If literary critics insist on writing books no one cares about, does literary criticism have a future?
The past few years have seen a surge of conversation about the place of literature in the academy. With colleagues and students, I have found myself asking: do we need a reinvigorated argument for literary studies? Most of us remain convinced that in a culture besieged by signs, tropes, and fictions, what we do is as important as ever, if not more so.
But it's hard to look past an increasing insularity in our discipline. And I believe that even as we need to rethink our rationales for the purpose of literary studies, much of our discipline has retreated behind customs and conventions that make sense to us, and to no one else. In a series of brief notes, I will reflect here not on how the culture has changed around us—this is a fact that everyone recognizes, and others are discussing on Arcade—but on how we vitiate our own work with self-imposed limits. These are informal thoughts, and I welcome your comments.
What are the horizons of literary studies?
When we describe how and why literature matters, we often rely on a sense of its horizons, which locate literary works in relation to something else. On the one hand, there is the horizon found in literature itself—where the careful description and theorization of literary process is an end in itself, an approach that renews the imperishable discipline of poetics and thus never goes out of fashion. On the other, there are the horizons found in other disciplines, in intellectual history, and in the real world, which respond in some measure to the state of knowledge in those places. One of the most basic things we can say about any work of literary scholarship is this: where does it draw its horizon?
Every critical work has one ultimate horizon—which enables us to say "this is about Paul Celan's figurative language" or "this is about literary responses to absolutism" or "this is about the avant-gardes of the 1920s." But the most compelling criticism involves an artful drawing of contributing perspectives in relation to that horizon, which can produce the effect of plural horizons, one within another. Is this book about A la recherche du temps perdu or about the provision of knowledge and the hazards of self-deception? Is that one about Dostoevsky's ideas of democracy or about democracy itself? If you can ask such a question, the answer often points to the larger, riskier topic. Deftly drawn perspectives in relation to a horizon show literature in a context, and mark how literary knowledge is like and unlike other sorts of knowledge.
If it is to move anyone to read and think, the interpretation of literature should see the drawing of horizons as a provocation, a manifesto, a statement of values. Putting one sort of thing in relation to another—or inside another—is not a merely rhetorical choice, but an act of interpretation that is charged with meaning. And where we locate literature in relation to other kinds of knowledge is especially urgent now, when its status is often questioned or misunderstood.
I want to advance a proposition: that some of the natural, unquestioned literary horizons of the past are no longer so. In fact, they never were. We—scholars, students, and educated readers—saw them as viable for reasons of custom and convention, but they were trivial at best, fatuous at worst.
By way of example, consider what it means to examine social, historical, and intellectual issues entirely within literature, as though the empirical world has been reduced to a perspective within a literary horizon.
I pose the problem this way because in my main field, which is early modern English, Romance, and transatlantic literatures, it's not uncommon to find projects that treat some hyper-canonical author, such as Shakespeare or Cervantes, not as a participant in the wide-ranging discourses of the period but as a horizon itself.
When I was talking to a friend about this a few days ago, I called it the "in Shakespeare" problem. Suppose I'm conceiving a new book on sixteenth-century aesthetics, or political or scientific thought, or knowledge of the Americas. I can treat Shakespeare as one voice among many, including non-literary writers as well as people who not only write but do things; this way, I can attend to what literature makes possible that other discourses and enterprises cannot. Or I can install my hyper-canonical figure as the project's horizon: political thought in Shakespeare.
Somehow we've made an industry in which literary critics are rewarded for conceiving their work in this latter way. No one objects to the foreshortening of ambitions, or to the cynicism involved in pretending to consider real-world issues within the safety zone of a canonical figure. Many presses prefer to publish books that are explicitly grounded in (especially) Shakespeare. Inserting the authorial label in this fashion adds a few tiny degrees of commercial viability to a book, but at the cost of something dangerous, namely the misplacement of a horizon. (I use Shakespeare only as an example, of course: it could be Rabelais, Goethe, or Joyce—except I'm not certain there's an American or British press that still publishes books on Rabelais or Goethe.)
Beyond literary studies, who cares about a real-world issue that is portrayed as finding its beginning and end in literature? What historian of philosophy or art accepts Cervantes as not only a thinker but a context for thought? As the literary disciplines continue to give out rewards for meeting one set of insular customs, the entire intellectual enterprise of literary studies drifts ever further from the rest of the humanities, let alone the larger academy. If the issues—out of economics or religion or the history of ideas—are important enough, they deserve to be followed wherever they lead, not only to the edges of the most canonical works. The two examples I used above, Joshua Landy's Philosophy as Fiction and Nancy Ruttenburg's Dostoevsky's Democracy, show how canonical figures can be addressed without becoming horizons themselves. And as a result, philosophers and democratic theorists must read these two books.
To follow the "in Shakespeare" model of criticism is to make two kinds of mistake: a methodological one, in which the critic attempts by sleight of hand to seem to be addressing topics of wide interest without leaving the zone of canonical literary works—and ends up creating a project that doesn't matter to anyone except a dwindling population of professional readers; and an ethical one, in which he or she evades the responsibility to take literature seriously, which means (against some people's expectations) not treating it as the scene of everything important.
To draw horizons around literature that refashion its place in the world: this is a challenge that should engage us as readers and critics.
Next: whom are we writing for?