Once again, what is the (academic) discipline of literary criticism? It has, of course, changed a great deal over the last 100 years, though I don’t want to look quite that far back.
Let’s start with the present, with a comment by Franco Moretti in a recent interview with Laura Miller in Salon interview:
Literary history has two sides, I think. One is the normative side: deciding what is good and what is less good. The other is the explanatory side. It’s two very different modalities of thought, and I’ve always been inclined toward the explanatory. That’s what fires my mind. And in the study of the humanities, the normative modality has disappeared. It’s all explanatory now.
It’s that two-sidedness that’s so interesting to me. Moretti characterizes them as normative versus explanatory. There are other such characterizations. Whatever the sides, there, between them, that’s an interesting no-man’s land. I want to look at these matters through a hand-full of passages I’ve been pondering for some time.
Norms vs. Explanation
In the introduction to his 1957 Anatomy of Criticism Northrup Frye relegates the making of value judgments to the history of taste (p. 21):
Shakespeare, we say, was one of a group of English dramatists working around 1600, and also one of the great poets of the world. The first part of this is a statement of fact, the second a value-judgement so generally accepted as to pass for a statement of fact. But it is not a statement of fact. It remains a value judgement, and not a shred of systematic criticism can ever be attached to it.
The profession was happy to see in Frye’s statement a statement of its aims and desires, though of course, the journalistic reviewers of books and movies did not hesitate to make aesthetic and ethical judgements about the works they reviewed. And there are persistent calls to return value judgments to the fold.
Modes of Thought
I believe Moretti is right about norms and explanations requiring “two very different modalities of thought.” I even suspect brain-imaging studies would show different patterns of brain activity during these two modes.
The basic distinction, however, is between the reading of literary texts and the writing of criticism. Northrup Frye, again, makes this distinction in the introduction to his Anatomy of Criticism (pp. 27-28):
The reading of literature should, like prayer in the Gospels, step out of the talking world of criticism into the private and secret presence of literature. Otherwise the reading will not be a genuine literary experience, but a mere reflection of critical conventions, memories, and prejudices. The presence of incommunicable experienced in center of criticism will always keep criticism as art, as long as the critic recognized that criticism comes out of it but cannot be built on it.
But Frye would not have penned those words if the distinction between reading and criticism was not already so problematic that it had to be asserted at some length.
A page later Frye reiterates the need for that polemical distinction when he says (p. 29) “The strong emotional repugnance felt by many critics toward any form of schematism in poetics is again the result of a failure to distinguish criticism as a body of knowledge from the direct experience of literature, where every act is unique, and classification has no place.” That is to say, Frye is making the distinction because he wants to anatomize literature itself – not criticism as his book title says – and he is guarding against those who claim that such activity destroys literature. It doesn’t destroy literature, Frye says, because the experience of literature is one thing, while thinking about literature, classifying its forms and techniques, analyzing its themes, and delineating its styles, is quite something else again.
The distinction Frye makes is so obvious to me that I have trouble understanding why anyone would deny it, yet I know that people do. Or, they may allow it, but still disallow “schematism in poetics.” What makes it so threatening?
[In this post I cite some recent work finding differences in brain activation between pleasure reading and critical reading.]
But two decades later Geoffrey Hartman would be working hard to link critic with text as closely as possible. Here are some passages from the title essay of his 1975 collection, The Fate of Reading (University of Chicago Press).
That darkling appropriation of works of art we call interpretation is surely as much a blind drive as an objective interest. We are forced to predicate a narrative or interpretive will, the will to be an author oneself, or even the author of oneself (and others). (p. 255)Reading, then, includes reading criticism. (p. 268)All we can be certain of is that literary understanding is bipartite, requiring both literary discourse (texts), and that too strong a privileging of fictional over nonfictional texts (of "primary" over "secondary" literature) reifies literature still further and disorders our ability to read. (p. 271)
He drives his point home by asserting that some of the newest techniques don’t constitute reading at all:
I wonder, finally, whether the very concept of reading is not in jeopardy. Pedagogically, of course, we still respond to those who call for improved reading skills; but to describe most semiological or structural analyses of poetry as a "reading" extends the term almost beyond recognition. (p. 271)
He goes on (p. 272): “To what can we turn now to restore reading, or that conscious and scrupulous form of it we call literary criticism?” Hartman then observes: “modern ‘rithmatics’—semiotics, linguistics, and technical structuralism—are not the solution. They widen, if anything, the rift between reading and writing” – by writing Hartman means the literary text.
I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the people who objected to what Frye was doing in the 1950s would also object to what Hartman was doing in the 1970s. But Hartman doesn’t see any need to defend his practice against them. Rather he defends it against the purveyors of still newer practices. But why?
He doesn’t say why these techniques are beyond the range of reading proper; he just asserts that they are. I believe he is correct. The kinds of critical techniques Moretti is championing present the same problem, but in a radically different intellectual context. The intellectual movements that were on the rise when Hartman was writing have now peaked. What’s next, or is it all over with literary criticism?
These differences are responsible, I believe, for some of the worst disputes in academic literary criticism. Why? This has the feel of taboo violation of some sort, as though the newer more intellectualized modes of thought somehow violated the proper relationship between critic and text, thereby somehow destroying the text. It’s a very curious business.
But It’s All Ethics
A decade after Hartman, Wayne Booth argues that normative criticism is in fact the norm: The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction (1988). Booth uses “ethics” in a sense that includes aesthetics. He is interested in what makes literature good, in the beauty of the work if you will, and in the mode of life it urges upon us (think of ethos). This is from his first chapter, “Introduction: Ethical Criticism, a Banned Discipline?” (p. 5):
Many critics today will resist any effort to tie “art” to “life,” the “aesthetic” to the “practical.” Indeed, when I began this project I thought that ethical criticism was as unfashionable as most current theories would lead one to expect.
That’s more or less the view we found in Frye. Booth continues, citing one of our major post-modern critics:
When I first read, three or four year along in my drafting, Fredric Jameson’s The Political Unconscious that the predominant mode of criticism in our time is the ethical (1981, 59), I thought he was just plain wrong. But as I have looked further, I have had to conclude that he is quite right. I’m thinking here not only of the various new overtly ethical and political challenges to “formalism”: by feminist critics asking embarrassing questions about a male-dominated literary canon and what it has done to the “consciousness” of both men and women; by black critics pursuing Paul Moses’s kind of question about racism in American classics; by neo-Marxists exploring class biases about racism in European literary traditions; by religious critics attacking modern literature for its “nihilism” or “atheism.”
It’s not clear to me how Booth’s ethnical criticism is aligned with what Moretti means by normative criticism or, for that matter with what Moretti means by explanation. I suspect it is somewhere betwixt and between. On the one hand Booth is focused on individual texts in a way that Moretti is not and, on the other hand, after all one CAN explain people’s actions by reference to their ethical beliefs.
As I have argued informally in Critical Strategies 2: Explanations, Intention and Beyond, interpretation serves an explanatory role in literary criticism. The text exists to convey some “hidden” meaning:
Crudely put, I believe that’s how academic literary criticism works, and in pretty much all its forms, from the New Critics and their immediate predecessors right on up to, well, the present. All criticism is inscribed within this intentional framework: to explain a text one explicates the intention animating it.With exceptions of course. But I’m not so much interested in the exceptions as I am in a refinement or two pegged to that notion of the author.One refinement is psychological. There is the unconscious, whether that of the classical depth psychologies (Freud and Jung) or of the newer cognitivists and neuralists. We are not consciously aware of the full scope of our intentional behavior. Literary critics are well aware of this and have developed critical approaches to ferreting out these so-called hidden meanings.
J. Hillis Miller Looks Back
Now let’s change-up a bit and look at the profession through the eyes of J. Hillis Miller: My Fifty Years in the Profession, ADE Bulletin, No. 133, Winter 2003, 63-66. In his early years, in graduate school at Harvard then on the faculty at Johns Hopkins (p. 64):
English literature was taken for granted as the primary repository of the ethos and the values of United States citizens... As the primary repository of our national values, English literature from Beowulf on was a good thing to teach. This good depended on the widespread presence in the population of what Simon During calls “literary subjectivity”. Literary subjectivity is a love of so-called literature and a habit of dwelling in the virtual metaworlds that reading literature allows the adept reader to enter.The second good that English professors accomplished was to do research in their field. This meant finding out the facts, even the most recondite or obscure facts, about literary works and their authors. This justification was strongly in place at Johns Hopkins when I first taught there, just as it had been strongly in place for my teachers at Harvard, where I did my graduate work.
Then things changed (p. 64):
First the New Criticism shifted attention away from biography and literary history toward the texts them- selves, with the unintended consequence of getting new questions asked about the meanings of those texts. Theory continued that displacement by a more distanced interrogation of literature’s nature and social function. If literature’s role can be taken for granted, as we for the most part did take it in those aboriginal years at Johns Hopkins, you do not need theory to account for it. The rise of theory is a sign that something has happened to the social function of literature...
What happened? The world changed, that’s what. There were obvious changes in the 1960s, the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, the counter-culture, and so forth. But what was happening in the 1950s? The aftermath of World War II?
A bit later (p. 65):
From the other direction, the changes I have named in English departments—the New Criticism; the rise of theory; the development of cultural studies, global English studies, film studies, studies of popular culture, and so on—can be seen as spontaneous attempts to find again the social utility that is being lost for the study of canonical works of English literature.
That’s quite a statement, that all the conceptual ferment of the last half-century plus is a reflection of the fact “that something has happened to the social function of literature.” At first glance, I find this credible. But I don’t quite know what to make of it.
Miller works his way to the end by urging us
... to make every effort to defend, in changed circumstances, the tradition that makes the humanities in the university the place especially charged with the combination of Bildung and Wissenschaft, ethical education and pure knowledge.
That makes sense to me. But I must admit that I’ve got a better sense of the possibilities for pure knowledge than for ethical education. What do advances in pure knowledge portend for ethical education?