About Daniel Green
Daniel Green was an English professor for 15 years, but left academe for the good of all concerned. He still monitors developments in academic criticism and writes the occasional scholarly essay, but has mostly concentrated lately on general interest essays, reviews, and criticism, to be found in a variety of publications, both print and online. He also writes fiction and maintains a literary weblog called The Reading Experience.
Posts by Daniel Green
Tuesday, June 21, 2011
The Value of the Business
Cross-posted from thereadingexperience.
In an essay at The New Yorker, Louis Menand recounts an episode from early in his career as a professor in which a student asked him, “Why did we have to buy this book?” Continuing in the student’s mercantile language, Menand avers that the student was “asking me to justify the return on investment in a college education. I just had never been called upon to think about this before. It wasn’t part of my training. We took the value of the business we were in for granted.”
Menand proposes three possible answers to the student’s question. The first simply asserts that “you’re in college, and these are the kinds of books that people in college read.” The second assures the student “You’re reading these books because they teach you things about the world and yourself that, if you do not learn them in college, you are unlikely to learn anywhere else.” The most baldly utilitarian response has it that “advanced economies demand specialized knowledge and skills, and, since high school is aimed at the general learner, college is where people can be taught what they need in order to enter a vocation.”
The third answer is the one now implicitly given by the school as part of the state apparatus, and Menand expresses the usual dismay at the pass to which we have come when this is the primary justification for reading books in college (although he does also acknowledge that the situation isn’t likely to change). However, I can’t see that the other two answers are any better. The first would be true if this were 1935 and all college students were undergraduates at Yale, but it hardly describes the situation in 2011. The second, which is Menand’s own preferred answer, spells out perhaps the underlying justification for answer one, but if college students are no longer interested in learning “things about the world and yourself” in return for their “investment” in college (which in my experience they indeed are not, to the extent they ever were), this answer is no more compelling than the first.
The problem with all three answers, ultimately, is that they tie the value of reading a book (I’m assuming Menand has in mind primarily works of literature, since he’s an English professor) to its potential value to the institution of college, to the school (most charitably, to the goals of “education"). In my opinion, a better answer would be something like this: “You should read that book because it’s a significant book of its kind, one that anyone studying _____ needs to read.” In my opinion, a literature professor’s first allegiance is to literature, or to the period/genre/national literature the course covers, and as long as the college where the professor is employed requires or encourages its students to take courses in literature, this answer should suffice. All questions concerning the place of literature in a college curriculum need to be answered by administrators or campus committees, not by the individual professor otherwise just doing his/her job.
Perhaps the time has come to reconsider the literature requirement, however. Most of the justifications that need to be made of reading assignments occur in courses in which the majority of students would not be there if taking such a course were not a degree requirement in “general education.” Although generally speaking I think it a good idea for as many people as possible to read as many worthwhile books as possible, I’m pretty sure that materializing this broad aspiration into specific college course requirements has not worked out that well. It has especially not worked out well for literature. Courses in “Introduction to Literature” or “American Literature, Beginnings to the Present” are hopelessly incapable of fulfilling the aspiration, at best providing some students with some “information” about the subject they might later be able to recall, at worst making most students resentful of being compelled to take the course and less likely to follow up on the assigned reading with voluntary reading of their own. Given the career and personal goals of most of the students who take such courses, there really isn’t a good answer for them to the question posed by Menand’s student. Frankly, I don’t see why these students should have to buy the books to take this sort of course, and I don’t really want to teach them.
Students who take literature courses voluntarily, or choose to major in English, Comparative Literature, etc., are implicitly agreeing to accept the instructor’s judgment about what books are appropriate for them to read. They would have cause for complaint only if it were determined the instructor’s judgment is demonstrably faulty or if the instructor is a demonstrably bad teacher of the subject. An instructor (not just in literature) should be asked to know his/her subject well and to present it with integrity. He/she should not be asked to justify the entire project of higher education as it currently stands.
Of course, a great deal of instruction in “literature,” particularly in the bigger universities and more pretigious liberal arts colleges (as opposed to, say, community colleges and many “regional” universities) is no longer instruction in literature. Literature is instead used to indeed “teach you things about the world” through cultural studies or to improve “thinking” through critical theory. Perhaps this development over the past twenty-five years or so has managed to keep what are still labeled as literature courses in the curriculum, but soon enough the question “why did we have to buy this book?” will be a question about some theorist’s magnum opus, not Melville. At that point, the utilitarian answer may actually be the most truthful one.
Sunday, June 05, 2011
The Kind of Work That You Like to Do
Cross-posted from thereadingexperience.
In a recent profile of Stanley Fish, Fish is quoted as having said, “Literary interpretation, like virtue, is its own reward. I do it because I like the way I feel when I’m doing it.” He further amplifies:
You do this kind of work simply because it’s the kind of work that you like to do, and the moment you think you’re doing it to make either people or the world better, you’ve made a huge mistake. There’s no justification whatsoever for what we do except the pleasure of doing it and the possibility of introducing others to that pleasure. That’s it!
There is, of course, a paradox at work in Fish’s formulation: To provide yourself and others with a positive pleasure is, however slightly, to “make. . .people or the world better.” Since the pleasure that “interpretation” provides comes from the invigoration of one’s mental faculties, it might be said that literary interpretation--literary criticism more generally--performs an especially useful service. But Fish is cautioning against the hubris of believing that literary criticism will perform any service beyond this modest one of engaging the mind in a productive activity.
This view is no doubt uncongenial to both those academic critics who want their work to be an “intervention” in culture that transcends the “merely literary” and to those traditionalists who think that literature itself can make us better, a goal to which the scholar or critic should help lead us. In my view, the “justification” for criticism and interpretation indeed cannot be found outside of the activity itself, although it is certainly true that any particular act of interpretation can prove useful or enlightening for others. And to the extent that the critic intends his/her analysis to be enlightening, this sort of utility could be said to “justify” critical analysis as well. Such analysis might even be narrowly and tendentiously focused, an attempt to “use” the subject text for partisan purposes that go beyond simply understanding or appreciating the text. But criticism has then become something other than literary criticism. “Interpretation” as Fish would define it becomes instead the means to some other end, an end deemed more important than simply coming to terms with the text itself.Continue reading "The Kind of Work That You Like to Do"
Tuesday, April 28, 2009
The Condition of Our Senses
In his review of Susan Sontag’s journals, Daniel Mendelson contends that Sontag, in her practice at least, was not really “against interpretation” at all:
The essays in Against Interpretation and in Styles of Radical Will may champion, famously, the need not for “a hermeneutics but an erotics of Art,” but what is so striking is that there is not anything very erotic about these essays; they are, in fact, all hermeneutics. In the criticism, as in the journals, the eros is all from the neck up.
A little later he asserts that
this astoundingly gifted interpreter, so naturally skilled at peeling away trivial-seeming exteriors to reveal deeper cultural meanings--or at teasing out the underlying significance of surface features to which you might not have given much attention ("people run beautifully in Godard movies")--fought mightily to affect an “aesthetic” disdain for content.
Mendelsohn is pretty clearly attempting to turn Sontag’s own strengths as a critic--"peeling away” and “teasing out"--against her in order to question the critical agenda with which Sontag began her career as literary critic, and for which she is still most prominently known. To so baldly label her an “interpreter” is to dismiss her early efforts to rescue the aesthetic pleasures of art from the maw of interpretation and its attempts to “dig ‘behind’ the text, to find a sub-text which is the true one.” She was an interpreter all along and thus the “disdain for content” she expressed could only be an affectation.Continue reading "The Condition of Our Senses"
Monday, January 19, 2009
This, more or less, is the thesis of Mark Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation:
Yes, young Americans are energetic, ambitious, enterprising, and good, but their talents and interests and money thrust them not into books and ideas and history and civics, but into a whole other realm and other consciousness. A different social life and a different mental life have formed among them. Technology has bred it, but the result doesn’t tally with the fulsome descriptions of digital empowerment, global awareness, and virtual communities. Instead of opening young American minds to the stores of civilization and science and politics, technology has contracted their horizon to themselves, to the social scene around them.
It is tempting to say that the condition Bauerlein describes, here and in the book as a whole, has always obtained, that the majority of American youths have always found their interest in “the social scene around them” rather than in “books and ideas and history and civics.” Indeed, to judge by the majority of adults who were themselves once “young Americans,” this would seem to be the case since they, too, as far as I can tell, have little interest in the “stores of civilization,” little knowledge of the wider world beyond their own “social scene” as it is to be found in their neighborhoods, their communities, or perhaps on network television. American democracy has produced many admirable things, but one of them is not a widely informed and curious populace motivated by a love of learning for its own sake--however much the image of the bookish youth of the tenement or farm, of the self-educated immigrant, might still linger.Continue reading "Young Americans"
Monday, December 22, 2008
The Reader and the Page
John Lingan’s essay on William Gaddis in the latest Quarterly Converstation is very good, one of the best analyses of Gaddis’s work I’ve read recently. I particularly like this description of The Recognitions and JR:
Gaddis anticipated postmodern American literature’s obsessions with entropy and the “death of the author,” but he shared the high modernists’ attention to form. Like Joyce peppering Ulysses’s newsroom scene with capitalized headlines, Gaddis constructed The Recognitions and JR as mimetic of their subjects—the former is as bulging and ornate as the Flemish paintings that protagonist Wyatt Gwyon is paid to forge, and the latter is one continuous flood of voices, frequently unidentified, that recall either a stock ticker’s relentlessness or an overlapping teleconference. . . .
I also mostly agree with this characterization of Gaddis’s work:
Just as his novels JR and A Frolic of His Own announce their subjects (”Money . . . ?” and “Justice?” respectively) in their opening sentences, William Gaddis’s career could have started with the question, “Work?” No single word better encapsulates the concerns and organizing metaphor for Gaddis’s artistic project, in which he chronicles the myriad ways that postwar industrial American culture devalues and drowns out individual expression in an endless barrage of information. His concerns were weighty—nothing less than the erosion of western culture and society—but Gaddis’s novels are ultimately saved from grim systemic coldness by his emphasis on work, which he defined strictly and defended with religious zeal. To Gaddis, work equaled an individual effort (best exemplified by the sympathetic and underappreciated artists of his first novels, The Recognitions and JR) to sort through the swarming cultural ephemera and create, with monastic persistence, something that no machine or business could adequately reproduce. Since Gaddis believed the two to be tantamount, his emphasis on the value of work was nothing less than a defense of the artistic impulse itself.
I don’t think that Gaddis avoids “grim systemic coldness” simply through his depiction of work (a point on which I elaborate below), but that the “work” of art holds special value for him is clearly enough illustrated in his novels.Continue reading "The Reader and the Page"
Thursday, December 04, 2008
Deserving Little Praise
In the New York Times recently, Joe Queenan acknowledges that “the vast majority of book reviews are favorable, even though the vast majority of books deserve little praise.” Queenan proceeds as if this were a revelation of a carefully-guarded secret, but anyone who reads newspaper book review sections with any frequency knows that they are filled with reviews that are not just reflexively laudatory but are rhetorically empty in every way that might otherwise qualify them as “criticism.” Plot summary substitutes for analysis, effusive approval for critical judgment, nitpicking for reasoned objection.
Queenan believes this happens because “Reviewers tend to err on the side of caution, fearing reprisals down the road” or “because they generally receive but a pittance for their efforts, they tend to view these assignments as a chore and write reviews that read like term papers or reworded press releases churned out by auxiliary sales reps.” While neither of these explanations speaks well of American book reviewing--even though Queenan does try to make excuses for it--I believe the simplest explanation goes even farther in clarifying the problem with newpaper book reviews: Honest criticism can’t be found in these pages because criticism itself can’t be found there, for reasons that are inherent to the medium.Continue reading "Deserving Little Praise"
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
The Pedagogical Habit
In a recent post, Rohan Maitzen suggests that responsible criticism (she has academic criticism in mind, but the point would seem to apply to generalist criticism as well) should concentrate not on “comparative measures of ‘worth’” but on “seeking out the measures that fit the particular case.” She continues:
Continue reading "The Pedagogical Habit"
One of the key features of this approach is working with a text on its own terms--trying to understand how to read it so that it best fulfills its own potential. This means not holding it up to a particular, preconceived standard of excellence ("good novels do this“), whether that standard is formal or ideological. Now, depending on the occasion, there may be a second phase in which you move back from internally-generated norms and question them against external ideas; often, in teaching, this kind of questioning arises just from moving to the next book on the syllabus and discovering that its norms differ widely from--and thus, implicitly or explicitly, challenge--the ones we’ve just left behind (reading North and South right after Hard Times, or Jane Eyre soon after Pride and Prejudice, for instance, will certainly have this effect). But it’s difficult to see either a method or a reason for evaluating, say, Pride and Prejudice, as better or worse than Jane Eyre. It’s only if you have a set notion of what makes good fiction in general that you could fault either one for not measuring up.
Wednesday, April 09, 2008
Easier to Talk About
In Exit Ghost, Philip Roth includes a letter putatively written by “Amy Bellette” but, as it turns out, mostly written (she claims) by her lover, E.I. Lonoff, the perfectionist writer whose portrayal in The Ghost Writer initiated Roth’s series of Zuckerman novels. Bellette/Lonoff write:
Hemingway’s early stories are set in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, so your cultural journalist goes to the Upper Peninsula and finds out the names of the locals who are said to have been models for the characters in the early stories. Surprise of surprises, they or their descendants feel badly served by Ernest Hemingway. These feelings, unwarranted or childish or downright imaginary as they may be, are taken more seriously than the fiction because they’re easier for your cultural journalist to talk about than the fiction.
I was reminded of this passage when reading Brian Boyd’s “The Art of Literature and the Science of Literature," not because Boyd himself really finds external issues easier “to talk about than the fiction,” certainly not because Boyd values such issues more than “the fiction,” but because even in his attempt to retrieve the “art of literature” as the central subject of literary criticism he seemingly can’t help but underscore the value of fiction as the gateway to something else.Continue reading "Easier to Talk About"
Wednesday, March 26, 2008
In The Logical Structure of the World, Rudolph Carnap attempts to show how a “constructional system” can be built the purpose of which is “to order the objects of all sciences into a system according to their reducibility to one another.” Among these “objects” are what Carnap calls “cultural objects” (which include works of art) and “pyschological objects.” The former, Carnap maintains, are reducible (for the purposes of this system) to the latter:
The awareness of the aesthetic content of a work of art, for example a marble statue, is indeed not identical with the recognition of the sensible characteristics of the piece of marble, its shape, size, color, and material. But this awareness is not something outside of the perception, since for it no content other than the content of the perception is given; more precisely: this awareness is uniquely determined through what is perceived by the senses. Thus, there exists a unique functional relation between the physical properties of the piece of marble and the aesthetic content of the work of art which is represented in this piece of marble.
To put it another way, the aesthetic experience includes an awareness of the piece of marble in all of its physical attributes, or of a page of text with its words printed in a particular style on paper of a particular color and weight, but it only begins there. “Aesthetic content” requires another step to be fulfilled:
. . .if a physical object is to be formed or transformed in such a way that it becomes a document, a bearer of expression for the cultural object, then this requires an act of creation or transformation on the part of one or several individuals, and thus psychological occurences in which the cultural object comes alive; these psychological occurences are the manifestations of the cultural object.
Although he uses the word “experience” rather than “psychological occurences,” and although he is more rooted to the “physical object” than is Carnap in what seems an essentially phenomenological analyis of the experience of art, John Dewey in Art as Experience offers a philosophy of art and the reception of art that at least has a family resemblance to what Carnap is suggesting here. Both Dewey and Carnap avoid attributing metaphysical status to the “beauty” of art (a beauty that is intrinsic to the work) by locating the aesthetic in our apprehension of the work. As Carnap puts it, for the work to become a “bearer of expression,” there must be “an act of creation or transformation on the part of one or several individuals.” Similarly, Dewey would maintain that these “several individuals” include both artist and audience, as the work is not really complete until the viewer/listener/reader is able to “recreate” it in perception: “Without an act of recreation the object is not perceived as a work of art. The artist selected, simplified, clarified, abridged and condensed according to his interest. The beholder must go through these operations according to his point of view and interest.”
Thus aesthetic judgment is unavoidably subjective, requiring the “transformation” Carnap describes, a process that will be bound to the “point of view and interest” of the “beholder,” as Dewey has it. Still, the “sensible characteristics” of the work remain what they are, and aesthetic judgment cannot simply be cut loose from the work’s sensible properties. Indeed, the more fully one experiences art according to Dewey’s account of the process, the more, and the more intensely, those sensible properties will be felt.
It seems to me that both Carnap and Dewey remind us that, although the aesthetic is consummated in the “psychological occurences” experienced by readers or viewers, the sensible charactertistics of works of art and literature cannot be denied or dismissed. Thus, in reading fiction, we should not forget that neither people nor “things“ are the subjects of perception. Words are. If, for example, we are reading a realist novel, we are not experiencing “the world” faithfully reproduced at all. We are not even, finally, experiencing a world of the author’s creation, whether it’s a world meant to be taken as a version of the real world or one the author has imaginatively brought into being. We are experiencing writing, which, through the psychological processes Carnap and Dewey invoke, is “transformed” into a world of characters and their stories. Ultimately a sufficient accumulation of responses by readers in turn transforms the work into a “cultural object.” In our haste to describe that realist novel as a convincing “picture” of reality or as something “that takes on the problems of social misery and class conflict,” we should not forget that it’s neither. As an object of aesthetic experience, it’s just writing, skillfully arranged for your act of recreation.
Tuesday, December 18, 2007
Richard Jenkyns believes that, although a “canon” of literary works is necessary in providing us with a stock of appropriate “shared references,” such a canon does not have to be exlusively “high cultural.”
It is surely vain to suppose that poorly educated and disaffected young Asians can be brought to a stronger sense of belonging in Britain by a diet of Hamlet, Middlemarch and the Psalms. The truth is that shared references and resonances mostly need to evolve naturally, that most of them derive from popular culture, and that many of them are like family jokes. Television has had enormous power as a unifier; this power is now declining with the proliferation of channels and new media, but in their time Morecambe and Wise did more than Milton and Wordsworth to make us feel one people.
The obvious flaw in this argument comes from that “in their time.” The accomplishments of Morecambe and Wise notwithstanding, the ultimate point of a canon is that it includes “shared references” that are timeless, not merely of unifying value in a particular historical era. Unless future generations will likely value Morecambe and Wise as much as those “in their time” did (although, who knows, maybe they will), there seems little point in enshrining them in a “canon,” which will only come to seem as much an imposition on the tastes of those later generations as Milton and WordsworthContinue reading "One People"
Friday, December 07, 2007
The Burden of Criticality
Johanna Drucker sums up her argument in her book, Sweet Dreams: Contemporary Art and Complicity (University of Chicago Press, 2005), as follows:
. . .the critical frameworks inherited from the avant-garde and passed through the academic discourses of current art history are constrained by the expectation of negativity. Fine art should not have to bear the burden of criticality nor can it assume superiority as if operating outside of the ideologies it has long presumed to critique. Fine art, artists, and critics exist within a condition of complicity with the institutions and values of contemporary culture. (247)
According to Drucker, artists of the 2000s (representatives of which her book discusses in some detail), no longer see “complicity” with mass culture as an evil to be avoided. These artists use mass culture to create dynamic, visually arresting works the ultimate ambition of which is to be aesthetically pleasing. No requirement of “criticality” is necessary for ideological correctness: the purpose of art is to be aesthetic, and contemporary artists are exploiting the aesthetic possibilities of mass culture to create “fine art” that doesn’t pretend to an inherent “superiority” over that culture. Complicity is ok, as is taking sensory pleasure in art.Continue reading "The Burden of Criticality"
Wednesday, August 29, 2007
In his post on “Everything Studies,” Joseph Kugelmass suggests that
If the humanities were to re-shape itself in order to accomodate the changing shape of culture, all of the analytical disciplines would combine—Philosophy, Political Science, English, Comparative Literature, History, Sociology, Anthropology, and the rest—while the creative disciplines would remain separate, including Creative Writing, Dance, Theater, Visual Arts, and Musical Composition. Critics and scholars are not always good artists, and vice versa. The grounds for such a merger would be basically ideological. If we accept the idea that our beliefs about the world are essentially constructions, then it makes sense to give the study of those constructions the widest possible scope . . . .
I would be willing to accept this proposal (with one proviso, discussed below), but there are actually a number of assumptions about both art (the “creative disciplines") and about academic study that need to be unpacked from this passage I’ve quoted.Continue reading "Analytic"
Tuesday, July 03, 2007
Of Limited and Personal Interest
John Carey’s What Good Are the Arts? is a very strange book. It’s first half seeks to demonstrate that art doesn’t really exist and that, if it does, it doesn’t do anyone any good. The second half essentially ignores the case that Carey has just made and asserts that art does indeed exist after all and does some people quite a lot of good.Continue reading "Of Limited and Personal Interest"
Tuesday, June 19, 2007
A Retroactive Historical Trajectory
It’s good that Delia Sherman and Theodora Goss print at the end of the book an interview with themselves about Interfictions, an “anthology of interstitial writing” they’ve edited and published through the Interstitial Arts Foundation. Otherwise I, for one, would have finished the book, including its nominal “Introduction,” without having much of an idea what either “interfiction” or “interstitial” are supposed to mean.
Heinz Insu Fenkl’s intoduction tells us that a book of his was published as a novel, even though it was really a memoir. Later, a publisher wanted to “repackage” the book as a memoir. Presumably, then, the book is neither a novel nor a memoir, but something “in-between,” even though Fenkl’s account makes it perfectly clear that it is a memoir, its “tropes, its collaging of time and character” notwithstanding. Using what Fenk thinks of as “novelistic” devices not make the book a novel. Not wishing to have it understood as a memoir does not make it other than a memoir.Continue reading "A Retroactive Historical Trajectory"
Tuesday, May 08, 2007
“Nowadays publication in a refereed journal is just a prize – a credential for academics in support of employment, tenure and merit pay increases. Originally journals were supposed to be a vehicle for making the results of one’s research available to peers for discussion and collaboration, a way to make work that would earlier have been done through professional correspondence available to more people. Lots of us, pushed to show ‘productivity’, don’t work on issues we regard as worthwhile and publish the results to advance work in the field – we pick fields in which it will be easy to publish and select issues to work on in the interest of ‘getting publications’. Even ass-backwarder, instead of being valued because they make scholarly work more readily available, journals are valued because the print medium restricts the amount of work that can be made publicly available, so that a publication ‘counts’.
“Blogs, and more broadly online publication, advance research done for its own sake rather than as a credential for professional advancement.”