Richard Etlin on Humanism

Philosophy and Literature 23 (1999): 243-55.

Denis Dutton

Richard A. Etlin’s In Defense of Humanism (Cambridge University Press, $39.95) is notable not only for its passion, but for the way it supplies a new take on familiar problems. Writers who object to varieties of poststructuralism come mainly out of literary studies, where most of the deconstructive damage has been done, and academic philosophy, where poststructural vapidity is more clearly recognized, and therefore less often embraced. Etlin, however, is an architectural historian, and it’s refreshing to come across a cultural warrior lobbing grenades from a different academic encampment.

Etlin’s book is excessively ambitious in trying to attack poststructuralism from dozens of angles; this, however, is part of its charm. He is bravely willing to take on anyone — Hayden White, Foucault, Nietzsche, Derrida, Bourdieu, de Man, Norman Bryson, Freud — and has no hesitation in identifying heroes and heroines, from Rembrandt to Jane Austen to Jefferson to Victor Hugo to Frank Lloyd Wright. Some of his attacks, against Barbara Herrnstein Smith, for example, are too sketchy to amount to refutation, while his positive defense of aesthetic experience and humanistic values is too prone to cite great works as though their very existence proved his position (rather like Dr. Johnson kicking stones to refute Bishop Berkeley). It is nevertheless exciting to traverse the sheer amount of material he discusses.

Richard A. Etlin

Etlin says that not since Hegel have intellectuals displayed the hubris they show today, “attributing to themselves the power to arbitrate all meaning.” Their celebration of complexity and ambiguity becomes a form of “boundless egotism.” Poststructuralists are as suckered by the notion that texts are hidden repositories of obscure meanings as previous generations of intellectuals were suckered by the forces of astrology or alchemy. But their feelings of power, freedom, and discovery are illusory. Etlin develops an analogy from architectural education: a student may present a scheme claiming that it provides great flexibility for the use of a space. Etlin could agree it is flexible, but that in itself does not prove it is good for any particular use — its flexibility may be purely hypothetical, “leaving the client with an undesigned area that would poorly serve any purpose....Claims about variety, endless or even limited, can never be merely asserted; they must be demonstrated with coherent solutions.” Etlin aims this example against the poststructuralist claim that the meaning of a text is potentially infinite. Richness of meaning, which sounds good to most of us, cannot entail no limits on meaning, which would amount to meaninglessness.

Etlin’s brief but incisive treatment of Walter Benjamin’s 1935 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” is quite typical of the provocations of his book, making me wonder why this essay is continuously reproduced, forced on students, and cited in articles. Benjamin’s so-called pathbreaking discourse is wrong on virtually all major counts, as Etlin shows. The mechanically reproduced plethora of copies does not diminish the “aura” of an original work of art, but increases it. Familiarity with reproductions of a painting will usually enhance response to the original, when it is finally encountered. The work’s uniqueness is not destroyed, but emphasized by reproduction: the Mona Lisa on tea-towels and cigar boxes only serves to make the painting in the Louvre more famous as well as valued for not being one of its reproductions — it is the prototype of all its reproductions, not Adam but God in all his glory. Benjamin supposed that mechanical reproduction would enable us to “brush aside a number of outmoded concepts, such as creativity and genius, eternal value and mystery.” The reverse appears to be the case: the cult of the genius, however “outmoded” among poststructuralist intellectuals (not geniuses themselves), flourishes everywhere else in postmodern society. Benjamin, as Etlin also shows, was as far off in remarks on photography and film.

Why, Etlin tempts me to ask, does Walter Benjamin’s reputation remain intact, despite the fact that most of what he claimed in his most famous essay was balderdash? There are a few reasons. Benjamin, an anti-fascist and personal friend of Brecht, committed suicide under tragic conditions, fleeing the Nazis; this in itself gives him the moral status of victim and martyr. But Benjamin’s essay also plays both on the contemporary fascination with the media and on nostalgia for the big answers promised by Marxism. It’s the perfect Marxism for people who don’t really like Marxism, or who don’t think they are supposed to. This belies, of course, all the cant and bravado about the end of Grand Narratives: many poststructuralists are dying to find the final explanation, and it won’t surprise me if some of them end up as Bible-thumpers or Moonies. The postmodern canonization of St. Walter is symptomatic of a persistent need for authority and genius among the very people who loudly repudiate these ideas, and the mechanical reproduction of his essay continues to add to the aura of his name.

Etlin’s thinking expresses a profound respect not for the aura of art, but for its real capacities to enrich and enliven experience. Hence his feeling of outrage in seeing art abused and diminished in the pursuit of political ends. Etlin provides a devastating critique of Edward Sad’s treatment of the slavery issue in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. Etlin also enlists the help of the Sri Lankan scholar D.C.R.A. Goonetilleke to show that Sad’s reading of Kipling’s Kim as flat-out racist-imperialist rant ignores significant ambiguities in the text. Here as elsewhere (his resistance to Bourdieu’s sociological reductionism, for instance), Etlin is defending the power of art to imaginatively transcend the aesthetic categories conventions and social preoccupations of any historical moment — especially our own — and thereby reveal the profound complexities of life as it is lived. His aim is to put critics back in their place, as handmaidens to art, not masters. He points out in his preface how astonishing it is that a writer in the TLS is compelled to add, without irony, that he means “no disparagement” when he calls a book he’s reviewing “humanistic” and “accessible to anyone.” Etlin remarks, “I would feel honored if somebody would say the same about my book.” I’m delighted to pay him the compliment. In Defense of Humanism is a cool, clear breeze blowing some fairly foul-smelling fog from the corridors of the academy. In scholarly fields marked by obscurity, conformity, and eagerness not to offend, Etlin is willing to walk straight in, speak plainly, and raise the right issues. This is a wonderfully offensive book.

Copyright 1999 Johns Hopkins University Press. All rights reserved.