Thursday, April 23, 2009

In Which I Agree, Kind of, and Yet I Totally Don't

So. I've just been reading Mark Edmundson's "Against Readings" in the Chronicle of Higher Education, a lengthy argument that is at once about the power of literature to transform the reader and about the ways in which theoretically oriented criticism can obstruct such transformation. It's long, so I'll excerpt some highlights.

Edmundson writes:

If I could make one wish for the members of my profession, college and university professors of literature, I would wish that for one year, two, three, or five, we would give up readings. By a reading, I mean the application of an analytical vocabulary — Marx's, Freud's, Foucault's, Derrida's, or whoever's — to describe and (usually) to judge a work of literary art. I wish that we'd declare a moratorium on readings. I wish that we'd give readings a rest.

For Edmundson, "readings" get in the way of the appreciation of and multifaceted engagement with the literary text. They are something that we overlay onto the literary text, which obscures our view of the text's complexity and that gets in the way of us being transformed by the literature that we read. He goes on to give some explanation and an example:

I said that transformation was the highest goal of literary education. The best purpose of all art is to inspire, said Emerson, and that seems right to me. But that does not mean that literary study can't have other beneficial effects. It can help people learn to read more sensitively; help them learn to express themselves; it can teach them more about the world at large. But the proper business of teaching is change — for the teacher (who is herself a work in progress) and (pre-eminently) for the student.

Nor do I think that everyone who picks up a book must seek the sublime moment of unexpected but inevitable connection. People read for diversion; for relaxation; to inform themselves; to stave off anxiety in airplanes, when the flight attendant is out of wine and beer. A book can make a good door stop; and if you find yourself especially angry at the cat, have a good throwing arm, and a good angle — well, there's no end of uses for a book. But if you're going to take a book into a room, where the objective is to educate people — education being from the Latin educere, meaning "lead out of" and then presumably toward something — then you should consider using the book to help lead those who want to go out from their own lives into another, if only a few steps.

If this is what you want to do, then readings will only get in your way. When you launch, say, a Marxist reading of William Blake, you effectively use Marx as a tool of analysis and judgment. To the degree that Blake anticipates Marx, Blake is prescient and to be praised. Thus the Marxist reading approves of Blake for his hatred of injustice; his polemic against imperialism; his suspicion of the gentry; his critique of bourgeois art as practiced by the likes of Sir Joshua Reynolds. But Blake, being Blake, also diverges from Marx. [. . .] The current sophisticated critic would be unlikely to pick one master to illuminate the work at hand — he would mix and match as the occasion required. But to enact a reading means to submit one text to the terms of another; to allow one text to interrogate another — then often to try, sentence, and summarily execute it.

The problem with the Marxist reading of Blake is that it robs us of some splendid opportunities. We never take the time to arrive at a Blakean reading of Blake, and we never get to ask whether Blake's vision might be true — by which I mean, following William James, whether it's good in the way of belief. The moment when the student in the classroom, or the reader perusing the work can pause and say: "Yes, that's how it is; Blake's got it exactly right," disappears. There's no chance for the instant that Emerson and Longinus evoke, when one feels that he's written what he's only read, uttered what he's only heard.

Ok, so far so good. Now, as Edmundson lays his argument out, I'd have to say that I'm in general agreement with him, in terms of how I believe that students should be introduced to the study of literature. I firmly believe that it's important to allow students to engage with the primary literary text as a personal experience, and I think that we must offer opportunities for engagement that facilitate the potential for transformation through reading literature. The problem for me, however, is that "getting rid of readings" can ultimately work to impose another "standard" of reading - one that limits transformation - or what counts as transformation - just as surely as imposing theory on a text can do. And, in fact, that "standard" of reading can ultimately foreclose individual student responses to a text. Don't believe me? Let's look at another passage:

I've said that the teacher's job is to offer a Blakean reading of Blake, or an Eliotic reading of Eliot, and that's a remark that can't help but raise questions. The standard for the kind of interpretation I have in mind is actually rather straightforward. When a teacher admires an author enough to teach his work, then it stands to reason that the teacher's initial objective ought to be framing a reading that the author would approve. The teacher, to begin with, represents the author: He analyzes the text sympathetically, he treats the words with care and caution and with due respect. He works hard with the students to develop a vision of what the world is and how to live that rises from the author's work and that, ultimately, the author, were he present in the room, would endorse.

I dispute that the above constitutes a "straightforward" approach to teaching literature or to studying it. Why? Well, first of all, it assumes that the instructor teaches only those literary texts (and authors) that he or she admires. I know that for me, this is certainly not the case. I often teach texts (and authors) that I don't admire, or even like, because those texts (and authors) provide a context for a period, offer a foundation without which a student can't quite understand what follows, or because I know that they are generally seen to be central to a canon of literature. That's what a canon is about, ultimately. Not about teaching only that which we personally admire, but about teaching that which people generally, historically have thought is important. These things are not identical. Next, I dispute that we can ever hope to know whether we are giving a reading of which the author would have approved, or that even if we can that in doing so we would give a work of literature its due. To presume that we, as teachers, have access to the author in that way strikes me as extreme arrogance. Also, it invests the author with a kind of dominance over the text that personally makes me uncomfortable and that makes me feel quite hemmed in as a reader. Why exactly do I have to force my students to start with an initial reading of a text that is sympathetic to a long-dead author? Why must I be sympathetic to the needs of that same author? And further, as a person who works on writers that were and are notoriously hostile to critics, I have to say: I find it difficult to believe that those authors would endorse a reading that purports to give the "sympathetic," and it is implied true, reading of anything that they've written. Further, I am doubtful that all writers of literature are offering in their works "a vision of what the world is and how to live." (Actually, this approach to literature reminds me of the approach that Richard Rodriguez criticizes in "The Achievement of Desire" when he talks about how he kept a notebook of what each book he read "meant" as a kid.)

Now, to be fair Edmundson does attempt to qualify this perspective with the following:

This kind of criticism is itself something of an art, not a science. You cannot tell that you have compounded a valid reading of Dickens any more than that you have compounded a valid novel or a valid play. When others find your Dickensian endorsement of Dickens to be of use to them, humanly, intellectually, spiritually, then your endorsement is a success. The desire to turn the art of reading into a science is part of what draws the profession to the application of sterile concepts.

Hello, sweetness and light. I can't tell you what art is but I know it when I see it. Trust me. I'm a very sensitive expert. Much more sensitive than you. And I can't tell you what "valid" criticism is, but criticism is valid when others find your criticism of use. The problem, here, is that what Edmundson takes to be self-evident doesn't seem quite so evident to me. Who decides what counts as "use"? (And what if I find the application of sterile concepts useful? And let's not even talk about the binary between fertility and sterility here, because my head might actually explode....) How can I as an instructor of literature presume to shape my students "humanly" or "spiritually"? What does that entail, exactly? What does it mean? And what if my students don't share my values? Or what if they don't wanting me to interfere in their humanity and their spirituality?

And this whole criticism as art vs. criticism as science meme? Yeah, I would recommend that people just read them some new criticism (Especially Cleanth Brooks, Victor Shklovsky, and maybe some Eliot for good measure) and call it a day. No, I don't believe that reading is a "science," but I do believe that literary criticism is a disciplinary practice. The disciplinarity of literary studies is not opposed to art, for me, nor does disciplinarity equal "the application of sterile concepts." Also, this profoundly conservative argument ultimately reifies the art object and reduces to "sterile concepts" politically engaged forms of criticism, forms of criticism that have proved central to the expansion and revision of canons of literature, and forms of criticism that value voices that are not white, male, and dead. As a woman scholar, critic, and teacher, yes, that matters a hell of a lot to me.

When someone writes, as Edmundson does, "But unless we as a profession change our ways and stop seeking respectability and institutional standing at the expense of genuine human impact, they are destined, as Tennyson has it, to rust unburnished, and that's a sorry fate for them and for all of us," I wonder who decides what counts as genuine human impact, and, more than that, who actually counts as human. I wonder why theoretical thinking is construed in this context as respectable and institutional, while reading atheoretically is construed as, the essay implies, radical. I wonder why there is no in-between when we think about the relationship between theory, literary texts, and classroom instruction. Why is it either that we teach students to "love books" or that we force them to "apply theory"? Why can't we argue that students should first learn to engage carefully with literary texts (note: I say carefully - not necessarily sympathetically), independent of a stated critical approach, but that later, such approaches will help them to think in more complex ways about the literature that they encounter? Why can't we find room for literature as art object while at the same time we acknowledge that literary studies, as a discipline, has its own language, its own theories, its own metholologies?

And finally, is it a mistake that Edmundson alludes throughout his essay to Blake, Emerson, Matthew Arnold, Tennyson, Dickens, Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke, Longinus, Orwell, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Whitman, Cervantes, Flaubert, T.S. Eliot, and Schopenauer, along with a slew of the Big Names of Theory (mostly male)? And that he mentions just one literary text by a person of color (The Autobiography of Malcolm X), and throws in the names of only one woman poet (Emily Dickinson) and one woman novelist (Virginia Woolf), in passing? Does reading without readings mean a return to the canon of 1960? Does reading without readings mean that ultimately anybody who's on the margins just doesn't really "count" very much, as those writings by or about those people don't help as much in the project of making us "human"? That sure is what it seems like from this essay.

Theory is not a threat to the transformative power of literature, or it doesn't need to be. And if students apply theory in ways that are reductive, maybe that's because their teachers aren't helping them to do something else, something better. Literature has the power to transform. Teachers have the power to educate, which may involve transformation, but also involves a lot of other things - socialization into a discipline being one of them. I really don't see myself as some sort of officiant of student transformation. That's not teaching. That's self-aggrandizement.

ETA: Undine posted in response to this over at her place. It's a great extension of the conversation.


undine said...

I agree. "Literary criticism is a disciplinary practice"--yes, and not one with "sterile concepts."

heu mihi said...

Terrific post (although I haven't read the article--just basing my comments on your excerpts). What I find myself wondering, too, is in what kinds of courses this approach could possibly work. Appreciation of Lit? Perhaps, sure. Maybe occasionally in an introductory survey, when most of the students are taking it for a Gen Ed credit. And I don't "apply" theory in my surveys. But I do think that teaching literature only like this--even in a survey--would ultimately do students a disservice intellectually.

First of all, I'm not sure that it's such common practice to read Blake through Marx, exactly, as the author acknowledges, sort of. But it's important to take theoretically informed perspectives on texts because limiting literature to its transformative potential--and yes, that's limiting, even if literature's power of transformation is grand (and I think it is)--would reduce its relevance--*to students*. Not every student is going to engage with or be transformed by every text we read. And then what? Is it a loss? The advantage of bring theoretical perspectives to bear on literature is that it provides you with new ways of reading and thinking about text--even a text to which you don't personally relate--and enables you to actually see literature as a part of a broader sphere of human culture and activity. Just reading literature as a reflection of its authors' desires and visions of the world strikes me as very limited. We (or I?) don't study literature only to learn about authors' visions; we study it, in part, to learn about the world.

And how on earth would his approach work in a graduate seminar? I keep getting a vision of Cambridge in 1924 or something. But it could be that he's focused on undergrad teaching.

And then there's the stuff that you take on so well: the problem with representing the author (as if the author even knows everything that his/her work is doing! Dude, I've written my share of fiction, and there's a level at which I am not in control of the text), the ENORMOUS problem of seeing ourselves as agents of transformation, and, of course, the canon that he's invoking is problematic.

All this to say: Right on, sister.

undine said...

I didn't want to hijack your comments, so I wrote a post about this and linked back to you.

Sisyphus said...

Thank you for saying exactly what I had been feeling when I read that article, but was too bored by it to actually formulate as a response. :)

Yes, the culture wars are feeling pretty sterile and formulaic by now, too. :-)

Susan said...

Well, as a historian, I thought it was a really dumb article. Because what it really did is keep the locus of reading inside your own head, and not ask you to get outside. So -- alienated white suburban kid finds inspiration in Malcolm X's reading. But that's not actually transformative, in the sense that he didn't get into Malcolm X's head and think in his ways. Because he had no theory or context, he just took the set of ideas that seemed relevant to him. Students do that all the time. The trick is to get them to see something from outside themselves. And theory can be one way to do it. The arrogance of saying that you are doing a Dickensian reading, or an Austenian or Woolfian reading? Puhleeze.

My soapbox for the night.