Tokens of Ruined Method

Does literary studies have a future?

Lucas Simões, White Lies. 2017, concrete, paper, and steel. 40.25 x 20.75 × 8.75”. Photo by Photo by Colin Doyle. Courtesy of the artist.

Joseph North. Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History. Harvard University Press, 2017.

A student of literature in the university today can be forgiven a certain bafflement about what constitutes the function of the discipline. What, exactly, is literary studies? Is it a kind of history, a branch of philosophy, the study of rhetoric? Is it about becoming a better reader, in an ethical or technical sense? It’s not about learning how to write; that’s what MFA programs are for. One might turn to histories of the discipline in an effort to clear things upbut here, too, the same confusions apply. The history of methods of scholarship and criticism is its own subfield, and one can find convincing arguments to suit most any purpose.

In practice, what one believes literary studies is, or should be, often depends on where one went to university. Certain figures loom larger in the imagination of one institution than another. The history of literary studies at Columbia must include Lionel Trilling and Edward Said; at Yale, the genealogy needs to account for a transition from William Wimsatt to Harold Bloom and Paul de Man. The fact that almost no one currently teaching at Yale wants to claim these ancestral figures as influential is itself part of the story. Influence is cunning and seldom direct. But even a perfect genealogy would not imply that the methods and traditions these figures espoused were handed down in an unbroken line. It turns out that no one has really measured how accurately or effectively any understanding of how to read literature propagates throughout a culture. The Modern Language Association does not own a patent or have a monopoly on reading practices. Mutations happen often. And there remains the uncomfortable fact that most people’s deepest reading habits are developed in a secondary education system, not the university.

Imagine a “people’s history of literary studies” as unglamorous and antiheroic as the accounts of Austerlitz and Waterloo sketched by Tolstoy and Stendhala chronicle of mixed intentions and earnest people, a hundred high school classrooms steeped in adolescent hormones, misunderstandings, weirdos, conscripts, mediocrities, two hundred Lucky Jims and Janes for every J. Hillis or D. A. Miller. Moments of brilliancethe founding of new schools and new ways of readingwould be of less import than the countless hours spent plodding through conferences, faculty meetings, and exams. It would be something like social histories of epidemics, focused on describing the multiple points and routes of contact and transmission, the conditions and practices that facilitated or forestalled the spread.

Joe North’s Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History is not quite this book. North does profess a suspicion of great-person (or great-author) theories, always warning us to understand them as “emblems” of larger tendencies at work, but his project remains an intellectual history of recognizable names and schools. The adjective political, in the title, is dangled as bait to North’s intended audience: comrades on the left, both inside and outside the university, who’ve lost the knack for understanding each other when the subject turns to culture. But for all his careful signposting, North, a young professor of English at Yale, does take several strides in the direction of my fantasized path, mostly because he’s openly expressing bewilderment about the direction of the discipline. Like Fabrizio del Dongo looking at the pile of abandoned caissons and rifles at Charleroi, unsure if he has really been in battle, North wonders if everything he and his colleagues have been trained to do, over the years, really counts as “literary studies.” He feels his way toward an answer to a large and important question: How did literary studies come to turn away from an “institutional program of aesthetic education” and embrace what he terms the “historicist/contextualist paradigm”?

Those recently acquainted with university literature courses will grasp this distinction intuitively, even if most people under 40 have only a dim idea of what “an institutional program of aesthetic education” might mean in real life. For those outside the high paywalls of the academy, a brief version of the historicist/contextualist paradigm runs something like this: The vagaries of genre, style, and narrative make literature a special record of resistant, oppressed, and marginal subjectivities. This is literature’s value. Sometimes the literary text excludes or hides these voices; sometimes, inadvertently or programmatically, it amplifies them. Research into the text’s period can disclose its latent or overt political meaning. The work of scholarship, or criticism (the conflation of the two is part of the problem North diagnoses), is therefore to show the encoding of specifically and exclusively political desires within and through literature.

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