London Letter



Daniel Swift

  The afternoon the Queen of England died was long, and slow, and curious. It was announced that she was gravely ill and then all news simply paused. For hours the BBC ran footage of grand-looking cars pulling up and then leaving the palace while men waited under umbrellas. When at teatime the newscasters quietly changed into black suits and ties, I took a look at Twitter. I’m a deeply irregular Twitter user. I often find it an oddly moving experiment in whether or not human beings believe in society. But this afternoon I wanted to know whether she was dead or not, and had a vague idea that someone on Twitter might tell me. Because I follow a random handful of accounts, I didn’t find a royal insider with the secret scoop. Instead what I found was Shakespeare. The Twitter bot @IAM_SHAKESPEARE has been tweeting out the complete works of Shakespeare—one line every ten minutes, including stage directions—since 2009. By the afternoon the Queen was dying or already dead it had reached the final scene of Hamlet. “How does the Queen?” asks Hamlet, but she has been poisoned (“the drink! The drink!”). So he commands: “let the door be lock’d:/ Treachery! Seek it out.”
  The Twitter bot had to land somewhere that particular afternoon, but this coincidence suggests something of Shakespeare’s place in this country and, perhaps, in the western anglophone world more broadly. He is something like an oracle, or an instrument by which we may reckon the weather of the moment. He is, perhaps, where we go when we feel there might be trouble, or a foreign country just next door to this one. Let’s call it Shakespeareland. Its climate is a mix: of idol worship, weak royalism, nostalgia, idealism, and empire; tolerance and ambiguity and conservatism; a hopefulness tempered with deep skepticism. The Royal Family have an Instagram account and shortly after the Queen’s death this posted a photograph of her striding across a Scottish moor captioned with another line from the play: Horatio’s prayer over Hamlet’s corpse, “May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.” In his first official speech the new king quoted the same phrase and threw in another. The dead queen was, said King Charles III, “a pattern to all princes living,” from Shakespeare’s Henry VIII (I would bet a thousand crowns that he has not read this play).
  I am making an obvious point, of course. Shakespeare’s plays take on any available light; if they have intrinsic qualities, then one of those qualities is their capacity to work as mirrors. We may try to wrest them to our purposes, but they tend to slip away, to reveal something surprising. I have come to believe, after twenty years of teaching these plays, that there are things in them which are simply waiting, invisible until their moment. It was not until I taught Romeo and Juliet on Zoom to students locked into their dormrooms in the middle of a pandemic that I noticed how Mercutio teases Benvolio: “Thou hast quarrelled with a man for coughing in the street.” Ten stage minutes later, Mercutio is dead, and now that phrase will never again be as it used to be, and somewhere in this is my best and confused guess at why we should go on studying Shakespeare, thinking about him, holding him up to the light.

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  Shakespeare is, writes Gayle Green in Immeasurable Outcomes: Teaching Shakespeare in the Age of the Algorithm (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2023) “the beating heart of the humanities, of humanism.” Her book does two things. It offers an often robust defence of the teaching of the humanities. And, in a slightly cartoonish series of vignettes of an introduction to Shakespeare course during one semester, it recounts the particular ecosystem of a classroom. Greene taught at Scripps College for forty years. She is deeply attuned to how a class changes, week by week. There are, for her and the students, slow insights and moments of resistance and ultimately something beautiful and intangible happens. From the small detail of day by day teaching, she reaches a big conclusion. “It matters, the stories we tell ourselves, because we live up or down to our stories, and the stories we’re telling ourselves now do not serve us well.” Further: “If we believe humans are riven solely by greed and a lust for power, we build institutions, codes, systems around that ideology.” The small classes, the atmosphere of debate, the exchange of ideas: these are at the heart of the ideal of a liberal arts education and these, she insists, foster social responsibility, civic engagement, and a better, more equal world.
  This vision and this way of thinking are under attack from two sets of intertwined forces. One is brutal economics; the other, a wider change in the culture. “We do believe that there are certain intellectual luxuries that perhaps we could do without,” announced Governor Ronald Reagan in 1967, as he cut state support and called for tuition at the University of California. This is a perfect summary of the dominant neo-liberal style of thinking, which distrusts that which is intangible and apparently unprofitable, and which was perhaps most clearly voiced in the United Kingdom by Margaret Thatcher. “Who is society?” the Prime Minister famously mocked in 1987: “There is no such thing. There are individual men and women.” In the US, the big, idealistic state educational projects which followed the Second World War—the Master Plan at the University of California, the Open Admissions program at CUNY—have withered. Greene notes: “In 1990, there were 212 small liberal arts colleges; by 2012, there were 130,” and another 22 closed down between 2016 and 2019.
  Greene’s subject is the US, but the same or worse is true in the UK. In the UK, tuition fees for university have been steadily rising since the late 1990s, at the same time as severe cuts in the government funding for the humanities and arts subjects. To take a single, recent example: as I was reading Greene’s book it was announced that Birkbeck—a left-leaning college of the University of London, famous for offering classes in the evenings so that working men and women can pursue degrees—is cutting 140 academic and administrative jobs, including half of the staff in the departments of Philosophy and Politics, and the combined department of English, Theatre, and Creative Writing. These shrinking departments and vanishing colleges are the sign of a wider shift in the atmosphere around university teaching, particularly in the humanities. Students are now, as is often noted, encouraged to think of themselves as consumers. The language and logic of business is seeping into university life, alongside an increasing dependence upon quantification, data points, explicit learning outcomes, and things which can be measured.
  This is a true story, and a horrifying one; but it’s also an extremely easy one to tell. It has a hero and a villain and a handful of standard jokes. On one side: the humanities, beautiful and otherworldly; on the other, mean-minded bureaucrats. Sometimes the jokes are at the expense of academics: I was asked, not long ago, to prepare a three-point summary of how to teach Hamlet. Often, the jokes are made by academics, incredulous at the new world forced upon them. My current candidate for the worst abuse of the English language is “onboarding,” used to describe the induction process for new faculty members. And this is the problem: it’s both lazy and true, this story. It slips too quickly into an armchair conservatism: back in the old days we used to read Tennyson for breakfast and now it’s all woke TikTok…
  But let’s put it another way: this is a story in the literary mode known as pastoral. I acknowledge that this may make me sound like Ronald Reagan, but what Greene describes is luxurious. In her classroom, “large windows look out on ivy, trees and lawn,” she writes, and all is bathed in “natural light, these gracious grounds with tree-lined paths, bougainvillea trailing up courtyard walls.” There are eighteen students in the class, and at Scripps students are required to study the humanities. I believe in this totally, with all my heart. I would love to teach and learn in exactly that room. I also note that Greene in passing mentions the size of the endowment at Scripps: $375 million.
  This is the contradiction we all fall into when defending the humanities in its current hostile environment. The world of money, of financial accountability, of measurable outcomes, and instrumentalised learning are the enemies of a classical vision of the liberal arts. Indeed, that is what’s liberal about the liberal arts, for the freedom promised in the name is freedom from a direct and vocational training. And yet: it is difficult to defend that which is elite—or that which is exclusive and expensive—while at the same time maintaining a semblance of liberal, even progressive, politics. How to defend the humanities if we see them as a useless thing in an age which values use? And conversely—and equally troublingly—how to defend the study of, say, Shakespeare as cooly pragmatic and useful without betraying something that drew us to it in the first place? Would you be convinced if I told you that studying Shakespeare might make you a successful advertising executive?
  To my cynical, British, Marxist eyes, Greene’s lament is beautiful and naive; it has no historical depth, nor political traction, and for these reasons it is both ideal and something I so deeply wish for. She notes that liberal arts graduates are more likely to win a Pulitzer Prize or become President than the average person is; I fear this shows less the value of a liberal arts education and more the depth of social and economic inequality. “I don’t want to hear what my students can do for the global economy,” she insists: “I want to help them grow themselves, not grow the economy.” And a little voice says, the idea that the liberal arts are opposed to the evils of modern capitalism surely overlooks the historical development of liberalism, hand in hand with capitalism. And, though this might get me kicked out of the bucolic campus of Scripps: Is individualism the only virtue?
  It is too easy to poke these holes. It is close to impossible to defend the humanities, precisely because the terrain upon which one might wish to defend it is riddled with traps. It is hard, that is, to argue against the intrusion of the language and logic of business into the university without sounding like a wooly old hippy; but this has not stopped the cleverest people I’ve ever met from doing so. In the end, at least for me, it is a question of belief, of unashamedly using old fashioned terms such as value, good, the commons. At the heart of it there is—there must be—something moral about sitting and paying attention to a knotty Shakespeare play.

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  A sharper and more historically precise version of the story of what has happened to the teaching of English literature is told by Joseph North in his 2017 book Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History. It’s a willfully dry title for a book, but his argument is oddly thrilling. From its origins in the early 20th Century, North explains, the study of literary works in universities and colleges has been split between two versions. “The field’s central axis of dispute was between literary ‘scholars’ and literary ‘critics,’” he writes: “the key distinction being between those who treated the study of literature as a means by which to analyze culture and those who treated the study of literature as an opportunity to intervene in culture.” In his caricature, the scholar looks inwards, to the university, where the critic looks outwards, to society generally.
  All accounts of 20th century English literary criticism begin with I. A. Richards, the great Cambridge professor of the years following the First World War. Richards famously used to hand his students a poem printed on an otherwise blank sheet of paper, without the name of the author or date. He then asked them to analyse it, and to say whether it was any good. You can try it at home; it’s an impossible game; and, as North explains, it had a specific purpose. Richards wished to train his students to become self-aware as readers, to focus upon the words and their reactions to them; and by extension, he wished to cultivate their sensibilities, and through their aesthetic refinement in turn make them better, fairer people who might change the world. “The incipiently materialist account of the aesthetic that lies at the root of the discipline, and continues to mark its central practice of ‘close reading,’” writes North, “is properly understood as part of a longer history of resistance to the economic, political, and cultural systems that prevent us from cultivating deeper modes of life.” This revolutionary ambition is one path that literary studies might have taken.
  What happened instead—and this is where North’s story meets up with with Greene's—is that in the late 1970s literary studies embraced literary theory. This adoption of theory as a dominant mode of doing literary criticism, followed by a theoretically-informed turn to historicist analysis of literary works, is often celebrated by academics as a victory for the left. But this is, North notes, better seen as the triumph of the forces of neo-liberalism. Following the 1980s, North writes, literary studies became increasingly technical, a discipline of “professional scholarship, or ‘technological expertise’” (he is quoting Terry Eagleton). The scholars won, the critics lost, and literary studies turned away from the world: “the discipline agreed to transform itself into a discipline of observation, tracking developments in the culture without any broader mandate to intervene in it.”
  What theory gave to literary criticism was something close to glamour: a promise that reading old literary works was a high-stakes pursuit and a vocabulary which makes literature professors feel as though they are something closer to scientists exposing hidden truths. In Shakespeare studies, the most powerful theoretical trend of the past thirty years has been what is known as New Historicism or—in the UK—cultural materialism. In this style of reading, Shakespeare’s plays express the contradictions and anxieties of their time; so to read them, we must also see them as distant from us, as artworks of a world elsewhere and long ago. Such theoretically-informed readings feel, on the surface, as though they might be leftist, even progressive. This is certainly what literary scholars tell themselves at conferences and cocktail parties. But, North argues, this is only a way of making ourselves feel better by helping us to forget what we’ve lost, or what we’ve given away. Theory, for North, asks the theorist to analyse without intervening. It is simply acquiescence.
  It is easy to mock theory; Greene makes clear her dismay at the notion that psychoanalysis or feminism might provide a way to open up the plays she loves, and there is perhaps both a generational and a political point here. Mocking theory can in turn mask a deep cultural conservatism. What makes North’s argument compelling is, of course, the switchback it performs in attempting to reclaim an old-fashioned, anti-theoretical attitude for the left. In doing so he provides a second, useful point of resistance to the changes he and Greene feel in the university and its relation to the world. This is his suggestion that part of the trouble is the embrace of that “technological expertise.” We might take this quite literally. In the past twenty years, the study of English literature has seen increasing reliance upon—and interaction with—technology. We see this embrace in the growing field of the digital humanities; in the current fashion for digital mapping and data visualisation for literary texts. We see it, of course—in a slightly different way—in the rise of online teaching platforms, which culminated in the mass adoption of pre-recorded lectures and teaching materials during the Covid pandemic. It has long been promised that such technological innovations might make education more egalitarian and more accessible. This is sometimes, in very specific cases, true. But in January, the UK Times Higher Education Supplement reported that such online learning platforms have, in general, failed in “being transformative while catering mostly to an already educated, affluent crowd.” This is North’s lesson and it is also Greene’s: the new things bear with them a politics which isn’t quite what it seems.
  What Greene and North—and I and many others—share is a sense that the relationship between the university and the world is at this moment under unusual pressure. Sometimes this sense emerges as anger, and Greene is rightly furious. Sometimes it can feel like a deep unease, about an academic’s role. The classroom is a split and tricky place: it is apart from the world, like a monastery; it is deeply within the world, like an office or small business. North and Greene explain this divide in different ways, and tell slightly different stories about where it comes from. But perhaps the point is less its origins and more the feeling of the split. Like many academics, I suspect, I have long felt a mismatch between the work I did for my PhD and the work I do in the classroom. It’s a division beneath the arrangement of curricula: English courses which treat a time period or a common genre or style versus those which teach the skills of reading. And it’s a clash which surfaces whenever academics in English gather socially. We ask, what do you work on? Narrative closure in Chaucer. And what are you teaching? First year writing. This is less true, of course, for those few protected by tenure, who are more free to teach what they choose. But this is, again, North’s point: research is guided by politics, whether we like it or not, and we are all the perfect children of our moment.
  What might an interventionist, life-changing pedagogy look like? For both Greene and North, it is a classroom of students grappling with King Lear. Beyond that, the details are—must be—strategically, anti-instrumentally, beautifully vague. “Very few people, it seems to me, start reading a novel by Virginia Woolf with the primary aim of learning more about British cultural life in the 1920s,” writes North: “Most of those who do so are scholars.” There is a place for scholars; the mockery of that which academics do is an old line of jokes as well as one strand in the wider crisis faced by universities and colleges today. But perhaps we’re framing the question wrongly; perhaps the trap closes upon us when we try to justify what we do in the terms handed to us by another. North goes on:

What nonspecialist readers are looking for in literature is rather less easy to define: perhaps the best we can do at the outset is say they are looking for something to go on with, something that will help them live their lives.

There’s a quiet nobility to this. I had a tutorial not long ago with a student who’d written an essay on Shakespeare’s sonnets, and she mentioned that while writing the essay she’d read the sonnets out loud to her boyfriend. Perhaps this is the best defence of what we do in the humanities. Reading Shakespeare might join the college classroom to the world outside: to the weather, and the wind, on the day the Queen died and on every other.