I.A. Richards, Digital Humanist

Dear Mark,

Researching I.A. Richards was high on the to do list for a couple of reasons, you will recall.

First, because we needed to know more about a scholar who influenced those mid-century players we hold responsible for institutionalizing the conflation of English with the Humanities and erasing a half century of interaction among humanities professors and mass media experts in and outside the academy.

Second, because what we knew of his engagement with mass media made him appear a figure difficult to incorporate into Graff’s account of mid-century English. I’ve done a bit of poking around and can report that he both does and does not appear eccentric to Graff’s narrative, in which all early-twentieth-century roads lead to the New Criticism. His arguments were as vital to the Redbook’s opening salvo in the culture wars as they were to offering an alternative to its restrictive account of Humanities work.

Among the things I’ve learned about Richards is that he had his own TV show. His biographer John Paul Russo buries this tasty factoid deep in the footnotes, where he recounts that “The Sense of Poetry” ran from 1957-58 on WGBH and public stations across the country (786-87). Each episode, according to Russo, the show focused on a key poem from the Renaissance or Romanticism, which Richards explained in a manner that reproduced his classroom lectures for a national audience. Proto-MOOC, anyone?

This was no one off. Richards had a long and torrid relationship with mass media. He was as wary of its “sinister potentialities” (Russo 163) as he was convinced of its utility for education, mostly at the primary level. TV teaches English language, according to Richards, but not the kind of critical thinking that might be fostered in the university classroom. Except perhaps in this poetry TV show? Hard to tell. Russo does not appear to have watched it, although he notes two sources who have seen copies held at the PBS archives in DC and at Magdalene College at Cambridge. In a Boston Review column, Helen Vendler describes seeing the series on TV, and sums it up as a repetition of “parts of the undergraduate poetry course.” Intriguingly, Anne Sexton’s bio on The Poetry Foundation web page notes that although Sexton started writing as therapy, her composition took off after she saw on TV “I. A. Richards describing the form of a sonnet and I thought maybe I could do that. Oh, I was turned on. I wrote two or three a day for about a year.”

Even as he was doing TV, working on projects with Disney, and receiving support from the Payne Fund, Richards was giving talks and publishing essays that furthered what for him was a career-long critique of mass media institutions for producing “dehumanized social animals” instead of “self-controlled, self-judging, self-ruling men and women” (Russo 1989: 516). He does not appear to have thought of himself as collaborating with experts in Hollywood so much as saving mass media from Hollywood.

Richards personified, or so it seems, the split that we have understood historically. His very practice of working with and against Hollywood is what we presented in the Redbook’s wake, after which engagement with Hollywood was replaced by the set of oppositions (Unity/Difference, Humanities values/Commercial values) that you describe as organizing the English department and its discontents from the mid-1940s onward.

Harpham asserts that the Harvard Redbook’s account of English and the Humanities “betrays the undoubted influence” of Richards, “an iconoclast and polemicist, not to mention a newcomer to the country” who nonetheless succeeded in remaking the academy (Humanities 157-58). What the Redbook presents as consensus about what an English Department should do is, Harpham argues, really a condensed version of Richards’s iconoclastic program to exclude the extratextual in the study of literature and to promote close reading modeled in class by a charismatic professor. This “perfectly contradicts” the Redbook’s emphasis on “heritage,” Harpham observes, even if it supports the Redbook’s conviction that academic authority can “awaken” students (159-60).

What Harpham sees as a contradiction looks less like one if we understand the Redbook as attempting, in your words, “to administer what counts as common culture by setting its touchstones in Ovid, Shakespeare, Milton, etc.” Richards’s English provides the Redbook with a concise, easily reproducible curriculum as well as a compelling pedagogical style.

As part of a larger campaign to make the university (and the Humanities reduced to the English Department) central to the administration of culture, disdain for the main competition is understandable. Opposition to Hollywood makes as much sense in Richards’s career as it does in the Redbook’s coda. What distinguishes Richards from many of his academic brethren, however, is the experience he had working with Hollywood as well as working against it.

In the coda entitled “New Media of Education,” the Redbook authors express their conviction that mass media (especially advertising) degrades language and requires “the greatest words” to serve “mean or trivial purposes” (266). This seems to have been Richards’s position pretty consistently. In Practical Criticism (1930), he argues that

Nine-tenths, at the least, of the ideas and the annexed emotional responses that are passed on by the cinema, the press, friends and relatives, teachers, the clergy . . . to an average child of this century are judged by the standards of poetry crude and vague rather than subtle or appropriate. (248)

The problem is the mass as much as the media:

A very simple application of the theory of communication shows…that any very widespread diffusion of ideas and responses tends towards standardisation, towards a levelling down.

Fortunately, poetry can save us.

As our chief means by which subtle ideas and responses may be communicated, poetry…is, at least, the most important repository of our standards.

Herein lies the contest: mass media standardize, poetry upholds standards. Poetry bucks the tendency of massification where Hollywood embraces it. The classroom recaptures an earlier era “when man lived in small communities, talking or reading, on the whole, only about things belonging to his own culture” (339). The teaching of poetry counters the effects of “heterogeneity,” which brings with it a degradation of language: “for all kinds of utterances our performances, both as speakers (or writers) and listeners (or readers), are worse than those of persons of similar natural ability, leisure and reflection a few generations ago” (339-40). The need to salvage common culture by tying it to the elevated language of poetry becomes ever more vital as, in Richards’s words, “world communications, through the wireless and otherwise, improve” (Practical (340). Technology answers heterogeneity with standardization, poetry with standards. It is hard for Richards to imagine that anyone would prefer the former technique of population management to the latter, were they capable of thinking it through.

Still, in the 1950s Richards was convinced that poetry was losing:

all the cultures everywhere would be replaced by artifacts–advertisement, pulps, comics, soap opera and screen entertainment, televised or direct–the familiar threat to the new leisure–the leisure from which it seemed, not so very long ago, so much might be hoped. And we must fear that the resistances and defenses our culture puts up at all levels–mass education, popularization, scholarly toil, research and museum-mindedness–will with the best intentions merely join in the attack, destroying the culture from within as the sales and production pressures converge on it from without. (Russo 163, 516)

This passage from Richards’s book Speculative Instruments hints at alternative uses for mass media even while lamenting entertainment’s effects. During WWII, even as the Redbook was in the works, Richards was working hard to generate such alternatives. He assembled films to further his “Basic” approach to teaching English and visited Disney in 1942 to learn how to draw cartoons. According to his biographer, press coverage of these encounters earned Richards scorn back at Harvard (436). Russo identifies the Payne Fund and for a time the Rockefeller Foundation as supporters but relates that “English departments turned their backs on him, and departments of communication and film studies were ten or twenty years in the future” (437). Decherney lists Richards as one of the participants in the Rockefeller Foundation “Communication Seminar”, which met for ten months during the war, producing during that time “thirty working papers that they hoped would both aid in the creation of an empirical method for calculating the effects of mass media and, at the same time, pave the way for a ‘genuinely democratic propaganda'” (Hollywood 147). (I’ve gathered some materials on this early phase of communications research and I think I remember you saying you knew someone who’d spent time looking into this seminar?)

In an essay published in 1947, Richards recounted his experiments with Disney and outlined principles for using film as a teaching tool. “This is not,” he wrote, “a matter of first designing a course and then, somehow, translating it into film. Film is too potent a medium for that. It shapes what it handles–in elementary subject matters, above all” (English 1). Film has this pedagogical power, he contended in 1968, because it is so tied to our senses. “Our two senses, eye and ear, must be used together if the teaching needed is to be developed,” he declared. “The most capable channels for such teaching are film, film-strip, tape, records, picture text, TV–modern media, extant or to be–computer-handled” (Design 3). Here as in the Redbook, Richards argued that the sensory impact of film made it best for elementary teaching. “The chief success of sound-motion teaching hitherto has probably been in vocational rather than in general subjects” (Redbook 263).

Richards sought to recruit film and mass media for an educational division of labor. Film and TV would help students acquire basic skills. Literature, especially poetry, would help them to think critically. “The critical reading of poetry is an arduous discipline,” he wrote in Practical Criticism.

But, equally, the immense extension of our capacities that follows a summoning of our resources is made plain. The lesson of all criticism is that we have nothing to rely upon in making our choices but ourselves. The lesson of good poetry se&ms to be that, when we have understood it, in the degree in which we can order ourselves, we need nothing more. (Practical 351)

Richards promoted poetry analysis as self-governance in his scholarship (and in the Redbook), while his teaching style relied on spectacle reminiscent of cinema. Vendler describes the following scene at Harvard:

The room was totally dark. The undergraduates were thereby prevented from doing their calculus homework, writing each other notes, or indeed taking notes on what Richards said, all admirable results. On a screen up front, high and very large, were projected, by a slide projector, the words of a poem–always, without exception, a great poem. (Richards never condescended to students.) The poem appeared a stanza or so at a time. Richards stood below the screen, his back to us, a long pointer in his hand. We saw the back of his head, and its halo of floating white hair. He was not interested–at that moment–in us; he was absorbed in the poem, as, it was expected, we should be. (We had scarcely any choice, since, in the dark, it was our only possible object of attention.) The large words took on an aura they cannot possess on the page–“as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on the screen.”

Poetry requires the technological supplement of screen projection to acquire aura. Although I hesitate to make too much of this, Vendler’s account does perfectly capture what otherwise might appear contradictory parts of Richards’s relationship to mass media. Against Hollywood but a lover of screens. Suspicious of TV but producer of educational programming that anticipates the likes of Sesame Street (Vendler makes this observation in her column). His late book Design for escape; world education through modern media capture both positions. “A new, severe, and most exacting puritanism of purpose is needed to keep the distracting temptations of these media at bay,” Richards wrote, giving voice to the ivory tower opposition to Hollywood entertainment (20). But on the same page he regrets opposition from within Hollywood to academic meddlers like himself who wish to advise and reform Hollywood practice. “TV-expertize is more variously sustained and afflicted with ‘Ah, we insiders know better!’ than perhaps any other specialty” (20).

Richards had a far more complicated engagement with media than did the mid-century English professors he influenced.
As Terry Eagleton puts it in Literary Theory, “”Whereas Leavis waged war on the technologico-Benthamites, Richards tried to beat them at their own game” (45). Harvard did not want anything to do with his technological experiments, says Russo. He had lots of takers outside the academy, however, including a longstanding relationship with WGBH. In addition to his star turn in “The Sense of Poetry,” he co-produced with his longtime collaborator Christine Gibson a 36-episode run of “English Through Television” and starred as Socrates in the 1964 program “Why So, Socrates?” (Russo 453, 485).

Richards had no interest in keeping safe distance from the mass media institutions he wanted to critique. I don’t think this makes him a hero in our story, by any means. However, the consistency of his engagement and the lack of postwar academic interest in his mass media work does provide a kind of test case for our hypothesis that the culture wars required obliviousness to past and ongoing interaction between Hollywood and the Humanities.

Richards appears to have wanted to understand how Hollywood did what it did so that he could appropriate and retool its means for pedagogical ends. This reminds me of nothing more than contemporary efforts to turn video games into educational tools. Whatever one thinks of such efforts, they are very different from the culture war habit of attacking mass media institutions from a position securely outside them. Through his work on the Redbook and his scholarship on poetry, Richards may have helped start the culture wars, but he also offered an alternative to its restrictive definition of the Humanities.



4 thoughts on “I.A. Richards, Digital Humanist

  1. mark


    We should probably try to keep self-congratulation to a minimum on this thing, but wowza, this is great stuff. Maybe I have rhetorical quibble with the last paragraph’s inside/outside idea. I think that it is not really possible to be “outside” the relations produced in the 20th century by mass media–that’s what makes them mass media. The later development of the culture wars (say in the 1980s) looked like “wars” instead of, say, “arguments,” because they crossed over from the university into mainstream media. Rather than inside/out, Richard’s case suggests to me something more like love/hate, and you’ve got me wondering how idiosyncratic (or generalizable) that’s really going to look.


    1. john Post author

      Hi Mark,

      I agree that there’s no “outside” to mass media relations, but I’d want us to be able to talk about working within and without mass media institutions, or companies, or something. I’m searching for a distinction between the scholar who critiques from a presumed distance and the one who critiques while showing up at Disney to learn how to animate, a la Richards. This may be a distinction without a difference in the end if we’re all already within mass media, I suppose, but I’m leaning towards thinking it matters. Love/hate is great, btw. Sometimes the love is denied, however. The better to embrace the fullness of hate.


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