Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Literary Criticism and Spiritual Crisis (?)

One of the things I keep thinking about is the sense of professional narcissism that had academic literary critics writing as though their activity were essential to literary culture (see examples below). They do this even though such criticism only has a small relatively small audience, other critics, and despite the fact that literary culture managed without interpretive criticism for centuries. The methods of interpretive criticism now taken for granted didn’t become common in the academy until after World War II, though they have pre-war origins. Yet literary culture managed to struggle along without benefit of interpretive criticism.

Of course, the interpretation of sacred texts is much older and is, in fact, one of the precedents for method in the interpretation of secular texts. It’s in this context that I find the following phrase most interesting: “...a sense of spiritual crisis forcing literature to play roles once reserved for theology and philosophy.” The phrase was written by Charlie Altieri and is in an essay he’s written about aesthetic issues in modernist poetry [1]. The essay centers on two books written in the mid-1960s, one by J. Hillis Miller and the other by Irving Howe, and refers specifically to Howe’s thoughts about modernist literature. That’s also when “Death of God” theology was making national news, with Time magazine plastering the question – “Is God Dead” – on the cover of its April 8, 1966 edition [2].

By that time interpretive criticism had become the center of academic literary study, displacing though not necessarily eliminating literary history and philology. So, God dies; literature displaces theology and philosophy; and literary criticism slips right in there with theological commentary on sacred texts. Interpretive criticism had also become controversial, not because of that displacement – that controversy took place in the 50s – but because critics didn’t agree in their interpretations. Given the cultural work it was being summoned to do – take over from sacred commentary – one can see why such disagreement would be problematic.

That issue has never really been resolved, but it’s no longer front and center. What seems to be front and center, if anything, is “oh woe is us!”, but I don’t want to comment about that.

The upshot is that critics now adopt whatever methodology suits their fancy and at least some of them write as though their critical reflects are extensions of the texts they explicate, even necessary extensions. I present some examples below the asterisks.

* * * * *

First we have Geoffrey Hartman, from his 1975 collection, The Fate of Reading (Chicago 1975). From the title essay:
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)

Literature is today so easily assimilated or coopted that the function of criticism must often be to defamiliarize it. (p. 260)

Reading, then, includes reading criticism. (p. 268)

The question persists, however, whether there is a specific function that differentiates literary criticism from literature .... Literary understanding, then, has two components: literary tradition proper, or an expansible canon of texts; and criticism, which helps to form this canon and guide its interpretation—which prepares us, at least, for the complexities of literary expression. (p. 270)

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)
The two following passages are considerably more recent and are responses to cognitive criticism gathered in a special issue of Poetics Today.

From Hans Adler and Sabine Gross. Adjusting the Frame: Comments on Cognitivism and Literature. Poetics Today 23:2, 2002, 195-220. So, the “success” (their scare quotes) of literary criticism (p. 214)
relies on such parameters as originality, appropriateness, inventiveness, or “insight value”: it may be measured by our degree of satisfaction with what is revealed or illuminated about a text. Most of all, literary interpretation generally does not aspire to the once-and-for-all-ness implied by the term solution. On the contrary, it is often unabashedly nonfinal, inviting supplementation or revision, in other words: conscious of its own historicity.
Later, p. 215:
Literary texts are designed to open up spaces for interpretation: different readers in different contexts weigh elements and fill gaps in different ways that complement the common ground of comprehension that is determined both by the text and by shared assumptions and contextual knowledge.
Um, err, just who “designed” them that way?

Tony Jackson. “Literary Interpretation” and Cognitive Literary Studies. Poetics Today 24: 2, 2003: 191-205:
That is, a literary interpretation, if we are allowed to distinguish it as a distinct kind of interpretation, joins in with the literariness of the text. Literary interpretation is a peculiar and, I would say, unique conjunction of argument and literature, analytic approach and art form being analyzed. (p. 202)

[1] Charles Altieri. “Aesthetics.” In Stephen Ross, ed. Modernism and Theory. Routledge: 2009. pp. 197-207. There’s a draft online, URL:

[2] Death of God theology. Wikipedia. Accessed December 2, 2015. URL:

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