Sunday, September 28, 2014

Why You Can Never Go Back to the Future: Time Travel Logic and Narrative Perspective

Note: This essay was written for the Facebook page of Another Kind of Distance, my time travel podcast with David Fiore. If you want to quibble with our theories or interpretations or offer completely different ones of your own, please comment there or contact us at Our Back to the Future series episode isn't up yet, but this essay may help you get your bearings in our Timecrimes/Primer episode.

EDIT: the epic 3-hour podcast stroll through the BTTF trilogy is now available

I bet when you were ten or eleven or in your early teens, or however old you were when you first saw the Back to the Future series, you followed the movies without any problem and didn't find anything confusing or problematic about the way they handled time travel. That's in stark contrast to Primer, where the time travel is probably internally consistent but the narrative is hellishly confusing. But if you actually lay out the time travel plot in the BTTF series, suddenly it starts sounding just as complicated as the time travel in Primer. And when you then try to figure out how

Ever since Episode 6, The Elements of Time Travel, I've been developing a theory of how narrative perspective relates to the time travel genres that Dave is fond of referring to, and how it can either fix or fuck a time travel narrative. So buckle your seat belts and prepare for a front-seat roller-coaster ride as I describe the time travel plot of the BTTF series; what's wrong with it and how it ought to work (according to how your hosts currently understand time travel narratives); and how thinking about narrative perspective can help make everything clearer.

But only after things get really confusing first. Obviously – spoilers, right?

The Time Travel Plot of Back to the Future

Marty goes back in time and alters the past, creating a Fixed (as in “corrected”) Future.

Marty, Doc, and Jennifer go to the future from the Fixed Future. Future!Future!Biff uses the machine to go back in time, altering the past and therefore changing the future. Then he comes back – although weirdly, nothing has changed yet. There's some kind of delay between changing the past and the changes taking effect?

The original three time travellers go back and find the changed world. Marty and Doc go back in time again, leaving Jennifer in the Alternate Future. They end up in the most recently created past, the one that causes the Fixed Future. Except that F!F!Biff has already been to this past, because it's the past of the timeline that he comes from. (The post-time travel timeline, that is, at the end of the first movie, which goes: Altered Past, Fixed Future, Future Future.) So it's not the Original Altered Past, which we saw in the first movie, but rather the Alternate Future Past, which is the same as the OAP, but with F!F!Biff in it.

Marty intervenes and gets the almanac from F!F!Biff, thereby preventing the Alternate Future. However, when the Doc goes back to what is now again the Fixed Future, he leaves Marty stranded in the altered Alternate Future Past. We are given to understand that the Doc ends up in the Wild West and leaves a letter to be delivered to Marty right after he disappears.

Marty (actually Marty 2) enlists the help of 1955!Doc (who just sent Marty 1 back to the future) to send him to where 1985!Doc is, in the Wild West. Stuff happens in the Wild West with no relevance to time travel, and Marty 2 makes it back to Fixed Future, where he finds Jennifer on the porch where he left her in Alternate Future. Does that seem wrong? Hold that thought.

The timeline is now: Altered Past with Doubly!Thwarted!Biff, Fixed Future – and Future Future. Jennifer has a document from Future Future showing the bad things that we know will happen to Marty as the result of a character flaw. However, based on his experience in the Wild West, he's able to overcome that flaw – and the document changes (in accordance with the rules of this movie). So the final timeline is: Altered Past with Doubly!Thwarted!Biff, Fixed Future, and Fixed Future Future.

Here Come the Problems

How can Future!Future!Biff travel to 1955 then back to the Future Future? In perfectly consistent time travel, from the perspective of Marty and Doc, Biff would disappear forever from their timeline when he went back to 1955 – and they'd also be stranded in the Future Future, because he would have the machine. If we followed Biff's perspective, on the other hand, he would travel back to an Alternate Future Future that follows from the alternate 1985 we saw. And once he's created the Alternate Future,
Marty 1 doesn't time travel in the first place (1985!Doc of this timeline is in an insane asylum), so no Biff would have any reason to worry about Marty 2 coming after him: Marty 2 doesn't exist in this universe.

Imagine, on the other hand, that the Doc builds another time machine so they can go back to 1955 and stop Biff from giving himself the almanac. Now, that doesn't make sense, does it? As soon as Biff has time travelled, he's given himself the almanac: there's no time delay. They should now be in an alternate reality. Except in an alternate reality, they'd be different people or may not even exist. By the movies' logic, maybe their bodies would start disappearing and text would start altering around them.
By strict multiple-timelines logic, on the other hand – F!F!Biff has started his own AU and disappeared permanently from theirs. When they get in the new time machine and go back to 1985, then, it will still be the Fixed Future.

As long as we follow the perspective of one time traveller (or more if they use the same machine at the same time), everything works. When Marty 2 returns to 1985 from his original trip to 1955, he's actually in a new timeline to which he's not native – Marty 1 is. So if he intervened and somehow stopped Marty 1 from going into the past – there would now be two of them in this new timeline. This is the problem faced by the protagonist and the scientist in Timecrimes. Or they think it is – although since that's a loop movie, everything is foreordained anyway. Whereas the problem when Marty 2 watches AU!Marty 1 get into the time machine and go back to 1955 is that BTTF briefly thinks it's a loop movie. In fact, even if this universe's Marty 1 somehow did go back in time at the same moment, in the same way – he would not have been motivated to fix things in 1955, because he already grew up with the fixed family. Which is fine, because he didn't fix his family – Marty 2 did.

Remember: one perspective=one timeline. Marty grew up with the original family. Marty travels into the past – where he meets earlier new-timeline versions of that family that are identical to the original-timeline versions – unless he changes things. Marty (the same Marty, the one we're following!) then goes into the future, where he meets identical new-timeline versions of the family he's altered. If they have a son, and that son is “him,” that son grew up with them, not the original timeline family.

The perspective problem is illustrated again by the events at the end of BTTF 2. When Doc is zapped back to 1885, from his perspective, he arrives in the Wild West, prepares the letter for Marty, and dies. You could film this as consistent time travel by showing him arriving in 1885, then doing a “70 Years Later” ellipsis, where we see Marty watching him disappear and then getting the letter a moment later. Of course that would ruin the pretty awesome timey-wimey, mindy-bendy surprise of how Marty gets the letter, which depends on being limited to his perspective. But the fact is that perspective interruptus occurs throughout the movie. 

Perspective and the Two Kinds of Time Travel

In alternate-universe/multiple-timeline time travel, your time-travel is paradox-free because every act of time travel creates a new timeline. That timeline is identical to the one you just left – until you change something. So, at 40 you could travel back to when you're 20 years old. If you never do anything to affect the life of Me 1, Me 1 will grow up to be you and “become” you by time travelling – but “you” in a different timeline. If, on the other hand, you give yourself some stock market tips and then travel back to the future, there will be two versions of you: Me 1, who is rich, and you.

The only thing that's consistent in all of this is you. You keep creating different timelines, and everyone around you is from these alternate timelines, but you are the same self, from the original timeline. Movies start running into trouble with this when there are multiple time travellers and the filmmakers think they can adopt the multiple-character/omniscient perspective of an ordinary movie.

Because multiple-timeline time travel gets enormously confusing, and movies seem to have a haphazard approach to it, I don't think we've seen any clean, consistent example of it, although both Butterfly Effect and the BTTF movies partake of it. Primer might be the cleanest example we've seen, although that didn't make it any clearer.

In “loop”/single-timeline time travel (major examples we've seen: Somewhere in Time, Time Traveller's Wife, Timecrimes), your time travel is paradox-free because everything has already happened the same way. For this, see Time Traveler's Wife and Timecrimes. If at 40 you visit your 20-year-old self, you already have a memory of that visit from the 20-year-old self's perspective. You can't visit your past self bringing new information, because the visit already occurred and you already have all of the information from it.

Although in this type of time travel you have memories of your visits from the earlier self's perspective, what you don't have are memories of people whom you will encounter in your future and their past – when in the future you travel into the past and meet them for the first time from their perspective. They remember your future; and when you do travel back in time, you experience their past.

Initially I found this kind of time travel hardest to understand, but once you get it, it's actually much easier than figuring out all of the permutations of multiple-perspective time travel – especially when you add separate acts of time travel by different people. Since I'm one who prefers clear, uncluttered storytelling so that the viewer can focus on the interesting stuff, like the characters and issues, rather than the plot (or, alternatively, no plot at all, as in late Lynch), I think the storytelling challenge is to keep the possibilities under strict control. Which is easiest when you stick to a single perspective, as our own David Fiore does in his soon-to-be-published Hypocritic Days....

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.  

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Why Study English Lit? A Partial (In Both Senses) Examination

When I started this blog it was going to be my literary blog, but since I prefer to read fiction but only read non-fiction quickly, that wasn't giving me much material. And when I at last finish a novel, it requires far too much thought than I can give to a blog to put my feelings about it into words – unless I hate it, and I prefer to spend as little time reading and thinking about books that I hate as possible. Again – I find it easier not only to read but also to talk about non-fiction, and now that I've decided to shove as many non-fiction audiobooks into my brain as possible (since I really don't care about the sacred act of reading if I'm mainly interested in a book's informational content), I should have more topics for posts.

So it became my movie blog, and then a way to offer my opinion on ephemeral trends and furors, from popular or controversial TV shows to minor internet outbreaks of feminist outrage (and only the minor ones, because I lack the will or energy to get into the major ones). And then I got so sick of doing that, that the blog stopped. I'm the last person who should be writing about TV – I'm not a true believer in the New Golden Age or a big fan of any one particular show, and there are may better writers on TV on the internet.

And yet here I am again. As I've mentioned before, having a “live notebook” where you know that there's an immediate chance of an audience, however tiny, produces a certain kind of thinking and writing that I don't do anywhere else. I don't write like this in private notebooks, and I imagine I wouldn't if I were writing an article. (I imagine because I've sometimes tried to do that, and thought, no, I'd rather be blogging!) The tone I have here is – although it wasn't intentionally cultivated – sort of like me thinking out loud with the idea that someone might be overhearing me. And lately I've been moved to reflection again, this time by listening to podcasts – and particularly the philosophy podcast The Partially Examined Life.

I've also been podcasting myself, with movie and comics blogger David Fiore. We've started a podcast with the aim of watching every time travel movie ever made, Another Kind of Distance (Facebook page here), and we're about to start another on (mainly) classical Hollywood cinema, The Acteur Cast (Facebook page forthcoming). So far we've got two (out of an initial three) eps on Bette Davis in the can, and by can I mean hard drive. (Not toilet.) So that's where my movie criticism/fandom energy is going these days. Other things I've been doing during this break include finishing a 231, 928-word (so, 22, 811 more than Moby-Dicks) Bildungsmemoir about the first 22 year of my life, which you probably won't find on a bookshelf near you, or e-store of your preference, any time soon. 

Embattled English, Within and Without

This blog revival was inspired, specifically, by the Partially Examined Life episode, “Why Do Philosophy? (And What Is It?)” The surprisingly popular podcast is made by several Philosophy Ph.D. dropouts who are now doing it strictly “for fun” (among the other reasons given in that episode). I am currently contemplating obtaining my Ph.D., although the job market is so grim for Ph.D.s that I think I have about as much chance earning a better living at the end of it than I do now, working at an entry-level retail job, as I have of winning the lottery. These bleak late capitalist conditions were the backdrop for the reflections stirred up by the episode.

“Why do English?” is, for me, really two questions: What was the value for me in studying English literature, when it doesn't seem likely that it will ever lead to me crawling above the poverty line – and resulted in me acquiring over $15, 000 worth of debt? (And that was after family help, awards and scholarships, working part-time during the school year, working full time summers and during breaks of months or years, and practicing extreme frugality.) And what is the value of English literature in general, that we could advance against our culture's increasingly blatant exclusive focus on the bottom line?

Humanities or liberal arts subjects deal with the study of human beings (e.g. anthropology, archaeology, history, psychology, sociology) and the cultural activities of human beings that we deem most important (e.g. philosophy, politics, literature, comparative religion). They are not useful to the world, as science is; and they are not useful to the student, giving you the kind of knowledge you need to practice a particular profession. However, the original purpose of a liberal arts education was to equip individuals to become useful citizens who can take part in public life, and presumably even now it's possible to argue that a person with some knowledge of history and the history of ideas is likely to be a more reflective – and liberal – member of society.

Literature and languages were first included in humanities education in the form of classical literature and languages. Not until the end of the 19th century and the rise of the modern research university do we get the idea that our present culture can or should be studied. Literary studies once stood in relation to the classics as pop culture does to literary studies now. Film has already found strong enough advocates for its artistic merits that it has broken away from English departments to form its own field. It remains to be seen if the same thing will happen to new media, or if they will continue to be studied as part of Cultural/Media/Communications Studies.

The difference between the traditional approach to literary studies and the cultural studies approach to pop culture is, as far as I can make out, that cultural studies takes it for granted that pop culture is culturally important while suspending judgement about whether it is culturally valuable. That is, it is descriptive, not prescriptive. While some cultural studies scholars certainly think that the particular kind of pop culture they're studying is culturally valuable, and/or are studying a certain kind of media due to a deep love of it, others are interested in their subject from a purely sociological standpoint.

I think cultural studies is a legitimate and fascinating area of scholarship, and in fact my idea for a Ph.D. dissertation leans more in that direction than in the traditional English direction. Nevertheless, I don't think cultural studies should replace a traditional literary studies education. Canon-formation is not an oppressive activity of authority-wielding professors: every creative field has its ever-evolving canon. There is no such thing (yet) as a Department of Rock 'n' Roll, but part of growing up in the Anglo-American world is learning what the rock canon is. Canons are formed, and challenged, by practitioners (the musicians or writers), critics, and fans. Professors, too, have their influence: they can bring attention to neglected figures by writing a paper or bringing out a biography, starting a trend, occasioning new editions. Mainly, though, their purpose is to keep alive the reputations of long-canonical figures. Would the classics of English lit remain in print? And what would happen to more marginal figures if scholars weren't around to give them revivals? Literature has lost a great deal of its prestige, and who's going to defend it except the few of us left who love it?

What is the Study of Literature?

What we have so far is, on one side of the “study of literature,” the work of the scholar who tries to make it possible, and on the other side the work of the public critic who assumes that it exists. In between is “literature” itself, a game preserve where the student wanders with his native intelligence his only guide.

Northrop Frye, The Anatomy of Criticism

There is no obvious connection between being a little kid who got obsessed with novelizations of Disney movies about dogs and growing up to study Shakespeare and Milton at university. But that was my own trajectory. I loved books, knowing nothing of “literature”; when I hit puberty I briefly read horror, true crime, a bit of sci fi and fantasy, and maybe two YA novels (it not being a significant genre at the time), before I learned that there were books that people considered great; so great, in fact, that they were still being read after hundreds of years. Those were definitely the books I wanted to read. Why should I resent people who already knew about this stuff pointing me towards the coolest books ever written?

It didn't have to go the way it did for me. Some kids get to adolescence and discover that they only, or mainly, like particular genres. Some get to adulthood and join book clubs, looking for challenges within middlebrow parameters. Many women never stop reading YA lit, now, which is probably preferable to reading “chick lit” supposedly aimed at adults. (It may even be better than most “literary fiction.”) A small number of grown-up readers keep their eye on developments in global modernism, and/or worship cult heroes (Murakami, Bolano, DFW). There are lots of different ways to be a reader and a book-lover. But, as much as we (the dwindling number of we) reverence the idea of reading, none of those other ways treats books like secular scripture in quite the same way that a traditional literary studies education does.

The New Critics, with their “close reading” method, were pretty overt about this, but also (as Harold Bloom has complained) tended to project their WASP Christian values onto the texts they studied. Still the way undergrads are taught to read, “close reading” can only be brought to bear on texts that we consider deserving of, and capable of repaying, that scrutiny. Once they are brought into the universities and surrounded by scholars and scholarship, canonical works become sacred texts of inexhaustible meaning and whose function is to generate exegesis.

This tradition was started with the classical texts, whose greatness, confirmed by their antiquity, was unquestionable. There was no doubt on the part of the culture that exposure to them was, in and of itself, good for students. How to teach them was another matter, and for a long time they were used to drill students in grammar and etymology. We have never really known what teaching literature should entail. One reads a philosophy text in order to uncover, and think about, its ideas and arguments. There are any number of things we can talk about when teaching a work of literature: content, language, structure, images, the characters' psychology, the author's ideas, the historical context, or, most popularly, somebody else's ideas altogether.

Northrop Frye pointed out that this confusion results in people not teaching literature at all – or rather, criticism (which is what he thinks our subject actually should be) – but rather using literature as a way to teach whatever actually interests them, which is not the book in front of them at all. Which is how in English you will find yourself exposed to a whole parade of thinkers and schools: Freud, feminism, Marx, the Frankfurt School, Marx, Derrida, Foucault, gender studies, queer theory, postmodernism, all manner of sociological thought – and, not least, humanism itself. These ideas have plenty of intellectual interest and some social utility, but it's hard not to feel in literary studies like you're always off-topic.

I should add that I don't think Frye's archetypal criticism, which is the part of his critical theory that's been widely used pedagogically, is a solution, although it does allow for comparison between all narrative arts. However, everything else he has to say in the “Polemical Introduction” of the Anatomy remains important. Let's just hope that there will be English students in the future to take up the question: am I studying English in order to read great books and find out about postmodernism and feminism (which is pretty cool), or am I here to learn something specific, namely criticism (which maybe makes more sense for an academic subject)?

Is Scholarship Necessary?

Why Do English isn't quite the same question as Why Do Philosophy, because while nobody “does philosophy” outside of universities, people do read outside of universities. Yet “doing English” isn't quite the same thing as reading. So there are two separate questions (different from the two I listed above): why read, and why study literature at the university level. Probably fewer people question the value of reading than question the value of doing philosophy. Philosophy is considered something esoteric; reading is not.

Since Frye hasn't been taken to heart, currently there is only one reason to study literature at the university level, which is to expose yourself to great books. If you want to know what to read, learning what your culture has thought is great is as good a place to start as any; you are free to disagree. I do believe in the autodidact option, and as much as I enjoyed most of my classes as an undergrad and MA student, and as provocative as some of my professors were, I can't say that acquiring over $15, 000 in debt for the two degrees was worth it when I could have studied on my own. That option, however, requires not only the health of public libraries, but, as I suggested above, the whole scholarly apparatus.

As Oscar Wilde argued in the same essay that gives this blog its title, there can be no literature without literary culture – without criticism and scholarship. Wilde may be remembered as a “pure aesthete,” but he didn't think it was possible to understand or, therefore, appreciate a work without scholarship. I have no interesting in fetishizing “unmediated” textual encounters, either. I discovered literary criticism at the same time that I was learning about the literary canon, at the public library, and always liked reading about literature as much as I liked reading literature – maybe more.

Why do English is the question: do we believe that reading and writing literature are among the most valuable of human activities? Our late capitalist, scientific culture holds only two values dear, both material: making/having money, and creating technology. Anything that has to do with the cultivation of one's own subjectivity is strictly immaterial. Science does not give the best explanation of all areas of human life, and should not replace the humanities, but work together with them to give us a complete description of reality. That is not, however, the way that things are going.

As for the war in literary studies between the humanists and the postmodernists, or the one between literary studies and cultural studies – now that late capitalism is destroying the universities, with the humanities being most vulnerable in our materialist culture, those wars are fading into insignificance, or even starting in retrospect to look like attestations to the continued vibrancy and vigor of these areas of the humanities. All we can hope, now, is that they'll be able to continue.

Art: Better Than Science, Money, and Religion (But No Hyperbole)

Technology is helping us to live longer lives, and our affluence in North America should be helping us to build better lives, instead of which making money has become a bizarre end in itself. From the time I was a small child, my idea of the good life was doing nothing but reading; later I realized that what I thought was the most important thing in the world was broader than that, and it was called “art.” I remember a Catholic professor making the pronouncement that the Modernists wanted art to replace Christianity – and saw that it failed. I took his word for it at the time, since it's a common thing to say about both the Modernists and the late 19th century aesthetes, but upon reflection – although that may have been true for the original aesthetes and Modernists, who were nostalgic for religion, the fact is that for me, art is not only as good as religion, but much, much better. And I say this as someone who was raised with religion and accepted it as a child.

In fact, I abandoned religion around the same time that I discovered art, in early adolescence, and I think there was a connection: art was a much better principle around which to organize my life than God was. It was humble, it was modest; it didn't promise you eternal life, but what it did promise – the aesthetic experience – it could deliver on a regular basis. And best of all, as Walter Pater put it, the aesthetic/experiential life didn't require you to subscribe to any externally imposed “facile orthodoxy”: “The theory or idea or system which requires of us the sacrifice of any part of [our] experience in consideration of some interest into which we cannot enter, or some abstract theory we have not identified with ourselves, or of what is only conventional, has no real claim upon us.”

We group literature and film with the humanities, but usually not art (only “art history”) or music, I guess because literature and film have human content (characters and events that impact them), and not only when they're “narrative.” Both aesthetes and postmodernists often like to pretend that we don't care about that human content; that it makes no difference to the book's aesthetic quality, or is trying to hoodwink us into believing in a stable subject and other suspect neo-liberal concepts. Focusing on form rather than content was not, of course, intended to stop fiction writers from ever engaging in social criticism. On the contrary, it often served to protect writers from moralists so that fiction could explore unconventional topics – including taking issue with the morality of the day.

You could make a movie with no human beings in it (or characters – in the case of animation, non-human characters, etc.), just landscapes, animals, architecture. But we can't do that with books, because books are made of mind. A film can't simply present the world to us without comment; there will always be comment in the selection of images, the framing of shots, editing. But it makes a difference that a movie is made of images, while a book (or this blog) is made of thoughts. There is always a mind there, although often not much of one.

Science tells us facts. It tells us what things are, and what we are. The humanities tell us who we are. Not in the sense of cultural studies, as though we're anthropologists looking at our own culture. Instead, we look at great thinkers, great writers, who, we think, have had the most interesting things to say about that question. And we think, or some of us do, that great writers are even more interesting on the question than great thinkers, because they create characters who are at once mysterious and convincing in their behavior, like the people in the world around us – or like ourselves.

In Part 2, I'll talk some more about the potential solution to the humanist/theorist impasse offered by Frye, and the problems with it, and fantasize about a university curriculum that would make everyone happy and hug like drunk Care Bears, except for Capitalist Bear, who thinks we're all a bunch of morons.