Tuesday, September 24, 2013

If a Martian anthropologist were to study American culture, would she assign special privilege to the canonical texts of the Western traditions?

This was originally posted to The Valve on 7 Feb 2007 under the title: Discipline: The Aesthetic and the Ethnographic. I’ve edited it slightly so as to insert the proverbial Martian anthropologist into the mix. The distinction I’m making here, between the aesthetic and the ethnographic approach to culture, should be compared with my more recent contrast between ethical and naturalist criticism.
Scott Eric Kaufman’s recent post about the graphic novels issue of MFS Modern Fiction Studies got me to thinking about disciplinary matters. On the face of it, as Scott noticed, the special issue seems concerned about canonical legitimacy, hence the prominence given to a Pulitzer-winning text, Art Spiegleman’s Maus. My initial impression – after reading Scott’s post, the first and last articles in the issue and abstracts for the rest – was that there was nothing about manga in the issue. Since, as far as I know, manga constitutes the single largest body of graphic narrative in the world, that absence seemed rather glaring.

But, I suspect that my interest in manga (and anime) is rather different from the interest the MFS authors have in graphic narrative. I’m not terribly interested in claiming lasting canonical legitimacy for this or that manga. It’s clear that some of these materials seem intended for pre-teens, others for young teens, older teens, adults, males and females, and so forth. And some of them may well deserve a place in some high-art canon. But at the moment I’m not interested in arguing those distinctions. I treat manga as examples of human culture, and that’s why I’m interested in them. Through studying them we can learn something about the mind and about culture.

It’s a matter of how one frame’s one’s inquiry, of how one justifies the range of texts open for consideration. For the purposes of discussion, I’ll use the terms “aesthetic” and “ethnographic” for these two stances. Note that this distinction is not necessarily about the methods one uses in studying a body of work.

The Aesthetic Critic

The aesthetic critic is concerned to study those texts that are the best a given culture – or all humankind – has produced. It seems to me that the academic study of literature has traditionally chosen its objects of study from the aesthetic point of view. It is the study of a so-called canon of texts that have passed the test of aesthetic excellence.

The nature of that test is not very clear. As I said in the comments to Scott’s post:
I think that judgments about good and bad literature are arrived at on an intuitive basis and communally negotiated in terms of richness, complexity, reflexivity, and so forth, while quoting appropriate passages here and there to illustrate what’s being talked about. But, such examination and discussion are applied ONLY to those texts judged to be good. It is simply assumed that the bad ones do not measure up on those rather vague standards.

One of the standard clichés is that good texts can support many readings; that’s a measure of their goodness. And, what do you know, we have many readings for the good texts. That’s because the community that believes this doesn’t bother to provide readings for bad texts.

As for the value of these readings, my guess is that it has more to do with the critic than with the text or texts being criticized.

What we do not have anywhere, as far as I know, are explicit criteria applied to a wide variety of texts with the evaluations being done in some way that permits objective comparison between valuations.
The work thus done, the preservation and promulgation of a body of cultural material, of texts, seems to me necessary and valuable one. But one might have questions about institutionalization – I note, for example, Daniel Green’s recent series of essays (starting HERE and continuing HERE, HERE, and HERE) about how the primary winnowing of modern fiction into a canon has deserted the journalistic sphere in favor of the academy. But, for the moment, I want to treat that as a secondary issue.

Given this, how has this discipline proceeded? On the face of it, broaching such a topic in the space of a brief blog post is absurd, with the absurdity multiplied by the fact that I’ve read little of extant literature on the professionalization of literary studies. Nonetheless, I want to float some informal observations.

In the first place, explicit aesthetic evaluation is not and has not been a major part of the discipline. We do not spend a lot of time arguing for the excellence of William Shakespeare or Jane Austen. We simply assume it.

In the second place, and more importantly, we have done and continue to do various kinds of work around and about the canonical texts. There is literary biography, various kinds of literary history, source and influence study, study of tropes and imagery, and so forth. However this is framed, there’s a great deal of accumulated knowledge of how these canonical texts relate to one another, to external events, to the human mind, and, for that matter, to non-canonical texts. Thus, while the selection of a universe of discourse may be steeped in mystery, the profession has quite a bit to say about that universe that is not so mysterious.

The Ethnographic Critic

The ethnographic critic, whom I’ve modeled on the proverbial Martian anthropologist, is not focused specifically on the sublimely beautiful. Being from Mars, this anthropologist has no personal stake in any particular human community. She does not live here as a citizen of Sierra Leone, Iran, Sri Lanka, Peru, Norway, or for that matter, of the United States of America, and so she is not trying to advance the values of her home state. Rather, she is studying earthlings. Period.

If the text is a human one, then it is within the scope of her study. Thus the range of texts within the purview of the Martian anthropologist, of the ethnographic critic, is much larger than that within the purview of the aesthetic critic, who serves a particular cultural tradition. The canonical texts of specific cultural traditions are no more than a proper subset of the ethnographic critic’s range. In fact, that range is so large that it may be crippling, an issue which Franco Moretti faced in Graphs, Maps, Trees, in which he espoused “distant reading” in which individual texts figured only as data points in a statistical distribution. I’ll return to this issue shortly.

As you might have suspected, I think of myself as an ethnographic critic. I am interested in the human mind, the brain, and culture; and how they interrelate. In particular, I have spent a great deal of time with the cognitive and neurosciences and so find even very simply texts – such as those created for children – to be absorbingly complex. When you look at culture in cognitive and neural terms, phenomena that are beneath the purview of the aesthetic critic all of a sudden seems almost hopelessly complex. That is to say, I don’t need the richness of Coleridge or Dickens to hold my interest. Conversely, I haven’t the foggiest idea of what it would mean to account for a Shakespeare play in cognitive terms, nor does this cause me any anxiety.

But that’s incidental. I don’t think one needs to be interested in the cognitive sciences to work from an ethnographic point of view. One simply needs to be interested in culture wherever and however it is. I would think that students of popular culture and of cultural studies have adopted the ethnographic point of view – though there may be some aesthetic anxiety that is assuaged by reading popular forms as existing in opposition to (evil) high cultural institutions.

It seems to me that one the most troublesome issues that arises within the ethnographic stance is how to choose just what to study, for it would be impossible for study everything within the very generous scope of the ethnographic perspective. The anthropologist doing fieldwork in a small-scale society faces a daunting task; but one might imagine that a team of anthropologists might “cover it all” over several decades. But the huge multiplicity of texts generated by complex modern cultures, how can one possibly study everything? And if one doesn’t study everything, how do you pick just which texts to study? Obviously, one has to sample the space – as students of popular culture have been doing.

By way of comparison I would like to suggest an analogy with biology. The number of different species is in the millions I believe, but biologists have not given all of them equal attention – not to mention the millions of species that have not yet been identified. I imagine that most species haven’t been studied beyond what is necessary to situate them in the overall taxonomy. But some few species have been studied in considerable detail. We study the great apes because they are our close biological relatives. We study fruit flies because their short life span makes it easy to study genetics over several generations. We study wheat and rice because they are important food staples. We study rats because they are both representative of mammals and relatively convenient to work with. And so forth. There are ways of selecting objects of study.

Biologists, of course, have their objects of study organized into a well-developed taxonomic system, though the organizing principles of that system have come under considerable pressure in recent years. Neither literary studies in particular nor the general study of human culture has such a taxonomy, nor is it obvious that one is possible. This bears on the question of just what to study. If one has a coherent organizing system, then one can study a typical member of a category in great detail; much or most of what you learn about that example will apply to the entire category. Literary genres are not so well organized.

The Two Together

As far as the ethnographic critic is concerned, the works meeting the approval of the aesthetic critic are just some among the many works available for study. I do not think this implies, however, that the work of ethnographic analysis can or should replace that of aesthetic appreciation and preservation. Not at all.

As I conceive the distinction, that cannot happen. For the aesthetic critic is an institutionalized literary system as it functions in complex industrial or post-industrial society. The ethnographic critic stands outside the system and examines it from that vantage point – or, at least, attempts to do so.

Further, as far as I can tell, one and the same individual can operate from either of these stances. When I wrote an article on ring structure and ontology in Osamu Tezuka’s Metropolis I did so as an ethnographic critic. When I posted a blog entry on Disney’s Fantasia as Masterwork I did so as an aesthetic critic. The assertion that Fantasia is a masterwork is an aesthetic one.

Finally, I wish to return to the question of methodology. I introduced the distinction as one about choices of objects for study. Does the distinction also imply a difference in methods of study? If we use Franco Moretti as an example of an ethnographic critic, then we have one example of something that is natural to an ethnographic critic, but not an aesthetic critic. More generally, we have the idea that the ethnographic critic stands outside the literary system, while the aesthetic critic does not. I do not think this is a simple matter of will and desire. It is also one of method. How is it that the ethnographic critic stands outside?

One could, of course, argue that “standing outside” is not possible. I do not believe that. Nor do I believe that the arguments and methods are simple and self-evident. There is much work to be done.

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