thinking about methods
I was doing a little keyword searching on my university library's catalog. I was searching for literary criticism and general stuff, introductions and that kind of thing. But it's funny how little pops up when you insert the word "practice." In other words, if you search for "literary criticism" you get five hundred titles. If you add the word "practice," you get fifteen. And ten are about the practice of feminist criticism. It's funny that feminist literary criticism deserves credit for introducing the notion (GASP!) of practice into the discussion of literary criticism.
I suppose that it is clear that I am more than a little skeptical of our current disciplinary formation. I don't think that it serves our purposes anymore, except insofar as it annoys and frustrates a number of people out of the discipline. It's not nice to think about that as a purpose of the discipline. I don't endorse elitism or exclusion, and I would really like it if we could broaden and deepen our discipline to include more than we exclude. But that's part of the reason that I'm writing here - because I think that one of our principal disciplinary moves is to exclude. Perhaps that's fundamental to all disciplines, and one of the other frustrations that I'm verbalizing is the inability of this discipline to exclude ideas that work against its core principles.
There I go. What privilege do I have to articulate the core principles of this discipline?
Some recent authors will appeal to disciplinary history as an authority about these core principles. I don't quite buy that, and I'm also suspicious of that.
I suppose I'm suspicious of a lot of things. First and foremost, I'm suspicious of the desire that this blog represents. Do I really think I'll be able to answer these questions?
Darn, that's hard.
Well, let's table that most difficult of questions, and move to something perhaps more within my grasp. What does it mean, for me, to do English? To practice English studies? To do literary criticism?
Because we know that it's not simple evaluation. We aren't here to tell people what's good or bad. Or are we? Are we talking about multiculturalism merely as a way to substitute a liberal value system for a conservative Great Books elitism? There are a lot of people who want to say that, on both sides. I suppose there's nothing inherently wrong with espousing politics in the English classroom, as long as:
1. You aren't dogmatic about it (you don't push that on people, which many do, and you don't expect unthinking or "common sense" adoption of these views, which many do)
2. You believe that no act of evaluation can occur outside of so-called "politics," that all statements of value (indeed all values) are always-already conditioned and imbricated in a political fabric. That you can't get outside of your contingent position to an objective reality to perform abstract, universal judgment, so why bother? Why pretend that you can get into the ivory tower when all such towers have long since fallen? Why not admit that you're just as much a businessperson as the next person and move on?
I don't know that I accept both of these. I can see the wisdom of both. I have been known to push my liberalism in the classroom, and I have been known to espouse the view that all evaluations are conditioned by politics and/or subjectivity. But only that? But is it ever only that? Someone might argue that it's meaningless to try to get beyond the subjective in the evaluative act, but I'm losing something here. There's an elision - I'm collapsing the difference between "conditioned by politics" and "subjective." There is a difference, and perhaps that difference can save us. To say that something is "conditioned by politics" is to say that my class, race, and gender position can strongly influence my views on ostensibly objective or external subjects, like a novel. To say that something is "subjective" is to say that my personal preferences - conditioned, of course, by race/class/gender but also by everything else that makes me a unique human individual - strongly influence my views. I think that the discussion of the subjective is a much more extreme view. Or perhaps the term "subjective" is merely a stronger word for the same thing. I'm not sure here.
Anyway, I'm supposed to be thinking about methods.
Am I supposed to evaluate a literary text? Am I supposed to communicate its value - offer some kind of "go out and read it" comment? A "book critic" would do that. Am I something other than a "book critic"? David Shumway makes a distinction between a "man of letters" like William Dean Howells, who was a magazine editor, and Cleanth Brooks, who was a Yale professor (and happened to edit a journal). I haven't finished the book yet, but it seems like Shumway suggests that the literary critic does the same thing as the book critic just not in the same way.
So what way is that? How am I supposed to operate?
I don't have an easy answer right now. I want to throw out the obvious stuff - close reading, biographical and/or historical research, and so on - but that doesn't seem adequate (necessary and sufficient).
I'm tired. I'll come back to this.