Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The limitations of an academic literary criticism centered on meaning, or, What will the future bring?

I have written extensively about the limitations of the current discipline of literary criticism [1]. The discipline is focused on interpreting the meaning(s) of texts, and has been that way more-or-less since the end of World War II. To be sure, the discipline does other things – edit texts, historical studies, teach writing – but that’s the focus. That meaning-centric discipline has become sclerotic, perhaps moribund, and, to the extent that we may reify it, the discipline knows it.

What to do? That implies two questions: What are the intellectual possibilities? What are the institutional possibilities?

Intellectually, the interpretation of meaning can no longer be the focus of the discipline. It is by no means obvious to me, however, that something else should become the focus. I have been advocating that the description of form is critical and that it be given more attention, much more [2]. But it is not obvious to me that that requires making formal description THE new disciplinary focus. Why should the discipline have a focus more specific than the study of literary phenomena?

I have been advocating a discipline that recognizes
  • ethical criticism
  • naturalist criticism
  • description, and
  • digital humanities.
I think that, intellectually, that’s a reasonable scheme [3].

The interpretation of meaning finds its home in ethical criticism while the newer psychologies and cultural evolution inform naturalist criticism. Description can readily serve both ethical and naturalist criticism. As for digital humanities, that’s a term whose range is so capacious as to be all but meaningless beyond the feature of computer use. I single it out only because, on the one hand it singles itself out and, on the other hand, everyone else points to it. DH provides infrastructure of various kinds and can contribute to the core intellectual work of description, naturalist, and ethical criticism as appropriate. Within DH I have, as you may know, a particular interest in computational criticism.

That answers the question about intellectual possibilities. What about the institutional possibilities? In an ideal world existing institutions would adjust to accommodate such a scheme. But this is not that ideal world.

In the world we’ve actually got, I can imagine that existing institutions – departments, journals, professional societies – will refuse to relinquish the meaning-centric focus – they did so before, in the mid-1970s. That creates two problems: What happens to those current institutions and what becomes of those who cannot find a home there?

On the second, either these investigators find other institutional support or they cease to function as productive intellectuals. On the matter of other institutional support, I offer an observation. During the pre-modern era in the West the Catholic Church was the center of intellectual life. That changed after the Reformation and the scientific revolution. Intellectual life is now centered on colleges and universities, which are, for the most part, secular institutions. We are in an era of cultural and social change of the same depth and magnitude as that experienced in Europe during early modern era. I would expect new institutions to evolve, indeed, we can see it happening. But I’m not going to speculate on where that might lead or how those institutions might create room to support literary researchers interested in description, naturalist criticism, or computational criticism.

That leaves us with one issue: What is likely to become of a meaning-centric literary criticism? It will lose its intellectual vitality. A purely interpretative criticism will strangle nascent interest in description, will not develop a robust study of form, and will reject computational criticism. It will simply cycle through the interpretive rubrics it has adopted over the past half century, mixing and matching to produce the superficial appearance of thoughtful activity. Theology didn’t disappear with the eclipse of the church nor will literary criticism disappear if literary critics refuse to change; but the vitality will be gone.

Why will this criticism strangle description? Because effective description of literary texts cannot be done through purely discursive means, a point I have argued at some length [2]. You can interpret a text, or anything else for that matter, without having to describe it with precision and in detail. You simply point to it and say: Here’s what it means. To be sure, literary criticism does involve description. We describe verse forms, we summarize texts, and we use quotations. Quotation is not description, of course, it is pointing: Look at this. I’m going to tell you what it means. Relative to the richness and complexity of literary texts, however, these descriptive practices are inadequate.

Interpretation can function well without robust descriptions of texts. That’s what allows critics to elide the distinction between reading, in the ordinary sense of the term, and interpretive reading. Robust description places the text before you as an object. Interpretation does not. Interpretation treats the text as a window on the world, though not a fully transparent one, a window with properties that alters what you see. You don’t describe the window; you look through it and describe the world you see.

Similarly, interpretive criticism does not deal with form. So-called formalist criticism does not analyze and describe formal features. It simply talks about them (points to them) as that which makes literary art, well, ART. In some versions it treats texts as isolated objects wholly containing their meaning (whatever that might mean). Meaning belongs to content, not form, and if we cannot clearly distinguish form from content...oh well.

Students of the newer psychologies will continue under the current arrangements, at least for awhile, as will computational criticism. Some of these researchers will find homes in other departments. But none of this work can really thrive in meaning-centered institutions and they cannot assimilate enough from these investigations to remain vital.

Back in the 1960s and 1970s literary criticism seemed open to more descriptive modes of thinking, and to more careful consideration of form. Thus we have this passage from the introduction to Jonathan Culler’s 1975 Structuralist Poetics (Cornell UP):
The type of literary study which structuralism helps one to envisage would not be primarily interpretive; it would not offer a method which, when applied to literary works, produced new and hitherto unexpected meanings. Rather than a criticism which discovers or assigns meanings, it would be a poetics which strives to define the conditions of meaning. Granting new attention to the activity of reading, it would attempt to specify how we go about making sense of texts, what are the interpretive operations on which literature itself, as an institution, is based. Just as the speaker of a language has assimilated a complex grammar which enables him to read a series of sounds or letters as a sentence with a meaning, so the reader of literature has acquired, through his encounters with literary works, implicit mastery of various semiotic conventions which enable him to read series of sentences as poems or novels endowed with shape and meaning. The study of literature, as opposed to the perusal and discussion of individual works, would become an attempt to understand the conventions which make literature possible. The major purpose of this book is to show how such a poetics emerges from structuralism, to indicate what it has already achieved, and to sketch what it might become.
Culler toured the country giving speeches about structuralism. And then he didn’t. That was the end of his interest in poetics.

In that he was simply following the profession. To be sure, poetics continued to be studied, particularly in the form of narratology. But it wasn’t central to the discipline. Interpretation became THE on central function, enlarging its compass from canonical literary texts to cultural texts of all kinds: cultural studies. The profession produced a steady stream of interpretive methodologies.

And then it didn’t. That’s where the profession is now. If academic literary criticism makes the same decision now that it made in the 1970s, it will wither and die.


[1] You can access my New Savanna posts on literary criticism with this link:

I have gathered a number of them into a working paper, Prospects: The Limits of Discursive Thinking and the Future of Literary Criticism, November 2015:

[2] New Savanna posts about form:

New Savanna posts about description:

Working papers about a particular formal scheme, ring-composition:

[3] You will find my most recent statement about that scheme in the introduction to Prospects: The Limits of Discursive Thinking and the Future of Literary Criticism (pp. 5-9), which also exists as a post at New Savanna:

FWIW, I first announced in allegiance to the term naturalist criticism in The Valve back in 2010, “NATURALIST” criticism, NOT “cognitive,” NOT “Darwinian” – A Quasi-Manifesto:

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