Bwog has hopped, poked, and swiftly skimmed, but now we’re inviting other writers into the Bwog Bubble. We think there’s lots of fantastic campus journalism out there that sometimes slips under the radar. In the spirit of Enlightenment salons from centuries past, we present our newest feature, BwogSalon. Bwog asked the editors of each publication on campus to send us a teaser article from their most recent issue—something distinctly representative of their point of view, but still accessible. Below, check out this interview with Professor Bruce Robbins from The Gadfly. You’ll make your fave French intellectual and your fashionably philosophical friends proud.
Making Small Talk with Bruce Robbins
Bruce Robbins is the Old Dominion Foundation Professor in the Humanities in Columbia’s English and Comparative Literature Department. His primary interests include nineteenth and twentieth century fiction, literary and cultural theory and postcolonial studies. A prolific author, Professor Robbins has published such works as Feeling Global: Internationalism in Distress, The Servant’s Hand: English Fiction from Below and Secular Vocations: Intellectuals, Professionalism, Culture. From 1991 to 2000 he was co-editor of the prominent journal Social Text. He regularly teaches courses on contemporary literary theory, modern comparative fiction, and intellectual history.
Recently, we sat down with Professor Robbins to discuss his undergraduate years, the important relationship between literary theory and philosophy, and the Core Curriculum.
Q: How did you first get into your field?
A: I was a history and literature major at Harvard, which was a combined program for those students who hadn’t quite figured out which field they were more interested in. I had gone into college thinking I would become a philosophy major. I had read Plato, Nietzsche, and Sartre during my adolescence, in the heyday of existentialism. I remember I once told my high school friends that I was interested in ‘existentionalism.’ I was, of course, mocked and put down in the way that people are severely put down in high school for being pretentious. Anyway, I was familiar with those thinkers before I got to Harvard but I never ended up taking a philosophy course during college. Instead, I was turned on to literary criticism through a close reading course that I took freshman year. The best way the history department and literature department had found to combine the two subjects was, in effect, a sort of compromise. We did read social historians who were big in that period, but intellectual history was at the center. That’s what gave me the confidence to take a shot at so-called “theory” when it took off in the U.S. in the 70s.
At some point in senior year, I went more in the literary direction. I guess it seemed to me that literary criticism was more open than other fields. The philosopher Richard Rorty said it well when he said that philosophy had abandoned the goal of asking the big questions, and literary criticism had picked up the ball after philosophy dropped it. For instance, around 1972 there was a certain excitement around Claude Levi-Strauss, and a friend of mine, an undergraduate at the time who actually went on to become a professor at the University of Chicago, suggested we form a reading group with an assistant philosophy professor in order to read Levi-Strauss.
We did, but it didn’t work. The guy in the philosophy department was not interested in answering the larger questions, such as, What is this thinker trying to do? Why is it worth doing? This particular philosopher, not the discipline as a whole, was not prepared to answer these larger questions and I believe I was because there was more room to do so in literary criticism, at least at that moment.
Q: Have things changed for literary criticism?
A: It is not a good moment for literary theory. All across the country, partly due to financial pressure, scholars have pulled back into a narrowly historical understanding of their field; many only work within that particular period. Not many people are asking questions that transcend their period. Theory exists to impose these larger questions on the discipline. Are we really talking about the same object as in earlier periods? Or are we relying on the lazy assumption that these texts are the same simply because they are all called “literature”? To a certain extent, literary criticism is a place where that still happens, just less so. As a historical fact, the impulse of French theory in the ’60s and ‘70s does not seem as strong now. Today, people are looking elsewhere for that philosophical excitement that we got from French theorists.
Q: Is there anyone working in theory now who gives you that philosophical excitement?
A: Etienne Balibar, for one, who is actually teaching a seminar at Columbia this fall. He is asking very interesting questions about violence and civility. He and Judith Butler are working on the same problems, particularly the problem of universality.
Q: Is there such a thing as the Western canon as taught in Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilization and is the Core an adequate way to teach that canon?
A: I have never had the good fortune of taking Lit Hum or CC or teaching either course. It is something I would like to do while I’m still walking. The Core is great when I want to refer to a certain philosophical tradition in my other classes because students have read Herodotus, Kant, etc. There are not many other universities where you can do that. However, I think it would be a good thing if the Core were revised in some way by integrating other traditions into Lit Hum and CC. Not as other options on the side but at the center—I would like to see the Core tell the story, the true story, of the communication between these traditions and the Western tradition. This could happen in the Core. This currently happens through institutes around campus that bring together people from different intellectual backgrounds to explore the same problems.
Q: What philosopher or philosophical tradition has most influenced your approach to literary theory?
A: The Kantian tradition. It is Kant’s interpretation of the aesthetic that makes literary criticism a viable discipline whether critics acknowledge that debt or not. That being said, traditions that are hostile to Kant are also influential for me and for the discipline; Hegel, for example. A great deal of contemporary theory is based, at least in part, on readings of Chapter 4 of the Phenomenology of Spirit. And in turn, the anti-Hegelian traditions of French post-structuralism have also become important to me and to the discipline.
Q: What’s your favorite novel?
A: Dickens’ Bleak House. But I will put in a good word for Franzen’s new novel, Freedom.