Evolution, Esoteria, and Extinction

This is gonna be a long one. I thought about splitting this into several posts, but fear that that would lead to several equally long-winded posts. So, just hear me out if you’ve got some time. If not, just skip to the end.

In 2006, while still a grad student, I wrote a paper for a colloquium[1] – and had the nerve to present it to the graduate faculty of my own university. (Take it from The Bad Witch, this is proverbially shitting where one eats.) I had gone to MLA in the months before and heard Michael Berube and Cary Nelson talk about the deteriorating status of contingent labor.[2] My reason for writing this paper was that the work we do in the English Department is poorly understood by the general population.  (I dare say, some of us don’t understand what others in our own department do.)  This poor understanding precedes popular criticism that derides our scholarship as “obtuse” or “meaningless.”  This criticism is often advanced in service of an ideology at odds with the democratic underpinnings of a liberal arts education and usually follows these lines: “English Departments should stick to teaching grammar and punctuation rather than teaching kids to be Marxists, feminists, homosexuals, or worse – grad students.”  Just the year before this colloquium, James Pierson authored The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy which confirmed that the expectation of the English department has become primarily to teach rudimentary writing skills – and business writing at that – the kind of writing that earns income.

Paganism, I know – I’m getting to it, just trust The Bad Witch for a minute.

Those within the Literature track of the English Department believe that they are entitled to relevance as “the keepers of culture.”  They say, “Why of course Literature is relevant!  Students should want to read both The Decameron and Ulysses and everything in between because it will enrich them with character; it will give them a soul.”[3]  Others, like myself, have heard the voices from outside the ivory tower which are caterwauling for us to justify our existence (and public funding).[4] Don’t forget grade inflation conundrum.

I had hoped to have fellow-graduate students in my audience; this paper was written for them as the target audience, after all. I addressed them immediately:

I imagine you have all had this experience.  You tell someone that you are earning a degree in English and . . . they assume a pathetic demeanor and reply, “Oh, then you are planning to teach.”  What’s worse is when they ask about your specialty.  Either you answer something like “Eighteenth Century Poetry” or “Modern Political Drama” OR you answer “Representation Theory,” “Regional American Linguistics,” or (god forbid) “Gender Studies.”  You lose either way, because either you will confirm for them that you are studying what is perceived as The Dead White Guys or you confirm for them that the Department of English is intentionally opaque, obscure, and obsolete.

But, alas, when I saw the program, my paper had been placed on a panel with brilliant but unappreciated “Topics in Rhetoric.” And to my chagrin, there was a concurrent panel with circus clowns and free candy. Guess where the grad students went? I walked into the room where my panel was scheduled and faced the academic firing squad: the surliest portion of the grad faculty.[5] Among these was the Bloom-worshiping, conservative Twentieth-Century American Poetry teacher who told me that I wielded gender theory like a blunt object.[6]

I explained all of the intricacies, but in the end, fewer English majors mean fewer specialist positions – and an increase in faculty stratification.  This stratification (along tenurable and nontenurable lines) creates a lower morale in the department as a whole and increases insularity.  I predicted that it would also “create a job market that will have all of us shaking in our boots for a decade or more.” There was a lot more to the paper, but who cares – this is just the sounding board for my real point. A point about Paganism – I’m getting to it. I promise.

I ended up entirely right and am now surrounded by an anxious and demoralized body of co-workers. Sometimes I hate being right.

The problem, I asserted was that:

So many of us perpetuate what Goeffrey Sirc bemoans as the dulling influence of academic polity, which has led many grad students to (re)produce the sort of prose and responses which correspond to our mentor’s work and therefore buys us kudos at a time when we are vulnerable and in need of affirmation.

So to sum up: grad students perpetuate what tradition (via mentors) deems scholarly. However, the public deems it futile.  Further, because we are misunderstood and disregarded as ineffectual, we no longer draw the undergraduate majors that we used to. Therefore, liberal arts have among the lowest pay in the university, in a culture that equates material compensation with worth.

The question becomes, imho: how do we make English Literature valuable to students who only take World Literatures because they “have to” in order to get their degrees in Science, Engineering, and Business Administration?  I advocated an interdisciplinary approach. Think about Science in the English classroom.  I teach Darwin’s Decent of Man in my World Literature class.  Not because I teach evolution, but because I think Charles Darwin provides a fabulous read and makes a nice connection between Frankenstein and Wordsworth.  Plus, I tend to have a lot of various COSAM students and this is a good bridge text.  All of my students typically love it; though the ones who don’t read continue to think that Darwin claimed man evolved from apes.  Didn’t happen.  One thing Darwin did claim is that those species which evolve adaptations that better suit their surroundings will survive better than those that cannot/do not adapt.  “Survival of the Fittest” does not refer to strength – lion over gazelle (or Science and Math over Liberal Arts) – it refers to appropriateness in adaptation – fins over feet.

True story.  There is a pond and a biologist who studies that pond – actually the fish in that pond.  Some of the fish reproduce asexually – they are haploid clone fish.  Genetically, each offspring is an exact duplicate of its parent.  There are, in that same pond, diploid or polyploid sexually reproducing fish of that same species.  They get one set of alleles from each parent.  This is nature’s preferred method of reproduction – organisms typically receive one set of homologous chromosomes from each parent.  The benefit of cloning is that ALL of the parent’s DNA gets passed on to the next generation and then the next generation and then the next generation – the species remains pure.  The sexual reproducers lose out since only half of their DNA make it to the next generation and less gets passed on to the generation after that – you get the idea.  But. One year a virus invaded the pond.  It was a predator.  The clone fish were able to fight the virus at first, but when the virus mutated and the clone fish stayed the same, the clone fish were eradicated.  The diploid reproducers evolved; they built up a resistance to the virus and they survived.

Such phenomena have many implications in biological sciences and specifically genetics; but what the heck does it have to do with English?  (And what the heck does it have to do with Paganism and Witchcraft?) I’m sure that if you’ve read any of the other Bad Witch Files, you know that I am ever-ready to talk to you in terms of metaphor.

We are like the fish in the pond.  Those of us who integrate new material into our work are more likely to evolve and therefore survive.  Those of us who clone, may not.

I do not advocate the kind of cross-pollination that waters-down the discipline.  Literary Studies remain Literary Studies, Wicca remains Wicca; but I advocate doing it in such a way that involves other disciplines, more like symbiosis. Or microevolution.[7] It’s hard, because it means that as a scholar and a teacher (academics or spirituality), you have to know more than one discipline.  It’s also hard because it involves going out on an evolutionary limb of our own rather than cloning our mentors’ work.[8]  A proposal which is sticky. Some feel that this advocating of hybridism will result in nothing short of bastardization of Studies in English.  But do a quick Google search: any state schools still have a Classics Department?  How many still teach Old English?  Because of its perceived obtuseness, Classics Departments have generally been absorbed into the English Major or cut altogether.  Such topics in English are going the way of the Dodo.  Extinction is the result of a failure to evolve. [9]

Just look at the Catholic Church.

Here’s the real question for those of you scrolling to the end.

What does that mean for Pagan and, more pointedly, Witchcraft traditions? Does that start an argument against traditionalism? Or is Witchcraft, by virtue of being intentionally esoteric,[10] insular, enigmatic and secretive, consequentially immune to outside annihilation?

If I was right – and I maintain that I was/am – when grad students perpetuate canonical tradition at the expense of scholarly innovation (which the broader populace derides), Liberal Arts – already esoteric to some – maintains the misunderstood position as “impractical.” Consequently, the discipline attracts fewer students. The domino effect is that teachers are less valuable and less compensated. This makes a career in teaching liberal arts less attractive which, snowball, snowball, snowball . . . .

But, in many Pagan traditions, we try our damndest to maintain “pure” traditions and to stay in line with ancient practices. This isn’t the first time I’ve asked a question like this, but it’s the first time I’ve asked it outright: Is this even a good idea?

We pretty much agree that wine is OK instead of blood. We concede that (some) sex can be symbolic. We recognize the impracticality of many traditional tools and find that a system of “correspondences” and “substitutions” is the key to magical-proxy.[11] But then we say that other traditions are non-negotiable. Again, like my question about gender, I find myself asking where we draw the line.

Am I comparing apples and oranges here? Polyphanes recent commentary on The Digital Ambler In Terms of Another” makes me ask myself: “Am I trying to discuss a biological impulse in terms of a mathematical algorithm?”[12]

I don’t have an answer.

I’m seriously considering this conundrum.

This one may plague me for a minute.

This post is  part of a year-long project. Rowan Pendragon’s The Pagan Blog Project; “a way to spend a full year dedicating time each week very specifically to studying, reflecting, and sharing . . . .    The project consists of a single blog post each week posted on prompt that will focus on a letter of the alphabet.”


[1] “Going Public in The English Department.” In Higher Ed Studies, “Going Public” generally refers to a lifting of the academic veil that shrouds our department in secretive obscurity.  Yes, we are the keepers of culture; yes, we have a responsibility to maintain the integrity of the written arts.  But not at the risk of insularity and exclusion.  Think about it, if we hide culture away in an enigmatic and exclusive circle – sure we succeed in maintaining scholarly integrity but we also fail at affecting the greater society around us – which is in dire need of some high art and cultural awareness.  Yeah? I was The Bad Grad Student too.

[2] Not to be confused with contentious labor.

[3] Yup. Somebody said that to me. I reminded him that my illiterate auntie has (and all of my Mvskogee ancestors who never had much use for written literature had) a bigger soul than he ever would.

[4] As a case in point consider this.  I took part in a Graduate School Research Forum and after one of my comrades in English gave what I considered a well-thought-out talk for an anti-hunger project, one of the judges said something like, “I don’t mean to be a grumpy old man, but what’s the point?  Literature isn’t going to change the world.” Not even within the walls of the academy are we safe from such raw criticism.

[5] The affable portion was in the room with the clowns and candy, obvs.

[6] My response was, “Like a phallus?”

[7] I’ll concede to use this term even though I know that there is no relevant difference between microevolution and macroevolution. Both happen comparably. When biologists use different terms, it’s for descriptive reasons. When creationists use it, it’s for ontological reasons. I’m neither a biologist or a creationist, so I have nothing at stake.

Geological Time Spiral. Want an explanation? Click to link.

[8] And while evolution is typically imagined as a linear progression, in our imagination (supported by geological evidence), evolution can have the ebb and flow of the tides, the orbit of the Wheel of Fortune, the Great and Sacred Spiral.

[9] There is a counterargument to hybridism – but for our purposes here, let me limit myself to the positive results of hybridism.  I’m always dragging a COSAM student around the English Department; they leave saying, “I didn’t know you could do that with English.”  The big payoff is – they go out into the broader university and say things like, “I was talking to this woman from the English Department about co-writing an article about artistic renderings of seed pods in early twentieth-century biology textbooks.”  This is like the movement of gene flow which allows new genes and characteristics to spread from their population of origin – the English Department – throughout the species – or university – as a whole.

[10] When TBW was a kiddo in Chicago, there was a club called Esoterica. I have happy memories associated with this word.

[11] Holy hot-hell, my brain just went into a mode of Structuralist and Deconstructionist Theory from which I will run post-haste.

[12] But – – that’s a whole nother ball of, well, balls to be well-explored over a pint or two. Or six. (Tee, hee, I wrote “sex” and had to revise.)