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Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

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Sunday, April 27, 2008

Literary Criticism in/and the Public Sphere

Posted by Rohan Maitzen on 04/27/08 at 08:23 AM

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars. (Walt Whitman)

It is a commonplace of the history of literary criticism that the character of criticism changed when and because criticism entered the academy and became professionalized, somewhere around the turn of the 20th century (and ever after). The nature and consequences of this change have been examined and re-examined often over the years, in books such as John Gross’s The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters (1969), Morris Dickstein’s Double Agent: The Critic and Society (1992), Geoffrey Hartman’s Minor Prophecies: The Literary Essay in the Culture Wars (1991), Christopher Knight’s Uncommon Readers: Denis Donoghue, Frank Kermode, George Steiner, and the Tradition of the Common Reader (2003), or the essay collection Grub Street and the Ivory Tower: Literary Journalism and Literary Scholarship from Fielding to the Internet (1998)--to name just a few.

Brian McCrea’s Addison and Steele Are Dead: The English Department, Its Canon, and the Professionalization of Literary Criticism (1990) is certainly among the more lively and provocative books I’ve read on this topic. As his title suggests, McCrea frames his consideration of English departments as professional and institutional spaces with arguments about what features in the work of Addison and Steele “render it useless to critics housed in English departments"--not, as he is quick to add, that “their works are without value, but rather, that they are not amenable to certain procedures that English professors must perform” (11). The short version of his story is that professional critics require difficult, complex, ambiguous texts to do their jobs (e.g. 146); the “techniques of simplicity” that characterize Addison and Steele propel them, as a result, out of the canon.  As he develops his argument, McCrea offers an interesting overview of the 19th-century and then 20th-century critical reception of Addison and Steele. He explains the Victorians’ admiration for these 18th-century predecessors largely in terms of the different understanding that prevailed about the relationship of literature, and thus of the literary critic, to life. Rightly, I’d say (based on my own work on 19th-century literary criticism), he sees as a central Victorian critical premise that literature and criticism are public activities, that their worth is to be discussed in terms of their effects on readers; hence the significance attached, he argues, to sincerity as well as affect. Especially key to McCrea’s larger argument is his observation that the 19th-century writers were not “academicians” or “specialists in a field” (89):

For Thackeray and his contemporaries, literature is a public matter, a matter to be lectured upon before large audiences, a matter to be given importance because of its impact upon morals and emotions. For the present-day academic critic, literature no longer is a public matter but rather is a professional matter, even more narrowly, a departmental matter. The study of literature has become a special and separate discipline--housed in colleges of arts and sciences along with other special and separate disciplines. The public has narrowed to a group of frequently recalcitrant students whose need for instruction in English composition--not in English literature--justifies the existence of the English department. (92)

As McCrea tells the story (which in its basic outlines is pretty similar to that told in other histories of criticism), this decline in the critic’s public role has had both significant costs (among them, the critical ‘death’ of Addison and Steele) and significant benefits. At times the book has a nostalgic, even elegaic sound:

People who want to become English professors do so because, at one point in their lives, they found reading a story, poem, or play to be an emotionally rewarding experience. They somehow, someway were touched by what they read. Yet it is precisely this emotional response that the would-be professor must give up. Of course, the professor can and should have those feelings in private, but publicly, as a teacher or publisher, the professor must talk about the text in nonemotional, largely technical terms. No one ever won a National Endowment for the Humanities grant by weeping copiously for Little Nell, and no one will get tenure in a major department by sharing his powerful feelings about Housman’s Shropshire Lad with the full professors. (147)

Not that McCrea thinks they should--and indeed we can all share a shudder at the very idea. But to me one strength of McCrea’s discussion is his admission that marginalizing affect, pleasure, and aesthetic response is, in a way, to be untrue to literature, and that the professional insistence on doing so also, as a result, marginalizes our conversation, alienating us, as McCrea says, “from our students, our counterparts in other academic departments, our families [unless, he allows, they include other professional critics--otherwise, as he points out, even they are unlikely to actually read our books and articles], and, ultimately, any larger public” (164-5). In Democracy’s Children: Intellectuals and the Rise of Cultural Politics (2002), John McGowan makes a similar point: “There remains a tension between the experience of reading literature and the paths followed in studying. . . . To give one’s allegiance to the academic forms through which literature is discussed and taught is to withdraw [at least partly] allegiance to literature itself” [65].  In A Mirror in the Roadway: Literature and the Real World (2005), Dickstein too remarks that “Since the modernist period and especially in the last thirty years, a tremendous gap has opened up between how most readers read if they still read at all, and how critics read, or how they theorize about reading” (1).

The alienation of academic criticism from the broader reading public is in fact a common theme among many of the books I’ve cited.  Writing approvingly of his three main subjects, for instance, Knight notes that “they refuse the retreat of a discipline’s discourse and think it imperative that the scholar find a way to engage the larger educated public in conversation” (8).  In Double Agent, Dickstein posits the alienation between professional critics and a non-academic readership as a central problem in the discipline: “the main task for criticism today is to recapture the public space occupied by the independent man or woman of letters not only between the wars but throughout the nineteenth century. The first step,” he continues, “would be to treat criticism as a major form of public discourse” (6), making the critic a “mediator between art and its audience” (7).

But why, McCrea asks, should we expect such cross-over between our work--our professional lives and discourse--and our personal lives? McCrea’s answer to this question (we shouldn’t) puts the professionalization of English studies into the context of professionalization more generally, which he argues (drawing on sociological studies) was a key feature of American society during the last half of the 20th century. Perhaps the most distinctive feature of McCrea’s book, in fact, seems to me to be his insistence that, in this respect at least, ‘professing English’ is (or has now become) just another job, and indeed that its success at establishing itself professionally at once accounts for and has depended on its investment in theory and metacommentary: “The ultimate step in the aggrandizement of any professional group is for its members to get paid to talk about how they do what they do rather than doing it” (17). If one result is isolation from and (perceived) irrelevance to the broader public, including the reading public, the gains for criticism and even for literature are also, McCrea argues, substantial:

Rotarians no longer look to us for uplift, future presidents no longer turn to us to increase their ‘stock of ideas,’ nor do ex-presidents attend our funerals, undergraduates no longer found alumni associations around us, family members can no longer read our books, and plain English has disappeared from our journals. But professionalization has liberated us from a cruel Darwinian system in which one white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant male emerged at the top while others struggled at the bottom, grading papers in impoverished anonymity. It has liberated us from the harsh economic realities of eighteenth-century literature . . . while [today’s critics] might wish to share Steele’s influence, I doubt they would want to share his life. He practiced criticism in a world in which there was no tenure, a world devoid of university presses, National Endowments for the Humanities, and endowed university chairs in literature. . . . (213)

In a society in which no one outside the classroom reads Pope, professors can earn handsome incomes by being Pope experts. The five top Pope experts compete with each other, but probably not with the Tennyson experts, and certainly not with the Chaucer experts. The quest for autonomy has cost us Addison and Steele, has cost us the ability to treat literature as a public, moral, emotional phenomenon. But it has left us with a part of literature, with a canon of works complicated in their technique and tone, and with a classroom in which we have a chance to teach those works, to keep them (and whatever value they hold) alive. (215)

Provocative, as I said, not least in reversing the oft-heard line that (undergraduate) teaching is the price professors pay for the opportunity to do their research and as much as declaring that, to the contrary, academic criticism is the price they pay to preserve literature and its values.

I find McCrea’s conclusion at once plausible, depressing, and in some respects inadequate.  Probably the least defensible reason I recoil from it is that I’m not personally at ease with letting up what McGowan calls my “allegiance to literature.” Like Ihab Hassan, I became an English professor “to live in the vicinity of that joy” (“Confessions of a Reluctant Critic,” NLH 1993): my intention, however naïve, was to merge, not divide, my personal enthusiasms and my professional life.  But another reason is that I lament what seem like lost, or even forfeited, opportunities to participate in a wider public life of the mind.  Evidence abounds of public contempt for academic criticism; some serious-minded people have even made the case that literature should be taken away from English departments altogether.  Much of the negativity stems from misinformation or knee-jerk assumptions about the kind of thing that goes on in a typical English class.  Some of it comes from bad experiences, or from high-profile but atypical examples of extreme classroom or critical approaches.  But some of it also, surely, comes from the disconnect between what most readers experience and care about when they read and what academics do with what they read, at least when they are engaged in reading that they hope will yield publishable results.  Most of our professional critical work is of no perceptible use or interest to most other readers.  Should this situation concern us?  Here’s Dickstein again, from Double Agent:

Meanwhile a large, excitable, but easily distracted audience, unwilling to follow the abstract critic down this path, has a genuine claim to make: it wants something concrete, it wants to hear about the real world, it yearns for something with dash and liveliness that might have a bearing on the way we live. (23)

Many academics might agree with McCrea (though some, no doubt, for different reasons) that academic critics should have no expectation, and should certainly feel no obligation, to suit their professional practice to the interests or ‘yearnings’ of the general public.  For those of us who feel otherwise--who would like to offer their expertise in a form that might have some ‘bearing’ on more than a tiny audience of fellow specialists--what might such a public form of criticism involve or focus on, and how could it be reconciled with the requirements of professionalization? 

In The Death of the Critic (2007), Ronan McDonald has proposed aesthetic evaluation as the missing link between the academy and a “wider public”:

If criticism forsakes evaluation, it also loses its connection with a wider public.  This is why it is cultural studies, more than any other academic phenomenon, that has led to the death of the critic. To command public attention, the critic needs to write as if the stakes matter. . . . If we do not attend to value in the arts, then how can we attend to the value of the arts?

Dan Green (though he is not interested in making academic criticism more accessible but in liberating literature from its grasp) also points to the turn away from aesthetic judgment as “probably the ultimate reason why ‘academic criticism’ as specifically an act of literary criticism is not likely to survive much longer.” In The Practice of Reading (1998), Denis Donoghue also calls for renewed aestheticism--but in the interests of an enhanced ethical engagement: “the purpose of reading literature is to exercise or incite one’s imagination; specifically, one’s ability to imagine being different” (56).  My own impression of what the broader public is interested in--and also of where they might both need and appreciate ‘expert’ guidance--would be ethical as much as aesthetic criticism, at least of fiction.  Amateur book bloggers, Amazon reviewers, Oprah’s viewers, even many newspaper book reviewers are preoccupied with plot and character, with what happens to and to whom and why, and with judging the people, their decisions, and the results.  Academic criticism may have moved away from Victorian preoccupations, but perhaps a renewed but theoretically updated Victorianism would be a way to reach out to a reading public that still seems inclined to approach literary art as “the nearest thing to life.”

(This post combines and revises some earlier posts from Novel Readings)


Theory is fascinating if seen from this angle as it effectively has two purposes.

Firstly, it acts as a barrier to non-professional interaction by putting conceptual and liguistic speed bumps in the path of intellectuals who want to talk about books with other intellectuals and maybe (*gasp*) get published.

While understanding the concepts in even the most complex work might be within anyone’s reach, engaging with those concepts through the lens of the theory du jour is not based on the purely practical issue of time.

Secondly, theory (as with postmodernism during the science wars) served as a means for professional humanities scholars to suddenly have access to all kinds of new subject matter.  So rather than rushing out a critical analysis of a particular work (and as you point out, only some works are particularly prone to in-depth critical analysis) which may have to compete with hundreds of other similar works, humanities professionals could cast their nets wider and write about scientific issues (the thin end of the “everything studies” wedge).

I would suggest that while there may be an appetite for criticism more complex that who did what with what and when, the second you use theory, the professionalism spiral will re-assert itself making the output more specific and more alienating to the average reader.

By Jonathan M on 04/27/08 at 10:31 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"marginalizing affect, pleasure, and aesthetic response [...] marginalizes our conversation, alienating us, as McRae says, “from our students, our counterparts in other academic departments, our families [unless, he allows, they include other professional critics--otherwise, as he points out, even they are unlikely to actually read our books and articles]”

Now that’s pathos.  Or perhaps bathos.  I have to admit that my affect on imagining the poor English prof who couldn’t even get their also-English-prof spouse to read their articles was a laugh rather than a cry.

By on 04/27/08 at 10:46 AM | Permanent link to this comment

An expert is defined by his secret knowledge—if criticism were more accessible, by that very fact it wouldn’t be professional or expert. It’s especially in the more defensive fields that opacity is deliberate—many leading physicists and biologists seem quite happy to try to explain their science to laymen.

Professionalism also is materially institutionalized at a national or even global level, and the enforcement of methodologies and paradigms is part of that. At worst, substantive questions are decided for the whole profession on the basis of majority votes at conventions which decide the rankings of schools and in turn decide the job prospects of those entering the profession. I’m thinking especially of the rise of analytic philosophy and neo-classical economics to dominance, but similar things happened in every field.

All this is correlated with the rise of technocratic administrative liberalism and rule by experts. Academic lit crit tries to survive in this world by mimicry, but there are doubts as to whether lit crit has any role at all to play in this world. Academic criticism seems instead like a fossil survival.

Modernist poets such as Baudelaire, Eliot, Pound, and even W.C. Williams would speak of the poet as a technician, expert, or engineer. I think of this as defensive coloration.

In the technocratic world, there are only experts, meta-experts, and synthesizing experts. There’s no public realm. The public is supposed to be passive, and any sign of activity rouses fears of populism (i.e., Hitler).

One way to think of generalism is as what smart people expert in one field want to know, or should be expected to know, about other fields. But “generalist” is usually defined as “populariser”, meaning “Someone who writes for stupid people”. To an expert psychologist or analytic philosopher, Albert Einstein was a superstitious peasant with a head full of folk beliefs.

And in conclusion: what I don’t like about criticism is that critics go to great effort to defictionalize literature and process it into truths, after the original author had gone to a much greater and more valuable effort to fictionalize.  It doesn’t help if the critic also then fictionalizes his defictionalization, because that just puts an additional barrier in front of the original fiction, which is normally much more interesting than the criticism. (It should be noted that a lot of the primary authors of literature were, by professional critical standards, very, very stupid people).

Long-winded, but this is one of my main topics.

By on 04/27/08 at 11:15 AM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s especially in the more defensive fields that opacity is deliberate—many leading physicists and biologists seem quite happy to try to explain their science to laymen.

Keep in mind, though, that those physicists and biologist (and it’s only a handful) didn’t enter the profession to write popularizations. They trained to do the technical work of their fields and its success at that that put them in a position to write the popular works.

All this is correlated with the rise of technocratic administrative liberalism and rule by experts. Academic lit crit tries to survive in this world by mimicry, but there are doubts as to whether lit crit has any role at all to play in this world. Academic criticism seems instead like a fossil survival.

That is to say, no Addison and Steele in the modern university.

Nor, for that matter, to move to a different discipline, was there any room for Cornel West at Harvard. One of the charges that Summers brought against him is that his work wasn’t sufficiently scholarly. Judging from what I’ve read, that’s a reasonable charge. His early book - The American Evasion of Philosophy - was scholarly. But much of his later work, at least that I’ve read, was not; though it does seem to have reached a wider audience. So, Harvard - or at least Lawrence Summers - was not happy with him, though Princeton seems to have been happy to get him. 

It seems to me that that’s mostly a matter of institutional fit, not of the value of West’s work.

By Bill Benzon on 04/27/08 at 11:49 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Sorry about the problem with my hyperlinks, and thanks to Bill Benzon for letting me know about it.  I think I have fixed them all now…

By Rohan Maitzen on 04/27/08 at 11:51 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Stephen Jay Gould seems not to have recognized a difference at all—his generalist work seemed to have been of a piece with his technical work. Many biologists feel that he’s overrated, partly just for that reason, but I think that that’s still an open question. Part of it is that he was a paleontologist rather than a geneticist, and part of it is that he disagreed with much of the rest of the field about certain questions.

By on 04/27/08 at 11:54 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The professional class was once not so prominent or stable in its position.  One thing it used to prop up its position was vernacular literature and the cultural capital such literature could give.

The fact that tradesmen of the 18th century might have read *The Spectator* while tradesmen today don’t read PMLA speaks largely to the relative stability and power of the middle class.  It no longer needs to prove its cultural similarities to the bluebloods or its intellectual distance from the unwashed. 

Then again, plenty of tradesmen today read Harpers or the New Yorker, which aren’t that far from The Spectator.

By on 04/27/08 at 12:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

And Jonathan M, it’s interesting to note that while *The Spectator* had clear Whig allegiances and its writers shifted effortlessly from art to politics, you claim that the downfall of criticism came with its politicization and turn toward other subject matters. 

A further problem I’m having with this discussion is that I wouldn’t see academic critics as part of the same family tree as the public sphere critics of the 18th and 19th centuries.  The first scholars of English literature were more often from the ministry than from the newspapers.

By on 04/27/08 at 04:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther—I don’t think I really mentioned a “downfall” one way or the other :-)

I think that academic criticism is a self-perpetuating oligarchy and I’m not sure that this “professionalisation” has resulted in greater insights than if the apparatus of the professional oligarchy had never been deployed.

Actually, politics is a good case in point as policy discussion in general and foreign policy discussion in particular, has proved quite resistant to this professionalisation.  The great push was the adoption of game theory but that has largely been beaten back (and is now arguably the preserve of a marginalised journal).

I saw this myself during my PhD when I saw that the line between foreign policy analysis provided by academics, government officials and journalists was virtually non-existent.

In fact, academics tended to be more partisan and prone to reportage in their attempts to hitch their academic trailer to sources of government funding than many of the better journalists, whose books on Iraq have made all the theoretical and intellectual running while the academics are left on the sidelines.

I think “downfall” is a rather strong word.  I just think that allowing access to the non-professional class can be useful.

SF criticism, for example, does allow wider access and the benefits of should be immediately obvious from any of the relevant journals.

By the way, this is an example of foreign policy theory being right as Where I Sit is indeed determining Where I Stand :-)

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

I wouldn’t see academic critics as part of the same family tree as the public sphere critics of the 18th and 19th centuries.  The first scholars of English literature were more often from the ministry than from the newspapers.

I suppose it depends on how you define ‘scholars of English literature,’ but I’m not sure how you would draw these lines sometimes, at least for 19thC critics.  David Masson, for instance, was a prolific journalist and essayist who then had a long and distinguished career as a professor.  Edward Dowden was a professor as well, as was C. W. Russell, who was also an ordained priest.  Walter Bagehot, on the other hand, was never an academic, and of course neither was George Eliot, though she was certainly a scholar, or Leslie Stephen.

By Rohan Maitzen on 04/27/08 at 06:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Were 19th century intellectuals so agreed on the value of the Spectator? We have from Matthew Arnold:

“It may be said, that is classical English, perfect in lucidity, measure, and propriety. I make no objection; but, in my turn, I say that the idea expressed is perfectly trite and barren, and that it is a note of provinciality in Addison, so in a man whom a nation puts forward as one of its great moralists, to have no profounder and more striking idea to produce on this great subject.”

The neglect of the Spectator by modern critics only shows that criticism of content has diverged from criticism of style. That criticism of style has since lapsed into line-editing is not the fault of critics of content. What, after all, was the Spectator good for? Young Ben Franklin sat down to copy it out in order to get a better style, not a better mind.

I am not an academic, but my sense of the case is this: 19th and 20th century politics severed criticism of style from criticism of content. The expectation that books should lay down new laws for a new age made it embarrassing for a book to be seen to obey laws. This kind of criticism—very much public in its orientation—was taken over by academics; but they preserved it not as a means, but as a discipline. The problem with academic criticism is not that it is not publically oriented; rather, it is addressed to an extinct public.

By Paul Rodriguez on 04/27/08 at 06:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rohan, I’m thinking about Luther’s remark “that I wouldn’t see academic critics as part of the same family tree as the public sphere critics of the 18th and 19th centuries.  The first scholars of English literature were more often from the ministry than from the newspapers.” What about philology? Is it mentioned in any of these histories of academic criticism?

I was recently looking through a mid-50s essay by Leo Spitzer on “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” He was writing about Earl Wasserman’s treatment of that poem and noted that Wasserman’s approach spoke both to the philologists and the critics.

The point is that I rather doubt that philologists addressed the general public. They may not have pursued abstract theories, but they were intellectual specialists often pursuing narrow questions that would have been of little interest to the public. They wrote for one another.

...what might such a public form of criticism involve or focus on, and how could it be reconciled with the requirements of professionalization?

And then there’s the issue of just how to get the work before the public. Current journals don’t seem likely. I can imagine a few books in the trade press and in some of the more commercially minded academic presses, and there might be some room in current high-minded general interest magazines, but I don’t know how many such “slots” there are. Online venues might be the most likely venues.

By Bill Benzon on 04/28/08 at 03:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"My own impression of what the broader public is interested in--and also of where they might both need and appreciate ‘expert’ guidance--would be ethical as much as aesthetic criticism, at least of fiction.”

Sounds reasonable. Though I would go with in-depth analysis and discussion rather than “‘expert’ guidance.”

Among poets in the academy, the thoughts (ostensible or otherwise) of T.S. Eliot are still quite influential, some very limited if not outright misunderstood part of his thoughts at least. Bernard Smith critiques here in his important and virtually unknown book Forces in American Criticism (1939):

“[T.S. Eliot wrote,] ‘There are two and only two finally tenable hypotheses about life: the Catholic and the materialistic [i.e., Marxist]. It is quite possible, of course, that the future may bring neither a Christian nor a materialistic civilization. It is quite possible that the future may be nothing but chaos or torpor. In that event, I am not interested in the future; I am only interested in the two alternatives which seem to me worthier of interest….’

“Eliot chose not only the Catholic hypothesis, but also its political corollaries. His literary opinions were thus given a firm philosophical base to rest upon, and from that fact he drew the reasonable conclusions…[that] ‘Literary criticism should be completed by criticism from a definite ethical and theological standpoint. In so far as in any age there is common agreement on ethical and theological matters, so far can literary criticism be substantive. In ages like our own, in which there is no such common agreement, it is then more necessary for Christian readers to scrutinize their reading, especially of works of imagination, with explicit ethical and theological standards. The ‘greatness’ of literature cannot be determined solely by literary standards; though we must remember that whether it is literature or not can be determined only by literary standards.’

“To this has esthetic criticism at last come — to a realization that non-esthetic criteria are the ultimate tests of value. Whether they be called philosophical, moral, or social criteria, they are still the ideas that men have about the way human beings live together and the way they ought to live. The quest of beauty had become the quest of reality. It had become, in essence, literary criticism as socially conscious and as polemical as the criticism of the Marxists….

“Eliot spoke of alternatives, not of choices…. He believes that one of the alternatives has greater value, is nobler, is in a sense more real, than the other. The question is therefore not simply one of personal taste. It is a question of evidence and reason. But the alternative he favors admits of no evidence and derogates from reason. His philosophy is, in the last analysis, wholly mystical. It is not capable of being tested and verified and improved. The alternative he rejects is, on the other hand, the one that is favored by those who are determined to be as scientific as one can be in a non-physical field.

“The literary criticism of the neo-classicists is a criticism composed of obiter dicta inspired by intangible emotions. The literary criticism of the materialists stands or falls by the findings of the social scientists, psychologists, and historians. Eliot’s alternative involves a revulsion against democracy; the materialists are partisans of democracy. The literary criticism of his school tends to create a literature that will express the sensibilities and experiences of a few fortunate men. The criticism of the opposing school tends 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....”

Elsewhere, Smith notes:

“Its militancy is the most obvious characteristic of American criticism since the war [WWI]. In the whole of nineteenth century there was only one critic, Poe, who was deliberately and consistently disputatious. No one else made polemics the basis of a critical method. Whitman was a maverick, but he was exclamatory rather than argumentative. Now, however, it is customary for critics to be bellicose, and there are few who have let politeness stand in the way of controversy. The reason is not hard to find. Criticism in our time has been largely a war of traditions—a struggle between irreconcilable ideologies....”

further excerpt here: http://apragmaticpolicy.wordpress.com/2007/02/14/literary-criticism-t-s-eliots-view-by-way-of-the-views-of-bernard-smith/

An interesting lively example of mixing aesthetic criticism with ethical (or general normative) criticism is found in a review by Eileen Jones of the recent Iraq war film Stop-Loss, which she details as:

“a protest movie about the war that—follow me closely here—doesn’t actually protest the war. Because that would be a bummer, getting us into that whole thing again about Bush and Cheney and the WMDs that weren’t there and the no-exit-strategy. Not to mention the 4,000 dead Americans we’re sort of peeved about. We support our troops, you know! In this movie Peirce insists on supporting our troops so hard it’s impossible to figure out what’s ailing us, watching these fine boys with their fine parents all having fine values in this fine country of ours. Nagging questions hang over the whole project: if our Texas-style patriotism is so great, and our mission to defend America is so great, and we’ve got hordes of studly young guys leaping at the opportunity to go fight whoever they’re told, and they’re all great, too, and their families and communities are great, then uh ... what’s the problem? Why isn’t everybody happy?

“Well, for one thing, it turns out that if you go fight in a war, you can get SHOT. Yeah! It’s true! Even a righteous American, with a big gun, and a Kevlar vest, and a Hummer! That’s the movie’s first-act revelation. We see our boys in Iraq, doing their jobs chasing insurgents into local people’s apartments, and those bastards start SHOOTING at ‘em!”

It may be difficult to separate out where the aesthetic criticism ends and the ethical/normative criticism begins here because in this case they are extremely intertwined, often co-dependent. The normative breakdown generates broken aesthetics; not much chance of satisfying rising climax and poignant moments (in terms of aesthetics) when the ethics or other normative features are impoverished/degraded… And when otherwise the aesthetics are well done but the underlying norms are bunk, well it’s lipstick on the poor pig, at best.
Full review here: http://www.alternet.org/story/81161/

By Tony Christini on 04/28/08 at 08:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill, that’s a good question about whether philologists and the histories I’ve mentioned. I don’t specifically recall!  As for publishing venues, well, clearly blogging is one way to experiment with forms of criticism that don’t square with the demands of academic publishing--but it does no good professionally (so far).  There are some non-academic publications that seem to be sort of in this vein, such as Edward Mendelson’s The Things That Matter: What Seven Classic Novels Have to Say About the Stages of Life (2006) (though I have reservations about this ‘mining the classics for advice about yoru life’ approach).  I’ve been surveying this kind of book on my blog; my favourite so far has been Jane Smiley’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Novel.

Tony: “It may be difficult to separate out where the aesthetic criticism ends and the ethical/normative criticism begins here because in this case they are extremely intertwined, often co-dependent. One of the reasons I admire Wayne Booth’s The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction is Booth’s insistence on considering aesthetics and ethics together, as ‘intertwined’ elements.

By Rohan Maitzen on 04/29/08 at 07:57 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Sorry: that should be “whether philologists are discussed in the histories I’ve mentioned.”

By Rohan Maitzen on 04/29/08 at 07:59 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Booth is thoughtful; unfortunately I fail to recall much from the work you mention.

Some of the most thoughtful work I’ve seen regarding aesthetics and ethics, and the related, is by Kenneth Burke in The Philosophy of Literary Form (the 1941 date below is for the collection, not for the essays, most of which were written in the 1930s, I think):

(1941) Kenneth Burke, “Literature as Equipment for Living,” The Philosophy of Literary Form:

“Here I shall put down, as briefly as possible, a statement in behalf of what might be catalogued, with a fair degree of accuracy, as a sociological criticism of literature. Sociological criticism is certainly not new. I shall try to suggest what partially new elements or emphasis I think should be added to this old approach. And to make the ‘way in’ as easy as possible, I shall begin with a discussion of proverbs. Examine random specimens in The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs. You will note, I think, that there is no ‘pure’ literature here. Everything is ‘medicine.’ Proverbs are designed for consolation or vengeance, for admonition or exhortation, for foretelling” (253).

(1941) Kenneth Burke, “The Nature of Art Under Capitalism,” The Philosophy of Literary Form:

“The present article proposes to say something further on the subject of art and propaganda. It will attempt to set forth a line of reasoning as to why the contemporary emphasis must be placed largely upon propaganda, rather than upon ‘pure’ art…. Since pure art makes for acceptance, it tends to become a social menace in so far as it assists us in tolerating the intolerable. And if it leads us to a state of acquiescence at a time when the very basis of moral integration is in question, we get a paradox whereby the soundest adjunct to ethics, the aesthetic, threatens to uphold an unethical condition. For this reason it seems that under conditions of competitive capitalism there must necessarily be a large corrective or propaganda element in art. Art cannot safely confine itself to merely using the values which arise out of a given social texture and integrating their conflicts, as the soundest, ‘purest’ art will do. It must have a definite hortatory function, an educational element of suasion or inducement; it must be partially forensic. Such a quality we consider to be the essential work of propaganda. Hence we feel that the moral breach arising from vitiation of the work-patterns calls for a propaganda art. And incidentally, our distinction as so stated should make it apparent that much of the so-called ‘pure’ art of the nineteenth century was of a pronouncedly propagandist or corrective coloring. In proportion as the conditions of economic warfare grew in intensity throughout the ‘century of progress,’ and the church proper gradually adapted its doctrines to serve merely the protection of private gain and the upholding of manipulated law, the ‘priestly’ function was carried on by the ‘secular’ poets, often avowedly agnostic. 

“Our thesis is by no means intended to imply that ‘pure’ art or ‘acquiescent’ art should be abandoned. There are two kinds of ‘toleration.’ Even if a given state of affairs is found, on intellectualistic grounds, to be intolerable, the fact remains that as long as it is with us we must more or less contrive to ‘tolerate’ it. Even though we might prefer to alter radically the present structure of production and distribution through the profit motive, the fact remains that we cannot so alter it forthwith. Hence, along with our efforts to alter it, must go the demand for an imaginative equipment that helps to make it tolerable while it lasts. Much of the ‘pure’ or acquiescent art of today serves this invaluable psychological end. For this reason the great popular comedians or handsome movie stars are rightly the idols of the people. Likewise the literature of sentimentality, however annoying and self-deceptive it may seem to the hardened ‘intellectual,’ is following in a direction basically so sound that one might wish more of our pretentious authors were attempting to do the same thing more pretentiously. On the other hand, much of the harsh literature now being turned out in the name of the ‘proletariat’ seems inadequate on either count. It is questionable as propaganda, since it shows us so little of the qualities in mankind worth saving. And it is questionable as ‘pure’ art, since by substituting a cult of disaster for a cult of amenities it ‘promotes our acquiescence’ to sheer dismalness. Too often, alas, it serves as a mere device whereby the neuroses of the decaying bourgeois structure are simply transferred to the symbols of workingmen. Perhaps more of Dickens is needed, even at the risk of excessive tearfulness” (271-278).

By Tony Christini on 04/29/08 at 07:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

As for publishing venues, well, clearly blogging is one way to experiment with forms of criticism that don’t square with the demands of academic publishing--but it does no good professionally (so far). 

I wasn’t necessarily thinking of blogging. Some other format - perhaps not yet invented - might be appropriate. As for professional legitimacy, that may well be the major issue. I’m not familiar with either of the two books you mention, but Smiley, of course, is well enough known that her name alone provides all the legitimacy she needs. And Mendelson is a senior academic who’s got legitimacy to burn.

By Bill Benzon on 05/02/08 at 08:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The conversation continues at ARCADE.

By Bill Benzon on 04/04/10 at 07:31 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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