Monday, October 28, 2019

Enchanted by meaning – That’s been the fate of American criticism, but elsewhere?

Though, to be blunt, in my more polemical moods I’m inclined to think that “besotted” is a better word to characterize academic literary criticism’s engagement with the search for meaning, at least in America. It wasn’t always thus; there is a history here. And in the rest of the world? Has that enchantment taken hold, or is there a bit of distance, even resistance? That’s what I’m wondering about.

This enchantment had all but taken hold by the time I’d become an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins in the mid-1960s. But I did see hints of and hear echoes from other modes of literary study. And I noted the transformation of the meaning of “reading” from common sense word into a term of professional art. As a common sense term it meant simply “to read”, as any literate person does with a text of any kind, whether a greeting card, the daily newspaper, a technical report or user’s manual, or, yes, a literary text. As a term of art it meant “to interpret, to explicate”, a mostly written activity in which one comments on the meanings inherent in (in one formulation) or one finds in (a somewhat different formulation) a literary text. For anyone entering literary study, however, a decade or so later, and whether at the undergraduate or graduate level, those hints and echoes would have been gone. Reading, that is, interpretive reading, had become the focus of literary study and, for all practical purposes, it had always been thus.

But, as I’ve said, there IS a history there. According to Gerald Graff in Professing Literature (1987) interpretive criticism, in the form of so-called close reading, was a response to a demographic shift in higher education after World War II. While close reading has pre-war roots but became particularly attractive as a pedagogical tool when college enrollment increased after the war and it thus became necessary to educate large numbers of undergraduates from disparate backgrounds. This educational imperative was, if anything, more ethical than merely cognitive, where by “ethical” I mean to invoke ethos, which my dictionary glosses as “the characteristic spirit of a culture, era, or community as manifested in its beliefs and aspirations.” Close-reading was a means by which large numbers of undergraduates could be imbued with the values of American culture, indeed, of Western civilization. Close-reading’s assertion of textual autonomy meant that it was not necessary to be steeped in historical knowledge in order to think and write about literary classics. One merely had to learn how to attend to the text.

And if close-reading was to become a pedagogical technique, well then the pedagogues themselves had to master it. So they did, and in the process close reading became the focus of post-war literary criticism. By the mid-1960s, however, critics began to notice and wonder about the fact that different critics arrived at different meanings for the same text. How could this be? If criticism is a form of knowledge, then shouldn’t we all agree on textual meaning? Otherwise criticism would seem to be little more than personal opinion decked out in often high-flown rationalizations. And so the profession entered a period of methodological reflection that lasted, let us say, through the 1970s and into the 80s. It is during this period that both structuralism and linguistics were considered as means of textual commentary that didn’t necessarily focus on decoding textual meaning, but were concerned with techniques and forms of construction.

Both, however, were discarded. Not completely, to be sure, narratology has persisted, and a bit of poetics and even linguistics. But they were not regarded as central to the discipline. They have little presence in mainstream journals such as PMLA, Critical Inquiry, New Literary History, and so forth. During the mid-1990s both cognitive psychology and evolutionary psychology entered the scene, but both were firmly subject to the reigning focus on meaning. They provided new interpretive vocabularies and little more.

And that, more or less, is where the profession is today. Yes, there is computational criticism, which is a whole different ball of wax. But it seems to me that, whatever its potential, it still functions, or valiantly attempts to function, under the sign of meaning.

That’s academic literary criticism in the United States. What’s going on elsewhere? I have the distinct impression that narratology and even linguistics have received more play in (Continental) Europe than they have in the United States. Is that the case, or am I imagining things? What about elsewhere in the world? For example, I’ve got a post where I excerpt an exchange between J. Hillis Miller and Zhang Jiang, a senior critic in the People’s Republic of China. That conversation is about interpretive criticism, specifically deconstruction. I’ve got another short post in which Hollis Robbins talks about Chinese scholars’ knowledge of literary theory, that is, (advanced) interpretive criticism? Is that all that the Chinese have taken Western criticism. What about narratology (from Europe)? And so I wonder about Japan, India, and the rest of the non-Western world. For that matter, what about native intellectual traditions?

All of which is to say: Is interpretive criticism all that there is in the academy? If so, we’re in deep trouble, for interpretive criticism has bottomed out. There’s nothing left but new variations on old themes.

On the other hand, here’s an opportunity. If some body of scholars out there in the wider world were to latch on to the best of computational criticism and combine it what what I have been calling naturalist criticism and within an intellectual generation, perhaps two, they could show those backward Westerner’s a thing or two.

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