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Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Analytic

Posted by Daniel Green on 08/29/07 at 06:00 AM

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.

That the humanities needs to be re-shaped because of the “changing state of culture” signals the extent to which the “humanities” as a marker of a certain kind of academic study has completely lost its original meaning. The “humanities” disciplines were those that resisted the scientific modes of inquiry in favor of more impressionistic, a more humane (as in “humane learning") approach to certain kinds of human productions and experiences. That these disciplines now focus almost exclusively on a quasi-scientific study of “culture” suggests that “humanities” as an umbrella term ought to just be dropped in favor of the more descriptive “cultural studies,” which might indeed include “everything.”

“Analytic” is of course a nice term to be used whenever it’s necessary to distinguish between mere emotional and instinctual artists and real thinkers--the intellectually rigorous (and properly credentialed) “scholars” who can cut through all the artsy-fartsy rigamarole favored by the “creative” types and let us know what all cultural activites are finally really about. Thus dividing existing disciplines into the “analytic” and the “creative,” while potentially liberating for the “creative” endeavors, is also partly a good way to get the academic dilettantes out of the way of the Serious people.

The notion that “our beliefs about the world are essentially constructions” (revised in the next paragraph to “the world is constructed by human beings"), however much it may ultimately be true, is also a neat way to marginalize the “creative disciplines,” which are merely engaged in fashioning aesthetic objects and not “the world” (at least not until such objects are interpreted by the analytic disciplines.) The Everything Studies or Cultural Studies or Symbolic Systems Studies scholars are dedicated to understanding “the world,” not just the trinkets or the word-games created by artists. Art and literature are useful tools if they can be enlisted in the larger “ideological” project of establishing social constructionism as the dominant worldview (at least among intellectuals), but they surely don’t merit consideration as aesthetic constructions in their own right.

Joseph’s distibution of “disciplines” to be included as “creative” is tellingly literal: “creative writing” but not English or Comparative Literature; “Visual Arts” but not art history; “Musical Composition” but not music history or analysis. It is certainly the case that “Critics and scholars are not always good artists, and vice versa,” but surely the study of artistic forms is enhanced by some appreciation of artistic practice, just as, more importantly, programs focusing on artistic practice benefit from some attention to “analytic” questions. Partitioning the “creative” subjects so thoroughly from criticism and scholarship may seem to remove a source of contention so that both the creative and the analytic disciplines can get on with their “real” work, but I think it would ultimately only make disciplines such as English or Art (to the extent they don’t just collapse into the sociology that “Everything Studies” wants to be) even more unappealing to students (who usually pursue these disciplines out of an initial enthusiasm for reading fiction or poetry or for experiencing works of visual art), and would almost certainly further marginalize creative writing or theater or music as “soft” performance-based programs useful mostly for “nurturing” writers and artists.

Thus I would endorse the Kugelmass Proposal (as if it needed my endorsement or not) only if, say, “creative writing” was understood to include not just a series of writing workshops but also a critical component that offered some exposure to literary history (emphasis on “literary” rather than “history") as well as some focus on literary criticism. This ought not to bother the faculty in Everything Studies, since this criticism would be “analytic” of literature as literature, not as another way of registering “the changing state of culture.” It might have the happy consequence of returning the term “literary criticism” to its rightful place as the criticism of literature--especially new works of literature--and of transforming the academic criticism that has so misleadingly appropriated the term into something else--"everything criticism,” I guess. But since academic critics have long eschewed examining anything so trifling as the merely literary, and are so eager to move on to Everything, I can’t see why they would object.

Note: You can read my lengthier proposal for an expanded Department of Creative Writing here (text here).


Comments

Daniel,

Thanks for this thoughtful response.

Over time, this dualism would probably affect the literary criticism industry itself, producing a sharper and sharper divide between criticism by and for writers, and criticism by and for scholars. In fact, this divide is already perceptible as the difference between essays by Jonathan Franzen, Jonathan Lethem, or Jeannette Winterson, and essays by Etienne Balibar or Walter Benn Michaels. The kind of criticism that wanting to write produces tends to strike contemporary scholars of culture as historically deaf, overly appreciative, and insufficiently problematized.

I wanted to call attention here:

The notion that “our beliefs about the world are essentially constructions” (revised in the next paragraph to “the world is constructed by human beings"), however much it may ultimately be true, is also a neat way to marginalize the “creative disciplines,” which are merely engaged in fashioning aesthetic objects and not “the world” (at least not until such objects are interpreted by the analytic disciplines.) The Everything Studies or Cultural Studies or Symbolic Systems Studies scholars are dedicated to understanding “the world,” not just the trinkets or the word-games created by artists. Art and literature are useful tools if they can be enlisted in the larger “ideological” project of establishing social constructionism as the dominant worldview (at least among intellectuals), but they surely don’t merit consideration as aesthetic constructions in their own right.

Actually, the whole current of my thinking here goes in the opposite direction; I apologize if this remained unclear. Fictions create values; most works of criticism are amplifications and explanations of those values, but remain parasitic upon acts of aesthetic invention. It is very rare for a work of criticism to also be a kind of aesthetic invention: Freud’s “reading” of Sophocles may belong this rare species.

My post was written under the aegis of the idea that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, and that scholars, by comparison, work of necessity with what is already somewhat past.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 08/29/07 at 01:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve always been in support of interdisciplinary work myself.  I’m doing a cognitive science approach to epistemology with ramifications in sociology, anthropology, political science, perhaps literary studies, etc. right now.  The interdisciplinary thing works for me.

But uniting the humanities under “social constructionism” makes me nervous.  I’ve never quite trusted the use of the term because it doesn’t seem to nail down a specific position on epistemology, and it potentially encompasses a turning point that I see between good and bad scholarship.
Specifically, there are two types (more realistically, a gradient) of scholars that can fall under the description.  One is interested how social structures are deeply involved in producing our view of the world, beliefs, etc. and is interested in any number of different approaches to coming to a realistic understanding of how this happens.  Perspectivism is a good thing.  These people make for a good everything studies.
Secondly (and I am for the most part, constructing a stereotype), there are scholars who essentially hold what amounts to a kind of strong idealism and totally reject the idea that they are responsible to any kind of truth.  These people think of themselves as “strong poets” specifically in the sense (and there are other senses which I do not object to as much) that they, as scholars, are responsible for creating what are essentially “critical works of art”; that is works of art in the critical mode; criticism which is more concerned with being interesting and aesthetically intriguing than it is concerned with factuality.
I try to be kind and understand how our epistemological and ontological differences of opinion can produce different perspectives, because that is my responsibility as an intelligent person.  But, to be blunt, I don’t want these people in my department.

By on 08/30/07 at 11:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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