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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

Event Archive

cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

Event Archive

cover of the book How Novels Think

Event Archive

cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

Event Archive

cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

Event Archive

cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

Event Archive

The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

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

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Thursday, January 19, 2006

Human, Not So Human: A Few Quibbles About Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees

Posted by Sean McCann on 01/19/06 at 05:01 PM

I love Graphs, Maps, and Trees.  Who couldn’t?  If you’re not dazzled by the erudition and the data set, how could you fail to find instruction and delight in the nimbleness of Moretti’s mind and the brio of his prose?  But, love it thought I do, like Matt, Ray, and Jenny Davidson, I’m not so sure that GMT can really “delineate a transformation in the study of literature” as Moretti suggests (NLR 67).* I applaud Moretti’s remarkable commitment to research.  I admire his interest in “explanation” as against “interpretation” (even if I’m not sure the distinction finally holds up).  I’m attracted to his emphasis on “devices and genres; not texts.” And I welcome his enthusiasm for analogies and examples drawn from all sorts of disciplines arguably related to literary scholarship.  I’m still more taken by his intellectual seriousness and his evident appreciation for the artfulness of literary creativity.  But looking at the essays in combination and considering some of the many different sources of insight I think they combine, I don’t see a new methodology for literary study so much as a sterling example of comparative literary scholarship at its most inspired—a la Auerbach, Spitzer, Bakhtin.  Here’s an unscientific prediction.  There will be no school of Moretti, because only Moretti will prove able to do what’s on display here.

A few minor thoughts about why that might be so. 

First of all, I think it should be noted that, fruitful though it clearly is, the “quantitative” angle could easily become misleading.  It’s wonderful to see the graphs and to get a sense of the vast range of material that still needs to be discovered and understood.  But as Moretti notes (Graphs72), all this is just data until hypotheses are generated.  And it’s in the hypotheses (produced, btw, via “interpretation”) that Moretti’s most serious commitments and their potential limits standout. 

The real interest, as Moretti indicates throughout, is not so much in quantification as in the end it serves—“comparative morphology” (Trees62).  The central argument of the three essays, as I read them, is that literary form is a record of (highly various) forces that can be discovered by the scrupulous reader (102).  Among the places, Moretti puts this most clearly is a passage in Maps. It deserves to be, I think, a stunner of a line : 

Deducing from the form of the object, the forces that have been at work: this is the most elegant definition ever of what literary sociology should be. (97)

Perhaps I’m overreading, but “deducing” brought me up short.  I would have said that one fundamental implication of Moretti’s research program is that it should hold out little hope for deducing at all.  If you’re gathering information on the publication history of the novel, then presumably there is no object to investigate, only (to use the evolutionary terminology Moretti introduces) population groups.  And, if I understand correctly, short of molecular biology, the only way to understand population groups is via induction.  With the history of publishing and reading, too, that induction should arguably range over a pretty wide span of territory—including (to take up some points mentioned by Timothy Burke and John]) whatever can be gathered about readers, industries, markets, mediators, and institutions. 

Moretti leaves most of that material aside here, along with some of the existing scholarship (genre theory, as Matt notes, but also, e.g., publishing and literacy history) that emphasizes different factors than he places at the fore.  In other words, it’s not only pedantry to pause at the deduction thing.  As he was in the exhilarating early essays collected in Signs Taken for Wonders, Moretti remains form-centric.  And, while he makes that approach highly rewarding indeed, it rests on some basic assumptions whose unargued status (and, perhaps, inconsistencies) leave GMT less a portent of a new approach to cultural history than a brilliant example of literary criticism at its best. 

1) The most striking of those assumptions, indicated in Graphs, is the notion adopted from Russian formalism that literary genres function to “represent the most significant aspects of contemporary reality” (77, n.8).  Combining Shklovsky with Kuhn, Moretti suggests that genres resemble scientific paradigms and organize the perception of reality in productive but inevitably limited ways.  I find this an intuitively appealing notion, but I think you’ve got to acknowledge that it remains unproven and probably unproveable.  It’s not hard, for example, to consider other possible functions served by genres--preserving the shared values of a culture, say, or providing entertainment value.  Could such functions be consistent with the representation of “reality”?  Quite possibly, but it can take some creative interpretation to make the case. (Why did the movie musical flourish and decline?  Was it really the genre’s ability to represent reality?)

2) That first assumption, which reads form as a way to organize the perception of reality sits alongside a second assumption, with which it may be, but I think isn’t necessarily consistent.  This is the view expressed in the Conan Doyle section of Trees that sees the diversity, success, and failure of literary forms as the product of market selection.  The selecting agent here, of course, is not the pressure of changing historical reality itself, but the preferences of a popular readership.  (It’s possible to argue, of course, that readers will select for forms that represent reality well, but that doesn’t follow inevitably.)

3) Finally, the emphasis on reader selection runs up against the claim in the latter part of Trees, with its fascinating discussion of free indirect discourse, that history and social geography determine the use of literary techniques—a suggestion that more closely resembles the assumption noted in Graphs.

Although I think it interferes with some of the elegance of Moretti’s argument, I also believe that it’s a very good thing that the latter part of Trees re-introduces the emphasis on social geography emphasized by Maps .  Otherwise, the discussion of Conan Doyle could be taken to imply that Moretti’s method depends on a unidimensional model of the literary market.  Discussing the rise of the detective story, Moretti suggests that what survives is just what worked and what readers liked—so that the sale of pop fiction appears to function as something like an efficient market.  (“What the literary market is like: literary competition—hinging on form.  Readers discover that they like a certain device, and if a story doesn’t seem to include it, they simply don’t read it (and the story becomes extinct).” [48]) But, striking though this particular case study is, that impression will probably only work with a fairly narrow example—and one where low-cost entertainment lit is at the fore.  With cheap, mass circulation entertainment, it makes sense to assume that consumer preference probably shapes the production and popularity of literary fashion most directly.  Needless to say, however, not all literature is only a consumer good.  Just to choose some minor complications, some of it also serves pedagogical, ideological, and status purposes.  And those complications on the reception side are mirrored on the production side.  Moretti quickly considers and dismisses (with one striking, but still quite limited piece of data) the role of status in influencing the chances of literary success.  But surely the status battles of artists are a major engine of modern creativity, and the success they crave is not only secured by readership in numbers. 

Of course, Moretti doesn’t need to take the full range of these complications into account in order to have fascinating things to say.  But I think they cast some doubt on the analogy of literary scholarship to scientific research.  One further example.  Toward the end of Trees Moretti emphasizes the “the dependence of morphological novelty on spatial discontinuity,” drawing an implicit analogy to evolutionary speciation (62).  But, if I understand right, the essay combines two, not necessarily fully overlapping senses of environment: the market in which products compete for reader attention (emphasized in the discussion of Doyle); and the social world they claim to represent (emphasized in the discussion of free indirect discourse).  Especially when Moretti discusses Gabriel Garcia Marquez--surely a world novelist with an international market by the time he wrote Patriarch--it seems clear that these two kinds of environment differ and don’t necessarily overlap.  Only the first really works with the evolutionary analogy. 

Personally, I won’t be much disappointed if literary scholarship never really resembles scientific investigation.  I wish we all were as good as Moretti and shared his seriousness and creativity.  But I’m not sure a more rational form of literary history is needed.  At one point in Trees Moretti makes a rather striking comment about one reason why he thinks otherwise.  The comment comes in the course of Moretti’s disagreement with Alfred Kroeber about whether the evolution of biological species differs from the evolution of cultural forms.  Kroeber thinks there is a fundamental difference and that it’s evident in the convergence, as well as divergence, of cultural forms.  Moretti disagrees and raises the stakes, saying “the real content of the controversy, not technical at all, is our very idea of culture.” If we stress divergence:

then cultural history is bound to be random, full of false starts, and profoundly path dependent. . . .  If, on the other hand, the basic mechanism is that of convergence, change will be frequent, fast, deliberate, reversible: culture becomes more plastic, more human if you wish. But as human history is seldom so human, this is perhaps not the strongest of arguments. (55-56)

Perhaps not.  But that last witticism isn’t much of an argument either and, if I understand correctly, doesn’t really address Kroeber’s contention at all.  (Pointing out the human agency in unnatural selection doesn’t necessarily imply a belief that history is humane.) More seriously, aren’t we posed with a false choice here?  I’m way out of my depth with this stuff, but I would have thought that, if we take the analogy to evolutionary biology seriously, then neither convergence nor divergence would count as a “basic mechanism.” Wouldn’t both merely be the effects of random variation and selection?

If that’s so, Moretti presents us with a needless conflict, and one that suggests that a part of the motivation for his transformation of literary study may be the long-standing desire to purge culture of its humanist legacies.  I’m sympathetic to that goal in part, but I don’t think it’s really required for a meaningful cultural history. 

* On the Maps technique, let me recommend another superb precursor, Carlo Rotella’s October Cities


Comments

Two questions: what’s your position on the inner force of genre/entelechy issue, and would you advocate a strategically more irrational literary history?

By Jonathan Goodwin on 01/19/06 at 08:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

a) dubious

b) no

By on 01/19/06 at 10:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

There’s no need to be so expansive. Wasn’t much new historicist work motivated by a deliberate irrationality?

By Jonathan on 01/19/06 at 11:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Ask an expansive question, get an expansive answer.

Was much new historicism motivated by irrationality--or maybe anti-rationalism.  I’d say, yes, and that this was something new historicists shared with many of their cohort.  I don’t advocate it, though.

By on 01/20/06 at 07:28 AM | Permanent link to this comment

But you also don’t advocate more rationalism. You’re happy with the balance we have, then?

By Jonathan on 01/20/06 at 10:13 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The contrast word to “more rational” is “more empirical”, not “more irrational”. “Irrational” is just a smear word, like “heretic” or “pervert”.

By John Emerson on 01/20/06 at 01:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I admire his interest in “explanation” as against “interpretation” (even if I’m not sure the distinction finally holds up).  ...  And it’s in the hypotheses (produced, btw, via “interpretation”) that Moretti’s most serious commitments and their potential limits standout.

“Intepretation” is a tricky pile of concepts. The question of whether or not a carton of a dozen eggs is supposed to contain 12 eggs is not one requiring subtle judgment. By definition, a dozen equals twelve. Nor is much judgment called for in reckoning whether or not my left hand—perfectly normal as far as I can tell—contains 5 fingers. We can quibble over whether or not the thumb is to be counted as a finger, or we can use a different term, digit. That’s all mere semantics. However those semantics are resolved, once that is done, we count the fingers on my left hand and find out that we’ve got either 4 or 5 depending, of course, on those semantic quibbles.

A more substantial problem comes up in large scale cross-cultural research of the sort Jonathan Gottschall encountered in the study of fairy tales that he reported in his chapter of The Literary Animal. He looked at over 600 fairy tales in 48 cultures and was interested in whether males were more active than females, whether female attractiveness was important, and whether old women were stigmatized. Making those determinations requires judgment. So Gottschall did something that is quite common in such studies. He had three people, operating independently, judge such matters for each tale. Then he analyzed inter-judge agreement as part of the data analysis. Obviously, if the judges do not agree, then the study has little value.

This is rather different from generating explanatory hypotheses. As a first guess, however, I’m willing to say that all explanatory hypotheses are “generated” through some intepretative process. When a clinician makes a diagnosis, she’s certainly offering an interpretation of the various symptoms presented by the patient. But that does not imply that the diagnosis cannot also be an explanation. Asserting that such and such a bacteria has infected a person does provide an explanation for the symptoms. That explanation will be couched in the terms of the appropriate biomedical models and theories.  Some of those models and theories are better than others; some may be little better than hunches, while others will be quite detailed, and backed up by considerable evidence of various sorts. Whatever the case, a diagnosis leads to suggestions for therapeutic interventions. If the result of intervention is as predicted (for better or worse), then the explanation behind the diagnosis would seem valid.

And then there is literary interpretation. Where are the explanatory models to which they are linked? They may be there, but they’re pretty diffuse and certainly a long way from generating wide-spread consus.

Is there a possibility of arriving at something that is better than current critical procedures, but perhaps not so good as medical diagnosis (which is hardly a slam dunk)?

I think there is. But I also think these are difficult matters. In any event, we don’t need to arrive at sweeping conclusions now. All we need to do now is plan a next step or three.

By Bill Benzon on 01/20/06 at 03:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think, in this case at least, you’ve got it just backwards, John. This is a methodological question more than an epistemological one.

By Jonathan on 01/20/06 at 03:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Literature as Reification

The common view of literature is that it is the collected wisdom of great minds, the noblest thoughts expressed in verse, etc. There are many decent reason to dispute this view. The literary meme, if there is such a thing, generally functions as reification--a type of reinforcement of the ideologies, attitudes, belief systems and indeed epistemologies of the ruling classes. Shakespeare’s plays, used for centuries to teach the children of the bourgeoisie the Queen’s English, are an apt example of this. In numerous plays the “courtly” attitudes are upheld, working class characters are mocked (and, as with Malvolio, presented as uneducated morose churls to the nobles), and in general Anglo-Catholic and monarchist views are reinforced and promoted.

That is not to say courtly and aristocratic virtues may not be in part valuable. Reason, ethics, eloquence, a certain aristo-world view may be in themselves valuable. Classical scholarship, mastery of latin, knowledge of the greek philosophers are not trivial affairs, however irrelevant to modern technocracy and market capitalism. Yet what is overlooked by literature which proclaims the superiority of aristocratic virtue, is the brutal reality of the monarchy, the prisons, the disparity between nobles and commoners, the “golden and sanguine laws” as Shelley said. Yet even a Shelley is, I assert, a spokesman for the imperial throne, the virtual throne, if you will. For literature itself always relates to monarchist if not clerical context. It is no accident that most literary history involves “courtly “ themes, the Paolo and Francesca , Tristan and Isolde types of things--Camelot.

For most students of literature, courtly love and aristo virtue--whether hypocritical or actual-- are the contexts for literary interpretation. And 20th century realist writers, say a Dreiser or Hemingway, are repositioned, recontextualized in relation to the “perennial truths” of the aristocratic writers. The French realists are seen in relation to the ancien regime (which is, let’s admit, secretly loved). It should not be surprising that a catholic-monarchist such as TS Eliot would be viewed as “official” literature by the academic ideologues, and “realists” such as Hemingway or Dreiser disparaged--either implcitly or explicitly-- as yokels. So even the realist and leftist attempts to counter the monarchist and/or clerical Weltanschauung are, I believe, defeated. For the entire context of literature and literary interpretation is in essence aristocratic, and thus anti-empiricist, anti-democratic, anti-humanist......It also should not be surprising that Marx himself disparaged liberal writers and fabian socialist types who thought “exposing social injustice” was a proper political stance. For Marx, regardless of his flaws, perceived that the institution of “belle-lettres” is contaminated with a sort of otherworldly (ultimately theological or superficially platonic ) ideology, where Truths simply exist immutably and unquestioned. The move away from idealistic metaphysics--towards Darwin and economics-- is thus also a move away from belle-lettrist dreams.

By Y. on 01/20/06 at 03:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Y:

There’s an interesting book by Havelock called “Preface to Plato”. In it he argues that the reason why Plato was anti-poetry was that, in his world, Homer especially (and the tragedians also to a degree) had the kind of authority that the Bible does among fundamentalists. People would justify what they were doing with snatches of Homer, or would read Homer for clues when making a difficult decision. In other words, for many the poets were the primary source for ethical and polticial wisdom—and Plato was trying to sypersede the poets with an entirely different, conflicting form of wisdom.

(Peripherally: many of the tragedies can be read as enactments of the dilemmas created in conflicts between family and personal needs and obligations, and law).

In China likewise. In Owens’ words, in China “poetry was not fictional”. All poems were meant to tell people how things really are, and widely-accepted poems had public authority, even in government.

By John Emerson on 01/21/06 at 02:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"So even the realist and leftist attempts to counter the monarchist and/or clerical Weltanschauung are, I believe, defeated. For the entire context of literature and literary interpretation is in essence aristocratic...”

Is “the entire context of literature and literary interpretation in essence aristocratic” in light of the street level protests roused by Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, or the democratic political reforms enacted in part because of Sinclair’s The Jungle or the literary writings of Dicken’s and Charles Reade?

Hardly.

I’ll quote from my recent article, Progressive Political Fiction which hardly contextualizes or shows literature being contextualized aristocratically and anti-democratically - in fact, by far the opposite:

More evidence of the terrific viability of polemic and explicit political commentary and literature as art is the fact that great socio-political satire has virtually always existed, in diverse types of literature, often of high aesthetic caliber. Satire is nothing if not polarizing and didactic, and it is obviously often quite insightful, useful, and aesthetic - lively and powerful.

If one has the opportunity to teach or read the famous progressive political play Waiting For Lefty sometime, one might be surprised, as a colleague of mine recently was, at the quality of the writing – found in much of Odet’s writing – and also by the enthusiastic response of those who find it stirring and uplifting.

About Waiting For Lefty and progressive movements, Michael Denning writes, in The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (1997):

“A new radical culture was taking shape. On 6 January 1935, the audience at New York’s Civic Repertory Theatre, 1,400 strong, chanted ‘Strike! Strike!’ at the end of the first performance of Waiting for Lefty. An unknown one-act play about a taxi strike by an unknown playwright, performed by Group Theatre actors to benefit the left-wing magazine New Theatre, Waiting for Lefty captured the imagination of this movement; theater groups across the country produced it. By the end of the year, Waiting for Lefty was ‘the most widely performed play in America – and the most widely banned.’ America, it seemed, was waiting for lefty. The heart of this cultural front was a new generation of plebeian artists and intellectuals who had grown up in the immigrant and black working-class neighborhoods of the modernist metropolis.”

Today in theater, there is the phenomena of Aristophanes’ anti-war play Lysistrata, the political value of which apparently, has not diminished in over 2,000 years – in fact has almost surely grown. Lysistrata has become a significant part of anti-war work and other cultural action today. See, for example The Lysistrata Project.

About the play and project, Joanne Laurier reports:

“Billed as ‘The Largest World-Wide Theatrical Protest for Peace,’ readings of the ancient Greek antiwar comedy Lysistrata were held in 59 countries and in all 50 states in the US on March 3, 2003 [to protest the imminent US ground invasion of Iraq]. The global readings, which totaled more than 1,000, were organized by New York City actresses Kathryn Blume and Sharron Bower. The origins of the event were explained by the actresses on the web site of The Lysistrata Project: A Theatrical Act of Dissent: ‘Before we started Lysistrata Project, we could do nothing but sit and watch in horror as the Bush Administration drove us toward a unilateral attack on Iraq. So we emailed our friends and put up a web site. The response has been enormous’.”

Thus, Aristophanes’ polemic play Lysistrata – nearly two and half millenia old, written during the Peloponnesian War – continues to engage and activate today and provides an example of progressive polemic art that is timeless, universal, and useful to the public, not least.

Just so, as Bernard Smith states in his important (and forgotten) book, Forces in Literary Criticism (1939), “The ideological issues – moral, political, social, and the rest – ... are the sine qua non of literary criticism” just as they are among the essential elements of imaginative literature. “Devoid of them, criticism [and art] is likely to be a game of words – abstractions which can have no meaning to men and women who laugh or weep at a play because their feelings as human beings are touched.” Though surely art can be meaningful and abstract at once, something more is usually needed, especially for character based art, fiction. There is the urgent need not for:

“literary criticism [and art…that] tends to create a literature that will express the sensibilities and experiences of a few fortunate men...[but a criticism and art] that tend to create a literature that will express the ideals and sympathies of those who look forward to the conquest of poverty, ignorance, and inequality – to the material and intellectual elevation of the mass of mankind….”

Or, at this stage of history, to its very survival.

Aristophanes lived during a destructive war that he tried to help stop, just as we live during a prominent war and occupation that ought to be ended now. And the point of Lysistrata was hardly confined solely to the Peloponnesian war. It’s readily understood to be aimed at curbing destructive “state” power more broadly, and at examining how people, women in particular, may or may not rally to curb such power…. Some of the play’s critique of gender is spot on today too.

People and institutions of the literary establishment must ask themselves should readers and audiences of imaginative literature really be discouraged from art that helps to illuminate and invigorate by way of didactic forms such as gripping polemics or other techniques of purpose? Is such discouragement remotely conscionable? Does such discouragement not serve the interests of oppressive power and even violate critics’ and artists’ own sense of dignity and values? The question is not only, What’s the matter with Kansas? that is, with “middle Americans” voting against their own self interests and values. It’s just as much, and in fact far more so, for relatively privileged liberals and conservatives both – What’s the matter with intellectuals and artists, and their institutions? Clearly, the question is just as much, Why are so many literary figures speaking and writing against the common good and apparently even against their own basic values? What’s the matter with intellectuals and artists? Do readers and viewers not want or find useful art that explicitly, pointedly, purposefully helps to: 

“explore fundamental questions of human experiences: What is worthy of our labor? How do human beings communicate ideas, emotions, and endeavors? What is just or corrupt, beautiful or repugnant, noble or disgraceful? How do different cultures honor and enact what they value? How should we balance community responsibility and individual freedom? What does it mean to be human and what fosters that humanity?”

How inappropriate, lamentable, and debilitating aesthetically and otherwise that “questions such as these are examined in the context of major texts in literature, philosophy, scholarship, and the arts, as well as lived experiences” in a manner at all overt. Can this be art?

Or does a work of art somehow not exist beyond its aesthetic components – especially if it is any good? And is art with purpose, especially one that is explicitly progressive, inherently non-aesthetic? Is there no need for and no way of creating art which forthrightly helps engender

“women and men who can think, reason and communicate clearly; who understand the complexity of problems and who can look beyond a ‘quick fix’; who are willing to question that which is taken-for-grant-it; who recognize and assess the ethical consequences of decisions; who are resourceful, creative and open to innovations and change; who cultivate their imaginations; and who can critically evaluate and appreciate alternatives[?]”

---

Sure, some people believe that political writing cannot be literature or literary, that such work is not aesthetic, that the political expression is in the wrong form, wrong genre – for one must be significantly “above the battle” in the eyes of those who have “naturally cultivated a distaste for, and eschewed” such fiction – those of the so-called liberal and conservative establishment, and those who aspire to be like them, and to possibly join their ranks, as V.F. Calverton notes in The Liberation of American Literature (1939):

“That the attempt to be above the battle is evidence of a defense mechanism can scarcely be doubted. Only those who belong to the ruling class, in other words, only those who had already won the battle and acquired the spoils, could afford to be above the battle. Fiction which was propagandistic, that is, fiction which continued to participate in the battle, it naturally cultivated a distaste for, and eschewed. Fiction which was above the battle, that is fiction which concerned only the so-called absolutes and eternals, with the ultimate emotions and the perennial tragedies, but which offered no solutions, no panaceas - it was such fiction that won its adoration. “It is possible that we are growing a bit tired of the novel with a purpose,” The Nation declared in its issue of April 18, 1912, reflecting that change in the process of consummation, and then adding in a carping vein that the “American novelist, like the American playwright, has listened to the counsel which urged him to look for his materials in problems of the nation and the day.” The new aim was to escape social reality and to exalt individual emotionality. In short, this new ideology, like that of all leisure classes, sought to cultivate literature as a form of escape - escape either from boredom or from its own limitations of self and soul.”

Nevertheless, there is a long history of literature that has been formed and understood and been effective in greatly democratic circumstances and contexts of all sorts - including a good bit of high aesthetic caliber as well. The evidence of this is clear and readily available.

By Tony Christini on 01/23/06 at 12:19 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks, Bill.  I understand that there’s interpretation and interpretation.  Say, that there might be an important difference between interpretation oriented toward developing aesthetic appreciation and interpretation oriented toward developing historical explanation.  Nevertheless, I think it’s worth pointing out that, so long as you’re talking about the latter, there’s just no distinction to be drawn between explanation and interpretation. Perhaps this is not important, but I think there are places where Moretti risks overselling what his work can deliver.  Talking about the quantitative material in “Graphs” for example, he notes that it’s important because quantification can generate data that’s independent of viewers (68).  I had to pause and consider that line before I realized that it’s not really saying that much.  Doesn’t pretty much all interpretation (except of dreams, maybe) begin from data that everyone agrees is independent of the viewer?  With most literary interpretation, your data is your texts, and typically, there’s little argument about the material to be considered.  What would be remarkable, of course, would be if quantification could deliver explanations of literary history that were convincingly independent of the viewer.  But, as Moretti points out, that’s just not the case for what he’s doing. (As Rich or Joe O suggested somewhere, I think, if the quantification we’re to do more, presumably some higher power math-- regression analyses or something--would need to be involved.)

I don’t want to pooh-pooh the remarkable work Moretti and his colleagues have done in identifying fascinating phenomena that need explanation.  But I do want to note (the obvious perhaps) that, so far, this is what “Graphs” does.  To me, that seems different in degree, but not in kind from what would happen if, say, a lost archive we’re discovered. 

My banal point, I suppose, is that quantification does not yet look prepared to square the hermeneutic circle.  A minor note on that topic. You say that the explanatory models in literary interpretation are pretty diffuse.  True.  One of the points I was trying to raise, however, is that Moretti’s models are actually pretty diffuse too.  (As he notes at some point [in Trees, I believe], his current work resembles the Marxist sociology of his earlier work, without the delimited explanatory model Marxism once provided.) I think that doesn’t stand out because he handles all his material so brilliantly.  But given how many different forces are described as acting on literary forms in GMT, I wonder as I said whether the book provides models and methods so much as an example of a brilliant cultural historian at work.

By on 01/23/06 at 12:32 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Sean,

I think that these are good questions, but I feel pretty sympathetic to Morretti and would like to address your concerns about form and selection in Moretti’s project.

(1) Setting aside the explanation/interpretation question, the Marxist connection between form and “reality,” a connection which has proved its enormous interpretive power in plenty of work (I’d single out Lukacs here) is not an essential tenet of Moretti’s work, IMHO, if translated either into older base/superstructure terms or into the perception/reality terms of your question.  To phrase the question in terms of reality and perception is to require a robust understanding of how readers actually engage with and understand their books.  This is no more necessary, from an evolutionary standpoint, than it is necessary to understand how, for instance, a female peacock consciously “feels” about her preference for a more brilliant mate.  What is more important is the post-priori recognition of a trend in decision, and the association of that trend with specific factors.  To restate the point, it doesn’t matter how readers understand their preferences, or what degree of connection they see between what they are reading and how they perceive the world—so long as they participate in a common behavior, and this behavior can be associated persuasively with some consistent factor about the works they choose.  Believe it or not, a lot of evolutionary statistical analysis is rooted in correlation, not causation, and the work to get toward concrete causal explanations is usually much more tentative than the recognition of patterns and statistically meaningful associations.

(2) While there ay be a valid distinction between readership and the historical moment, I do not see how they could be understood as isolated, without some argument for normative human nature.  It makes sense to propose that the selective behavior of a readership is historically determined and intimately related to those very same factors which comprise “changing historical reality.” From the standpoint of the literary work, it’s the difference between a thinner and thicker description of the environment.

(3) Your third point, I believe, hinges upon a distinction between author and reader—the author and her choice of technique as historically constrained, versus the reader’s decisions relative to consumption.  As I’ve argued, I think these are both historically located, and moreover, I think the distinction between formal possibility and the horizon of innovation, versus consumption behavior, is essential to an evolutionary view.  They are the counterparts of epigenetic possibility and selective forces in evolutionary theory.

The debate between convergence and divergence is also a bit of a red herring, I think.  “Divergence” only appears to be the watchword of natural selection if the broad scale of species differentiation is considered.  At the level of populations, genetic drift, etc, convergence is at least as significant, probably more.  Moreover, sexual selection was an evolutionarily developed method of formalizing convergence, as are the various methods of genetic transfer used in lower organisms.  More generally, the dialectical opposition of convergence and divergence, while a useful tool for thinking about these questions, does not have an essential epistemological ground outside, perhaps, of the third law of thermodynamics.  Useful to think with, but simply not analytically determinative.  And at some level it is our difficulty in isolating determinative differences between culture and nature, as well as our continuing attempt to do so, that highlights the confusion that the category of culture presents.

More generally, I think that the analogy between scientific research and literary scholarship will never prove generally applicable--few literary scholars want to do the kind of analysis Moretti suggests, and would be willing to undergo the kind of formal training (statistical analysis, programming, etc.) that will probably be required.  But there are some who are very interested in doing this and do have the qualifications.  What Moretti has argued effectively, I think, is that these kinds of techniques will open up questions which could never be posed otherwise.  While the ultimate practice of this work will probably look markedly different, I do believe Moretti will be its recognized founder.

By on 01/23/06 at 12:42 AM | Permanent link to this comment

<My banal point, I suppose, is that quantification does not yet look prepared to square the hermeneutic circle.>

Nor will it ever. Whatever quantification can achieve, it will never yield a machine for chranking out interpretations like a sausage grinder cranks out sausages.

By Bill Benzon on 01/23/06 at 07:01 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Whoops!  Not will quantification ever square the hermeneutic circle.

That will remain forever an ellusive mirage. In some sense, we know all of interpretation that we will ever know. No doubt we will develop new systems of interpretation, new sources of meanings to be found in texts, but the problematics if interpretation will be ever with us.

Which is one reason for at least someof us to look at doing something else.

By Bill Benzon on 01/23/06 at 07:06 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill, it might be reason to look for doing something else, but what Moretti does in GMT aplenty is interpret his data using a wide range of historical information and explanatory models.  As far as I can tell, this is very creative cultural history.  It’s not an alternative to interpretation, but a form of it. 

Devin, I think your point one applies to “Trees,” but not to “Graphs,” where Moretti does make his argument hinge on presumptions about the way readers engage with and understand their books--e.g., in the discussion of the role of politics.

I certainly wouldn’t claim that readership could be isolated from history.  My point is that, only in the most limited examples would it be unnecessary to gather informtion about readership because only in the most limited contexts can it be assumed that readers actually do participate in common behavior.

I certainly would make a distinction between readers and writers, but that’s not my main point in #3.  What I want to say is that, if an evolutionary model is to have any particularly rigorous explanatory power, than its terms have to be used narrowly.  If environment can refer to two independent contexts--literary market and the social reality being represented (contexts which in the case of Marquez and Vargas Llosa seem to me clearly independent)--then environment is just being used in too many fashions at once to function as a genuine evolutionary argument.  In such a case, it’s being used, I believe, as analogy.  I have no complaint against that, and wouldn’t argue that it has interpretive usefulness.  I just don’t believe it’s a new form of historical understanding and alternative to previous models of cultural history.

I agree that Moretti has opened up new areas of consideration and think that’s fabulous.  How many questions, however, has he asked that would never be asked otherwise?  Frankly, in GMT, I see a brilliant variation on an old question--about the rise of the novel.  He’s got more robust data, but it’s not actually a new issue, I think.  I’m not qualified to even consider this, but you know a really new question, I think, would be to try to devise mathematical novels to consider whether the history of novel publication and readership compares to the historical patterns for other media.  Having written that, I realize it sounds terribly churlish.  So let me reiterate, I love what Moretti does too.

By on 01/23/06 at 10:42 AM | Permanent link to this comment

> information and explanatory models.  As far as I can tell, this is very
> creative cultural history.  It’s not an alternative to interpretation, but
> a form of it.

I think “interpretation” is a particularly weak word for describing work in the realms of literature. As far as I’m aware, it’s like “explicate” - it means nothing other than explain or analyze or discuss in some context. Serves merely to fancy things up a bit. Interpret? Can it be that people need other people (literary experts) to read for them? The word interpret seems deceptive, as if something needs to be translated from or into literaryese.

Edwin Muir, in The Estate of Poetry (1962) notes:

“...that great poetry can, or once could, be a general possession is a fact
which we should not forget: those of us who write poetry, and those of us who
criticize it. If we could keep it in mind, I think it would give us a
more just and adequate idea of poetry...” (22) “[A reporter] quoted Mr. [T. S.]
Eliot as saying that ‘criticism of poetry began and ended in enjoyment,’
which I think is the traditional practice. But the observation that is most
illuminating in this report is that ‘a genuine poem may arouse a very great
number of differing responses, yet there will be always something in common
between them,’ and that this is what poetry is for. There have been some very
strange responses to poems, as Mr. Richards has shown so convincingly in his
book, Practical Criticism, responses which seemed plainly to contradict one
another. Yet, even allowing for this, there will be something in common
between people’s varied responses to a poem, and the poem exists for
that purpose. If we believe this, poetry takes on a wider significance
than it is currently allowed, and lets in the
ordinary unanalytical reader, and with him human nature.
People will read poetry for enjoyment, since that is what it is
intended for; and they will not, except in a few exceptional cases, take it up
as a strict methodical study. And it may be said that they will get more help,
both in enjoyment and understanding, from the traditional critic who
tells them what the poem means to him, than from the new one who warns them that it cannot
possibly mean what it appears to mean, so that he has no choice left but to
explain it. The divorce between the public audience and the poet is widened by
this critical method; or perhaps one should rather say that the method
legalizes the divorce as a settled and normal state. And that is what we feel
to be wrong...” (76-77)

By Tony Christini on 01/23/06 at 01:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

To me, reading literature is like driving a car. Criticism ("interpretation") is mostly “about” driving, but is also inevitably about cars. What Moretti is talking about sounds like a history of the auto industry. And it’s all fine, and it has relevance to driving and to cars, but I don’t see the sense that it’s an alternative to reading or criticism.

The way in which it IS an alternative to reading, interpretation, appreciation, or criticism, is the bureaucratic / disciplinary way. When it comes to staffing departments and finding jobs for grad students, you are in a zero-sum pie-dividing world, and this kind of methodological dispute has a tremendously importance which is entirely independent of its intellectual interest or intellectual justification.

And if you are trying to convince a skeptical social scientist that English professors really do do something real, this would be great, too.

In some sense, we know all of interpretation that we will ever know.

In some sense, I suppose.

By John Emerson on 01/23/06 at 02:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

While social realist fiction such as The Jungle may alert people to political problems, economic and social injustices etc., a thoroughly researched non-fictional account of the meatpacking industry would provide more reliable and confirmable information, and in the end would I think be more valuable in terms of ameliorating the problem.  Sinclair probably wrote in fictional form since he assumed with fiction he would “get more bang for the buck” so to speak, then he would by writing some non-fictional expose. And since writers of fiction are not really required to be accurate in terms of reporting evidence or data, writers may exaggerate or invent various situations: most scholars assert Steinbeck invented a lot of his numbers and claims about the Okies in CA in the 20s and 30s.

Really I would modify my claim that all literature and literary endeavors are inherently aristocratic.  Expressionist writers such as Kafka, perhaps Dostoyevsky, some of the Beats, etc. are not trying to reaffirm aristocratic values. The Metamorphosis is more akin to a well-crafted scream: as territorial and primordial as aesthetic. Yet regardless of the intentions of a Kafka, academic Lit. Inc. sort of absorbs the expressionist writers (as it did earlier literary and political rebels such as Shelley), and the “contextualization” and aestheticizing begins. 

Maybe that is similiar to what Sontag was claiming in “Against Interpretation”, but I would modify that by saying there is a sort of proper psychological response to works of literature or myths, but that aesthetics and a sort of weight of tradition interferes with it: Oedipus Rex does refer to a human condition which could arise, and the metaphor may reveal various more or less psychologcal issues, since the real history is rarely known. If we grant mental states and instincts such as hubris, ambition, vindication, lust, etc. then I think Aristotelian interpretations of a literary work sort of apply, but not consistently: is there some necessary catharsis? I don’t think so. (that sort of aristotelian critique is also very profitably used by Tory types, obviously).

By Y. on 01/23/06 at 03:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

> While social realist fiction such as The Jungle may alert people to
> political problems, economic and social injustices etc., a thoroughly
> researched non-fictional account of the meatpacking industry would provide
> more reliable and confirmable information,

Sure.

> and in the end would I think be
> more valuable in terms of ameliorating the problem.

Not necessarily. Society and culture are too unpredictable.

> Sinclair probably
> wrote in fictional form since he assumed with fiction he would “get more
> bang for the buck” so to speak, then he would by writing some
> non-fictional expose.

If you mean socio-political “bang for the buck,” etc, he may have been right,
which may well contradict your claim about nonfiction being “more valuable in
terms of ameliorating the problem.”

> And since writers of fiction are not really required
> to be accurate in terms of reporting evidence or data, writers may
> exaggerate or invent various situations: most scholars assert Steinbeck
> invented a lot of his numbers and claims about the Okies in CA in the 20s
> and 30s.

Sure, one has to be careful with the facts. But plenty of nonfiction
writers are often lousy at getting the facts and understandings right.

> Really I would modify my claim that all literature and literary endeavors
> are inherently aristocratic.  Expressionist writers such as Kafka, perhaps
> Dostoyevsky, some of the Beats, etc. are not trying to reaffirm aristocratic
> values.

To an extent at least - though Dostoevsky was in many ways conservative
and even reactionary - so that many, say, liberals’ appreciation if not worship of him for political reasons is comical in its ignorance - and these are very far from the most revolutionary, fundamentally challenging authors.

> The Metamorphosis is more akin to a well-crafted scream: as
> territorial and primordial as aesthetic. Yet regardless of the intentions
> of a Kafka, academic Lit. Inc. sort of absorbs the expressionist writers (as
> it did earlier literary and political rebels such as Shelley), and the
> “contextualization” and aestheticizing begins.

The vast majority of academics choose to be very deeply invested in the status quo - in the US at least.

V.F. Calverton notes in The Liberation of American Literature (1932):

That the attempt to be above the battle is evidence of a defense mechanism can scarcely be doubted. Only those who belong to the ruling class, in other words, only those who had already won the battle and acquired the spoils, could afford to be above the battle. Fiction which was propagandistic, that is, fiction which continued to participate in the battle, it naturally cultivated a distaste for, and eschewed. Fiction which was above the battle, that is fiction which concerned only the so-called absolutes and eternals, with the ultimate emotions and the perennial tragedies, but which offered no solutions, no panaceas - it was such fiction that won its adoration. “It is possible that we are growing a bit tired of the novel with a purpose,” The Nation declared in its issue of April 18, 1912, reflecting that change in the process of consummation, and then adding in a carping vein that the “American novelist, like the American playwright, has listened to the counsel which urged him to look for his materials in problems of the nation and the day.” The new aim was to escape social reality and to exalt individual emotionality. In short, this new ideology, like that of all leisure classes, sought to cultivate literature as a form of escape - escape either from boredom or from its own limitations of self and soul.

Calverton adds:

Most of the literature of the world has been propagandistic in one way or another…. In a word, the revolutionary critic does not believe that we can have art without craftsmanship; what he does believe is that, granted the craftsmanship, our aim should be to make art serve man as a thing of action and not man serve art as a thing of escape.

By Tony Christini on 01/23/06 at 05:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

> Really I would modify my claim that all literature and literary endeavors
> are inherently aristocratic.  Expressionist writers such as Kafka, perhaps
> Dostoyevsky, some of the Beats, etc. are not trying to reaffirm aristocratic
> values.

I think there’s a problem with positing an “aristocratic class” that stretches accross the last 500 years of Western history.  Beside the obvious problems with such a postulate, to characterize the majority of literary criticism as rooted in aristocratic values (1) ignores the huge volume of more radical critique which developed over the last 20 years, and (2) ignores the origins of “close reading” in a post-G. I. Bill academic world trying to find an approach to reading and analysis that did *not* presuppose a large amount of elite knowledge.

By on 01/23/06 at 06:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sinclair’s use of fiction might have been motivated by libel / slander laws, and to his difficulties in getting key people to speak for the record. This is a pure guess on my part but I know that in the McKinley / Gilded Age period big money had a lot of leverage.

By John Emerson on 01/23/06 at 08:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Fiction which was above the battle, that is fiction which concerned only the so-called absolutes and eternals, with the ultimate emotions and the perennial tragedies, but which offered no solutions, no panaceas - it was such fiction that won its adoration.”

There is something to be said for the view which Calverton is critiquing, tho’ that sort of priviledged perspective is limited to a few. A Sinclairian, or Zola-ian, type of agenda would be more efficacious if done by means of sociology or economics. But the critic who takes either theist or marxist “truths” to be immutable often misses the point: authentic literature is opposed to dogma, idealist or materialist. An EA Poe has already conceived of an Upton Sinclair type of realism, as well as theological absurdities, and in effect surpassses them, and also transcends the critics or system builders who would put Poe’s tales into their schema. That is the to say, a well-crafted Poe story--say Hopfrog-- reveals the motivations and intentions of the creatures who allow the world to become the Dantean zone that it is: and reading literary works as various sorts of pathopsychological investigations is not the worst one could do. Shakespeare’ best tragedies also raise the possibility of the Dantean and pathopsychological: most of the characters in Macbeth or Othello embody a certain mafioso like amorality--yet the Lit. Biz sort of undermines this, or reads it as comedic, ironic, rhetorical, when in fact it is meant to be terrifying: the “Iago meme” would seem to be a bit more problematic and important than some plot device of Conan Doyle.  Critics and writers--either of the long-winded victorian type or hard-boiled realists---are, more often than not, unwilling to address in either fictional or non-fictional form the implications of malevolence, crime, and sadism; and a sort of sociological, literary data-collection also “remains above the battle.”

By Holofernes on 01/24/06 at 01:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

> “Fiction which was above the battle, that is fiction which concerned only
> the so-called absolutes and eternals, with the ultimate emotions and the
> perennial tragedies, but which offered no solutions, no panaceas - it was
> such fiction that won its adoration.”
>
> There is something to be said for the view which Calverton is critiquing,
> tho’ that sort of priviledged perspective is limited to a few.

On the contrary, it’s pervasive throughout the publishing world and in crucial ways throughout the literary establishment, as I’ve explained in detail elsewhere.

> A
> Sinclairian, or Zola-ian, type of agenda would be more efficacious if done
> by means of sociology or economics.

Various sorts of cultural criticism, taken to various extremes are written, at least to an extent in a variety realms, in a variety of ways. It can be done “efficaciously” in many different realms and ways. Only a seer could say always what, where, when, and to whom such work may be more or less “efficacious.”

> But the critic who takes either theist
> or marxist “truths” to be immutable often misses the point: authentic

Just to make clear: this has nothing to do with anything I’ve ever stated, and
little or nothing to do with the critical writings I’ve ever referred to.

> literature is opposed to dogma, idealist or materialist. An EA Poe has
> already conceived of an Upton Sinclair type of realism, as well as
> theological absurdities, and in effect surpassses them,

Sophocles and others millenia earlier had “already conceived” in part “of an Upton Sinclair type realism” not to mention Poe et cetera and those writings “in effect surpass” or equal plenty. Point being?

> and also transcends
> the critics or system builders who would put Poe’s tales into their schema.
> That is the to say, a well-crafted Poe story--say Hopfrog-- reveals the
> motivations and intentions of the creatures who allow the world to become
> the Dantean zone that it is: and reading literary works as various sorts of
> pathopsychological investigations is not the worst one could do.
> Shakespeare’ best tragedies also raise the possibility of the Dantean and
> pathopsychological: most of the characters in Macbeth or Othello embody a
> certain mafioso like amorality--yet the Lit. Biz sort of undermines this, or
> reads it as comedic, ironic, rhetorical, when in fact it is meant to be
> terrifying: the “Iago meme” would seem to be a bit more problematic and
> important than some plot device of Conan Doyle.  Critics and writers--either
> of the long-winded victorian type or hard-boiled realists---are, more often
> than not, unwilling to address in either fictional or non-fictional form the
> implications of malevolence, crime, and sadism; and a sort of sociological,
> literary data-collection also “remains above the battle.”

Any genre can be written to remain above the battle. Much depends on the how the genre is handled.

By Tony Christini on 01/24/06 at 04:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sir, I agree with Calverton and you for the most for the most part. That was my initial point: that the literary business typically aestheticizes texts or classifies them in various taxonomies, and this does sort of keep the discussion “above the battle.” But marxist auto-didacts--the anti-thesis to the Tory thesis--obviously have their own dogmatic aspects, one being, that social realism is to be encouraged and subjective or expressionist literature or art discouraged. Materialist, or at least anti-platonic perspectives (which I assume you share, amd Moretti himself indicated that his project was essentially materialist) of course don’t equate with marxist views. It is often marxists who sort of posit various ethical norms (the class struggle for one) which may not be empirically defensible.

The critical ideas of some marxist critics, say Adorno or Jameson, are more complicated than that, but I still think there is a tendency to classify subjectivist or expressionist writing as lower than the socially conscious: I suspect Jameson approves of a Zola or Sinclair rather than Poe or Nabakov: yet in many ways Poe’s psychological insights and artistry surpass that of a Sinclair rather greatly. My point, however trivial, was that authentic lit. may not be nearly categorized in either aristo-platonic terms or marxist; I tend to think that psychological interpretations, and evo-psychological perhaps, always take precedence, but that the connection of narrative, fictional characters and metaphor itself to mental states or behavior is not easily mapped with any sort of psychological schema; Wm. James or Pavlov may be as or more relevant to lit. that say Lacan or Foucault.

By Holofernes on 01/24/06 at 06:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

> Sir, I agree with Calverton and you for the most for the most part. That was
> my initial point: that the literary business typically aestheticizes texts
> or classifies them in various taxonomies, and this does sort of keep the
> discussion “above the battle.”

Yes, maybe I should have noted where it’s clear that we share a more or less
similar understanding. I would add though that oftentimes political and other
normative issues are dealt with head on, but still, often, the academy is not
very politically progressive, and this is very common too among those
who might call themselves Marxists or think of their work as Marxist, or liberal, or revolutionary, and so on.

> But marxist auto-didacts--the anti-thesis
> to the Tory thesis--obviously have their own dogmatic aspects, one being,

The antithesis of a dogmatist is not another dogmatist. That’s about as useful
and sensible as saying the political spectrum runs from tyranny to
totalitarianism. Far more useful to note a spectrum running from various forms
of tyranny/totalitarianism to various forms of democracy.

And calling someone or some work Marxist is like calling them or it Christian. It could mean anything, and not infrequently does. Barbara Foley in Radical Representations (1993) has done some of the best work on the Marx related and socially conscious literature and criticism of the thirties and has found - as is evident to anyone who reads the primary sources - that such literature expressed a full spectrum of views.

> that social realism is to be encouraged and subjective or expressionist
> literature or art discouraged.

And Foley found that the opposite was often the case. Take a look at what Engels wrote in 1888:

Letter to Margaret Harkness (excerpted by George Steiner in “Marxism and the Literary Critic,” 1958, in Language and Silence, 1967): “I am far from finding fault with you for not having written a point-blank socialist novel, a ‘Tendenzroman’ as we Germans call it, to glorify the social and political views of the author. That is not at all what I mean. The more the opinions of the author remain hidden, the better for the work of art.”

or this:

Frederick Engels wrote the following in a letter to an early ‘proletarian’ novelist who asked for Engel’s help in popularizing his novel: ‘Look at your heroine, with her dialectical materialist eyes and her economic determinist nose and her surplus value mouth. You take her in your arms and you kiss her. I know I wouldn’t want to’ (145).  –Vernon Hall, Jr., A Short History of Literary Criticism

And here, below, are Barbara Foley’s conclusions. I’m not aware of better work than hers on the matter:

“The 1930s literary radicals, I have demonstrated, brought various considerations to bear in their definitions of proletarian literature. There was, however, no party line on the subject. As Jack Conroy remarked retrospectively about the debates over what proletarian literature was, ‘We used to talk about it endlessly and never arrived at any definite conclusion’…. Even if writers did not feel bound to one or another definition of proletarian literature, [certain] critics argue, they felt obliged to conform to a rigid didacticism involving stock characters, formulaic plots, and a programmatic optimism. Art had to be a weapon and, as such, an instrument of propaganda. But since art and propaganda are antagonistically opposed, left-wing didactic literature was condemned to mouthing slogans and preaching conversion to the cause.

“In future chapters we will have the opportunity to determine whether proletarian novels were in fact as formulaic and predictable as their detractors charge. What I shall argue in this chapter is that there is very limited validity to the charge that routinely accompanies accusations of political straitjacketing—namely, that Third-Period Marxist critics, as mouthpieces for the party line, sought to impose a specifically propagandistic view of literature upon the writers in the party orbit. I shall show that left-wing literary commentators only rarely promoted the notion that literary works should impart or promote specific tenets of party doctrine; insofar as the critics had a coherent aesthetic theory, this theory was almost exclusively cognitive and reflectionist rather than agitational and hortatory. Indeed, I shall argue that in certain important ways the American approach to questions of representation and ideology was committed—as was the dominant tendency in all Marxist criticism of this period, Soviet and European—to a number of premises about literary form that were bourgeois rather than revolutionary. Literary radicals might applaud proletarian novelists whose works encouraged revolutionary class partisanship. Gold hailed Conroy as ‘a proletarian shock-trooper whose weapon is literature’; the novelist Ruth McKenney wrote Isidor Schneider that his From the Kingdom of Necessity was ‘a more powerful weapon than any tear gas the other side can manufacture.’ In general, however, commentators, critics and novelists alike, held back from theorizing—let alone legislating—any of the representational maneuvers specific to this literary weaponry. Their espoused commitment to the notion that all literature is propaganda for one side or another in the class struggle was countered by a deep antipathy to viewing proletarian literature as propagandistic in any of its distinctive rhetorical strategies. The 1930s radicals never fully repudiated the bourgeois counterposition of art to propaganda: to them, proletarian literature contained very different values and assumptions, but as literature, it was just like any other kind of writing. Ironically, to the extent that they were prescriptive in advocating any given set of aesthetic principles, the Marxist critics urged a largely depoliticized conception of mimetic practice that coexisted only uneasily with many of the values and ideas that they congratulated writers for articulating in their texts” (129-131).

–Barbara Foley, “Art or Propaganda,” in Radical Representations: Politics and Form in U.S. Proletarian Fiction, 1929-1941

> Materialist, or at least anti-platonic
> perspectives (which I assume you share, amd Moretti himself indicated that
> his project was essentially materialist)

I only have a vague idea of what “materialist” means, really, and even less of an idea
what “anti-platonic” means. Why? Because when I’ve seen these terms used, they
usually seem to me to be used crudely and capriciously and needlessly for the
sake of jargon, et cetera. So I don’t really trust them, tend to tune them out, and look for the common language that is usually far more honest and far more needed.

> of course don’t equate with
> marxist views.

Similarly, marxist views means about as much to me as does Christian views. It
has been used to mean almost everything under the sun, including much that is
utterly contradictory - also much that is factually inaccurate.

> It is often marxists who sort of posit various ethical norms
> (the class struggle for one) which may not be empirically defensible.

It is often most every group and individual that “sort of posit various
ethical norms...which may not be empircally defensible.” And those who see no class struggle in general, are those who are not looking.

> The critical ideas of some marxist critics, say Adorno or Jameson, are more
> complicated than that, but I still think there is a tendency to classify

Take a look through all my writings and excerpting and see how often I
refer to Adorno and Jameson. Almost never, or never. And likely never, in regard to social issues.

Why? You might get a sense of the reason here:

[Even the rebirth of Marxist criticism in the 1970s deviated from “history and sociology” in that]: “What was odd about the Marxist criticism of this [1970s] Renaissance associated with the post-1950s new left and the Movement was its complete disregard of the old left. Mention was never made of V. F. Calverton, James T. Farrell, Granville Hicks, Bernard Smith, Edmund Wilson, or other Leftist Critics prominent in the thirties. The native tradition of radicalism stemming from the nineteenth century had been forgotten during the heyday of the new left….”

“In H. Bruce Franklin’s view, what was wrong with academic literary professionals was their thorough immersion in the bourgeois ideology of formalism, which itself was rooted in the counterrevolutionary antiproletarianism of the thirties. ‘In the present era, formalism is the use of aestheticism to blind us to social and moral reality’….”

–Vincent B. Leitch, American Literary Criticism from the 30s to the 80s (Chapter Thirteen: “Leftist Criticism from the 1960s to the 1980s”) Leitch of course is the editor of the Norton Anthology of Criticism.

> subjectivist or expressionist writing as lower than the socially conscious:
> I suspect Jameson approves of a Zola or Sinclair rather than Poe or
> Nabakov: yet in many ways Poe’s psychological insights and artistry surpass
> that of a Sinclair rather greatly.

That may be true. It’s something I’ve never contested or considered with those
two. Is there a larger point? Some of Jack London’s psychological insights in
his great anarchist novel The Iron Heel surpass or are broader and more
important in many ways than Poe’s.

> My point, however trivial, was that
> authentic lit. may not be nearly categorized in either aristo-platonic terms
> or marxist;

To the extent that these terms have much coherent meaning whatsoever,
of course.

By Tony Christini on 01/24/06 at 07:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Those who insist on marxist dogma as the sort of foundation for all research and scholarship typically overlook a few significant problems: one, Marxist economic theory is not taken very seriously by anyone in econ.; the core concepts of Capital--the surplus value theory, say--are not accepted as true.  The marxist critique of political economy may be applicable or plausible in some circumstances, but it’s not like some objective truth, either analytically/deductively speaking or synthetic/inductive.  And tho’ we don’t have to agree with Holbo’s suggestion that Marxist-Leninism is a type of utilitarianism, there are at least some ethical issues involved with applied marxism. Marxism does seem to suggest that communism--proletarian control of the means of production-- will lead to a more equitable distribution of resources (and profits, say), and there is an entitlement issue, but obviously the record of this marxist implementation of a more equitable economics is not, uh, such a pleasant or admirable thing. 

Those literary critics who continue to uphold marxism then should be required to state what exactly they are arguing for--are they claiming in opposition to the economic departments of the world that Capital DOES explain the injustices of capitalism? Are they also suggesting that the marxist state and class-struggle are always valid models?-- it might be remembered that Keynes was completely opposed that view. To be quite honest, I think the literary marxist is quite unaware of the specifics of marxism economics, and instead has eschewed theory for Praxis: marx and marxist concepts are sort of an invocation which writers may use against the capitalist and corporate enemy. And for some reason I tend to reach for Nietzsche (especially sections regarding resentment ) when I hear the academic comrades, many of them ensconced in elite Ivy League institutions, begin with their priest and rabbi-like intonations of marxist dogma.

By Holofernes on 01/25/06 at 02:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

> Those who insist on marxist dogma as the sort of foundation for all research
> and scholarship typically overlook a few significant problems:

Those who insist on any dogma are foolish, at best.

> one, Marxist
> economic theory is not taken very seriously by anyone in econ.; the core
> concepts of Capital--the surplus value theory, say--are not accepted as
> true.  The marxist critique of political economy may be applicable or
> plausible in some circumstances, but it’s not like some objective truth,
> either analytically/deductively speaking or synthetic/inductive.  And tho’
> we don’t have to agree with Holbo’s suggestion that Marxist-Leninism is a
> type of utilitarianism, there are at least some ethical issues involved with
> applied marxism. Marxism does seem to suggest that communism--proletarian
> control of the means of production-- will lead to a more equitable
> distribution of resources (and profits, say), and there is an entitlement
> issue, but obviously the record of this marxist implementation of a more
> equitable economics is not, uh, such a pleasant or admirable thing.

The workers should own the workplaces. Seems right to me. During the Spanish civil war this was essentially the case in parts of the country, and it was inspiring and quite successful, at the least, until destroyed from the outside by force. See Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, for one source.

> Those literary critics who continue to uphold marxism then should be

Marxism? Is that the antithesis of Reaganism? Such formulations are foolish; they shortcut thinking; and serve to confuse, I’ve always thought, and so never use them.

> required to state what exactly they are arguing for--are they claiming in
> opposition to the economic departments of the world that Capital DOES
> explain the injustices of capitalism? Are they also suggesting that the
> marxist state and class-struggle are always valid models?-- it might be
> remembered that Keynes was completely opposed that view. To be quite honest,
> I think the literary marxist is quite unaware of the specifics of marxism
> economics, and instead has eschewed theory for Praxis: marx and marxist
> concepts are sort of an invocation which writers may use against the
> capitalist and corporate enemy.

That’s the problem with Name-isms and other isms of all sorts. They’re often a lot like religious invocations. Marxism, capitalism.

> And for some reason I tend to reach for
> Nietzsche (especially sections regarding resentment ) when I hear
> the academic comrades, many of them ensconced in elite Ivy League
> institutions, begin with their priest and rabbi-like intonations of marxist
> dogma.

Dogma of all sorts: marxism, capitalism, and so on.

By Tony Christini on 01/25/06 at 03:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

>> Those who insist on marxist dogma as the sort of foundation for all research
>> and scholarship typically overlook a few significant problems:

>Those who insist on any dogma are foolish, at best.

Yes to both—but outside of the dogmatic aspects of Marxism, the Russian formalists like Lukacs, who were basically extrapolating from Marx, did open up an entirely new model of literary criticism, suggesting that questions of genre and literary form could be tied directly to the historical conditions within which the text was produced.  This has been an enormously influential, powerful, and I think useful vein of inquiry, and I don’t think any of us would tar all those who follow it as dogmatic marxists.

By on 01/25/06 at 10:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Russian?

By Jonathan on 01/25/06 at 11:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I have read some Lukacs, not without some appreciation: his critique of Nietzsche apres-WWII is a rather powerful piece of writing. Yet Lukacs was doing something not so dissimiliar to what a Dominican monk or cleric was doing in the 15th century. The sort of Popperian accusations of dogmatism are perhaps trite at this point, yet I do think that academia, including the lit. biz and critics, does want to continue to uphold various dogmatic positions, and it is in their interest to uphold them: the marxists, feminists, and multiculturalists upholding one sort; the New Critics and Aristotelians upholding another--and a sort of belle-lettrist fetish for tradition also useful for the business and econ. types. Perhaps the physical sciences in general, statistical methods, logic, pure science are less ideologically contaminated than literature and the social sciences, yet certainly grad. students in say biochemistry are well aware of the cash rewards of a successful pharmaceutical patent; it’s not difficult to agree with the leftist’s claims that research scientists are more or less the servants of corporate capitalism, yet doing so we don’t thereby buy into marxism. 

The few writers who are not easily absorbed into either marxist or Aristo-canonical traditions--say Nietzsche-- function more or less like intellectual outlaws, sometimes read as anarchists, or as criminals. Of course marxists will read the TS Eliot-type of tradition mongerers as a type of criminal ("imperialist," capitalist, bourgeois etc,) as well, and the aristos read marxists as rebels and criminals as well: vilification sort of the tool of both sides. The unaligned intellectual outlaws such as Shelley or Nietzsche--tho’ he often tends a bit more to the aristo side--are, I suggest, the producers of authentic literature and, perhaps, philosophy, yet the writer-outlaw, rogue-heretic, stepping away from the comforts of the academic traditions may risk narcissism or excessive subjectivity.  It is often the intellectual rogues who produce the literary masterpieces that are then absorbed into the canon; and of course in philosophy and the sciences, many of the great innovators were themselves viewed as heretics: the names are too many to list---Gallileo, Descartes, et al. If the creation of great literary or scientific work demands a sort of heresy and aloofness, the sort of leftist denials (similiar to earlier aristo-catholic denials) of this tradition of subjective intellecual independence (and in Lukacs critique of Nietzsche there is quite a bit of this) ought to alarm many of us.

By Holofernes on 01/26/06 at 03:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

> The few writers who are not easily absorbed into either marxist or
> Aristo-canonical traditions--say Nietzsche--

Again, this classification and division seems to be one that no one agrees exists but you.

> function more or less like
> intellectual outlaws, sometimes read as anarchists, or as criminals. Of
> course marxists will read the TS Eliot-type of tradition mongerers as a type
> of criminal ("imperialist," capitalist, bourgeois etc,) as well, and the
> aristos read marxists as rebels and criminals as well: vilification sort of
> the tool of both sides. The unaligned intellectual outlaws such as Shelley
> or Nietzsche--tho’ he often tends a bit more to the aristo side--are, I
> suggest, the producers of authentic literature and, perhaps, philosophy, yet
> the writer-outlaw, rogue-heretic, stepping away from the comforts of the
> academic traditions may risk narcissism or excessive subjectivity.  It is
> often the intellectual rogues who produce the literary masterpieces that are
> then absorbed into the canon; and of course in philosophy and the sciences,
> many of the great innovators were themselves viewed as heretics: the names
> are too many to list---Gallileo, Descartes, et al. If the creation of great
> literary or scientific work demands a sort of heresy and aloofness, the sort
> of leftist denials (similiar to earlier aristo-catholic denials) of this

Fact is, it’s often the “leftists” who are doing the dissenting, in all sorts of ways.

> tradition of subjective intellecual independence (and in Lukacs critique of
> Nietzsche there is quite a bit of this) ought to alarm many of us.

By Tony Christini on 01/26/06 at 04:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Were a sort of poll taken of lit. critics I think you would find many marxists, or at least vaguely marxist types, social realists, multiculturalists in English departments; and you would find some traditionalists, defenders of the Western “canon”.  That’s not exactly a radical claim.  At least in California universities and colleges, marxists, multiculturalists, feminists tend to vastly outnumber the traditionalists and, well, for lack of a better term, anarchists. The state dogma is, for the most part, marxist/PC/ multiculturalims; the dissent comes from traditionalists, intellectual anarchists and greens. In fact one of the leftist-statist’s strategies is to continually make any opposition to the state agenda seem silly, uncultured, naive, or fascist-like--and literary people in the state schools do this as well--and to also create the appearance that it is the “liberals” (tho’ many of these “liberals” are really marxists) who are being persecuted, when in fact it is, except for the wealthier causcasians, generally the white conservatives, libertarians and anti-statists who are being shut out of the state par-tay.

By Holofernes on 01/26/06 at 06:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

> Were a sort of poll taken of lit. critics I think you would find many
> marxists, or at least vaguely marxist types, social realists,
> multiculturalists in English departments; and you would find some
> traditionalists, defenders of the Western “canon”.  That’s not exactly a
> radical claim. 

It’s a caricature - in my experience. It’s more of a FOX News view than pervasive actuality. Outright ideologues, or the naive, seem to take the caricature seriously, but my experience of academia (in Texas and Pennsylvania and elsewhere) is that outright ideologues are few and far between. In fact what I’ve mainly seen is a lot of political apathy - broken up by occasional rhetorical flourishes and some marginal political activity.

> At least in California universities and colleges, marxists,
> multiculturalists, feminists tend to vastly outnumber the traditionalists
> and, well, for lack of a better term, anarchists. The state dogma is, for
> the most part, marxist/PC/ multiculturalims; the dissent comes from
> traditionalists, intellectual anarchists and greens. In fact one of the
> leftist-statist’s

No idea what “leftist-statist” might refer to.

> strategies is to continually make any opposition to the
> state agenda seem silly, uncultured, naive, or fascist-like--and literary
> people in the state schools do this as well--and to also create the
> appearance that it is the “liberals” (tho’ many of these “liberals” are
> really marxists) who are being persecuted, when in fact it is, except for
> the wealthier causcasians, generally the white conservatives, libertarians
> and anti-statists who are being shut out of the state par-tay.

Ah yes, those perpetually persecuted white right-wingers.

By Tony Christini on 01/26/06 at 06:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The academic left may not be always actively campaigning, but they are writing, hiring, admitting, and “networking.” English departments are controlled by these people. The Lit. biz has in many ways become a species of Nietzschean resentment, and at the same time profoundly anti-religious and ant-rationalist.  Perhaps the people interested in evo. psych. and analytical philosophy are an exception. I think a few days with Frege or Russell, Wittgenstein, or a biology text, does much towards curing dogmatism and clericalism. Yet one of the implications of analytical philosophy is a certain skepticism towards ALL aesthetics, literature included. And that is another reason why AP is not so popular in the lit. biz.: semantically speaking, a novel has little claim to being an accurate statement of “truth”, whether that truth is construed politically, psychological or otherwise. Lit. is closer to music, really than philosophy, and a Poe or Voltaire are great syntactical composers in a sense (tho’ not without psychological insights); a Sinclair and any number of 20th cent. realists not such great syntactical composers.

By Holofernes on 01/26/06 at 07:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

> The academic left may not be always actively campaigning, but they are
> writing, hiring, admitting, and “networking.” English departments are

“The academic left” - more FOX News type hysteria, which calls anything left of the far right, left.

> controlled by these people. The Lit. biz has in many ways become a species
> of Nietzschean resentment, and at the same time profoundly anti-religious
> and ant-rationalist. 

Since religion is by doctrine based on irrationality - that is, faith - your claim would appear to mean that “these people” are anti-everything.

> Perhaps the people interested in evo. psych. and
> analytical philosophy are an exception. I think a few days with Frege or
> Russell, Wittgenstein, or a biology text, does much towards curing
> dogmatism and clericalism. Yet one of the implications of analytical
> philosophy is a certain skepticism towards ALL aesthetics, literature
> included. And that is another reason why AP is not so popular in the lit.
> biz.: semantically speaking, a novel has little claim to being an accurate
> statement of “truth”, whether that truth is construed politically,
> psychological or otherwise. Lit. is closer to music, really than philosophy,

Yes, since literature is composed of notes and sounds, not words and ideas, unlike philosophy.

> and a Poe or Voltaire are great syntactical composers in a sense (tho’ not
> without psychological insights); a Sinclair and any number of 20th cent.
> realists not such great syntactical composers.

Personally, I prefer “non-realistic” fiction to “realistic” fiction. Jonathan Swift, for example, is marvelous. Or see this list:

Antigone - Sophocles
Lysistrata - Aristophanes
The Praise of Folly - Erasmus
Gulliver’s Travels - Jonathan Swift
“A Modest Proposal” - Jonathan Swift
“The War Prayer” - Mark Twain
The Iron Heel - Jack London
The Dispossessed - Ursula LeGuin
Ecotopia - Ernest Callenbach
Parable of the Sower - Octavia Butler
“The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” - Ursula LeGuin
“The School” - Donald Barthelme
“Please Attack Appalachia” - Mike Bryan
“The Complaint of Peace” - Erasmus

http://www.socialit.org/imaginativeliterature.html

And like Rebecca West said: “one of the damn thing is enough.” [Actually she used “ample” in place of “enough” in referring to reality - but I’m translating from the English.]

However, the notion that such literature is primarily musical rather than, well, literary - that is, more musical than philosophical or political or psychological - seems to me to be quite inaccurate. Sure, imaginative literature has some aesthetic components. But imaginative prose at least is largely organized around and made up of verbal ideas and experiences and information unlike music and much like other forms of prose, i.e. philosophy, etc, which contains incidental and sometimes purposeful aesthetic elements as well.

It would seem that one might block out these facts if one does not wish to confront the vast explicit and implicit non-aesthetic realms of literature, for whatever reasons. Perhaps because one wishes to live in La-la-la land.

By Tony Christini on 01/26/06 at 08:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The literature of the last 100 years or so is utterly non-Swiftian--it’s hard to imagine writers more opposed to Swiftean irony, complexity, and indigination than figures such as Sinclair or Ursula LeGuin. Twain’s war prayer is amusing--imagine it translated into Russian or Chinese--but MT was not exactly Swift.

Barthelme perhaps has some Swiftian whimsy to his stories (along with a lot of obscurity and dullness), and like Swift he is more a misanthrope and absurdist than leftist crusader. It’s cool, man. There is a place for Sally Struthers-like social realism in LitLand, I guess.

By Holofernes on 01/26/06 at 11:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

> The literature of the last 100 years or so is utterly non-Swiftian--it’s
> hard to imagine writers more opposed to Swiftean irony, complexity, and
> indigination than figures such as Sinclair or Ursula LeGuin.

I never compared them. There’s far more than one effective way to far more than one good end, fortunately. I’ve got my own various ways and ends myself. There are no fixed-in-stone templates.

> Twain’s war
> prayer is amusing--imagine it translated into Russian or Chinese--but MT was
> not exactly Swift.

Sure, though he has lively pointed moments here and there. Huckleberry Finn stands out, in a number of ways, on literary grounds at least - though the last third of the book is botched to a significant extent, in my view, and in that of others, variously. And Swift’s writing has its flaws too.

> Barthelme perhaps has some Swiftian whimsy to his stories (along with a lot
> of obscurity and dullness), and like Swift he is more a misanthrope and
> absurdist than leftist crusader.

Of course. Though Swift apparently was and continues to be revered or appreciated by many oppressed Irish and those still involved in social struggle. And, again, I haven’t compared the two. Only Barthelme’s “The School” is much interesting to me in light of its cultural criticism. I’ve never seen much else in his work like it.

> It’s cool, man. There is a place for Sally
> Struthers-like social realism in LitLand, I guess.

Who is particularly interested in “Sally Struthers-like social realism”?

I’m more interested, for one, in the sort of literature that the classicist Gilbert Highet pointed to in his early 1950s literary radio program:

“Satire is just as valuable a type of writing as lyric poetry or fiction; but it is far harder to bring off.... In order to write satire of any kind, one has to have a number of special talents, and also a special attitude to the public.... The public usually does not believe that anything is deeply wrong with society, and it often thinks that satirist is a sorehead. It has grown up and found a job and got married and brought up its children in the existing social framework. Why should it believe that the whole thing is tunneled through by gangsters, and bought and sold by crooked politicians, and redesigned to give the biggest profits to the ruthless and the corrupt? No, surely not. Therefore the satirist, who believes these things, usually strains his voice shouting, to making the public hear; and then the public is even less inclined to listen.... They are very amusing and penetrating, these contemporary satires. The only trouble is this: they don’t seem to matter much.... This, I regret to say, is the mid-twentieth century. What we need is a satirist bold enough to attack the crooks who run national politics in many countries; the parasites who make vast fortunes by buying something on Monday and selling it on Tuesday, usually to the government; the idealists who ship five million families off to labor camps in order to make their theories come right; the soreheads whose pride was hurt once and who are determined to start a war to take care of the bruise: the rats in the basement, the baboons playing with dynamite. Satire will not kill these animals; but it will make clear the difference between them and human beings, and perhaps inspire a human being to destroy them.”

...or as I modified this, in part in print:

[What is needed] is a satirist [and many novelists] bold enough to attack the crooks who run national politics in many countries [and in particular, in the country for which we/they are responsible]; the parasites who make vast fortunes by buying something on Monday and selling it on Tuesday, usually to the government; the idealists ["idealists"] who ship five million families off to labor camps [or who destroy [or invade and occupy] entire countries ostensibly to save them] in order to make their theories come right; the soreheads whose pride was hurt once and who are determined to start a war to take care of the bruise: the rats in the basement, the baboons playing with dynamite. Satire [and progressive political novels] will not kill these animals [that is, get rid of these institutions, directly]; but it will make clear the difference between them and human beings [and humane systems], and perhaps inspire a human being [that is, an increasingly organized public] to destroy [the corrupt and oppressive institutions by replacing them with ones far more humane, democratic, egalitarian].

By Tony Christini on 01/27/06 at 12:12 AM | Permanent link to this comment

>>The academic left may not be always actively campaigning, but they are writing, hiring, admitting, and “networking.” English departments are controlled by these people.

It’s certainly true that Lit departments consist primarily of people on the “left”—in terms of voting democractic and believing in basic issues of social justice and distribution.  On the other hand, the majority of scientists are there, too.  And both, as the large majority, control their departments.

I think what is at issue is not the political alignment, but the degree to which a political stance shapes the methodology and practice of the profession.  As I think Holofernes is suggesting here:

>>The sort of Popperian accusations of dogmatism are perhaps trite at this point, yet I do think that academia, including the lit. biz and critics, does want to continue to uphold various dogmatic positions, and it is in their interest to uphold them: the marxists, feminists, and multiculturalists upholding one sort; the New Critics and Aristotelians upholding another--and a sort of belle-lettrist fetish for tradition also useful for the business and econ. types.

I do think that literart criticism became particularly politicized in the US (as well as England), particularly in the 70’s and 80’s.  But whatever the state of things may be in California, the general movement right now in the field is to separate out political stance and methodology.  Whether it’s called the functionalist or strategic turn, this is a very broad-based movement away from aligning dogmatically with any particular school of criticism and opening up to a broader appreciation of how different approaches, even approaches originally rooted in radically different political affiliations, can be combined in useful ways to engage specific critical problems.  To translate this back into some of the terms Holofernes proposed, if New Criticism corresponds to the conservative/Aristotelian tradition suggested, while New Historicism and some other politically-oriented approaches correspond to the suggested leftist/marxist category, I would say that the strong trend in criticism today is to combine the two: doing close reading, with formal analysis, with historical contextualization, with attention to the significant political issues engaged by a given work.  In other words, the trend is toward tearing down boundaries of all kinds.  This turn toward a more functional and strategic engagement of analytical tools has as a necessary consequence the de-politicization of our practice, or, more accurately, the separation out of the personal ideological beliefs of the scholar and their pratice, for better or worse.

By on 01/27/06 at 02:46 AM | Permanent link to this comment

>>> The academic left may not be always actively campaigning, but they are
> writing, hiring, admitting, and “networking.” English departments are
> controlled by these people.
>
> It’s certainly true that Lit departments consist primarily of people on the
> “left”—in terms of voting democractic and believing in basic issues of
> social justice and distribution. 

According to polls, you’ve just described the vast majority of people in the United States - so-called conservatives included. Voting Democratic is of course no measure whatsoever of anything that is meant by left. Democrats in many ways are Republicans-lite. Liberal bloggers like Kevin Drum and his readers are surprised by recent polls that show people with little education are more against the occupation of Iraq than people with a lot of education - otherwise known as the indoctrinated class.

> On the other hand, the majority of
> scientists are there, too.  And both, as the large majority, control their
> departments.
>
> I think what is at issue is not the political alignment, but the degree to
> which a political stance shapes the methodology and practice of the
> profession.  As I think Holofernes is suggesting here:
>
>>> The sort of Popperian accusations of dogmatism are perhaps trite at this
> point, yet I do think that academia, including the lit. biz and critics,
> does want to continue to uphold various dogmatic positions, and it is in
> their interest to uphold them: the marxists, feminists, and
> multiculturalists upholding one sort; the New Critics and Aristotelians
> upholding another--and a sort of belle-lettrist fetish for tradition also
> useful for the business and econ. types.
>
> I do think that literart criticism became particularly politicized in the US
> (as well as England), particularly in the 70’s and 80’s. 

Some of the most democratic and progressive currents in literature in the US were reached in the 1930s. The so-called Marxist revival in the 1970s amounted to little that approached any such revival - at leat that received much recognition - though there was some progressive movement with an increased focus on what has come to be called identity politics and some other issues of power and justice.

> But whatever the
> state of things may be in California, the general movement right now in the
> field is to separate out political stance and methodology.  Whether it’s
> called the functionalist or strategic turn, this is a very broad-based
> movement away from aligning dogmatically with any particular school of

So by your measure apparently, if one is political one is dogmatic or bounded by some apparently ideologically bounded sphere of thought known as a school. That’s an anti-political and false view.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: “methodology” is an indication of the death of thought. Students in the social sciences are encouraged to focus on “methodologies” because, it seems to me, if one were simply to focus on the facts, it would mean one would be forced to draw unacceptably “left” conclusions about the world - and the academy as a bastion of the status quo can’t tolerate that. Similar forces exist in the humanities where political work is undertaken, though the humanities have seemed to me to be somewhat sometimes freer than the social sciences in this regard. Not that any greater amount of freedom is remotely taken full advantage of.

> criticism and opening up to a broader appreciation of how different
> approaches, even approaches originally rooted in radically different
> political affiliations, can be combined in useful ways to engage specific
> critical problems. 

This should go without saying, but the problem is, much critical (and imaginative) work in the humanties don’t have much to do with politics - contrary to what people would like to believe (to make their work seem more meaningful, I suppose) - so emphasizing any such connection to politics whether broad-based or narrow is ridiculous in these cases, and often amounts to an attempt to falsely present an apolitical or retrograde study as political or progressive.

> To translate this back into some of the terms Holofernes
> proposed, if New Criticism corresponds to the conservative/Aristotelian
> tradition suggested, while New Historicism and some other
> politically-oriented approaches correspond to the suggested leftist/marxist
> category, I would say that the strong trend in criticism today is to combine
> the two: doing close reading, with formal analysis, with historical
> contextualization, with attention to the significant political issues
> engaged by a given work. 

In other words, a sort of generalist study, mixing or incorporating normative and technical issues. The effect of any such apparent shift would apparently dilute strictly political work on the one hand and increase political elements elsewhere. This holds some of the possibilities and problems I mentioned above. Nevertheless, such an apparent shift would seem to be actually very much continuance of the status quo, sort of like shifting one’s weight, or the pack on one’s back, but continuing to stand in place or walk in the same general direction. As you describe it - unless we are to take seriously your notion that workers in the departments have heretofore been operating dogmatically but now! have finally seen the light, have realized what blind little dogmatists and school-mongers they have been all along and so are now opening up.

What’s your evidence.

> In other words, the trend is toward tearing down
> boundaries of all kinds. 

On the contrary, for all you’ve indicated, any such trend may well be toward entrenching within existing boundaries, just spreading oneself around within any boundaries that may have been pushed.

> This turn toward a more functional and strategic
> engagement

For whom? One wonders. Sounds a lot like hunkering down within the perimeter to me, but you give no evidence so there’s nothing to analyze.

> of analytical tools has as a necessary consequence the
> de-politicization of our practice,

Quite possible.

> or, more accurately, the separation out
> of the personal ideological beliefs of the scholar and their pratice, for
> better or worse.

Let’s see, so if I study how to more effectively torture people but don’t “personally” believe in torture, I’ve separated out my ideological beliefs from my practice? Well then, my conscience is clean, and the academy has “shifted” admirably.

Look, it’s hard to say what you mean, but if a person wants to learn about people, it makes sense to read novels by left-wingers and right-wingers, anarchists and monarchists, socialists and Democrats/Republicans. It can be very useful to read them together, to compare and to draw one’s own conclusions - not least because perceptive, insightful work and people may come with all sorts of blindnesses and weaknesses, political and otherwise. And what holds true for novels and novelists holds true for scholarly works and scholars as well.

(As for the political nature of the academy, take a look at the studies that have been done and at the polls. Despite the Fox News and corporate talk radio crowd, despite the New York Times and other dominant media, despite the so-called “conservative” and “libertarian” crowd, despite the so-called “liberal” or “left” crowd, despite what they all might have one think and different as they variously are one from the other - the academy is not very progressive most ways, not the people, not the work. Which is not to say that there are not exceptions. And which of course is not to say that a lot of the work that gets done is not useful in important ways.)

By Tony Christini on 01/27/06 at 12:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

FROM THE PREVIOUS POSTS:

> I do think that literary criticism became particularly politicized in the US
> (as well as England), particularly in the 70’s and 80’s. 

Some of the most democratic and progressive currents in literature in the US were reached in the 1930s. The so-called Marxist revival in the 1970s amounted to little that approached any such revival - at leat that received much recognition - though there was some progressive movement with an increased focus on what has come to be called identity politics and some other issues of power and justice.

SOME SUPPLEMENTAL INFORMATION:

(1988) Vincent B. Leitch, American Literary Criticism from the 30s to the 80s (Chapter Thirteen: “Leftist Criticism from the 1960s to the 1980s”): “When the MLA put together its centennial issue of PMLA in May 1984, it commissioned Paul Lauter to write about the impact of society on the profession of literary criticism between 1958 and 1983. Lauter was a radical associated with the Movement in the sixties.... According to Lauter, the MLA between the fifties and the eighties had expanded and diversified immensely, yet ‘the hierarchy of the profession remains fundamentally unaltered, so—as yet—does the hierarchy of what we value’…. This conclusion was based on two surveys of hundreds of syllabi collected from around the nation in the eighties. Just as the reigning critical ideology in the late 1950s was ‘formalism,’ so the dominant mode of criticism in the 1980s was ‘formalism,’ however expanded to include hermeneutics, semiotics, and poststructuralism, all of which criticism ‘accepts the formalist stance by analyzing texts, including its own discourse, primarily as autonomous objects isolated from their social origins or functions’…. What most dismayed Lauter about such fashionable criticism were its alignment with linguistics and philosophy rather than history and sociology, its tendency to become obscurant self-referential metacriticism in a debauch of professionalism, its preference for a limited canon of elitist texts, its increasing abnegation of practical exegesis and humanistic values, and its deepening occupation of the core of the profession”…. [Even the rebirth of Marxist criticism in the 1970s deviated from “history and sociology” in that]: “What was odd about the Marxist criticism of this [1970s] Renaissance associated with the post-1950s new left and the Movement was its complete disregard of the old left. Mention was never made of V. F. Calverton, James T. Farrell, Granville Hicks, Bernard Smith, Edmund Wilson, or other Leftist Critics prominent in the thirties. The native tradition of radicalism stemming from the nineteenth century had been forgotten during the heyday of the new left….”

“In H. Bruce Franklin’s view, what was wrong with academic literary professionals was their thorough immersion in the bourgeois ideology of formalism, which itself was rooted in the counterrevolutionary antiproletarianism of the thirties. ‘In the present era, formalism is the use of aestheticism to blind us to social and moral reality’….”

“Rather than an instrument or weapon of ruling-class oppression, literature was potentially liberating [in the view of Louis Kampf], provided it was set within a living context close to daily life and removed from its sacrosanct place in the great tradition. ‘In spite of our academic merchants, literature is not a commodity, but the sign of a creative act which expresses personal, social, and historical needs. As such it constantly undermines the status quo.’ The task of the radical critic was to destroy received dogmas and procedures, letting literature be an instrument of agitation and resistance and a force for freedom and genuine liberation. ‘As members of the educated middle class, we must learn that our words should discredit our own culture. Those of us who are literary intellectuals and teachers ought to illustrate in our work that the arts are not alone available to those who are genteel…’.”

By Tony Christini on 01/27/06 at 01:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Students in the social sciences are encouraged to focus on methodologies because, it seems to me, if one were simply to focus on the facts, it would mean one would be forced to draw unacceptably left conclusions about the world - and the academy as a bastion of the status quo cant tolerate

I agree with this, sir, to some extent. A non-ideological examination of, say, literary texts in regards to economic and social conditions--even in a limited geographical area--say LA metro--would probably lead to various socialistic conclusions. Yet the question then would seem to be why bother with literature then, except as agit-prop, more or less. Mike Davis’ non-fictional work City of Quartz goes into specific details about a lot of LA corruption and injustice (tho’ he also has a somewhat marxist ideological axe to grind), and in many ways is quite preferable to any sort of noir-like expose of the city’s underbelly.  But I don’t think many people in lit. departments, even putative leftists, are so concerned with the specifics--the demographics-- of injustice and eliminating poverty, or curtailing the power of the very wealthy.  The economics-- and even the ethics--gives way to other, well, “PC” concerns--race, sexuality, “gender,” imperialism. 

You seem to consistently argue for literature as ethics. That view is not necessarily mistaken, but doesn’t a writer such as Barthelme begin with a somewhat naturalistic realization that ethics, justice, all sorts of traditional notions of duty or honor are absurd and mostly implausible notions? Scholars and writers do seem obliged to engage with ethics at some point; in fact scientists, of even the most material sort, routinely overlook ethical issues such as agency, duty, obligations, and an equitable distribution of resources and various goods. Yet the current concern of evo. psych. to view ethics in narrow Darwinian terms--that people are acting for the benefit of the gene pool, or their own biolgiocal family--seems rather limited. As critics of social darwinism have long realized, ethics based on natural selection or evolutionary models easily leads to no ethics at all: a mafia family, in hopes of assuring their future, would do best to murder their rivals. The lit. critic who wants to discuss social justice, economic conditions may have to make some decisions on, say, agency, or rights, on obligation. You appear as if you believe there are political obligations--we must eliminate poverty or something--but I have not seen the sort of meta-ethics discussion or justification for that view. Granting that obligations to help ameliorate poverty and injustice exist, where would that obligation extend to? DO we help Katrina victims, or tsunami victims, of the homeless guy on the street? Or perhaps push for some new type of social contract/constitution--at Fed or state or local levels? Or perhaps, ala Hume, if not Bakunin and Nietzsche, just dismiss all notions of duty and obligation, if not law, and act purely in our own interests. And what about the ethics of democracy--or alternatives to democracy? Perhaps writers would do well to question the premises of democracy--without hopefully taking a marxist or fascist stance. There are all sorts of complex and most unresolvable ethical issues that most literary people overlook.

By Holofernes on 01/27/06 at 01:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

> Students in the social sciences are encouraged to focus on
> “methodologies” because, it seems to me, if one were simply to focus on the
> facts, it would mean one would be forced to draw unacceptably “left”
> conclusions about the world - and the academy as a bastion of the status quo
> can’t tolerate
>
> I agree with this, sir, to some extent.

Do you know what the etymology of sir, boss, and mister are? I’m not that.

> A non-ideological examination of,
> say, literary texts in regards to economic and social conditions--even in a
> limited geographical area--say LA metro--would probably lead to various
> socialistic conclusions. Yet the question then would seem to be why bother
> with literature then, except as agit-prop, more or less.

You didn’t quote my full comment, but if you did it would be seen that I was writing about the social sciences and “the humanities where political work is undertaken.” Not only political work is undertaken in the humanities, nor should it be. Even so, I think an emphasis on “methodology” in largely non-political work is often used to make what might otherwise be basic and simple but thoughtful insights look artifically complex, and also to mask the reality that much apparent complexity and brilliance is in fact non-sensical, or trivial. Thus, methodology and the death of thought.

> Mike Davis’
> non-fictional work City of Quartz goes into specific details about a lot of
> LA corruption and injustice (tho’ he also has a somewhat marxist
> ideological axe to grind), and in many ways is quite preferable to any sort
> of noir-like expose of the city’s underbelly. 

Fictional exposes don’t have to be “noir-like” and may be quite powerful and pointed.

> But I don’t think many
> people in lit. departments, even putative leftists, are so concerned with
> the specifics--the demographics-- of injustice and eliminating poverty, or
> curtailing the power of the very wealthy.  The economics-- and even the
> ethics--gives way to other, well, “PC” concerns--race, sexuality,
> “gender,” imperialism.

Unlike some of the best critics of the 1930s. That’s my point. In fact, aside from some thirties specialists, and Vincent Leitch who apparently has tried to familiarize himself with everything - and though I haven’t studied it - I’m not aware of a single reference to the work of V.F. Calverton or Bernard Smith whose Liberation of American Literature (1932) and Forces in Literary Criticism (1939) respectively do take up those basic progressive concerns directly and carefully and thoughtfully. They are two of the most important works in literary criticism - in political literary criticism in particular. Today in academia, and long since, they have been utterly forgotten, or ignored.

But “politically correct”? That’s a slur, as I see it. Often what is called “politically correct” is that which in fact challenges oppressive ideology of the status quo - in other words it often challenges the “political correctness” of the establishment. Ideologues attempt to slander where they cannot argue. It’s a classic defensive strategy. If someone calls someone a political ideologue, the classic defensive mechanism is to point the finger back and say, No, you’re the political ideologue.

> You seem to consistently argue for literature as ethics.

I don’t “argue for literature as ethics” - whatever that means. Social/cultural/political ethics and realities and possibilities, the ethics, realities, and possibilities of the public and their relations to individuals - I’m interested in all this and more and think it is important and should be emphasized, not least in any supposedly free and democratic country.

> That view is not
> necessarily mistaken, but doesn’t a writer such as Barthelme begin with a
> somewhat naturalistic realization that ethics, justice, all sorts of
> traditional notions of duty or honor are absurd and mostly implausible
> notions?

I don’t know why you mention Barthelme other than because I’ve referred to his story The School as political, culturally critical. I’ve never thought for a moment that Barthelme’s main interests are much along the lines of my main interests. His story, The School, though is plenty culturally critical whatever his intentions. Especially by titling it as “The School” and focusing on institutional practices throughout, he strongly shifts criticism - inadvertently or not - away from the teacher and onto the institution, making the dangerous and stupefying institution the butt of his ridicule, as opposed to the teacher. That’s an excellent and appropriate strategy of political criticism, of institutional analysis/critique. But I’m not aware that Barthelme pursued this much otherwise.

> Scholars and writers do seem obliged to engage with ethics at some
> point; in fact scientists, of even the most material sort, routinely
> overlook ethical issues such as agency, duty, obligations, and an equitable
> distribution of resources and various goods. Yet the current concern of evo.
> psych. to view ethics in narrow Darwinian terms--that people are acting for
> the benefit of the gene pool, or their own biolgiocal family--seems rather
> limited. As critics of social darwinism have long realized, ethics based on
> natural selection or evolutionary models easily leads to no ethics at all: a
> mafia family, in hopes of assuring their future, would do best to murder
> their rivals. The lit. critic who wants to discuss social justice, economic
> conditions may have to make some decisions on, say, agency, or rights, on
> obligation. You appear as if you believe there are political obligations--we
> must eliminate poverty or something--but I have not seen the sort of
> meta-ethics discussion or justification for that view.

If you’re a slave, do you need a “meta-ethics discussion of justification” for why you should be free? Nor if you’re impoverished, does anyone need any of that to know poverty should be eradicated.

> Granting that
> obligations to help ameliorate poverty and injustice exist,

Exactly.

> where would that
> obligation extend to? DO we help Katrina victims, or tsunami victims, of the
> homeless guy on the street? Or perhaps push for some new type of social
> contract/constitution--at Fed or state or local levels?

Ripe ground for novelists. Also ripe ground for the critical aesthetic and ethical questions of portrayal in art, and so on.

> Or perhaps, ala
> Hume, if not Bakunin and Nietzsche, just dismiss all notions of duty and
> obligation, if not law, and act purely in our own interests.

Doesn’t sound like Bakunin, for one, to me. In any case, depending on how you define it, “acting purely in your own interests” could mean anything, from pathology to martyrdom - martyrdom for those who see their own interests as primarily those of some larger group or idea.

> And what about
> the ethics of democracy--or alternatives to democracy? Perhaps writers would
> do well to question the premises of democracy--without hopefully taking a
> marxist or fascist stance. There are all sorts of complex and most
> unresolvable ethical issues that most literary people overlook.

There are also all sorts of unresolvable AND resolvable ethical concerns that are badly overlooked that would benefit from imaginative and critical attention that often facilitates action and change.

By Tony Christini on 01/27/06 at 03:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

>> I do think that literart criticism became particularly politicized in the US
>> (as well as England), particularly in the 70’s and 80’s.

>Some of the most democratic and progressive currents in literature in the US were reached in the 1930s. The so-called Marxist revival in the 1970s amounted to little that approached any such >revival - at leat that received much recognition - though there was some progressive movement with an increased focus on what has come to be called identity politics and some other issues of power and justice.

I think it should be clear that when I discuss academic criticism this isn’t the same as literary production.  While a great deal of progressive and stimulating politically-engaged criticism existed in the early 20th century in Europe, particularly in association with the Vienna Circle and with the Russian formalists, American *academic* criticism still seems particularly unengaged—certainly when you look at the broad practice of the profession, not particular enclaves. 

>According to polls, you’ve just described the vast majority of people in the United States - so-called conservatives included. Voting >Democratic is of course no measure whatsoever of anything that is meant by left. Democrats in many ways are Republicans-lite. Liberal bloggers like >Kevin Drum and his readers are surprised by recent polls that show people with little education are more against the occupation of Iraq >than people with a lot of education - otherwise known as the indoctrinated class.

I apologize for not coming up with a more comprehensive and anlaytical definition of what it is to be “left.” On the other hand, you’ll notice the democratic party seems to be having this problem, too.

As far as evidence for the 70’s-80’s politicization, I’ll get as specific as possible.  What I’m really talking about is the literary version of the culture wars—which played out at the level of debates over canon formation (the selection of the “Core” literary texts for the curriculum).  In the 70’s and 80’s, as faculty increasingly brought political engagement to bear on teaching and criticism, they began to question the politics of the canon.  The Secretary of Education William J. Bennet, had this to say to the NYT on Feb. 17, 1985:

Elaborating on his criticism of humanities curriculums in college, he says: “For some 15 to 20 years now ther has been a serious degree oif embarrassment, of distancing, even of repudiation of that culture on the part of many of the people whose responsibility, one would think, is to transmit it.  Many of the people in our colleges and universities aren’t comfortable with the ideals of Western civilization.”

What Bennet is discussing—and note the time frame, for “15-20 years” before 1985—are increasing critiques of the canon as representing conservative, largely white male selection played out over history, and a responding push that was trying to reclaim “lost” female, ethnic, marginalized literatures for the curriculum.  For an extensive critique of the way this played out, please read John Guillory’s seminal work on the subject.  If you don’t want to see the book, try his article for ELH, vol. 54, no. 3, “Canonical and Non-canonical: A Critique of the Current Debate.” (1987) In close coordination with this debate emerged new critical methodologies which foregrounded specific political projects: women’s studies, 3rd-wave feminist critiques, queer studies, (a little later) post-colonial studies, etc.  It is trivial to look up more on each of these movements, so I won’t do it here.  Now, you may argue that these movements merely made explicit their political engagement—they certainly would, as their essential argument was that the earlier canon and critical approaches presupposed a certain politics.  That seems to me the correlative to your assertion:

>Nevertheless, such an apparent shift would seem to be actually very much continuance of the status quo, sort of >like shifting one’s weight, or the pack on one’s back, but continuing to stand in place or walk in the same general >direction. As you describe it - unless we are to take seriously your notion that workers in the departments have >heretofore been operating dogmatically but now! have finally seen the light, have realized what blind little dogmatists and school-mongers they have been all along >and so are now opening up.

But I can’t imagine that you’d wholly endorse such a steady state model.  Is everything equally political—only more or less explicit about it?  So that a conference of microbial synthesis of insulin, for instance, is as political as the convening of an equivalent number of I.D. advocates?  I don’t believe you mean that.  Which means that a change in orientation away from a unilateral ideological alignment may, in fact, be a de-politicization. 

>Let’s see, so if I study how to more effectively torture people but don’t “personally” believe in torture, I’ve separated >out my ideological beliefs from my practice? Well then, my conscience is clean, and the academy has “shifted” >admirably.

This isn’t the most generous example, but I’ll see if I can’t take it up.  What I’m suggesting is to imagine someone who was an antiquarian carpenter and was wholly commited to using their carpentry to advance their political stance, say, an aggressive interventionist policy directed at anti-terrorism.  So the carpenter initially attempts to support their political orientation by mining the past in the interests of developing specialized racks and wooden torture frames, in the belief that this advanced the anti-terror cause.  But perhaps then the carpenter decided they were more interested in investigating how those antique torture devices developed, and to do so, they needed to draw upon the socio-carpentry theory of certain radical theorists who are not aligned with their politics.  Working in consort with these other theorists, they come up with a new perspective on the status of torture devices in certain historical societies—no direct payoff for their political orientation.  So this carpenter has ultimately ended up seperating out to some degree their political alignment from their practice.  It’s muddled, but I was taking up a muddled example.

As far as proving this new trend in academic study, that’s a bit trickier.  Mostly, this is the sense I’ve gotten from talking to academics, mostly on the east coast, over the last few years.  I’m in the profession, at a school that is very much plugged in to what’s going on, and it’s the sense that I have along with many of my colleagues.  I get this sense *both* from the way that scholars talk about theory now—as a toolbox rather than a temple—as well as from ongoing discussions of the future of curriculums formulated to address concerns of political marginalization, for instance black studies and women’s studies program.  See, for instance, the front-pate article in the recent _Chronicle of Higher Education_ (April 22, 2005) “Can Black Studies Be Saved?”

>I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: “methodology” is an indication of the death of thought. Students in the social sciences are >encouraged to focus on “methodologies” because, it seems to me, if one were simply to focus on the facts, it would mean one would be forced to draw >unacceptably “left” conclusions about the world - and the academy as a bastion of the status quo can’t tolerate that.

I really have no idea how one looks at “facts” without a methodology.  Historians use methodology.  Sociologists use methodology.  But so do molecular biologists (and I should know, I was one).  How do you generate facts, much less begin to organize and analyze them, without working on method?  I’m phrasing my question pointedly, but I think you may have meant something besides a critique of using methodology at all—perhaps we mean something different by methodology.

As far as the source you include, I appreciate the discussion of the failure of Marxism-influenced 1970’s formalist criticism to recognize connections to early 20th-c. critical movements.  But the view of formalism espoused in the article is completel bogus:

>"This conclusion was based on two surveys of hundreds of syllabi collected from around the nation in the eighties. Just as the reigning critical ideology in the late 1950s was ‘formalism,’ so the dominant mode of criticism in the 1980s was ‘formalism,’ however expanded to include hermeneutics, semiotics, and poststructuralism, all of which criticism ‘accepts the formalist stance by analyzing texts, including its own discourse, primarily as autonomous objects isolated from their social origins or functions’”

First: it takes a particular brand of naivete to imagine that a question of form does not presuppose an engagement with questions of content, and therefore questions of historical-social content and engagement.

Second: it was *precisely* the 70’s turn to ask how form was a socio-historical product and to *critique* earlier twentieth-century views of form as eminent or disengaged from historical forces.

Third: To suggest a question of form is automatically examining texts as “autonomous objects isolated from their social origins or functions” is like suggesting comparative anatomy is isolated from the examination of environment or evolution—when such an investigation illustrates *precisely* how to recognize the comparative differences that point to the contingency of environmental forces and seletive events, as well as illustrating through homology, the necessary understanding of form as shaped and produced by historical forces. 

So much for what formalism actually can do, as for the structure of Leitch’s argument, he is asserting:

(1) a genitive fallacy in assuming a relation between 50’s formalism and 70’s formalism means that critiques of the former apply mutatis mutandis to the latter.

(2) a structural or immanent (hence formalist in his own sense) argument in proposing that formalism is *itself* “autonomous object[] isolated from [its] social origins or functions”.

Finally, I couldn’t agree more that

>the academy is not very progressive most ways, not the people, not the work. Which is not to say that there are not exceptions. And which of course is not to say that a lot of the work that gets done is not useful in important ways.

But I do think that in the humanities, on most issues, the faculty, in terms of avowed political orientation, tend to fall left of center.  On the other hand, if you take critics like Bordieu seriously, the ultimate function of the academy is a conservative one, which again points to a kind of divorce between political orientation and practice.

By on 01/27/06 at 04:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

>Even so, I think an emphasis on “methodology” in largely non-political work is often used to make >what might otherwise be basic and simple but thoughtful insights look artifically complex, and >also to mask the reality that much apparent complexity and brilliance is in fact non-sensical, >or trivial. Thus, methodology and the death of thought.

I think I’m beginning to understand. If I may paraphrase, you are suggesting that sometimes critics tack on theoretical approaches laden with jargon so that they will sound more complicated and insightful than the actual insight.  And *that* is what you mean by methodology.  I agree that this is a particularly onerous feature of some academic writing.  But it is certainly not methodology per se, but rather an abuse of theoretical approach.  Good methodology is simple, is designed to solve a specific problem, and is attempts to limit the degree of complexity to its minimum level.  Some problems are more complex than others.  But there is a definite trend away from such unintelligible and unwieldy engagement with theory.  Take any issue of ELH or the PMLA from ten years ago and compare it to a current issue.  There has a been a shift toward clearer and less theoretical prose.  But I think this is an issue of style primarily--not a question of whether methodology has a place in the humanities.  Good methodology is flexible, and is not the death of thought but rather its lucid and focused expression.

By on 01/27/06 at 04:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

>> Even so, I think an emphasis on “methodology” in largely non-political
> work is often used to make >what might otherwise be basic and simple but
> thoughtful insights look artifically complex, and >also to mask the reality
> that much apparent complexity and brilliance is in fact non-sensical, >or
> trivial. Thus, methodology and the death of thought.
>
> I think I’m beginning to understand. If I may paraphrase, you are
> suggesting that sometimes critics tack on theoretical approaches laden with
> jargon so that they will sound more complicated and insightful than the
> actual insight.

That’s part of it - not nearly all of it. More below.

> And *that* is what you mean by methodology.  I agree that
> this is a particularly onerous feature of some academic writing.  But it is
> certainly not methodology per se, but rather an abuse of theoretical
> approach.  Good methodology is simple, is designed to solve a specific
> problem, and is attempts to limit the degree of complexity to its minimum
> level.

This is where we disagree. What you’ve described here are some worthy rules of
thumb for analysis, for thought, even for conducting much scientific work. But
that’s not methodology. “Specific problems” require specific approaches. Apply a method and you usually learn more about the method than the problem. It’s not that you won’t learn anything, and of course much study is systematic, but we don’t say we use systemologies. It’s ludicrous. What methodology do you think Tolstoy used to write War and Peace? What methodology did Newton use to learn that f=ma2? What methodology did Michael Hanne use to write his critical work The Power of the Story?

> Some problems are more complex than others.  But there is a definite
> trend away from such unintelligible and unwieldy engagement with theory.
> Take any issue of ELH or the PMLA from ten years ago and compare it to a
> current issue.  There has a been a shift toward clearer and less theoretical
> prose.  But I think this is an issue of style primarily--not a question of
> whether methodology has a place in the humanities.  Good methodology is
> flexible, and is not the death of thought but rather its lucid and focused
> expression.

We simply disagree.

By Tony Christini on 01/27/06 at 05:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

>>> I do think that literart criticism became particularly politicized in the
> US
>>> (as well as England), particularly in the 70’s and 80’s.
>
>> Some of the most democratic and progressive currents in literature in the
> US were reached in the 1930s. The so-called Marxist revival in the 1970s
> amounted to little that approached any such >revival - at leat that received
> much recognition - though there was some progressive movement with an
> increased focus on what has come to be called identity politics and some
> other issues of power and justice.
>
> I think it should be clear that when I discuss academic criticism this
> isn’t the same as literary production.  While a great deal of progressive
> and stimulating politically-engaged criticism existed in the early 20th
> century in Europe, particularly in association with the Vienna Circle and
> with the Russian formalists, American *academic* criticism still seems
> particularly unengaged—certainly when you look at the broad practice of
> the profession, not particular enclaves.

I’m referring to both academic criticism and academic production. Also, I’m not comparing America to Europe, or today in America wholesale to the thirties in America wholesale. I’m pointing out that a distinct and important trail blazed in the thirties in progressive political criticism in the US was dropped and
has not been much returned to, including especially some of the most vital
texts/work. And that this is indicative of the depoliticization that is found not only in literature departments but throughout the academy as a whole, which I’ve explained and has been covered in more detail elsewhere in this thread and on the Valve. Also here:
http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=105&ItemID=9473

>> According to polls, you’ve just described the vast majority of people in
> the United States - so-called conservatives included. Voting >Democratic is
> of course no measure whatsoever of anything that is meant by left. Democrats
> in many ways are Republicans-lite. Liberal bloggers like >Kevin Drum and his
> readers are surprised by recent polls that show people with little education
> are more against the occupation of Iraq >than people with a lot of education
> - otherwise known as the indoctrinated class.
>
> I apologize for not coming up with a more comprehensive and anlaytical
> definition of what it is to be “left.” On the other hand, you’ll notice
> the democratic party seems to be having this problem, too.

The Democratic Party has always been largely a party of the status quo, to which any “left” is largely opposed.

> As far as evidence for the 70’s-80’s politicization, I’ll get as specific
> as possible.  What I’m really talking about is the literary version of the
> culture wars—which played out at the level of debates over canon
> formation (the selection of the “Core” literary texts for the curriculum).
> In the 70’s and 80’s, as faculty increasingly brought political
> engagement to bear on teaching and criticism, they began to question the
> politics of the canon.  The Secretary of Education William J. Bennet, had
> this to say to the NYT on Feb. 17, 1985:
>
> Elaborating on his criticism of humanities curriculums in college, he says:
> “For some 15 to 20 years now ther has been a serious degree oif
> embarrassment, of distancing, even of repudiation of that culture on the
> part of many of the people whose responsibility, one would think, is to
> transmit it.  Many of the people in our colleges and universities aren’t
> comfortable with the ideals of Western civilization.”

This is right-wing FOX News type speak from a right wing ideologue. I
believe I
read the other day that William J. Bennet is still holding out hope that the
earth is flat. He was also the “Drug Czar” under Bush I and has ridiculed
multicultural courses, etc. And yet you cite him for an objective view of
politics in universities?

> What Bennet is discussing—and note the time frame, for “15-20 years”
> before 1985—are increasing critiques of the canon as representing
> conservative, largely white male selection played out over history, and a
> responding push that was trying to reclaim “lost” female, ethnic,
> marginalized literatures for the curriculum.  For an extensive critique of
> the way this played out, please read John Guillory’s seminal work on the
> subject.  If you don’t want to see the book, try his article for ELH, vol.
> 54, no. 3, “Canonical and Non-canonical: A Critique of the Current
> Debate.” (1987) In close coordination with this debate emerged new critical
> methodologies which foregrounded specific political projects: women’s
> studies, 3rd-wave feminist critiques, queer studies, (a little later)
> post-colonial studies, etc.  It is trivial to look up more on each of these
> movements, so I won’t do it here.  Now, you may argue that these movements
> merely made explicit their political engagement—they certainly would, as
> their essential argument was that the earlier canon and critical approaches
> presupposed a certain politics.  That seems to me the correlative to your
> assertion:
>
>> Nevertheless, such an apparent shift would seem to be actually very much
> continuance of the status quo, sort of >like shifting one’s weight, or the
> pack on one’s back, but continuing to stand in place or walk in the same
> general >direction. As you describe it - unless we are to take seriously
> your notion that workers in the departments have >heretofore been operating
> dogmatically but now! have finally seen the light, have realized what blind
> little dogmatists and school-mongers they have been all along >and so are
> now opening up.
>
> But I can’t imagine that you’d wholly endorse such a steady state model.
> Is everything equally political—only more or less explicit about it?  So
> that a conference of microbial synthesis of insulin, for instance, is as
> political as the convening of an equivalent number of I.D. advocates?  I
> don’t believe you mean that.  Which means that a change in orientation away
> from a unilateral ideological alignment may, in fact, be a
> de-politicization.
>
>> Let’s see, so if I study how to more effectively torture people but
> don’t “personally” believe in torture, I’ve separated >out my
> ideological beliefs from my practice? Well then, my conscience is clean, and
> the academy has “shifted” >admirably.
>
> This isn’t the most generous example, but I’ll see if I can’t take it up.

But you don’t take it up, nor anything else I’m speaking of.

> What I’m suggesting is to imagine someone who was an antiquarian carpenter
> and was wholly commited to using their carpentry to advance their political
> stance, say, an aggressive interventionist policy directed at
> anti-terrorism.  So the carpenter initially attempts to support their
> political orientation by mining the past in the interests of developing
> specialized racks and wooden torture frames, in the belief that this
> advanced the anti-terror cause.  But perhaps then the carpenter decided they
> were more interested in investigating how those antique torture devices
> developed, and to do so, they needed to draw upon the socio-carpentry theory
> of certain radical theorists who are not aligned with their politics.
> Working in consort with these other theorists, they come up with a new
> perspective on the status of torture devices in certain historical societies
>—no direct payoff for their political orientation.  So this carpenter has
> ultimately ended up seperating out to some degree their political alignment
> from their practice.  It’s muddled, but I was taking up a muddled example.

Your example, as you state, is muddled - so muddled it’s not worth bothering with. My example is clear and concise, not muddled at all.

> As far as proving this new trend in academic study, that’s a bit trickier.
> Mostly, this is the sense I’ve gotten from talking to academics, mostly on
> the east coast, over the last few years.  I’m in the profession, at a
> school that is very much plugged in to what’s going on, and it’s the sense
> that I have along with many of my colleagues.  I get this sense *both* from
> the way that scholars talk about theory now—as a toolbox rather than a
> temple—as well as from ongoing discussions of the future of curriculums
> formulated to address concerns of political marginalization, for instance
> black studies and women’s studies program.  See, for instance, the
> front-pate article in the recent _Chronicle of Higher Education_ (April 22,
> 2005) “Can Black Studies Be Saved?”
>
>> I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: “methodology” is an
> indication of the death of thought. Students in the social sciences are
>> encouraged to focus on “methodologies” because, it seems to me, if one
> were simply to focus on the facts, it would mean one would be forced to draw
>> unacceptably “left” conclusions about the world - and the academy as a
> bastion of the status quo can’t tolerate that.
>
> I really have no idea how one looks at “facts” without a methodology.

I can believe that.

> Historians use methodology.  Sociologists use methodology.  But so do
> molecular biologists (and I should know, I was one).  How do you generate
> facts, much less begin to organize and analyze them, without working on
> method?  I’m phrasing my question pointedly, but I think you may have meant
> something besides a critique of using methodology at all—perhaps we mean
> something different by methodology.
>
> As far as the source you include, I appreciate the discussion of the failure
> of Marxism-influenced 1970’s formalist criticism to recognize connections
> to early 20th-c. critical movements.  But the view of formalism espoused in
> the article is completel bogus:
>
>> “This conclusion was based on two surveys of hundreds of syllabi collected
> from around the nation in the eighties. Just as the reigning critical
> ideology in the late 1950s was ‘formalism,’ so the dominant mode of
> criticism in the 1980s was ‘formalism,’ however expanded to include
> hermeneutics, semiotics, and poststructuralism, all of which criticism
> ‘accepts the formalist stance by analyzing texts, including its own
> discourse, primarily as autonomous objects isolated from their social
> origins or functions’”
>
> First: it takes a particular brand of naivete to imagine that a question of
> form does not presuppose an engagement with questions of content, and
> therefore questions of historical-social content and engagement.

If a person is killed with a gun or a bomb or a toxin, does the form of weapon
matter to the person killed? It takes a certain amount of I-don’t-know-what to
think that it does.

> Second: it was *precisely* the 70’s turn to ask how form was a
> socio-historical product and to *critique* earlier twentieth-century views
> of form as eminent or disengaged from historical forces.
>
> Third: To suggest a question of form is automatically examining texts as
> “autonomous objects isolated from their social origins or functions” is
> like suggesting comparative anatomy is isolated from the examination of
> environment or evolution—when such an investigation illustrates
> *precisely* how to recognize the comparative differences that point to the
> contingency of environmental forces and seletive events, as well as
> illustrating through homology, the necessary understanding of form as shaped
> and produced by historical forces.

It’s not that nothing may be learned, but the person in my example is still
dead.

> So much for what formalism actually can do, as for the structure of
> Leitch’s argument, he is asserting:

It’s not Leitch’s argument. He’s noting the ideas and arguments of others.

> (1) a genitive fallacy in assuming a relation between 50’s formalism and
> 70’s formalism means that critiques of the former apply mutatis mutandis to
> the latter.

On the contrary, even in the brief comments of Lauter’s study that I gave, you
have Lauter’s notes that he did account for changes. You’ll have to see his
study to see if you think he accounted for them fairly.

> (2) a structural or immanent (hence formalist in his own sense) argument in
> proposing that formalism is *itself* “autonomous object[] isolated from
> [its] social origins or functions”.

Obviously - that all argument is formal in a sense doesn’t mean that all types
of argument have much if anything to do with social or political concerns.

> Finally, I couldn’t agree more that
>
>> the academy is not very progressive most ways, not the people, not the
> work. Which is not to say that there are not exceptions. And which of course
> is not to say that a lot of the work that gets done is not useful in
> important ways.
>
> But I do think that in the humanities, on most issues, the faculty, in terms
> of avowed political orientation, tend to fall left of center.  On the other
> hand, if you take critics like Bordieu seriously, the ultimate function of
> the academy is a conservative one, which again points to a kind of divorce
> between political orientation and practice.

The ultimate function of public universities is to be determined by the public. It would seem that universities should function to serve the public good.

By Tony Christini on 01/27/06 at 08:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

> Elaborating on his criticism of humanities curriculums in college, he says:
> “For some 15 to 20 years now ther has been a serious degree oif
> embarrassment, of distancing, even of repudiation of that culture on the
> part of many of the people whose responsibility, one would think, is to
> transmit it.  Many of the people in our colleges and universities aren’t
> comfortable with the ideals of Western civilization.”

>This is right-wing FOX News type speak from a right wing ideologue. I
believe I
>read the other day that William J. Bennet is still holding out hope that the
>earth is flat. He was also the “Drug Czar” under Bush I and has ridiculed
>multicultural courses, etc. And yet you cite him for an objective view of
>politics in universities?

This is pretty funny.  I’m sorry, I thought his befuddled tone and argument was blantantly humorous--and assumed such remarks parodied themselves.  I’m using him as an example of someone who see a trend, not someone who has an “objective view” upon it.  Guillory uses him as a departure point for his critique (without too much winking).

>> I really have no idea how one looks at “facts” without a methodology.

>I can believe that.

I’m lead to wonder whether you do research.  Methodology, at its simplest, is an assumption about how to go about looking for answers to a question.  It could be as simple as summing up a handful of figures and finding the average.  It could be as complicated as designing a custom marker for probing and activating a genome.  This means that methodology proposes ahead of time some criteria for how to know when an answer is approached.  Some methodologies are much more flexible by others, some must be abandoned because they prove inadequate.  Even to frame a question is in most cases to suggest a methodology—the possibility of an answer and the forms that answer may take.

To return to your earlier questions,

>What methodology do you think Tolstoy used to >write War and Peace? What methodology did Newton >use to learn that f=ma2?

In the case of literary composition, genre is a kind of methodology.  A genre can be understood as a problem-solving model at the level of literary form.  Tolstoy used the historical novel, which had been developed by Walter Scott, in order to solve the question: how do we represent historical events through the lens of individual lives within the novel?  There are a myriad of techniques developed to solve this problem that were conserved within both author’s works.  You don’t think Tolstoy sat down and wrote in a vacuum.

For Newton, the assumption was different.  He assumed there was a mathematical expression describing the behavior of a pendulum.  This assumption meant that he had to collect data on periodicity, length, weight, etc., and explore the mathematical relationships between them.  That was his methodology.  And he wasn’t working in a vacuum—he’d been most recently in contact with Kepler’s work, which had reaffirmed again the possibility of using mathematical language to describe physical behavior. 

>> First: it takes a particular brand of naivete to imagine that a question of
>> form does not presuppose an engagement with questions of content, and
>> therefore questions of historical-social content and engagement.

>If a person is killed with a gun or a bomb or a toxin, does the form of weapon
>matter to the person killed? It takes a certain amount of I-don’t-know-what to
>think that it does.

I’m not sure why you continue to confuse formal literary questions with weaponry.  How about this: if a person asks “why is this gun constructed the way it is?” (a question of form) then to ignore the bullet, the effect of the bullet, the techniques used to construct it, the materials used, the socio-historical origins, etc, etc, etc, is to fail completely to investigate the question asked because it ignores the form of the question: to ask a question of form is to ask a question of content.  (Nor is the answer to the question “why is this gun constructed the way it is?”:  “damn, I’m dead.") I’m guessing (to be generous) you keep making these militant analogies out of some sense that I’m ignoring the material effect of political questions.  But it’s pretty ham-fisted.

>> (2) a structural or immanent (hence formalist in his own sense) argument in
>> proposing that formalism is *itself* “autonomous object[] isolated from
>> [its] social origins or functions”.

>Obviously - that all argument is formal in a sense doesn’t mean that all types
>of argument have much if anything to do with social or political concerns.

I don’t think you follow my argument here.  I’m not saying that all arguments are formal in the sense Lauter uses.  I’m suggesting that Lauter’s pejorative sense of “formal” is naive because it would make all arguments pejorative, b/c they can be understood as formal in his own terms—even his own.  If anything, the critique of my argument is that it is trivial to show such circularities—but in this case, the circularity is precisely why we need to open up this characature of “formal.”

*My* argument is that formal questions are never acually isolated from questions of content, nor, for that matter, are they isolated from their historical moment.  To pursue formal questions effectively is inevitably to turn toward an investigation of historical conditions, and socio-political concerns.  That’s exactly what 70’s formalism showed us, and why it was an improvement over the earlier, more naive, formal approaches (particularly structuralism) that Lauter (himself naively) condemns.

By on 01/27/06 at 08:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

>> Elaborating on his criticism of humanities curriculums in college, he
> says:
>> ?For some 15 to 20 years now ther has been a serious degree oif
>> embarrassment, of distancing, even of repudiation of that culture on the
>> part of many of the people whose responsibility, one would think, is to
>> transmit it.  Many of the people in our colleges and universities aren?t
>> comfortable with the ideals of Western civilization.?
>
>> This is right-wing FOX News type speak from a right wing ideologue. I
> believe I
>> read the other day that William J. Bennet is still holding out hope that
> the
>> earth is flat. He was also the ?Drug Czar? under Bush I and has
> ridiculed
>> multicultural courses, etc. And yet you cite him for an objective view of
>> politics in universities?
>
> This is pretty funny.  I’m sorry, I thought his befuddled tone and argument
> was blantantly humorous--and assumed such remarks parodied themselves.  I’m
> using him as an example of someone who see a trend, not someone who has an
> “objective view” upon it.  Guillory uses him as a departure point for his
> critique (without too much winking).
>
>>> I really have no idea how one looks at ?facts? without a methodology.
>
>> I can believe that.
>
> I’m lead to wonder whether you do research.

You can look some of it up online, or you can see my Political Fiction book.

> Methodology, at its simplest,
> is an assumption about how to go about looking for answers to a question.

What methodology are you using now? You’re thinking, you’re analyzing. That’s
not methodology. Should we then pitch out all your critical remarks?

> It could be as simple as summing up a handful of figures and finding the
> average.  It could be as complicated as designing a custom marker for
> probing and activating a genome.  This means that methodology proposes ahead
> of time some criteria for how to know when an answer is approached.  Some
> methodologies are much more flexible by others, some must be abandoned
> because they prove inadequate.  Even to frame a question is in most cases to
> suggest a methodology—the possibility of an answer and the forms that
> answer may take.

To pose a question is to in many cases suggest an answer. If you’ve got a toolbox of knowledge to help get you to that answer, great. That’s what disciplines do, they gather and organize and create knowledge, hopefully for future use. Problem is, oftentimes no one knows what toolbox or tools are going to be required. “Assumptions” - your term - are often proven wrong. What happens when an assumption is proven wrong? Go to another assumption, another “methodology”? What’s the difference between an assumption and an idea? What if your criteria fail? If you try to solve a problem with a particular methodology, so-called, you’re likely limiting the odds of any possible success. If you say, well I’ll use all the knowledge there is to use, then all to the good, and there goes the primacy or even the reality of so-called methodology.

>
> To return to your earlier questions,
>
>> What methodology do you think Tolstoy used to >write War and Peace? What
> methodology did Newton >use to learn that f=ma2?
>
> In the case of literary composition, genre is a kind of methodology.

A genre is a concept in the literary world used to describe something after it has been achieved. It’s of no help beforehand. And to develop and improve genres, oftentimes the main genre characteristics have to be gone against, ignored, countered, that is be put into disuse. That’s rather counterintuitive. Rather un"methodological" - as you describe it. Rather needed.

> A
> genre can be understood as a problem-solving model at the level of literary
> form.  Tolstoy used the historical novel, which had been developed by Walter
> Scott, in order to solve the question: how do we represent historical events
> through the lens of individual lives within the novel?  There are a myriad
> of techniques developed to solve this problem that were conserved within
> both author’s works.  You don’t think Tolstoy sat down and wrote in a
> vacuum.

And Walter Scott used whose notion of historical novel to come up with the
genre? Not using so-called methodology doesn’t leave one in a vaccuum, quite
the opposite - especially since the great works, being the great insights,
often break genres, create them, or expand them the way knowledge is always
expanded - no one knows how. Of course it almost always happens incrementally,
and plenty of knowledge and analysis helps, but when you get down to it, no one
knows where ideas come from, and nothing called methodology can guarantee new
ones.

> For Newton, the assumption was different.  He assumed there was a
> mathematical expression describing the behavior of a pendulum.  This
> assumption meant that he had to collect data on periodicity, length, weight,
> etc., and explore the mathematical relationships between them.  That was his
> methodology.

Why did his assumption mean that he had to collect such data? No “methodology”
could have told him that.

Of course he drew on existing knowledge and information, but there is no known
system of incorporating them in any way that could be known to produce any
discovery.

> And he wasn’t working in a vacuum—he’d been most recently
> in contact with Kepler’s work, which had reaffirmed again the possibility
> of using mathematical language to describe physical behavior.
>
>>> First: it takes a particular brand of naivete to imagine that a question
> of
>>> form does not presuppose an engagement with questions of content, and
>>> therefore questions of historical-social content and engagement.
>
>> If a person is killed with a gun or a bomb or a toxin, does the form of
> weapon
>> matter to the person killed? It takes a certain amount of
> I-don?t-know-what to
>> think that it does.
>
> I’m not sure why you continue to confuse formal literary questions with
> weaponry.

Oh, that’s what the confusion is. Why do you pursue it then below?

> How about this: if a person asks “why is this gun constructed
> the way it is?” (a question of form) then to ignore the bullet, the effect
> of the bullet, the techniques used to construct it, the materials used, the
> socio-historical origins, etc, etc, etc, is to fail completely to
> investigate the question asked because it ignores the form of the question:
> to ask a question of form is to ask a question of content.  (Nor is the
> answer to the question “why is this gun constructed the way it is?”:
> “damn, I’m dead.") I’m guessing (to be generous) you keep making these
> militant analogies out of some sense that I’m ignoring the material effect
> of political questions.  But it’s pretty ham-fisted.

I think it’s obvious that Lauter’s point is that much academic work has a predominantly non-normative focus; that is, a formal or technical focus. A formal focus that either does not much connect to anything normative, or one where not much of any potential connection is explored. And my point is that much of the normative focus in the academy is not progressive or not nearly as progressive as it could be and ought to be. Plain enough?

>>> (2) a structural or immanent (hence formalist in his own sense) argument
> in
>>> proposing that formalism is *itself* ?autonomous object[] isolated from
>>> [its] social origins or functions?.
>
>> Obviously - that all argument is formal in a sense doesn?t mean that all
> types
>> of argument have much if anything to do with social or political concerns.
>
> I don’t think you follow my argument here.  I’m not saying that all
> arguments are formal in the sense Lauter uses.  I’m suggesting that
> Lauter’s pejorative sense of “formal” is naive because it would make all
> arguments pejorative, b/c they can be understood as formal in his own terms
>—even his own.  If anything, the critique of my argument is that it is
> trivial to show such circularities—but in this case, the circularity is
> precisely why we need to open up this characature of “formal.”

See above.

> *My* argument is that formal questions are never acually isolated from
> questions of content, nor, for that matter, are they isolated from their
> historical moment.

Of course, in some sense all formal questions have some normative aspect, just
as all novels have some political aspect. That’s true of anything and
everything. It’s also totally beside Lauter’s concern and mine.

> To pursue formal questions effectively is inevitably to
> turn toward an investigation of historical conditions, and socio-political
> concerns.

It’s not inevitable. Far from it. One could pursue from now until Doomsday how
poetry stimulates, or fails to, neurons in the brain. Or the temporal relationship between syntax and metaphor in haiku. And that in itself has nothing to do, necessarily, with historical conditions, and socio-political concerns. Of course, at some level, everything has something to do with everything else - which, again, is beside the point.

> That’s exactly what 70’s formalism showed us, and why it was an

Well, I guess then your notion of 70’s formula must have been the product of “methodology” - because I just overturned it in my brief analysis above.

> improvement over the earlier, more naive, formal approaches (particularly
> structuralism) that Lauter (himself naively) condemns.

You’re repeating bromides and myths of the academy. Why are these myths and bromides pervasive in the academy? A lot could be said.

By Tony Christini on 01/28/06 at 12:32 AM | Permanent link to this comment

>> To pursue formal questions effectively is inevitably to
>> turn toward an investigation of historical conditions, and socio-political
>> concerns.

>It’s not inevitable. Far from it. One could pursue from now until Doomsday how
>poetry stimulates, or fails to, neurons in the brain. Or the temporal relationship between syntax >and metaphor in haiku. And that in itself has nothing to do, necessarily, with historical >conditions, and socio-political concerns. Of course, at some level, everything has something to >do with everything else - which, again, is beside the point.

For me, this is the crux of where we disagree.  I do not believe that literary forms can be analyzed effectively wholly in terms of trans-historical categories—including those proposed by cognitive science.  Neurons in the brain are very much beside the point; we know that to some degree they are malleable, and to some degree certain aspects of brain morphology are fixed.  To look at literature, and to recognize that over the last ten thousand years or so, the forms of linguistic composition and transmission have changed drastically, while we must assume the essential genetic and large-scale physiological structure has remained the same (and most cognitive scientist and neuroscientists would agree this is probably true) is to recognize the enormous changes in literary form, particularly over the last few centuries, are not usefully pursued at the level of physiology or neuronal hard-wiring.  I’m not talking about the various possible ways that formal questions may be addressed--I’m talking about how they can be addressed effectively.  And I don’t believe that such trans-historical approaches are meaningful or productive.  I simply don’t believe that it’s useful to describe or analyze the form of something like the Haiku with out investigating its origins and development.  An investigation of the form that doesn’t consider these questions is for me a dead-end engagement.

>To pose a question is to in many cases suggest an answer. If you’ve got a toolbox of knowledge to
>help get you to that answer, great. That’s what disciplines do, they gather and organize and
>create knowledge, hopefully for future use. Problem is, oftentimes no one knows what toolbox >or tools are going to be required. “Assumptions”
- your term - are often proven wrong. What >happens >when an assumption is proven wrong? Go to another assumption, another “methodology”?
>What’s the difference between an assumption and an idea?

I am lead to wonder from this if the problem is not, again, that we have very different ideas of what “methodology” means.  I think you see it as much more rigid than I do.  Methodology, when asking cultural questions, is idealy a fluid attempt to address a problem by figuring out what tools will give you traction.  To put it differently, it is a process of trial and error.  The relation between assumptions, ideas, and methodology, might usefully be understood in architectural terms.  An architect might initially have certain parameters for a house—these map onto assumptions.  From these, they develop a draft blueprint, the methodology.  Both of these steps involve a myriad of ideas.  From this point, the blueprint is modified through revision, and in the final construction of the house, modified further as the actual problems of construction engage with the proposal on the page.  In this analogy, good methodology is a flexible blueprint and an adaptive work crew.  It’s not a single fixed draft.  Initial assumptions and questions, which as I’ve said, tend to presuppose a certain method, may prove ineffective.  Which means you must modify your approach.  To put it differently, “methodology” is only a fancy word for the approach to a problem.  If one approach doesn’t work, you try another.  A good methodology will allow you to recognize when you have failed to answer the problem in a satisfactory manner and must try another. 

>a formal or technical focus

Again, I’m not sure how you can equate these if you have a full sense of the kinds of questions that formal analysis can open up.

To pick you up here:

>And Walter Scott used whose notion of historical novel to come up with the
>genre? Not using so-called methodology doesn’t leave one in a vaccuum, quite
>the opposite - especially since the great works, being the great insights,
>often break genres, create them, or expand them the way knowledge is always
>expanded - no one knows how.

I’m not suggesting that genre doesn’t change through time--quite the opposite.  I’m arguing that writers use previous genres as an initial heuristic, in the same way that good critics use methodology.  Scott developed the historical novel out of a mix of the ballad revival tradition, the gothic novel, and bildungsroman.  These genres in turn formed out of others.  To imagine that methodology is fixed once and for all at the beginning of the project, and is then pursued dogmatically so that no further insight is achieved, is the same as to imagine Tolstoy picked up Scott’s novels and simply reproduced them in Russian.  This is exactly where we have a different sense of what “methodolgy” means.  It’s a problem solving *model* at the level of form—not a problem and an answer presupposed from page one—whether we’re talking about criticism or fiction.

>A formal focus that either does
>not much connect to anything normative, or one where not much of any potential connection is
>explored. And my point is that much of the normative focus in the academy is not progressive>
>or not nearly as progressive as it could be and ought to be. Plain enough?

Not plain enough for me.  I appreciate your desire for a more progressive academia, but don’t quite understand the terms of your critique.  In particular, I’m unsure what you mean by “normative.” Do you mean value judgments?  Or statements that are regulatory?  Or statements that represent generally-held beliefs? Do you mean that academia should be more directly involved with legislating certain “non-techinical” standards that extend beyond interpretation?  Are you suggesting that formal is opposed to normative/political, that normative and political are essentially the same?  How does the category of the ethical connect to this?  I’m just trying to understand the parameters of your argument here.

>You’re repeating bromides and myths of the academy.

Perhaps.  But it is my belief that what the academy does has both analytical value—i.e. lasting heuristic or epistemological significance—and ethical value.  Ideally, it helps expose people to alterity and pushes them to engage with it and change.  If that’s a bromide I don’t want the anodyne.

By on 01/28/06 at 05:49 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Quoting :

> Devin Griffiths just responded to the entry you subscribed to at:
> The Valve
>
> The title of the entry is:
> Human, Not So Human: A Few Quibbles About Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees
>
> You can see the comment at the following URL:
> http://www.thevalve.org/go/valve/article/human_not_so_human/#6935
>
>>> To pursue formal questions effectively is inevitably to
>>> turn toward an investigation of historical conditions, and
> socio-political
>>> concerns.
>
>> It’s not inevitable. Far from it. One could pursue from now until
> Doomsday how
>> poetry stimulates, or fails to, neurons in the brain. Or the temporal
> relationship between syntax >and metaphor in haiku. And that in itself has
> nothing to do, necessarily, with historical >conditions, and socio-political
> concerns. Of course, at some level, everything has something to >do with
> everything else - which, again, is beside the point.
>
> For me, this is the crux of where we disagree.  I do not believe that
> literary forms can be analyzed effectively wholly in terms of
> trans-historical categories—including those proposed by cognitive
> science.  Neurons in the brain are very much beside the point; we know that
> to some degree they are malleable, and to some degree certain aspects of
> brain morphology are fixed.  To look at literature, and to recognize that
> over the last ten thousand years or so, the forms of linguistic composition
> and transmission have changed drastically, while we must assume the
> essential genetic and large-scale physiological structure has remained the
> same (and most cognitive scientist and neuroscientists would agree this is
> probably true) is to recognize the enormous changes in literary form,
> particularly over the last few centuries, are not usefully pursued at the
> level of physiology or neuronal hard-wiring.  I’m not talking about the
> various possible ways that formal questions may be addressed--I’m talking
> about how they can be addressed effectively.  And I don’t believe that such
> trans-historical approaches are meaningful or productive.  I simply don’t
> believe that it’s useful to describe or analyze the form of something like
> the Haiku with out investigating its origins and development.  An
> investigation of the form that doesn’t consider these questions is for me a
> dead-end engagement.

I wasn’t talking about you, clearly. I was talking about the academy. Again, as I’ve noted, it’s all beside the point.

>> To pose a question is to in many cases suggest an answer. If you’ve got a
> toolbox of knowledge to
>> help get you to that answer, great. That’s what disciplines do, they
> gather and organize and
>> create knowledge, hopefully for future use. Problem is, oftentimes no one
> knows what toolbox >or tools are going to be required. “Assumptions”
> - your term - are often proven wrong. What >happens >when an assumption is
> proven wrong? Go to another assumption, another “methodology”?
>> What’s the difference between an assumption and an idea?
>
> I am lead to wonder from this if the problem is not, again, that we have
> very different ideas of what “methodology” means.  I think you see it as
> much more rigid than I do.  Methodology, when asking cultural questions, is
> idealy a fluid attempt to address a problem by figuring out what tools will
> give you traction.  To put it differently, it is a process of trial and
> error.  The relation between assumptions, ideas, and methodology, might
> usefully be understood in architectural terms.  An architect might initially
> have certain parameters for a house—these map onto assumptions.  From
> these, they develop a draft blueprint, the methodology.  Both of these steps
> involve a myriad of ideas.  From this point, the blueprint is modified
> through revision, and in the final construction of the house, modified
> further as the actual problems of construction engage with the proposal on
> the page.  In this analogy, good methodology is a flexible blueprint and an
> adaptive work crew.  It’s not a single fixed draft.  Initial assumptions
> and questions, which as I’ve said, tend to presuppose a certain method, may
> prove ineffective.  Which means you must modify your approach.  To put it
> differently, “methodology” is only a fancy word for the approach to a
> problem.  If one approach doesn’t work, you try another.  A good
> methodology will allow you to recognize when you have failed to answer the
> problem in a satisfactory manner and must try another.

Here in many ways you’ve repeated what I wrote. The way you use “methodology” is the way one might more plainly use “idea” or “ideas” or “approach”. Or, maybe better, “initial approach”.

>> a formal or technical focus
>
> Again, I’m not sure how you can equate these if you have a full sense of
> the kinds of questions that formal analysis can open up.

Not talking about what formal analysis _can_ open up, plainly. Talking about what the academy tends to do with it and to what extent the academy ignores the particular normative concerns I’ve pointed to.

> To pick you up here:
>
>> And Walter Scott used whose notion of historical novel to come up with the
>> genre? Not using so-called methodology doesn’t leave one in a vaccuum,
> quite
>> the opposite - especially since the great works, being the great insights,
>> often break genres, create them, or expand them the way knowledge is always
>> expanded - no one knows how.
>
> I’m not suggesting that genre doesn’t change through time--quite the
> opposite. 

Never said you did suggest that.

>I’m arguing that writers use previous genres as an initial
> heuristic, in the same way that good critics use methodology. 

But as we’ve seen, you have reduced your notion of methodology more or less to a touch of jargon.

> Scott
> developed the historical novel out of a mix of the ballad revival tradition,
> the gothic novel, and bildungsroman.  These genres in turn formed out of
> others.  To imagine that methodology is fixed once and for all at the
> beginning of the project, and is then pursued dogmatically so that no
> further insight is achieved, is the same as to imagine Tolstoy picked up
> Scott’s novels and simply reproduced them in Russian.  This is exactly
> where we have a different sense of what “methodolgy” means.  It’s a
> problem solving *model* at the level of form—not a problem and an answer
> presupposed from page one—whether we’re talking about criticism or
> fiction.

You’ve proposed “methodology” as “assumption,” as “model,” as this that and the other. You seem to be proposing it as most every sort of idea. You’re defining it right out of existence into something called “knowledge.” Sensibly.

>> A formal focus that either does
>> not much connect to anything normative, or one where not much of any
> potential connection is
>> explored. And my point is that much of the normative focus in the academy
> is not progressive>
>> or not nearly as progressive as it could be and ought to be. Plain enough?
>
> Not plain enough for me.  I appreciate your desire for a more progressive
> academia, but don’t quite understand the terms of your critique.  In
> particular, I’m unsure what you mean by “normative.”

Normative is not exactly an arcane notion. Especially in the context of my explicit concerns.

> Do you mean value
> judgments? 

Political, ethical, value judgments, views.... That’s a big part of it.

> Or statements that are regulatory?  Or statements that represent
> generally-held beliefs? Do you mean that academia should be more directly
> involved with legislating certain “non-techinical” standards that extend
> beyond interpretation? 

Legislating? To whom?

> Are you suggesting that formal is opposed to
> normative/political,

Opposed? See my previous post.

> that normative and political are essentially the same?

You don’t see that political questions have huge normative qualities?

> How does the category of the ethical connect to this?

To normative? Do you own a dictionary?

>I’m just trying to
> understand the parameters of your argument here.
>
>> You’re repeating bromides and myths of the academy.
>
> Perhaps.  But it is my belief that what the academy does has both analytical
> value—i.e. lasting heuristic or epistemological significance—and
> ethical value. 

Never said it doesn’t. In fact, I stated the opposite and you agreed previously. You’re agreeing now. But it’s simply beside my point.

> Ideally, it helps expose people to alterity and pushes them
> to engage with it and change.  If that’s a bromide I don’t want the
> anodyne.

Alterity. You’ll go far. The academy is important in many ways. However, like other social institutions it also serves a huge pernicious function of indoctrination into many of the norms of oppressive power. I’ve suggested the academy could do better at resisting this inhumane and in many ways anti-intellectual function. I think it ought to. I’ve pointed out how in the realms of literature, as in other realms, it comes up short.

By Tony Christini on 01/28/06 at 11:19 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Literature does suggest historical context and perhaps psychological and ethical issues. On the other hand, much literature functions as a spiritual experience and the historicizing or psychologizing does great damage to the text. A Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor or even Kafka did not envisage their stories being read as reflections of their historical era, or as some sort of biological phenomena. Their stories are more akin to say music by Charles Ives or Stravinsky. TO rip them out of that artistic and indeed religious context (not specifically Christian, tho’ O’Connors’ writing is quite Catholic in tone--perhaps one of its shortcomings) does great damage to the intentions of the writing (which I think can be inferred).  Any sort of text can be repositionined and run through some methodology--a naif could do a Marxist interpretation of O’Connor, say---but that may have little to do with an authentic reading of the text, which is not so much about the information it provides, but more about the experience: a person might analyze various complex sections of the Rites of Spring, but analyzing the harmonies and rhythms is not all similiar to the actual aural perception of the symphony. A choice of ideology a priori may interfere with a reading of a text, tho’ I think that is a problem with the sort of PC-leftist critics, who would reject or dismiss a Dostoyevsky’s writing because he is thought to be conservative or nationalist; we might read say Celine’s Mort A Credit and appreciate the wit, the invention, the eros and black humor without sharing in his nihilism (or his later dealings with the vichy). It the literary moralists of left or right--and many of these Bukharin-lites more or less control the academic lit. biz-- who would prevent readers from doing so.

By Fritz on 01/28/06 at 12:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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