Thursday, February 19, 2015

The state of critical play, a blast from the past

I was trolling through The Valve looking for an old post of mine (which I found) and came across this gem by Miriam Burstein, Critical. It's a response to an article that Lindsay Waters had published in The Chronicle of Higher Education in which he complained that criticism had become too much about ideas, not enough about aesthetics. Burstein said he was confused, and I think she was right. But then, figuring out what academic literary criticism is about is a confusing task.

Her second paragraph:
Waters lays down the law in the very first paragraph: "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." At the risk of sounding like Ophelia Benson (not, I'd add, that I consider that at all a bad thing): "norms"? Which "norms"? What sort of historical narrative easily encompasses everyone from Aristotle to Vendler? (This generalization treads dangerously close to the dreaded Michener School of the Looooong Historical View.) And what's the relationship between "criticism" and "scholarship"? In any event, it's not yet clear if, by "healthy," Mr. Waters simply means practical criticism, rhetorical criticism, or something else entirely.
I recommend the post, though it's from December of 2005; and the following discussion is useful as well. For example, Luther Blissett about Waters on Walter Benn Michaels (WBM):
Waters’ point is that you can’t tell the difference between WBM dealing with a literary critic, a novelist, a poet, a comix artist, a philosopher, a think tank political scientist, a right-wing journo nutjob, or a left-wing social activist. As you write, Scott, these different texts are all simply “arguments” and all arguments have “consequences” (’tho “consequences” isn’t the right word, because WBM never attends to real world consequences of arguments but rather to possible logical implications, if this then that sorts of things).

Waters’ argument seems to be: what world are we in when all uses of language are simply “messages” to be uncoded, when all forms of literary art are simply nicely gift-wrapped packages with the “real goods” inside (so you can just toss out the wrapping and the box and be glad you got—wait for it—a fruit cake! Hooray!).
Yep, it's a problem.

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