A Commenter at Critical Mass" asks:
"As a literature scholar, I'd like to know what 'conservative literary studies' would actually look like. Would it simply mean a return to the canon? But then again, conservative historians had examined tons of non-canonical literature long before the canon wars. Would it mean no longer talking about race, class, and gender? But regardless of how out of control those terms have become in the academy, it would be hard for *anyone* to deny that race, class, and gender have played a huge role in Western literature: sensational novels, slave narratives, chivalric romances -- how can you accurately talk about any of those without discussing the social effects of gender or race or class?
Well, the canon has already been returned to, if you mean the larger, ever-evolving canon rather than some particular syllabus from 1953 in Oxford. Especially if you look at undergraduate teaching, where students might take the (utterly useless) Literature in English GRE, you've really only had tinkerings around the margins of the canon.
I think race, class and gender would not stop being talked about but might be refigured. If you're talking about class, couldn't you do so from, say, an anti-marxist view that celebrated individualism and class mobility. A novel like Ken Kesey's Sometimes a Great Notion (to my mind one of the five best American novels of the 20th century) gives a great way to talk about class, but it portrays the union works as weak, pathetic, cowardly, and the wildcat family as superhuman. Critics seem to think that's bad. As a reader I thought it was good. The problem isn't so much talking about race, class, and gender, its the particular political paradigms that are imparted as part of these studies. Maybe in some situations, union workers can be rotten and strike-breakers can be good. The complexity of life and the ability of literature to engage with that complexity should allow for powerful discussion. But sadly, a great deal of the criticism on Great Notion ignores these possiblities and turns it into a just-so story about how resisting the union is selfish and anti-social.
Would 'conservative criticism' be simply a return to aesthetics? But whose aesthetics? Those of Kant and Hegel and Heidegger, three European philosophers whose work the cultural right has deplored? It's interesting that it's thinkers like Derrida and Lyotard, far more than, say, Virginia Postrel, who have sustained a rigorous conversation about aesthetics.
First of all, Virginia Postrel is a good writing and insightful thinker, but she's not a philosopher and it would be silly to compare her directly to Derrida and Lyotard. It's like wondering why Maureen Dowd doesn't write quite as well as Hayek. But I think this list begs the question. Why do we have to go "back" to some continental view of aesthetics grounded in abstract philosophy? Why not make a new aesthetics based on, say, new developments in brain psychology and biology? What about working with scientists who deal with perception, memory and the brain's pleasure centers? Or we could look at why some ideas replicate, and other's don't, and try to explain why in terms of 'fitness,' population dynamics, idea-ecology, etc. There could be formalisms based on the rhetorical structure and ability to replicate of key elements of a cultural program, and these could be empirically as well as rationalistically tests. And if, for some reason, you insist on going back to some aesthetic philosopher or other, let me suggest Schopenhauer rather than Hegel. Please.
This is, of course, where I'd like to see literary criticism go. Of course it isn't really a "conversative" criticism at all (since, you know, I'm not a conservative). I don't want to go back to the New Criticism or to comparing every work with Homer and Virgil and deciding whether or not the poet got close enough. But talking about race, class and gender has gotten old. When I go to conferences now and people start in on the jargon, I become that dog in the FarSide cartoon that just hears blah,blah,blah,blah,blah,blah,blah,Ginger, blah, blah, blah. ...
If the field is boring me. a happy partisan and unabashed defender of the importance and value of literary scholarship, well, I think that illustrates a problem for the field.