Thursday, February 15, 2024

GOAT Literary Critics: Part 4: Vamp ‘til ready – What’s up with the Bard? [alphabetically listed: Bloom, Cowen, and Girard]

By “the Bard” I of course mean Shakespeare. Both Girard and Bloom put him at the center of their thinking. Girard has written a book about his work, Bloom, two. Cowen has written books about various things, but not Shakespeare. He’s read all of Shakespeare (I think), which is just a bit more than I have done and he’s read both Girard and Bloom on Shakespeare. He’s no doubt read others on Shakespeare as well.

Thus it is perhaps not unfair to assert that Cowen has, in some measure, borrowed his valuation of Shakespeare from Bloom, Girard, and various others. But that in itself does not distinguish him from Bloom or Girard or any of those others. None of them has encountered Shakespeare’s work naively, innocently. We’ve all had Shakespeare presented to us surrounded by an aura of greatness. We are, in effect, asked to use him to calibrate the measuring stick we use for gauging literary quality. Then, to the extent that one values Shakespeare’s excellence above all others, the activity of assessing aesthetic merit is tacitly regulated to keep him there. I elaborate on this in paragraph 2 in the section, “Shakespeare is the measure,” below.

The fact is, for me the pursuit of GOAT literary critics was always also a device, a device for engaging in one of my favorite activities, thinking about the discipline of literary criticism. With this post, its value as a device takes precedent over its value as an inquiry in its own right. In the next section I both review the argument so far and offer some remarks about why I’ve made the decisions I did. Then I take up the role of Shakespeare in this emerging argument. I conclude this phase of the argument with some remarks on the existence of an aesthetic realm.

Since the previous post was about the 1966 structuralism and its immediate aftermath, I thought I should say something about what’s happened since then. That’s in an appendix containing ChatGPT’s response to this prompt: “What happened in academic literary criticism in America from the 1980s up through the end of the century?” There have been and are some very fine literary critics in that period. Greatness? That’s more problematic.

NOTE: For what it’s worth, I can’t imagine ChatGPT undertaking an investigation comparable to what I’ve done in this series so far. I’m pretty sure GPT-5 won’t be able to do it either, nor any LLM after that. LLMS are not suited for this kind of thinking. It’s an architectural issue, not one of compute or training data.

In search of greatness

Here, roughly and informally, is the thought process that brought me to this post.

1) I decide to ‘answer’ Cowen’s book about GOAT economists with a post or three about GOAT literary critics. In my second post, Lit Crit Compared to Economics; Aristotle, No, I make a crucial distinction, between literary criticism as an academic discipline, and the broader literary culture. There is a great deal of commentary on literature that is part of the broader literary culture, but not part of the academic discipline. But the distinction between the discipline and the broader literary culture is a difficult one to draw, not the least because the discipline is responsible for teaching (canonical) literary texts to undergraduates. The distinction between the academic study of economics and the larger economy is not so fraught.

That decision then motivates a post where I talk about out the current intellectual discipline, at least as it exists in America, emerged after World World II, A discipline is founded (sorta’): Brooks & Warren, Northrop Frye, and S. T. Coleridge. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s step back.

2) Once I’ve committed to this project, hovering as it does between the identification of GOAT candidates and figuring of the conceptual underpinnings of the discipline, I have to decide whether or not to put Girard on the list. Why? On the one hand, Cowen thinks Girard is one of the great thinkers of the 20th century. That seemed strange to me when I found out about it. Why? Because Cowen is trained as an empirical social scientist, a very different style of thinking from Girard.

I, however, have my doubts and, except for my Girardian interpretation of Jaws, haven’t given Girard much thought since graduate school, though I was familiar with his work. Why’d I sideline him? Because I’d made a substantial commitment to framing my work in terms of cognitive science, and Girard doesn’t register in that world.

3) I decided to put Girard on the list and in fact end up devoting much of a post to him, René Girard prepares the way for the French invasion. Why? For one thing, as I’ve said, Girard is important to Cowen, and this series of posts is a response to his GOAT economists. Moreover, Girard did convene the structuralism conference at Hopkins, and that conference turned out to be pivotal in the development of American literary criticism and the figure lurking in the background of the conference, Lévi-Strauss (invited, but couldn’t attend), was important in my own intellectual life. Still, that's rather a weak reason to give so much attention to Girard when I believe that both Derrida and (even) Lévi-Strauss have had more influence on literary criticism, though I devoted a post to them as well, Derrida deconstructs the signs while Lévi-Strauss tracks the system of myth.

But then a literary criticism focused on chasing down the meanings of literary texts has proved to be a strange kind of discipline, one strongly influenced by thinkers outside the discipline. It seems that, because literary texts are about the world at large, if only indirectly and in a way that’s a bit obscure, critics have repurposed ideas originally directed at the world at large for the purpose of analyzing texts. Psychoanalysis and Marxism were among the first conceptual systems so adopted. When structuralist concepts were tried, they quickly gave rise to post-structuralist modes and that, in turn, opened the doors to a congeries of other conceptual systems. See the appendix for ChatGPT’s quick overview.

4) That’s where I am now. What’s next?

5) Back to Cowen’s GOAT economists. One thing Cowen values in making the determination (not the only thing, necessary but not sufficient), is that they’ve thought broadly about the world, and have influenced the general universe of ideas beyond economics. He sees no such economists on the immediate intellectual horizon and doesn’t believe there will be such economists in the future.

Consider what Cowen had to say about John Stuart Mill in the final summing-up chapter (p. 346):

For Mill to be a serious GOAT contender, you have to take the view that the subject matter of economics is not entirely well-defined, and that there is some broader entity, consisting of both social science and the humanities, that is prior to economic investigation. Mill was the master of that broader entity.
Here are his final three paragraphs (p. 349):

I don’t think the hypothesis testers, whatever their virtues, ever will contend for GOAT. They will win other titles, such as “tenured professor at Ivy League school” and “Nobel laureate,” and they will deserve them. But GOAT will remain something special, and even striving for GOAT will be reserved for those who see the world in the biggest, broadest possible terms.

But those individuals are no longer the top economists, and they will not resume that mantle anytime soon, probably never.

This book is thus, among other things, a paean and tribute to a foregone era, and a plea that we will continue to recognize its importance.

6) And THAT seems like a reason for him to value Girard, despite the fact that Girard comes from a different intellectual world, one that conducts its business in a very different intellectual style from the economics in which Cowen was trained. Girard does see the world in large terms, though he’s weak on economics (and a few other things), as Cowen noted in a 2018 post about Girard’s intellectual virtues.

Looking through Marginal Revolution just now, I see that Cowen thinks quite highly of anthropology. For example, there’s a post in 2020 entitled “Reconstructing microeconomics as a kind of anthropology” where he says, “In that sense psychology and anthropology are always prior to economics more narrowly construed, and I have tried to outline how to do good economics under those constraints.” In a much earlier post, from 2004, he asserts: “Yet most useful economic theories deliberately abstract from context. For this reason, every economist should do fieldwork at some point in his or her career. A stint in government, time behind the counter at Nordstroms, or a sojourn in a third world village can all qualify.” Is that why Cowen travels so much?

Girard went from literature to anthropology and has dwelled there off and on throughout his career.

7) What does Cowen think of Harold Bloom, another critic I’d thought about, but rejected, for this exercise? He seems to think Bloom is the greatest thing since sliced bread: “It doesn’t matter how flawed Bloom’s recent books may be, he is still a smarter reader than just about anyone else. I buy his stuff on sight and gobble it up within twenty-four hours” (from 2004). Bloom also sees the world in largest terms, albeit almost entirely through literature and, within literature, thought the Western canon, and within that, through Shakespeare.

8) So, thinking in the largest terms, we have: 1) GOAT economists, 2) Girard, and 3) Bloom. THAT seems to be central to Cowen’s worldview. Now my decision to include Girard in this investigation is beginning to pay off, albeit in a way I didn’t have explicitly in mind when I began. But to make it work I’m going to have to give more attention to Bloom, which was not at all in the card when I began.

9) Then we have Shakespeare himself, aka the Bard. Bloom is Bardolator-in-Chief. Girard has written a book about Shakespeare and regards him as his predecessor in the study of mimetic desire. In a post from 2017 where Cowen ranks Shakespeare’s plays in order by quality, though the ordering is divided into five categories, Cowen concludes the post by asserting: “Shakespeare is very likely the deepest thinker the human race has produced, so these are worth careful study!” Really? It’s not that I’ve got anyone else in mind for that appellation. Rather, I’m skeptical about the appellation itself. But that's an aside.

The fact that Bloom, Girard, and Cowen agree on Shakespeare’s (transcendent?) value is significant. Why? It’s an informal epistemological principle of mine that when three (or more) people independently converge on the same idea – in this case, the greatness of Shakespeare – you need to pay close attention to the point of convergence.

“In what way are those three thinkers independent of one another?” you might ask. “Good question.” Bloom and Girard must have been aware of one another, though I have no idea whether or not they took one another’s ideas into account. Cowen is certainly aware of (and a fan of) both of them. I rather doubt the Bloom was aware of Cowen, but Girard may have been aware of him (through Peter Thiel?). But they are each mature and sophisticated thinkers with rather different intellectual backgrounds. The intellectual gravity of those different backgrounds exerts attraction on these three sufficient to serve as a proxy for my informal criterion of independence.

10) What is it with Shakespeare? Yes, a writer of the first rank. But there’s something else going on in this extravagant valuation, and it’s been going on for some time, in various ways. This calls for another line of argument.

Shakespeare is the measure

1. In his own time, Shakespeare was a head above his contemporaries, and was so recognized at the time. He introduced something new. Harold Bloom has characterized it in one way; I’m thinking here of his interview in the Paris Review in 1991, which I’ve excerpted at some length. Bloom thinks Shakespeare, in effect, made us what we are. I’ve put the issue somewhat differently in my article, “The Evolution of Narrative and the Self.” Crudely put, it’s the ability of a character to change during the course of the story, not simply to change their mind on this or that, but to change who they are and how they relate to the world. I went on to argue that, as a form, the novel routinized that capability. I’ll be taking this up in more detail in my next post.

2. A literary canon begins coalescing in the 18th-19th century; Shakespeare was situated at the center. Why? Because he really is very good, and had been (and continues to be) influential. But also, societies need cultural canons. They need focal points (think Shelling). Shakespeare serves that purpose.

It's not as though that some evaluation metric was applied to writers, Shakespeare got the highest score, and that entitled him to the central position in the canon. As far as I know, that's never been done in a serious way, though it may have been done as a parlor game or while a bunch of guys were playing darts in a pub. More fundamentally, a recognized body of canonical works is socially useful as a means of coordinating ideals and values in society. It’s useful to organize the canon into greater and lesser works. That organization requires that someone be treated at the best. Shakespeare was picked to fill that role.

I realize that previous paragraph requires an argument, but this is not the place to construct it. Some years ago I posted an open letter to Steven Pinker on the web. That letter contains a preliminary sketch of the kind of argument I’ve got in mind, which is based on the idea of mutual information from game theory. That letter and Pinker’s reply is the basis of a working paper: An Open Letter to Steven Pinker: The Importance of Stories and the Nature of Literary Criticism, Working Paper (2015). I’ve discussed the business of evaluating complex cultural accomplishments in one of my posts about the MacArthur Fellowships.

An exercise for the reader: To what extent is the formation of the literary canon a matter of imitation where people adopt or rebel against the valuations expressed by people they see around them? Would mimetic desire drive this process toward the adoption of some one writer as The Best (a focal point for mutual information) so that they can compete with one another in praise for and understanding of that one best writer? Think of it as competitive virtue signaling.  Might this be an alternative characterization of the game theoretic process I indicated in the previous paragraph?

Now that I think of it, you might also consult Michael Chwe, Rational Ritual: Culture, Coordination, and Common Knowledge (2001). Chwe’s article from 2009, “Rational Choice and the Humanities: Excerpts and Folktales,” discusses examples from Shakespeare and Richard Wright before moving on to folktales.

3. As literary criticism becomes an academic discipline, it does so around and about this canon. Putting/keeping Shakespeare at the center of the canon is convenient for the discipline for the same reason it is convenient for the culture at large. This is particularly important as the discipline becomes more specialized, for it gives the many specialists a point of agreement.

4. And so, in the last quarter of the 20th century, Girard and Bloom, each in his own way, “doubles down” on Shakespeare. Cowen, too, if only by indirection. Why? I’m not sure that question has or perhaps even requires an answer.

What I’m thinking about is Cowen’s lament that economics is no longer producing thinkers who “see the world in the biggest, broadest possible terms.” Where do we find such people. He doesn’t say. But there’s always “the deepest thinker the human race has produced,” William Shakespeare, no?

I know that Bloom was saddened by what he saw as the balkanization of literary criticism brought about by what he called the School of Resentment. His books on the Western canon and on Shakespeare came out late in his career. The canon book is littered with unflattering remarks directed at the School; perhaps the Shakespeare books are as well. That is to say, whatever else Bloom is up to at this point in his career, he’s fending off the Resenters.

Does Girard’s larger intellectual project fit this pattern as well?

In search of the aesthetic?

When Bloom rails against the School of Resentment, he does so in the name of the aesthetic. Here is how he opens The Western Canon:

THIS BOOK studies twenty-six writers, necessarily with a certain nostalgia, since I seek to isolate the qualities that made these authors canonical, that is, authoritative in our culture. “Aesthetic value” is sometimes regarded as a suggestion of Immanuel Kant's rather than an actuality, but that has not been my experience during a lifetime of reading. Things have however fallen apart, the center has not held, and mere anarchy is in the process of being unleashed upon what used to be called “the learned world.”

Now let’s consider a passage from one of the most learned Resenters, the late Edward Said. This is from one of last essays, “Globalizing Literary Study,” published in 2001 in PMLA. He says:

I myself have no doubt, for instance, that an autonomous aesthetic realm exists, yet how it exists in relation to history, politics, social structures, and the like, is really difficult to specify. Questions and doubts about all these other relations have eroded the formerly perdurable national and aesthetic frameworks, limits, and boundaries almost completely. The notion neither of author, nor of work, nor of nation is as dependable as it once was, and for that matter the role of imagination, which used to be a central one, along with that of identity has undergone a Copernican transformation in the common understanding of it.

Regardless of what they’re willing and able to commit to in print, I believe that most literary critics either believe in or wish they could believe in that autonomous aesthetic realm, otherwise what’s the point? But they have little idea about how to get there from here. Their theories are inadequate to that task.

Let me remind you of a passage by Alan Liu that I quoted in the previous earlier post (“The Meaning of the Digital Humanities”, PMLA 128, 2013, 409-423):

Structuralism is a midpoint on the long modern path toward understanding the world as system (e.g., as modes of production; Weberian bureaucracy; Saussurean language; mass, media, and corporate society; neoliberalism; and so on) that has forced the progressive side of the humanities to split off from earlier humanities of the human spirit (Geist) and human self to adopt a worldview in which, as Hayles says, “large-scale multicausal events are caused by confluences that include a multitude of forces . . . many of which are nonhuman.”

Humpty Dumpty has fallen and shattered into many pieces. It is not at all obvious to me that Bloom’s brilliant, gnarled, and erudite webs of commentary, illumination, and fulmination are anything more than an elaborate ritual to conjure an illusion of wholeness from those many pieces. Is it anything more than an act of protest rather than providing pointers to the future?

I will take that up in the next post in this series where I consider one of Bloom’s observations Shakespeare’s particular contribution and on the nature of influence and Shakespeare’s position in the canon. I’ll will be counter-pointing his views with a different conception. I will also be taking up the issue of authority in literary criticism.

The last post, as I presently conceive things, will look to the future. Obviously, I cannot the identify future greatness, but I can say something about the world in which literary study will have to evolve.

Appendix: ChatGPT maps the current state of literary criticism

ChatGPT’s response to the prompt is adequate, but no more. For the purposes of this project, mere adequacy is fine. Notice that when I then asked it for specific names, the list was skewed a bit toward deconstruction, starting with Derrida, so I asked for a half-dozen more, queuing it specifically for Stephen Greenblatt. Both Northrop Frye and Harold Bloom made that list, but Skip Gates did not. So I asked about him. I have a few remarks about Gates in an old post about the MacArthur Fellowships. He was in the first class.

* * * * *

What happened in academic literary criticism in America from the 1980s up through the end of the century?

In the 1980s and through the end of the century, academic literary criticism in America underwent significant shifts and developments. Several key movements and trends emerged during this period:

  1. Poststructuralism and Deconstruction:

    • The influence of French poststructuralist thinkers, such as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, became prominent in American literary criticism. Deconstruction, a method associated with Derrida, challenged traditional notions of language and meaning.

  2. Cultural Studies:

    • There was a growing interest in cultural studies, examining literature in the context of broader cultural and societal issues. Scholars explored the intersections of literature with politics, identity, and popular culture.

  3. Identity Politics and Multiculturalism:

    • The 1980s saw a rise in attention to issues of identity, race, gender, and sexuality in literary criticism. Critics engaged in discussions around multiculturalism and sought to give voice to marginalized perspectives.

  4. Feminist Literary Criticism:

    • Feminist literary criticism continued to evolve, with scholars examining literature through feminist lenses, exploring gender roles, and critiquing patriarchal structures within literary works.

  5. New Historicism:

    • New Historicism emerged as a method that sought to understand literary works within the historical and cultural contexts of their production. Scholars analyzed texts in relation to the political, social, and economic conditions of the time.

  6. Postcolonialism:

    • Postcolonial theory gained prominence, focusing on the literature produced in the aftermath of colonialism. Critics explored how colonial histories influenced literary works and examined the representation of colonized people.

  7. Reader-Response Theory:

    • Reader-response theory, emphasizing the role of the reader in interpreting and constructing meaning, continued to be influential. Scholars explored how readers' interpretations shaped literary understanding.

  8. Globalization and Comparative Literature:

    • With the increasing interconnectedness of the world, there was a growing interest in global literature and comparative approaches. Scholars examined literary works from different cultures and regions.

  9. Theoretical Pluralism:

    • The field became more diverse and inclusive, with scholars adopting a variety of theoretical approaches. The idea of theoretical pluralism gained traction, allowing for a range of perspectives in literary analysis.

Overall, the 1980s and 1990s marked a period of theoretical diversity and interdisciplinary engagement in American literary criticism, with scholars drawing from a wide range of intellectual traditions to analyze and interpret literature.

What are the dozen or so best critics from that period, and why are they the best? I understand that this is a tricky question, calling for a value judgment. Try your best to summarize the consensus of the period.

Identifying the "best" critics is subjective and depends on one's perspective, but there were several influential literary critics during the period from the 1980s to the end of the century. Their influence often stems from their contributions to theoretical development, their impact on the field, and the lasting legacy of their ideas. Here are a dozen critics from that period, along with a brief overview of their contributions:

  1. Jacques Derrida (1930–2004):

    • As a key figure in poststructuralist philosophy, Derrida's deconstruction challenged traditional notions of language, meaning, and binary oppositions. His work had a profound impact on literary theory.

  2. Michel Foucault (1926–1984):

    • Foucault's ideas on power, discourse, and the relationship between knowledge and power were influential in literary criticism. His work contributed to the development of postmodern and cultural studies.

  3. Edward Said (1935–2003):

    • A foundational figure in postcolonial theory, Said's "Orientalism" critiqued Western representations of the East. He significantly influenced the study of literature in relation to colonial and postcolonial contexts.

  4. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (b. 1942):

    • Spivak, a postcolonial theorist and feminist critic, is known for her work on subaltern studies and the intersections of gender, race, and imperialism. Her essay "Can the Subaltern Speak?" is particularly influential.

  5. Homi K. Bhabha (b. 1949):

    • Bhabha's work in postcolonial theory, particularly his concept of "third space" and notions of hybridity, significantly impacted how scholars approached the study of colonial and postcolonial literature.

  6. Judith Butler (b. 1956):

    • A prominent figure in gender and queer theory, Butler's work on performativity and gender identity has had a lasting impact. Her book "Gender Trouble" challenged traditional understandings of gender.

  7. Fredric Jameson (b. 1934):

    • Jameson, associated with Marxist literary criticism, contributed to the understanding of postmodernism and late capitalism. His work on cultural critique and political economy influenced discussions on globalization.

  8. Terry Eagleton (b. 1943):

    • Eagleton's contributions to literary theory, particularly his Marxist approach, have been influential. His book "Literary Theory: An Introduction" is widely used in academic settings.

  9. Elaine Showalter (b. 1941):

    • Showalter, a feminist critic, coined the term "gynocriticism" and made significant contributions to the study of women's literature. Her work emphasized the importance of gender in literary analysis.

  10. Stanley Fish (b. 1938):

    • Fish's work in reader-response theory and his exploration of interpretive communities influenced how scholars approach the role of the reader in the interpretation of texts.

  11. Paul de Man (1919–1983):

    • A key figure in deconstruction, de Man's writings on language, rhetoric, and literature were influential in shaping the theoretical landscape.

  12. Barbara Johnson (1947–2009):

    • Johnson, a scholar of literature and critical theory, made significant contributions to deconstruction. Her work often focused on the intersections of language, literature, and philosophy.

These critics are acknowledged for their substantial contributions to the theoretical frameworks that shaped literary criticism during the specified period. Their ideas, methodologies, and perspectives continue to inform discussions in the field today. Keep in mind that the selection is not exhaustive, and many other scholars made noteworthy contributions during this dynamic period of theoretical exploration.

That list seems skewed toward deconstruction and closely related developments. Can you name a half-dozen other figures, perhaps including Stephen Greenblatt?

Certainly, let's diversify the list by including scholars from different literary critical perspectives, including figures like Stephen Greenblatt who is associated with New Historicism. Here are six additional influential critics from the 1980s to the end of the century:

  1. Stephen Greenblatt (b. 1943):

    • A key figure in New Historicism, Greenblatt's work, especially "Renaissance Self-Fashioning," explores the interplay between literature and historical context. New Historicism emphasizes the importance of historical and cultural contexts in the interpretation of literary texts.

  2. Sandra Gilbert (b. 1936) and Susan Gubar (b. 1944):

    • Gilbert and Gubar co-authored "The Madwoman in the Attic," a groundbreaking work in feminist literary criticism. They explored representations of women in literature and questioned traditional gender roles.

  3. Harold Bloom (1930–2019):

    • Bloom was a prominent literary critic known for his contributions to the field of literary theory, particularly his theory of poetic influence. His influential work "The Anxiety of Influence" examined the relationship between poets and their predecessors.

  4. Northrop Frye (1912–1991):

    • Frye, a Canadian literary critic, made significant contributions to the study of mythology and archetypal criticism. His work "Anatomy of Criticism" is a seminal text that outlines a systematic approach to literary analysis.

  5. Bell Hooks (b. 1952):

    • Bell Hooks, a cultural critic, feminist theorist, and prolific writer, explored the intersections of race, gender, and class in literature and culture. Her work emphasizes the importance of addressing multiple forms of oppression.

  6. Toni Morrison (1931–2019):

    • While primarily known as a novelist, Morrison also made substantial contributions to literary criticism. Her essays, such as those collected in "Playing in the Dark," examine the representation of race in American literature.

This expanded list includes scholars with diverse theoretical perspectives, including New Historicism, feminist theory, archetypal criticism, and cultural criticism. The goal is to provide a more comprehensive view of the intellectual landscape during the specified period.

Skip Gates?

Henry Louis Gates Jr. (b. 1950) is indeed an important figure in literary and cultural criticism, particularly for his contributions to African American literary studies and cultural theory. Gates is known for his work in the field of African American literature, history, and cultural studies. His notable contributions include:

  1. "The Signifying Monkey" (1988):

    • In this influential work, Gates explores the concept of "signifyin(g)" in African American literature and oral tradition. He examines the use of rhetorical devices, wordplay, and indirect communication in African American culture.

  2. African American Literary Anthologies:

    • Gates has edited and contributed to numerous anthologies of African American literature, helping to bring attention to the richness and diversity of the African American literary tradition.

  3. Documentary Work:

    • Gates has been involved in documentary filmmaking, including the PBS series "The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross," which explores the history and contributions of African Americans.

  4. Critical Essays and Writings:

    • Gates has written extensively on African American literature, culture, and history in various critical essays and publications. His work often engages with issues of identity, race, and representation.

While Henry Louis Gates Jr. is primarily known for his contributions to African American studies, his interdisciplinary approach incorporates insights from literature, history, and cultural studies. His work has played a significant role in shaping the field of African American literary criticism and promoting a broader understanding of African American cultural heritage.

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