Thursday, November 5, 2015

Revised Edition: Prospects: The Limits of Discursive Thinking and the Future of Literary Criticism

I've posted a new version of the Prospects working paper in which I've fixed more glitches. More substantially I've added five paragraphs to the introduction, in the section, "Prose-Centricity in Literary Criticism", which starts on page 3. I've placed those paragraphs below the asterisks.

I've also initiated as "session" at where people can comment on and annotate the paper. You can enter the session here:

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Why does someone choose to become a professional literary critic, or, for that matter, a student of film, TV, or other media? Whatever the particular path to the doctorate (and subsequent academic posts) the journey starts in a love for and deep engagement with the primary materials, literary texts, movies, whatever. The experience of a good poem, a wonderful movie, or an astonishing novel calls on us to exercise our intellect, our feelings and desires, our moral and our aesthetic sensibilities, all commingled through instructive delight. Wouldn’t it be a fine thing if I could make a living by sharing this instructive delight with others through teaching and writing?

And so one goes to graduate school to get a doctorate in literature, or film studies, whatever. But how does that work out in practice? What specifically does a literary scholar do; what is it like to conduct literary research? – for it is the research agenda that determines the course of professional literary thinking, not a portfolio of teaching assignments.

Writers of belletristic essays and writers of reviews are free to engage with and express the full range of their engagement with texts. Those activities were tossed out of the academy early in the 20th century, though their attractions keep bouncing back. Until the 1950s academic literary critics wrote history and/or philology; edited texts; and prepared concordances, guides, and bibliographies. None of those activities have much room for expressive engagement with the critic’s inner life. That inner life may have brought the young student to the beginning of his or her studies, but once embarked on those studies, the inner life has had to be cordoned off from them.

That began to change when interpretation became an important focus of critical activity in the 1950s. The twin doctrines of the intentional fallacy and the affective fallacy isolated the text from authors actions and reader’s responses, and critics, of course are among the company of readers. But not all critics adhered to those doctrines and, in any event, the practical business of interpretive criticism has always proceeded at some distance from the methodological and theoretical pronouncements about how it should be done. Thus, as the 1960s careened into the 1970s interpretive criticism began to take on an expressive function for critics, who increasingly adopted one or another “liberationist agenda” (see the section, Ethical Criticism: Blakey Vermeule on Theory, Cornel West in the Academy, Now What?, pp. 32-35).

All of this work had been done in prose of one sort or another. Yes, there were and are oral presentations of various kinds – class lectures, conference presentations, speeches before august and not-so-august bodies, and so forth – but it is all discursive in nature. How could it possibly have been done otherwise? What other intellectual vehicles exist for critics?

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