Thursday, September 25, 2014

My Partially Examined Life (As A Perplexed English Student), Part 2

Part 1 on this topic was one of those things where I didn't figure out what my subject was until I had finished writing the post (and didn't want to rewrite it to incorporate the new ideas). (That's what Part 2s are for.)

In Part 1 I outlined several threats to traditional (humanistic) literary studies, both within literary studies and external: postmodernism, pop culture, new media, cultural/media/communications studies, and the scientific and capitalist values of our culture. I gave Northrop Frye's idea of making literary criticism into a human science as one alternative to both traditional humanism and postmodern theory.

Frye wanted to get away from the kind of fuzzy-wuzzy, willy-nilly teaching of literature that was making his discipline a laughingstock in our new science-oriented culture. But unlike the postmodernists, Frye (writing in 1957, just before the mass media explosion) assumed that no matter how we studied it, what we would be studying was the literary canon.

There is, however, nothing intrinsic to his vision of the science of criticism that entails that you have to study masterpieces – or, for that matter, in most cases, that you have to study literature, since many of the generic elements Frye identifies are found in all narrative arts (as anyone user of TV Tropes knows). We could agree to study the canon because it's convenient, but then there'd be no obvious reason ever to allow a new work into it, because ancient literature plus five or six centuries of modern literature surely gives us enough to work on.

So we'd have to add to Frye that we are not only studying the masterpieces of literature to give us a theory of criticism; we are also developing a theory of criticism in order to be able to better understand the masterpieces of literature. With that proviso, a science of literary criticism could very well provide a compromise between the humanists and the theorists. It would not, however, look anything like the traditional humanist study of literature, and there remains no obvious link between the lover of literature, or man/woman of taste (to use Frye's terminology), and the scientific critic. That is, it's not obvious why the man/woman of taste would want to do what the scientific critic does; or, if they do (as I do), whether there's any connection between the two things.

The music student doesn't complain that “The point is that this music is so beautiful and moving! Why do I have to study this theory junk? Why can't we just study the music itself?” Although a music lover, the music student realizes that she will understand music, and be able to appreciate it more, when she understands music theory. Should literary studies move in this direction? Or is there something to be said for its remarkable resistance to being turned into a science?

The Books Themselves

Perhaps the notorious weakness of literary studies as a university subject is also, from another perspective, its greatest strength. While most of the humanities are in fact human sciences, and 20th century Anglo-American philosophy has aped math and science, and the historical method follows scientific principles in its treatment of evidence – then there's English, where the true humanists go to weep and wail (myself included), “Why are we talking about Derrida, or Lyotard, or Girard, or Insert French Guy's Name Here? When are we going to talk about the books themselves?”

Of course, as we saw in Part 1, it's not possible to talk about The Books Themselves. We can talk about their form (language, structure, imagery), their content (psychological, social, philosophical), their historical context, their sociological interest. We can also talk about the ideas of various theorists. None of this, however, makes up a systematic study of literature. Humanist professors are the most mute of all. In the classroom, their enthusiasm for their subject is infectious; they can inspire students to also become people of taste. Their teaching is creative in nature: they observe closely, make inspired connections, stimulate students' thought. They do not, however, teach students about anything, as though there were a body of knowledge at issue, or how to do anything. Whereas history or philosophy students learn both: they learn information or ideas, and they learn how to practice history or philosophy.

Reading a work of literature is an experience, like listening to a piece of music: neither, in themselves, involve learning anything. Yet we get confused about this when it comes to literature, because, as Frye points out, we have such trouble distinguishing between literary and non-literary uses of language.

Based on what I've written, there are only so many outcomes possible for literary studies:

Humanism wins

By far the least likely. In this scenario, science relinquishes its hubris and we realize that humanism and science are two distinct and complementary orientations towards the world, each with its areas of strength. Science is great at getting things done, but the humanities help us to understand certain things in a different and more satisfying way that can never be replaced, let alone improved upon, by science. Literary studies ought to be allowed to be what it is and to be taught non-systematically; the emphasis should be on teaching, not research; and the teaching, like any research that is done, should be directed towards facilitating the student's encounter with the text. The teacher (like Frye's public critic, which he or she may also be) will model the man or woman of taste for the student. The student will continue to muddle along, guided only by his or her native intelligence.

It still leaves the problem that students will be faced with a canon made up of almost entirely of white men. There's not much we can do except teach the problem. As Graff points out in Professing Literature, criticism of humanism is a humanistic enterprise, which is probably just as much of a reason for the flourishing of this criticism in literary studies as the subject-vacuum of which Frye complains. Never was the glory of the Western tradition more trumpeted than by literary humanists, and so never would it be more harshly criticized than in literary studies.

Cultural studies wins

This is what Harold Bloom predicted, predictably gloomily, in either The Western Canon or that Shakespeare book, I can't remember which: English departments would become what classical studies departments are now, tiny and irrelevant; the study of literature would become an antiquarian enterprise; and cultural studies would take its place, with the unruly mob studying TV shows, comic books, maybe even movies, and other unspeakable trash guaranteed to send a shudder down the Bardolator's spine.

For a while I thought it might happen, too, and couldn't quite decide whether it was an apocalypse of the human spirit or the natural order of things (or both). But let's face it, from the perspective of capitalism, cultural studies and literary studies are equally useless.

We teach the controversy

That's Graff's suggestion with regard to the eternal battle between humanists and theorists. Sort of a “let the students decide” solution. Certainly postmodernism is a tendency in 20th century thought with a lot to offer, and even students who find themselves falling more on the humanist side would benefit from knowing about the postmodern critique of humanism. However, personally I'd prefer for things to go all the way, one way or the other: I'd like us to choose either a non-scientific humanism (with the postmodern critique incorporated) or a scientific criticism. Or else I'd like to divide literary studies up between them and get a little of the best of both worlds.

Capitalism wins

Currently the most likely scenario. At present the war on the universities, and the humanities in particular, is taking the form of the degradation of undergraduate education by overworking and underpaying part-time professors who have no benefits or job security but do have massive student loans. Support for the arts, education, and arts education has to come from governments committed to not only reflecting but actually creating public interest in the arts, because they give more than zero fucks about their citizens being smart and happy people, that is, flourishing. In North American right now, however, our governments don't seem to give more than zero fucks about anything except big business.

Everybody wins! Yay! 

Sometimes I think that making literary criticism into a human science would be a disaster akin to the rise of analytic philosophy. (It seems to be in absolutely no danger of happening, though. Frye's own delightfully abstruse, esoteric, and eccentric system sure didn't found it.) Yet what draws me to Frye is the tantalizing realization that it's true – we haven't even begun to understand what this extraordinary thing, literature, is. We've barely started asking the questions. It's not work that has anything to do with reading literary masterpieces, necessarily, but it is work that could reasonably be expected to excite someone of a particular character who loves literature.

Rather than giving literary studies a scientific makeover, however, I don't see why we can't admit that the study of literature actually serves many functions. Undergraduates should be exposed to the humanist experience of reading the masterpieces of literature and studying them in non-systematic fashion with enthusiastic teachers. Since it seems to have been left to literary studies to embody humanist values, students should also be taught the controversy within humanism in the 20th century. If students were made to understand how this controversy relates to their subject of study, rather than just having ideas and names thrown at them willy-nilly all the time, it might all fit together a bit better.

Other seemingly useful courses would include hermeneutics (most useful if interdisciplinary) and approaches to criticism from close to reading to deconstruction. Students can't be either responsible or creative interpreters (and we want them to be both) if they lack knowledge of the theory of interpretation and of a range of interpretive practices. Personally I'd also advocate a course (possibly interdisciplinary) on canon formation, to make students aware of the politics, contingencies, and utility of canons, as well as of the fact that they are not formed by universities; that universities are not the only institutions that can lend their authority to them; and that they are always in flux and always contested. (I'm aware, of course, that many of these things are actually happening in various universities, even if not all of them are happening in any one university.)

And then, at higher levels, we can move on to trying to understand literature as a whole. We would still have historical periods as one of the ways in which we divide the labour of literary scholarship, since in order to compare literature across periods we have to rely on the scholars of particular periods and figures. Presumably, some scholars will be drawn to particular periods and some will be drawn to theorizing about the whole. As far as I understand Frye's model, however (and I need to read the Anatomy again), you could easily spend your whole career studying one genre, especially if it's Menippean satire.

Those are the next things on my list: re-read the Anatomy, and finish Professing Literature. Perhaps then I can report back with clearer thoughts. Or – from what I remember of the Anatomy – maybe not.  

No comments:

Post a Comment