Wednesday, November 12, 2008
The Pedagogical Habit
In a recent post, Rohan Maitzen suggests that responsible criticism (she has academic criticism in mind, but the point would seem to apply to generalist criticism as well) should concentrate not on “comparative measures of ‘worth’” but on “seeking out the measures that fit the particular case.” She continues:
One of the key features of this approach is working with a text on its own terms--trying to understand how to read it so that it best fulfills its own potential. This means not holding it up to a particular, preconceived standard of excellence ("good novels do this“), whether that standard is formal or ideological. Now, depending on the occasion, there may be a second phase in which you move back from internally-generated norms and question them against external ideas; often, in teaching, this kind of questioning arises just from moving to the next book on the syllabus and discovering that its norms differ widely from--and thus, implicitly or explicitly, challenge--the ones we’ve just left behind (reading North and South right after Hard Times, or Jane Eyre soon after Pride and Prejudice, for instance, will certainly have this effect). But it’s difficult to see either a method or a reason for evaluating, say, Pride and Prejudice, as better or worse than Jane Eyre. It’s only if you have a set notion of what makes good fiction in general that you could fault either one for not measuring up.
Rohan seems to assume that because in my posts both here and at my own blog I defend the view that “philosophizing, politics, or social commentary are unimportant (even undesirable) in the novel, or at least far less significant than aesthetic effects” (really more the latter than the former) I would not accept the approach to literary criticism she is describing. But in fact I wholeheartedly endorse Rohan’s critical pragmatism; indeed, this kind of pragmatism is at the very core of my philosophy of criticism, along with John Dewey’s insistence that it is the aesthetic experience of literature that is the immediate object of critical appreciation, an experience that can be satisfied in a multitude of ways. I do not agree with Ronan McDonald and others that “if [literary criticsm] is to reach a wide public, it needs to be evaluative” Even if I acknowledged that criticims needs “to reach a wide public” (which I emphatically do not), I could, I think, make a plausible argument that this “wide pubic” would be better served by a descriptive mode of criticism that seeks to carefully elucidate the manifest qualities of a given text than by an evaluative act that in effect disclaims the reader’s own powers of judgment by rendering them unnecessary.
I would also agree that it isn’t the case “that reading a novel on its own terms should always be the end point of criticism,” although I do maintain--this is really what my allegiance to “aestheticism” finally amounts to--it is a indispensable and necessary beginning point. And I also assume that the act of writing a novel is inescapably an aesthetic endeavor. There would be no point, except in the crudest forms of propaganda, to write fiction in the first place if the primary goal was not to produce a work that succeeds most immediately as art. Since novels and short stories inherently equivocate, unavoidably qualify and make ambiguous anything that might be straightforwardly “said,” anyone who wants to “comment” on social life or engage in philosophical speculation would be well advised to do so more directly than fiction allows.
Which is why I can’t agree with Rohan that approaching “a novel in which philosophizing, politics, or social commentary are extremely important” is simply a matter of adjusting critical focus away from aesthetic considerations and toward the “something said,” judging it by the non-aesthetic criteria it seems to propose for itself. At this point, the pragmatic impulse threatens to become an all-purpose excuse for whatever aesthetic lapses are deemed irrelevant to the larger goal of “philosophizing, politics,” etc. It comes close to allowing that some novels don’t need to offer “aesthetic effects” at all, if this means interfering with the “philosophizing, politics, or social commentary” with which they are principally concerned. Even if you emphasize “how the form and artistic strategies of the novel serve those [ulterior] purposes,” as Rohan suggests, this is a pretty tepid measure of the work’s literary value. If the primary requirement is not that the work engage us through “form and artistic strategies” above all, its ulterior purposes aside, it is hard for me to understand why fiction should be distinguished from other modes of discourse in the first place, why it should be included with poetry as part of “literature” at all.
Rohan says she’s “wondering about the relationship between what I’m calling the ‘pedagogical’ habit of trying to find the best reading tools, the right measures, for any given example, and other critical strategies or purposes.” I believe that by now the “pedagogical habit” has subsumed all other “critical strategies or purposes,” to the extent that the need to adapt literature to the academic curriculum has become the overriding consideration in academic criticism. Periodization makes it necessary to find a “place” for texts “in which the form and aesthetics are far less impressive” than others and to accentuate “the contingency of different standards.” The rise of theory made it necessary to situate the text in the framework of external schemes that supposedly broaden the context in which literary works can be studied. While it is true that a literary criticism not bound to academe might still give attention to “philosophizing,” et.al., it is hard to imagine that such criticism would so willingly apologize for aesthetically inferior work as academic criticism in its current guise is forced to do. It’s possible that literary criticism might one day free itself from the pedagogical imperatives with which the academy has burdened it. When that happens, “artistic merit” might not be as dispensable as many academic critics want to find it.
Daniel, your approach seems so limiting that I don’t really know whether I should comment. It suggests physics experiments in which you and your antiparticle, Tony Christini, are crashed together and completely cancel each other out, leaving nothing but heat.
But I’ll try a few remarks about a matter in which I would say that you aren’t just arguably wrong, but actually incorrect. You write:
“If the primary requirement is not that the work engage us through “form and artistic strategies” above all, its ulterior purposes aside, it is hard for me to understand why fiction should be distinguished from other modes of discourse in the first place, why it should be included with poetry as part of “literature” at all.”
Nonfiction works have been written as poetry. This used to be fairly common, even from major scientists: Erasmus Darwin’s Zoonomia, say. Just about any written form has been written as poetry at one time or another. So why should it be included as part of “literature” at all? The answer is that it shouldn’t. Poetry can vary in effect from more literary to less literary, but there is no definitional obligation that it has to serve literary ends first and foremost.
You might reply, well and good, but you are only interested in literariness. That’s fine as a personal preference, but when it slides over into definition, you’re claiming that your personal preference is how the world is.
FInally, I think that you have a rather limited aesthetic, unable to grapple with a range of aesthetic effects that rely on simultaneous engagement with the intellect or the political passions. Again, that’s fine if that’s what you like. But turned into a general theory, it does not describe the full range of human aesthetic reaction to poetry.
I chose a bad example above: I’m not sure why I remembered Zoonomia as being primarily poetry, but a quick look further down the text than the first page shows that it’s not. I can look up a better example if one is really needed.
"Since novels and short stories inherently equivocate, unavoidably qualify and make ambiguous anything that might be straightforwardly “said,” anyone who wants to “comment” on social life or engage in philosophical speculation would be well advised to do so more directly than fiction allows.”
This is a massive reduction of the potential sociopolitical influence of literature; there are tons of examples. Start with Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the most influential and effective abolitionist polemic that happens to be a novel. Can your approach redeem anything from it, or does it go in the trash with the New Critics’ copies because it doesn’t get through the aesthetic doorway? Precisely because fiction is potentially ambiguous (though I would disagree that it necessarily is), it allows for complex treatment of the complex phenomena of social/political/philosophical life.
“philosophizing, politics, or social commentary are unimportant (even undesirable) in the novel, or at least far less significant than aesthetic effects”
Does the work you’re looking at agree? If not, I don’t think your approach is sufficiently pragmatic.
"This is a massive reduction of the potential sociopolitical influence of literature; there are tons of examples.”
My highly subjective thoughts:
Both sides of this argument are time, and place, contingent, for reasons I feel are obvious. Q: Any (serious)examples of literary fiction (here in the so-called “West") exerting such powerful sociopolitical influence in the recent (post-Upton Sinclair) century?
I’d go a step further and call the arguments quality-contingent, too. Were the Stowes, Sinclairs, Steinbecks, Bucks, Ellisons… working at the “level” (imagine a value-neutral version of this word) of the Joyces, Nabokovs, Roths, Borgeses, Calvinos and Gaddises? The intended functions ("engagement" vs “mandarin aesthetic pleasure-production"), in most cases, are mutually exclusive. There are hearths that are actually (life-and-death) necessary for keeping dwellings warm, and decorative hearths for staring at; owners of the latter rarely require the former (and vice versa) but there’s no law separating them.
The term “fiction” (along with the term “novel") is too vague to be a load-bearing wall in a heavy debate about the use of texts. On the other hand, ignoring authorial intent, any of the books/authors being mentioned can be read the one way or the
other… just because Uncle Tom’s Cabin had a sociopolitical impact doesn’t mean that this impact was categorically predestined; likewise, given a different nation/era/readership, The Sheltering Sky might have resulted in massive, wide-ranging, erm, Tourism Reforms. Ie, the *Jerry Lewis is funny in France* paradigm.
Anyway: is a “narrow” view of “fiction” less useful, by default? If so, how so? I’d argue that what a “narrow” view lacks in coverage, it makes up for with intensity.
Even if I acknowledged that criticims needs “to reach a wide public” (which I emphatically do not)
Could you expand on this point (why you do not think criticsm must reach a wide public) or link to another post where you do?
Also, you might want to proof your posts a bit more carefully…
Criticism needs to reach an audience that’s as large as the audience for serious fiction and poetry minus those who don’t read criticism. I don’t see why it needs to be any larger.
Sorry to be a bit late coming to this party; I saw your interesting post this morning, Dan, but have been on the go ever since! I think in some respects I agree with you more than you suggest (just as, in your turn, you argue that you agree with me more than I have suggested). For one thing, in the post you refer to, there is (or was meant to be) a tone of inquiry about the approach I describe: I wonder “whether, or how far” I am committed to it and how far it does in fact inhibit evaluation of “artistic merit.”
But I do have trouble with the idea that “literary value” can, or should, be restricted to a work’s aesthetic qualities. And how do we even specify what counts as aesthetic and what does not? Also, how can we ignore that our responses to a work’s properties will be influenced by all kinds of contexts and expectations, or that aesthetic practices and values change over time? I also wouldn’t say that academic critics “apologize” for the works they teach: again, there’s a genuine kind of pluralism involved by which a range of factors give a work literary value.
Precisely because fiction is potentially ambiguous (though I would disagree that it necessarily is), it allows for complex treatment of the complex phenomena of social/political/philosophical life.
I agree that fiction isn’t necessarily so uncertain (and complexity need not be the same as ambiguity). In some of the work on literature and philosophy (e.g. Jane Adamson, Martha Nussbaum, Cora Diamond, et al.) I have noticed this same tendency to insist on literature as the ambiguous Other to the reductive clarity (their negative spin) of analytic philosophy. If you define literature in this way, you devalue a lot of literature (most 18thC poetry, for instance, or any novelist whose work is clearly didactive, like George Eliot).
Rohan: If “literary” isn’t essentially a mode-specific term for “aesthetic” (as “musical” also would be), I don’t really see how it means anything, because it can thus mean everything.
I never understand what people are talking about anymore.
Dan, it sounds to me like you are tautological here: if it’s literature, it produces an aesthetic response; if it produces an aesthetic response, it’s literature.
But I don’t think a lot of what we call literature was intended to produce this thing you’re calling an aesthetic response. Greek tragedy and comedy produced all sorts of effects, and only some of them could be distinguished as aesthetic (as opposed to emotional, psychological, religious, ritual, social, etc.).
The old chestnut goes, art teaches and delights. But neither teaching nor delighting are particularly aesthetic effects. Teachers teach and chocolate delights, and I don’t think most people saw the instruction and pleasure of literature as some special case—at least until about the Romantic era.
I would instead say that “literary” or “aesthetic” simply refers to the particular ways language (or other artistic media) delights and instructs us. But the actual human responses to art don’t seem any different from human responses to non-artistic things (such as corn dogs, make-up sex, waterfalls, life lessons, hamster whiskers, or snow).
"But I don’t think a lot of what we call literature was intended to produce this thing you’re calling an aesthetic response.”
There was something about Modernism that seems to have hypnotized people who liked it into thinking that there never had been anything else ever. Adam Roberts recently wrote a post about that here, I remember.
“There was something about Modernism that seems to have hypnotized people who liked it into thinking that there never had been anything else ever.”
As I wrote:
“Both sides of this argument are time, and place, contingent, for reasons I feel are obvious.”
I don’t see how both sides of the argument are contingent in that way, Steven. If you point out the variation in literature within history, and say that a particular aesthetic theory does not allow for that variation, how are you being time and place contingent? You’re just rejecting a generalization. Your objection doesn’t depend on the generalization not covering the 19th century in English lit any more than it depends on it not covering the Icelandic sagas.
I’m not objecting to anything, I’m just pointing out that either side of the general argument will be in the ascendant depending on the Cultural Moment, which itself depends on the era and region the debate is located in. We’re “located” in a Cultural Moment which seems to be straining towards the 19th century; Didactive™ stocks are up; Dan’s argument is a minority position. Thirty years ago it wasn’t.
If I pointed out that Dan’s theory didn’t cover the aesthetic experience of reading Njal’s saga
not just as a story, but as history at the same time, would that mean that the Cultural Moment is straining towards the 13th century?
I didn’t base the figure on your comment, Rich… I got it from reading James Wood…
I tried to post this yesterday and now find it didn’t go, so I’ll try again: what is the evidence that the pedagogical imperative is responsible for academic criticism taking up inferior literary works? My experience has been just the opposite. At my teaching-centered liberal arts college, it was almost all canon, all the time--the focus was on the best of what had been thought and written. Whereas, as a graduate student at a research university, I see how the “publish or perish” need to write on texts that haven’t been written on before often leads professors to study works that are of less literary merit, but are interesting in other ways (social, historical, etc.).
"it is hard to imagine that such criticism would so willingly apologize for aesthetically inferior work as academic criticism in its current guise is forced to do.”
Dan, It is interesting to note that you talk in this post of inferiority and ‘value’. How do you measure this?
tomemos makes an interesting point. I expect that the “all canon, all the time” reading lists of your liberal arts college did in fact reflect changes in what was considered “the best of what had been thought and written” over time (the canon has never been all that stable, after all). I do think it’s true that academics are driven towards lesser-known texts by the publishing imperative--but I think that work does inevitably impinge on our sense of the canon, as well as on what we teach. Critical work on the industrial novel, for example, makes teaching something like Mary Barton seem reasonable, as we learn about its historical significance and work on ways to understand its aesthetic effects; something like Lady Audley’s Secret is increasingly represented on course syllabi as our critical interest in and understanding of sensation fiction increases; Aurora Leigh looks a lot more interesting to us now thanks to work on gender and epic, and thus is (maybe?) now canonical and often taught in courses in 19thC poetry; and so on. (Sorry for the relentlessly Victorian focus of my examples, but that’s what I know best. I’m sure similar things are true in other fields.)