Autonomy

Take “relevance,” turn it on its head, and you
have the debate surrounding autonomy
in literature and culture. On days when we aren’t
wondering what kinds of more-than-cultural significance
culture has, we can worry about how independent and
distinctive culture or art is. To what extent does
artistic or cultural life make its own laws? How far may
we regard such an activity as self-contained or
self-regulating? When we are scholarly specialists in
the study of culture, how far do our own claims to a
distinct object of study and distinct methods of study
go?

Contemporary cultural studies,
anyway, uses “autonomy” as a shorthand for these issues.
Autonomy means self-governance (αὐτο- “self” + νομός
“law”). But the self-governance in question might be, as
in Kant, that of the particular mental faculty of
judgment; or it might be that of the particular artwork,
as in some modernisms; or it might be that of entire
social subsystems or fields, in social theory. At the
same time the word is shadowed by other, more general
senses of autonomy—the self-governance which persons and
collectivities might claim. Indeed one never gets far
into a debate about cultural or aesthetic autonomy
before running up against autonomy as an ethical or
political category. Whatever I think about the freedom
or self-containment of art or culture, I owe serious
consideration to your claims to act
for reasons, goals, or desires of your own—if you want
to make them.

On Arcade the bloggers
have turned over questions of autonomy in many forms;
this Colloquy gathers together some of the
conversations. I see two major strands, one oriented to
the macroscopic question of the autonomy of culture as a
whole, the other concerned with the potential autonomy
of even microscopic cultural units—authors, texts, even
individual sentences from poems.

To
introduce yourself to a subfield which I hope never to
see called macroautonomics, consider two recent blog
posts. In Culture
as Second Fiddle
, href="http://arcade.stanford.edu/users/gregory-jusdanis">Gregory Jusdanis
protests against the “always the bridesmaid, never the
bride” status of culture in the way we account
historically for revolutions and national independence
movements. (Jusdanis is also the author of an essay
whose title I wish I’d thought of myself: “ href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1353/cul.2005.0036">Two
Cheers for Aesthetic Autonomy.”) For Jusdanis,
we need to attend to the generative role of
culture—including art and literature but also the sense
of cultural identity—in history.

But
history is not the only occasion for reflections on
culture as a totality; on Arcade, we have been provoked
to consider the autonomy, or not, of culture by the
Google n-grams team and their paper href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.1199644">Quantitative
Analysis of Culture Using Millions of Digitized Books,
whose paper elicited a series of posts and comments on
this site. An excellent entry point into that
conversation is Cécile
Alduy
’s post arguing that, as she puts it,  href="http://arcade.stanford.edu/%E2%80%9Cwords%E2%80%9D-%E2%88%88-%E2%80%9Cbooks%E2%80%9D-%E2%88%88-%E2%80%9Cculture%E2%80%9D-%E2%89%A0-%E2%80%9Cculture%E2%80%9D-%E2%80%9Cbooks%E2%80%9D-%E2%80%9Cwords%E2%80%9D-0">“Words”
∈ “Books” ∈ “Culture” ≠> “Culture” = “Books” =
“Words”. We might interpret this playfully
hieroglyphic non-implication as an assertion that
“culture” is an at least semi-autonomous level of social
life, whose specific laws are indiscernible at the level
of analysis proposed by “culturomics” in its current
form. And in the impassioned critique Cécile and others
offer, we may also be reading a declaration of the
relative disciplinary autonomy of literary scholarship
too.

In the realm of individual
production, two kinds of autonomy emerge as crucial. The
first is that of the individual producer. How can a
writer free herself from outside pressures and
constraints (from censorship to market pressures,
aesthetic conventions to ethical norms) in order to
write according to her own norms? Should
she strive to free herself? Arcade’s Transactions
editor, Natalia
Cecire
, reflects on the uses of “a Blog of
One’s Own” as well as the potential benefits of a more
public, but consequently more constrained, form of
expression in How
Public Like a Frog: On Academic Blogging
.

Not only producers but products may seek their
autonomy too. Why should the creator get the final say
in what we make of the creation? In a series of blog
posts on Twenty Nobel Lectures in Literature, I tried to
show how even—or especially—global literary celebrities
find multiple ways to imagine literary texts taking on
lives of their own. This is not always a triumphant kind
of independence; sometimes it is a much more dangerous
loss of control (something particularly visible when
culture travels across large stretches of space or
time). That’s a theme I’ve taken up in href="http://arcade.stanford.edu/export-duties">other href="http://arcade.stanford.edu/bad-time-was-had-all">posts.
Somewhere in this zone of ambivalence we find the poetic
transactions introduced by Jonathan Mayhew in a pair of
posts on Textual
Crossings
. What happens to a poem’s autonomy
when one poet puts words in the mouth of an influential
precursor? Jonathan traces a series of twentieth-century
Spanish variations on this question, suggesting that
even individual lines may have enough autonomy to move
from one text to another, one author’s hand to another.

I’m gratified to see the variety, as well as
the intensity, of the discussion around autonomy themes
that has emerged here so far, and I’m looking forward to
seeing how the discussion continues to ramify and
develop as we go on. Let the colloquy continue!

—Andrew Goldstone, September 2011

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