Monday, June 02, 2008
Authority, the Critic, and the Public Sphere
Or: Why evaluative criticism is too little, too late
The point of gathering a set of literary texts into a canon is to constitute that body of work as a source of cultural authority. The critic who explicates those texts gains his or her authority from those texts. The public pays attention to such critics because they have officially sanctioned access to the canonical texts. They speak with the voice of the canon. Even where critics contradict one another, they still speak from the canon, for the canon speaks in many voices its secrets to unfold.
On this view, the point of dropping evaluative criticsm of canonical texts was to establish the canon itself as an undisputed source of value. If the critic is allowed to evaluate canonical texts, then it is as though the critic confers value upon them. If the critic can confer value, so can the critic take it away. The authority lies with the critic, not the canonical texts. Only by forbidding the critic to make value judgments can the value of the canon be secured.
The culture wars so damaged literature as a source of cultural authority that literary intellectuals lost the public stage. They were replaced by scientific popularizers such as Steven Jay Gould, Richard Dawkins, and Steven Pinker - cf. literary agent John Brockman on the third culture. In this climate of opinion, it is not enough to return to evaluative criticism.
Why not? Well, if the canon has lost its authority, then it makes little difference whether one text is better than another, and why. Nor does it even matter that canonical texts are better than the vast majority of non-canonical texts. There’s no authority to be had through the canon. The literary critic is reduced to Fishism, playing games with words for personal delight (see Valve discussion here, here, here, and here). Big deal.
Where, then, can the literary critic conjure up the authority needed to manage a creditable defense of literature? Is the game lost? Are we headed to a technocratic hell in a handbasket?
My own dog in this fight is a general academic rehabilitation of normativity (so-called), and not just in literature, as well as a return to generalism, by which I mean “writing for a well-informed non-specialist audience” (and by which I do not mean “writing for stupid,uneducated people who will never really understand the sophisticated stuff we do.")
This would involved the renunciation of the positivist dream of grounding everything on Science and Truth. It would be a less resolvable, more plural discourse.
It would also involve recognizing the “public intellectual” as a valid part of the professional role, and not a dubious sideline.
Do we *need* authority, though? I can engage my students in talking about literature if I demonstrate that *I* find it worthwhile and rewarding, if I show them how it works for me, and if I engage them as peers and let them pick and choose from among my bag of tricks to see what works for them. But there’s no quicker way to shut them off than by trying to tell them they must like a certain author or text because it’s “great literature.” That may be because, as you’ve argued, the canon has been devalued (though I’m not convinced the “canon wars” aren’t more symptom than cause), but my experience has been that looking to “authority” is a total non-starter. So why would reviving cultural authority be any better way of making criticism relevent to the general population?
But the very fact that you are the teacher and they are students gives you authority. In order for it to be effective, you must, of course, use it tactfully. Note that your first use of that authority is in selecting the books for the course.
In any event, it’s not the classroom I’m interested in. It’s the public sphere, where book review supplements are being scrapped of shorted, critics being dropped, the general interest weeklies and monthlies, etc.
Did you read the Brockman piece I linked to? Of course, it’s a self-serving polemic in favor of his strategy as a literary agent; still, it’s worth reading. Or take this statement, which is at the close of a somewhat longer triumphalist Brockman piece that serves as a preface to a stable of new humanists:
Something radically new is in the air: new ways of understanding physical systems, new ways of thinking about thinking that call into question many of our basic assumptions. A realistic biology of the mind, advances in physics, electricity, genetics, neurobiology, engineering, the chemistry of materials—all are challenging basic assumptions of who and what we are, of what it means to be human. The arts and the sciences are again joining together as one culture, the third culture. Those involved in this effort—scientists, science-based humanities scholars, writers—are at the center of today’s intellectual action.
This is followed short statements from: John Horgan, Daniel C. Dennett, Timothy Taylor, Alison Gopnik, Carlo Rovelli, Robert R. Provine, Steven Johnson, Lee Smolin, Jaron Lanier, Michael Shermer, Piet Hut, Joseph LeDoux, Chris Anderson, George Dyson, Kenneth Ford, Marc D. Hauser, Mihalyi Csikzentmihalyi, Douglas Rushkoff, Howard Rheingold, Reuben Hersh, Keith Devlin, James O’Donnell, Clifford Pickover, and Nicholas Humphrey. There are some interesting people in that list, but only three or four with training as humanists.
Bill, I guess I’m pretty focused on the classroom to the exclusion of most else. I would, though, differentiate between authority and power. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink; by the same token, I can make my students do what’s necessary to get a passing grade (i.e. read the books I assign) but if I want them to get something more than that very basic knowledge of the texts out of it, I have to convince them it’s worth their while to do so. And to do that, to make them actually *think* and *question* (which is the real point of this work, I think), it isn’t enough to use the power that the position gives you. Whatever that elusive thing is, I don’t think “authority” is a good word for it, and in a lot of cases it can be counterproductive.
I skimmed the Brockman piece, but I’m not fully getting what exactly is new about this “third culture” (though I just start glazing over whenever people say “something radically new is in the air” and don’t actually spell out what the basic assumptions are that are being called into question). What’s your sense of what’s unique about it?
Oh, I don’t think there’s anything particularly novel about Brockman’s third culture. I bring him up because he can point to book sales in arguing that this spiffy third culture has all but replaced that nasty old literary and humanistic culture in the public sphere. Book sales is not a deep argument for ultimate worth and value, but it’s rather stronger as an argument about access to public culture.
I follow Brockman in a desultory way. I tend to at least partially agree with his idea (my summary of it, not his) that scientists writing for a general audience are the new humanists, and that the traditional humanist disciplines have tended to steer themselves down dead ends. But this comes at the cost of a fairly crippling methodological individualism, characteristic of econ and psych, and a rather aggressive ignorance of cultural, political, and sometimes historical, factors. And often enough, positivism again.
the positivist dream of grounding everything on Science and Truth
Ah, now I understand what JE’s shorthand ("positivism") stands for.
Quick question John: would the dispelling of the positivist dream necessarily entail or lead to evaluative criticism? Or could that dispelling open up other possibilities as well?
Second question: what, exactly, would get evaluated in or by evaluative criticism, and would it be possible to produce or perform versions of evaluative criticism that evaluated something other than what you have in mind?
I ask these questions not so much because I plan to interrogate them for their reliance on a hidden science or “ground of Truth” (which would be the obvious way to go were I to be seeking to simply denounce your position). I ask these questions largely because, to me, the “renunciation of the positivist dream of grounding everything on Science and Truth” has been underway for quite a while now via a form of critique that I would have guessed you don’t have much time for: “postmodernism”.
Now, I’m sure that someone would want to argue that “postmodernism” is deeply implicated in the perpetuation of that positivist dream — not least of all by virtue of its origins in structuralism and its epistemological pretences. I think that argument is only partly right, but that’s beside the point for now.
Right now, I’m just trying to come to an understanding of John’s point by working out the steps and stages to its reasoning. So, is the positivist the key problem here — in the sense that what you see as the academic discrediting of normativity is the consequence of positivism — or is it one of a series of problems with the contemporary humanities (i.e. the “anti-normativity” problem is in a serial rather than a logical relationship with the positivism problem)?
My term “positivism” is not mysterious. Anti-normativity and positivism are very closely associated: “the boo-hurrah theory of ethics is positivist”. A lot of avant-garde and leftist thought, probably including most postmodernism, has the same anti-normativity. Postmodernism is its methodologized forms has some of the same flaws as methodologized positivist paradigms.
“Postmodernism” is not the first or best attempt to escape from positivism. There have been many.
To me normativity doesn’t really have to be defined or justified, it’s the the rejection of normativity that has to be justified, and the pride that anti-normative thinkers take in their anti-normativity.
I propose eclectic humanist generalism, but fully informed by science.
John, your term may not be mysterious (although I’m less ready to concede the point with regard to the phrase “the boo-hurrah theory of ethics"). I, however, am ignorant. Still, if you’re not interested in helping anyone who is less enlightened than you to understand your position, that’s fine; you’re under no obligation to guide anyone to the light or explain what you mean.
S/B the “boo-hurrah theory of ethics” is positivist.
Ethical Subjectivism. This theory holds that all ethical statements are statements about the attitudes of individuals.
Ethical Expressivism says that ethical statements have no cognitive value and are expressions of attitudes (rather than factual statements about attitudes.)
It tends to be a consequence of either that ethics is incapable of rational discussion, and that any person’s ethical attitudes are a purely private concern of theirs.
I feel as if I’ve become disingenuous in these discussions. I still approach them as if I were a graduate student in pursuit of an academic career, when in reality I’ve left the academy behind me to pursue high school English teaching.
That said, these issues of evaluation, canon formation, the role of the critic and researcher, all take on new valences as I consider what they might mean for high school teachers.
And what might they mean? The high school teacher has, with few exceptions, given over the role of research and criticism to a select few. Reading Hook’s excellent textbook on teaching high school English, you find a good number of critics and scholars quoted on authority, for the good of the teacher. Still, you see an emerging conflict between the New Critically trained teachers educated in the 1960s and the (for that time) new teachers trained via Rosenblatt’s ideas on transactional theory, in which the student reader’s engagement with the text, at the levels of affect and judgment, are held above either an authorial intention or a scholarly authority.
So many of these Valve discussions have shifted in my mind as my own professional schema shifted. I now teach writing, speaking, listening, and reading skills. I have become a spokesman for the classics among my students, so few of whom would consider ripping open *Les Miserables* for fun. But I also teach science ficiton, such as Le Guin, Delaney, Heinlein, Bradbury, and others. I teach teen fiction by Newberry Award winners, and teen fiction from the past, like *Treasure Island*. At my new high school position in the fall, I’ll be teaching a very strictly classics syllabus: The Odyssey, *Pride & Prejudice*, *Les Miserables*, the history of the English language, Beowulf and Sir Gawain, etc.
In my teaching, I never hesitate to pronounce on the quality of a work of literature, at the same time that I an training my students in the basics of formal literary analysis and in the rigors of literary transactions.
Which is to say, what was either/or for me as an academic professional has become both/and for me as a high school teacher.
But what bugs me is the fact that high school teachers, for a variety of reasons, don’t often write the criticism that could help other high school teachers: a pedagogically-directed criticism, we could say. Sure, you find some in *College English* and in *CCC*, but there you usually find college professors telling high school teachers what and how to teach, and you find it wrapped up in a lot of dubious political progressivism.
The writer today who could write not for some imaginary “popular audience” but for the very large audience of American teachers would find a new market for intellectual ideas.
I’ve considered starting a blog on such issues, but I don’t know if anyone would read it. There are already too many teacher blogs, many of which involve carping about lazy students and Kafkaesque administrators.
Is anyone else interested in how all these Valve debates—Theory wars, culture wars, the death of the critic, the death of evaluation, the issues of canonicity and authority—might inform writing directed to teachers, to people at the high school or even college level who see their primary job as instruction in the English language?
If there’s room at The Valve for such postings, I’d be happy to contribute. But I’d love to hear any feedback you all have on the topic.
"I still approach them as if I were a graduate student in pursuit of an academic career, when in reality I’ve left the academy behind me to pursue high school English teaching.”
I’ve been waiting for the phase change to occur. But a certain amount of activation energy has to build up.
Many of these discussions have always been highly insular—less so at the Valve than at most places—because literary academics generally study texts, they don’t often study how people read texts (or, for that matter, how people write texts).
"But what bugs me is the fact that high school teachers, for a variety of reasons, don’t often write the criticism that could help other high school teachers: a pedagogically-directed criticism, we could say.”
In my experience-- I graduated from high school in 2002-- high school English teachers do not generally seem to care about what they are teaching any more than their students.
I’m sure there are many reasons for this, but perhaps fostering a sense of connection with other English-teaching professionals through the sort of criticism you are proposing might help to stave off some of that apathy.
The sense that the teacher is part of a larger community that is academically productive could also help strengthen the public position of high school teachers (improving their image so to speak).
I’d be in favor of anything that would help pull apart the bizzare academic caste system that prevails in America today, where the choice to teach in high school or elementary school is taken to be a sort of resignation from a “real” academic life and career.
There’s plenty of reason to start a weblog, and plenty of reason to direct it toward students, your own not least, as well as teachers and others. (In which case, at least, I suppose it’s obvious, you should use your real name.) Posting literary analyses on such a blog, for the focus of study or in relation to it, will find an audience even if you don’t as teacher assign weblog postings. Radical Teacher does good work along these lines: http://www.radicalteacher.org/
It seems to me that stories are experiences that we should treat as we do any other experience. And I think it’s interesting that in a classroom, at least, when leading the study of stories there are plenty of stories being told simultaneously –
1) the story on page itself,
2) the author’s story (and the stories of the author’s time) especially in relation to the page story,
3) the teacher’s (leader’s) relation to the story, the mode of presenting it, and…
4) criticism on the story, including sometimes the critics’ personal stories and social roles.
It’s curious to me that in leading the exploration of a story on a page, these other informing stories sometimes quite naturally become primary. Makes the experience greater, the story (ies) of life.
Elizabeth Vandiver’s (Teaching Company) lectures on the Odyssey are wonderful, and a good teacher’s teaching tool too, at least indirectly. I wouldn’t want to teach the Odyssey continuously but it was interesting and instructive to explore in a Composition I community college classroom, which I might not have wanted to do without hearing her lectures, and maybe not without having Robert Fagles’ lively translation. It would be great if a scholar would put something on tape about Les Miserables like Vandiver did for the Odyssey.
We need “authority” because (a) there are too many works to read and (b) we won’t find the time (and in many cases, the money) to read almost all of them. Those are facts that even those who are against a canon or “great literature” can never deny. Critics, on the other hand, are in a position to read more than we can and criticize works based on that broad exposure. Here’s another example using another medium.
Some film critics watch two or three films a day for up to 300 days a year, or something like 600 or more movies a year. Most people, on the other hand, will be lucky if they get to watch a movie every two weeks.
It is likely that one who has seen many more films than another will have a significantly different view of films. That is the case not only for some (not all) film but also book, art, and music critics.
Finally, assume that given some luck you will get to read a book, watch and appreciate a film, and do the same for an album of music and a work of art every two weeks or so. After fifty years, you will probably be exposed to only around 1,200 works of each medium. That’s given hundreds of thousands of works already produced, and not counting more that will be made during those five decades (e.g., thousands of book titles and hundreds of films are produced each year).