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Friday, June 03, 2005

Non-literary Realms

Posted by Daniel Green on 06/03/05 at 12:00 AM

In the summer issue of Bookforum, Mark M. Anderson reviews A New History of German Literature, published by Harvard University Press. According to Anderson, “Interdisciplinarity and methodological eclecticism are the rule. This is very much a ‘German studies’ account of German literature, reflecting the state of a discipline that has moved increasingly toward the study of literature and language as cultural forces in historical and social context.”

The same could be said of English as an academic discipline, as well as most of the other departments that have historically taken literature as their subject.  Thus Anderson’s further comments quite readily apply to the current state of “literary study” in general.

“To be sure,” writes Anderson, “every literary history has to make choices, and writers’ reputations rise and fall over time.”

But the real issue is the “German studies” approach behind so many of the articles, which tend to put aside formal literary questions (genre, prosody, figural language, stylistics, etc.) in order to probe connections with non-literary realms. The editorial mandate to choose a specific date almost automatically pushes the contributors away from a text’s formal literary features in favor of a historical event in which its ideological or extraliterary significance can be understood to crystallize. . .


. . .Is this political tendency the result of a “Benjaminian” attempt to break open German literature for new readers and surprising uses, or merely the reflection of poetry’s waning influence in the age of the artwork’s “mechanical reproducibility”? Ironically enough, Walter Benjamin. . . wrote poetry himself, and no doubt he would have lamented the loss of this tradition.

I vote for “poetry’s waning influence,” not necessarily in our Benjaminian/technological era as whole, but in the academy specifically. In effect, poetry itself is now considered by most academic critics as just so much fluff, useful for getting at “cultural forces in a historical and social context,” but not much else.

The “tradition” to which Anderson refers is really the traditon in which literature was considered as literature--involving those “formal literary questions” with which a mammoth history of an important national literature published by one of the great university presses apparently can’t be bothered--rather than as an opportunity to opine about “culture.” I don’t finally object to the practice of using literature as a mirror on cultural practices and assumptions or as a collection of artifacts among others through the analysis of which contingent historical forces might be seen at work. I just wonder why such a text as the New History is still titled a history of German literature. Anderson makes it clear enough that the contributors are much more interested in “non-literary realms,” the “extraliterary significance” of literature rather than its ongoing value simply in literary terms. I can understand why the study of the formal features of literature might need to co-exist with historical and cultural study. But this is not what has happened. The “tradition” of studying poetry in order to become a more adept reader of poetry or because poems are singular expressions of the human imagination has been cast aside altogether. Why?

Shortly after reading Anderson’s review, I came across this essay on translation by Harish Trivedi in 91st Meridian. Trivedi describes the process by which the translation of literary texts as an instance of “translating culture” has become what he calls “cultural translation”:

It would thus seem to be the case that while wishing for the practitioners of Cultural Studies to come and join hands with them, those engaged in Translation Studies have not even noticed that something called Cultural Translation has already come into existence, especially in the domain of postcolonial and postmodernist discourse, and represents something that could not be further from their hearts’ desire. For, if there is one thing that Cultural Translation is not, it is the translation of culture. . .

All the recent talk of multiculturalism relates, it may be noted, not to the many different cultures located all over the world, but merely to expedient social management of a small sample of migrants from some of these cultures who have actually dislocated themselves and arrived in the First World, and who now must be melted down in that pot, or tossed in that salad, or fitted as an odd little piece into that mosaic. These stray little flotsam and jetsam of world culture which have been washed up on their shores are quite enough for the taste of the First World. Migrancy, often upper-class elite migrancy as for example from India, has already provided the First World with as much newness as it needs and can cope with, and given it the illusion that this tiny fraction of the Third World has already made the First World the whole world, the only world there is. . . .

“Cultural translation” is the act that eases this “social management,” provides the means by which the “newness” the developed world finds desirable is delivered. “In conclusion,” Trivedi writes, “one may suggest that there is an urgent need perhaps to protect and preserve some little space in this postcolonial-postmodernist world, where newness constantly enters through cultural translation, for some old and old-fashioned literary translation. For, if such bilingual bicultural ground is eroded away, we shall sooner than later end up with a wholly translated, monolingual, monocultural, monolithic world.”

Trivedi here makes a plea for the singularity of literary texts, but on the grounds that only they really offer access to “other” cultures. I think the problem he rightly laments was all but inevitable when his first notion of translation as “translating culture” was accepted. As Trivedi puts it, “the translation of a literary text became a transaction not between two languages, or a somewhat mechanical sounding act of linguistic “substitution”. . .but rather a more complex negotiation between two cultures. The unit of translation was no longer a word or a sentence or a paragraph or a page or even a text, but indeed the whole language and culture in which that text was constituted.” The true singularity of the literary text was essentially dismissed in this formulation, and without it, the slide from “translating culture” to “cultural translation” couldn’t be avoided. If “culture” is what you’re after, why go to all the trouble of translating or reading difficult books when it can be gotten so much more cheaply, with so little wasted effort?

Academic practice in literary study has really come full circle. Both scholars and translators have reverted to philology, the study of language and literature for the cultural and historical “information” that can be uncovered. Again, I guess I don’t mind if most current scholars in literature departments want to do philology. I do wish, however, that they’d relinquish the title to “literature” and give it back to those of us who prefer to occupy literary realms.


Wouldn’t the point be that it’s a *new* history of German literature?  I know nothing about German literary history, but I’m willing to bet there’s already a well-written book that does treat the formal aspects of literature.  Why should the *new* history of German literature merely repeat what the other histories of German literature have no doubt already established (unless, of course, a scholar has a new take on those formal issues). 

Isn’t this a ridiculous form of the horrible MLA conference question: “Why aren’t you doing my project instead of your project?”

Let’s start making such claims for every published book.  Why did McCullough write about 1776?  Why not 1774?

Why did Kenneth Burke spend all that time working on sociological analysis of literature?  Why didn’t he rewrite *Understanding Poetry*? 

Or, better yet, “So many novelists today write weird books instead of good old-fashion stories.  I wish Don DeLillo would write *Great Expectations* instead of whatever he’s working on now.”

Or, better yet still, “There are all these jazz bands still around today.  How fashionable!  Why don’t they write symphonies instead?”

The point is that these scholars decided to do historicist approaches to literature.  Judge them on what they attempt, not on what they don’t attempt.

(And your claim that poetry is mere grist for the historicist mill is totally inaccurate.  Our two major critics of modern poetry—Perloff and Vendler—both attend wonderfully to poetry as such.  As do critics who emerged from the experimental poetry scene, like Charles Bernstein, Lyn Hejinian (sp?), Bob Perelman, and so on.  There’s plenty of interest in poetry as poetry, both within the academy and without.  Ann Carson’s *Autobiography of Red* sold 20,000 copies, for chrissake.)

By on 06/03/05 at 03:01 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m willing to bet there’s already a well-written book that does treat the formal aspects of [German] literature.

That willingness to bet, despite acknowledged ignorance of the field in question, suggests the familiar view that the literary realm is understood well enough already, so that the honest thing to do is to start studying something else--viz., the relations between the literary and non-literary realms.  (Why else would the commenter be prepared to bet?)

That familiar attitude sounds to me closer to the “you should be doing my project” attitude the commenter mentions than it does to Green’s attitude, which (I take it) was:  study what you want to study, but be honest and explicit about what it is that you are studying.

By the way, my own field (aesthetics and philosophy of the arts) has recently faced a strikingly similar problem.  Folks hung onto the traditional name for the field ("aesthetics"), even after several revolutions in the field and in the artworld, and this (arguably) led to some widespread confusions.  (Perhaps the most influential argument along these lines is N. Carroll’s “Beauty and the Genealogy of Art Theory,” Philosophical Forum XXII (1991): 307-34.)

By Steve on 06/04/05 at 11:10 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Using the library indices of the two universities with which I’m affiliated; and also using Amazon; it’s clear that there are 1000s of German literary histories, treating everything from specific forms (bildungsroman) to cultural and intellectual history to specific themes throughout German literature.

But even if this were the first history of German literature, the more important point is that one must judge criticism on what it attempts to do, not what it doesn’t attempt to do. 

(It also seems odd to criticize literary history for being, um, history.  Looking at other reviews of this work, it’s clear many of the contributors discuss form, imagination, style, etc.  But the point of the literary history as a genre is to create a larger historical narrative in which transformations in culture take on significance.  Unless you believe in some reductive “art for art’s sake” philosophy, a literary history that was merely a tale of forms would not really be history.  It would be chronicle.

By on 06/04/05 at 12:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

the more important point is that one must judge criticism on what it attempts to do, not what it doesn’t attempt to do.

Or, as in the case of Daniel’s post, on whether it promises (by means if its title) to do one thing, and in fact does something else.

It also seems odd to criticize literary history for being, um, history.

No one did any such thing, right?  Nor did anyone criticize the project of giving a history of the relations between German lit & society.  Nor did anyone suggest that a history of the relation between German lit & society would include <style, etc."<p>

the point of the literary history as a genre is to create a larger historical narrative in which transformations in culture take on significance.

Really?  That sounds to me like “cultural history"--identifying and explaining transformations in culture--not “history of literature.” History of literature involves identifying and explaining changes in literature.  Perhaps you’re interested in the former, and not the latter.  As for me, I find both interesting.

By Steve on 06/04/05 at 12:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

LB:  What’s reductive about “art for art’s sake”? Would you call “philosophy for philosophy’s sake” reductive? “Zoology for zoology’s sake”?

By Daniel Green on 06/04/05 at 12:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment


I read the Bookforum review (and the Valve “gimme-five” of it) as criticism of historicism over against “formal” criticism. 

To “explain” changes in literature is to appeal to something outside literature, unless you think, say, that the Language poets simply wanted to make a new form, or the naturalists wanted to make a new form (that is to say, without some appeal to history and culture, we’re left with just a list of formal changes).  Even to say that the modernists thought they were capturing “the real” more exactly than realists or naturalists is to appeal to something outside literature, insofar as realism and naturalism are tired to larger discourses in the culture of their time.  The line between cultural history and literary history is permeable, to say the least.

As far as “art for art’s sake goes”:  If art is only about a conversation among artists, or if philosophy is only about a conversation of philosophers, then what’s the point?  Verbal forms were about ethics, ritual, and models of living long before they became “pure forms”—and even “pure forms” can be read as equipment for living under certain conditions (i.e., mass culture).  Let’s not eschew 1000s of years of poetry and drama in the name of Wilde!

By on 06/05/05 at 01:10 AM | Permanent link to this comment


I share your sense that a purely formal literary history would be both impossible and unwise and probably some of your tastes.  And of course you’re right that the aims and interests of critical writers will vary and we should keep this in mind.  (But to say that is to concede an important point to Daniel, I think. If there’s no definitive way to understand literary history, then fashion matters enormously, and Daniel would have a completely valid argument in saying that a fashion become predominant has costs and dangers.  You wouldn’t claim--would you?--that the tendency to emphasize broad cultural history in literary history is actually “new.” It’s the dominant academic taste.  Daniel represents the minority view.)

Still, I think the Olympic scoring approach to evaluating literary scholarship (“Judge them on what they attempt, not on what they don’t attempt"), is just too pat.  It’s an appealing way to imagine avoiding dust-ups, but maybe for that reason alone should raise doubts.  Anyway, it’s just implausible.  (I feel similarly, btw, about your suggestion in the thread-that-would-not-die that there are two kinds of knowledge: certainty vs. “interesting” interpretation.  I agree with John E. that interesting is too low a standard and one made plausible by raising the bar for true knowledge too high.  It is an interpretation, say, that slavery was the cause of the Civil War.  But it’s also something we can know with confidence.)

In fact, as a matter of course we evaluate critical projects on their aims as much, if not more, as on whether they’re successful in fulfilling them.  And it would be weird if we didn’t.  If McCullough wrote a book called 1774, it would be completely reasonable to ask why, whether that was a good idea, whether McCullough’s defense of it was comvincing, whether the benefits of pursuing that approach outweighed the costs, how it compared to alternatives, etc.  I share what I think is your sense that there’s no categorical answer to these problems.  E.g., there’s no given literary realm that makes it easy to say what’s not literary.  But exactly for that reason you have to judge scholars and critics on what they attempt.

By on 06/05/05 at 06:56 AM | Permanent link to this comment

To “explain” changes in literature is to appeal to something outside literature, unless....

Unless it involves appealing to reasons for introducing innovations that writers can recognize as their own reasons.  Presumably, you believe neither (i) that appeal to features of the historical or cultural context in which innovations occur FULLY explains those innovations, nor (ii) that the aesthetic reasons writers may have for introducing innovations are systematically irrelevant to the explanation of those innovations, right?

The line between cultural history and literary history is permeable, to say the least.

Fair enough.  But the issue Daniel introduced was about what a “history of literature” is a history of.  A history that explains changes in literature by appeal to historical and cultural forces (which, it is assumed, writers are victims of) is still a history of literature, it is just one that relies on antecedent labor in other disciplines that is supposed to have discovered those forces and shown how they work.

Now go back and read Daniel’s quote from Anderson, who says the book reflects “the state of a discipline that has moved increasingly toward the study of literature and language as cultural forces in historical and social context.” That is, while the title is “a new history of German literature,” much of the book aims to explain NOT changes in literature but rather changes in society caused by literature--literary works are treated as “cultural forces” themselves.  So the goal isn’t to appeal to history and culture to explain changes in literature, but rather to explain changes in culture by appeal to literary works.

And that’s the problem introduced in Daniel’s post:  it is not a complaint that folks are doing history of culture (and appealing to literature in order to do so) instead of history of literature.  It is the complaint that folks are doing history of culture--which could be very important and interesting--but calling it history of literature.

By Steve on 06/05/05 at 10:43 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I think an analysis of bitistics would be fruitful in this context.

By Jonathan on 06/05/05 at 11:46 AM | Permanent link to this comment

It is the complaint that folks are doing history of culture--which could be very important and interesting--but calling it history of literature.

I think that some stronger formulation of this would constitute a valid complaint, but as it stands it glosses over too much.  For example, I’d contend that studying the formal and generic properties of works of literature enables properly trained literary scholars to analyze the formal and generic properties of non-literary texts.  Once trained, literary scholars can dive into the historical record and examine, if not the validity of the historical claims--the amateurish archival work of literary scholars being the frequent (and largely accurate) charge of professional historians--then at the least the formal and generic properties of the what they’re reading.  In my dissertation, I’m reading all sorts of tracts for evidence of similar rhetorical appeals to evolutionary theory, and I’m looking at how those appeals developed over a given period of time.  Am I attending to the formal and generic qualities of everything I’m analyzing?  I certainly am.  But am I limiting what I’m analyzing to the works that Daniel would like me to relinquish?  I’m certainly not…

...but here’s the kicker: I’m inclined to agree with Daniel because, well, because so many English Ph.D.s are awful readers of texts.  One reason that the study of literature qua literature has declined is that because literary theory (as opposed to Theory) has disappeared.  I’m never more aware of this then when I talk to my wife or other medievalists for whom the formal properties fo the text are of paramount importance to their work.  I’ve encountered very few medievalists who strip-mine the corpus for ideological verification of contemporary beliefs; and this is quite unlike, say, scholarship on the early modern period.  (Probably all the Shakespeare and left-over liberal humanism.) I’m deadly close to rambling, but I do have a point: most of the medievalists I know (even the ones who eventually venture off into quasi-Marxist analyses of medieval romances) are what most people (including Daniel) expect English Ph.D.s to be like.  They’re able to study literature qua literature in a way that most of my Americanist colleagues cannot. 

I suppose what I’m trying to say is that, as sympathetic as I am to Daniel’s lament, I’d rather see the study of literary singularity incorporated back into the study of literature, because the alternative--the Balkanization of the field into “studies” departments--will create “scholars” whose credibility is based not on, say, the adroit way they find fruits of the Freudian Zeitgeist in literature but on the ability to act as what Laura rightly corrected me for calling “academic psychoanalysts” in what Sean called (as if it were a bad thing) “the-thread-that-would-not-die.” (And with that glorious run-on, I steer readers back; paramedic for my thread, I shout “Alright now, CLEAR!")

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 06/05/05 at 04:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Scott, I agree that anyone coming out of a Ph.D. program in English should be able to analyze a text’s formal traits.  Form and genre are where any analysis should begin.

My concern is the degree to which a deracinated, milquetoast brand of New Criticism can turn students off of literature (high schoolers and undergrads, especially).  Scholes has written eloquently on how students’ searches for metonymy and symbols can lead them to never know that literature is equipment for living.

So for me, form is a first step in written criticism, but not necessarily where I begin pedagogically.  Teaching a story like “Sonny’s Blues,” I often have my students describe the “styles of living” Sonny and his brother act out, have them think about how each style is in itself a reaction to the social conditions described in the story, etc.  Only once the story’s ethical concerns are clear do I turn my students’ attention to, say, the consistency of imagery, the ellipses of the narrator, the way the story’s form is mirrored in the final scene of musical performance, and so on.

I do think we know different medievalists.  Those in my diss program are largely New Historicists or cultural materialists.  Our joke about them is that they look for spoons in Chaucer, find a spoon in an archive, and rejoice!

So form alone can turn art into pure abstraction; and forms of historicism can turn art into a catalogue of material objects and historical data.  That’s why I’m attracted to someone like Jameson, who begins with form and then asks what kind of cultural or social work is being performed by the form.  Kenneth Burke’s idea of symbolic action is appealing to me as well.  Or even Suzanne Langer’s adaption of the idea of significant form.  For Langer, we shouldn’t identify form for form’s sake.  We should track form because it’s the closest model we have to how the mind works.

Lastly, Steve, I think you’ve missed the type of causation Anderson describes in his review.  His concern is that the these new German critics see literature as gaining meaning only in its relationship to broader cultural and historical contexts.  He doesn’t say that the critics show how, as you put it, “changes in society [are] caused by literature.” I also think Anderson is wrong to make an easy comparison between German studies and American Studies.  The work of major German-language writers today—from Jelinek to Sebald—is all about the silences of Germans about their history.  A historicist literary history has a different register in this context (just as Sebald’s critical work on German literature in *On the Natural History of Destruction* cannot be seen as some fashionable turn to cultural history).

I’d certainly like to see more diversity of approach (and less rigidity of approach among individual scholars) in today’s academy.  I just don’t know to what extent criticizing others’ approaches will further this end.  As Kuhn writes about paradigms, flaws in a paradigm aren’t enough to end it.  Only the rise of a new paradigm can supplant an old one.

By on 06/05/05 at 05:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

“So many English Ph.D.s are awful readers of texts".

Like who? I’m not sure about the rest of the audience, but I was surprised by this claim.

It doesn’t accord with my experience. Some are better than others, but I don’t I know of one I’d say was awful. I’m sure they exist, don’t get me wrong, but “so many” of them? I presume that they’d have to be the ones who publish for us to know with any certainty (you could get a sense from taking a class with someone if they were an “awful reader,” but I wouldn’t say that about anyone I’ve taken a class, myself--maybe one). But most PhDs in every discipline publish very little if anything at all. (I’ve always read that was the case, but it might not be.) Is the putative awful readerliness in those English PhDs who do generalizable to the larger population?

Scott mentions the beneficial effect of proper training in formal and generic properties. I’d like to know more about what constitutes this proper training, exactly.

By Jonathan on 06/05/05 at 05:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jonathan, I said that in the context of praising Daniel’s call for a return to a study of form.  Out of that context, I’d probably have qualified it by saying “so many English Ph.D.s are awful readers of the formal/generic qualities of literary texts.” As for what constitutes “proper training” in formal/generic criticism, I’d say that English departments often shelve “literary theory” in favor of “Theory” in their introduction to literary criticism courses (grad. and undergrad. alike)...but I’m going to back-pedal and say that “proper“‘s an overstatement; I should have said “more” or “any.” And keep in mind that I’m not calling for a return to New Criticism here; I’m thinking about the benefits of complementing contemporary Theory with a more rigorous training in the nuts-and-bolts of old school literary scholarship.  The more attention every literary scholar pays to the language of the text, the better the overall quality of all literary scholarship. 

Luther, I absolutely agree with everything you say--except the bit about medievalists--right down to a strange attraction to Jameson and Burke.  My efforts to demonstrate why Daniel has a point must’ve obscured mine: if we’re discussing what belongs in the “toolbox” of all literary critics, an ability to engage the formal and generic qualities of a text is a basic necessity...the equivalent of a hammer.  (Make of that potential metaphor what you will.)

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 06/05/05 at 05:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Anderson didn’t make the comparison between German Studies and American Studies. I did.

The notion that literature is “equipment for living” really encapsulates my problem with the current academic view of literature. Literature isn’t equipment for living. It isn’t equipment for anything. It exists in and of itself, as something we read. The utilitarian view that it must be “equipment” for something else is the very thing that, in my view, has practically destroyed literary study in the academy. (Along with the idea that it consists of a succession of “paradigms.” This only ensures that literary study becomes a species of fashion--the newest and the latest, etc.)

By Daniel Green on 06/05/05 at 05:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

how very interesting.

Is this thread already derailed?  Excuse me, please, from the necessity of saying anything intelligent about German literary history. (laughs horribly)

When I entered university my department was largely manned (I use the word advisedly) by fractious first generation Cambridge Leavisites all in deep post-68 denial.  Thus, none of them ever attempted to teach us anything at all.  Since escaping into the autodidactic mode of postgraduate study, I find the old ‘methods’ - reading for ambiguity and practical criticism in particular, but also things like s/z structuralist dis- and re-mantlings - increasingly alluring.  Please, don’t tell anybody, I might want to get a real job someday. Imagine the fun of an intellectual universe in which one might unembarrassedly point out, in public, the availablity of 4066 mental paths through sonnet 94.  We can’t go back there, of course - the pre-raphaelites tried it already and look where it landed them.

By Laura on 06/05/05 at 09:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Daniel writes, “Literature isn’t equipment for living. It isn’t equipment for anything. It exists in and of itself, as something we read.”

That makes it sound like there’s some abstract or virtual world in which disembodied texts float around, entering the world only when someone today reads them.  This ignores the ritual roots of poetry, of course, and pretends that all verbal art is basically a Wilde aphorism.  Students don’t care for literature—and certainly don’t care for poetry—in part because they are beaten down when they take well-intentioned but perhaps naive steps toward *living* with the literature: identifying with characters, finding personal typologies with literary narratives, wondering about a poem’s speakers “real life” outside the poem, etc.  For me, the goal of close reading is not to destroy such identification but to show the complexity and diverse possibilities of such identification. 

No art “exists in and of itself.” It exists because someone cared enough to preserve it.  *Their Eyes Were Watching God* wasn’t floating around as one of a million possible novels; it was returned to the reading public by caring scholars and readers.

By on 06/06/05 at 01:31 AM | Permanent link to this comment

...and publishers.

By Laura on 06/06/05 at 06:18 AM | Permanent link to this comment

LB: “My concern is the degree to which a deracinated, milquetoast brand of New Criticism can turn students off of literature (high schoolers and undergrads, especially)."

Absolutely.  But the answer to this is . . . Fredric Jameson?!  No way.  (And he’ll teach you that literature is equipment for living?  Seems unlikely.)

Let’s be fair and acknowledge that, yes, bad formalism makes the experience of literature lifeless.  But there’s ample testimony that this is not currently the way most undergrads are being turned off literature. If your only, or even your primary concern is with milquetoast New Criticism, I think you’re simply not dealing with the realities of the current environment.  You’re fighting a straw man, and an antiquated one at that.

Literature is complex.  Teaching it is difficult.  No theory of almost any kind is likely to make it easier or harder.  But for that reason the pedagogical failings of any one routinized attitude shouldn’t weigh that much in the intellectual balance.

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


There is a difference between “the study OF LITERATURE in its historical and social context,” which is not the phrase Anderson uses, and “the study of literature and language AS CULTURAL FORCES in historical and social context,” which is the phrase Anderson uses (caps added).

One can study literature as a cultural force without seeing “literature as gaining meaning only in its relationship to broader cultural and historical contexts,” as you put it.  To study literature as such is to study its causal powers.

By Steve on 06/06/05 at 12:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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