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What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

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Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

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Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Bordwell on Criticism

Posted by Bill Benzon on 05/27/08 at 10:37 AM

Film scholar and critic David Bordwell has a post on the nature of criticism. Following Monroe Beardsley, he divides the critic’s activities into four categories, description, analysis, interpretation, and evaluation. Reviews, critical essays, and academic articles and books differ in their use of these activites. All are descriptive in some measure, but reviews are long on evaluation and short on analysis and interpretation. Academic articles and book emphasize description, analysis, and interpretation, but tend to be uninterested in evaluation. Critical essays (in e.g. The New Yorker, etc.) tend to be intermediate. Evaluation involves both personal taste and more considered judgment: “The difference between taste and judgment emerges in this way: You can recognize that some films are good even if you don’t like them. You can declare Birth of a Nation or Citizen Kane or Persona an excellent film without finding it to your liking.”


Comments

I’ll rush in, welcome or not.

To me the lack of interest in evaluation (and “appreciation”, which I’ve properly scare-quoted) is just another example of the crippling positivist neutrality the university imposes pretty much everywhere (with econ and phil possibly being the worst). It strikes me as especially noxious in literature, which is one of the places where evaluation would seem to naturally belong.

I can easily imagine a perspective from which less-admired books might be more interesting to the analyst, or might be regarded as historically more representative, but why should this kind of reading be favored? (I think that it is: proclaiming one’s indifference to evaluation is permitted and even admired, whereas proclaiming the centrality of evaluation would be regarded as laughable.)

As I’ve said before, treating the better and worse artistic productions the same, without judging between them, strikes me as about the same as treating more successful and less successful athletes without judging between them. Champions and journeymen are both trying to do exactly the same thing, and the champions succeed and the journeymen fail. And the journeymen know it, and would be embarrassed to be treated on the same plane as the champions.

Putnam’s “Ethics Without Ontology” and “The Collapse of the Fact / Value Distinction” are initial attempts to rehabilitate normativity as a permissible sort of rational discourse, but he’s really taking very tentative formalistic baby steps in that direction.

And just let me repeat my standard bitch, distantly related to the above: critics spend a lot of effort defictionalizing works which the artists laboriously fictionalized, and at the end of the day most critics end up seeming much smarter than most of the chumpish authors they critique.  They should be more careful to keep their own work from superseding or smothering the primary works they’re discussing, because criticism is ultimately parasitical and disappears when the host does.

By John Emerson on 05/27/08 at 03:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John, I think it’s simply wrong to say that critics who bracket off evaluation are “treating the better and worse artistic productions the same.”

It’s more accurate to say that the evaluative critic and the non-evaluative critic are interested in very different things—and so are *not* treating the works the same. 

The historicist, for example, is interested in how literature fits into a larger cultural picture.  Thus, a popular but suck-ass novel might arguably have more cultural influence than an unread but deeply powerful novel. 

The evaluative critic always seems to me to be interested in a separate issue: in an ideal world, what works of literature *should* have the greatest cultural influence. 

Finally, I’d argue that the evaluative critic leaves the actual literary work behind the second s/he evaluates it.  The statement “*Pride and Prejudice* is a great novel” can be broken down into three separate statements that have been yoked together:

(a) Great novels are important to our lives, which being mortal, force us to make choices.
(b) A great novel has characteristics X, Y, and Z.
(c) *Pride and Prejudice* has characteristics X, Y, and Z.
Therefore, P&P is a great novel and we should all read it.

Only statement c actually deals with the literature.  Statements a and b progressively move us further and further away from any actual text.  Statement a, in fact, is more an ethical statement than a critical statement, given that it assumes something about how we should live our lives. 

If evaluation is to be anything more than a subjective effusion—“I like it”—then it’s at the meeting point of criticism and ethics, of description and proscription.  But only the former addresses actual literary issues.  The latter has do with all sorts of non-literary activities: you should eat good food because time is finite, you should watch good movies because critical minds make for good Americans, etc.

By on 05/27/08 at 04:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther, that’s a pretty good statement of the position I disagree with.

If evaluation is to be anything more than a subjective effusion—“I like it”: Boo-hurrah theory. Straw man. Cliche. Yellow card.

Only statement c actually deals with the literature.....But only the former addresses actual literary issues....: A simple assertion of the anti-normative methodological fiat I’ve called into question. Yellow card. 

Two yellow cards => one red card. Sorry, guy. Should you choose to protest the referee’s judgment, I’ll reconsider and probably add an additional yellow card for the first foul.

By John Emerson on 05/27/08 at 04:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I won’t try to rehash the standard post-structural counter-argument to John’s stance, so I’ll just cut and paste from SEK’s cut and pasting of Terry Eagleton in the London Review of books:

“Fiction (since it is imaginary) has no real-life original context at all, and hermeneutically speaking can therefore circulate a lot more freely than a shopping list or a bus ticket. Literary works are peculiarly portable. They can be lifted from one interpretative situation to another, and may change their meaning in the course of this migration. Waiting for Godot as performed in San Quentin prison is not quite the same play as Peter Hall’s first London production. We cannot simply put Auschwitz out of our minds while watching The Merchant of Venice. Writerly meaning does not always trump readerly meaning.”

Which is why I agree with John’s statement that critics should “be more careful to keep their own work from superseding or smothering the primary works they’re discussing” and feel that this is an excellent argument for why evaluative criticism is something to be treated very, very carefully. If you buy even a little into the sentiment Eagleton is putting forward, it seems to me, you have to concede that there is no single text to evaluate, just a proliferation of versions and permutations of that text. And unless we, as critics, feel certain enough that we have a handle on every possible readerly response to a text in every possible interpretive situation, chances are good that evaluative criticism *will* smother or try to supercede the primary work. But maybe that’s not what you meant by “defictionalizing”?

In any case, the primary works are usually not very threatened by the big bad critic way up in that ivory tower.

By on 05/27/08 at 04:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Look, non-normativity is a fossilized academic cliche older than me which derives from various kinds of positivism, so no one needs to argue for it. It’s an enforced methodological exclusion or asceticism which has become automatic. 

The critical overlay often overwhelms and ruins the primary works for grad student readers, and these grad student readers end up being the custodians of literature for ordinary readers who happen to attend college, so there’s a non-imaginary problem.

I don’t see why a critic, doing the various things he does, should be more careful about evaluation than he is about the other things. And evaluation and appreciation not have to be heavy-handed, though when I argue this case my interlocutors always rush forward the stupidest kinds of evaluation and appreciation they can find or imagine.

By John Emerson on 05/27/08 at 04:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

All flags aside, my sense of your argument is flagging, John.  You use “normativity” as some shorthand, but for what?  That evaluating literature is a norm, and should be accepted as natural, and so accepted? 

I too agree that evaluative criticism is more than a subjective effusion.  That’s why I wrote “if it is to be more than a subjective effusion.”

My point was simply that the historicist and the evaluative critics both value literature insofar as it points to some non-literary values: the importance of historical knowledge, the importance of a life well lived, the importance of intelligent democratic citizenry, etc.  The historicist is not shirking some responsibility to evaluate any more than the evaluative critic is shirking some responsibility to historicize.  Each is up to something different, and each operates with reference to goals and values beyond the literary texts. 

Finally, the notion that “critical overlay” kills our love for literature makes little sense to me.  If the criticism is wrong, then it’s wrong and shouldn’t be read.  That’s a separate issue, though.  If the criticism is accurate, then I would hope we could agree that any just evaluation of a literary work would be based on the most complete understanding possible of it, making the criticism essential for the evaluative critic. 

Translated, I think John’s complaint is: “Reading criticism is hard work for kids who thought that majoring in English just meant reading great books.  That hard work stops some kids from pursuing advanced degrees.” Not a complaint against criticism, but a complaint against hard work and the deferral of pleasure. 

(And should critics be careful about evaluation?  I don’t see why they should be careful about anything.  Not much is really at stake.  An elevator inspector should be careful.  A faulty TLS OR MFS article isn’t going to hurt anyone.)

By on 05/27/08 at 06:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther: “Carefulness about evaluation” was directed at Aaron Bady. Your worry about evaluation being a subjective effusion counts to me as “carefulness about evaluation”, however, and perfectly conventional academese.

I’m making a fairly general argument. In academia normativity is generally frowned on. You’ll never go wrong by being less normative, and must defend any apparent normativity you have. Normativity includes aesthetic judgement, appreciation, and evaluation, along with various ethical and political statements. Even ethics is substantially non-normative nowadays. In talking about “normativity”, I was including literary studies under something more general.

I was taking off from Bordwell’s “tend to be uninterested in evaluation”, though I didn’t make that explicit. That strikes me as an understatement; “are petrified of being caught being evaluative” is at least as good a description of the situation.

I have not proposed that historicists be burnt at the stake; that question has not come up, and I remain neutral about it. Historicists, for the moment, are cool with me.

On the other hand, I do object to what I see as the bias against evaluativity and appreciationism. And I do not see any reason whatsoever, except for bureaucratically imposed and enforced methodologism, that anyone should have to choose between the two.

By John Emerson on 05/27/08 at 06:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Choose between the two” = “choose between evaluative and historical approaches”.

Since I doubt that anyone believes that historical knowledge corrupts appreciation,I suspect that it is thought that evaluation corrupts historical investigation.

By John Emerson on 05/27/08 at 06:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

In the Bordwell piece, the way he models academic value judgments caught my eye:

“Of course, the academic piece could also make a value judgment, either at the outset (I think Rebecca is excellent and want to scrutinize it) or at the end (I’m forced to conclude that Rebecca is a narrow, oppressive film).”

There are two distinct criteria being used here. When a thing is good, the quality of its goodness is that it is worth thinking about. When it is not, the quality of its not-goodness is that it is politically wrongheaded. This seems to me to be a fair critique of how academic writing, at its worst, tends to do evaluations: praise for one reason, but condemn for another. Or rather, there are two very distinct and implicit systems of evaluation in play and, at its worst, academic writing doesn’t attend self-consciously to that distinction.

Birth of a Nation and Citizen Kane later show up to model one kind of difference: both are magnificent films by one standard, but the other standard (politics) sharply distinguishes between them. So later when Bordwell gets to the claim that “You can recognize that some films are good even if you don’t like them,” he’s dancing around the need to acknowledge these different standards, and digs up the chestnuts of “taste” and “judgment” to describe the difference between liking something just cuz and liking it for Good Weighty Reasons.  But again, the difference seems to be the difference between liking something for an intrinsic aesthetic quality (just cuz) and liking it because you’re aware that it furthers the struggle. These are different standards of value and both are evaluative.

So the point of being “careful” about how you evaluate is not that we *shouldn’t* be evaluative (I’m assuming that John will continue to show restraint with the historicists), but that it’s more productive to think about why we like the things we like (what the standards we use to evaluate them are) than to argue about whether or not we should or shouldn’t evaluate. My sense, contra John, is that academics make value judgments all the time, but that they don’t often talk about what those standards of value actually are (the way everybody might agree that a movie is good, but all have radically different subjective reasons for feeling that way). And the interesting conversation is the one where you pick out those differences in taste (which I assume to be much more explicable than Bordwell seems to).

By on 05/27/08 at 08:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Subjective” is a positivist code word. It is used to mean “private, personal, incommunicable, unverifiable, and lacking in truth value”. I think that it would be a good thing for criticism to get rid of this term.

I am not saying that it’s OK for criticism to be private, personal, incommunicable, unverifiable, and lacking in truth value, but that the dismissal of writing on grounds that it is subjective is usually wrong, and that the positivoid term “subjectivity” is a malicious one, as used.

By John Emerson on 05/27/08 at 08:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I agree that critics should be free to be. 

I wonder, though, what evaluation *adds* to the act of criticism.  (Perhaps seeing evaluation as a mere addition is a symptom of the normativity you decry?)

That is, before we can evaluate or appreciate, we had better have an excellent idea of what it is we are evaluating or appreciating.  And that “excellent idea” can only be gotten from descriptive/analytical work.  To me, the moment of evaluation has always felt pointless.  I don’t need someone to tell me to like something or that they like something.  Provided the description and analysis are accurate, I’ll have a good idea if I’d like something or not.

By on 05/27/08 at 08:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

To me, the moment of evaluation has always felt pointless.

Academic articles and books.... tend to be uninterested in evaluation.

It’s a taboo. Very early in an academic career you learn what will get you scorned.

Hopefully some readers here will give consideration to the idea that the rejection of subjectivity, evaluation, and appreciation is just a version of a positivist cliche.

It is true that many critics smuggle their evaluations into their description, subtly coding their statements without any directly evaluative terminology. Because they don’t want to have their little critical asses spanked by an angry critical God.

By John Emerson on 05/27/08 at 08:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John, can you point out a piece of evaluative criticism in which the evaluation adds something to the descriptions and analyses?

By on 05/27/08 at 09:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

No. I don’t follow criticism.

I just think that the taboo on evaluation is a silly positivist cliche, and in literary criticism, a rather silly and self-defeating one. It’s not as though literary critics will ever get any respect from the various scientoid positivists they mimic, many of whom are losing control of their own, more plausibly positivistic specialties.

One thing you might think of doing is imagining evaluative criticism less flat-footed than the satirical kind that immediately pops into your head.

One form of positivist criticism might consist of selecting especially admired works and organizing your analysis around your reasons for admiring them. This could be done without ever uttering any taboo appreciative words, but why not?

By John Emerson on 05/27/08 at 09:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"One form of evaluative criticism might consist of selecting especially admired works and organizing your analysis around your reasons for admiring them. “ (9:15 p.m.)

By John Emerson on 05/27/08 at 09:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

No. I don’t follow criticism.

Oh, you don’t know what you’re talking about, as it were.

I half-way agree with you on “subjective.” The primary sense of the word is something like “existing for a subject.” Color is subjective in this sense. However, in common usage, including academic usage, that sense tends to be swamped by the sense of “varying arbitrarily and idiosyncratically between individuals.” Color is not subjective in that sense.

Our experience of art is subjective in the primary sense. Whether or not it is subjective in the other sense is an interesting question.

As for evaluation, while most of my writing about art is descriptive, analytical, and interpretive, I do evaluation from time to time, and have done so at least since my undergraduate years. It is not easy work. Two Valve pieces come to mind, one on Fantasia, the other of the original Gojira; in Bordwell’s classification, these are critical essays. In both cases most of the prose is descriptive, analytical, and interpretative; I spend relatively little time making evaluative statements. But I wrote the essays to justrify those evaluative statements. In the case of the Gojira review, the evaluation doesn’t come until the end, and it is equivocal. Sometimes you don’t know what to make of something.

By Bill Benzon on 05/27/08 at 09:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John, I’m completely with you on the last comment.  I like to think that, with one exception, my dissertation is a series of analyses of works I admire and why I admire them. 

My point is that at no point did I have to say I admired them.  The care I took to research and read them closely performs, embodies, my admiration of them.  It’s the highest compliment I could imagine paying to any work of art: attention. 

My point is that the “positivist,” as you have it, is also paying art this highest compliment.  I used the example of the historicist before, for historicists often have to discuss literary works less for their aesthetic worth than for their social or cultural effects. 

Both the overtly evaluative and the overtly non-evaluative critics could, in the end, be said to be evaluative in the sense that their work is an expression of the value they see in the object of the work.  But for each set of critics, and no doubt for each individual critic, the values to which they appeal are different. 

And let’s not say that the evaluative critic necessarily values the art work “in and of itself” while the non-evaluative critic values something outside or beyond the artwork.  As I wrote originally, push most evaluative critics and they will appeal to something well beyond art: we need discernment to foster critical thinking, to make good citizens, to use our time on earth wisely, to heighten our pleasures, to effect social change, to effect personal growth, etc.

By on 05/27/08 at 10:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

No. I don’t follow criticism.

Oh, you don’t know what you’re talking about, as it were.

Why should I follow that crap, Bill?

Mostly I’m just noting commonalities between criticism and every other goddamn stupid thing in the goddamn stupid university, where the word “subjective” is a refutation and everyone pretends to be a scientist.

My point is that at no point did I have to say I admired them.

No, you absolutely don’t! In fact, for reasons you are not really sure about, you know that you’re best off not saying that you admire them.

By John Emerson on 05/27/08 at 11:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"What, I ask first, is this poem trying to do. Then: is it successful? Then: Is it worth doing?” - Kevin Prufer - http://bookcriticscircle.blogspot.com/2008/05/interview-with-kevin-prufer.html

“...something well beyond art: we need discernment to foster critical thinking, to make good citizens, to use our time on earth wisely, to heighten our pleasures, to effect social change, to effect personal growth, etc.”

None of the above is necessarily beyond art, or even beyond aesthetics. In fact, these are often central purposes and contents of the experiences that are art.

Many artists ask themselves all the time not only what can I create, but what should I create. Critics, audiences should question (evaluate) that too.

_______________________________

From a Telegraph article, “24 - Isn’t It Just Torture?”:

“American viewers have in recent years been basking in the glow of a new golden age of television drama.

“The Sopranos, The West Wing, Six Feet Under and The Wire, to name but a few, have been warmly embraced by critics and audiences. However, none of these taut, intelligent shows has been quite so compelling – or controversial – as 24.

“Each 24-part series – there have been six so far – has traced one day in the life of the fictional Counter Terrorist Unit (CTU) and agent Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) as they race to save America from a succession of Very Bad Things.

“Whole cities are threatened – by nuclear devices, biological weapons or whatever – and the CTU has to act fast to avert Armageddon. The clock is always ticking, the adrenaline always pumping.

“Faced with such pressing deadlines, Bauer and his colleagues repeatedly resort to extreme measures to get the information they need – namely torture. Which has sparked a wide debate in the States, as has the accusation that the show is rabidly Right-wing in its thinking.

“Just how seriously the US takes 24 was demonstrated by two remarkable events last year.

“First, the conservative Heritage Foundation organised a symposium called “24 and America’s Image in Fighting Terrorism: Fact, Fiction, or Does It Matter?”

“It might have been easy to ignore such a discussion except that Michael Chertoff, the US Homeland Security Secretary, was there. Describing the show, he said: “Frankly, it reflects real life.”

“Then, Brig Gen Patrick Finnegan, dean of the West Point military academy, took three interrogation experts with him to Hollywood to meet the producers of the show.

“The reason: to ask them to stop depicting American agents torturing terrorists. (It has also been suggested that American troops in Iraq, having watched DVDs of 24, then go out and employ the same techniques on Iraqi prisoners.)”

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/arts/main.jhtml;j?xml=/arts/2007/10/01/bvkatz101.xml&DCMP=ILC-traffdrv07053100
_______________________________

More than just “suggested,” US soldiers were actually mimicking the show in torturing Iraqis, which is why the US military met with the producers to try to get them to stop doing it.

Agenda-ridden or utterly adrift academics who may think they have no overall obligation to the public may not wish to know it, but people who live more in the world understand quite readily that art affects life concretely, many times in ways that can be and are very well known:

From “Torturing Iron Man: The Strange Reversals of a Pentagon Blockbuster” by Nick Turse:

“‘Liberal Hollywood’ is a favorite whipping-boy of right-wingers who suppose the town and its signature industry are ever-at-work undermining the U.S. military. In reality, the military has been deeply involved with the film industry since the Silent Era. Today, however, the ad hoc arrangements of the past have been replaced by a full-scale one-stop shop, occupying a floor of a Los Angeles office building. There, the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, and the Department of Defense itself have established entertainment liaison offices to help ensure that Hollywood makes movies the military way.

“What they have to trade, especially when it comes to blockbuster films, is access to high-tech, tax-payer funded, otherwise unavailable gear. What they get in return is usually the right to alter or shape scripts to suit their needs. If you want to see the fruits of this relationship in action, all you need to do is head down to your local multiplex. Chances are that Iron Man — the latest military-entertainment masterpiece — is playing on a couple of screens.”
http://zcommunications.org/znet/viewArticle/17700

Here are excerpts of varying quality from a list of critics, most of whom at least have something to say about evaluating lit: http://www.socialit.org/excerptscontents.html

By Tony Christini on 05/28/08 at 12:02 AM | Permanent link to this comment

No, John, I’m completely sure of why I didn’t say I admire them: because I don’t have an inflated sense of self-worth, such that anyone wants to hear what I admire.

I was writing about certain novels in part because I admire them.  What’s self-evident need not to written.

And of course at times I do gush about the brilliance of the novels.  And no, I was not “spanked” by my committee for doing so.

By on 05/28/08 at 04:56 AM | Permanent link to this comment

John E., what did Putnam say in “Ethics Without Ontology” that strikes you as especially noteworthy, i.e. as a distinguished (if baby-steppish) attempt to rehabilitate ‘normativity’. What thing does he say that you think is bold and challenging (if only it were taken sufficiently seriously)? The book did not seem to me outside the philosophical mainstream. Not terribly. To me, the book was not as bold as you seem to think.

Obviously I’m hinting, once again, that you are railing against a positivist hellhole that bears very little resemblance to actually existing academia.

But I agree with you - and others here - that we could do with more ‘criticism’, in the Bordwell sense, around the place.

By John Holbo on 05/28/08 at 05:09 AM | Permanent link to this comment

John E., it’s one thing to thunder and rage against the expulsion of norms and subjectivity from the academy. But when Luther asks for an example of proper criticism and you don’t have any to offer, that rather sucks the wind out of your fulminations.

By Bill Benzon on 05/28/08 at 06:26 AM | Permanent link to this comment

John, Putnam seemed to think that he was doing something. Perhaps you should take this up with him.

Putnam was working with Sen, who was trying to reintroduce into economics a notion of social choice, a non-sociopathic concept of rationality, and the idea that social welfare can be publicly known and is not just the summation of a large number of mysterious, incommunicable, subjective, private individual welfares. Much of economics (today a far more publicly significant discourse than philosophy) does remain pretty explicitly positivistic, and Putnam seemed to think that Sen’s work was relevant to philosophers.

And Putnam’s work probably is indeed within the mainstream and not especially noteworthy, which is why my initial excitement died down. He seemed to me to be giving analytic-philosophy arguments in favor of the permissibility of doing something other than analytic philosophy, while himself remaining within, as though he had found a long unopened door, cracked it open, and peaked out. He references Rorty, and it seems like another false start 20 or 30 years later. 

In economics, too, people tell me that I’m arguing against imaginary and non-existent positivists. (Yes, logical positivism is dead, but it’s merely a subcategory of positivism, which has a 200-year history and is alive and well.) But they’re there, and in fact are quite powerful, and seem to dominate introductory economics teaching. There are niches of alternative economics, and there may be niches of alternative philosophy too.

By John Emerson on 05/28/08 at 06:32 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill, I’m just trying to help you guys. Luther and you wanted me to knock the chips off your shoulders. At this point it doesn’t seem to argue further that in the academic world there’s some kind of taboo or phobia or protocol against evaluation and appreciation, which was my point. Being asked to show a single instance of evaluative criticism that doesn’t suck is not a refutation of that.

To me, the moment of evaluation has always felt pointless.

Academic articles and books.... tend to be uninterested in evaluation.

No, John, I’m completely sure of why I didn’t say I admire them: because I don’t have an inflated sense of self-worth, such that anyone wants to hear what I admire.... What’s self-evident need not to written.

I think that this misrepresents what’s actually happening, though at least Luther argues in favor of the taboo rather than saying it doesn’t exist.

I do not grant that only an egomaniac would express his [purely subjective] admiration, or that admiration can only be expressed by gushing. Perhaps lessons should be taught in the nuanced and articulate expression of admiration.

By John Emerson on 05/28/08 at 06:53 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Being asked to show a single instance of evaluative criticism that doesn’t suck is not a refutation of that.

I’m just looking for evidence of the kind of renaissance that would ensue if and when the taboo is lifted.

By Bill Benzon on 05/28/08 at 07:11 AM | Permanent link to this comment

One step at a time, Bill.

I regard this as having been a very successful troll. Whether others are happy with it, I don’t know. I frequently bypass Valve threads because, essentially, I don’t belong here. But then the poor thread often sits there lonely and sad. I’m sure I haven’t convinced anyone of anything, but at least I’ve expressed my subjective opinion in a way satisfying to myself.

By John Emerson on 05/28/08 at 07:18 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Pie in the sky, John, pie in the sky.

By Bill Benzon on 05/28/08 at 08:01 AM | Permanent link to this comment

John, you’ve yet to argue that evaluation *does* in fact add something to the act of criticism.

I’m not against subjectivity, nor do I think that evaluation need be subjective in the sense of “merely personal or whimsical.” What I would say is that evaluative and descriptive/analytical criticism are interested in very different things.  I do tend not to care about the review form of criticism beyond the reviewer’s ability to describe and analyze.  I don’t share James Wood’s taste, but I find him an able critic. 

At the same time, I do think evaluative criticism of the socio-political and ethical varities can be brilliant.  Martha Nussbaum is a great case in point, as is Jonathan Arak’s (sp?) work on Mark Twain.  Critics interested in issues of canonicity must necessarily address evaluative issues. 

But at the level of what we call “practical criticism,” I don’t see much need for evaluation.

By on 05/28/08 at 09:52 AM | Permanent link to this comment

This thread has the air of on longstanding argument, so I don’t know if it’s worth getting involved, but just to state the fairly obvious point I keep making about evaluation--along the lines of what Aaron, for instance, has said above--the minute you start to evaluate, you have to assert a standard.  Is this good?  Well, good at what? for what? to whom? compared to what?

Since this idea about the need for evaluation seems to be trendy right now (e.g. Ronan McDonald’s The Death of the Critic), maybe we should do an experiment. Let’s try evaluating something.  But wait: where would we start?  McDonald and those who approve of his book seem to think that it’s “aesthetic evaluation” that should be going on, but I don’t see how that helps much.  You can’t evaluate without a scale (an “evaluation rubric,” as our education bureaucrats have been telling us recently).  It’s not that I don’t think critics can (or do, more than is often acknowledged, and often, as Luther has argued, implicitly) evaluate texts.  But when we do so, we are (explicitly or implicitly) asserting the priority of our “rubric.” I think Middlemarch is one of the greatest books ever.  But that’s because I think it is important for novels to be rich in the ways I find Middlemarch rich.  Middlemarch itself becomes my yardstick for greatness: I evaluate other novels to see if they do those things as well. But wait, I don’t always, because I know they are often doing other things well...and so already I’m an evaluative pluralist, or something. I guess where that leaves me is that the discussion of how something is made, and how well, and to what ends, is the most important part of criticism, rather than the evaluation that might ensue.  And if we think of critics as having a communicative and pedagogical role (e.g. people read criticism to learn something about literature, to engage in intellectual exchange about it etc.), it’s the quality of the discussion leading to the evaluation that is most important. 

Anyway, my point is that we always have to follow “I evaluate it THUS” with “because...”, and that’s where everything opens up.

By Rohan Maitzen on 05/28/08 at 09:56 AM | Permanent link to this comment

And just what should we evaluate? Moby Dick, King Solomon’s Mines, the new James Bond book (Devil May Care by Sebastian Faulks), Deadwood (the TV show), Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, what, and why?

By Bill Benzon on 05/28/08 at 10:36 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The minute you start to evaluate, you have to assert a standard.  Is this good?  Well, good at what? for what? to whom? compared to what?

No shit. There will be an element of arbitrariness and risk. You will actually end up saying something that cannot be claimed to be entirely grounded in Truth, and which someone else might object to.

John, you’ve yet to argue that evaluation *does* in fact add something to the act of criticism.

Your apparent belief, which you present as a personal taste but which strikes me as a professional deformation, is that it it obviously doesn’t. That doesn’t strike me as tenable or arguable.

I have read (or started to read) any number of dissertationesque studies of literature which aggressively and completely bracketed evaluation out in favor of methodology-heavy analysis. Three of them were of particular interest to me because they were about important French, Portuguese, and Chinese authors I like who are almost unknown in English.

My responses are below. The careful reader will note that I use the word “Theory” in the sense of “prescribed academic methodology”; only one of the three books actually is “Theory” in the recent sense.

So anyway, all three of these books would have been better with more appreciation and more evaluation, such that the reader will want to read more by the author. To varying degrees and for varying reasons they fail.

Cao Zhi

Aloysius Bertrand

Dom Dinis

By John Emerson on 05/28/08 at 10:40 AM | Permanent link to this comment

We should eveluate everyhting except our own mothers, Bill. They should be sacred to us.

By John Emerson on 05/28/08 at 10:44 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I more or less agree with John E. in this thread.

At any rate, in partial answer to Rohan, here’s a specific example of a need for evaluation.  It’s a non-academic example, because academics don’t need to do anything but get tenure, and the whole literary studies academic establishment could basically fall off the face of the earth and no one outside it would notice it in terms of an unfulfilled need except the people who have to get someone to teach freshman comp.

There is a community for the SF genre called “SF fans”.  These people are admirably enthusiastic readers and, often, active writers of some sort as well.  However, the fan community faces a number of long-standing issues, having to do with a) the nature of “literary” writing within SF, b) the potential decline in readership as opposed to viewership.

Then there is the problem of mortality to consider.  Luther writes that evaluative criticism starts with “Great novels are important to our lives, which being mortal, force us to make choices.” That seems to me to be really wrongheaded as a premise of evaluative criticism *in particular*.  Anything that we’re going to invest effort into writing about is presumably important to our lives, and we’re all mortal.  And no one can now read everything.

Fan appreciation of SF work has notable drawbacks, in my opinion.  It’s notably two-valued; works are either the best ever, or merely ordinary.  It’s generally ignorant of work outside the lifetime of the fan.  Evaluative criticism would help develop fan conversation about works by, first, giving them the ability to talk about works that are great to different degrees or by different scales, and second, by encouraging them to read more widely within the genre.

And the standards are, when it comes down to it, community standards.  I can still evaluate Delany’s work as great because I recognize what he’s trying to do even though I personally don’t like it.  When people are told something like “Works X,Y,Z by Delany are great, and you should read them”, they’re being told that they have to struggle with Delany to a certain extent, if his work isn’t the kind of thing they naturally appreciate, because they embody a form of aesthetic development in a particular direction within the genre.

People who are willing to leave evaluative criticism to the market have basically lost touch with literary culture, or at least reading culture, in favor of academic culture.  Really, Harold Bloom is the only one I can think doing the kind of criticism that should be done.  That doesn’t imply endorsement of his politics, whatever that means, unless someone wants to take his critical stance as a necessary outgrowth of his politics.

By on 05/28/08 at 11:02 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Out of respect for present company, I will also refrain from evaluating your own mothers, wives, and daughters.

By John Emerson on 05/28/08 at 11:16 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I note that, as examples of what’s needed, John E offers three authors who are relatively unknown in English. Rich offers a body of work that lacks a robust body of evaluative criticism.

By Bill Benzon on 05/28/08 at 11:49 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich wrote: “Harold Bloom is the only one I can think doing the kind of criticism that should be done.  That doesn’t imply endorsement of his politics, whatever that means, unless someone wants to take his critical stance as a necessary outgrowth of his politics.”

I can respect this as a position within the larger argument, but my experience doing African literature has been that the literary curriculum is still very clearly structured by a variety of evaluative logics. People don’t always *say* that literature by the classic cliched dead white male is better than Chinua Achebe, of course (though they say it often enough), but the arguments made about what should and shouldn’t be taught proceed as if there’s no argument to be made for literary quality for the vast majority of non-dead-white-males. We should study Achebe for reasons of multiculturalist politics, while we are presumed to study Milton for his aesthetic quality. And I *do* I find this critical stance to become a kind of politics, an argument that western aesthetics are the only aesthetics there are, while simultaneously pretending that it isn’t a political statement to say so (because only people like Achebe are political with their writing). My solution is something like what Rohan describes: be explicit in what it is we’re doing.
Bloom’s “evaluative criticism” seems to me to be absolutely typical of academia more generally, in that he has standards of value and he grounds his work in them. What makes him somewhat unusual is that he is explicit about that project, but he has that option because his particular standard of value ("The Western Tradition") is one that has a great deal of political muscle behind it, the kind of community standards that we *have* to pay attention to. But there are also many different communities, and most of those communities have no power to compel; I’m not convinced by what Rich describes that Delany is good in any objective sense, just that enough people have deemed him good to compel me or whoever to pay attention to him.

Perhaps that’s just a difference in basic viewpoint on the question. But that’s why the whole discussion about whether or not evaluative criticism is worthwhile just strikes me as beside the point; from my perspective, it seems like we evaluate all the time, we just often prefer to imagine that our standards of value are transcendently valid (instead of exploring the ways our particular standards are particular to our particular projects or those of particular communities). It reminds me of the way that “ideology” is always something “other people” have, whereas “we” speak and see clearly without ideological blinders.

By on 05/28/08 at 12:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill, those were examples of analytic works which would have been better with an evaluative component. They are specifically what got me off on this little rant starting about a year ago. It’s not merely the absence of an evaluative or appreciative approach accessible to the educated general reader, but the implicit claim of superiority to non-expert non-specialist mere reviewers who did evaluate and appreciate, and beyond that, the quaint and paranoid fear that E&A would pollute and invalidate an otherwise professional work.

I have actually corresponded with one of the authors, who, while he did not endorse my conclusions about his book, a revised dissertation as I had guessed, didn’t seem offended either, and who seemed pleased by my interest in Portuguese poetry. 

All four of Beardsley’s categories could easily and smoothly be included in a single work, in varying proportions, by a good writer. It could even slop outside lit crit and cult stud entirely in a humanist generalist direction.

Humanism, generalism, and eclecticism on stilts are my dirty little secrets, of course. So, were I to produce an example of the kind of thing I like, it would almost certainly be by a pre-1950 essayist-type critic.

By John Emerson on 05/28/08 at 12:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Aaron: “Bloom’s “evaluative criticism” seems to me to be absolutely typical of academia more generally, in that he has standards of value and he grounds his work in them. What makes him somewhat unusual is that he is explicit about that project, but he has that option because his particular standard of value ("The Western Tradition") is one that has a great deal of political muscle behind it, the kind of community standards that we *have* to pay attention to.”

I don’t understand that at all, Aaron.  Bloom is a tenured professor.  Therefore he can write about whatever he wants.  So can any other tenured professor.  That is what tenure is about.  I don’t see where community standards that force us to pay attention come in.

Now, perhaps the community standards that force us to pay attention come in in terms of getting him published.  I don’t think so.  He’s published because he’s a good writer, mostly.  If someone wanted to write about works outside the Western Tradition, people would publish those books as well, assuming that there was anyone out there interested in those works.  If there isn’t anyone, well, part of the task of an evaluative critic is to create an audience for those works that he or she thinks are great.

Him being explicit about what he’s doing is a key factor, though.

By on 05/28/08 at 01:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I may say that my own canon is not Eurocentric, and includes many Chinese authors. The Dead White Male thing is a red herring.

I am a classicist of sorts, and deplore the presentism of most insurgent canons. Likewise, a lot of insurgents seem to favor personalist literature.

Literature about relationships, which I of course abhor.

By John Emerson on 05/28/08 at 02:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

From the Bordwell piece:  “Usually the academic critic is concerned to answer a question about the films. How, for instance, is the theme of gender identity represented in Rebecca, and what ambiguities and contradictions arise from that process? In order to pursue this question, the critic needn’t declare Rebecca a great film or a failure.”

JE: “[In evaluative criticism] there will be an element of arbitrariness and risk. You will actually end up saying something that cannot be claimed to be entirely grounded in Truth, and which someone else might object to.”

Doesn’t the problem lie in admitting “arbitrariness” into something intended as scholarship, which is the aim of academic criticism, intended, as Bordwell says, to provide strong arguments, supported by evidence, in response to questions about literary texts?  The element of arbitrariness and risk comes in for academic critics at the level of choosing which questions they’ll answer and which texts they’ll address, perhaps, but the claims and the support for them need to be defensible beyond “well, that’s just how I see it.”

That said, again I do think there is a lot of evaluation already in academic criticism, even though it may often be implicit.  One analogy I have sometimes made in class is to the Antiques Roadshow (hokey, I know, but I think it’s apt).  All kinds of items come before the experts, who explain the kind of thing it is and whether, of that kind, it is a good or mediocre example.  Whether you like a particular kind of thing is sort of a separate question, but understanding how someone who knows a lot about it (and is enthusiastic about it, i.e. is giving it a sympathetic reception) sees it is an essential step towards making an informed judgment of one’s own.  And that’s when taste (arbitrary, risky, personal) comes in.  Taste can be molded and broadened and educated by this process, of course.  That might be where the erasure of the whole academic literary establishment contemplated with such equanimity by Rich might have some costs, whether or not it would be felt as leaving needs unmet by those not directly affected.

By Rohan Maitzen on 05/28/08 at 04:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Doesn’t the problem lie in admitting “arbitrariness” into something intended as scholarship, which is the aim of academic criticism, intended, as Bordwell says, to provide strong arguments, supported by evidence, in response to questions about literary texts?

That’s part of the problem I see with defictionalizing fiction, and trying to make true statements about untrue texts, and being serious and factual about things which have been laborious created to be unserious and non-factual. It’s like you’re trying to undo the author’s work, and tame a wild bird, and reassert the hegemony of seriousness over a momentary escapee.

Invalid truth-claims and neutrality-claims are pervasive in the world of academic seriousness, but to me they seem most toxic in literary studies.

In part the public, bureaucratic, state-sponsored status of literary studies requires the seriousness and the truth claims, and since it’s a liberal state, neutrality is enforced rather than, e.g., Catholic doctrine or Marxism-Leninism. For of course the state wants to confine the wild birds, and the taxpayers want truth and seriousness. Furthermore, internal professional hierarchies need to be justified somehow, and truth claims are a very fine way to do that.

By John Emerson on 05/28/08 at 04:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I wonder where would or should a “blog post” fit in the use of this four category scheme.

By Elijah Shifrin on 05/28/08 at 05:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Depends on what’s actually in the blog post. All four show up in blog posts, description, analysis, interpretation, and evaluation, sometimes even in the same post. It’s pretty hard to say anything about a text without some descriptive element. Just how much of the other three you use depends on what you’re trying to accomplish.

By Bill Benzon on 05/28/08 at 05:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Ah. David Bordwell suggests this division: review as a form of journalism, the academic article and the critical essay in between the two. By putting “blog post” in quotations, I was trying (or trying to try) to refer to “blogging” as a new category, let’s say somewhere behind the review. A new category with its own distinct and more or less stable structure of the big four.

But I see the problem—each blog is different, purposes vary. It’s also possible to simply categorize “blog post” under the three existing forms of expression.

Apropos blogging, I get exposed to critical academical thought mostly via blogs, where the authors actually say how they FEEL about the subject.

By Elijah Shifrin on 05/28/08 at 05:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

trying to make true statements about untrue texts, and being serious and factual about things which have been laborious created to be unserious and non-factual...

But…

It all depends on what you’re making statements about, right?  If I want to talk about the use of unreliable first-person narration in Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, there are lots of true things I can say about that narration and support with examples, aren’t there? I’m not “defictionalizing” it: I’m concentrating on how that fiction works, on what devices are in play, and on what the effects or implications are (or seem to me to be) of that specific literary technique.  If I’m explaining how we can tell it’s unreliable, I’m working backwards from the author’s laborious effort, but I’m not undoing it, I’m explaining it.  What’s toxic about that?  Not everybody might be interested--some might prefer “just” to read it and and never mind considering these aspects. But what if somebody comes along and argues that the narration is perfectly reliable, that the novel is pro-Nazi, etc.?  Their reading is untrue, inaccurate--toxic!  That seems serious to me.  Aren’t there some facts of the matter here?

More generally, you seem to be implying that you are against any notion of rigor in literary analysis--that you reject any kind of criticism except the response of immediate experience--but I find that hard to believe.  A lot will surely depend on how abstract the claims are.  Criticism that only offers up a summary of what the text is “really” about (as if its form is irrelevant, or an impediment to that better understanding) is doing what you don’t like ("defictionalizing").  Sorry if I’m misunderstanding.

By Rohan Maitzen on 05/28/08 at 06:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

More generally, you seem to be implying that you are against any notion of rigor in literary analysis--that you reject any kind of criticism except the response of immediate experience--but I find that hard to believe.

I never thought in terms of rigor, but I guess that I do think that the worst reader of most literature would be the one whose prime goal is to come up a rigorous piece of secondary literature about it.

By John Emerson on 05/28/08 at 07:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich,
A statement like Bloom is “published because he’s a good writer, mostly,” is exactly my point: what on earth does the word “good” mean there? I know some of the ways that I judge whether a writer is good, but I also have gleaned enough to figure out that you and I probably have different standards for making that call. So what have we learned from this exchange? Not much.

My point was that the Bloom industry is inseperable from what he stands for, as the author of “The Western Canon” in 1994 and proclaimer of Shakespeare’s having invented the human. You can disagree with that point, I suppose, but my argument was that saying an author is “good” or not just begs the question.

By on 05/28/08 at 07:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Forbidding the word “good” that way begs a different questiono, though.

By John Emerson on 05/28/08 at 07:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m agreeing with John Emerson more and more in this thread.  That’s disconcerting.

Aaron, think for a minute about what you’re doing by writing “what on earth does the word ‘good’ mean there?”.  You’re not trying to replace a fuzzy term by a more well-defined one, because really, all words in literary criticism are fuzzy, unless you’re counting syllables or something like that.  People don’t even agree on what “Romantic” or “post-modern” mean.  To a physical scientist, descriptive or historicist criticism looks like just as much wishful thinking as the attempt to evaluate.

So no, saying that he’s a good writer does not in any way beg the question.  People have a high degree of consensus, within out culture anyway, about what “being a good writer” means.  People still think that the Epic of Gilgamesh is “good”, and it’s been around for more than 2,000 years.  Bloom’s writing is focussed, impassioned, and clear, if you need additional style markers to point out a particular variety of “good”.

And the politics thing is a red herring.  In my example I’m calling for evaluative criticism about SF, not some high-culture lavishment of attention on the western canon.  There are any number of culture warriors who would have liked to have their books published, as Bloom’s have been.  The reason that theirs haven’t been and his have I ascribe to a property of his writing.  In arguing against the existence of that property, you have mentioned something called the “Bloom industry”—which is what, exactly?

By on 05/28/08 at 09:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Should be “within our culture anyway” above, not “within out culture”.

By on 05/28/08 at 09:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich,
You said his writing is focused, impassioned, and clear. Now we have something to start talking about, whereas the word “good” was just hanging there. That’s all I’m saying, but I say it because the Epic of Gilgamesh is not focused, impassioned, or clear, or certainly not in the same way. Yet they both seem to merit the term good. You say that all words in literary criticism are fuzzy, but I’ll agree with you only so far; in practice, the work of writing well about literary texts (something I think about a lot, having to teach it to students) benefits from attending to these kinds of distinctions, the differing levels and qualities of fuzziness as it were. Clear is a different kind of good than impassioned, and making those distinctions is a useful thing to do.

By the “Bloom industry” I refer to the fact that if you type his name into amazon, you get something like 1500 results. All those “Bloom’s Critical Interpretations” and other edited collections, on top of the regular stuff. I’m not disrespecting him for the work, or anything; I’m just saying the man’s productivity would shame Santa Claus. But the real point I was making is that being talented doesn’t necessarily get you anywhere unless you’re talented in the right way, and while there are plenty of ways to be the right kind of talented, two of them are to publish a book like “The Western Canon” in 1994 or to make a hyperbolic claim like Shakespeare inventing the human. The man is good, by a lot of standards, but the Bloom phenomenon also has a lot to do with context into which he’s writing.

By on 05/28/08 at 10:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Now we have something to start talking about, whereas the word “good” was just hanging there.”

But it’s always possible to go into more and more detail about what we mean by things.  I can very briefly say that someone is a pretty good writer.  Then I can say in what particular ways he or she is good.  Then I can use brief quotes to illustrate those particular points.  Then I can do an extended reading.  If at any stage you disagree you can call my original summation into question.  But literary quality really does exist, and is comparable from one work to another.  Sure, making distinctions is the duty of the intellectual, or something—I forget the quote.  But not when those distinctions are made in order to obscure a basic commonality within literature.

As far as I can tell, Bloom has created most of his context.  That is exactly what the best evaluative critics are supposed to do.  There is always this vague flavor of disapproval about his work which I’m really at a loss to understand.  OK, he said that Shakespeare invented the human.  So what?  Literary theorists make more outlandish claims all the time, with the added disadvantage of being obscurantist.

By on 05/29/08 at 01:01 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Happy to sit this one out and give Emerson a thumbs-up from the sidelines. Well-argued (wit-tempered) swashbuckle.

By Steven Augustine on 05/29/08 at 05:50 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Notice that you can’t have anything like a real conversation about art until the evaluation—a good writer—becomes a description.

By on 05/29/08 at 06:30 AM | Permanent link to this comment

<i>But it’s always possible to go into more and more detail about what we mean by things.<i>

Not if you don’t know how. That “knowing how” shouldn’t be casually assumed.

The thing about description, analysis, interpretation, and evaluation is that they are not independent categories of activity. There are dependencies among them. But those dependencies have some quirks.

You can offer evaluation without doing any of the others: “It sucks,” “It’s the greatest since sliced bread.” Justifying those statements, however, requires some skill with the other three. Analysis depends on description. If you can’t isolate some aspect of a text through description, then you can’t analyse it. Interpretation, in turn, requires analysis, often in terms of some extra-textual body of knowledge or intellectual practice. Taken together these can support more nuanced evaluation. But, while you can have evaluation without them, you can’t have more nuanced evaluation without them.

By Bill Benzon on 05/29/08 at 06:34 AM | Permanent link to this comment

And Rich, you’re playing the normative or “common sense” card here about the word “good,” and I think your example of Bloom shows you up.

Bloom is in no way a good writer.  His passion is pure partisanship, his focus is beating a dead horse, and his clarity is a function of his simplemindedness.  It’s interesting to me that Bloom is only impassioned, focussed, and clear when he’s at his most didactic.

Take *Anxiety of Influence* or *Agon*, and you’ll find a gnomic writer, muddleheaded, and largely without anything resembling elegance of form or economy of style. 

Bloom’s style can only be considered good when Homi Bhabha is taken as the standard.  Compare Bloom to his own heroes—Johnson, say,—and he’s sort of a caricature of himself.

By on 05/29/08 at 06:35 AM | Permanent link to this comment

OK, Bloom is a bad writer. Normative! I win! **Sack dance**

The normative common sense card belongs in the deck.

Taken together these can support more nuanced evaluation.

Agreed. I was responding to Academic articles and books emphasize description, analysis, and interpretation, but tend to be uninterested in evaluation. Specifically, I was responding to “tend to be uninterested”, which I think marks a problem with academia in general.

By John Emerson on 05/29/08 at 07:22 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Which is to say, Bloom has two modes of writing. Obscure muddleheaded stuff for his professional colleagues, and “good” writing for the general public.

By Bill Benzon on 05/29/08 at 07:36 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill, exactly.  And calling Bloom’s popular writing “good” seems to beg the question of what good writing is.  John and Rich claim there is a normative standard for good writing, but I can’t imagine what that would be in a world where *Harry Potter* and *Sex & The City* are considered by so many to be examples of great writing.  We could then say that different communities have different norms of good writing, but that begs the question of who is in which community, and which community dominates given that most of us are members of several communities. 

Again, evaluation is important, but it takes us far away from the text at hand once we stop explaining how words like “good” signify certain specific, describable characteristics of literature.

By on 05/29/08 at 09:46 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"But what if somebody comes along and argues that the narration [in The Remains of the Day] is perfectly reliable, that the novel is pro-Nazi, etc.?  Their reading is untrue, inaccurate--toxic!  That seems serious to me.  Aren’t there some facts of the matter here?”

I sympathize with your concern here, but:

1.  Isn’t the “bad reader” sort of a bogeyman, and a poor justification for the existence of academic literary criticism?

If someone wants, out of deliberate malice or sheer ignorance, to misread a text like The Remains of the Day or Lolita or whatever, so what?  Where is the law stating that the purpose of literature is to be read correctly?  What is really lost when a buffoon misunderstands a thing of beauty?  These aren’t the instructions for building a nuclear weapon; they’re works of art.  No one is impinging on your ability to read the work correctly. 

2. In any event, most academic literary criticism that I have read does not seem to be intended to defend the “true” reading of a particular work-- that’s just not what most academic lit critics are about. I see a lot more interest in mining texts for ideological messages about gender roles, “the other,” colonialism, etc. 

3.  Finally, do you really think that Ishiguro’s work really needs academic elucidation?  Academics tend to summon up a “damsel in distress” situation when it comes to their neglected or misunderstood subject matter, and then use it to justify any manner of baroque and generally useless interpretive work as if it were really what was called for.

In most cases, I’m not sure that academic literary criticism IS what is required.  Even if the primary objective of academic lit criticism is to defend the true reading of the text and dissuade an ignorant readership from misunderstanding, I don’t think that either 300 pages of trendy lit-crit babble, or even 300 pages of sustained, earnest academic analysis is going to do it. Unless we foster a public culture of reading, and writing about reading, and talking about reading, (and that is going to mean accessible evaluative criticism as well as accessible literary analysis) then Joe Moron isn’t even going to be reading any literature at all, never mind reading it correctly! 

Neglected Author’s fiction is going to benefit more from being popularized, expounded upon, gushed about, disparaged, whatever, and most of all READ, by an educated and enthusiastic amateur public, than by being defended by an academic literary critic who proves, to an audience of one, what the true meaning of the work really is.

By on 05/29/08 at 10:03 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"John and Rich claim there is a normative standard for good writing, but I can’t imagine what that would be in a world where *Harry Potter* and *Sex & The City* are considered by so many to be examples of great writing.”

Aren’t you implicitly suggesting here that Harry Potter and SATC are not examples of good writing?

Or do you really think that it is an open question whether Harry Potter is a well written book?

Not disagreeing, mind you, just curious to see where this goes.

By on 05/29/08 at 10:22 AM | Permanent link to this comment

First, evaluation and appreciation do not have to be as simple-minded and inarticulate as the caricature drilled into grad students say it has to be. It can be more than just gushing and burbling and squealing and saying “That good! Grog like!”

Second, “good” and similar terms are essentially contested, but that doesn’t mean that they’re meaningless or should be scrupulously avoided.  Criticism isn’t like prescriping tolerances for machine parts. To go further, one of the strengths of literature—one of its few strengths, from the specialized-expert point of view—is that it systematically takes you into those contested, generalist areas, the way more rigorous studies do not.

By John Emerson on 05/29/08 at 10:33 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Critics should regards Harry-BloomSpeak as a model of what NOT to do. Write completely opposition to Harry Bloom, and it might be worthwhile.  Bloom’s Shelley is a gyrfalcon with its wings cut off

By Emo Johnason on 05/29/08 at 12:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ll summarize. Obviously my target is bigger than just critical shibboleths.

Throughout the university, neutrality and objectivity are expectes for a variety of reasons, good and bad. Non-evaluative non-appreciative criticism is just one case of something larger.

In a liberal, secular society the government sphere is assumed to be neutral on many points, and since universities are increasingly publicly funded, non-neutral speech is suspect. There’s always the fear of offending a voting bloc, or making the state seem to be supporting a particular point of view. This is most true of religion and politics, but the argument “That’s a purely personal, subjective opinion” becomes automatic and can extend everywhere.

Add to this the positivist idea (broad sense) that truth is attained only through neutrality, and that all forms of normativity are private, subjective, non-universal, and non-truth-functional, and including them in an argument makes the argument invalid.

Add to this the idea that scholars are experts, and that in order to make a new student into an expert you have to rip out their pre-existing beliefs and inculcate new beliefs appropriate to a professional specialist expert. Expert ideas are not really communicable to the mass for this reason, and while some scholars do attempt to communicate with the ignorant, it’s probably not really worth doing, and this task should be relegated to mediocrities and failures.

Finally there’s the belief that all valid discourse is methodologically self-aware, precise, rigorous, well-argued at every point, and professionally justifiable in public forums.

Against this I say:

Literary scholars will never be accepted as experts. If a literary scholar ever becomes an expert in anything, he will be reclassified as a linguist, a historian, etc. Give it up, sub-subs.

It is not true that all meaningful discourse is specialized, expert, rigorous discourse. All specialized discourse is nested in a larger, unfinished, poorly-defined, contested, developing, emergent generalist world of discourse which is less well known than any expert world. Meaningful things can be said within this contested generalist world, but they will not be characterized by the univocity, clarity, validity, exactness, and rigorous argument characteristic of expert discourse. In fact, it will look like the old humanist world, with the truths of the experts included within it if they available and useful.

My claim is that literature, philosophy, and history are the discourses best capable of handling the greater, non-specialist world. (History actually does the best; philosophy has absented the field, and literature is too personalized and contemporarized). I would include literary studies with literate, if only because literary studies would gain nothing by declaring itself to be the ludicrous, despised degree zero of specialization.

By John Emerson on 05/29/08 at 01:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I feel pretty much the same about defending Bloom as John E. does—all right, so you say he’s bad, that still means that you implicitly think that “good” and “bad” have some meaning. 

But, for the record: sure he’s most focussed, impassioned, and clear when he’s most didactic; I regard this as a good thing.  It’s certainly preferable to being unfocussed, neutral, and unclear when you’re being didactic.  And didacticism is, after all, what I’m looking for, as a non-academic, when I read a book by a public intellectual literary studies prof.  His literary theory books are indeed gnomic and somewhat muddleheaded, but here you have to compare them to other literary theorists, in which case they become by comparison models of clarity.  He’s also a bad fanfic writer, by the way.  I don’t see anything wrong with saying that he’s a pretty good writer in the context of public evaluative criticism and saying that his writing may not be as well suited to other modes.

But away from Bloom for a moment.  The reason that I’m insisting that it’s important to start with “this book is good” and go from there into description, rather than just start with description, is that it signals what kind of activity you’re doing, what the purpose of it is.  People keep writing that you can’t have a conversation about art until you get specific.  All right.  But what is the conversation going to be about?  People seem to want to say something about whether e.g. some piece of writing is clear or not, and even about the merits or otherwise of clarity in writing, without ever admitting that this can all come back to a brief aesthetic judgement about a particular work.

And there are multiple reasons why brief aesthetic judgements about works can be a good thing—one of them might be that they broaden people’s reading.  If a generic SF fan tells me that a work is the greatest ever, I don’t particularly trust their judgement, so the recommendation doesn’t tell me anything.  If someone with some demonstrated interest in evaluative criticism says I should read X work, that means something.  Rohan, above, writes:

“Taste can be molded and broadened and educated by this process, of course.  That might be where the erasure of the whole academic literary establishment contemplated with such equanimity by Rich might have some costs [...]”

Well, no.  I don’t think that the academic literary establishment is doing anything to broaden and educate taste at all, not outside the universe of their decisions about which books to assign to their students.

By on 05/29/08 at 02:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Degree Zero of Expertise”: new Valve mouseover text?

By John Emerson on 05/29/08 at 02:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich,
When you say “But literary quality really does exist, and is comparable from one work to another,” I find myself responding to this as an expression of faith, not an argument. Maybe that’s because I would express faith in the opposite sentiment: that good is not a quality, but a critical attitude towards a text, produced for a variety of different and overdetermined reasons. I don’t expect to convince anyone of that who doesn’t already believe it, but that’s why I don’t see any inherent value in starting or ending with “this book is good.” If it wasn’t good at something, we would all have ignored it. The fact that it’s good at something is implied by the very fact of its being worth talking about; the question is, then, what is it good at? And if you want to signal what the conversation is about, why not start there? What does an unspecified “good” add to the conversation that wasn’t already there? Unless you say it’s good *at something* you’re just referring to an intangible, untestable, undemonstrable article of faith that, unless your listeners also believe exists (and like God, maybe it does) means nothing to them. That’s why, when I tell my students that such and such a thing is good, the proof is whether they can see it for themselves, and although you also seem to take it as an article of faith that teaching is simply a matter of requiring students to read good books, the point of my pedogogy isn’t to tell them *that* a book is good, but to help them figure out why its good. And my experience in the classroom is that good teaching really does help broaden students’ tastes, showing them things they can see on their own, but maybe wouldn’t have seen if you didn’t help point it out for them.

A simple example: when I was an undergrad, a professor once told me to remember, in reading Kafka, that it’s a comedy. I would never have thought of that on my own, but it opened *The Castle* up to me, and I was able to see what it was doing in a way that I absolutely wouldn’t have before.  I thought it was good only after he told me that, but if he had framed the conversation in “evaluative” terms, it wouldn’t have added anything to the discussion, or my benefit from it.

By on 05/29/08 at 02:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jesus, Aaron.

1. There are ways of being evaluative or appreciative other than saying “This is good”. Let’s keep away from the “This good! Grog like!” strawman.

2. On the other hand, why should a contested but meaningful term like “good” be taboo? You seem to be saying, “Yes, some books are good, but we should never, never say so. We can perhaps send out coded messages”.

3. I am not really mystified. Graduate students are trained like dogs, and one thing they’re trained to do is to never say “This is good”. By the end of the first year, grad students brain scans go crazy when the taboo words are heard.

By John Emerson on 05/29/08 at 03:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Aaron: “When you say “But literary quality really does exist, and is comparable from one work to another,” I find myself responding to this as an expression of faith, not an argument.”

It has more historical evidence behind it than nearly anything else in literary studies.  Starting with, again, the Epic of Gilgamesh, there has been long-term and even cross-cultural agreement on what is good and what isn’t.  Who knows, maybe our culture will change so that we no longer read ancient Greek plays or, for that matter, Tolstoy.  But until then, it’s not an expression of faith at all, just an observation.  Ordinary readers talk about whether books are good or not.  If academics can’t, then that’s their loss of capability, not an increase in sophistication.

“If it wasn’t good at something, we would all have ignored it. The fact that it’s good at something is implied by the very fact of its being worth talking about”

That’s no longer true.  People study all kinds of cultural artifacts not because they are good, but for historicist reasons.  Or because they’re doing cultural studies.

“the question is, then, what is it good at?”

I’m tired of cryptonormativism, basically.  People no longer want to admit, even to themselves, that they are making students study something because it’s good.  The closest they’ll come is because it’s historically important.  It leads to weird misreadings like “you also seem to take it as an article of faith that teaching is simply a matter of requiring students to read good books”, which I have never written in any way, shape, or form, because the alternative to admitting to cryptonormativism is to say that other people are too simple.

Evaluative critics often tell people how to read works.  It’s just that instead of the nudge-nudge wink-wink say-no-more of “Remember that The Castle is a comedy” they say “In order to appreciate The Castle, I think it’s best to read it as a comedy.” Phrasing it as a pseudo-descriptive statement helps to acculturate students into academic standards of neutrality, basically.

By on 05/29/08 at 03:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

In my experience, there are are two scholarly groups in the humanities who tend to explicitly avoid evaluation: theorists and cultural critics. For theorists, evaluation in the vein Bordwell talks about is more or less anathema, but then most theoretical writing isn’t really structured around close readings of literary texts or narrative films. Philosophy, psychoanalysis, and social theory are the real Canon, and in that framework it’s always seemed to me that theory is as or more saturated with evaluative gestures than the kind of film criticism Bordwell is championing.

In Cultural Studies, “evaluating” texts of popular culture as part of an academic argument seems to miss the point of the “cultural work” these texts perform. The pro-evaluation arguments here are really a proxy for the the whole high culture/mass culture problem, where the real question is whether literary critics and films studies scholars and teachers should be in the business of inculcating refined taste, or paint with a broader palette. And here I think it’s possible to do both at once—to challenge our students’ and readers’ conceptions of aesthetic value and norms with rigorous avant-garde texts while also embracing things like “Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle.”

(Within genre-writing communities, I’m sympathetic to what Rich said above about the possible benefits of more, and better, evaluative writing.)

Scholars who work on literature in a more-or-less historicist way do tend to be less interested in evaluation, but I’m not sure I accept the premise that this kind of academic writing is evaluation free. Many critics say they’re uninterested in doing it, but they often do it all the same. (As a separate note, I’ve often been surprised about how central biographicism often is, even in “smart,” “rigorous” criticism.)

There are different ways of bringing evaluation into a critical essay without declaring it explicitly. Quite often, evaluation is built into the rhetorical context of an essay. If we write about well-known authors, we can assume that everyone accepts they’re important (evaluation is redundant; it’s already happened). Otherwise, we might be making the case for the importance of a set of historical texts or documents that might not be as well known as major literary texts (like, say, Virginia Woolf’s diaries, or W.H.R. Rivers’ “On the Repression of War Experience"), as part of what seems like an argument that isn’t ostensibly evaluative. Alternatively, if we write about lesser-known authors, we usually need to make a case for their importance, at least in passing, before getting to the “X,Y,Z” characteristics alluded to by Luther B. above. Otherwise, the journal editors take forever to get back to us…

By Amardeep Singh on 05/29/08 at 03:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Hi, Amardeep.

In my experience, there are are two scholarly groups in the humanities who tend to explicitly avoid evaluation: theorists and cultural critics.

The avoidance predates both. It was in place when I was an undergraduate at Hopkins in the late 1960s. Somehow or another the question came up in the discussion section of my Milton course (taught by a DC Allen, who had a WCFields-like comic delivery). The TA was British and indicated that evaluation was OK in England, but was beside the point in American departments.

People study all kinds of cultural artifacts not because they are good, but for historicist reasons.  Or because they’re doing cultural studies.

Rich, do you grant that this is intellectually legitimate, even though it doesn’t meet the needs of the general public; or do you think it should be banned from the face of the earth? It’s one thing to argue that academic literary scholars should augment what they are doing with something that they’re not doing. It’s another thing to assert that what they’re currently doing is nonsense and should be stopped.

By Bill Benzon on 05/29/08 at 04:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Speaking for myself and not for Rich, I contain multitudes and my father’s house has many mansions. Historicism, culture studies, and even theory are all cool with me, even if they eschew evaluation and appreciation.

What I object to is the conventional academic claim, whether tacit or explicit, that there’s something lesser, inferior, or wrong about evaluative or appreciative writing, and that those who avoid it somehow become more powerful or smarter or more penetrating.

And by and large, I do not think that the thing to worry about is me and Rich taking power and driving the historicists out into the street with their weeping families.

It’s not going to happen, and if it did happen, my weeping family can counsel the weeping historicist families and give them helpful advice about how to deal with it.

By John Emerson on 05/29/08 at 04:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I do not think that the thing to worry about is me and Rich taking power and driving the historicists out into the street with their weeping families.

Oh, I’m not worried about it. I’m just wondering about which particular set of curmudgeonly values I’m confronting here. Am I dealing with people who suffer from a lack of intellectual imagination and want to cut the intellectual world to fit their own measure, or am I dealing with people who fear that a baby has been tossed out with the dirty bath water.

By Bill Benzon on 05/29/08 at 04:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill, I’m not completely averse to the idea that it would have been nice if my side had won a few battles in the last forty years, even if that had meant, God forbid, that some of the people on the other side were all grumbly and bitter now, instead of me.

But ruining people’s lives and purging the university of everyone who disagrees with me is not a priority for me.

Not yet, at least.

By John Emerson on 05/29/08 at 04:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t find evaluative criticism somehow less than non-evaluative criticism, and I don’t think I’ve implied that I do.

What I question is what, beyond certain rhetorical effects, evaluative criticism tells us about an individual work of literature that adds something beyond descriptive/analytic criticism.  This isn’t to say that evaluative criticism shirks the responsibility of description and analysis.  To have anything like a respectable evaluative position, the critic had better have penetrating insight into the work of literature, which means describing and analyzing. 

But the second the critic evaluates the work of literature, s/he winds up moving away from it.  That’s the paradox at work here.  So if you care about the individual work of literature, the evaluation of it so often feels like ethics or politics or lifestyle advice on the sly.  The better evaluative critics—like James Wood or even Allan Bloom—foreground this fact.

By on 05/29/08 at 05:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

As a practical matter, John, most literary academics don’t publish much, if it all. They earn their keep through teaching. Some of them may well be the generalists you value, though the only reward they get for it is the satisfaction they get from teaching. I doubt that that brings you much joy and, in any event, you really want a system in which generalists are encouraged to publish and are as highly rewarded for that publishing as specialists currently are. That’s harder to manage.

For one thing, there is the problem of a career path. It’s not clear to me that young scholars can acquire the breadth of learning and experience required to do the sort of integrative work you’d like to see. So the system has to be rigged to contain prestigious senior slots for generalists, perhaps a college of general studies that focuses on undergraduate general eduction and on public outreach. Maybe some of these folks would like to write Rich’s SF appreciations.

What’s the likelihood of this happening? Not much.

By Bill Benzon on 05/29/08 at 05:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

A. I don’t find evaluative criticism somehow less than non-evaluative criticism, and I don’t think I’ve implied that I do.

B. What I question is what, beyond certain rhetorical effects, evaluative criticism tells us about an individual work of literature that adds something beyond descriptive/analytic criticism.

I can’t reconcile A and B. You seem to be saying that if evaluative criticism is any good, it would be just as good without the evaluation.

By John Emerson on 05/29/08 at 05:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

What you describe sounds like a ghetto. I can’t imagine it getting any respect.

If the right people really wanted to, something like what I hope for wouldn’t be hard to do. For example, hiring could require specialization, whereas advancement could favor generalists.

Careerism and methodology are indeed the problem (and neutrality). The university as it is, and most people in it, are deeply hostile to, and uninterested in, the kind of thing I’m talking about, and I don’t really see that changing. I’m really talking alternate universes here.

By John Emerson on 05/29/08 at 05:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

For example, hiring could require specialization, whereas advancement could favor generalists.

Yes.

By Bill Benzon on 05/29/08 at 06:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think that, besides professionalism and meritocracy (hard to define in open-ended generalist areas) it also comes down to neutrality, especially with regard to the normative aspect of generalism. In XIXc Britain there was enough cultural consensus (and respect for hierarchy) that Oxford dons could present themselves as sages of a Liberal, Conservative, or other tendency, whereas in the US everything will be contested.

By John Emerson on 05/29/08 at 06:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

There are ways of being evaluative or appreciative other than saying “This is good”. Let’s keep away from the “This good! Grog like!” strawman.

I guess at this point I have no idea what you mean by “evaluative criticism,” then, or what you think it would involve. Sure, “this is good” is only shorthand, and the discussion leading up to (or following from) that evaluation could be complex and sophisticated, but to evaluate means “to determine or fix the value of”.  So isn’t evaluative criticism ultimately criticism that assesses the value of the text in question?  Isn’t its question ultimately, “is it good?”

I don’t think that the academic literary establishment is doing anything to broaden and educate taste at all, not outside the universe of their decisions about which books to assign to their students.

Well, we do spend hours with them talking about those books.  Aaron gives one example of how a teaching moment changed his appreciation of a text.  We could all probably provide our own.  Thousands of professors, hundreds of students a year, hundreds of texts, decades of teaching: you do the math! (That’s not to ignore the various disconnects between this work and academic publications, of course.)

Re the “bad reader” (way back up the thread): I do think it’s worth considering whether there’s an ethical responsiblity to the text or the author. Wayne Booth talks in interesting ways about this in The Ethics of Fiction.

By Rohan Maitzen on 05/29/08 at 07:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Me: “People study all kinds of cultural artifacts not because they are good, but for historicist reasons.  Or because they’re doing cultural studies.”

Bill: “Rich, do you grant that this is intellectually legitimate, even though it doesn’t meet the needs of the general public; or do you think it should be banned from the face of the earth?”

I think that it’s intellectually legitimate.  I’m a humanist of the variety that thinks that anything that is important to people is worth studying, which certainly covers both historicist literary criticism and cultural studies.

But let’s not make that more than it is.  People are too eager to read everything as Culture War Round XXI and to label everyone as either on their side or not on their side.  The fact that I think that literary studies is a legitimate academic activity as practiced doesn’t mean that I think that literary studies academics are in general really involved in the needs or interests of readers outside academia.

And once again I admit to not understanding “career path” concerns.  Academics have a career path that ends in tenure.  Any felt restrictions after that are force of habit, or excuses for complacency, nothing more.  Any tenured professor could write all the SF appreciations that they wanted to if they wanted to.  If they don’t, it’s probably because they’ve been socialized to think of it as a disreputable activity through all the same ideology we’ve seen in this thread, all of this stuff about how we can’t even talk about what’s good because it doesn’t mean anything.

Actually, the person who comes closest to the kind of thing that I think some academics should be doing with regard to my own personal interests is the Valve’s own Adam Roberts.  (Hi, Adam.) Case in point, his Palgrave history of SF.  I shamelessly read it as a recommendations list, an evaluation of works from every period in the history of SF by a skilled and knowledgeable reader that I could use to see which important authors or books I hadn’t read.  And it works well for that purpose.  But it had to be written as a *history* of SF; I presume that it would have downgraded itself to paperback status if it had been a “Best of SF” book.  There’s something a bit wrong with that.

By on 05/29/08 at 07:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John, it’s easy to reconcile A and B. 

What you insist on leaving out is that I keep returning to a discussion of the *individual* text.  At the level of a reading of the individual text, I don’t think evaluative criticism adds much to our understanding.  So no, it’s not less than descriptive/analytical criticism; it’s equal to.

Evaluative criticism does add something to the debate, but it’s not about the individual work of literature.  To state my idea for the, like, twentieth time: evaluative criticism forces us to leave the text behind at the moment of evaluation to make an appeal to ethics, politics, civic responsibility, lifestyle enrichment, cultural capital, etc. 

That’s all fine and good, but it also makes literature into a subset of some other concern.  No doubt this is why the best evaluative critics—people like Matthew Arnold—wind up writing more about “culture and anarchy” than about particular works of culture.

By on 05/29/08 at 07:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yeah, but talking about something always leads you to other things. So maybe evaluative criticism isn’t purely talking about literature qua literature, but there’s no reason why literature should only be discussed qua literature.

The specialist’s isolating movement or analytic stipulation has done a lot of harm in many different fields. For example, a whole school of archaeology refused to communicate with historians or anthropologists.

For every A and every B it’s possible to say “Properly speaking, A has nothing whatsoever to do with B”. And many think of that as a super-smart move, but I think that it’s been terribly overdone.

I’m definitely in favor of less qua thinking. I think that complex approaches are best.

By John Emerson on 05/29/08 at 07:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

All right, agreed.  Now, the problem for me becomes: what are the standards for good evaluative criticism? 

Not surprisingly, I often hear that the best evaluative critics are those whose evaluations wind up being secondary.  The recent Slate discussion of “the death of the reviewer” makes this point re James Wood.  Laura Miller, I believe, suggests that she reads Wood not for his judgments, which she already knows she’ll find questionable, but for his insights about the texts themselves.  And these insights are largely a function of Wood’s descriptive/analytical abilities. 

This is a common idea: the insightful evaluator is the close reader, “even if we don’t agree with him.” Even those readers who want evaluative criticism don’t seem to care in the end about the evaluation.  What they want is the *desire* which might come from strong feelings and strong positions on literature. 

And that’s essentially my feeling on the matter.  I love critics who, driven by some intense love or hate of the material, given themselves over to an extended meditation on the work of art.  I don’t think the historicist necessarily has any less of this passion, even if s/he doesn’t make it the subject of his/her writing.

By on 05/29/08 at 08:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Once you get up to a high level of generality, including free normativity, there can’t be standards. Seriously. You’re in an area of freedom and doubt.

And yeah, it would be hard to organize a profession in that area, with hierarchies and career tracks and so on.

By John Emerson on 05/29/08 at 08:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Free Normativity!
Free Normativity!

I think you’re looking for someone who is independently wealthy, John, and who has more brains than money, more imagination than brains, and more guts than all of it.

Or the Cat in the Hat.

Whichever comes first.

By Bill Benzon on 05/29/08 at 09:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m not looking for anyone but me. I think that the present system is horribly constricted and taboo-ridden.

By John Emerson on 05/29/08 at 09:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I might add that a worse system would unquestionably be better. Someone good might slip through the cracks.

If you look at the way Brian Leiter has quantified philosophy, for example, there’s really no play at all. At any given time you know exactly how every grad school ranks and how every specialty and subspecialty ranks.

You don’t have to ask how the various “schools of philosophy” rank, because as Leiter has explained, there are no “schools of philosophy”, only philosophy itself (i.e., analytic philosophy). That other shit is for losers.

So a philosopher’s career path is cut and dried. And other disciplines are comparable, I suppose, though presumably less perfectly arrayed.

By John Emerson on 05/29/08 at 09:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John, what you’re describing seems like Silly Putty to me at this point.  Every jab someone takes just changes the shape of this amorphous dream of “free normativity” and anti-professional, standardless, affective axiomatics.

By on 05/30/08 at 09:46 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Scary, ain’t it? If there were criticism without standards, mere anarchy would be loosed on the world.

There hasn’t been any shape-changing, though. I have a pretty consistent idea about this which I don’t necessarily reveal in its entirety in my first 200-word blog comment.

By John Emerson on 05/30/08 at 10:05 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Mercifully, I think this thread is about dead--but some of you interested in evaluative criticism may be interested in Ronan McDonald’s recent exchanges with Nigel Beale at Nota Bene Books.  Nigel posted his review of McDonald’s book The Death of the Critic; one of McDonald’s main arguments there is that academics should return to more evaluative modes of criticism.

By Rohan Maitzen on 05/30/08 at 06:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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