Monday, October 3, 2016

Jonathan Culler on Literary Criticism at Harvard in the 1960s and Other Things

One of my interests here at New Savanna is the emergence of interpretation as the centerpiece of academic literary criticism. To that end I’ve quoted J. Hillis Miller on how primitive things were at Harvard when he did his graduate work there in mid-century: “None of these people, including Douglas Bush, really had any idea about how to talk about a poem, in my opinion.” Well, things were pretty crude in the early to mid-1960s, when Jonathan Culler his undergraduate work there and Miller was at Hopkins.

Here’s what Culler says about the early days:
I started at Harvard in 1962, so it was ’61-62 that I was in England. At Harvard I was majoring in history and literature, and I had a tutor my freshman year because I had sophomore standing. He was a grad student named Ricardo Quinones who turned out to be a Renaissance scholar, and he assigned exercises in which we were supposed to compare two critical treatments of a single poem and identify the arguments, which I found very interesting. That was the way I really got into New Criticism. It was a moment when New Criticism at Harvard was something a little bit dangerous, a little racy. Reuben Brower’s course, “Hum 6,” attracted the most ambitious students and was clearly an enclave at odds with the general ethos of the Harvard English department, with people like Walter Jackson Bate and others, who did much more intellectual history. Brower’s ethos was very serious, close attention to the text, not talking about biography, not talking about authors. He had a small group of very smart graduate students and assistant professors who worked with him and taught with him, people like Richard Poirier, Anne Ferry and David Kalstone.

So I worked with those people throughout my time at Harvard. Anne Ferry was my tutor one year, and David Kalstone was director of my honors thesis, so I was very much in the New Critical line of work. I took several courses with Anne Ferry and one year had weekly tutorials with her, and the New Critical reading did feel like a carrot that was slightly out of reach. I could never feel confident that what I did for Anne Ferry would get an A. I always knew there was going to be something crucial that I had missed. She would always find something that I had failed to grasp or some matter of tone that I had gotten wrong.

But by the end of my time at Harvard I came to feel that I knew how to do this sort of criticism.

But then my senior year Joseph Frank, the Dostoyevsky scholar from Princeton, came to Harvard as a visiting professor. He taught a graduate seminar on trends in contemporary criticism, which I managed to get into. That was the first course I had that was explicitly focused on criticism itself as a topic. They didn’t have things like that at Harvard in those days. We read Auerbach—it was mostly Continental—and Spitzer and Sartre, and some phenomenological criticism, Poulet, and we ended up at Hillis Miller’s Disappearance of God or Poets of Reality. That was what got me interested in thinking of this not just as a matter of method, but as a real subject that one could study and where there were trends. And for the first time I realized that there were philosophical implications and underpinnings and different sorts of criticism. So that’s what led me to go on to work on that kind of topic in graduate school.
That’s from a 2007 interview he gave to Jeffrey Williams, then editor of the minnesota review (now defunct). He goes on to talk about studying in England, which was much more gentile, and less professionalized, than American academia: “Even publication for many was thought of as vulgar. [...] But there was the notion, in the days when I was there, of literary studies as a kind of gentlemanly pursuit, and you chatted.”

He goes on to talk of Structuralist Poetics (1975), a rewrite of his dissertation. The chronology is interesting. He was teaching at Oxford from 74 to 77, but spent the fall of 77 at Yale: “I was getting all kinds of invitations to travel around the country and talk about ‘What is structuralism?’ That’s what people were interested in.” So we have the Hopkins structuralism conference in the fall of 1966, where Derrida brings down the house with his critique of Lévi-Strauss, and yet structuralism remains current through the 1970s.

Then Culler turned to deconstruction:
The engagement with deconstruction arose in part from an interest in complicating the accounts of conventions. I tended to think of structuralism as an enterprise that was taking place within the general context of phenomenology—an attempt to spell out as explicitly as possible the rules and conventions that made experience possible. I also wanted to treat deconstruction not as a rejection of structuralism, but as a movement that could be situated within the problematic of structuralism. The first chapter of On Deconstruction, which people probably don’t read so much these days, was really an attempt to set the stage for deconstruction by relating structuralism to reader-response criticism, so this book didn’t feel to me like a major break.
However, “but I guess at some level I do still remain at least theoretically committed to the project of a poetics. I do think that poetics rather than more interpretation is what literary studies ought to be doing.” And yet:
I do think, especially in the context of the university and of graduate education, that theory remains the space in which people are debating the most interesting questions about what it is we’re doing and what we should be doing. Certainly the content of the theory that they’re reading changes from one moment to another, and I’m getting old enough to be grumpy about the things that people are reading today—why are they reading Alain Badiou instead of Derrida or de Man? But the younger generations have to have their own theorists, just as we had to have our own theorists to set against the non-theorists of our elders, so I try not to be too grumpy. It is, as you say, harder to feel triumphalist about theory than it was when it was clearly succeeding and transforming literary study, opening it up to all sorts of discourses, such as psychoanalysis, Marxism, philosophy, linguistics. And of course theoretical enterprises, broadly conceived, opened it up to all kinds of political questions and the broadest questions of social justice that for many people, for a certain time, made literary studies a very exciting realm—something that smart kids gravitated to because they wanted to explore these issues and found that they could do it more interestingly and flexibly than in a department of philosophy or a department of political science.

I’m not quite sure to what extent the difficulty of feeling triumphalist about this now has to do with a certain marginalization of the humanities in universities generally, and to what extent it might be due simply to the fact that now I’m older. I do have a feeling that I’m working on projects that are interesting and significant, but I don’t have the feeling of being on the cutting edge of anything. I hope that there are younger people out there who do, who think that they are engaged in some type of transformation. (emphasis mine, WLB)
Remember, he’s speaking in 2007, and he doesn’t know where the “cutting edge” is or whether one even exists. By this time cognitive and evolutionary criticism had generated interest and followers (the cognitive lit people held their first and, so far as I know, their only conference in 2006), but Culler doesn’t seem to know about that or, if he does, doesn’t seem to think it’s at the cutting edge of anything (and, in a way, he’s right).

And yet the discipline persists in organizing itself by periods:
One of the things that does surprise me is—and I would never have predicted it at the time of Structuralist Poetics—that now, thirty years later, literature departments would still be advertising their jobs by literary periods. I could have imagined many other things staying the same, but I certainly thought that poetics would produce different organizations of intellectual labor and of departments. Of course there are new fields that have arisen, but you just add on postcolonial, then you add on something else. That is amazing to me. The articulation of “fields” doesn’t seem an accurate reflection of what actually goes on in departments, but it’s certainly a conservative force and you always have to tell your graduate students that they have to have a period, no matter what their interests are, because they will need to search for a job in that period. Maybe it’s a function of the job market, and if it were to loosen up, then departments could advertise more broadly. But theory has not affected departmental organization, even though it has certainly triumphed in some ways and is diffused throughout departments now.

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