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, 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: “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 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, “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 other 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