Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Ethical Criticism and Descriptive Criticism Online

Yesterday I wrote in description, Some example descriptions: two poems, a novella, two manga texts, and two films. That’s a preliminary to today’s post, which is more generally about the possibilities for collaborative online learning in literary and cultural criticism. In particular, I want to stress the need to extend this learning beyond the academy and into the general public.

One of the persisting criticisms of literary studies over the past few decades is that they’ve become too specialized and they’ve left the educated public behind. Whatever misgivings I may have about the particular specialized discourses of academic literary criticism, I have no problem with intellectual specialization. And, to the extent that these lamentations are also accompanied by nostalgic invocations of Lionel Trilling, Edmund Wilson, F. R. Leavis, and others, they’re misdirected.

Not everyone can be a star. I can see little point in replacing the current system of Theory stars with a revival of an older constellation of journalistic and belletristic stars. By all means, the profession needs to reach the general public, but not through a small cadre of stars. I think online collaboration provides an opportunity that’s available to the rank-and-file of literary academia.

First I outline my vision of academic literary study. Then I consider its online realization.

Note: I’m aware that MOOCs are all the rage these days. This post isn’t about massive, it is about collaboration and community.

Literary Criticism: The Four-Fold Way

Over the past few years I’ve developed a vision of academic literary study that is focused on four activities. I’ve posted quite a bit about each of them and I’ve summarized then in this post, which takes its title from John Barth: The Key to the Treasure IS the Treasure. Here’s the four foci:
Description: The process whereby literary works are made reading for analytical, explanatory, or interpretive work.

Naturalist Criticism: By which I mean, not only the newer psychologies, cognitive, neuro-, and evolutionary, but linguistics and the nascent study of evolutionary processes in culture.

Ethical Criticism: The aesthetic and ethical consideration of literary works with respect to the goals and purposes of human life.

Digital Humanities: The use of computer technology is the support of the other three, but especially the use of sophisticated techniques of corpus linguistics in describing large bodies of texts.
As a practical matter I think most of the descriptive work will be done under the aegis of naturalist criticism. However, that descriptive work will be available to anyone interested in literature for whatever purpose. I further believe that the descriptions must reside online, where everyone can access them and where interested and qualified people can add to them.

Ethical Collaboration

Let’s begin with my touchstone passage from Kenneth Burke’s essay on “Literature as Equipment for Living” from The Philosophy of Literary Form (1973). Using words and phrases from several definitions of the term “strategy” (in quotes in the following passage), he asserts that (p. 298):
... surely, the most highly alembicated and sophisticated work of art, arising in complex civilizations, could be considered as designed to organize and command the army of one’s thoughts and images, and to so organize them that one “imposes upon the enemy the time and place and conditions for fighting preferred by oneself.” One seeks to “direct the larger movements and operations” in one's campaign of living. One “maneuvers,” and the maneuvering is an “art.”
That’s why people read literature. That’s why undergraduates take literature courses as part of their general education and that’s why people form reading groups around their favorite books.

That’s also why fans of TV shows, movies, anime, manga, comic books, novels, and so forth go online to discuss their favorite texts and even to write and share fan fiction based on characters in those texts. The Internet is buzzing and teeming with collaborative online ethical criticism.

And I would warrant that much if not most of this activity is undertaken by people who form informal online communities. It’s not simply that people make remarks online, but that they do it at the same sites and among the same people. Those who don’t post, or do so only rarely, follow certain conversations and so are familiar with a particular commentariat. Each of these virtual community is, through its interest in Breaking Bad, The Lord of the Rings, Full Metal Alchemist, and so forth, also an ethical community.

This activity is out there and it’s independent of the academy. Many and perhaps most academic literary critics are unaware of it and uninterested in it. After all it’s neither about the canonical texts, nor about the downfall of capitalism, nor about resisting the post-modern hordes. It’s just there.

Some academics, of course, have found their way into this world on their own and are actively participating in it. But literary academy as an institution needs to find its way into this world. How do we make online communities of ethnical criticism a part of undergraduate education? How do we participate in the lives of post-graduate adults who want focused discussion of literature, TV, and film?

That’s how we replace and supplant nostalgic worship of the public intellectuals of old.

Collaborative Description

At the same time, we need detailed and accurate description of texts of interest: novels, plays, poems, canonical and non-canonical, movies, TV programs, webcomics, etc. Again, there is activity of this rough sort online already, at the Wikipedia, TV Tropes, and various fan sites. But it’s not systematic and rigorous enough to be the basis of further scholarly work. As I demonstrated yesterday, the technology exists to do this now.

This kind of work should be included in upper-level undergraduate literature course and, of course, in graduate courses. This work needs to be real. That is, it is not merely a class exercise, but the results will become part of the ongoing intellectual record.

I am willing to assume that most students will have little interest in doing more than a little of this, if that much. But, as an exercise, it forces them to attend closely to some (part of) some text and thereby gain an appreciation of how these texts are crafted. This work further serves the ritual function of linking the student into ongoing humanistic inquiry. A given student may not have much interest in the results of that work, but at least once in their lives they’ve touched the wall.

At the same time I imagine that a cadre of people will adopt descriptive work as a serious avocation, like bird watching or editing the Wikipedia.

The real challenge here is to provide administrative oversight. Through what process does a “chunk” of descriptive work become a part of the official and shared record for a given text or body of texts? The academic world is littered with scholarly associations large and small, with journals and their editorial boards, boards for book series, and so forth. This is in some ways similar to editing a text and providing editorial notes, but the commentary is more elaborate and will involve diagrams and statistics of various sorts in addition to prose annotation. And the documents thus created will be ongoing and, in some sense, living.

Once a bit of description has entered this record, any scholar wishing to work on that text has to take that description into account. Will naturalist critics be willing to submit to this discipline? When the description involves such simple things as the number of lines in a poem or the number of chapters in a book the issue need not be explicitly raised. No one can write about a Shakespeare sonnet as though it had only 13 lines. But I’m sure that some of the descriptive work is going to be of a different and more challenging nature.

How Will this Come About?

I don’t know.

As far as I can tell, the literary academy is not doing a very good job of realizing these possibilities. Still, in the long run it has no choice. Either it will change or it will die.

That’s the optimistic view. The pessimistic view is that the academy won’t change and it won’t die. It will simply stifle innovation.

I observe that in the Medieval West the Catholic Church was the institutional center of intellectual life. Then the West underwent a massive cultural change, the Renaissance, and new life ways and new institutions emerged. A new system of colleges and universities supplanted the church as the central institution of intellectual life.

The world is now undergoing a similar cultural transformation. Will new institutions arise to supplant the existing academic regime?

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