• October 21, 2014

Literary Aesthetics: the Very Idea

Trying to figure out what's up with American literary scholarship — I mean the writing coming out of colleges that relates to literature — is difficult. This stuff cannot be understood by the norms of healthy literary criticism as it has been practiced from Aristotle to Helen Vendler.

Ever since it became professional and, for the most part, lost touch with the readers who have fostered the little-magazine criticism that reaches back to The Spectator, today's academic scholarship has become separated from its grounding: It is no longer connected to the very medium that gave it rise, literature.

For years real, live, ink-stained, tear-stained artists were granted refuge in the university, but they have been replaced by a breed domesticated in master's-of-fine-arts programs. Over in literature departments, what passes as scholarship has also become more scholastic. We've heard the many rants about how it is elitist, or politicized, or irrelevant, or abstruse, or too theoretical, or not theoretical enough. My concern is more basic. Literary criticism no longer aims to appreciate aesthetics — to study how human beings respond to art. Do you get dizzy when you look at a Turner painting of a storm at sea? Do certain buildings make you feel insignificant while others make you feel just the right size? Without understanding that intensely physical reaction, scholarship about the arts can no longer enlarge the soul.

The problem is not just that literary scholarship has become disconnected from life. Something else more suspicious has happened to professional criticism in America over the past 30 years, and that is its love affair with reducing literature to ideas, to the author's or reader's intention or ideology — not at all the same thing as art. As a result, literary critics are devoted to saving the world, not to saving literature for the world, and to internecine battles that make little sense outside academe.

The death of Susan Sontag, in 2004, served to point out just how much things had changed in the critical world since the annus mirabilis of 1964, when the Beatles played the Hollywood Bowl and Sontag's essay "Against Interpretation" appeared. She spray-painted on the walls of the academy the incendiary line, "In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art." Railing against imposing theories of interpretation on the "sensuous surface" of art, she rejected the New Criticism, psychoanalytic criticism, Marxist criticism, and other attempts to inflict meaning on art. Pleasure was her principle. Forty years on, what we have 24/7 in most English departments is the complete and total ascendancy of hermeneutics. Instead of the erotics of art, we've got the neurotics of art: the meaning-mongering of interpretation for its own sake.

A criticism devoted to aesthetics might take a novel like Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie and note how its main character, Caroline Meeber, again and again finds herself in front of sheets of glass — store windows, mirrors — that seem to beckon her in. The question would not be whether her vanity or love of material objects is good or bad; it would be how Dreiser invites all of us to fall through the glass with Carrie, to become a part of the story and experience ourselves as vain and frail and ambitious. Contemporary meaning-mongers would emphasize how Dreiser is commenting on the materialism of a market-driven society: Whether arguing that he is endorsing or condemning it, they would just want to know the bottom line.

How did this come about? In part it was the so-called theory wars over the influence of European literary and cultural theorists like Walter Benjamin and Jacques Derrida. Those wars are over, and we are left with the rubble.

I want to argue for a fundamental reconsideration of the usual narrative of the culture wars. Literary critics may still endlessly repeat the mantra of the backlash against theory that swept to power during the Reagan years: Theory is too devoted to challenging meaning. It is nihilistic. It robs us of ever finding out what an author or text is saying. But it was not the theorists who declared war on art, with their philosophy and their left-wing politics. It was the literary critics who put in their place a no-nonsense business, a legalistic parsing of meaning that masks a deep contempt for what a text is or might be to us.

The last time you looked down the corridor may have been when theorists were raising their banners, but the reality is that a much more repressive approach was seizing control. Now we are told we should boil down the moral meaning of a work to a sentence. Say whether it is favorable to a particular group. If not, ban it from the classroom. I exaggerate, but only a little.

To be sure, theory is not dead. It has become institutionalized in literature departments and continues to be taught. But it has lost its life force. What the theory wars really did was convince literary critics that fretting about how meanings get constituted in art is dilly-dallying — in a word, "French."

What gets lost in this disdain for things "foreign" is that theorists were concerned with the artwork itself, with responding to it on many different levels — with the aesthetic experience. They wanted to process their own engagement with a text, finding clues in their difficulties with it to take them deep into the heart of its darkness. To a critic like Barbara Johnson, the division between form and content did not exist. She drew on psychoanalysis and feminist theory to delve into the irritation that she felt, for example, as a reader of Nella Larsen's novel Quicksand. Beneath her own discomfort, she found the narcissistic conflicts of the protagonist Helga Crane, daughter of a white mother and black father; behind those, society's conflicts over too easily accepted differences like white/black or male/female. Reading was a physical experience.

Today, in 2005, it looks as if Sontag was dead wrong, her words a painful reminder of how foolish we all sounded back then when we wore our bell-bottoms and tie-dyed T-shirts. Interpretation has established its dominion over American literary scholarship. In so doing, it is threatening to wipe out 30 years of postmodernism that emerged out of the intellectual ferment of the 1960s. Can we break its hold?

Two big books before us, by two of the most senior literary scholars in the United States, dramatize our choices. Walter Benn Michaels, a professor of American literature at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has given us The Shape of the Signifier: 1967 to the End of History (Princeton University Press, 2004). It trumpets the party of interpretation. Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, a professor of French, Italian, and comparative literature at Stanford University, has given us Production of Presence: What Meaning Cannot Convey (Stanford University Press, 2004). It provides a look into the party of affect, emotion, aesthetics. More about the books in a bit.

First, though, I should explain that I am not an innocent bystander. I am a publisher, and, like Major Barbara's father, I sell munitions to all sides. No matter who wins or loses, I stand to gain. One army wants to buy Benjamin, Paul de Man, and other theorists who address the aesthetic experience. Another army wants to reinforce its bunkers with Stanley Fish and Michaels and shoot down the idea that literary theory can ever tell us anything about literature. The New Historicism, which has become an antidote to the dreaded deconstruction of theorists, and the default position for most literature professionals, feeds the second army, reducing a text to its historical and moral significance. Then there are those who find provisions in Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, denigrating literature by reducing it to the periphery of a theory of transnational capitalism.

I sell just about all of them, as well as all manner of literary critics like Jonathan Bate, Frank Kermode, Adam Phillips, Jacqueline Rose, and Tony Tanner. And if Michaels wants to claim, as he does in The Shape of the Signifier, that de Man is Satan incarnate and the root of all evil, that's good for me, is it not? De Man's stock has been sinking a bit, and Michaels's assault — no matter how ill founded — can only help me sell the tarnished goods. Let a thousand flowers bloom. Who cares if they be but poppies?

But my position is not, in fact, one of neutrality. I publish many authors whose views I only partly admire, but none whose views I despise, and I always have an agenda, in the form of a set of hypotheses about what I think is emerging and what I think will keep the humanities alive. So, for the past 10 or so years, I have been hunting for books that will renew a focus on our engagement with art.

The problem that besets the literary academy is not about politics, conventionally understood. Indeed, critics who style themselves left or right are often indistinguishable to me. What they share is the reduction of literature to an idea, a moral. America is a nation divided irreconcilably, it seems. Everywhere you go, you have to declare which side you're on: "red state" or "blue state." But our ease in answering is deceptive because life and literature are much more complex than that. All the loose talk about ideology and politics that prevailed in English departments in the 1980s and 90s has made it hard for the inhabitants to understand the workings of ideology itself. Despite the much-quoted charges that the humanities have been taken over by the left (and despite the self-congratulatory rhetoric of those on the left who argue that literary criticism is fighting the good fight), I believe that what we're really seeing is a reactionary tilt — away from the rebellious, destabilizing, liberating aspects of art. Let me try to connect some of the dots.

R ichard M. Weaver, who was a professor of English at the University of Chicago (Sontag's alma mater and mine), has become since he died, in 1963just before the story I've been telling begins with Sontaga hero to conservative intellectuals in America. To me, Weaver was a Confidence-Man, a peculiar American type anatomized in excruciating detail by Herman Melville. He had snake oil to sell us, something that would make everything better by restoring our moral vitality. The problem was that we had trusted him without question. Weaver glorified the virtues of the Southern plantation class and the power of ideas that they demonstrated. In Ideas Have Consequences (University of Chicago Press, 1948), he argued against modernism's abandonment of universals. The great sin of his age, he said, was that it promoted the senses and emotion over reason and ideas.

A few years after Weaver's death (and intellectual renaissance), Fish published his book on Milton, Surprised by Sin: The Reader in "Paradise Lost" (St. Martin's Press, 1967). The difference between Sontag and Fish was total. Sontag decried approaching art only as something to be interpreted; Fish provided the foundation of politically correct scholarship that manhandles art in its promotion of interpretation. But Fish and Weaver shared a loyalty to ideas above all else. With an authoritarian zeal reminiscent of the moralism that caused New Englanders to drown witches centuries ago, Fish asked readers of Milton to deny what lies on the page, arguing that the poet wants us to understand that "poetry's demands are illegitimate because they proceed from, and return to, the affections." Milton "would want his readers to resist" the demands of poetry, Fish said. And so did he, calling on them to make their own meaning out of Paradise Lost. What Fish did was exactly what Sontag said the advocates of "interpretation" do — tear up literature and reassemble it to say what they think it says. Many of us thought Sontag had demolished that approach. Those were the days, my friend, we thought they'd never end.

Fish's subsequent writings have gone in many directions, but he has never wavered in his inclination to resist the physical and aesthetic pleasures of the text and to prefer its doctrine. And he has never ceased to practice a method of allegorical interpretation that makes the text conform to interpreters' ideas. The interpreters who have followed in his wake continue to shuck text of its form, reducing it to a proposition to be either affirmed or denied, the way a farmer shucks an ear of corn. When they're done interpreting a poem, what is left of the poetry?

This kind of literary criticism has nothing to do with aesthetic responses to art, only with conscious acts of will. Nothing is to be left up to the senses, to the emotions. We have only to make a decision about the goodness or badness of the actions revealed in the work. Interpretation is the revenge of moralism upon art, and that is what makes it so politically dangerous: It narrows what literary critics do — and opens them to attack and co-optation from all the ideologues out there. In the 1980s and 90s, scholars like Terry Eagleton blasted away against the idea that the arts were autonomous, no longeras Sir Philip Sidney and Percy Bysshe Shelley had declaredto be encountered on their own terms.

But once you've reduced art to politics and virtue, you either toe the party line or face the consequences. Eagleton may call himself a man of the left, but today's ethos is conservative, and I fear that much of today's literary criticism is as well: Behind the disenchantment that many literature professors now claim with the European intellectuals who once obsessed them lies a new and insidious intellectual isolationalism. Their underlying message is: Let American critics do their own kind of criticism. Remind you of the attitude of some of our top politicians?

Literary theory — as promoted by writers like de Man, Derrida, Johnson, and Shoshana Felman decades agohad been an effort to devise new defenses for literature, by updating and developing the idea that the arts proceed in their own ways, different from those of society, politics, and the economy. The fact that those theorists have been so eclipsed by the meaning-mongers has been much heralded as a return to clarity and common sense in literary criticism. But seen from my vantage point, what we have lost is the opportunity for free aesthetic response. I don't think many of today's literary critics are even aware of what they have done, or of the consequences. That makes it, perhaps, more rather than less worrisome.

I have told you all this about Fish and Weaver because, unless you understand the swing right in literature departments, disguised as the latest fashion, you cannot understand the significance of the two books I'll now turn to in more detail. Between them they offer the field of opportunities open to us. One is an effort to enforce the politics of interpretation by insisting that ideas prevail over poetic form; the other is an effort to break out of the prison house of meaning altogether.

Michaels's The Shape of the Signifier sounds vaguely poststructuralist. Signifiers and signifieds swept into literary studies with Ferdinand de Saussure, Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan. Much of the literary criticism influenced by those theorists tended to be rooted in the left, aimed at breaking up the culture of capitalism. It is the goal of Michaels to sweep that away, but under a title that confuses the reader with its ideological disguise.

He gloats that he intends to dismantle any remnants of the theoretical framework of yesteryear to make way for a newer scholarship that gives pride of place not to affect, identity, experience, and materiality, but to intention and meaning. He claims to be giving us one true theory, after having proved that theory is worthless. Beware what lies beneath those maddeningly confusing claims. One of Michaels's main targets is de Man, a thinker he finds to be the source of a great deal of what is going wrong in literary departments. He objects to de Man's emphasis on the way literature strikes us first as a shape whose tactile and gestural aspects are more important as triggers of experience than are the ideas they convey. Doing for American literature what Fish did for English, Michaels is Fish's lieutenant (in his first job at the Johns Hopkins University, he worked with Fish, who subsequently brought him to Illinois) in the battle to make antitheoretical pseudotheory dominate Ph.D. programs in literature.

His book is not scholarship, criticism, or theory. It is a brazen call for a return to ideology. For Weaver, the fall from grace came when the South lost the Civil War; for Michaels, it was when the Berlin Wall came down. The end of the cold war was the end of a straightforward ideology pitting the United States against the Soviet Union. In its place came endless questions about identity and the messy fray of identity politics. What is terrible about the posthistorical world, as Michaels sees it, is the fragmentation caused by identity politics; what follows from identity politics is that group identification tends to trump ideology, rendering all sorts of vague feelings of identification more important than articulating ideas. What matters is who you are, not what you think.

The remedy, for Michaels, is to understand the workings of class and, especially, the free market. In an article in The New York Times last year, he decries "Diversity's False Solace," arguing that making all cultures worthy of respect provides the false sense of "a world of differences without inequality." In a recent essay in n+1 magazine, "The Neoliberal Imagination," he further argues that elite colleges manage to avoid the real debate about class by patting themselves on the back for admitting some poor people. There's a lot of ideological self-disguise going on there, but to me the goal (and certainly the effect) seems to be to demoralize the liberal imagination by pointing out its foolish inconsistencies and pieties.

To make literary criticism straightforward, Michaels focuses on the market system, not the individual's experience of art. That, unfortunately, rules out aesthetic response. This is stuff that looks for an impersonal, dominating idea to impose order. Thus Michaels is critical of Toni Morrison, who, he says, reduces understanding her characters' lives to their racial identity. And he sees Samuel R. Delany's novella The Game of Time and Pain — one of a series of allegorical fantasies that explore sexuality and power through the tale of a long-ago people — not as centrally concerned with gay experience, but with how the idea of slavery is transformed into an allegorical case for the free market as two men willingly engage in a sadomaso-chistic relationship once rooted in the dominance of master over slave. The sad part, writes Michaels, is that Delany does not recognize that his story is proof of "the fundamental freedom of liberal capitalism — freedom of contract."

Michaels also repeats the simple little example that has been his main claim to fame ever since he published his 1982 essay with Steven Knapp, "Against Theory." What ought we to think if we see on a sand dune a fragment of a poem etched by waves? Should we respond to it as a poem? Not if it was caused by an accidental movement of waves, said Michaels and Knapp, even if the lines are as affecting as some of the best of Wordsworth. The shapes in the sand were not created by human intention; they had no ideas behind them. Therefore they are not signifiers.

That kind of move rules out of court the most important task of a critic, which is to discern artistic forms and make judgments about them as things of beauty or ugliness. Michaels rejects the teasing out of the ambiguities of that sensory experience, which is what the deconstructionists of old delighted in. If it all sounds like an abstract discussion of ideas, it is.

Gumbrecht's Production of Presence sees things differently. The German-born author established himself as a literary historian of the Iberian peninsula, working primarily in medieval literature. He is now a U.S. citizen and a professor of literature at Stanford University (and is also affiliated with the University of Montreal and the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, in Paris) — just the sort of immigrant who has long enriched American literary scholarship.

He is as aggressively opposed to hermeneutics as Michaels is to poetics and aesthetics, and he declares an interest in the material aspects of artwork that starkly contrasts with Michaels's rejection. Gumbrecht does not deny that we can find meaning in art, but he argues that the production of meaning takes precedence over an obsession with interpreting it. Our emotional response to artworks matters. We experience a thrill when we see that meanings can be produced, when we see how malleable symbols are. We do not respond to static images of God the Father or Satan in Milton, but to the manifest malleability of the poetry. Milton makes us feel that we have entered his workshop and can feel the heat of his creative powers. That is what warms us, not the cold idea that good should conquer evil. The emphasis Gumbrecht puts on production is striking at a time when American business has turned its attention from how goods are produced to how, as they say, value is added in the process of selling things. The focus on production seems old-fashioned, more in tune with the values of engineers (and artists) than those of marketers.

Gumbrecht seeks to shift literary criticism away from interpretation to what he calls a "nonhermeneutic field," by which he means to highlight the continuing value of Derrida's subtle explorations of the way forms of content emerge. Like Michaels, he wants to go beyond the material surface of an artwork. While for Michaels that means that interpretation is the name of the game, however, for Gumbrecht we can never detach ideas about a literary work from the work itself. We cannot discard a poem. The key is to think about how we experience it.

We cannot help feeling when we read Whitman's Leaves of Grass, for example, that we are being inundated by words, as the poet piles clause after clause after clause upon us. We have to grapple with finding order (not to mention a verb) — to assert some kind of control. That kind of experience embodies the experience of the new democratic order that Whitman was celebrating, gives us a sense, not an idea, of that order.

It is no mere coincidence, Gumbrecht writes, that at the time aesthetics was emerging as a discipline within philosophy, artists began to depict how the physical way we experience the world matters. Painters like Goya and writers like Rousseau gave viewers a visceral sense of the topsy-turvy turmoil of aesthetics.

Gumbrecht further argues that one source of the problems that plague scholarship today is the way interpretation has been institutionalized. Giving interpretation control over literary scholarship was a price that we paid to win a place for literature in the university. The question now is, How can we change the situation?

For Gumbrecht, the key is to avoid extremist tactics and pitting one approach against another — something that humanists do when they are feeling down and out and oppressed, as they have more and more in the past 30 years. He wants critics like Michaels to stop seeing literary theorists like de Man as Satan incarnate. And he wants those who are, as it were, on de Man's side to stop clinging to him inflexibly, as if the critic were going to descend from his throne next to God's in heaven and come back to New Haven.

In fact, you should know, a growing and diverse group of scholars is producing very exciting work, exploring just the issue of aesthetic experience urged upon the reader by Gumbrecht. Such people are not the dupes of de Man, and many of them probably have never heard of Gumbrecht. Look to Isobel Armstrong's The Radical Aesthetic (Blackwell, 2000), which soundly criticizes those who claim that aesthetics is politically reactionary. Drawing on contemporary literature and criticism, the book instead points to the democratic potential of a revival of aesthetics. Brian Massumi's Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation (Duke University Press, 2002) argues that contemporary media like television, film, and the Internet evoke various levels of sensation — some of which operate well below the level of simple meaning; Sianne Ngai's Ugly Feelings (Harvard University Press, 2004) uses examples that range from 19th-century American novels to contemporary cartoon shows to study the fleeting feelings we often have about art. In different ways, all those scholars resist reducing art to ideas; all reveal anew the complex ways in which art holds us in its grasp.

Yes, the transformation that Gumbrecht calls for in the humanities is beginning to happen. If we can let go of our past battles, we may even let it flower.

Lindsay Waters is executive editor for the humanities at Harvard University Press. His most recent book is "Enemies of Promise: Publishing, Perishing, and the Eclipse of Scholarship" (Prickly Paradigm Press, 2004).

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