Home | Away

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Theory Thursday

Guest post by John McGowan

By adding a Theory Thursday to Michael’s Theory Tuesday, we will quickly discover how many masochists we can count among this blog’s faithful readers.

I had originally intended to use this post to fulminate against the following sentence in the “Introduction” to Theory’s Empire:  “Our chief aim is to provide students and interested readers with effective intellectual tools to help them redeem the study of literature as an activity worth pursuing in its own right.” There are many, many reasons—about which I could go on at tedious length—why that sentence sticks in my craw.  But, like any self-respecting English teacher, I’m going to ask the class what they think.  Does the study of literature—and (surely it is implied) literature itself—need to be “redeemed”?  And is the royal road to redemption to understand that study as “an activity worth pursuing in its own right”?  Answers to be posted in the comments section.  And remember: 15% of your final grade is awarded for “participation.”

I have been put off my polemical horse by the general reasonableness of the discussion of Theory’s Empire over at the Valve.  The number of participants is a bit disappointing, but the general quality of the conversation is good, and its tone is even better.  This is not yet another round in the culture and theory wars, which have wearied hardier souls than mine long before our current late date in history.  Is it possible that academics interested in such questions have won their way through to a place where they can be discussed and examined calmly?  As someone whose most usual stance has been a plague on both your houses, I am hopeful.  In any case, John Holbo is to be commended for using the blogosphere in this innovative and promising way.  Even if this first conversation is a little halting, I hope this model proves, like so many other things on the web, a snowball, gathering more and more readers—and participants—as he stages similar events in the future. 

I will confine myself today to thinking a bit about “criticism”—an activity that stands in uncertain relation to “theory.” I’ll start by saying that I am uninterested in whether or not every act of criticism relies on implicit, even if unexamined or unacknowledged, assumptions that a more self-conscious “theory” would make explicit.  I seldom agree with Stanley Fish about anything, but I do think he is right that claims about the theoretical underpinnings of all practices are, whether true or not, without significant consequences.  The theory/practice model offers us a highly dubious understanding of human behavior.  Habits—both personal and social, and ossified in vocabularies as well as in various rituals and routines—are at least as crucially the background of our practices as any ideas or theories we might have about what we are or want to be doing.  And habits are notoriously resistant to being changed by thinking.  Habits are changed when you start doing something differently—and you need to do that different thing lots of times to undo the old settled ways.

Criticism as a practice, then, rests on the habits inculcated by training.  We don’t call them “disciplines” for nothing.  And criticism is like playing the piano; you can’t learn how to do it by reading an instruction manual.  You learn how to do it by doing it under the tutelage of someone who is more adept and who criticizes your fledgling efforts and urges you to practice, practice, practice.  “Theory,” in this view, is not what underpins “criticism,” but is simply another practice, one with different aims, stakes, and protocols.  To be very crude about it, “criticism” is the practice of interpreting and judging specific texts, while “theory” is the practice of making wider claims about the characteristics of many texts (Aristotle on tragedy) or of a culture (Carlyle on “The Signs of the Times”) or of a set of practices (Wittgenstein on “language games”). 

As both Morris Dickstein and Marjorie Perloff indicate in their contributions to Theory’s Empire, criticism is relatively rare in the tradition.  The four elements of “poetics” identified by Perloff do not include interpretation of single texts.  The ancients—Aristotle, Longinus, Quintillian—were closer to producing advice manuals for writers than to offering guides for readers.  Interpretation enters from the Christian side, an outgrowth of Biblical hermeneutics.  Dante was the first person to suggest that secular works might also require learned interpretation.  But it is not until the late seventeenth century, with the French neo-classical writers and “the battle of the Ancients and the Moderns” in England, that literary criticism really arrives on the scene.  And it does so in a policing and pedagogical function.  Criticism—first as evaluation and only later as interpretation—is necessary because the insufficiently educated are making bad judgments.  Their taste needs to be cultivated.  We might prefer Addison’s displays of how a gentleman reads, thinks, and behaves to Boileau’s laying down the law of the unities, but both writers are engaged in the same enterprise. Growing literacy among relatively uneducated peoples calls forth teachers who will help them discern the good from the trash and to properly understand difficult works.

It is not surprising, then, that criticism moved into the classroom once compulsory schooling took hold in the nineteenth century.  It was already a pedagogical enterprise.  And it is not surprising that “English” as a school subject originated in the colonies, specifically India, because those to the manner born don’t need these lessons.  For all his commitment to education and to culture, Matthew Arnold rarely provides an interpretation of a literary work.  He assumes that the audience of his essays is perfectly capable of understanding particular poems on their own.  He is, of course, very worried that English readers have the wrong tastes, but he never imagines that they do not understand what they read. But democratic education soon produces that concern—and schoolboys and schoolgirls were set to producing “explications du texte” of various sorts in English, French, and American classrooms.

Just about the time that compulsory elementary education takes hold, we also get the creation of the modern research university.  English as a “subject” had arisen for the pedagogical reasons I have suggested combined with nationalistic ones (inculcation into the national culture).  Now, in the university, English needed to become a “discipline,” not just a school subject.  The two available models for the new American universities were the scholarly Germans (the philologists) and the quasi-amateur English “men of letters.” (For reasons I do not know, French university practices had no influence at Hopkins and Chicago, the two original research universities.) At first, the Germans won the day handily, with Babbitt’s “humanism” the only respectable alternative to full-bore scholarship.  Criticism was something for the news papers, the stuff of reviews not of serious academic work.  It took the social upheavals of the 1920s, the tremendous influence and prestige of the Anglophile T. S. Eliot, and the scientistic trappings of New Criticism’s account of its work and of the poetic object, to make criticism academically respectable.  Dickstein tells this story well.  Producing an interpretation of a literary text, after around 1930, counted as “research” in the modern university.  So we got lots of such interpretations.

Is there a moral to this story?  Not particularly.  As many have noted, New Criticism was, and remains to some extent, a valuable pedagogical tool.  As others—including Michael in this post on Judith Halberstam’s essay—have noted, the techniques of attentive reading developed by New Criticism are valuable aids to understanding.  Criticism was—and remains—a worthy enterprise. Literacy can be enhanced by practicing criticism. That not all English professors are critics in their written work seems neither here nor there to me.  That was always the case, since there were always professors who were textual editors, biographers, etymologists, and literary historians.  Probably most English professors are critics at least some of the time in their classrooms.  But there has never been a seamless connection between what we teachers do in the classroom and what we publish as scholars.  Dissing criticism or recommending that all scholars be critics is as silly as dissing theory or insisting that all scholars be theorists.

Posted by John McGowan on 07/14 at 10:48 AM
(56) Comments • (0) TrackbacksPermalink
Page 1 of 1 pages