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TSE  January 2006

TSE January 2006

Subject:

OT : 'Literary criticism gone awry' by Lindsay Waters

From:

Vishvesh Obla <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

T. S. Eliot Discussion forum.

Date:

Fri, 6 Jan 2006 09:17:10 -0800

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (636 lines)

An interesting article at :

http://chronicle.com/temp/reprint.php?id=3ynlz6vqsby2z0cymc6gsjt2d02rwfd0

----------------

Some passages that struck me:

1. 'Trying to figure out what's up with American
literary scholarship — I mean the writing coming out
of colleges that relates to literature — is difficult.
This stuff cannot be understood by the norms of
healthy literary criticism as it has been practiced
from Aristotle to Helen Vendler...

Ever since it became professional and, for the most
part, lost touch with the readers who have fostered
the little-magazine criticism that reaches back to The
Spectator, today's academic scholarship has become
separated from its grounding: It is no longer
connected to the very medium that gave it rise,
literature.'

2. 'The problem is not just that literary scholarship
has become disconnected from life. Something else more
suspicious has happened to professional criticism in
America over the past 30 years, and that is its love
affair with reducing literature to ideas, to the
author's or reader's intention or ideology — not at
all the same thing as art. As a result, literary
critics are devoted to saving the world, not to saving
literature for the world, and to internecine battles
that make little sense outside academe.'

3. 'Instead of the erotics of art, we've got the
neurotics of art: the meaning-mongering of
interpretation for its own sake... How did this come
about? In part it was the so-called theory wars over
the influence of European literary and cultural
theorists like Walter Benjamin and Jacques Derrida.
Those wars are over, and we are left with the rubble.'


4. 'To be sure, theory is not dead. It has become
institutionalized in literature departments and
continues to be taught. But it has lost its life
force. What the theory wars really did was convince
literary critics that fretting about how meanings get
constituted in art is dilly-dallying — in a word,
"French."'

4. 'The problem that besets the literary academy is
not about politics, conventionally understood. Indeed,
critics who style themselves left or right are often
indistinguishable to me. What they share is the
reduction of literature to an idea, a moral. America
is a nation divided irreconcilably, it seems.
Everywhere you go, you have to declare which side
you're on: "red state" or "blue state." But our ease
in answering is deceptive because life and literature
are much more complex than that. All the loose talk
about ideology and politics that prevailed in English
departments in the 1980s and 90s has made it hard for
the inhabitants to understand the workings of ideology
itself. Despite the much-quoted charges that the
humanities have been taken over by the left (and
despite the self-congratulatory rhetoric of those on
the left who argue that literary criticism is fighting
the good fight), I believe that what we're really
seeing is a reactionary tilt — away from the
rebellious, destabilizing, liberating aspects of art.
'



-----------------------------

Just in case the URL won't work, here is a cut and
paste of the entire article

Trying to figure out what's up with American literary
scholarship — I mean the writing coming out of
colleges that relates to literature — is difficult.
This stuff cannot be understood by the norms of
healthy literary criticism as it has been practiced
from Aristotle to Helen Vendler.

Ever since it became professional and, for the most
part, lost touch with the readers who have fostered
the little-magazine criticism that reaches back to The
Spectator, today's academic scholarship has become
separated from its grounding: It is no longer
connected to the very medium that gave it rise,
literature.

For years real, live, ink-stained, tear-stained
artists were granted refuge in the university, but
they have been replaced by a breed domesticated in
master's-of-fine-arts programs. Over in literature
departments, what passes as scholarship has also
become more scholastic. We've heard the many rants
about how it is elitist, or politicized, or
irrelevant, or abstruse, or too theoretical, or not
theoretical enough. My concern is more basic. Literary
criticism no longer aims to appreciate aesthetics — to
study how human beings respond to art. Do you get
dizzy when you look at a Turner painting of a storm at
sea? Do certain buildings make you feel insignificant
while others make you feel just the right size?
Without understanding that intensely physical
reaction, scholarship about the arts can no longer
enlarge the soul.

The problem is not just that literary scholarship has
become disconnected from life. Something else more
suspicious has happened to professional criticism in
America over the past 30 years, and that is its love
affair with reducing literature to ideas, to the
author's or reader's intention or ideology — not at
all the same thing as art. As a result, literary
critics are devoted to saving the world, not to saving
literature for the world, and to internecine battles
that make little sense outside academe.

The death of Susan Sontag, in 2004, served to point
out just how much things had changed in the critical
world since the annus mirabilis of 1964, when the
Beatles played the Hollywood Bowl and Sontag's essay
"Against Interpretation" appeared. She spray-painted
on the walls of the academy the incendiary line, "In
place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art."
Railing against imposing theories of interpretation on
the "sensuous surface" of art, she rejected the New
Criticism, psychoanalytic criticism, Marxist
criticism, and other attempts to inflict meaning on
art. Pleasure was her principle. Forty years on, what
we have 24/7 in most English departments is the
complete and total ascendancy of hermeneutics. Instead
of the erotics of art, we've got the neurotics of art:
the meaning-mongering of interpretation for its own
sake.

A criticism devoted to aesthetics might take a novel
like Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie and note how its
main character, Caroline Meeber, again and again finds
herself in front of sheets of glass — store windows,
mirrors — that seem to beckon her in. The question
would not be whether her vanity or love of material
objects is good or bad; it would be how Dreiser
invites all of us to fall through the glass with
Carrie, to become a part of the story and experience
ourselves as vain and frail and ambitious.
Contemporary meaning-mongers would emphasize how
Dreiser is commenting on the materialism of a
market-driven society: Whether arguing that he is
endorsing or condemning it, they would just want to
know the bottom line.

How did this come about? In part it was the so-called
theory wars over the influence of European literary
and cultural theorists like Walter Benjamin and
Jacques Derrida. Those wars are over, and we are left
with the rubble.

I want to argue for a fundamental reconsideration of
the usual narrative of the culture wars. Literary
critics may still endlessly repeat the mantra of the
backlash against theory that swept to power during the
Reagan years: Theory is too devoted to challenging
meaning. It is nihilistic. It robs us of ever finding
out what an author or text is saying. But it was not
the theorists who declared war on art, with their
philosophy and their left-wing politics. It was the
literary critics who put in their place a no-nonsense
business, a legalistic parsing of meaning that masks a
deep contempt for what a text is or might be to us.

The last time you looked down the corridor may have
been when theorists were raising their banners, but
the reality is that a much more repressive approach
was seizing control. Now we are told we should boil
down the moral meaning of a work to a sentence. Say
whether it is favorable to a particular group. If not,
ban it from the classroom. I exaggerate, but only a
little.

To be sure, theory is not dead. It has become
institutionalized in literature departments and
continues to be taught. But it has lost its life
force. What the theory wars really did was convince
literary critics that fretting about how meanings get
constituted in art is dilly-dallying — in a word,
"French."

What gets lost in this disdain for things "foreign" is
that theorists were concerned with the artwork itself,
with responding to it on many different levels — with
the aesthetic experience. They wanted to process their
own engagement with a text, finding clues in their
difficulties with it to take them deep into the heart
of its darkness. To a critic like Barbara Johnson, the
division between form and content did not exist. She
drew on psychoanalysis and feminist theory to delve
into the irritation that she felt, for example, as a
reader of Nella Larsen's novel Quicksand. Beneath her
own discomfort, she found the narcissistic conflicts
of the protagonist Helga Crane, daughter of a white
mother and black father; behind those, society's
conflicts over too easily accepted differences like
white/black or male/female. Reading was a physical
experience.

Today, in 2005, it looks as if Sontag was dead wrong,
her words a painful reminder of how foolish we all
sounded back then when we wore our bell-bottoms and
tie-dyed T-shirts. Interpretation has established its
dominion over American literary scholarship. In so
doing, it is threatening to wipe out 30 years of
postmodernism that emerged out of the intellectual
ferment of the 1960s. Can we break its hold?

Two big books before us, by two of the most senior
literary scholars in the United States, dramatize our
choices. Walter Benn Michaels, a professor of American
literature at the University of Illinois at Chicago,
has given us The Shape of the Signifier: 1967 to the
End of History (Princeton University Press, 2004). It
trumpets the party of interpretation. Hans Ulrich
Gumbrecht, a professor of French, Italian, and
comparative literature at Stanford University, has
given us Production of Presence: What Meaning Cannot
Convey (Stanford University Press, 2004). It provides
a look into the party of affect, emotion, aesthetics.
More about the books in a bit.

First, though, I should explain that I am not an
innocent bystander. I am a publisher, and, like Major
Barbara's father, I sell munitions to all sides. No
matter who wins or loses, I stand to gain. One army
wants to buy Benjamin, Paul de Man, and other
theorists who address the aesthetic experience.
Another army wants to reinforce its bunkers with
Stanley Fish and Michaels and shoot down the idea that
literary theory can ever tell us anything about
literature. The New Historicism, which has become an
antidote to the dreaded deconstruction of theorists,
and the default position for most literature
professionals, feeds the second army, reducing a text
to its historical and moral significance. Then there
are those who find provisions in Michael Hardt and
Antonio Negri, denigrating literature by reducing it
to the periphery of a theory of transnational
capitalism.

I sell just about all of them, as well as all manner
of literary critics like Jonathan Bate, Frank Kermode,
Adam Phillips, Jacqueline Rose, and Tony Tanner. And
if Michaels wants to claim, as he does in The Shape of
the Signifier, that de Man is Satan incarnate and the
root of all evil, that's good for me, is it not? De
Man's stock has been sinking a bit, and Michaels's
assault — no matter how ill founded — can only help me
sell the tarnished goods. Let a thousand flowers
bloom. Who cares if they be but poppies?

But my position is not, in fact, one of neutrality. I
publish many authors whose views I only partly admire,
but none whose views I despise, and I always have an
agenda, in the form of a set of hypotheses about what
I think is emerging and what I think will keep the
humanities alive. So, for the past 10 or so years, I
have been hunting for books that will renew a focus on
our engagement with art.

The problem that besets the literary academy is not
about politics, conventionally understood. Indeed,
critics who style themselves left or right are often
indistinguishable to me. What they share is the
reduction of literature to an idea, a moral. America
is a nation divided irreconcilably, it seems.
Everywhere you go, you have to declare which side
you're on: "red state" or "blue state." But our ease
in answering is deceptive because life and literature
are much more complex than that. All the loose talk
about ideology and politics that prevailed in English
departments in the 1980s and 90s has made it hard for
the inhabitants to understand the workings of ideology
itself. Despite the much-quoted charges that the
humanities have been taken over by the left (and
despite the self-congratulatory rhetoric of those on
the left who argue that literary criticism is fighting
the good fight), I believe that what we're really
seeing is a reactionary tilt — away from the
rebellious, destabilizing, liberating aspects of art.
Let me try to connect some of the dots.

R ichard M. Weaver, who was a professor of English at
the University of Chicago (Sontag's alma mater and
mine), has become since he died, in 1963just before
the story I've been telling begins with Sontaga hero
to conservative intellectuals in America. To me,
Weaver was a Confidence-Man, a peculiar American type
anatomized in excruciating detail by Herman Melville.
He had snake oil to sell us, something that would make
everything better by restoring our moral vitality. The
problem was that we had trusted him without question.
Weaver glorified the virtues of the Southern
plantation class and the power of ideas that they
demonstrated. In Ideas Have Consequences (University
of Chicago Press, 1948), he argued against modernism's
abandonment of universals. The great sin of his age,
he said, was that it promoted the senses and emotion
over reason and ideas.

A few years after Weaver's death (and intellectual
renaissance), Fish published his book on Milton,
Surprised by Sin: The Reader in "Paradise Lost" (St.
Martin's Press, 1967). The difference between Sontag
and Fish was total. Sontag decried approaching art
only as something to be interpreted; Fish provided the
foundation of politically correct scholarship that
manhandles art in its promotion of interpretation. But
Fish and Weaver shared a loyalty to ideas above all
else. With an authoritarian zeal reminiscent of the
moralism that caused New Englanders to drown witches
centuries ago, Fish asked readers of Milton to deny
what lies on the page, arguing that the poet wants us
to understand that "poetry's demands are illegitimate
because they proceed from, and return to, the
affections." Milton "would want his readers to resist"
the demands of poetry, Fish said. And so did he,
calling on them to make their own meaning out of
Paradise Lost. What Fish did was exactly what Sontag
said the advocates of "interpretation" do — tear up
literature and reassemble it to say what they think it
says. Many of us thought Sontag had demolished that
approach. Those were the days, my friend, we thought
they'd never end.

Fish's subsequent writings have gone in many
directions, but he has never wavered in his
inclination to resist the physical and aesthetic
pleasures of the text and to prefer its doctrine. And
he has never ceased to practice a method of
allegorical interpretation that makes the text conform
to interpreters' ideas. The interpreters who have
followed in his wake continue to shuck text of its
form, reducing it to a proposition to be either
affirmed or denied, the way a farmer shucks an ear of
corn. When they're done interpreting a poem, what is
left of the poetry?

This kind of literary criticism has nothing to do with
aesthetic responses to art, only with conscious acts
of will. Nothing is to be left up to the senses, to
the emotions. We have only to make a decision about
the goodness or badness of the actions revealed in the
work. Interpretation is the revenge of moralism upon
art, and that is what makes it so politically
dangerous: It narrows what literary critics do — and
opens them to attack and co-optation from all the
ideologues out there. In the 1980s and 90s, scholars
like Terry Eagleton blasted away against the idea that
the arts were autonomous, no longeras Sir Philip
Sidney and Percy Bysshe Shelley had declaredto be
encountered on their own terms.

But once you've reduced art to politics and virtue,
you either toe the party line or face the
consequences. Eagleton may call himself a man of the
left, but today's ethos is conservative, and I fear
that much of today's literary criticism is as well:
Behind the disenchantment that many literature
professors now claim with the European intellectuals
who once obsessed them lies a new and insidious
intellectual isolationalism. Their underlying message
is: Let American critics do their own kind of
criticism. Remind you of the attitude of some of our
top politicians?

Literary theory — as promoted by writers like de Man,
Derrida, Johnson, and Shoshana Felman decades agohad
been an effort to devise new defenses for literature,
by updating and developing the idea that the arts
proceed in their own ways, different from those of
society, politics, and the economy. The fact that
those theorists have been so eclipsed by the
meaning-mongers has been much heralded as a return to
clarity and common sense in literary criticism. But
seen from my vantage point, what we have lost is the
opportunity for free aesthetic response. I don't think
many of today's literary critics are even aware of
what they have done, or of the consequences. That
makes it, perhaps, more rather than less worrisome.

I have told you all this about Fish and Weaver
because, unless you understand the swing right in
literature departments, disguised as the latest
fashion, you cannot understand the significance of the
two books I'll now turn to in more detail. Between
them they offer the field of opportunities open to us.
One is an effort to enforce the politics of
interpretation by insisting that ideas prevail over
poetic form; the other is an effort to break out of
the prison house of meaning altogether.

Michaels's The Shape of the Signifier sounds vaguely
poststructuralist. Signifiers and signifieds swept
into literary studies with Ferdinand de Saussure,
Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan. Much of the literary
criticism influenced by those theorists tended to be
rooted in the left, aimed at breaking up the culture
of capitalism. It is the goal of Michaels to sweep
that away, but under a title that confuses the reader
with its ideological disguise.

He gloats that he intends to dismantle any remnants of
the theoretical framework of yesteryear to make way
for a newer scholarship that gives pride of place not
to affect, identity, experience, and materiality, but
to intention and meaning. He claims to be giving us
one true theory, after having proved that theory is
worthless. Beware what lies beneath those maddeningly
confusing claims. One of Michaels's main targets is de
Man, a thinker he finds to be the source of a great
deal of what is going wrong in literary departments.
He objects to de Man's emphasis on the way literature
strikes us first as a shape whose tactile and gestural
aspects are more important as triggers of experience
than are the ideas they convey. Doing for American
literature what Fish did for English, Michaels is
Fish's lieutenant (in his first job at the Johns
Hopkins University, he worked with Fish, who
subsequently brought him to Illinois) in the battle to
make antitheoretical pseudotheory dominate Ph.D.
programs in literature.

His book is not scholarship, criticism, or theory. It
is a brazen call for a return to ideology. For Weaver,
the fall from grace came when the South lost the Civil
War; for Michaels, it was when the Berlin Wall came
down. The end of the cold war was the end of a
straightforward ideology pitting the United States
against the Soviet Union. In its place came endless
questions about identity and the messy fray of
identity politics. What is terrible about the
posthistorical world, as Michaels sees it, is the
fragmentation caused by identity politics; what
follows from identity politics is that group
identification tends to trump ideology, rendering all
sorts of vague feelings of identification more
important than articulating ideas. What matters is who
you are, not what you think.

The remedy, for Michaels, is to understand the
workings of class and, especially, the free market. In
an article in The New York Times last year, he decries
"Diversity's False Solace," arguing that making all
cultures worthy of respect provides the false sense of
"a world of differences without inequality." In a
recent essay in n+1 magazine, "The Neoliberal
Imagination," he further argues that elite colleges
manage to avoid the real debate about class by patting
themselves on the back for admitting some poor people.
There's a lot of ideological self-disguise going on
there, but to me the goal (and certainly the effect)
seems to be to demoralize the liberal imagination by
pointing out its foolish inconsistencies and pieties.

To make literary criticism straightforward, Michaels
focuses on the market system, not the individual's
experience of art. That, unfortunately, rules out
aesthetic response. This is stuff that looks for an
impersonal, dominating idea to impose order. Thus
Michaels is critical of Toni Morrison, who, he says,
reduces understanding her characters' lives to their
racial identity. And he sees Samuel R. Delany's
novella The Game of Time and Pain — one of a series of
allegorical fantasies that explore sexuality and power
through the tale of a long-ago people — not as
centrally concerned with gay experience, but with how
the idea of slavery is transformed into an allegorical
case for the free market as two men willingly engage
in a sadomaso-chistic relationship once rooted in the
dominance of master over slave. The sad part, writes
Michaels, is that Delany does not recognize that his
story is proof of "the fundamental freedom of liberal
capitalism — freedom of contract."

Michaels also repeats the simple little example that
has been his main claim to fame ever since he
published his 1982 essay with Steven Knapp, "Against
Theory." What ought we to think if we see on a sand
dune a fragment of a poem etched by waves? Should we
respond to it as a poem? Not if it was caused by an
accidental movement of waves, said Michaels and Knapp,
even if the lines are as affecting as some of the best
of Wordsworth. The shapes in the sand were not created
by human intention; they had no ideas behind them.
Therefore they are not signifiers.

That kind of move rules out of court the most
important task of a critic, which is to discern
artistic forms and make judgments about them as things
of beauty or ugliness. Michaels rejects the teasing
out of the ambiguities of that sensory experience,
which is what the deconstructionists of old delighted
in. If it all sounds like an abstract discussion of
ideas, it is.

Gumbrecht's Production of Presence sees things
differently. The German-born author established
himself as a literary historian of the Iberian
peninsula, working primarily in medieval literature.
He is now a U.S. citizen and a professor of literature
at Stanford University (and is also affiliated with
the University of Montreal and the Ιcole des Hautes
Ιtudes en Sciences Sociales, in Paris) — just the sort
of immigrant who has long enriched American literary
scholarship.

He is as aggressively opposed to hermeneutics as
Michaels is to poetics and aesthetics, and he declares
an interest in the material aspects of artwork that
starkly contrasts with Michaels's rejection. Gumbrecht
does not deny that we can find meaning in art, but he
argues that the production of meaning takes precedence
over an obsession with interpreting it. Our emotional
response to artworks matters. We experience a thrill
when we see that meanings can be produced, when we see
how malleable symbols are. We do not respond to static
images of God the Father or Satan in Milton, but to
the manifest malleability of the poetry. Milton makes
us feel that we have entered his workshop and can feel
the heat of his creative powers. That is what warms
us, not the cold idea that good should conquer evil.
The emphasis Gumbrecht puts on production is striking
at a time when American business has turned its
attention from how goods are produced to how, as they
say, value is added in the process of selling things.
The focus on production seems old-fashioned, more in
tune with the values of engineers (and artists) than
those of marketers.

Gumbrecht seeks to shift literary criticism away from
interpretation to what he calls a "nonhermeneutic
field," by which he means to highlight the continuing
value of Derrida's subtle explorations of the way
forms of content emerge. Like Michaels, he wants to go
beyond the material surface of an artwork. While for
Michaels that means that interpretation is the name of
the game, however, for Gumbrecht we can never detach
ideas about a literary work from the work itself. We
cannot discard a poem. The key is to think about how
we experience it.

We cannot help feeling when we read Whitman's Leaves
of Grass, for example, that we are being inundated by
words, as the poet piles clause after clause after
clause upon us. We have to grapple with finding order
(not to mention a verb) — to assert some kind of
control. That kind of experience embodies the
experience of the new democratic order that Whitman
was celebrating, gives us a sense, not an idea, of
that order.

It is no mere coincidence, Gumbrecht writes, that at
the time aesthetics was emerging as a discipline
within philosophy, artists began to depict how the
physical way we experience the world matters. Painters
like Goya and writers like Rousseau gave viewers a
visceral sense of the topsy-turvy turmoil of
aesthetics.

Gumbrecht further argues that one source of the
problems that plague scholarship today is the way
interpretation has been institutionalized. Giving
interpretation control over literary scholarship was a
price that we paid to win a place for literature in
the university. The question now is, How can we change
the situation?

For Gumbrecht, the key is to avoid extremist tactics
and pitting one approach against another — something
that humanists do when they are feeling down and out
and oppressed, as they have more and more in the past
30 years. He wants critics like Michaels to stop
seeing literary theorists like de Man as Satan
incarnate. And he wants those who are, as it were, on
de Man's side to stop clinging to him inflexibly, as
if the critic were going to descend from his throne
next to God's in heaven and come back to New Haven.

In fact, you should know, a growing and diverse group
of scholars is producing very exciting work, exploring
just the issue of aesthetic experience urged upon the
reader by Gumbrecht. Such people are not the dupes of
de Man, and many of them probably have never heard of
Gumbrecht. Look to Isobel Armstrong's The Radical
Aesthetic (Blackwell, 2000), which soundly criticizes
those who claim that aesthetics is politically
reactionary. Drawing on contemporary literature and
criticism, the book instead points to the democratic
potential of a revival of aesthetics. Brian Massumi's
Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation
(Duke University Press, 2002) argues that contemporary
media like television, film, and the Internet evoke
various levels of sensation — some of which operate
well below the level of simple meaning; Sianne Ngai's
Ugly Feelings (Harvard University Press, 2004) uses
examples that range from 19th-century American novels
to contemporary cartoon shows to study the fleeting
feelings we often have about art. In different ways,
all those scholars resist reducing art to ideas; all
reveal anew the complex ways in which art holds us in
its grasp.

Yes, the transformation that Gumbrecht calls for in
the humanities is beginning to happen. If we can let
go of our past battles, we may even let it flower.

Lindsay Waters is executive editor for the humanities
at Harvard University Press. His most recent book is
Enemies of Promise: Publishing, Perishing, and the
Eclipse of Scholarship (Prickly Paradigm Press, 2004).






		
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