(Part 1, Part 2)

Now, when Spivak talks about the “uncoercive rearrangement of desires” in the boundary 2 piece, she’s opposing it most specifically to what she calls the “extreme violation of this responsibility…seen in groups such as Hamas or Islamic Jihad, which coercively rearrange desires until coercion seems identical with the will of the coerced” (93). But in between those two poles, there are plenty of other forms of coercion that don’t end in suicide bombing—and coercion is much easier to find than its opposite.

A less violent form of coercion might result in something like this:

…a sort of beggarly daydreaming, during which the mind of the dreamer furnishes for itself nothing but laziness and a little mawkish sensibility; while the whole materiel and imagery of the doze is supplied ab extra by a sort of mental camera obscura manufactured at the printing office, which pro tempore fixes, reflects, and transmits the moving phantasms of one man’s delirium, so as to people the barrenness of an hundred other brains afflicted with the same trance or suspension of all common sense and all definite purpose.

This is Coleridge, in a footnote to chapter 3 of the Biographia Literaria, and he’s talking about what he calls “the devotees of the circulating libraries”—refusing to dignify their consumption of popular literature with the name of reading. Harsh? Well, yes. Compared to these “afflicted brains,” Madame Bovary looks like D. A. Miller.

Nearly two hundred years after the Biographia, the images have changed—though not as much as we might have expected. And this is, I think, part of why we need that uncoercive rearrangement of desires, even before we worry about not being suspicious enough. The affliction that Coleridge attributes to the “mental camera obscura manufactured at the printing office” is, in a sense, involved in a soft—but still coercive—rearrangement of desires among those who don’t so much read as passively consume.

One potential model for the uncoercive rearrangement of desires might come as well from the Biographia—from that book’s more famous “willing suspension of disbelief.” As I’ve argued both in a conference paper (and examine at much greater length in an article that should be coming out this summer), it’s a mistake to see that “willing suspension of disbelief” as the same kind of uncritical consumption that Coleridge describes in that footnote—even though that’s what most people do with it. This is true of both popular and scholarly discourse. I came across several commentaries on Christabel, for instance, that use the “willing suspension of disbelief” as a figure for what needs to be overcome through the hermeneutics of suspicion. And I’m not sure that you can ever totally eliminate the risk that one will suspend one’s disbelief only to have one’s desires coercively rearranged. (Then again, reading like a dupe might actually be a start in the right direction.)

But a more full quotation of the passage where Coleridge introduces this phrase (and the OED gives him credit for inventing the usage, by the way) gives a more complicated picture. Coleridge’s poems of the supernatural were, in his words, an attempt “to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of the imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.” This isn’t critical reading as we understand it, but it’s also not fully uncritical, as suggested by Coleridge’s evocation of “human interest and a semblance of truth.” There’s a suggestion of a double movement here of receptivity and critical engagement and, I think, the implicit expectation that something will or may change as a result, that our minds will be enlarged in a way that they wouldn’t have been otherwise, that our desires have been rearranged in a way that makes us less open to coercion. In short, we end up wanting something more than a kill-time.

It’s of course an open question whether the rearrangement of desire can ever be uncoercive – even or especially within the context of humanities teaching. Ultimately, though, I don’t think our justifiable ethical concerns about the potential for coercion should mean that we simply allow our students to pass through our classes with their desires unreflected upon, as it were. We’re allowed to be right sometimes, to claim a kind of authority because of our years spent learning the craft of critical reading, of writing, of thinking, of contemplation – and, yes, because we decided to do this instead of something else. We don’t have to make a big deal about it – I do think Jean Howard was right to talk about the modest role of literature, etc. – but we’re allowed, indeed required, to value what we do

And that, ultimately, is why I’ve found this particular panel worth thinking about long after the MLA ended. It was so nice to spend an hour so in the company of people who believe that literature is important, that reading is important, that thinking is both pleasurable and powerful, that what we do is something other than “ruin” texts—and that all of this is crucially important even though we won’t agree about the details. And it makes me wonder whether we might be in a new Arnoldian moment—though it would be an Arnoldianism largely without the polarizing figure of Arnold himself. It’s not so much about going back to “the best that has been thought and said”—though I think that those who assume that “the best that has been thought and said” can only refer to a body of literature by dead, mostly male, mostly white, mostly upper-class set of authors (a kind of Harold Bloom-style western canon) betray a telling lack of imagination, the kind of complacency that Felski criticizes in her article.

I’m thinking more of the Arnold of “Literature and Science,” arguing to a group of American university students in the 1880s that they should continue to study Greek with as much urgency as science and engineering. There’s something quaint about that, of course, and, well, we kind of dropped the ball on the whole Greek thing. But it might still be worth thinking about what it might mean in 2010 to return to Arnold’s concluding words in this essay—and to interpret them as expansively, as open-endedly, as inclusively as possible:

We shall be brought back to [humane letters] by our wants and aspirations. And a poor humanist  may possess his soul in patience, neither strive nor cry, admit the energy and brilliancy of the partisans of physical science, and their present favour with the public, to be far greater than his own, and still have a happy faith that the nature of things works silently on behalf of the studies which he loves, and that, while we shall all have to acquaint ourselves with the great results reached by modern science, and to give to ourselves as much training in its disciplines as we can conveniently carry, yet the majority of men will always require humane letters; and so much the more, as they have the more and the greater results of science to relate to the need in man for conduct, and the need in him for beauty.

What would it look like to take this attitude into our work as we begin the spring semester?