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Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Standing Still

Posted by Daniel Green on 11/01/05 at 07:00 AM

In his essay “Love and Hatred of ‘French Theory’ in America,” Rolando Perez provides this very incisive account of the reception of Theory in the 1980s:

Those of us who were either in the U.S. academy as professors or as graduate students in the early 1980s were weaned on the milk of post-existentialist, French thought. For reasons that had little or nothing to with the individual thinkers behind the different theories, two camps formed all on their own. Or perhaps more accurately, according to the academic interests of the people involved. Those whose interests were primarily literary were attracted to, studied, and wrote on Barthes, Derrida, Jabes, de Man, etc. Much of what we think of as being “French theory” today is the result of the kind of literary criticism that was carried out in prestigious universities like Yale during the 1980s. Academicians and graduate students who were interested in Continental political philosophy found in Foucault, Deleuze, Guattari, Lyotard, and Baudrillard, the necessary keys they needed to critique contemporary, American capitalist society. Some of us attempted to bring these two strains of French thought together, either from the literary or from the political end. And there were good reasons for such attempts, even if at times the actual results were less than satisfactory.

He continues:

Certainly there were things to criticize in what came to be known as postmodern French theory. There were people who were churning out deconstructive readings of just about everything under the sun, and doing it quite badly: building careers, amassing publications for tenure, and saying nothing. And the same could be said of all the Deleuzean articles that made it to the pages of so many publications. Yet few would deny today the importance of contemporary French thought on American letters. Up until what some have called the “French invasion” of academia, American literary criticism was at a stand still, and Continental philosophy was merely what was left of the exhausted, no longer relevant post-war philosophy of phenomenology and existentialism. What French Theory in America and Hatred of Capitalism do is to show us in an eloquent manner what French thought has contributed, and continues to contribute, to academia and the art world.

Although I can certainly see how an endeavor like “Continental philosophy” might at a given time be “exhausted,” in need of fresh insights and an altered focus, I find it harder to agree that “literary criticism was at a stand still.” How could literary criticism--considered as a practice, not as a theory about practice--be at a “stand still”? Unless the term has come to mean only theory about practice, and the actual practice of explicating and evaluating texts is something else, something about which academe no longer concerns itself?

The latter kind of criticism doesn’t need to be “advanced,” its assumptions “updated.” Explication is explication. The process of moving from consideration of textual features to an evaluation of the text’s success in accomplishing its implicit purpose remains the same. Certainly insights garnered from a familiarity with theory or another critic’s method might be brought to bear in a particular instance, but this will provide a new perspective on the individual work at hand, not on the practice of literary criticism per se. The new perspective has been produced by the application of an unchanging principle--read the text as intensively as one can, come to a conclusion based on an assessment of ends and means.

Developments over the past twenty-five years have produced a conception of “literary criticism” by which the object of criticism is no longer the literary work itself but the operations of criticism. The very notion of the “literary” is interrogated and competing notions of “value” are debated. These are perfectly acceptable things to do, but they have become the defining characteristics of literary criticism, not the appraisal of works of fiction and poetry per se, at least insofar as the very term “criticism” has become synonymous with “academic criticism"--which I would argue has certainly happened. The debate over Theory is often framed as a conflict between the “higher eclecticism” John Holbo writes about and a more respectful appreciation of literature itself, but it would be more precise to say that one distinctive practice--literary criticism--has been replaced by another--theoretical speculation, with literature as its prompt.

I am not arguing that such speculation should not be carried out. Even if I did believe that (I don’t), no amount of complaining by the advocates of “literature itself” is going to return us to the days when Literature was the disciplinary main attraction, the “literary” scholar its curator. For whatever reason, studying literature for its own sake has proven to be an unsuitable activity in the contemporary university. I do wonder, however, why the term “literary criticism” continues to be used in describing what academic scholars are now doing in most literature departments. Surely it isn’t necessary to retain it for purposes of prestige or legitimacy. Why not just acknowledge that both Theory and cultural studies are what they are--which is to say, they are not literary criticism. They are both more and less than literary criticism: more in that they take all of culture as their domain, less in that by widening the scope of “criticism” so broadly they don’t really notice individual writers and works much at all. If nothing else, relinquishing the title to “literary criticism” might revitalize criticism as a general-interest practice and in so doing might bring some needed attention back to the novelists and poets who could use it.


Comments

"The process of moving from consideration of textual features to an evaluation of the text’s success in accomplishing its implicit purpose remains the same.”

While I personally agree that this essential process of literary criticism remains the same, I don’t think that one can accept it as generally uncontested.  My impression of contemporary literary criticism is that, in general, textual features need not be considered to restrict interpretation in any important way (at least, there is a tremendous amount of equivocation over whether what’s important is in the text or in the individual associations in a particular critic’s head), and texts are not assumed to have an implicit purpose.  Acephalous has been kicking this can around lately.  This leaves older-style literary criticism as a sort of remnant used only for book reviews that help to motivate buying decisions, an illustration of how the unintended consequences of theory can assist in the complete capitalist takeover of an activity.

“If nothing else, relinquishing the title to “literary criticism” might revitalize criticism as a general-interest practice and in so doing might bring some needed attention back to the novelists and poets who could use it.”

Could they use it?  I’ve never understood whether sophisticated literary criticism (other than “Buy this book!  It’s great!") was really of any use to writers.  Literary critics used to think that they helped to influence living writers, but I don’t think that anyone still believes that this is either possible or desirable.  Literary criticism that helps readers is the domain of a marginal few (I take it for granted that no literary criticism that uses Theory concepts can help many people, because it is generally incomprehensible).  So what’s the point of it?

Every so often people ask why there seems to be such an SF focus “here” (by which I mean a constellation of more or less literary sites that don’t focus on Theory).  I think that a good part of the reason for this is SF’s lingering genre reputation.  When you’re discussing “trash”, it is possible to actually talk about texts once again.

By on 11/01/05 at 09:42 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks for this post, Daniel. The Perez essay is very interesting and I’m only sorry that I don’t have time to write at length about it. Something quick. You write:

“Although I can certainly see how an endeavor like “Continental philosophy” might at a given time be “exhausted,” in need of fresh insights and an altered focus, I find it harder to agree that “literary criticism was at a stand still.” How could literary criticism--considered as a practice, not as a theory about practice--be at a “stand still”? Unless the term has come to mean only theory about practice, and the actual practice of explicating and evaluating texts is something else, something about which academe no longer concerns itself?”

I have the opposite response. It is very intuitive to me that (we may as well name names) the New Criticism could have become an exhausted force in the period immediately prior to the emergence of Theory. Was it actually exhausted? I don’t really know. I often read critics complain about the bad state of the New Criticism in the 1960’s, including critics not at all well disposed to Theory. The idea is that it declined into an engine for churning out endless close readings and explications. There wasn’t any fire or originality or clear purpose in the mass of it any more. Just a set of academic table-manners, kicked into overdrive. (There is always overproduction, it seems.)

In short, explication is not just explication when every new one seems to be just lazily taking its cues from all the others. I think you will agree there is good sense in that thought.

So the point wouldn’t be, necessarily, that the theory behind the practice was flawed, rather the practice became decadent after getting too comfy in the institutional catbird’s seat. You might prescribe fresh theory, then, to shake things up. Even if what you really want is revitalized practice, rather than theory as a fresh object of interest in itself. And now things get complicated. (One of the ironies of this period - the 70’s - is that John Ellis, who went on to become such an enemy of Theory, was urging a return to theory as a tonic for tedium. See his “A Theory of Literary Criticism”.)

By John Holbo on 11/01/05 at 10:34 AM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s not as though those interested in talking about texts have to revert to pre-FrenchTheory style explication. That’s surely a possibility. But you can also investigate the newer psychologies—cognitive, neuro, evo—for tools and concepts to use in talking about poems, plays, stories, novels, movies, and so forth. There are people actively engaged in this, with varying degrees of success.

By bbenzon on 11/01/05 at 10:36 AM | Permanent link to this comment

On the nomenclature question, I suspect that many of those whose work you describe would not in fact refer to themselves as “literary critics,” so this problem is in fact solved.

By Jonathan on 11/01/05 at 10:46 AM | Permanent link to this comment

bbenzon, I don’t think that your suggestion really works.  I assume that, at some point, some kind of biological basis for human interest in literature is going to be worked out—although we aren’t there yet, and there is great danger that the people currently attempting to use such terms are going to end up replicating the in hindsight unfortunate critical influence of Freudian psychology.  Successful work in this area might have tremendous implications for such questions as “Is there really such a thing as literary quality?” and so on.  But I think it’s unlikely that it will tell us much about any particular text.  It’s the same problem that I had with Wilson’s book _Consilience_: so what if there is a biological basis?  That doesn’t get you very far towards understanding any complex written text, any more than physics lets you understand genetics.

But let’s assume for the sake of argument that this terminology is both well-tested and meaningful in the analysis of literary texts.  That doesn’t do any good until it is taken up by the educated mainstream.  Theory devotees claim that their terminology is useful for this purpose, but it doesn’t matter, because outside of a specialized academic context no one understands it.  (As I’ve been learning more of it, I’ve been discovering that to a large extent, experts in it really don’t understand it either.) Switching to cognitive/neuro/evo would just replicate this problem until perhaps after a long, multidecadal educational period.

At this point, you run into a bifurcation of opinion, or perhaps of interest.  On the one hand, you have the opinion, expressed in various ways here by certain commenters who shall go nameless, that if you’re not a specialized academic you should just shut up about literature and literary theory.  That isn’t my interest, of course.  More to the point, I think it’s untenable, since you can have quantum physics (let’s say) without broad public understanding of it, but you can’t have literature without a reading public, and for various reasons fewer and fewer people are going to be satisfied to passively consume literature.

By on 11/01/05 at 11:24 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Yes, you can’t have literature without a reading public. But you can perfectly well have analysis and commentary on literature that appeals only to specialists. We already have that, and have had for some time, longer than French and French-driven criticism. The more or less plain-language criticism of the New Critics and others never had a large public audience, nor did philology nor even older styles of historical criticsm.

I’m suggesting that, by drawing on the newer psychologies, we can have specialized analysis and commentary that is more interesting than Polysyllabic-Word-Salad-as-Theory. I may, of couse, be wrong in this. But I’ve got a substantial stake in analyzing literature with these newer psychologies:

Benzon, W. L. Talking with Nature in “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison,” PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts, November, 2004,
URL: http://www.clas.ufl.edu/ipsa/journal/2004_benzon03.shtml

Benzon, W. L. “Kubla Khan” and the Embodied Mind, PSYART:  A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts, November 29, 2003,
URL: http://www.clas.ufl.edu/ipsa/journal/2003_benzon02.shtml

Benzon, W. L. First Person: Neuro-Cognitive Notes on the Self in Life and in Fiction, PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for Psychological Study of the Arts, August 21, 2000,
URL: http://www.clas.ufl.edu/ipsa/journal/2000/benzon01.htm

And two or three papers accessible here:

http://asweknowit.ca/evcult/

By bbenzon on 11/01/05 at 11:46 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"In short, explication is not just explication when every new one seems to be just lazily taking its cues from all the others.”

I’m not sure what it means to say that an explication is “taking its cues from all the others.” If all the others are doing explication well--that is effectively engaging in the “process of moving from consideration of textual features to an evaluation of the text’s success in accomplishing its implicit purpose,” as I put it--I’d hope that further explications would indeed take their cues from it. An “engine for churning out endless close readings and explications” wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, in my view. The more close readings, the better. They help keep literature alive.

By Dan Green on 11/01/05 at 11:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John Holbo: “It is very intuitive to me that (we may as well name names) the New Criticism could have become an exhausted force in the period immediately prior to the emergence of Theory. Was it actually exhausted? I don’t really know. I often read critics complain about the bad state of the New Criticism in the 1960’s, including critics not at all well disposed to Theory. The idea is that it declined into an engine for churning out endless close readings and explications. There wasn’t any fire or originality or clear purpose in the mass of it any more. Just a set of academic table-manners, kicked into overdrive.”

I think the limitations of New Criticism were symptomatic of a larger problem – one that Bernard Smith delineates in Forces in Literary Criticism (1939) better than anyone I am aware of. He gets to the heart of the larger problem in a somewhat lengthy excerpt here – http://www.socialit.org/excerpts1934to1940.html – in which Smith emphasizes the importance of –

“criticism that 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….”

– the criticism of progressive critics, that is, in the line of Parrington and in accord with Edmund Wilson’s understanding of “historical criticism” (that is, a study of the social-political-cultural and aesthetic in combination), an approach to criticism that Wilson traces back to the Enlightenment, at least, in fact to the year 1725, when

“the Neapolitan philosopher Vico published La Scienz Nuova, a revolutionary work on the philosophy of history, in which he asserted for the first time that the social world was certainly the work of man, and attempted what is, so far as I know, the first social interpretation of a work of literature.”

New Criticism with its trademark aesthetic focus crushed this, call it, progressive line of criticism – crushed it politically, not intellectually or otherwise, in coming to dominate in the academy.

There has been some limited, it appears to me, resurgence along these lines but it’s not clear to me that the situation is fundamentally different than it was two decades ago:

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

This from Vincent B. Leitch in his American Literary Criticism from the 30s to the 80s (Chapter Thirteen: “Leftist Criticism from the 1960s to the 1980s”) (1988)

There’s room for advanced physics type “theorists” in literature departments, sure. How could there not be room in departments of literature where a mere single genre of literature, the novel, makes claims to reveal “the full human condition,” or something akin to it? However, it seems to me that the full human condition is fundamentally, or at least largely, prosaic, and so calls for a largely prosaic literature both critical and imaginative to reveal and advance it along the lines that Parrington and Smith and Wilson once spelled out in criticism – lines that are socially engaged, that are progressive and even revolutionary – lines that lead toward equality of condition – in other words, lines that lead toward the obliteration of class. Something that goes a bit beyond the obliteration of impoverished aesthetic appreciation that New Criticism set(s) its central sights on, or impoverished conceptual awareness that “theory” attempts to abolish. Why should literary practice set its sights on advancing the progressive and the revolutionary in this sense? Because it can. It can contribute to this most vital struggle for emancipation, for which there always is and always will be a great and ever changing need.

Rich P., intellectuals in fields far and wide right along with literary critics – even some of the most abstract theorists – influence plenty of imaginative writers (novelists, for example) all the time. Just take a look at “Death is Not the End” in n +1’s first issue – http://www.nplusonemag.com/theory.html:

“The best and most exciting novels of the same period, the ones that made you think the notion of a “Great American Novel” hadn’t been misconceived all along, were openly responding to theorists. Don DeLillo’s White Noise brought in a theorist as a character. Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy (OK, she’s British), and especially The Eye in the Door, triumphed as a controlled experiment in the application of feminist theory to stories (of World War I) a whole nation took for granted…. The Corrections, a monumental renewal of the critical social novel, spent its first hundred pages in the skin of a teacher of theory. Chip ended up the house-husband of a successful doctor; Franzen himself took up the bigger task, and made something properly novelistic of phenomena that he, too, like Chip, like all of us, had looked to theory to explain. Theory is dead, and long live theory. The designated mourners have tenure, anyway, so they’ll be around a bit. As for the rest of us, an opening has emerged, in the novel and in intellect. What to do with it?”

You have my suggestion.

By Tony Christini on 11/02/05 at 12:17 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"New Criticism with its trademark aesthetic focus crushed this, call it, progressive line of criticism.”

If only it were so.

By Dan Green on 11/02/05 at 12:55 AM | Permanent link to this comment

...what a wonderful world this would be.

By Tony Christini on 11/02/05 at 01:06 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Tony C: “Rich P., intellectuals in fields far and wide right along with literary critics – even some of the most abstract theorists – influence plenty of imaginative writers (novelists, for example) all the time. “

Sure they do—see my mention above of Freudian psychology.  Science isn’t static, and by the time imaginative writers make use of it, it’s generally unintentional caricature.

As for all of those theorist-characters, they appear to be nothing more than another iteration of “write what you know”.  As theory spread throughout literary studies, literary writers started to write characters influenced by theory.  Is that supposed to be surprising, or even interesting?

By on 11/02/05 at 09:54 AM | Permanent link to this comment

What was surprising to me was that you would suggest that literary criticism does not influence writers (say, novelists) and that it might not even be desirable:

“Literary critics used to think that they helped to influence living writers, but I don’t think that anyone still believes that this is either possible or desirable.”

Criticism of many types is an often worthy and provocative mode of intellectual activity. I don’t see how it might be likely that it would not influence at least some novelists, say, or why it might be desirable, at least in some cases, maybe many, depending upon the value or quality of the criticism, which is often quite high.

By Tony Christini on 11/02/05 at 10:41 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, I don’t think you can say that DeLillo is simply “writing what he knows,” as if he came of age in the theory-heavy academy of the 70s and 80s.  DeLillo, like Toni Morrison, got a relatively late start to publishing—both grew up in Pynchon’s generation, even if their novels appear ten years after Pynchon’s.  John McClure makes this point in *Late Imperial Romance*—DeLillo, Pynchon, Stone, and Didion where all suspiciously old even for the late 60s social rebellions. 

To my knowledge, DeLillo also has never taught at a college or university.  So it’s not like DeLillo is some professor who only knows the profession of English.  *White Noise* is his only academic novel.  What interests DeLillo at all times, however, is how men become their professions, how professions and professional jargon and professional garb become ritual charms to ward off death, impotence, vulnerability, and so on.

So DeLillo doesn’t come to Theory as a professional, but rather as someone interested in philosophy at a variety of levels.  Same would go for Pynchon: *Vineland* refers to the *Italian Wedding Fake Book* by Deleuze and Guattari alongside a generous quotation from Emerson.

By on 11/02/05 at 10:43 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Tony, my comment was intended to be descriptive, not prescriptive.  When literary criticism was near the pinnacle of what literary studies did, critics were naturally concerned to justify it as being useful or effective for writers in some way, especially since most actual writers tend to dislike critics.  So there were ideas about how criticism could aid in the development of an individual writer, or of a genre of literature as a whole.  I don’t know of any contemporary figure who still believes this.

Of course “criticism influences writers” in the sense that if book reviewers say that a book is bad or good, a writer with an eye to sales may try to modify their next book accordingly.  But the concept of criticism as an aesthetically improving force for writers seems to be pretty much dead.  Criticism, insofar as it still exists, is now for readers.

By on 11/02/05 at 11:09 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Much of the criticism by James Wood, for merely one example, is clearly aimed at and considered by other writers. He’s more than a blurbing book reviewer obviously. He’s in part a sophisticated literary critic. DeLillo, etc., clearly considered critical “theory” - even the extremely sophisticated academic sort - in light of his own writing and was influenced by it, and it seems to me still is.

Again, James Wood and plenty of other critics and scholars inside the academy and outside it obviously write “sophisticated literary criticism” that goes well beyond “‘Buy this book! It’s great!’.”

The sort of “sophisticated literary criticism” of the sort you must mean can only be a fragment of the existing serious literary criticism that is also, much of it, quite sophisticated - and worthy of the academy or whatever you like - that affects not only novelists but also surely intellectuals further abroad.

It may well be that the slice of the most abstract “theorists” do not write with an eye to possibly influencing novelists, and it may well be that academic scholars do much less of this than they might. That doesn’t mean that they can control whether or not their work is going to influence authors. These are factual issues. I’m writer. I learn from and am motivated by critics, by criticism, though probably not directly the most abstract ones, who are a small slice of serious critics. Many novelists themselves are serious and thoughtful critics, and they influence in that way too.

Also, it’s not clear to me that “most writers dislike critics,” or that critics think that their work does not influence writers. Most writers that I’m aware of read plenty of criticism and also write it. And to say that it is not sophisticated or that it is in essence a mere blurb is inaccurate.

By Tony Christini on 11/02/05 at 11:52 AM | Permanent link to this comment

By the way, the original Perez essay treats the Sokal affair without much understanding. “The problem is not with the laws of physics, but with the fact that no post-modern thinker ever claimed (1) that there was no external reality, and (2) that what he or she was doing was ‘science.’” Oh really?  I’ve never seen a post-modern thinker admit to the existence of a brute fact as opposed to a social fact in any important context.  Perez quotes Elie During as writing “The authors he quotes and criticizes for abusing scientific jargon (Lacan, Deleuze, or Baudrillard) are in fact not interested in scientific theories as such, nor in their capacity to describe ‘reality,’ but in the concepts they provide, and their possible reappropriation for other purposes.” But this reappropriation is inevitably and unintentionally comic.  Look at the scientistic words used to market Zizek’s new book “The Parallax View”.  If you know anything about actual parallax, the effect of the reappropriation is weakened, not strengthened.  That’s often the sign of a bad metaphor.  (Bill Benzon should note that Z is trying out some cognitive pseudoscience too.) Perez writes that perhaps what the Sokal affair proved was that “politics do in effect determine the kind of art and knowledge produced in a given society”, which is nonsense.  _Social Text_, and the wider grouping which Sokal attacked, produced neither art nor knowledge.

By on 11/02/05 at 12:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think the writer’s thing is neither here nor there. Art needs to be discussed publically simply as one aspect of cultural-process-at-large.  For example, I’m preparing to write a review of an art exhibition recently held at the Japan Society in New York City—not literature, obviously, but . . .  I think the exhibition is a very important one. That’s what I have to explain in my review. Now, I will certainly make evaluative comments about a few works in the show, but that’s only part of the job. The major job is to relate the exhibition to (what I perceive to be) large-scale dynamics in contemporary culture.  (And I’ve only got 2500 words in which to do this).

This sort of thing needs to be going on all the time. & the best criticsm and reviews routinely does this sort of thing.

By bbenzon on 11/02/05 at 12:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Tony, I wasn’t intending to deny the existence of sophisticated criticism, I was questioning whether anyone still believed it to be of use to writers.  Unsophisticated criticism of the form “Buy this book!” is clearly of use to writers, because it influences people to buy their books.

By on 11/02/05 at 12:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yes, of course, and what I’ve been saying, is that serious criticism is unquestionably useful to other authors (say, novelists, as well as other critics, etc). This is essentially inescapable in intellectual fields that operate sometimes in relatively close, or very close, proximity.

I gave the example of DeLillo. n + 1 gives other examples. The historical record reveals an endless number of other such examples. I gave the example of myself. I have websites full of criticism both contemporary and otherwise that have inspired, enlightened, motivated me.

And of course a given novelist’s fiction may very well be influential to the thinking of literary critics and others.

It seems to me that often the most useful and persuasive type of “criticism” to novelists is a provocative novel itself - the concrete living example of a challenging lively novel. Along with raw experience, other novels may be most of use to other novelists, but surely criticism, etc., can play a role too - sometimes a decisive role.

Take sports analogously. Sometimes the example of a star athlete (novelist) is not enough to help another anthlete (novelist). An extraordinary coach (critic) may be needed and make all the difference. Or the inspiration of a great example of an athlete (critic) from another sport (criticism) or profession altogether may be most useful.

Surely this is not controversial - that intellects, say, critics, not least those working at some close distance are bound to influence or to otherwise prove useful to other intellects, say, novelists - and vice versa. Unless the fields are utterly dead, such productive, creative interaction will inevitably occur. Surely this is not at all controversial.

By Tony Christini on 11/03/05 at 02:49 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Tony, what you write is true as far as it goes, but I also think that it tends to support my point.  Yes, writers tend to be readers, and are influenced by what they read.  But when you write “often the most useful and persuasive type of “criticism” to novelists is a provocative novel itself” you’re not supporting the special role for criticism that critics used to claim.  There used to be a specific model by which criticism caused aesthetic improvement in individual writers. When you write about being “inspired, enlightened, motivated” that’s much more general.  People might just as well be inspired, enlightened, motivated by listening to music, or (as you write) reading a novel as by reading criticism.

To return back to what motivated my comment in the first place, Daniel wrote:
“If nothing else, relinquishing the title to “literary criticism” might revitalize criticism as a general-interest practice and in so doing might bring some needed attention back to the novelists and poets who could use it.”

I think it’s good for criticism to become a general-interest practice, but I also think it’s inevitable, given the style of the Internet and the interest of people in writing about books that they like.  The question I’d have about that sentence is whether novelists and poets really could use critical attention.  They certainly could use marketing.  You analogize critics to coaches, but in a purely descriptive sense, I’d say that this supposed coaching function is dead.  You also analogize them to athletes in their own right in the sport of criticism, but sports are goal-directed, while criticism currently is not.

By on 11/03/05 at 08:50 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"A specific model of criticism” as you apparently mean it immediately above seems to be a phrase like, I would argue, the words “methodology” and “explicate” that show the death of thought, and so of course I would not defend or advocate their use. (What methodology, what specific model of science, did Newton use to “discover” laws of motion and gravity? The question is absurd.)

Of course novelists “might...be inspired, enlightened, motivated by listening to music” but not necessarily “just as well,” or at least not in the same vital ways as they are by criticism of novelists’ work. Experience is useful in its own ways. And criticism is useful in its own different ways - in ways that are unique to itself and may best or only be found there, in ways that cannot be found at all or as well as in the example of another novel even. Obviously, I am saying that criticism has a unique and important role to play in this regard, just as a lot of things do. Just listening to music wouldn’t help a novelist thinking about his or her work in the same ways or to the same extent as listening to music and considering serious criticism would, obviously. You take away the criticism and you’ve seriously impoverished the resources available to an author.

I do think that at its best there may be a special role between criticism and the thought of authors of the objects of that criticism. Critics can bring an intensity of focus to an art work, that, say, a piece of music playing in another room cannot - and in ways that even the example of another novel cannot achieve in relation to some other novelist’s work.

So for these reasons at the least it seems to me that criticism does have one of a number of special and important roles in regard to the thinking of the creators of art and literature.

My analogies hold. In response to them you merely repeat your claim, except to say that “criticism is currently not goal-driven,” which is too vague and demonstrably untrue, as stated, to respond to.

By Tony Christini on 11/03/05 at 10:23 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I stumbled across your blog while I was doing some online research. As an educator, I was very interested in this discussion. Much of literary theory focuses on the theory and what drives it, rather than on the work being examined. As long as no one theory is held to be absolute “truth,” this is not a serious problem.

By thebizofknowledge on 08/12/06 at 11:23 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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