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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

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Sunday, June 01, 2008

More on Evaluative Criticism

Posted by Rohan Maitzen on 06/01/08 at 08:51 PM

Those who followed the discussion sparked by Bill Benzon’s recent post on David Bordwell, much of which focused on the role of evaluation in criticism, may be interested in Ronan McDonald’s recent contributions to Nigel Beale’s blog Nota Bene Books.  McDonald is the author of The Death of the Critic, one of the central claims of which is that “If criticism is to be valued, if it is to reach a wide public, it needs to be evaluative” (149).  This is the book at the center of the recent Salon piece on the death of criticism, also noted by Bill here (and by me here).  McDonald sent some responses to Nigel’s review of his book, and Nigel offered to post some of the questions I had raised in my own earlier discussion of the book as well.  McDonald has since posted a response to those.  (I think the very possibility of these direct exchanges exemplifies the immediacy and energy blogging can bring to criticism.)

In McDonald’s response to me, he proposes three principles for “making evaluative criticism a central component of academic study”:

1. A re-birth of the author, contra Barthes and Foucault. It is inimical to discussing the quality of an artistic creation without acknowledging a creator, without allowing intention and design.

2. An investigation of literary artworks as discrete entities, capable of being studied, analysed and evaluated in themselves. This is not to say
that they have to be decontextualised and deracinated. But they have an existence outside their status as cultural documents, or gatherings of signs in the complex flux of social discourse.

3. A recognition that aesthetic values, like ethical ones, are worthy of discussion and investigation, even if they are culturally derived. This does not mean that we will arrive at a neat, unchanging set of criteria. It’s an elusive business discussing artistic value. But no less vital for that reason.


I suspect there’s an either/or choice being offered here, and I’m not prepared to take it.

To evaluate accurately and precisely, the critic must have as full a knowledge of the text as possible.  This means looking at it through a variety of schema—as intentional design and as cultural document, as a discrete entity and as part of various textual and cultural networks. 

This is my problem with the “*Birth of a Nation* is a great film even if its message is horrible” argument.  Can we really detach one side of this statement from the other?  It’s not like the message wasn’t horrible at the time the film was made.

By on 06/02/08 at 06:41 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I think this whole debate is set in a slightly strange manner.

You can have aesthetics be entirely subjective, emotive and relativistic and still produce evaluative reviews.

It strikes me that McDonald’s problem isn’t with a lack of evaluation as much as it is a lack of claims to objectivity in reviewing, which is an entirely different question.

By Jonathan M on 06/02/08 at 06:45 AM | Permanent link to this comment

As I understand, several schools or styles of academic literary studies ("Theory", CultStud, and the new Historicism) either minimize or scorn evaluation and appreciation. Ronan says that they shouldn’t. If this be a dichotomy, I say make the most of it.

You can have aesthetics be entirely subjective, emotive and relativistic and still produce evaluative reviews.

Sure, but not within academic literary studies.

This returns to the old positivist boo-hurrah theory, that aesthetic claims, or normative claims generally, are by nature “subjective, emotive and relativistic”. That’s the target, and while it goes far beyond literary studies, I find it especially distressing in the literary studies area.

Yes, logical positivism was dead by 1960 or so, but positivism, is nearly 200 years old and L.P. was just one manifestation of it. The university still has a positivistic skew. My understanding is that this is a function of a.) strong secularism, about values as well as religion, and b.) technocratic administrative liberalism, which brackets out norms in the service of economic growth and military power, and c.) the attempt to have science replace religion as a ground for order and authority.

The guy seems to have touched a nerve.

By John Emerson on 06/02/08 at 10:41 AM | Permanent link to this comment

There’s a numbers aspect to this that’s on my mind.

Some three decades ago I read a survey that showed that only 20% of the members of the MLA had published as few as five articles. That is to say, the large majority of the MLA do not publish. They teach, though how that teaching’s divided between composition and literature, I don’t know. In their teaching of literature, what do they teach?

OTOH, in various blog posts and articles here and there, I see a handful of positive examples of critics who, in the past, managed to reach the public, some of them academics, some not. What kind of work were the other academic critics doing? Where they trying to reach a public audience and failing to do so? Or did they publish for a specialist audience?

Let’s imagine that the vast majority of publishing academic critics continue to publish as they are now. But, in contrast to the current situation, we have a half-dozen or a dozen “stars” who write evaluative criticism addressed to a general audience and that these critics had the kind of public visibility that Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker have. Would that fix things?

It would put a different appearance on things. But I doubt that that’s what McDonald and others are after.

And I suspect that, to get what they want, we’re going to have to have institutional change beyond giving the nod to evaluation.

If there’s a shift toward evaluative criticism among publishing academics, we’re going to have to have new venues in which they publish. They may only be a small minority in the profession, but they’ll be publishing 1000s of articles a year, which is a bit much for literary supplements and general interest magazines to handle. I don’t see any place for this criticism to get but the internet.

By Bill Benzon on 06/02/08 at 11:54 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I think I had the same response, but I’d phrase it differently: what you see as an either/or choice is also an effort to have it both ways simultaneously. After all, can you have authorial criticism *and* treat a text as if it’s an object with an independent existence? So instead of treating the goodness or badness of Birth of a Nation as produced *by* its authorial context, the critic would have to insulate the two sides from each other and carefully refrain from letting one inform the other. This seems to me to be why the New Critics felt the need to talk about the “intentional fallacy,” btw; if you let authorial criticism into the door, it becomes very difficult to keep a sense of literary quality discrete from those kinds of social-historical contexts.

By on 06/02/08 at 05:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I see no difficulty about having it both ways simultaneously. I also see no either/or choice.

I speak only for myself, but for me what’s in question is the reluctance of academic scholars, teachers, and writers to speak normatively. This is an enforced methodological prohibition, in my opinion, and a bad one grounded in an archaic form of positivism and a vain desire to gain credit for being quasi-scientific experts in the study of literature (albeit the ludicrous degree zero of expertise, as I’ve said already.)

By John Emerson on 06/02/08 at 05:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s pretty obvious that there’s a profound difference between an educator gifting his/her students with the tools, and confidence, to perform evaluative criticism… and said educator imposing her/his own evaluations (or the evaluations of the institution/worldview he/she is fronting).

Of course, even the Tools of Evaluative Criticism are derived from evaluations… it’s an infinite regress of the subjective (as is human consciousness itself)... the lecture hall isn’t a Nasa clean-room… prejudices will be handed on within even the most fairly checked-and-balanced agenda, but within a reasonable range of contamination, eh?

It’s the Bad Faith version of Evaluative Criticism we should worry about; it’s the form that never really went away (the censor is an evaluative critic) and is little more than an arm of the Normative Propaganda Industry responsible for such triumphs as Media’s nurturance of Early Bush2 and His War. It’s all related. Encouraging a bunch of critical Ayn-Randologues is not my idea of fun.

Conservative thought isn’t a wall, it’s a gas, and Evaluative Criticism, for the Conservative Ideologue, is just another delivery system. How to guard against this? (Or are we all either Disinterested Observers, or Conservative Ideologues in Liberal clothing?)

By Steven Augustine on 06/03/08 at 05:07 AM | Permanent link to this comment


I don’t think you’re doing yourself any favours with this one-track ranting against a largely discredited philosophical school that never had any pull in the humanities anyway.  You’re starting to sound… well… crazy.

This universal acceptance of logical positivism certainly doesn’t chime with my experience.  I remember a research studies seminar that was composed of two hours of Foucault and which ended with the lecturer asking “is anyone here a positivist” in much the same tone as one would expect old Heidegger to have asked “is anyone here a Jew?”

I was the only person to put my hand up and I pointed out that, if one did not at least aim for absolute objectivity and absolute methodological rigour, then one would probably be better off writing a novel or going into journalism.

Evidently the lecturer in question promptly complained about me as ‘problematic’ to my supervisor.

So clearly my experience of academia as a positivist is quite different from yours as a non-positivist :-)

By Jonathan M on 06/03/08 at 05:13 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Jonathan M, I think that one can understand what John E. means while taking his usage of “positivism” to be an idiosyncratic one.

I’ve always read it as purposeful jibe precisely because no one within literary academia thinks of themself as a positivist.  They do, however, do plenty of positivist-lite activities: scorning criticism that does not rely on theory, defending obscurantist writing as necessary for experts describing a complex, technical subject, attempting to maintain privilege within academia by pretending to a rigor that their subject doesn’t have, absorbing and passing on an ideology that says that certain classical ways of talking about texts are meaningless because they don’t really say anything. 

It’s not an honest positivism, because no one involves believes in positivism as such.  Instead, it’s status-driven.  But the total effect comes close to positivism anyways.

By on 06/03/08 at 08:58 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich - I think this is science war fun and games and I don’t think that the intellectual roots of any of this can be traced to positivism.

Lest we forget, between Popper and Ayer, positivism and its immediate children wanted to put the hammer to three thousand years of metaphysical theory.  Ayer called it meaningless… not just false… meaningless.

Two of the most popular theoretical lenses are Marxism and Psychoanalysis, both of which were singled out by Popper as worthless pseudoscience.

Positivism, like other forms of eliminativism, is a semantic theory; it sets the standards for debate in terms of subject matter and methodology and casts out everything else as meaningless or obscurantist emotivism.

I can’t imagine for a second that the likes of Ayer would consider Theory to be anything other than meaningless, unverifiable, obscurantist verbiage that exists more to keep people in jobs than it does to get close to the truth.

The only manner in which positivism relates to the humanities is in the quest for authority.

The problem isn’t that academia is methodologically devoted to positivism.  It’s that it adopts some of the language of positivism while refusing to adopt any of the constraints on methodology and subject matter that actually provide the authority it craves.

By Jonathan M on 06/03/08 at 09:29 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Jonathan: Touche. My argument outran itself. A few points:

1. Logical positivism is a restricted form of positivism. I made this point on the other thread. Positivism itself is pervasive and not discredited.

2. People tell me that Theory (which was anti-positivistic) is passe. In any case, Theory was a peculiar case: their basic argument was that since scientistic Marxism, psychoanalysis, and structuralism had collapsed, all that was left was postmodernism. But this assumes a constricted continental context; in other words, the authority of postmodernism is parasitic on the authority of psychoanalysis, structuralism, and Marxism, even though postmodernism destroys and denies their authority. (Comparison: only for a Mormon would the debunking of Joseph Smith be significant.)

3. “Theory” or postmodernism, while not positivism, still imposed an authoritattive methodology, even though it was undefined and ever-receding. I am above all arguing for humanist eclectic generalism, and against imposed methodologies. ("Eclecticism on stilts” in the words of The Valve’s dethroned ruler).

Foucault on Derrida: “What can be seen here so visibly is a historically well-determined little pedagogy. A pedagogy that teaches the pupil that there is nothing outside the text....A pedagogy that gives to the master’s voice the limitless sovereignty that allows it to restate the text indefinitely.”—Michel Foucault, Essential Works, vol. 2, p. 416; originally in “My Body, This Paper, This Fire”.

4. The anti-normative turn, and the claim to some sort of universalist truth, and the rejection of particular local conventional judgments, and the rejection of the common sense even of very learned individuals, seems common to most kinds of modernism: logical positivism and other forms of positivism, avant-gardism, liberationism, psychoanalysis, Marxism, technocracy, neoclassical economics, administrative liberalism, procedural democracy, and many others. It’s a bureaucratization of thought in authoritative professional structures defining experts, producing a proliferation of competing forms of expertise but no real generalism or comprehensive view.

By John Emerson on 06/03/08 at 10:45 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Jonathan, positivism is 200 years old. Logical positivism is a recent and extinct sub-type. Freud in one of his modes was a positivist. So was Marx. When I read Jung, I was amazed at the degree to which even he defined his owrk positivistically.

By John Emerson on 06/03/08 at 10:48 AM | Permanent link to this comment

See, here’s where you lose me John.

Yes, positivism is a couple of centuries old: Cf. Blackstone and Bentham as early figures in positivist philosophy and Hyppolite Taine as pioneer of a positivist approach to literature. That I have no beef with. But the way you use the term, “positivism” is shorthand for any approach to human affairs or to the social/cultural world that has scientistic pretensions or that proceeds via quasi-scientistic means. That, at least, is the picture I’m getting.

On the one hand, I think you’d be far less controversial if you simply described the object of your criticism as scientistic, rather than positivist. On the other hand, your use of the term positivism helps to point out what appear to me to be holes in the picture you’re building.

1) Positivism, in its Benthamite or (say) Durkheimian forms, is defined not simply by a scientistic ethos but by a rejection of the notion of natural law. To that extent, what’s significant about positivism is its treatment of human institutions not as simple, direct expressions of a human nature but as artifacts, as matters of social fact rather than natural fact. To use the popular expression of today, positivism sees human institutions as “social constructions”. To the extent that positivism focuses on what it sees as social fact, it is scientistic — it is premised on a faith both in the explanatory powers of Universal Reason and in the independence of the object from the subjective act of explanation (where “subjective” here implies universality).

2) While Marxism, on this view of positivism, is positivistic, neither Structuralism nor Psychoanalysis may qualify as positivist, since both express a faith in some kind of natural fact (beyond an affirmation of Universal Reason).

3) “Postmodernism” or “Theory”, as a rejection of the scientistic pretensions of positivism via a critique of its presumed basis in the natural fact of universal reason, is not so much anti-positivist as hyper-positivist: Cf. Deleuze on “radical empiricism”, or Foucault’s description of his work as the analysis of “positivities” in The Archaeology of Knowledge, or — though this one is different — Derrida’s account of the “transcendence” of justice as conditioned by the existence of positive law. PoMo/Theory aspires, at least, to a kind of hyper-postivistic depiction of the scientistic procedures and goals of Modern Positivism as social contingencies, rather than as natural fact.

4) To that extent, any “method” “imposed” by PoMo is characterised by an anti-methodological impulse, in that it takes one of the following forms. (1) It provides a method for exposing the contingent and/or arbitrary and/or insufficient and/or authoritarian or oppressive nature of social (or cultural) scientistic methods; (2) it aims to demonstrate the reliance of any apparently “non-methodological” forms of criticism upon a network of regular and enabling units or unities which that form of criticism presumes as pre-given (i.e. as natural unities); (3) it (thereby) proceeds by way of a speculative — as distinct from scientistic — method for revealing regularities or positivities that would otherwise remain unacknowledged as such; (4) it explicitly affirms singularity and difference and the primacy of the singular or the unsystematisable over the general (E.g. Derrida on singularity). Of all the continental philosophers, by the way, Foucault is the one who is most explicitly concerned with formulating methods, so I don’t quite know what you’re hoping that that Foucault quote (radically divorced, btw, from any context that might give it meaning) will prove.

5) To the extent that “Theory”, outside a “continental context”, appears to provide both a resource and the impetus for generating and applying “methods” to literature (or any other cultural artifact), this says a lot more about how this body of work happens to have been taken up in a particular institution than about the body of work as such. This last point seems most interesting to me, since I wonder how one could begin to demonstrate and to describe the ways in which and the mechanisms through which the institution in question has made specific use of X theorist other than by approaching that institution in its positivity: i.e. as a specific institution characterised by a limited set of protocols, routines, techniques, etc. that may (or may not) have a limited degree of generality insofar as they correspond with similar protocols, etc. deployed within related institutions.

Unless, of course, one were simply to accept the common sense and opinion of “very learned individuals” who are otherwise required to provide no other support for their claims, which would amount to an affirmation of intuitionism and irrationalism. Is that what you’re getting at when you argue for a “humanist eclectic generalism”, John? (and I ask this last question sincerely)

By on 06/03/08 at 10:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thank to Roahn Maitzen for notifying me (via Nigel Beale’s webite) of this discussion. I entirely agree with Rohan that the internet has been salutary in enabling these sorts of exchanges.

I’m struck by the way this thread has steered around to a discussing linkages between literary studies and analytical philosophy (Popper, Ayer, positivism). This seems to me an under-explored connection, after thirty years when continental philosophy has dominated literary studies. 

Discussing the grounds on which one can make evaluative decisions may be a necessary preface to engaging in evaluative judgements (which, by the way, should of course be dynamic and involving, not hieratic edicts delivered ex cathedra). But I wonder is there any space into which a critical practice can be freed up a bit too, not always mesmerised by the conditions of its own possibility. Could we have a ‘phenomenology of criticism’ which, while methodologically aware, is not compelled to perpetual interrogation of its own first principles?

I’m very struck by the remarks about positivism/scientism in the foregoing discussion.  The anxieties about disciplinary grounding is one of the central topics of my book. The idea that post-modernism is a form of ‘hyper-positivism’—too positivist for science—is particularly resonant.

By on 06/04/08 at 10:33 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I plead guilty to using “positivism” as a cover word for “scientism”, and not distinguishing positivistic and non-positivistic forms of scientism. I think that outside technical philosophy of science that’s a fairly negligible error. Imagine an alternative universe in which everything I’ve said so far is exactly the same, except I use “scientism” and “scientistic” in place of “positivism” and “positivistic”.

Foucault formulated lots of methods, but thank God he never used them. The archaeology of knowledge included a detailed schematic proposal for a research program, but his succeeding books didn’t really follow it. The first book of History of Sexuality sketched out a research program, and the next two volumes did something else. In any case, I find FOucault uniquely usable and interesting among the pomos, but he is not my dharma master or anything.

In terms of the methodologism of postmodernism, what I specifically mean is paradigm-enforcement. A new grad student entering a Theory-dominated department, or beginning a Theory-oriented, would be immediately and sharply made to understand what the dos and donts were, and he or she would be expected to follow these prescriptions and prohibitions, whether or not he or she agreed with them and whether or not he or she understood the reasons for them. And in fact, the authority of Theory was grounded on its destruction of forms of analysis earlier presumed, but by doing this Theory cut off the branch it was sitting on. Marxism, structuralism, phenomenology, and psychoanalysis may have overstated their claims—I think so—but the conclusion is not that Postmodernism rules.

I propose life without a prescribed methodology. Prescribed methodologies are just mutual aid pacts anyway. Members of one faction attack members of the other factions and defend their own. Shibboleths decide membership. Faction members will be merciless about the stupidities of opposing factions, but will write their own stupidities into the law as methodological principles or stipulations.

I can think of a eclectic, humanist, generalist normative critic whom I like whom I suspect is not read in English departments: Kenneth Rexroth. He does not exhaust the possibilities of eclectic, humanist, generalist normative criticism but is ppresented as an instance.

By John Emerson on 06/04/08 at 10:42 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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