Thursday, August 06, 2009

Literature Against Itself

As English professors all over the country head back to their classrooms in a few weeks to encourage another young cohort of students to “experience” literary texts in light of the most recent progressive thought, it might be well to recall Literature Against Itself, Gerald Graff’s pioneering attack on literary theory, which was published by the University of Chicago Press exactly thirty years ago. The book was particularly “meaningful” to me. Five years after its appearance, I enrolled at Northwestern University for the single-minded purpose of studying under Graff. (By then he was working on the book that became Professing Literature. He directed my dissertation, revised and issued as The Elephants Teach, which both of us considered an extension of his work on the history of academic literary study.) Graff was forty-two when he saw Literature Against Itself into print, and though he later become known for other things—especially the entreaty to teach the conflicts—his career was defined by his early effort to spell out a coherent theoretical position for resistance to the vanguard party in literary thinking.

All of those phrases are his. Although he took pains to detach himself from conservatives who merely beat the vanguard with club-like slogans, Graff quickly found himself identified as a conservative—along with such other first-rank critics as Wayne Booth and E. D. Hirsch Jr., who had “challenged prevailing vanguard dogmas” and so might “lend authority to a constructive resistance movement.” But Booth and Hirsch were also soon dismissed as conservatives. The association galled Graff, who was a self-styled man of the Left. (Indeed, my own political conservatism made for uneasy relations between Graff and me, although he has never been anything but supportive of my academic career.) The problem was that Graff held literary thinking to be “inseparable from social and moral thinking,” but the academic Left heatedly denies that literature has any connection with morality (while the Right is not always good at remembering its connection with society). Politically, Graff belonged on the Left, while his radicalism made him unwilling to join in common cause with the Right—as a young assistant professor at Northwestern he had been a leader of the antiwar protests on campus—and so he was left without academic allies.

That quality of independent-mindedness, whatever it cost Graff personally, is what distinguished Literature Against Itself upon publication and what keeps it fresh thirty years later.

The critical landscape had altered unrecognizably since 1970, when his first book came out. Poetic Statement and Critical Dogma had originally been drafted in 1963 as a PhD thesis under Yvor Winters, the prickly and controversial champion of moral evaluation in criticism. Graff’s entire generation of literary scholars appeared with a series of ’prentice works that gave no hint of what was to come. Edward Said, his contemporary, published a study of Conrad’s autobiographical fiction in 1966. Stanley Fish, one year younger, published Surprised by Sin, a study of Milton, in 1967. Frank Lentricchia, three years younger, published The Gaiety of Language, on Yeats and Stevens, in 1968. That same year Barbara Herrnstein Smith, five years older than Graff, published Poetic Closure, a study written under J. V. Cunningham of how poems end.

By the start of the next decade, every one of them, except for Graff, had changed course. Simply to name the titles is to suggest as much: Said’s Orientalism (1978), Smith’s On the Margins of Discourse (1978), a plea for the indeterminacy of literary utterance, Fish’s Is There a Text in This Class? (1980), Lentricchia’s After the New Criticism (1980). What happened?

French structuralism emigrated to the United States: that’s what happened. In 1966, the year that is described as structuralism’s annum mirabile in France, when new books by Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Lacan made a splash in the their native waters, the Johns Hopkins University hosted an international conference devoted to “The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man.” Barthes, Lacan, Jacques Derrida, René Girard, and a host of other illustrious guests from the continent made their first public appearances in America. Paul de Man came down from Cornell to share his reflections.

Within a few years, the symposiasts’ books were on the shelves of nearly every university bookstore in the country. Barthes’s Writing Degree Zero appeared in 1968. De Man’s Blindness and Insight, cited by Mark Bauerlein recently as the first example of criticism-as-performance in America, appeared in 1971—the same year as Foucault’s Order of Things. Derrida’s Speech and Phenomena, a translation of his second book, appeared in 1973. A selection of Lacan’s Ecrits finally appeared in 1977.

These were the critics, those were the works, that constituted the vanguard in literary thinking by the late ’seventies. The biggest problem, to Graff’s mind, was that French structuralism had “come to be widely taken as a kind of ultimate refutation of philosophical and literary realism.” At least that is how the American critics who had fallen under its had taken it. And this had given rise to a moralistic streak among the vanguard. Thus they said that realism had been “discredited.” They associated it with everything that was bad and out of date: representation, the text as a determinate object, boundaries and constraints, docility, habit, truth as either correspondence or coherence, meaning as a product. On their “rhetorical scorecard,” Graff scoffs, the vanguard praised an entirely new set of goods: creation, the text as an open and indeterminate invitation, voyages into the unforeseen, risk, truth as fiction, meaning as a process.

The New Sensibility, as Graff calls it, displayed an “ambivalence toward reason.” Its repudiation of the human capacity to comprehend reality, along with a denial of the propositional nature of literature, had combined to provoke a crisis, not only in literature and literary criticism, but education and politics as well. As a man of the Left, Graff was deeply worried about its growing sway. “In exposing objective reason as a mere ideology,” he warns, “cultural radicalism leaves itself no means of legitimizing its own critique of exploitation and injustice.” The danger, in short, was not that the vanguard was Leftist, but that it was taking over and disabling the Left. “[T]he project of political demystification is to free terms from misuse by attaching them to appropriate referents,” Graff writes, “not to dissolve the very notion that language can have referents.” But the politics of anti-realism leads to resignation and something very like “the popular cynicism that regards all judgments as ‘matters of opinion’ and asks—without staying for an answer—‘who is to say’ what is real and what is not.”

The threat to reason was broader than the universe of literature, then, but the threat to literature was real enough:

That readers misinterpret literature has probably been recognized as long as literature has existed. But only recently has this human deficiency been turned into a law. And from a law it has become a recommendation—and a means of liberating oneself from humanistic bad conscience.What was a recommendation in 1979 has become routine thirty years later. Indeed, anyone who would insist that literature be interpreted faithfully is the one who would be accused of having a bad conscience today. How did we reach this pass?

According to Graff, by demoting all literature to the status of fiction. But the term fiction no longer referred merely to the action or plot of made-up narratives; it had been expanded to include “the ideas, themes, and beliefs that are embodied in the action or plot.” (The self-contradiction involved in denying the referentiality of language and then using a word to refer to more than it did previously was overlooked or ignored—not by Graff, but by the advanced thinkers under his microscope.) The consequence, as he points out, is that life and reality themselves came to be treated as fictions.

But there are certain “unrefusable facts” about life, which cannot be demoted to the status of fictions without terrible costs:The reality of the physical world, the inevitability of death, the social nature of man, the irrevocability of historical events and changes—these are facts that we cannot possibly not know, though we can argue infinitely about their significance and how we ought to understand them.On a propositional theory, literature is the argument. The new theory, though, “pretends that no such unrefusable facts exist.” The new theory would reduce all human utterance, and not just literature, to “an unaccountability that would be terrifying if its implications were taken seriously.” Luckily, after reading Literature Against Itself it is impossible to take the new theory seriously.


R. T. said...

Somehow, "Literature Against Itself, Gerald Graff’s pioneering attack on literary theory, which was published by the University of Chicago Press exactly thirty years ago" never came up in my graduate studies, and it seems--based on your summary and analysis--that such an oversight needs to be corrected, especially as Graff seems to represent my point-of-view with respect to literature and a lot of contemporary literary theory and criticism. I look forward to finding and savoring Graff's influential book. And thank you for taking time to bring it to my (and everyone else's) attention.

Rebecca V. O'Neal said...

The New Sensibility - in capitals. Of course!

Maybe it's because I'm rereading Max Jamison and watching Mad Men, but among those belonging to The Old Sensibility, there seems to have always been the idea of The New Sensibility and its "ambivalence toward reason". I'm pretty sure that's the axiom of demarcation between Old and New sensibilities.

I'm not saying that any of this is futile (it's actually VERY fascinating to this outsider!), but the grappling will never end.

One of my favorite lines from Max Jamison:
"Please, not another piece on the role of the critic. It was an occupational disease, defining and redefining one's role."

One of my favorite lines from Mad Men:
"I bet there were people in the Bible walking around, complaining about kids today."

The Denver Bibliophile said...

The Denver Bibliophile has an interesting repose.

Art Durkee said...

Not being remotely conservative myself, in any way except perhaps fiscally, I nonetheless have come to completely agree with Graff's position as you articulate it here. Which is precisely why I think that the so-called poetic "post-avant," notably Language Poetry, is a literary dead end.