The question doesn’t exist for most academic literary critics because that’s just what we do. Some may know that it’s relatively recent, but that history is not something that’s “real”; it’s just something they know about from reading. While I can’t really remember a time before the hegemony of interpretation, it is nonetheless problematic for me because I have, for a long time, found another descriptive analysis just as congenial, if not more so, a theme I’ve explored often, most recently in my open letter to Dan Everett. Not too long after I’d posted it I had an after thought, as I sometimes do, and added this observation to the post: “And what I’m wondering is if the original impetus behind interpretive criticism wasn’t cultural anxiety: Just who are we and what are our values?” I then elaborated on that a bit later in the post.
Now the thing is, when that idea occurred to me, it had the force of something new, at least new to me, and that despite the fact that I’d appended it to a paragraph in which I’d quoted J. Hillis Miller asserting: “English literature was taken for granted as the primary repository of the ethos and the values of United States citizens...” That is obviously a closely related idea but, for what it’s worth, in my mind there’s a world of difference between English literature as a repository of values and interpretive criticism as a response to cultural anxiety. English literature is a particular body of cultural materials while the interpretive criticism is a particular way of dealing with those materials.
In any event, having gotten that idea in my mind I decided that it was time I took a look at a book I’ve known about for years, but never read: Gerald Graff, Professing Literature: An Institutional History (The University of Chicago Press, 1987, 2007). So I picked up a copy and skimmed my way through it. As the early chapters are about the 19th century I skipped over them. Let’s go a bit over halfway into the book, Chapter 10, “General Education and the Pedagogy of Criticism: 1930-1950”, which opens like this:
No development had more influence in securing the fortunes of criticism in universities and secondary schools than the movement for general education revived and restated by Robert Maynard Hutchins of Chicago in the 1930s and institutionalized after World War II. The general education movement was a response to two kinds of fears: that because of increasingly disciplinary specialization and emphasis on vocational training, knowledge was becoming fragmented, and that because of deepening conflicts of ideology, the unity of Western culture was disintegrating into a chaotic relativism. General education expressed a desire to restore common beliefs and values, and the humanities were seen as central to this goal by endowing the student with the sense of a common cultural heritage. (p. 162)
That sure looks like what I had in mind in talking about cultural anxiety.
A bit later in that chapter we have:
The new pedagogical concentration on the literary “text itself” was designed to counteract the large problems of cultural fragmentation, historical discontinuity, and student alienation. But putting the emphasis on the literary text itself also had a more humble advantage: it seemed a tactic ideally suited to a new, mass student body that could be depended on to bring the university any common cultural background – and not just the student body but the new professors as well, who might often be only marginally ahead of the students. The explicative method made it possible for literature to be taught efficiently to students who took for granted little history by professors who took for granted little more history. (p. 173)
And gives us interpretive criticism as a solution to the problem. And that is by no means the earliest expression of that idea in the book, nor the last. By and large interpretive criticism is seen as a way of dealing with the problem cultural identity. Not only do we teach a certain body of texts to undergraduates, but we interpret those texts for them and give them instruction in how to do the same.
This idea that only a couple of days ago struck me as a new idea has been sitting in the literature in a 30-year old book (Professing Literature was first published in 1987), that I’ve known about for years. The sense of newness I had now feels a bit embarrassing. But only a bit.
For Grafton’s story ends in the late 1960s and early 1970s while that’s when mine begins. For that’s when the possibility of a description-based poetics became available – most visibly in Jonathan Culler’s Structuralist Poetics (1975) – and was rejected, as much though lack of interest as through explicit argumentation, though there was some of that. That possibility simply doesn’t come up in Grafton’s telling of the story, not even at the end.
His last chapter is entitled “Tradition versus Theory.” Here’s what he says about theory:
As I use the term here, “literary theory” is a discourse concerned with the legitimating principles, assumptions, and premises of literature and literary criticism. Contrary to the stipulation of recent pragmatist arguments “against theory,” literary theory may but need not be a system or foundational discourse that aims to “govern” critical practice from some outside metaphysical standpoint. [...] But it is at least as legitimate, and more in line with normal usage, to think of literary theory not as a set of systematic principles, necessarily, or a founding philosophy, but simply as an inquiry into assumptions, premises and legitimating principles and concepts. (p. 252)
That paragraph is most interesting. For he is arguing against a conception of literary theory that, for the most part, seems dominant to this day. It is sometimes called “Theory” with a capital “T”, and as he says, is a foundational discourse that aims to govern critical practice from some outside metaphysical standpoint. The conception of literary theory that Grafton favors is that conception that still existed when I entered college, in the mid-1960s, but that collapsed over the next two decades or so.
I like that conception of theory as being about the legitimating principles, assumptions, and premises of literature – I’m not so much interested in the legitimating principles, assumptions, and premises of literary criticism. And interest in the newer psychologies is rekindling the creation of literary theory in that sense. But you can’t get there from here, not simply by calling on cognitive, evolutionary, and neuro-psychology to theorize about literature. You also need detailed descriptions of literary texts. In particular, of the formal features of texts. THAT’s what you are trying to explain: Where do those forms come from and how do they work? That’s what literary theory is about.
Let’s return to Grafton. Here’s his next paragraph:
Thus, another way of describing literary theory is as a discourse that treats literature as in some respect a problem and seeks to formulate that problem in general terms. Theory is what is generated when some aspect of literature, its nature, its history, its place in society, its conditions of production and reception, its meaning in general, or the meanings of particular works, ceases to be given and becomes a question to be argued in a generalized way. Theory is what inevitably arises when literary conventions and critical definitions once taken for granted have become objects of generalized discussion and dispute. (p. 252)
This conception of literary theory ties it to the “meaning” of texts and to, well, let’s just call it cultural coherence. In this conception literature only becomes the object of theoretical inquiry when it’s not doing the cultural work it should do. And that may well be how and why literary theory arose.
The conception of literary theory I favor has different roots. One theorizes about literature because it is there, and we can think about it. Whether or not literature is working in a given society, well that’s something that we, as theorists, can think about it. But that’s not why we’re theorizing. It’s simply an aspect of the phenomenon we’re thinking about. Grafton wants to theorize literature from the inside, as it were; I want to theorize it from the outside. It is the act of description that puts us outside literature and presents us with our objects of inquiry.