Waiting for the barbarians

by Henry on January 4, 2005

Across the way on his other blog, John Holbo passes some acute judgements on the perplexed relationship between the traditional domain of humanities departments (classic texts), and the claim of literary ‘theory’ (or, more precisely, some theorists) to turn everything into text, explain it, and assert imperium thereover. It’s a problem shared by other disciplines with imperialist ambitions – economics too has disputes between those who see its domain as traditional market activities, and those who see it as a universal science of choice under constraints. Meanwhile, Richard Byrne at the Chronicle documents how scholars at the MLA are considering abandoning the outer provinces; retreating from their grand ambitions, and linking teaching and scholarship more closely. Interestingly, this year’s President, Robert Scholes, seems to see the answer (if I’m understanding him rightly) as lying in a stronger assertion of disciplinary standards, returning to the ‘harder’ aspects of literature, and advocating what almost sound to be law-like propositions.

“I can’t say just how long this will take,” he said. “But I do believe that this is happening. There is more interest in these things … grammar, rhetoric, and also logic. … There needs to be an overall recognition that what you say has to be reasonable. That it has to be answerable to certain disciplinary considerations. Within this discipline, you can only say x if y and z are in fact reasonable suppositions.”

Now I haven’t seen the speech, so I’m not exactly sure what he means by these statements. If this is just a call for higher standards and more consistent arguments that don’t do too much violence to to the text, of course I’m in favour. If it’s a call for something more than that – i.e. a more rigorous quasi-scientific literary theory, then I’m not at all convinced. If the desire of the humanities is to reconnect with the outside world, I imagine that they’d be better advised to follow the example of those critics who have maintained some general readership – Guy Davenport and Frank Kermode spring to mind, as (from an earlier era) does the poetry criticism of Randall Jarrell. As far as I can tell, quasi-scientific theories of literature (with a few exceptions, such as Propp’s work on folktales) have been a dead end. Trying to apply formal theories to literature (unless done in a playful, Oulipesque way) seems to me to be a very promising method for replacing one set of useless aridities with another. A renunciation of grand theorising, and a frank acknowledgement that criticism is an inherently subjective and partial enterprise seems to me to be a more fruitful direction (and, if I understand John Holbo rightly, what he too is advocating).

Update: attribution goof fixed.

{ 5 comments }

1

Amardeep 01.04.05 at 7:54 pm

Proposed provocative paper title for next year’s MLA:

“‘I have nothing to renounce but my claims!’ Making the MLA a Pillar of Reasonableness and Accountability”

2

wufnik 01.05.05 at 12:14 am

I haven’t paid much attention recently, but wasn’t Scholes real big in the near-takover of English departments by semiotics?

3

James C. Hess 01.05.05 at 1:21 am

If I understand the debate at hand correctly: Back to the basics?

4

G Zombie 01.05.05 at 3:29 am

Sometimes I wonder if I’m just completely out of touch with my own discipline or if people outside of it have no clue what’s going on inside of it. I read people complaining about high theory, about overly politicized scholarship, about unsupported claims…and then I read the work being done in my field (Book History and eighteenth-century British lit). There is no correlation whatsoever between the complaints and reality.

And as far as I know there is no call for rigidly formal approaches to literature or for “quasi-scientific theories.” Maybe I didn’t get the memo.

Most work that I read, and I don’t have to hunt high and low to find it, is historically grounded, and not even so much New Historicism as just historicism.

Do you want to find out what the really influential scholarly approaches to literature are? Here are a few methodological suggestions:

  1. Identify the major professional associations that are not the MLA, such as the Renaissance Society of America, the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, or the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing.
  2. Look at the programs for their annual conferences and take note of paper titles and keynote speeches.
  3. Find out what kinds of awards and grants they give out. What are the stated criteria for those awards and grants?
  4. What papers, articles, and books have won that association’s awards for that year’s best?

And call me old-fashioned, but how about some actual empirical work on how often particular scholars/theorists/critics are cited by others? Sure, it’s always fun to laugh at the 1 or 2 percent of MLA paper titles that are ridiculous. But to conclude from this small sample that all MLA paper titles are ridiculous, and thus that all MLA papers are ridiculous, and thus that all scholarly work being done on literature is ridiculous…well, that’s just ridiculous.

5

CR 01.05.05 at 4:04 am

g zombie,

Exactly, exactly, right.

I’m an MLA attendee, job candidate this year actually, and the field that folks are talking about, here and on Holbo’s blog, is one that I can’t for the life of me recognize.

Nobody gets a job doing “high theory” anymore. Seriously. There’s not more than one or two listings for that out of hundreds of jobs.

We work on books. Sometimes we apply to those books the ideas, frames, concepts of other people that have written about books – or about the stuff that books refer to.

We should start restricting access to the MLA program. It’s like a season pass for the uninitiated to offer advice, criticism, disdain that we never asked for.

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