Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Conservative, essentialist

In his comment to Frank Wilson’s kind link to my post on argument and monologue, Art Durkee says that my definitions of literature reflect “the very conservative literary view, almost the essentialist view,” while Green’s is “the more post-modern view.”

Neither of these is quite right.

The view that literature is distinguished by different and higher ambitions than other kinds of writing (it “seeks to be judged by ‘literary’ criteria”), and that it is restricted to fiction (“fiction, poetry, and the drama”), seems pretty old-fashioned to me. I would even describe it as Arnoldian—a variation, that is, on Arnold’s criterion of seriousness.

And while it is true that I am a political conservative—I was upset yesterday, for example, when President Obama opened the door to prosecution of Bush administration figures who approved or engaged in “torture”—I am entirely unclear on how my definitions of literature are conservative. Even more, how they are essentialist. What essence do I posit for literary texts?

My definitions, again, run like this:

(1) Either everything written is literature, or only some of it is.

(2) If the former, it must be arbitrarily restricted by means of some acceptable scholarly category (e.g. historical period, gender). If the latter, it must be selected.

(3) Those who pursue the former solution are literary scholars; the latter, literary critics.

(4) Except when the word is used by literary scholars (who mean “everything written”), literature is a title of prestige bestowed by literary critics upon some written works and not others.

(5) The only account that I have been able to devise that subsumes all the different selections of prestigious works made at different times and in different places by different critics is this: Literature is good writing, where by definition ‘good’ yields no fixed definition.

If Mr Durkee or someone else could tell me how these five propositions are “conservative,” I should be grateful.

For a genuinely conservative voice in criticism, I offer by contrast David P. Goldman (a.k.a. Spengler) of the Asian Times, whom I quoted below saying that the celebration of Susan Boyle, the singer who wowed the audience on Britain’s Got Talent, “validates the mediocrity of popular audiences and represents a ‘[c]hurlish resentment of high culture.’ ” Or the late Hugh Kenner, whom Patrick Kurp touchingly discusses today. It is Kenner whom I am quoting when I hold dogmatically that “There are some works of literature that every civilized American should be familiar with.” Please note, however, that I go on in particularly unconservative fashion to add that “there will be much disagreement over what [those literary works] are.” Despite the tone of smug superiority that puts off many of my readers, this addition is intended to create an opening for my intellectual opponents.

Update: Frank Wilson characterizes my views as existentialist. The correct answer, for fifty points (buzzer, please), is eclectic.


R/T said...

While I suggest that labels are problematic (e.g., "literature," "conservative," etc.), I tend to identify myself as a "conservative" (with respect to the study of literature), and I argue that your assertion which follows in an amended form is both accurate and "conservative": “There are some works of literature that every civilized American [or educated person] should be familiar with.” Where anti-conservatives, if that is a useful label, get into trouble (and where they seem to lose patience with those they perceive as conservatives) is when they aggressively and irrationally seek to amend or clarify that single sensible precept with belated political correctness and universal inclusiveness through their attempts to fracture and reconstitute the Western canon; Harold Bloom, of course, explains this problem much better than I can do in this limited forum. I guess if I were to humbly diagnose what is at the heart of the ongoing dispute between you (Prof. Myers) and others, I would suggest that it is your opposition's strident discomfort with a "conservative" approach to reading, teaching, criticizing, and discussing literature. I would hope that the study of literature (as a profession) is durable and self-confident enough to include differences of opinions (i.e., "conservative" and "liberal"), or must so-called "conservative" commentators and teachers turn in their credentials, surrender their tenure, cancel their contracts, and retreat into retirement so that academia (and other environments for the advancement of literature) become single-minded, politically-correct laboratories for the perpetuation of anti-"conservative" points of view? Well, the bottom line is this: Dialogue is good, and intolerance is not. In any event, Prof. Myers, hang in there. I'm in your corner.

D. G. Myers said...

Kenner’s assertion that “There are some works of literature that every civilized American should be familiar with” is emblematic of conservatism in literary criticism. My qualifier (“although there will be much disagreement over what they are”) shifts the accent from “some works” to the idea that civilization depends upon a familiarity with its most civilized products (including literature).

This may also be, I will grant, a rather conservative position, although its inclusiveness, by leaving up in the air what those civilized products might be, is not typical of mainstream conservatism.

In not identifying what “some works” are, I am at odds with the conservative movement. When Patrick Kurp and I issued our infamous list of the best American fiction, 1968–1998, we did not offer it as a minimum of what educated Americans should know about the period, but as a list of the best—for those who wanted simply to read, and had not world enough and time to read everything.

R/T said...

Well, since you brought it up, let me weigh in belatedly on the Best American Fiction list that you and Mr. Kurp generously published. The modifier "best" is, I think, the fly-in-the-ointment, because such modifiers cause your opponents to bristle unreasonably; a hundred different teachers of literature, working independently, would come up with a hundred different lists of "bests," which tends to put the modifier into question. At any rate, leaving that aside but approaching it from a different angle, I would share a brief anecdote from my Introduction to Literature class: I assigned Wise Blood and Never Let Me Go as novels for students to read and discuss. While I might not consider them among the "best" novels of the last sixty years, I consider them good, provocative, well-written novels. My perspective was sorely tested when one student boldly stated that he would rather have a root-canal than read another page of Ishiguro's novel. Well, how do you counter that kind of colorful assault upon a novel for which you, as a teacher, had such high hopes. Well, I end the anecdote by suggesting it underscores my point: It is really difficult to label anything as "best," "good," "conservative," or otherwise because there is always someone, sometimes with entertaining reasons, who will neutralize your labels in an instant. By the way, I urged the student to hang in there with Ishiguro. Today I find out if he is still wants the root canal. Now, I'm off to class.

Art Durkee said...

I’ve started several times on a reply to your questions, which deserve a good response. I made several attempts this morning, only to find I was repeating myself without adding any new insight. And now I need to go out and work in the garden this afternoon, and do a lot of backed-up laundry. I’ll be thinking about during the day, and try to formulate my thoughts as succinctly as possible later today.

As a preliminary aside, please let me state that I wrote my comments over at Frank Wilson's blog before coming over here to read what had transpired more recently in your comments threads. So if my tone was testy, it's because of what I perceived that had gone before, and I tender apologies now if in any way I was out of line.

D. G. Myers said...


I don’t give a fig about your tone—unless your assertion about my conservative and essentialist views can be attributed to it. Nor, obviously, do I object to being labeled a conservative. (“Essentialist” is another matter, and I want to make sure that you did not offer “conservative” and “essentialist” as synonyms because that is how you conceive conservatism without benefit of further reflection.)

What I do object to are received ideas, especially about conservatives and conservatism. I am willing to have my views added to the stock of conservative ideas, but not because they fit some precooked definition of the movement.

Anonymous said...

What does torture have to do with conservatism? Being upset about Obama's decision on this matter strikes me as a Republican reaction, not a conservative one.

Art Durkee said...

Okay, then. Perhaps this will be a waste of time. I hope not.

My perceptions lie mostly in the observation of underlying assumptions that are the foundations of worldviews, or mindsets. I pay attention to tone because it reveals where buttons have been pushed, and where emotions have been triggered, sometimes all unawares. Tone can be where one locates the differences between persuasive dialogue, thinking-out-loud, and bullying. And I pay attention to actions, especially when they contradict stated principles. For example, if one party hates it that someone throws a sweeping generalization their way but is not aware that they are themselves throwing sweeping generalizations back, one notes the incongruity, and perhaps becomes less likely to take seriously whatever argument is in play. I pay attention to such incongruencies because they often reveal psychological underpinnings and motivations, all unawares.

Noting these sorts of dynamics in play in discussions such as these, one wonders if folks are actually listening to each other, rather than just talking at, or past, each other. Occasionally the style and tone of the rhetoric in play give a louder message than the words being said.

What seemed to start all the fur flying, months ago, was as R.T. suggests, your and Patrick Kurp's use of the word "Best" in the aforementioned list. The word carries implied value judgments, obviously. The presumption is that, as you write, and R.T. amends, “There are some works of literature that every civilized American [or educated person] should be familiar with.”

Where I perceive essentialism is in precisely the kinds of assertions that use words like "every person" or "best book": Essentialism is, in simple terms, the idea that people and/or phenomena and/or objects, including art objects, have an underlying and unchanging essence. That naturally we would all detect such an unchanging essence is an assumption that moves into an idea subset to essentialism, universalism. Essentialism is, for example, when generalised statements are asserted that make no reference to relative perspectives, cross-cultural differences, or documented historical variations. Things ARE what they are, and we should all recognize that. (Ignoring for the moment how "should" is a word often used to bludgeon one's opposition into submission.)

That we would all agree that a list of which books are the best books relies upon a presumed agreement to a value judgment, based on a common or shared set of values: that, naturally, we should all agree on this point. As though it were so naturally true, in its essentials, that there is no question of disagreement. This presumes that such shared sets of values do exist. If human culture were in fact a monolith, perhaps it would be true; but it never has been. There are a million shades of blue.

So when critics make evaluative judgments, there is almost always subjective taste involved; one may easily forget (or choose to ignore) that one's taste or criteria in fact are NOT universally shared. The question then becomes whether or not the critic is honest enough to admit to where and how much. Most critics, just as most readers, are unable to separate their personal tastes from their critical evaluations. Some don't pretend to try, and list enthusiasm as a positive attribute in critical writing. (Critics Terry Teachout and Nigel Beale have both written about this, and cited their precedents.)

I'll stipulate that Grant's arguments are perhaps more anti-conservative than post-modern; and they contain some serious logical flaws as a result. Nonetheless, some of the points he raises in his various attacks (which they are) seem based in fairly typical post-modern critiques of canon-making.

One of the root ideas of post-modern theory is a critique of the power dynamics behind reification of canons, traditions, and criticism. What is considered normative is questioned as, normative to who? Who gets to decide what is "best"? or even "natural"? Who gets to establish what's true in essence and what isn't?

Obviously, the problem with that line of reasoning is, if every piece of writing is "literature," on a level playing field of equal worth, how can we ever make ANY kind of quality assessments, ever? Thus it is noted how post-modernism can disable, deflect, or completely block any attempts at literary criticism, leading to critical paralysis. Who can decide?

Yet pursuing the questions about who GETS to decide does get at some intriguing ideas; just as exploring the history of how we ended up here can lead to insights, not least of which are cross-cultural and cross-time comparisons between different books that can help us more deeply understand what we believe good writing to consist of.

Another difficulty that I perceived that Green had with your definitions, beyond the gauntlet thrown by the use of the word "Best," lies in the phrase "arbitrarily restricted by means of some acceptable scholarly category." Determining what is acceptable to scholars is indeed arbitrary, in that it may be driven by literary-critical fashion, and/or have no connection whatsoever to the tastes or interests of the non-scholarly reader. It's an appeal to authority: the (scholarly) critic as arbiter of quality, even if the critic saves the general reader from having to spends lots of time reading everything to decide for themselves. So the post-modern position is not necessarily an argument for populism; although it may be an argument against authoritarianism. Green is certainly anti-authoritarian in many instances.

(To be clear, I do believe that there are objective standards by which to judge literary quality. I feel, however, that these standards have clear boundaries, which are largely restricted to the mechanics of craft, style, and presentation. How well a given work is written is independent of its contents. I can acknowledge that something is very well-written even as I disbelieve everything it tries to tell me.)

Where I perceive conservative critical ideas to be present are exemplified by the following areas of critical discourse:

The assumption of a common set of values we all agree upon. (Which would lead us to agree about what books are the "best." This is where substituting "great books" for "best books" might have been less problematic. Not to mention more humble.)

The act of canon-making. Of course anyone can decide on a canon. Yet canon-making, in the positive sense of preserving that which is worth preserving, is a typically conservative task: as in "conservation." In a psychological interpretation, canon-making is akin to the quest to impose order upon chaos: to make something unmanageable into something one can comprehend and absorb. This may be pragmatic, yet it can also be extremely subjective. Not all bubble-universes overlap.

The tactic of deflecting disagreement by the appeal to tradition, the judgment of time (the conservation of quality angle), by citing those assumed shared sets of values, discussed above. Of course we all agree that the established canon contains only great books, right? Right! Or do we?

The claim that judgments of literary quality are apolitical and purely aesthetic, and have no connection to moral or ethical values. to the contrary, politics are philosophical worldviews that permeate every aspect of one’s life and one’s decision-making. How can they be separated out? In many attempts, one observes problematic contradictions between word and deed.

This stance that critical assessments are neutral, or politically value-free, contradicts the assertion that critical assessments ARE value judgments, based on arbitrary criteria, and are so by nature. If critical assessments are in fact qualitative judgments based on arbitrary criteria, how can they possible be value-neutral? It’s an oxymoron. This is of course another root-position of post-modern theory: that nothing is value-free. This doesn’t mean one should abandon making judgment calls; it does mean that being up front about one’s criteria and values is going to get one in less trouble than pretending they don’t exist.

Even claims that something is apolitical are themselves political claims; or at the very least quasi-political claims. Perhaps they are not claims about who one should vote for, but they depend on socio-cultural value-choices for their Neo-formalist critiques of non-formal poetry, for example, often boil down to basically moral objections. This is not value-free rhetoric.

I too object to received ideas, especially when those ideas are authoritatively stated as absolutes. I tend to question authority, not because I'm innately contrarian or innately argumentative, but because I instinctively question general assertions whose authority is untested and unearned. It's hard to talk about the issues raised in this discussion without making at least a few general statements; since we are talking on the level of theory, it seems unavoidable.

When you say you object to someone (presumably Green) giving precooked definitions of the conservative movement, perhaps you can understand how reverse-direction precooked definitions are equally problematic. Seems to me that pronouncing sweeping generalizations is not limited to those who attack conservative ideas, but also to those who defend them. This is an issue of rhetoric, and there's more than enough blame to throw around when rhetoric fails.

litlove said...

Have you read John Carey's book, What Good Are The Arts? It's an intriguing volume, if often frustrating. Anyway, I mention it because he has a similar engagement with the definition of art, ending up by saying that the only reliable definition is: art is anything that anyone declares to be art.

Which makes me think of your - literature is good writing, depending on what anyone calls good. I do wonder whether such statements, in order to be true, end up being of uncertain value? I feel uneasy about delineating a fixed definition, because literature itself is concerned with defamiliarisation; it is ever dynamic and changing in a way that arouses ire as often as passion, hence the dissentions over what can be classified as 'good'. Too fixed a definition and much gets left out that needs to be included (we've been here before with works written by women and ethnic minorities).

So, the definition requires then the kind of fluidity that you give yours - that get-out-of-jail card that allows for subjective judgement. But if the label of literature becomes purely subjective, how meaningful is the definition?

My question to you, then, is this: what does the definition of the category of 'literature' provide for us? Why do you think it is essential that we have one? I wonder whether considering this question is a route towards finding the definition that is most useful, as opposed to (although it may prove to be the same as) the one that has the fewest exceptions.

Lee said...

'Those who pursue the former solution are literary scholars; the latter, literary critics.'

How do we select those who select, i.e. the literary critics? Is it enough to be self-selected?

D. G. Myers said...

Wow. Excellent provocations from Art and Litlove. I apologize in advance for having no time this morning to reply to either. I’ll try to do so later this evening.

The anonymous challenge on torture is more quickly dispensed with. Read this and this and this.

Lee said...


You articulate a great deal of what I feel about tone - its hidden, or not so hidden, messages. And ad hominem arguments can sometimes be justified - or at least illuminating. But of course it's necessary to recognise them as such.

Just to pick out one point you make:

'(To be clear, I do believe that there are objective standards by which to judge literary quality. I feel, however, that these standards have clear boundaries, which are largely restricted to the mechanics of craft, style, and presentation. How well a given work is written is independent of its contents. I can acknowledge that something is very well-written even as I disbelieve everything it tries to tell me.)'

I'm going to disagree here. The quality of the 'mechanics' is also largely defined by consensus (or the consensus of authority), at least beyond the basics of clarity. How else? Writ on golden tablets handed down by the gods? There are probably a few objective criteria based on hardwired traits like curiosity, the pleasure of tension/release, surprise etc., but the excessive use of adverbs, to take a banal example, is a bit tricky to connect to human nature. The elements of prose (and poetry) which are highly musical may correspond best to some sort of objective standards - maybe. And reading the literature of other languages and cultures can be eye-opening.

Yet something does survive translation: which brings me to your second point, that how well something is written is independent of its content. Yes and no. This is a generalisation which isn't very helpful as it stands. Is a poem independent of how it's written? Can we restate it without losing its essence? Poetry is probably one extreme; an instruction manual, the other. Fiction falls somewhere in between.

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

I don't see how the first four criteria, at least, are anything but good social science. A good sociologist who doesn't care a lick about literature could come up with these definitions by studying the behavior of scholars, critics, writers,and readers.

The fifth definition reminds me that the first four don't get us very far. But they help remove the arguments from the empyrean. Literature, whatever it is, is the product of human behavior. A corollary, then, is that literature doesn't stay fixed. See the 1913 test for a specific example.

Is the word "best" really that controversial? Isn't it always implicitly followed or preceded by "in my opinion"? I don't see how saying "great" rather than "best" is any more humble, or why saying "best" is particularly arrogant. I'm talking about normal usage - is there some academic issue here that I don't know about?

R/T said...

I may not be qualified to further participate in this ongoing debate, but since I was one of those who brought up the problem associated with the use of the label "best," I suppose it falls to me to clarify my position (and leave others to clarify theirs): If something is the best, it excels above all others, and that seems straight-forward enough; I suppose, though, it is up to the person bestowing that label of excellence to explain the criteria for excellence, but the word "best" is, in my humble opinion, used too frequently without the explanation. Kurp's and Myers' list of "best" novels has obvious idiosyncratic qualities that presumably reflect Kurp's and Myers' tastes, experiences, and backgrounds. I think we run into trouble when we "argue" about the values of literature (and how we assess those values) when we come up against audiences/listeners/readers who for some reasons resent and seek to muzzle someone else's intellectual freedom of speech because what has been said runs afoul of some others' notions. To paraphrase something I said earlier, disagreement is good, intolerance is not.

Anonymous said...

Different anonymous. Interesting use of argument by authority to "dispense" with the serious question about the relationship between torture and conservatism.

The rule of law is a conservative idea. And our international obligations are the law of our land. If it is illegal to torture according to our own laws, and we did torture, then we are obligated to prosecute the lawbreaking policy formulators, just as we would be obligated to prosecute a petty thief. Conservative argument to the core, in my view.

D. G. Myers said...

Different anonymous,

I did not provide the links to argue anything, but precisely to avoid argument on the issue. I do not wish to discuss politics on this Commonplace Blog.

The example was advanced as a confession of self-evident political conservatism. If my anonymous critics do not believe it is self-evidently conservative then I should provide a different example. But I won’t, because I don’t want another anonymous critic to think that I am inviting an argument on a political topic.

D. G. Myers said...

Not sure that’s true, Becca. There are scholarly hedgehogs, for whom each new piece of scholarship is an addition to a lifelong project, and there are scholarly foxes, who scuttle from project to project over a confined terrain.

And then there are critical hedgehogs, who return everything to the same concepts and categories, no matter who the author or what his actual subject, and critical foxes, who are forever on the hunt for the next good thing.