Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Anatomy of Criticism, in one essay

A post at the always lively who_got_in community--which, in the absence of any actual admissions decisions to discuss, has wisely strayed scholarly for the moment--got me thinking about which critics have done the most to shape my view of things. Non-English majors often have this discussion about novels and poems, and in some ways, it's probably a more difficult influence to discern. There's no direct route between, say, Persuasion and how you do your job or play nice, or fail to play nice, with others. On the other hand, if you plan to read books and critique critics for a living, it's important to give some consideration to where you start, and with what assumptions.

I don't have an easy answer. As an undergraduate, I thought I should insulate myself from the pester of French criticism and its American apostles and give my mind a chance to deliberate on some of the questions that Derrida, Foucault, de Man, and Jameson seemed so eager to answer for me, particularly about the political dimension of literature. Tending to see the critical establishment as monolithic, I avoided it and chose a concentration where I could practice that comfortable, old-fashioned close reading and, as my rebellion, refused to discuss "texts"--just novels, books, and poems.

This changed once I began to study Russian and Russian literature. Early on I encountered Propp and Bakhtin, structuralists and formalists--that whole host of twentieth-century figures who took a step back from the Romantic view that literary criticism was an exertion of superior taste (yours over someone else's) and instead directed criticism to something external and objective: the ur-story, with all of its little plus-minus signs, charts, graphs, and varieties of dashed lines to indicate deviation and conformity.

And there's something deeply appealing about this, especially when you're about 23 and feel adrift in the literary history of the twentieth-century. Enough psychological research demonstrates that humans are pattern-seeking creatures for sound evolutionary biological reasons (although I've always wondered if our quest for what Gould called "just so stories" about the origins of man are merely another manifestation of pattern-seeking and therefore self-refuting). But this sort of system-building presumes a system, a flaw which Northrop Frye partially acknowledges when he opposes his own schematization of the poetic at the end of Anatomy of Criticism's introduction. But then again this reverts to a matter of personal taste, appreciation, the finer aesthetic sensibilities which contain in themselves no particular justification.

And maybe they don't need to--but then there's this inconvenient little trade called literary criticism, practiced primarily in English and literature departments across our fair land, which, like any trade, needs a central concept of itself to hire its faculty members, admit its graduate students, and teach the doe-eyed 18-year-olds placed in its care how to read a novel and a poem. "Notice the little details which first attracted your professor to the study of literature" is inadequate (and unjust) on multiple counts. Charts objectify the process, and one's mastery of them becomes, like in any hard science, a positive criterion, but the practice fails because it ignores those little details which first attracted your professor (and you) to the study of literature. Deconstructionism attempts to destroy the problem by dethroning the object of study entirely, but, as everyone realized, even throwing out literature qua literature leaves one with the question of its replacement. That sound you hear in English departments nowadays is nature abhorring the vacuum and looking for something, anything, to put in its place.

And, despite my love for Frye and my sympathy for his project, I can't quite bring myself to suggest structuralism. Its utter discontinuity with the practice of reading is only the first problem in a long chain leading to its imposition of scientific professionalism on a field that derives most of its weight and value from the unpredictability of the world and those who inhabit it. It seems that as a group, we English majors have to take refuge in a kind of paradox: writing about literature as if we believed what we said were true, but knowing that however extraordinary our interpretations, our books, our essays in PMLA, they provide no single or systematic answer. For me, at least, this is where the beauty and the terror of criticism lie: in roughly the same time, place, and aspect.

At this point, I haven't the faintest idea whether I'll get into graduate school, succeed there, and subsequently spend my life at this. It occurred to me the other day that while I'd always thought studying literature a good deal easier than creating it, I'm entirely wrong about that. Creation is an organic process that--no matter what our deconstructionists tell us--isn't fundamentally self-reflexive. Taking things apart is far greater cause for inward reflection--self-doubt, we might as well call it--about method. Both are about literature, but this is where their similarities end.

Posted by Shannon Chamberlain @ 8:33 AM