One of the themes that has emerged for me as I've read your exploratory writings in the past few weeks is a frequently expressed and (for me) bewildering desire to be aware of a range of differing positions on literary or other matters but to have no allegiance to any particular one of them. Why this bewilders me: well, for one thing, it seems strangely inhuman not to have a position about matters that do indeed engage one with any degree of real interest. I can, I suppose, see being unwilling to choose between the relative merits of chocolate and vanilla (although I proudly proclaim my stand on the stellar virtues of vanilla ice cream--the real thing, that is, without any of the gooey guar gum and lecithin nonsense in it). But why would one aspire to be free of a position on something that really matters?
I assume that has something to do with wanting to be free of bias, of being tolerant of others' opinions, supremely above the disputes and conflicts of lesser, more emotional beings. But in what ways is that a reasonable or desirable goal? To disengage oneself from the fray is to disengage oneself from the responsibility of working through all the different positions, considering their various virtues and vices and the logic and illogic of the arguments that support them, and then, figuring out which one is most persuasive, most logical, most comfortable fit with our own values. But here of course I am assuming that we have values--that we live our lives with a sense (conscious or perhaps unconscious) of how we stand on a range of issues in human existence--its meaning, what matters in it, how we ought to be behaving towards each other. To be detached from the responsibility of taking a stand on a literary issue might then mean that we absolve ourselves from the responsibility of having any values--or perhaps merely of being aware of what our values are. And that seems to me to be more than vaguely satanic. It lets bad things happen. If people refuse to have opinions and stand for them, then there's no reason anyone can't get away with anything--at which point, presumably, we'll all just say, "Well, they're entitled to their opinion, right?" And let them go right on parking in wheelchair spaces or dropping bombs on poor people and sick babies.
A few years ago, I was teaching a class in which the students all insisted that, since everyone was entitled to an opinion, it was unfair of me to be evaluating their descriptions of their subjective responses to literature. After all, their writings all did represent their opinions, they were therefore all equally valid, and they should therefore all gets A's. I suggested that the fact that everyone was entitled to an opinion could not possibly make all opinions equally valid. They were shocked at the idea--of course all opinions were equally valid, and not believing that was elitist and intolerant. Well, I said, there's clearly one opinion you don't think is valid--the one I just expressed. In any case, I added, I didn't believe them. I was sure there were opinions actually held by some people that they themselves understood to be invalid--disagreed with because they were not logical or helpful positions to hold. (Like, for instance, my opinion about the validity of opinions.) They refused to admit to being so terribly intolerant--as I obviously was. These opinions may be wrong for them, personally, but they were perfectly all right for other people who held them and acted on them (except apparently, when it came to me and marking). How about if you believe in abortion, I said--doesn't this mean that you disagree with people who don't believe in abortion? No, they said, that's a valid opinion too. After getting over being astonished, I asked, So how then do we act as a social group on issues like abortion? Well, obviously, they said, everyone acts on what they believe in and that's that. And so, I said, if I think that abortion is a matter of choice and you think it's a matter of murder, you let me have a choice and I let you commit murder, and that's that? Yes, of course, they said--letting people get away with murder is an inevitable and necessary consequence of being tolerant of others' views.
Well, being someone who thinks that murder is not a particularly good idea (and also that abortion is not what I understand as murder), I can't accept this conclusion. I believe we have to explore all the positions, think them through, arrive at a reasoned conclusion--and then hold to it and act on it. If murder is wrong, then we must acknowledge our disagreements with others who disagree and try to persuade them we are right--in order to makes less murder happen. My goal is not to shut others up--it is to engage in discourse with them with the idea that together we can work towards a deeper and more humane understanding.
In terms of approaches to literature, then, I get impatient with ideas like the one Scholes presents--that the goal of literary studies should be for students to be able to engage in a variety of approaches to a text--a feminist reading, say, and a deconstructionist also. Certainly students should be aware of these approaches and how they work. But after having become aware, I think, the goal is not just to have a repertoire one engages in mindlessly, choosing to be a Marxist one day and a structuralist the next, who knows why ("Hmm, it's raining out--I think that today I'll be an Althusserian new historicist"). The goal should be to use one's knowledge of the possibilities to figure out where one stands oneself--what one point of view or theory works best for each of us individually in terms of how we individually and uniquely view the world and what matters for us about it. And that, I believe, is the approach we should be using, acting upon, and defending against contradictory alternatives. We should then be using it with an informed awareness of all the others--and we should be working to place our own opinions in relationship with others, understanding the implications of what we say and do in terms of what others believe. That's dialogue. What Scholes recommends isn't dialogue because no one has any particular opinion they actually care about to enter into dialogue with.
In another class a few years ago, we had once more got around to a controversial subject like abortion, and someone said, "Oh, well, there are a lot of different opinions about that. So I said, "Well, then, what's your opinion?" This person said. "I believe that everyone has a different opinion." "Fine," I said, then "What's yours? "It's a topic that people have different opinions about," someone else said. "That's what I think." "Fine," I said, "What's yours?" No one answered--there was just a lot of angry glaring at me. It finally turned out that no one had an opinion or would admit they had one, other than the opinion that everyone was entitled to an opinion--an opinion which apparently forgave them from the responsibility of actually having or stating and standing by an opinion. I find this very scary indeed.
But then, that's just my opinion, right?
Anyway, I'd be curious about how people might respond to any of this--in person, on the list, or in exploratories. It really is a key issue about how we approach the various topics of the course.