Friday, July 31, 2009

The question in criticism

Everyone seems to like what I have asserted about literary criticism, at least “on a high level,” as Jake Seliger puts it, but no one really agrees with me.

Litlove, for example, accepts my credo that literary criticism must contribute to the store of human understanding, but then she adds that such contributions emerge “gradually, organically, from the process of continual, profound discussion in which teachers and students explore every angle and aspect of a text and enlighten each other.” What she endorses, in other words, is Mark Bauerlein’s call for fewer scholarly publications and more teaching.

I don’t know what it means, though, to say that new contributions to knowledge grow organically out of discussions between students and teachers. Such discussions may provoke curiosity, but when the research bears fruit, it is because someone has excused herself to go off and inquire into a question. Human knowledge is expanded by inquiry into something that is not yet known and understood. If and only if class discussion is organized upon the model of inquiry will it yield organic produce.

And that is the key. The institutional reforms proposed by Bauerlein and Seliger (limit promotion materials to one hundred pages, change peer-reviewed publication into a link to a paper on the author’s website) are sharp-eyed and promising—I hope they will be instituted—and are entirely beside the question.

Nor is the question, as Seliger would have it, “the difficulty of deciding what is good criticism.” Such a question can never be decided before the fact, and even when you have finally hit upon a practitioner of good criticism, the question has still not been decided:

Some writers tell us that this or that historian really did solve the problem, he wrote history as it should be written and all we have to do, if we wish to be good historians, is to copy him. But don’t you believe it. Nobody has solved the problem of how history should be written, and for the same reason that nobody has solved the problem of how poetry should be written, or how chess should be played or how houses should be built—because there is no such problem. We have been told, so often as to be nearly persuaded, that history must be scientific, or it must be imaginative, or it must be impartial, or it must be impersonal. But why all this “must”? Why should there be only one kind of history? And we are particularly puzzled because, as far as we know, there are a great many different kinds of history, and we find it very difficult to say one kind is really so much better than any other that it is the only kind we can allow the name to.[1]There are good critics who practice moral criticism (Yvor Winters), good critics who practice formalist criticism (Robert Penn Warren), good critics who practice the criticism of political ideas (Irving Howe), good critics who practice biographical criticism (Cynthia Ozick), good critics who practice philological criticism (J. V. Cunningham), good critics who practice the criticism of criticism (Frederick Crews), good critics who exercise criticism in the construction of literary tradition (Ruth R. Wisse), and perhaps even good critics who “do” theory (if I could only think of some. Or even one). What is good criticism can never be decided, because it is not a real question.

The only question is how to enlarge human understanding—how, that is, to return from the lure of career advancement, which encourages the critic to write something that is merely new and different, regardless of its validity, to the professional responsibility of adding to the store of human knowledge. “[M]ost people who are writing just to ‘write something new and different’ would argue they are adding to the store of human knowledge,” Seliger observes. He is right. Who am I to assert otherwise?

The careerist is motivated by “getting on,” while the professional is motivated by a sense of responsibility to the profession. And in the critic’s case, that means responsibility to the growth of literary knowledge. What follows from this, however, is that no one knows but me whether I am a careerist, because no one but me has access to my motivations. But what is more, the shift from careerism to professionalism—from commitment to career to commitment to knowledge—is entirely a matter of motivation, and entirely within my control.

The shift will never occur, though, unless the ideal of contributing to knowledge is clearly and repeatedly enunciated, and if it is not lost in the swarm of institutional proposals for merely scaling back the demands of a career.

[1] Michael Oakeshott, “What Do We Look for in an Historian?” (1928), in What Is History? and Other Essays, ed. Luke O’Sullivan (Charlottesville, Va.: Imprint Academic, 2004), p. 135.


litlove said...

I do agree, you know, and my earlier comment was in the nature of a supplement rather than a pure critique. Just for clarification, what I meant in saying that knowledge grows organically out of discussion, is that we often need other people to see what it is that we do not know. An insightful question has often given me pause for thought and made me refine my interpretations or reconsider the issue at stake.

And over the years I've become very interested in understanding what it is that can be heard - misunderstandings, misreadings develop not just out of obfuscation, but out of the gaps in what we say, gaps we often do not realise are there. One teacher's coherent explanation can so easily become one student's gnomic discourse. The discussions of the commenters here with you, D. G., all motivated to add to the field of knowledge, often display the same sort of pattern.

D. G. Myers said...

I appreciate what you are saying, Litlove.

But here is the thing. Teaching, at least of literature, should be as unoriginal as possible. My responsibility as a teacher is to introduce my students to a share of the human heritage. Not to exhibit my intellectual idiosyncrasy.

litlove said...

Oh no, I can't possibly agree with that. Of course one begins by showing the students the orthodox interpretations and by discussing the way that texts have traditionally or frequently been read. But over here at least we also encourage students to think for themselves, to refine and to further the readings that exist. That's not at all the same thing as foisting eccentricities upon them or encouraging them into curious flights of fancy. But we do want them to become capable of producing their own readings, backed up continually by textual evidence, well-organised and disciplined in structure and clear in self-expression. I'm not here just to fill their minds with received wisdom, I'm here to encourage a spirit of creativity and critique as well. To be quite clear - I'm proposing here that educating students requires BOTH introduction to an existing field of knowledge and practice in the tools and strategies for furthering it.

Your comment suggests if nothing else that you consider your own views about texts to be irrevocably idiosyncratic. I would hope that wasn't the case!

Lee said...

What is at stake in the debate over careerist criticism is, I think, what the goal of criticism should be. We don't have an agreed upon sense of what it would mean to "contribute to knowledge" in literary criticism compared, say, to what it would mean to win a game of chess.

In a broad way, everyone thinks he or she contributes to knowledge--even if this contribution is not artful--but the premise of the previous few posts is that many of those people are wrong in that belief. What should they be doing instead? Anyone can write anything they like about literature outside the university, but what sort of activity should the university protect and nurture?

Once we decide on professional norms then we should align institutional incentives such that calling a person a careerist ends up being the biggest compliment you can give. A careerist might be damaging themselves emotionally by having bad motivations--really caring about themselves rather than "the profession"--but so what, so long as they do their defined job well?

A reduction in publication load would be useless without a concomitant social decision on what the specific goals of criticism should be and which broad methods of critical analysis are deemed valid (internal contradiction: bad; new archive-based literary histories of writers deemed worth studying: good; readable prose: good; etc).

R. T. said...

D. G. Myers says: "Teaching, at least of literature, should be as unoriginal as possible. My responsibility as a teacher is to introduce my students to a share of the human heritage. Not to exhibit my intellectual idiosyncrasy." Litlove, though, "can't possibly agree with that." Well, for whatever it is worth, I agree with you, Prof. Myers, because we as teachers of literature must give students the basic tools with which to approach literature. It is similar to teaching someone to walk before teaching him or her to walk. Agenda-driven observers may not understand the need for such an ostensibly conservative or pragmatic approach but--if they look at other academic disciplines--they would have to admit that walking precedes running in every endeavor.

R. T. said...

Of course, I meant to say "to walk before teaching him or her to run" in this sentence: "It is similar to teaching someone to walk before teaching him or her to walk." I apologize for the sloppiness.

litlove said...

R. T., do go on to read the whole of my comment. I suggest quite clearly that we should teach students to walk, and then to run.

D. G. Myers said...

Please forgive me, but I don’t agree with either one of you. I am the father of four children. And I taught none of them to walk. Nor to run.

What I am teaching them, especially the boys, is to walk correctly. No strutting, no slouching, no running in the aisles of the supermarket, no pouting halt. I am trying to introduce them into—God forgive me—a culture of walking in which gait reflects character (more or less).

And that’s pretty much what I try to do in the classroom.

Take the critical failing that I described on Sunday as “solipsism in interpretation.” This will be immediately recognized in the undergraduate remark, “I can relate to O.” It is neither good manners nor rational adequacy to understand a literary text only in relationship to oneself, one’s history, one’s prejudices and preferences.

Yvor Winters taught corrosion and distrust; I, correctness and demands.

R. T. said...

I stand corrected in that my figure of speech should have said walk correctly before running, and, Prof. Myers, I rather like the way you have built upon and modified my language. Actually, while I thought the "correctly" was implied in my original comment, I'm glad to have my figurative language tweaked and improved.