disciplines should begin endogenously, or in other words, that the literary humanities should come to conversations with other disciplines from a position of strength. This is a topic of real concern for my own discipline. For economic reasons, there is considerable pressure now to get with the program as defined by the grant-getting departments. Just last year the New York Times claimed that neuroscience was "the next big thing" in literature departments.
Our co-blogger Dennis once quipped that “neuro-” is the new “cyber-”…
Hah! That's nice. This whole "next big thing" business of course wildly overstates the consensus (or impact) of literary scholars reaching over to neuroscience or the cognitive sciences. My own thoughts on the matter have been publically aired in a Critical Inquiry article about literary studies and evolutionary psychology, where I was critical of attempts to apply adaptationist reasoning to aesthetic questions. The article caused something of a kerfuffle, including a bunch of responses to which I've just now replied in print. The exchange gets a bit heated, but I was pleased to have something to say, especially in my reply, about reimagining the humanities for the twenty-first century.
Sketch a few of your thoughts on this for us, if you would.
So my point was not that we ought to resist influence by or contact with what's going on elsewhere in the academy. Far from it. I think both can be exciting. But I also think we shouldn't give up what we already do well in order to take a look at what others do. As for my own small part, the CI piece is part of a longer project on literary form and problems of mind and consciousness, including a discussion of perception and the "hard problem" and some applications of the enactive, extended model to contemporary fiction, including Tom McCarthy's Remainder, a novel I'd recommend to everyone, by the way.
What else are you up to?
Isn't that enough?
Well, here's one knot in the interdisciplinary thread. As I've tried to think about the particular methods, language, and expectations of literary study, especially as they encounter resistance by others, I've been drawn to my discipline's particular fondness for counterintuitive readings and arguments. I don't think we should give that up. I'm not going to. I'd like to have to something systematic to say on the topic, so might try to write an essay called "Counterintuition: A Defense."
Well, you’ve come to the right place for that, as Jeff Bell is a staunch defender of things that draw “the incredulous stare.” In any case, can you tell us a little of your writing practice?
I try to write every day because without doing so I simply don't feel like myself. So the pleasure is in part just getting into the routine of my life: writing and going to the gym and keeping house with my partner and getting outside with our dogs.
Yes, habit is wonderful, when it’s arranged properly!
It's the best you can aspire to, don't you think? As for writing itself, the pleasure comes from winding my sentences around and through the writers I'm working on at any given moment. And the pain comes from trying to get that just right. It isn't easy. This is one difference between the writing-life of the literary critic and the philosopher, I think. You guys worry about putting your argument alongside your interlocutors; we worry about nudging our sentences next to theirs. Or I do anyway.
Well, there’s a lot to be said there about how arguments are carried by sentences! But I think I see what you’re getting at. Now that we’ve talked just a little about the content of your work, let’s look at the service part of professional life.
I've grown to enjoy professional life a great deal. It's a relief that there are other people out there who care deeply about the same things I do. When I was younger, I thought the demands of professional life were simply an obligation necessary for advancement. Then I realized the whole point was community. We're lucky to do what we do, and part of that is getting to spend time with intelligent, interesting people who feel the same way. So the work of professional life—conference going, and then as one gets older, all the vetting—is just to sustain that community.
How does teaching fit into your practice?
Teaching is a chance to try out new ideas and to get my writing out of my head and into the back and forth. In some ways, this is easier to do with undergraduates because I'm not modeling professional work for them in the same way that I am with graduate students. Graduate pedagogy is always an introduction to the methods and idiom of the business, whether it is marked as such or not.
Can you tell us a little about your childhood?
I'm from an academic family. My father is a political theorist at Cornell and my mother taught writing at Ithaca College. Ithaca was a great place to grow up. My friends were fantastically interesting, strange, brilliant, and cool. I tried hard to be all of those things myself.
What was your school experience?
I was not a serious student and certainly didn't picture myself a future academic. I would guess that few others did either. I didn't pay much attention to work until I was an undergraduate at Cornell. This was the mid to late 80s. Deconstruction was still very big.
Ah, yes, the High Theory days, as we briefly touched on above.
Indeed. For my part, I got into Foucault and theory-tinged Marxism, although I also studied analytic philosophy (which would later be a big help). During a year abroad in London, I worked with Roy Porter, who introduced me to the weird literary and medical world of eighteenth-century England. When I got back, I studied eighteenth-century literature with Rick Bogel, whose seminars still stand for me as a model of how to keep discussion on track and rigorous.
What about graduate school?
I went straight to Johns Hopkins to do a PhD in English. That was a great time to be at Hopkins. The program was small and intense. In the main, the faculty were mid-career, forty-something baby-boomers at work on the books that would define their careers: Mary Poovey, Frances Ferguson, Walter Benn Michaels, Jerry Christenson, Jonathan Goldberg, John Guillory, Sharon Cameron. Bliss was it that dawn to be alive but to be a graduate student was very heaven.
Even a philosophical philistine like myself will catch that allusion! But don’t ask me the source. (“Help me, Google, help me!”)
Literary study was at the time taking a slow but sharp turn to historicism. The faculty and students at Hopkins were trying then to figure out what historicism would amount to. My own work attempted to combine close reading with archival research and ideology critique. I wrote my dissertation with Guillory just as Cultural Capital was published and with Ronald Paulson, an eminence in the eighteenth century a generation older than the scholars I just named.
What did you do in the dissertation?
It was a study of criticism and the creation of the national literary canon in the eighteenth century, the basis for my first book. My interests have evolved and changed considerably since then, but even so, Hopkins had an ethos of professionalism and rigor that molded my intellectual values and personality.
How did your early published work relate to your dissertation?
My early work was closely related to the concerns of my dissertation: broadly, literature, criticism, and the public sphere. I previewed the argument of my book in PMLA in 1997 and published the whole two years later with Cambridge. Another important piece from that period was a short article in Profession (another MLA journal), pretentiously titled "Origins of the Present Crisis" (after Perry Anderson), that attempted to put what had already been described as the crisis of the humanities in an historical perspective. That article was important not because it made a splash (it didn't), but because it was the first of several attempts to write about older literature and the contemporary discipline of literary study at once. Again, my work has changed considerably since then, but that has remained the same.
How did you come to be at Rutgers?
Rutgers was my first job, so I had something of a transition from a small graduate program at a private university to a large department in a state university. Still, Rutgers was and is a professionally oriented department with an elite graduate program, so the change wasn't massive. In my first few years, I wrote out every lecture the night before and worked on my book and related articles in whatever time I could grab. It was exhausting. As I grew more comfortable in the classroom, I prepped less rigidly and let the classes have an easier, more organic feel. Everyone was happier, especially the students.
How did you navigate the tenure process?
My colleagues were very supportive when I was junior. They made it clear that my priority should be writing, publishing, and getting tenure. There wasn't a formal mentoring process, and I was glad for that, since I would have found it condescending. I think I had eight articles and book, maybe, when I came up for tenure?
How do you handle the pressure on English to justify itself on narrowly economistic terms?
English and other literary disciplines are under tremendous pressure to justify their existence on economic and other short-term, measurable grounds. It's now a national discussion, a discussion that is deplorable, hard to bear, and yet vital not to ignore. So we can't just look the other way or allow anti-intellectual pundits and politicians to define the terms for us.
That way lies madness.
True that. So we have to come up with a ready set of rationales for what we do. It's easy enough to defend the teaching of literature, I think, although often enough such defenses turn to piety. It's harder to defend advanced research in the humanities. It's completely necessary to do so, however. We need to come up with a better way of explaining the importance of seemingly esoteric scholarly writing—writing that may only be read by other professors—whether that's a study of medieval prosody or the latest bit of queer theory. I made that point in Profession almost fifteen years ago. It's even more true today. I've noticed that Philosophy has been under similar strains recently. It's all the same thing. Either you accept that fact that disciplines are internally organized, with quasi-technical languages suited to their individual problems, or you don't.
Well, I accept that, but you’re preaching to the choir.
Of course you do! Someone just has to figure out a way to make the case to those who don't. I also think we need to make a case that the humanities are relevant to questions in other disciplines and to discussions of larger public and social importance. I've tried to do a little of that in own work on literature and science. I feel like I'm fighting two battles there: on the one hand, I've been publically engaged in a quarrel with those who want to use what they understand to be evolutionary psychology against the entire discipline of English; on the other, I've been trying, both institutionally at Rutgers and in my own work, to get some dialogue going between the far-flung disciplines of literature and science. Many others have too, and for much longer than me. My point is that this kind of cross-disciplinary work can only help to show the relevance of the humanities for problems that lots of people care about, such as the nature of aesthetic experience or consciousness more generally.
I don’t imagine the job market – I don’t actually like that term, preferring the more accurate but cumbersome “political economy of teaching labor,” as it includes pre-and post-PhD labor, but I do recognize it’s the one in common usage – in English is any better than that in philosophy.
The job market in literary studies has been bleak my entire career, with peaks and valleys here and there and a steadily increasing reliance on adjuncts. The past several years have been horrible, for obvious reasons, but I've been impressed by the way that organizations like the Mellon foundation and the ACLS have responded quickly by creating postdocs. When I started out, there were hardly any postdocs in the humanities, apart from very prestigious ones like the Harvard Society of Fellows. Now there are quite a few, and it seems like more and more assistant professors are beginning their careers this way.
The postdoc system has its own issues, but most of those positions are much better than straight-up adjunct work.
For sure. One trick is figuring out how to prepare your students for two markets, with different pacing and expectations. When I first arrived at Rutgers, the department had a very haphazard system for placing students. Around the time I got tenure, I spent a lot of energy redesigning that part of the program. The results were immediate and gratifying.
That’s good to hear, and would be a good place to sign off. Thanks very much, Jonathan, for this interview. It’s always good for philosophers to hear about how our work is being taken up in other fields. Or better, how philosophy is done by those in other disciplines, and you’ve offered us some excellent insights here.