Friday, June 23, 2017

The profession of literary criticism as I have observed it over 50 years

Updated 6.23.17.

In the course of thinking about my recent rejection at New Literary History I found myself, once again, rethinking the evolution of the profession as I’ve seen it from the 1960s to the present. In fact, that rejection has led me, once again, to rethink that history and to change some of my ideas, particularly about the significance of the 1970s.

This post is a guide to my historically-oriented thinking about academic literary criticism. Much, but not all, of the historical material is autobiographical in nature.

I list the articles more or less in the order of writing. In some cases a post has been rewritten and revised several years after I first wrote it. The link I give is to the most recent version.

Touchstones • Strange Encounters • Strange Poems • the beginning of an intellectual life (1975-2015)

This is about my years at Johns Hopkins, both undergraduate (1965-1969) and graduate (1969-72). That’s when, I see in retrospect, I left the profession intellectually, with a “structuralism and beyond” MA thesis on “Kubla Khan,” even before I’d joined it institutionally, but getting my PhD. I originally wrote this while I was working on my PhD in English at SUNY Buffalo. Art Efron published a journal, Paunch, and I wrote it for that. The current version includes interpolated comments from 2014 and 2015.

The Demise of Deconstruction: On J. Hillis Miller’s MLA Presidential Address 1986. PMLA. Vol. 103, No. 1, Jan. 1988, p. 57.

A letter I published in PMLA in which I replied to J. Hillis Miller on the eclipse of deconstruction. I suggested 1) that deconstruction had a different valence for those who merely learned it in graduate school than for those who had struggled to create it, and 2) that it was in eclipse because it did the same thing to every text.

For the Historical Record: Cog Sci and Lit Theory, A Chronology (2006-2016)

At the beginning of every course (at Johns Hopkins) Dick Macksey would hand out a chronology, a way, I suppose, of saying “history is important” without lecturing on the topic. It was with that in mind that I originally posted this rough and ready chronology in a comment to a discussion at The Valve. The occasion was an online symposium that interrogated Theory by discussing the anthology, Theory’s Empire (Columbia UP 2005). I then emended it a bit and made it a freestanding post. As the title suggests, it juxtaposes developments in cognitive science and literary theory from the 1950s through the end of the millennium.

[BTW The entire Theory’s Empire symposium is worth looking at, including the comments on the posts: http://www.thevalve.org/go/valve/archive_asc/C41]

Seven Sacred Words: An Open Letter to Steven Pinker (2007-2011)

An Open Letter to Steven Pinker: The Importance of Stories and the Nature of Literary Criticism (2015)

Steven Pinker has been a severe critic of the humanities for ignoring recent work in the social and behavioral sciences. He has also argued that the arts serve no biological purpose, that they are “cheesecake for the mind.” When I read his The Stuff of Thought (2007) I realized his later chapters contained the basis for an account of the arts. I sketched that out, added a brief account of why deconstruction had been popular, and published it as an open letter, along with his reply. It appeared first at The Valve (2007) and then at New Savanna (2011). In 2015 I posted it to a “session” at Academia.edu. I took some of my comments in that discussion along with some other materials and published the lot at Academic.edu as a working paper. In a final section I propose a four-fold division of literary criticism: 1) description, 2) naturalist criticism, 3) ethical criticism, and 4) digital criticism.

Lévi-Strauss and Myth: Some Informal Notes (2007-2011)

Beyond Lévi-Strauss on Myth: Objectification, Computation, and Cognition (2007-2015)

These are two versions of roughly the same material. Each was assembled from four blog posts. The first and fourth sections are the same in both working paper, but two and three differ. The more recent version also contains a short appendix comparing Lévi-Strauss and Latour. I published the first series at The Valve shortly after Lévi-Strauss had died. They are an attempt to explain what Lévi-Strauss was up to in his work on myth, why he failed, and why that work remains important. The fourth section (common to both versions), Into Lévi-Strauss and Out Through “Kubla Khan”, is an account of how and why I went from Lévi-Strauss’s structuralism to cognitive science. Warning: it contains diagrams. I suppose I could create a deluxe edition which contains all the posts.

The Only Game in Town: Digital Criticism Comes of Age (May 5, 2014)

Here I argue that digital criticism’s deepest contribution to literary criticism is that it requires fundamentally different modes of thinking. It is not purely discursive. It is statistical and visual. Moreover the visualizations are central to the thought process. This may also be the first time I’ve explicitly identified the mid-1970s as an important turning point in the recent history of literary criticism.

Paths Not Taken and the Land Before Us: An Open Letter to J. Hillis Miller (January 30, 2015)

I had studied with Miller at Johns Hopkins (but have had no contact with him since). While I certainly say a bit about what I’ve been doing since I left Hopkins, including ring-composition, I also introduce him to Matt Jockers’ Macroanalysis and Goldstone and Underwood, “The Quiet Transformations of Literary Studies: What Thirteen Thousand Scholars Could Tell Us”. New Literary History 45, no. 3, Summer 2014. I mention Kemp Malone, a Hopkins person, as he came up in blog discussion of the paper.

On the Poverty of Literary Cognitivism 2: What I Learned When I Walked off the Cliff of Cognitivism (August 24, 2015)

I attempt to explain what, in the end, I got out of my immersion in cognitive networks since I haven’t used them in my post-graduate work in literature. What I got most immediately was a powerful way of thinking about language in general where there is a sharp distinction between the object of thought, captured in diagrams, and a given text: The text is one thing, the model is another. There is no confusing the two. Moretti has made similar remarks about the diagrams he uses in ‘distant reading.’

Meaning, Theory, and the Disciplines of Criticism (September 16, 2015)

I had previously argued that literary criticism can be characterized by five ideas:
1) Reading: The distinction between ordinary reading, which everyone does, and interpretive reading, the province of literary critics, is elided. Critics “read” texts and so create “readings”.

2) The Text: The distinction between the text as physical object (marks on pages, pages bound into books) and whatever it means and whatever it represents is elided. This is the world in which there is nothing outside the text.

3) “Form” becomes either a synonym for genre – tragedies and sonnets are forms – or a philosophical declaration of textual autonomy. The purpose of that declaration is to enable a critical practice that focuses exclusively on “the text” as its object so the critic can then “read” it. Thus “close reading” rarely involves sustained attention to a text’s form.

4) Characters are People: We of course know that fictional characters are just that, fictions. But more is at stake than that simple acknowledgment.

5) Theory as Critique: Over time the theory of literature morphed into critical theory, which in turn became Theory, though the capitalization of the initial “t” is optional.
I explicate these propositions using material developed by Andrew Goldstone and Ted Underwood, The Quiet Transformation of Literary Studies: What Thirteen Thousand Scholars Could Tell Us”. New Literary History 45, no. 3, Summer 2014. They based their work on these journals: Critical Inquiry (1974–2013), ELH (1934–2013), Modern Language Review (1905–2013), Modern Philology (1903–2013), New Literary History (1969–2012), PMLA (1889–2007), and the Review of English Studies (1925–2012).

How Failure Led Me to Appreciate the Importance of Description in Literary Study (November 2, 2015)

The explains how going through cognitivism led me to explicitly think about literary form and thus to focus on the description of literary form as essential to the next phase of the discipline. We’re never going to understand how literature works in cognitive or neural terms until we can first describe the forms texts take.

Literary Studies from a Martian Point of View: An Open Letter to Charlie Altieri (December 17, 2915)

I took a course in modern poetry from Altieri in spring semester of my second year at SUNY Buffalo. I wrote my first cognitive networks paper as a joint project for that course and for a course I was taking with David, in the Linguistics Department, who was my mentor in cognitive science. I tell my story from my undergraduate years at Hopkins, though PhD studies at Buffalo, more or less up through to the present.

An Open Letter to Dan Everett about Literary Criticism (February 19, 2017)
http://new-savanna.blogspot.com/2017/02/an-open-letter-to-dan-everett-about.html
https://www.academia.edu/33589497/An_Open_Letter_to_Dan_Everett_about_Literary_Criticism (PDF)

Literary critics are interested in meaning (interpretation) but when linguistics, such as Haj Ross, look at literature, they’re interested in structure and mechanism (poetics).  Shakespeare presents a particular problem because his plays exist in several versions, with Hamlet as an extreme case (3 somewhat different versions). The critic doesn’t know where to look for the “true” meaning. Where linguists to concern themselves with such things (which they mostly don’t), they’d be happy to deal with each of version separately. Undergraduate instruction in literature is properly concerned with meaning. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness has become a staple because of its focus on race and colonialism, which was critiqued by Chinua Achebe in 1975 and the ensuing controversy and illustrates the problematic nature of meaning. And yet, when examined at arm’s length, the text exhibits symmetrical patterning (ring composition) and fractal patterning. Such duality, if you will, calls for two complementary critical approaches. Ethical criticism addresses meaning (interpretation) and naturalist criticism addresses structure and mechanism (poetics).


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Finally, this post, in contrast, is a guide to (some of) my more programmatic reflections: Some Thoughts on the Discipline [Literary Criticism] (Oct 17, 2015)

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