I used to claim that there was no such thing as self-expression in art. That’s not something I’d say any more, but not because I’ve changed my mind. Quite the opposite; I’ve gotten even more dead set against the dualism underlying the popular conception of self-expression than I was a couple years ago. I think it’s a worldview that makes an ideal of an empirical falsehood, causing a great deal of misery. But I’ve realized that a true materialism, one that really frees itself from that falsehood, can’t work entirely by negative definition. If the concept of the “true self” that was the fixation of the Modernists is incoherent, and I think that it is, then so is the statement that “there is no true self” with “true self” meant in that way. Reveling in superficiality as a response to Modernism’s failure is, to torture an expression, throwing out the baby and then taking a big drink of bathwater. What we need to do us come up with a new definition of self that isn’t at odds with materialism. As we do so, popular ideas like self-expression will be things we need to account for, not things we need to deny.
One reason I think that negativity has become so popular among literary scholars is that it’s associated, in no small part due to Hegel, with historicism, a philosophical approach that lends itself particularly well to supporting the importance of literature as an object of study. But I don’t want to discount the ethical case against the positive. One can find ample evidence in any history book that positive definitions of what it is to be human or American or a member of society can oppress. There is an ethical onus on the head of anyone who speaks positively about the human, to be sure. But ethics can be a problem for negative approaches as well, and I suspect that it is partially due to institutional constraints in the field of literary scholarship that the ethical arguments made in English departments have been skewed against the positive. A good epistemic standard is not all it takes to be responsible, but sticking to one generally is a prerequisite, and this is quite simply more difficult to do when speaking positively. Oftentimes to really back up a positive claim about the world takes experimental study, and for the most part the institutional support for serious experimental studies is not there in English departments.
This is something that I hope will change as technology makes empirical humanities more practical. Positive statements about culture and the “human” are not going to disappear, and denying them legitimacy in the intellectual world only insulates them from scrutiny. The U.S. is wanting for an institution that could serve as a legitimate place for such claims, where standards of responsibility can be entrenched as, if not explicit points of policy, at least norms of professionalism. If the right is trying to tear down the academy, that means it’s time to start building.