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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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Monday, April 16, 2007

The Criticism of Purpose: Guest Post by Caroline Levine

Posted by Caroline Levine, Guest Author, on 04/16/07 at 06:56 PM

Caroline Levine is Associate Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is the author of Provoking Democracy: Why We Need the Arts (forthcoming from Blackwell this July) and The Serious Pleasures of Suspense: Victorian Realism and Narrative Doubt (2003), which won the Perkins Prize for the best book in narrative studies. She recently published an article called “Strategic Formalism: Toward a New Method in Cultural Studies” (Victorian Studies), and she is now co-editing a collection of essays with Mario Ortiz-Robles called Narrative Middles.

So many elegantly intertwined strands make up Amanda Claybaugh’s The Novel of Purpose that it’s not surprising to see Valve contributors move in different directions, as they take up the substantial implications of Claybaugh’s productive and thought-provoking book: the problem of transatlantic studies, the political and ethical efficacy of literary representation, the novel’s relation to other disciplines and genres, the relationship between formalist and historicist research, and of course her own two crucial and complex central questions—reform and realism.

Among the most useful of her insights for nineteenth-century scholars includes the friendly but complicated relationship between reformist movements and realist fiction, both of which depended on an expansion of the conventional domain of representation. The relationship was importantly reciprocal. Just as realist writers turned to new subject matter, and focused especially on the targets of reformist discourse—such as the poor, prostitutes, and slaves—“the defining act of reform,” Claybaugh argues, “is the production and circulation of texts” (25). Novelists and reformers borrowed one another’s formal strategies—plot and characterization. In fact, as Miriam Burstein has suggested in her introduction to this book event, Claybaugh mobilizes a whole theory of nineteenth-century plotting. It’s one that I find intriguing and unfamiliar. Rather than structuring novels around single, foreordained plots, nineteenth-century novelists in Claybaugh’s account turn to new plots in the middles of novels, importing alternative plots as resources at moments of narrative blockage or breakdown. It is as though writers realize in the midst of composition that their narratives are not working and so bring in not a new character or a deus ex machina but a whole new structure to resolve their representational difficulties—and what’s most interesting is that they turn, typically, to the popular plots of social reform.

But while I’m thoroughly persuaded by the many exciting claims of this book—formal, historical, and methodological—I’d like to take up another implication that I see in The Novel of Purpose. I should stress that it’s my own reading—rather than Claybaugh’s—but it’s one that’s certainly inspired by The Novel of Purpose. As I was reading the book, I started to develop my own hypothesis that we literary critics working today have all been formed by a set of shaping assumptions that are startlingly similar to those of the nineteenth-century novelists Claybaugh describes. In his post, Paul Giles draws from Claybaugh’s book the conclusion that reform was an “implicit structure” that shaped the nineteenth-century novel, just as Augustan humanism shaped Pope, and courtly love Chaucer. I’d like to suggest that our own work is molded by a similar implicit structure: it’s what we might call the “criticism of purpose.”

Claybaugh describes writers who work in an intellectual and cultural context that is organized around a sense of earnest purposefulness—characterized by a “faith that transforming readers was a necessary step in transforming the world” (34). Just as nineteenth-century reformers could understand their projects as circulating through the whole social body through acts of representation, novelists could understand reading as a crucial site of social change. As Claybaugh writes: “Where charity takes place between donor and recipient, reform takes place within an individual’s heart and mind. For this reason, its central locus is the scene of reading” (25). Since the late 1960s, when the New Criticism gave way to more socially conscious, efficacious modes of reading—Marxist, feminist, New Historicist, and postcolonial, among others—literary critics might said to be following along similar tracks. Like nineteenth-century novelists, we tend to affirm a sober sense of political purpose and agency. Our readings do not just invite us take pleasure in texts; they do not simply exercise the mind: they strive to act on the world. First, our critical interventions unsettle the dominant, passive, ideologically comfortable activity of reading itself and then, through the reshaping of reading, remake our relationship to the world. Indeed, it sometimes seems possible—hopeful—that tactics of reading that reveal marginal, previously invisible forces and subject-positions, if disseminated widely enough, could reshape a whole culture.

I have great sympathy for this position—indeed, I routinely offer socially performative justifications for reading literature to my classes—but it also worries me (and like Joseph Kugelmass, I think Claybaugh is skeptically interrogating the notion of purpose too). Is “purposefulness” our only option? One could argue that the notion of putting readings to use is itself eminently bourgeois, utilitarian, unfree—and that the aesthetic might be the only sphere in which some notion of freedom could be embodied or enacted. Or, in a less Kantian mode, we might notice the ways that queer theorists have resisted the utilitarian, purposeful arguments of other politically-minded criticism, to celebrate the pleasures of reading-as-feeling and the impossibilities of shaping a new world that would somehow embody the emancipatory expectations promised by critical reading practices (here I’m thinking especially of Eve Sedgwick’s “reparative reading” and Lee Edelman’s No Future). Perhaps it’s time to rethink purposefulness in general, or if not, at least to expand our sense of what might act as valuable purposes. After all, what if it just isn’t true that critical, skeptical, ideologically revelatory reading strategies are the only ones with social value? Michael Warner writes: “We are here, we like to tell our students, to save you from habits of uncritical reading that are naïve, immature, unexamined—or worse. Don’t read like children, like vacation readers on the beach, like escapists, like fundamentalists, like nationalists, like antiquarians, like consumers, like ideologues, like sexists, like tourists, like yourselves.” But what seem like deeply “uncritical” ways of reading, he goes on to argue, have their own norms and ethical purposes, their own histories and their own serious commitments (“Uncritical Reading,” in Jane Gallop, ed. Polemic: Critical or Uncritical, 15). With Warner in mind, I begin to wonder whether an intellectual environment in which we’re all shaped by the “criticism of purpose” precludes a whole range of alternative justifications and practices of reading.

In her own dazzling twist on the “novel of purpose,” Claybaugh shows how nineteenth-century novelists sometimes found it in their interests to appropriate reformist strategies even when they had little or no commitment to reform. Playful, critical, pragmatic, or even cynical, these borrowings from reformist discourse were not necessarily congruent with reform proper. And this prompts me to ask whether a culture of earnestness in the literary academy might have produced similar effects. Do some kinds of criticism borrow a sense of political urgency in order to confer meaning on work that might actually have drawn its own impulses and commitments from other sources? Do we turn to the formulas of critical purposefulness as a recognizable and accepted model within our own professional context when we feel a pressure to guarantee legitimacy, recognition, or even—like Claybaugh’s nineteenth-century novelists—popularity?

Perhaps it is neither desirable nor even possible to shake our culture of purposefulness. If it molds us as deeply as Augustan humanism or the reformist movements of the nineteenth century did the writers of those moments, the “criticism of purpose” may be our structure of feeling—binding, yes, and inescapable, but also enabling and productive. In any case, it’s Amanda Claybaugh’s remarkable book that has gotten me thinking along these—and many, many other—lines.


The argument that “‘the criticism of purpose’ precludes a whole range of alternative justifications and practices of reading” is one I make explicitly in my book from last year: _Lost Causes: Historical Consciousness in Victorian Literature_ (Ohio State UP, 2006).  That book also takes up the vexed relationship of realism to reform--though it does so in an exclusively British context.

By Jason on 04/16/07 at 11:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

This book event very quickly went beyond any kind of comment I could make about 19th century literature—but couldn’t the 1960s change be informed by the early 20th century concern with realism as a way of making readers experience the lives of people from (presumably different) social contexts?  I tend to think of one of the ur-texts on this as one of James Branch Cabell’s chatty lesser books, in which he gossips about how he helped Sinclair Lewis to write Main Street.  Cabell was highly cynical about realism, as befitted someone commited to an antique ideal of “romance” (what we would call fantasy now, probably): he thought that in a romance, the reader gained pleasure by looking up to the characters; in a realist work, the reader gained pleasure by looking down on the characters.  That seems to have been the first era of pushback, of criticisms of socially purposeful writing and reading.

By on 04/17/07 at 08:50 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Literature and any art should be examined in every possible way, from the extremely esthete and technical, abstract to the extremely social and political, normative, and beyond in myriad ways.

All forms—realism, romance, fantasy, etc—can be used to reveal ideals and pathologies; characters, situations, ideas to be inspired by at one extreme and others to view with abhorrence at another extreme.

Of course some historical moments emphasize various possibilities over others, sometimes for good reasons and to good effect, sometimes not. It’s worth thinking about what is needed and what might be fruitful today. It’s my sense that the burial or relative neglect of key works of what might be called “liberation criticism” (perhaps even moreso than the burial or neglect of certain works of the imagination) have hindered critical and imaginative thought. From the early part of last century, Upton Sinclair’s Mammonart (1924) stands out in this regard. Also, V. F. Calverton’s The Liberation of American Literature (1932), and Bernard Smith’s Forces in Literary Criticism (1939). And the most progressive elements of Kenneth Burke’s Philosophy of Literary Form (1941, later revised) don’t seem to me to have received nearly the attention warranted.

The Philosophy of Literary Form seems to me in many ways to consumate the literary criticism of the first three decades (and perhaps beyond) of the twentieth century—both the so-called sociological and formal veins.

In regard to liberation literature, both critical and imaginative, as I’ve written elsewhere:

Explicit political art not only has a long distinguished history, it has never been more needed than today, an art with strong “social, political, and economic aspects” as Edmund Wilson describes it in his important essay “The Historical Interpretation of Literature,” art that “plays a political role” and “exerts a subversive” and other constructive “influence,” and “makes life more practicable; for by understanding things we make it easier to survive and get around among them...” since

“the earth is always changing as man develops and has to deal with new combinations of elements; and the writer who is to be anything more than an echo of his predecessors must always find expression for something which has never yet been expressed, must master a new set of phenomena which has never yet been mastered....”

As the remarkable critic Edward Said showed in great detail, authors have to be willing to cross certain perhaps difficult borders to attain great insight - national, informational, cultural, political borders put up directly and indirectly by various dominant corporate, academic, governmental, social and cultural ideologies, structures and powers. While exploring “the urgent conjunction of art and politics” in Culture and Imperialism (1993), Edward Said notes:

“It is no exaggeration to say that liberation as an intellectual [including artistic] mission, born in the resistance and opposition to the confinements and ravages of imperialism, has now shifted from the settled, established, and domesticated dynamics of culture to its unhoused, decentered, and exilic energies, energies whose incarnation today is the migrant, and whose consciousness is that of the intellectual and artist in exile, the political figure between domains, between forms, between homes, and between languages. From this perspective then all things are indeed “counter, original, spare, strange” [Gerard Manley Hopkins]. From this perspective also, one can see “the complete consort dancing together” contrapuntally...”

Said adds that

“Much of what was so exciting for four decades about Western modernism and its aftermath—in, say, the elaborate interpretative strategies of critical theory or the self-consciousness of literary and musical forms—seems almost quaintly abstract, desperately Eurocentric today. More reliable now are the reports from the front line where struggles are being fought between domestic tyrants and idealist oppositions, hybrid combinations of realism and fantasy, cartographic and archeological descriptions, explorations in mixed forms (essay, video or film, photograph, memoir, story, aphorism) of unhoused exilic experiences. The major task, then, is to match the new economic and socio-political dislocations and configurations of our time with the startling realities of human interdependence on a world scale.... The fact is, we are mixed in with one another in ways that most national systems of education have not dreamed of. To match knowledge in the arts and sciences with these integrative realities is, I believe, the intellectual and cultural challenge of the moment…[not least in] the urgent conjunction of art and politics....”

By Tony Christini on 04/17/07 at 11:55 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Tony, I second your recommendation of Burke’s *Philosophy of Literary Form*.  The idea that historicists of the dialectical materialist bent and socially-inflected critics should attend to form was the real turning point for such criticism.  Before this, it was too easy, and too stupid, to evaluate an author in terms of politically correct representation: is the poor guy a hero or a villian? 

I trace a fairly clear line from Burke’s study to Jameson’s *The Political Unconscious*.  The idea that literary form is socially symbolic was perhaps the most important lesson I learned in graduate school.

It’s too bad that the New Historicism, in my experience, went back to a kind of content criticism: “Goblin Market mentions wombats, and they were from Australia, and Australia was a colony, so the goblins equal the aborigines, who equal the British prisoners in Australia, and the apple harvest was bad that year, so Rossetti’s references to apples relate to the suffering of farmers . . .” Or, in the proper terms: “Discourses of goblinhood circulate through spatial economies of imperial, carceral, and agrarian figuration.”

By on 04/17/07 at 05:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Eminently bourgeois” is right. The criticism of “purpose,” which is the only criticism now allowed in the American academy, couldn’t be more Protestant and middle-class. The notion of taking pleasure in literature for its individual, aesthetically concrete particulars, on the other hand, is about as far removed from the American bourgeois as it’s possible to be.

By Dan Green on 04/17/07 at 06:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther, though we both appreciate Burke’s Philosophy of Literary Form, we’re on somewhat different pages after that. Literary form can certainly be socially symbolic. It can also be symbolic of myriad other things—psychological, private, scientific, moral, etc—and simultaneously socially revealing and literal, while being variously effective, accomplished art. Take a look at the so-called socialist criticism from about 1900 through the 1930s—no small bit of it is quite thoughtful and vital, weaving a rather complex web, as Barbara Foley has shown in great detail in Radical Representations (1993), also somewhat Michael Denning in his equally great book The Cultural Front (1998)...and the books by V.F. Calverton and Bernard Smith are indispensable.

On another related note—another contemporary literary and publishing scandal: the utter lack of explicit anti Iraq War novels. It goes unmentioned. The country has been under the U.S. gun for over a decade and a half now. Best most recent estimates: about 1,000,000 Iraqi fatalities (let alone maimed, let alone U.S. dead and maimed) since the ground invasion in 2003, over 1,000,000 Iraqi fatalities prior to that due to U.S. imposed sanctions, all at U.S. tax payer expense, no less. So, no explicit anti Iraq onslaught novels? What, again, are the Humanities for? It seems in some ways they ought to be renamed the Barbarities.

By Tony Christini on 04/17/07 at 07:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Criticism of purpose” strikes me as a pretty useful idea--I hesitate to lump the novelists that Claybaugh deals with in with the reformers because, I think, they have basically different agendas and they relate to processes of social change in different ways.  The same is true of critics and the relation of criticism to reform.  Claybaugh addresses the legitimizing function of the __Atlantic__.  In the US this tradition goes back to the Jacksonian period when both the North American Review and the Democratic Review routinely discussed the relationship of literature to social change and saw themselves as instruments both of culture and of reform.  The Transcendentalists’ __The Dial__ was also motivated by “criticism of purpose"--and in a pretty Kantian fashion: beauty was its own purpose and (in its Transcendentalist manifestation) it reflected an aspiring human spirit that held out the possibility of living in a better society.
Criticism has always striven to have an impact.  The New Criticism was self-consciously political, and even national in its way.  Caroline Levine’s effort to integrate the Weberian purposiveness of reform rhetoric with a “the-thing-in-itself” aesthetics is similar to an idea I have been pretty unsuccessfully working with.  The dominant tradition of reform (at least in the US) is the organization of mass movements by ideological organizers who square off in the public sphere in order to defend or contest norms.  It strives for rationality, even if it constantly vacillates between insincerity and sensationalism.  This tradition, though, might have a counterpart in a reform-type-thing I have been thinking of as “aesthetic dissent.” This form of dissent avoids intentional rational argumentation and presents reform through the construction and presentation of aesthetic images--examples are Thoreau at Walden vs the organized reformers of antebellum America; the beats vs the civil rights activists of the 1950s, the Hippies vs. the student antiwar organizers of the 1960s.  In their performativity and aesthetics, the 19th cent. utopians seem similar, as do the earthfirst! tree sitters of the 1990s (who saw themselves in explicit opposition to the corporate structures of groups like the Sierra Club).  There is something here in the opposition between dissent that works through reasoned argument and dissent that works through aesthetic images, but I haven’t been able to pin it down.
In many of its features the reform novels seems to dissent or persuade through the presentation of aesthetic images rather than through rational argumentation.  But by Claybaugh’s reading, even at that, their prime motivation is to represent and not to persuade or convince.  I guess, I am at the point of reading “purpose” in Claybaugh’s argument pretty ironically.  I guess I still also think that the interests of the novelists situate them in a critical position in relation to reform rather than as ideological partisans within it.  The free standing reform community was a new feature of society in mid-century.  Fiction writers seem to have been drawn to them less out of ideological sympathy and more because they were interested in understanding it as a new mode of social dialogue.

By on 04/17/07 at 10:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"The free standing reform community was a new feature of society in mid-century.  Fiction writers seem to have been drawn to them less out of ideological sympathy and more because they were interested in understanding it as a new mode of social dialogue.”

I assume you mean the “fiction writers” Claybaugh primarily discusses (and/or the dominant and typically prominent authors)? Because the other tradition of literary artists’ conscious and purposeful alliance with popular reform and revolutionary movements (which have existed for millenia) exists in fiction and is quite important. Just to mention a few clearcut cases in and around the Victorian era: Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” Hugo’s “Les Miserables,” Thomas Norwood’s “Plutocracy” (in its own distorted, part-reactionary way), also Jack London’s “The Iron Heel,” Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” and “Herland” ...

By Tony Christini on 04/17/07 at 11:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"The Philosophy of Literary Form seems to me in many ways to consumate the literary criticism of the first three decades (and perhaps beyond) of the twentieth century—both the so-called sociological and formal veins.”

Just to clarify: maybe it’s obvious, I mean the first _four_ decades of the twentieth century—through the 1930s—if not beyond.

By Tony Christini on 04/18/07 at 12:49 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Yes, I was thinking of the writers that Claybaugh addresses.  One of the important dimensions of Claybaugh’s book is that she is dealing with a novel form with particular conventions and its relationship to a mode of social organization that also has specific conventions.  Though the reform impulse has certainly been around forever, it has manifested in various ways.  I would argue, for example, that the committee system that sprang up in the American colonial period after the writs of assistance crisis, though similar in some respects, are different in kind from the reform organizations of the mid-19th century.  I would also argue (though with less conviction,) that the reform organizations that emerged in the mid-19th century are similar in kind to major reform organizations of the present day.
Stowe is a good case in relation to the novel-reform link.  Claybaugh uses Stowe as a preliminary to the emergence of self-conscious realism and this makes sense.  Stowe is a bit of a crossover--she was active in reform organizations, especially as an anti-slavery petitioner within the main-line Protestant churches.  But she is also a novelist well beyond reform.  Only UTC and Key to UTC are really driven by reform.  Even __Dred__ is much less evangelical, less polemical, and more ambivalent, ambiguous, and more interested in contradictory representations.  This is why reading Claybaugh’s book made me think about Hawthorne.  Hawthorne was not only a member of Brook Farm, he was a stockholder.  He was certainly deep within the reform community.  But even so, his relationship to reform and to the public face of reform was very different from that of, say, George Ripley.  Hawthorne’s critical stance might even be summed up as Coverdale reminisces about: “The better life!  Possibly it would hardly look so, now; it is enough if it looked so, then.  The greatest obstacle to being heroic, is the doubt whether one may not be going to prove one’s self a fool; the truest heroism is, to resist the doubt--and the profoundest wisdom, to know when it aught to be resisted, and when to be obeyed.” This ambivalence about whether the Blithedale reformers were fools or heroes reflects a point of view that is diffent from the partisan ideology of the activist. This critical relationship to reform is why I think--partly because of Claybaugh’s conclusions--that one way to look at reform novels is as a “criticism of purpose” that positions and evaluates reform movements themselves.

By on 04/18/07 at 02:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Though the reform impulse has certainly been around forever, it has manifested in various ways.  I would argue, for example, that the committee system that sprang up in the American colonial period after the writs of assistance crisis, though similar in some respects, are different in kind from the reform organizations of the mid-19th century.  I would also argue (though with less conviction,) that the reform organizations that emerged in the mid-19th century are similar in kind to major reform organizations of the present day.”

I wouldn’t be surprised if there is similarity to at least some “major reform organizations of the present day” in some areas—the key words being “some” and possibly “major” in a qualified way, and “some areas”.

One of the major reform or revolutionary organizations (if it can be called that, movements at least) is the World Social Forum. It’s global, something of a real internationale, a promising new phenomenon.

Also, strong liberation streaks, manifesting enlightenment ideals (liberty, equality, and solidarity not least), can be found in the increasingly democratic governments in South America, Venezuela most prominently but in quite a number of others as well.

It would not be suprising then to see at least some significant part of the future of imaginative literature linked, or facilitated by and in turn facilitating, such profound and promising shifts.

It would be interesting, and no doubt useful, for scholars like Claybaugh to apply some of their historical insight to the contemporary situation—not least because the old, even ancient, works are still very much with us, and even integral to some of the most cutting edge reform and even revolutionary movements.

Take the Lysistrata Project, for example. As I’ve written elsewhere:

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

About the play and project, Joanne Laurier reports:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stepping up to the Victorian Era, as I wrote in a review last November or December of Paul William Roberts’ partisan novel Homeland (2006):

This month in England’s major newspaper The Guardian, American poet Adrienne Rich reminds us that great art need not be politically demoralized, complicit, or disengaged. She returns to the famous line from “The Defence of Poetry” (1821), in which Percy Shelley states that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Rich corrects the view that Shelley was speaking of change in some “vague unthreatening way”: “Shelley was, no mistake, out to change the legislation of his time.” In his art “there was no contradiction between poetry, political philosophy, and active confrontation with illegitimate authority.” His “art bore an integral relationship to the ’struggle between Revolution and Oppression’.”

This revolutionary understanding of art is not entirely absent today. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who has distributed one million copies of Cervantes’ great novel Don Quixote to promote literacy, is currently distributing one and a half million copies of Les Misérables, some of the first copies going to “workers of the Negra Hipolita Mission,” a social program aimed at helping Venezuelans in situations of extreme poverty.” “Books Liberate” was the theme of the Second Venezuela International Book Fair, held this month in Caracas, at which Hugo spoke, distributed books, and otherwise promoted classic literary works, much of it partisan.

And so I encourage scholars to go beyond the academic, to cross boundaries and at every opportunity directly relate what was going on then with what is going on now, and might. (That review, Homeland and Partisan Fiction, was scheduled for PopPolitics.com last week and should be there before long. In the meantime, it’s posted at APP, where it is linked to the longer essay from which it is drawn): http://apragmaticpolicy.wordpress.com/2006/12/01/homeland-and-partisan-fiction/

At the risk, perhaps, of “cavalcading,” I’ll add this quotation from V.F. Calverton’s important and forgotten study, The Liberation of American Literature (1932):

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

“That the attempt to be above the battle is evidence of a defense mechanism can scarcely be doubted. Only those who belong to the ruling class, in other words, only those who had already won the battle and acquired the spoils, could afford to be above the battle. Fiction which was propagandistic, that is, fiction which continued to participate in the battle, it naturally cultivated a distaste for, and eschewed. Fiction which was above the battle, that is fiction which concerned only the so-called absolutes and eternals, with the ultimate emotions and the perennial tragedies, but which offered no solutions, no panaceas—it was such fiction that won its adoration.”

At a time when the survival of the human species is literally at stake, we cannot afford as much as we otherwise might, or might wish, to be “above the battle” – in the Humanities, not least.

By Tony Christini on 04/19/07 at 01:25 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Like Professor Levine, I was struck while reading Claybaugh’s book with the notion that novelists often affected reformist attitudes, and I think Levine’s point about the modern day academic analogue is right on point.  This is a wonderful and thought-provoking response to Claybaugh’s book.

By on 04/19/07 at 09:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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