Thursday, December 09, 2004

Why I'm not a Conservative Literary Scholar, but I wouldn't mind having a few in my department


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.



5 comments:

5tein said...

I'm glad I stopped to view this post--fairly insightful and, for the most part, right on the money.

I'd like to suggest that, first off, a 'conservative' criticism would approach social order from a social order perspective, using either Darwin or Christianity as a framework to base judgements of culture on, rather than using Marxism, radical feminism, or other 'progressivism's. It's possible, too, that a conservative criticism would draw back on New Criticism, which when taken to the extreme is just as boring as race/class/gender criticism, but appropriately focuses on form and aesthetics, rather than politics and power.

Having said that, I need to agree with you in saying that we don't necessarily need a conservative criticism any more than we need a leftist criticism. We need a criticism that returns to the literary. Someone said we are living in a postliterary world, and I think, looking at the field, this is completely and lamentably correct. For example, I looked at a dissertation proposal just yesterday from a highly conservative scholar in a highly conservative school. But to my dismay the dissertation dealt with literature only incidentally; literature was just a means for looking at cultural and historical phenomena. And when the literature was referred to, it wasn't referred to in detail, nor was the references focused on the aesthetic value or creative forces. Instead, the literature was generalized as merely being components of a genre from a historical time period. Boring.

So, yes, let's go back to aesthetics. Let's go back to studying form. Let's do something new, a New New Criticism is what I'd like to see, though what exactly that might entail I have not yet suggested.

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Blonde said...

While perusing the webpages of English faculty at the University of Houston, a buzz in my ears steadily crescendoed as the number of teachers busily grinding axes rose. Finally, I covered my ears to block this cacophony of metal against stone.

Oh, there were a few "normal" teachers who merely discussed their areas of study in neutral terms. But not enough for my level of comfort.

Since I recently moved to the Houston area, I thought I would complete my English BA at UH. No more. I refuse to take yet another class from someone with something to prove about themselves and their own world of lesbians, feminists, blacks, Hispanics, et alia. I really just want to read the literature and discuss it as human beings, not political disciples.

I myself am tired of activist literature and activist instructors--be they leftwing, rightwing, or birdwing.