Wednesday, June 17, 2009

An end to readings

In an article reprinted from the Chronicle of Higher Education, the literary scholar Mark Edmundson (Department of English, University of Virginia) wishes for a one-to-five-year moratorium on readings. You know, “the application of an analytical vocabulary—Karl Marx’s, Sigmund Freud’s, Michel Foucault’s, Jacques Derrida’s or whoever’s—to describe and (usually) to judge a work of literary art.”

By “judge,” however, Edmundson does not mean evaluate. “[T]o enact a reading means to submit one text to the terms of another,” he says; “to allow one text to interrogate another, then often to try, sentence and summarily execute it.” But the industrial-scale practice of academic reinterpretation is far worse than that. It pumps out a uniform (and substandard) product. You read a different book every day, and cuddle up with the same meanings every night. For there is nothing wrong with interrogation as such. What is wrong is interrogating only some texts, and never those by the currently dominant authorities, whose word is gospel.

Although he acknowledges that the well-quoted source for an academic reinterpretation is always “assumed to be a superior figure,” Edmundson misses altogether the category mistake that is involved with “applying an alternative set of terms” to a text as if it were a coat of lacquer. The problem is that, even if the vocabulary was originally “analytical” (itself a dubious assumption), its use in academic reinterpretation is not. The theoretical text, whether by Homi K. Bhabha, Judith Butler, Slavoj Zizek, or whoever else is currently hip, is treated as the primary text, the literary text, set apart from probative inquiry, and the canonical work ostensibly under discussion becomes merely the occasion for aesthetic appreciation of the theorist.

Now, Edmundson says that his objection is not to “theoretical texts themselves. If a fellow professor thinks Marx or Foucault or Kristeva provides a contribution to the best that has been thought and said,” he concedes, “then by all means read and study the text.” But it is not at all clear what Edmundson intends by the phrase read and study. Theoretical texts require an approach that is different in kind from fiction, because they go about building their case in an entirely different way. The question of validity—or, God forbid, truth—can never be held in abeyance while reading a theoretical text.

The literary question, as I have said again and again, always comes down to the question of how good a text is. Or, if you prefer, how plausible it is. (Plausibility is a special category of success in writing fiction.) You do not read a novel to discover the truth about the world. You read a novel, as Hilary Putnam says, to discover what the world would look like if the novelist’s vision were true. And you can do that if and only if the novel is good enough to persuade you that it might be true.

Edmundson’s prescription for an end to readings is vague:

We need to befriend the texts we choose to teach. They, too, are the testaments of human beings who have lived and suffered in the world. They, too, deserve honor and respect. If you have a friend whose every significant utterance you need to translate into another idiom—whose two is not the real two, as Emerson says—then that is a friend you need to jettison. If there are texts you cannot befriend, leave them to the worms of time or to the kinder ministrations of others.But you do not need to befriend another human being to respect his utterance as having its own integrity and meaning—as not being yours. Or Derrida’s or Judith Butler’s, for that matter.

Once upon a time I wrote a long essay in which I set out an ethics of interpretation. In short, I argued that, since a literary text is a human event and not the product of unseen forces, it demands an ethical response that must precede interpretation and serve as its basis. In reading literary texts, I wrote, a critic must act upon “the assumption that events (including exchanges between human beings) demand a response which is neither arbitrary nor predetermined, but self-willed and adjusted to circumstance; that human events are not signs to be deciphered, but occasions to be respected.”

All well and good, but I described that ethic ten years ago. While I am smug enough to believe that my account is less vague than Edmundson’s, it is vague enough to provide small guidance to young critics and scholars. Perhaps it is time to be a little more concrete.

Instead of joining the assembly line of academic reinterpretation—the reinterpretation of the same familiar canonical texts, over and over—perhaps critics might return to the difficult and time-consuming work of sorting through the English-language texts of the past fifty years, deciding which are worth keeping, which should be permitted to sink into oblivion. Perhaps scholars might return to the pleasures of narrative literary history, widely honored at present, but rarely pursued—including the history of magazines, publishing houses, “schools” or “groups” of writers, literary styles and genres.

Perhaps what is needed is not to befriend literary texts, insisting even then upon elbowing our way into a conversation already in progress, but to understand where the text stands, what other texts it is in dialogue with, why it assumes the form it has taken, how it understands itself. Perhaps it needs to be treated as any other new acquaintance that we make—as having a life, including a place in a culture, that is foreign to ours.

We need to return to the strangeness of literary texts.

Update: Stupidly left off a tip of the hat to the Elegant Variation. I apologize, Mark.


Phil said...

A very interesting post, Dr. Myers, and a very interesting blog. (Thank your ex-student Schaub for recommending it at Bookslut.) The imaginative stagnancy of the "readings factory" has certainly turned me off of the idea of getting a Ph.D. in literature.

But there may be just as much stagnancy lying on the other side of your suggestion--that we return to literary criticism as an art of ranking and sifting. I don't deny that such work can be intelligently done, or that it can lead to wonderful pieces of writing. Nor do I think critics--or anyone else--should abstain from such conversations, since we all have to learn to articulate the standards we judge things by. But I don't think you can fully honor the strangeness of texts--and of human consciousness--without acknowledging that people need very different things from books, and that a book with gaping flaws, one that most people have turned away from, may rightly become a central book for certain people or communities, because it offers something that can't be had elsewhere. (Think of C.S. Lewis's love of George McDonald's fantasies, which are utterly compelling and often horribly written.)

Speaking of Lewis, I've always liked his argument from "An Experiment in Criticism": Basically, that a quality book is one that someone, anyone will re-read. I've always thought of this as a sane middle ground: it doesn't deny standards (nobody re-reads Nora Roberts), but it, so to speak, gives you a broad church. When I think of my favorite bits of literary criticism, many of them involve brilliant, well-read people explaining why some non-canonical text still means the world to them: Hugh Kenner on "King Kong"; Guy Davenport on "Tarzan"; Alice Walker on Zora Neale Hurston (this is the only version of Alice Walker I can stand, actually).