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Monday, December 26, 2005


Posted by Daniel Green on 12/26/05 at 12:00 AM

This post is an addendum of sorts to Mirian Burstein‘s excellent critique of Lindsay Waters’ essay “Literary Aesthetics: The Very Idea.” Miriam has insightfully pointed out the essay’s conceptual flaws, and I would just like to amplify her suggestion that these flaws ultimately undermine what otherwise might be a valuable argument on behalf of aesthetic analysis in literary study.

"Literary criticism no longer aims to appreciate aesthetics — to study how human beings respond to art,” Waters asserts. “Do you get dizzy when you look at a Turner painting of a storm at sea? Do certain buildings make you feel insignificant while others make you feel just the right size? Without understanding that intensely physical reaction, scholarship about the arts can no longer enlarge the soul.” As Miriam notes, the ease with which Waters slides between “literary criticism” and “literary scholarship” is quite conspicuous. While I think it is manifestly true that “scholarship” (defined as the disciplinary discourse of literary study) has abandoned aesthetics as a focus of attention, it is harder to maintain that “criticism” has similarly turned its back on aesthetic “appreciation,” especially if you are willing to grant that literary criticism might still be produced by critics outside the ivy-covered walls. Waters apparently shares the now reflexive assumption that all seriously intended literary commentary originates from the academy, but a more useful approach to the problem he identifies might be to encourage a renewal of non-academic criticism that does take “literature itself” as its object, rather than the maintenance of specifically academic norms and protocols.

Waters is if anything even more vague and amorphous in his ostensible definition of the aesthetic as the “feeling” one gets when experiencing great art. Nothing in Waters’s essay conveys to me a very clear sense of what it is exactly that Waters wants us to return to when we finally do return to aesthetics beyond a rather saccharine idea of “emotion"--our “intensely physical reaction” to art. Waters doesn’t seem to realize how close his notion of studying “how human beings respond to art” is to Stanley Fish’s version of reader-response criticism--which posits that what counts in the literary experience occurs “in the reader"--while at the same time he identifies Fish as one of those pied pipers leading academic criticism astray. One could argue that both Waters and Fish are too quick to dismiss the formal qualities of literary texts--in my opinion, the elements with which all aesthetic analysis must begin--in favor of the reader’s response, but if I had to choose between Fish’s overemphasis on interpretation and Waters’ overemphasis on psuedo-sensation, I think I’d take the former.

I agree with Miriam that Waters’ concern for the reader’s soul “treads close to elevating art to a form of religion.” In their weakest moments, the New Critics were guilty of this as well, and in my opinion it was a discomfort with this tendency that led to New Critical formalism being supplanted by “harder” kinds of hermeneutics, reader-response theory being among the first. While feeling “dizzy” over a great poem is a perfectly fine response by individual readers, at some point one’s light-headedness has to be dispelled for further discussion of the poem to take place. It would be hard to maintain that very much of scholastic value is taking place in a classroom full of vertiginous students.

I find Waters’ invocation of Whitman particularly puzzling: “We cannot help feeling when we read Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, for example, that we are being inundated by words, as the poet piles clause after clause after clause upon us. We have to grapple with finding order (not to mention a verb) — to assert some kind of control. That kind of experience embodies the experience of the new democratic order that Whitman was celebrating, gives us a sense, not an idea, of that order.” The inundation by words in Whitman is real enough, but it seems to me that Waters has skipped over several steps in the reading process in his conclusion that we end up experiencing “the new democratic order that Whitman was celebrating.” Isn’t the first kind of “order” we struggle to find precisely a formal order, an aesthetic patterning or arrangement of the “clause after clause after clause” that will help us understand the innovations Whitman is introducing to poetry, the “sense” in which we are to appreciate Whitman’s overstuffed lines as verse? Miriam contends that Waters “keeps moving back and forth between the critic’s aesthetic response to art. . .and claims about what art itself does,” but I never get even an “idea” of what Waters thinks “aesthetic” means as applied to Walt Whitman’s poetry. It seems to me that he merely ushers meaning as proposition out the front door as he sneaks it back in through the side door.

A coherent account of the aesthetic effects of literature would have to include the reader’s experience of works of poetry or fiction, but I don’t see how a concept of aesthetics that focuses entirely on that experience could even be called “aesthetics” to begin with. The psychology of reading is a worthy subject of investigation, although surely the aesthetic is not simply a psychological state. Fish began emphasizing the role of the reader in the study of literature because some forms of “appreciation” threatened to devolve into simple veneration of the “verbal icon.” Although I agree with Waters that in subsequent years literary scholars too often “continue to shuck text of its form, reducing it to a proposition to be either affirmed or denied,” as far as I can tell what he calls “free aesthetic response” is just as oblivious of the effects of form in provoking “aesthetic response.” In seeking to be “free” it substitutes emotional immediacy for attentiveness to the designs and devices that determine (and often defer) meaning. As John Dewey maintains in Art as Experience, such attentiveness is itself ultimately liberating, as it expands our apprehension of what “experience” might be like. When Lindsay Waters asserts that Dreiser’s portrayal of Carrie Meeber allows us to “experience ourselves as vain and frail and ambitious,” he’s actually describing a response to the novel that constricts the literary experience, that reduces it to an opportunity for vicarious self-dramatizing.


Dewey’s view that attentiveness to art helps to expand our apprehension of experience is an important point. It’s one that critics would do well to consider when wondering “where to criticism?” - a question always worth asking, and of not only criticism of course.

One constant of criticism is that critics do well to pay close attention to the formal and substantive properties of any work.

Another is that they do well also to be quite conscious of bringing something of their own that they’ve created or mastered or focus on in depth – bringing some knowledge, usually, or experience into relation or into play with the literary work, say, that they are focusing on.

It need not be a scientific theory, or “T/theory,” that they bring. Even much scientific work does not involve theory - and virtually no work in the humanities does, not as theory is traditionally understood. The work that is done so much across virtually all disciplines involves classifying, organizing, analyzing, computing and so on. Such work does not involve testing for actual theories, nor should it. These are quite commonplace skills, but it is good that they be put to use for constructive ends someplace; it is good that they be carried out with great and painstaking skill for there are plenty of private and public rewards, plenty of benefits. The commercial market pushes away much of this work, so it needs to be supported in universities and elsewhere.

This is just to say that there is bountiful and much needed work in literary criticism that has essentially nothing to do with “theory” – this is the humanities after all, not the hard sciences, and so should be broadly humanizing, not narrowly technical in the main, by far. And that means taking up the great issues of today (and all time) with a great emphasis on today where so much work is badly needed.

So one important phrasing of the question doesn’t seem to me to be, What can criticism bring to art and literature?, though of course it will bring plenty - as will artists and other authors themselves - but, What can individual critics and institutions bring to criticism?, and for what (non-technical) ends? - especially, what vital public ends and needs? And of course this leads us back to the question of why it is important to do work in the humanities in the first place.

By Tony Christini on 12/27/05 at 01:53 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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