Monday, January 02, 2006

Is Lit-Crit Legit?

If there is an academic discipline that can elicit the MEGO response more than Literary Criticism, and makes the average taxpayer more angry about the use of his hard earned dollars at the hands of tenured university drones, I've yet to hear of it. Nick Gillespie reports on the state of "Lit-Crit" in the third of his series reporting on the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association:

One of the subtexts of this year's Modern Language Association conference -- and, truth be told, of most contemporary discussions of literary and cultural studies -- is the sense that lit-crit is in a prolonged lull. There's no question that a huge amount of interesting work is being done -- scholars of 17th-century British and Colonial American literature, for instance, are bringing to light all sorts of manuscripts and movements that are quietly revising our understanding of liberal political theory and gender roles -- and that certain fields -- postcolonial studies, say, and composition and rhetoric -- are hotter than others. But it's been years -- decades even -- since a major new way of thinking about literature has really taken the academic world by storm.

If lit-crit is always something of a roller-coaster ride, the car has been stuck at the top of the first big hill for a while now, waiting for some type of rollicking approach to kick in and get the blood pumping again. What's the next big thing going to be? The next first-order critical paradigm that -- like New Criticism in the 1940s and '50s; cultural studies in the '60s; French post-structural theory in the '70s, and New Historicism in the '80s -- really rocks faculty lounges? (Go here for summaries of these and other movements).

Amateur Analysis Alert: I post this alert to warn our more sensitive readers of the soon to follow amateur analysis by yours truly, who has no professional training in Literary Criticism or in Literary Criticism Criticism. Yet those of you who have been with the Daily Duck from it's inception will know from it's inaugural post that the DD is founded on the premise that "the interested amateur has an important role to play in making the professional "experts" who operate the levers of power in our society accountable to the rules of common sense."

Now, down to business. By following the link provided by Gillespie, you will learn that Literary Criticism, counter to common sense, is often very weakly associated with the criticism of literature. By perusing the list of various schools of Lit-Crit through the last two centuries, from Pragmatism to Formalism to Marxism, Feminism, Post-Colonialism, Psychoanalysis, Queer Theory and the ever popular Deconstructionism, one quickly gets the impression that literature is merely a convenient jumping-off point for a host of radical philosophies and ideologies that cut across politics, "science", social engineering, religion and the meaning of existence itself.

I ask the reader to indulge my naiivete for one moment. As I see it, Literary Criticism should be about the study of Literature, and should help the student answer questions like: What are the hallmarks of good literature? What literary works of the past and present exhibit these hallmarks? What can be gained by reading these works? Granted, it seems like a very limited, focused set of goals. Not the kind of stuff of which societies are transformed or hegemonies overthrown.

Yet what to make of these dizzying varietes of "disciplines" that have evolved and mutated from this one, seemingly simple undertaking? I use quotations around the word disciplines precisely because it seems to me that the field lacks the discipline to constrain itself within a focused set of goals. There are psychological, philosophical and historical aspects to literature, but literature is but a small aspect of how these phenomena are expressed, and not the aspect through which authoritative theories of these disciplines are to be discovered. Yet it would seem, judging by the ambitious, overarching goals set by the lit-crit practicioners, that Literature is the oracle through which all things can be known.

It was with this question in mind that I attended yesterday's panel on "Cognition, Emotion, and Sexuality," which was arranged by the discussion group on Cognitive Approaches to Literature and moderated by Nancy Easterlin of the University of New Orleans. Scholars working in this area use developments in cognitive psychology, neurophysiology, evolutionary psychology, and related fields to figure out not only how we process literature but, to borrow the title of a forthcoming book in the field, Why We Read Fiction.

Although there are important differences, cognitive approaches often overlap with evolutionary approaches, or what The New York Times earlier this year dubbed "The Literary Darwinists"; those latter critics, to quote the Times:

“ books in search of innate patterns of human behavior: child bearing and rearing, efforts to acquire resources (money, property, influence) and competition and cooperation within families and communities. They say that it's impossible to fully appreciate and understand a literary text unless you keep in mind that humans behave in certain universal ways and do so because those behaviors are hard-wired into us. For them, the most effective and truest works of literature are those that reference or exemplify these basic facts.“

Both cognitive and evolutionary approaches to lit-crit have been gaining recognition and adherents over the past decade or so. Cognitive critics are less interested in recurring plots or specific themes in literature, but they share with the Darwinists an interest in using scientific advances to help explore the universally observed human tendency toward creative expression, or what the fascinating anthropologist Ellen Dissanayake called in Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why, “making special.”

Of all the questions that we would have cognitive psychology answer for us, I can't think of many with less import than why we read fiction. The bolded quote above is indicative of the mindset of lit-crit; that somehow literature is useless to us without the work of the lit-critician to tell us why we should appreciate it. It is even worth asking whether literature is important at all. Art and literature are things that we participate in because we want to. There is this sense among the learned that the non-artistic or non-literary life is not worth living, yet human history has progressed forward largely by the efforts of people with barely a literary bone in their bodies.

The first presenter was Alan Palmer, an independent scholar based in London and the author of the award-winning Fictional Minds. For Palmer, how we process fiction is effectively hardwired, though not without cultural emphases that depend on social and historical context; it also functions as a place where we can understand more clearly how we process the "real" world. After summarizing recent cognitive work that suggests "our ways of knowing the world are bound up in how we feel the world...that cognition and emotion are inseparable," he noted that the basic way we read stories is by attributing intentions, motives, and emotions to characters. "Narrative," he argued, "is in essence the description of fictional mental networks," in which characters impute and test meanings about the world.

Is there anything in the bolded quotes that isn't blaringly obvious to the rankest amateur reader? Do we need academicians to confirm those ideas which common sense would already tell us are true? What notion of any import was added to the store of human knowledge by his analysis?

He led the session through a close reading of a passage from Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49. The section in question was filled with discrepant emotions popping up even in the same short phrases. For instance, the female protagonist Oedipa Maas at one point hears in the voice of her husband "something between annoyance and agony." Palmer -- whose argument was incredibly complex and is hard to reproduce -- mapped out the ways in which both the character and the reader made sense of those distinct emotional states of mind. The result was a reading that, beyond digging deep into Pynchon, also helped make explicit the "folk psychology" Palmer says readers bring to texts -- and how we settle on meanings in the wake of unfamiliar emotional juxtapositions. As the panel's respondent, University of Connecticut's Elizabeth Hart, helpfully summarized, Palmers' reading greatly "complexified the passage" and was "richly descriptive" of the dynamics at play.

Complexification! That is the value add! To complexify the obvious would be an apt description of the lit-crit practicioner's art. Note my bolding of that universal weasel word, "richly". It is a word that puts a positive spin on clutter, excess, meaningless ornamentation. No professional complexifier's arsenal is complete without this word.

Will cognitive approaches become the next big thing in lit-crit? Or bio-criticism of the Darwinian brand? That probably won't happen, even as these approaches will, I think, continue to gain in reputation and standing. More to the point, as I argued in a 1998 article, these scholars who are linking Darwin and Dickens have helped challenge an intellectual orthodoxy that, however exciting it once was, seems pretty well played out. In his tour de force Mimesis and the Human Animal: On the Biogenetic Foundations of Literary Representation (1996), Temple's Robert Storey -- one of Nancy Easterlin's doctoral advisors -- warns:

“If [literary theory] continues on its present course, its reputation as a laughingstock among the scientific disciplines will come to be all but irreversible. Given the current state of scientific knowledge, it is still possible for literary theory to recover both seriousness and integrity and to be restored to legitimacy in the world at large.”

Ten years out, Storey's warning seems less pressing. The lure of the most arch forms of anti-scientific postmodernism has subsided, partly because of their own excesses and partly because of challenges such as Storey's. As important, the work being done by the cognitive scholars and others suggest that literature and science can both gain from ongoing collaboration.

How or when did lit-crit ever gain standing as a scientific discipline? Why should it? If one wishes to study cognitive psychology, then study cognitive psychology.

The only way that lit-crit can avoid perpetuationg it's laughingstock status would be for it to give up all it's pretensions to scientific status, and to trim it's ambitins back within the focused goals that I enumerate above. Yet Gillespie's enthusiasm for exciting developments to come is indicative of an attitude driven by institutional identity over rational analysis. We have this field, with established foundations, university chairs and departments, and a cadre of practitioners whose reputations, ambitions and future career paths are entirely dependent on the continuance of the fiction that this discipline holds an import and a promise well beyond itself.


Blogger David said...

The best book I've read on letting literary theory out of its cage is Posner's Law and Literature, which I talk about some here.

Posner thinks that Deconstructionism is a good way to understand literature and a terrible way to understand law because of the different purposes of the two types of communication (which I suppose is an implicit rejection of Deconstructionism).

My problem with Critical Legal Theory, which is lit crit for lawyers, is that its conclusions are so ordinary. "Law is a means for the ruling class to perpetuate its rule." Well, duh.

January 02, 2006 1:19 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Thank goodness my lit degree was from Cow College, where we were insulated from theory. We just read the poem and tried to dope out what the author meant.

I got through without effort by realizing, early on, that only bad writers get attention from lit scholars.

To take the most obvious example: no American novelist was ever more important (however you wish to define that) than John O'Hara. But you can spend a long day in the stacks and not find any scholarly exegesis of O'Hara, for the simple reason is that he was the clearest writer that ever wrote.

To the degree that an author was uncertain what he was thinking, or unable to express it, the scholars will circle his corpus, squawking and biting at each other, trying to tear off the juicy bits with their poisoned beaks. The more opaque the writer, the more literary vultures will attend his carcass.

Even if lit. crit. were somehow of a sound foundation -- that is, if it could tell us something the ur-text could not do itself -- who would consume this precious knowledge?

It's sort of like the output of journalism schools. I never was inside one, but I have to assume that to get tenure, J-profs write and utter theses and dissertations.

Well, I've been a newspaperman for nearly 40 years, on papers big and small, good and bad, and I've have never known a working newspaperman to use, refer to or even hint at knowledge of the existence of what must by now be a vast library of 'research.'

January 02, 2006 2:58 PM  
Blogger Brit said...

I've greedily consumed all manner of fiction writing since childhood, but I was so horrified by lit crit at university that I switched from an English to a Philosophy degree after the first year.

I just wanted to read books and then, like Harry, dope out what the author meant. I did not then, nor do I have now, the slightest interest in the Marxist, Feminist, Freudian or crypto-post-modern-deconstructionist interpretations of The Tempest. I just want to read The Tempest.

Unlike Philosophy, which was surprisingly rigorous and clearly defined, Lit Crit appeared to reward the students with the greatest ability to, not to put too fine a point on it, shamelessly bullshit.

Which doesn't mean that Lit Crit is useless, of course. The ability to shamelessly bullshit is much prized in many of today's industries.

January 03, 2006 2:47 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

My mother is a retired rhetoric professor and one time member of the MLA, so I have heard about some of this lit-crit stuff.

She loathed it.

Dipping once again into that irony ocean, one can only note that there is no discipline more hostile to clear English exposition than lit crit.

If you haven't already, read "Postmodernism's Abuse of Science." That the authors Skokal (IIRC) don't hang their heads in abject shame at the polysyllabic miasma they have spewed says volumes about them.

None good.

January 03, 2006 3:01 AM  
Blogger David said...

I find it hard to believe that I'm sticking up for lit crit even half-heartedly, but ignoring the author's intent and treating the book as a found object can lead to useful insights. By the act of reading we do create something that is at least partially ours, and not the author's.

January 03, 2006 12:21 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


I hate to agree with you, but I shall.

After all, everytime we read a book review, we are engaging in lit-crit.

And when lit-crit exposes how where one sits influences where one stands (i.e., it is fatuous to fully employ our standards on, say, race, to someone living 250 years ago without taking into account their milieu), then there as well it is a valuable exercise.

But when the lit-critist is of the left's mindset, where human nature is a tabla rosa for the chattering classes, then it moves directly to nonsense.

I suspect there is a doctoral thesis somewhere in discerning why those people also delight in coating pages with impenetrable text.

But it wouldn't be a lit-crit thesis.

January 03, 2006 2:35 PM  
Blogger Brit said...

Ah, but that's the difference between lit crit and Lit Crit.

In the former, you study the lit and crit it.

In the latter, you study the enormous, Empire State-sized superstructure of Crit that sways many miles above the lit itself, and dump your own storey on top of the story, as it where.

January 04, 2006 2:04 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

In other places I have commented on the similarity between post-modernist inpenetrability and Catholic dogma. I'm tempted to post passages from the Cathechism of the Roman Catholic Church side by side with some PoMo text, and beg the readers to eecipher either one of them.

Could it be that tenured academics have the same institutional interests in constructing outsized semantic superstructures of inpenetrability as tenured theologians?

January 05, 2006 3:58 PM  

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