The function and value of literature and literary studies reconsidered.
Farrell, Frank. 2004. Why Does Literature Matter? Ithaca: Cornell University Press. $39.95 hc. 261 pp.
In 1949, Rene Wellek and Austin Warren divided literary studies into three branches: literary criticism which determines the meaning of individual works and makes evaluative judgments regarding their worth, literary theory which studies the principles of literature qua literature, and literary history which views literature from a diachronic perspective (1956, 38-45). But by 1988, Barbara Herrnstein Smith could auspiciously write of literary criticism that the "entire problematic of value and evaluation has been evaded and explicitly exiled by the literary academy"; indeed, it has "not been subject to serious inquiry for the past fifty years." (1988, 17). Since the New Critics, research into literary meaning intensified whereas the business of axiology went under (17) and has only recently taken up shop in Anglo-American philosophy of art. It was not long, though, before specific axiological questions were posed--often carpingly--during the fervent culture wars of the early 1990s where, as debates-cum-caricatures go, literature was the expression of beauty or the manifestation of ideology, intrinsically rewarding or extrinsically interested, the medium through which cultural and national tradition is transmitted or patently subversive of traditional authority. In a word, either welcome literature and civilization or descend into the bowels of theory and barbarism. However farcical the debates sometimes were, they nonetheless reminded us that the institution of literary studies must be thought in conjunction with the study of literature and within the broader context of higher education. But while discussions of the canon were largely about which works of literature mattered (Macbeth or Beloved?), which did not (comic books and Westerns), and what to do about this (make the canon more inclusive, circle the wagons, critique and destroy), the status of the literary aesthetic itself has yet to be systematically addressed by literary criticism as a whole.
Michael Berube has called the current predicament in literary studies a "crisis of reproduction" (1988, 6) which is tied, to be sure, to the wane of the "cultural legitimacy of literature" (Lamarque and Olsen 2004, 197). At a time when professional positions in literary studies are scarce while those in composition studies and creative writing are (relatively) abundant (Perloff 2006, 3-4), when literature professors continue to describe themselves mainly as researchers and editors and not as teachers, committee members, advisors, and mentors (Williams 2002, 1-18), when the number of students majoring in English since 1990 is down one percent (Menand 2005,11), when it takes an average of 8.9 years to complete a Ph.D. in English (12), when some professionals still worry that courses on subversive pornography and Empire are replacing those on Wordsworth's poetics and Joyce's artistic development, and when cultural conservatives in the public sphere continue to question the merit of literary studies while some scientists doubt its counterintuitive arguments, a manifesto for literary studies written on behalf of literary critics goes beyond mere fashion or fad; it is entirely prescient. For, as Berube gravely declares, "Institutionalized literary study, as an academic subject and as a profession, simply will not exist very much longer if it does not demarcate, for its potential clients, its domain and procedures, however loosely these might be defined" (1998, 159). I take it that Marjorie Garber's A Manifesto for Literary Studies (2003) attempts to do just this--carve out the object domain and delineate the procedures of institutionalized literary studies in order to defend its intrinsic and extrinsic value and to thereby justify its existence. At this historical juncture, should the discipline be unable to legitimize itself as a rigorous and worthwhile pursuit, it faces not just becoming extinct but bequeathing literature to those more capable of appreciating the latter's aesthetic value--which is where Anglo-American philosopher Frank Farrell's Why Does Literature Matter? (2004) comes in.
In her "Introduction: Asking Literary Questions," Garber charts the rise and fall of literary studies which around the 1950s had occupied 'the comfortable middle ground of the humanities' (2003, 4), then in its heyday in the 1970s and 1980s collaborated with anthropology, history, and continental philosophy to investigate "language in action" (11), and now, in the wake of the culture wars, has sunk in standing and retreated from the theoretical and the speculative. According to Garber, the reaction to the culture wars was a return to the world of the referent; thus was the discipline pushed in the direction of a much less ambitious, more moderate, and more empirical project of literary history. Throughout Manifesto, Garber is quick to defend literary studies from the encroachments from natural science on one front and empirical history on the other. Alluding to the Russian formalists, she holds that the field of literary studies retains its unique value only so long as it stays true to its main function: scrutinizing literariness. If, as she seems to let on, the literary aesthetic is relatively autonomous as a result of its formal properties, then scholars ought to attend to "style, form, genre, and verbal interplay" in addition to "social and political context" (12). We ask literary "questions about the way something means, rather than what it means, or even why" (12).
Still, what Garber's notion of literariness gains in familiarity it loses in opacity. Compare Garber's formulation with those of Jonathan Culler and Peter Brooks. Literary theory "offer[s] novel and persuasive accounts of signification" (Culler 1988, 15) and young students of literature need to "ask not only what the text means, but as well how it means" (Brooks 1994, 160). However subtly dissimilar their accounts, they agree that to investigate literariness it is necessary to analyze poesis or rhetoricae by conjoining interpretation of an object to the manner of literary production. In this, though it draws from both, literary criticism is unlike philosophy and linguistics. Garber's heuristic procedure, by virtue of its unoriginal and unpolemical nature, fits most critics' basic intuitions, so her opening gambit can only seek to achieve broad disciplinary consensus in the hope that a cogent description of what literary critics do and why it is important would thus follow in train. Yet what is beguilingly opaque is that Garber's call to literariness makes no similar call to literature. As far as we can presume, hers is a literariness not explicitly married to literature. This goes against a tradition of literary aesthetics since New Criticism (Berube 2005, 11) which sought to define the salient feature of literature as literariness in terms of the poetic (Jakobson 1960), the figural (Lacoue-Labarthe), or the quantity of figural language (Wellek and Warren 1956). No stranger to cultural studies which has questioned the equation of high art with autonomy, literariness, and intrinsic value and low art with heteronomy, popular consumption, and instrumental value, perhaps Garber is too savvy to fall into the trap of uncritically wedding literariness to literature, but, prima facie, this leaves her with no suitable object of study. The dialectical risk of transcending disciplinary boundaries, which corrects atomization, in the end may just as well be the creation of new object domains as the loss of one altogether.
Garber justifies her call for formalist criticism to become once again the main vocation of literary critics by resorting to traditional axiological terminology. In rhetorical reading, there is the intellectual pleasure of "thinking through and with literature" (2003, 13) and the political potential "to change the world" (12-13). But if the interpretive act is intellectually pleasurable, then where is Garber's phenomenological account describing the joy the active mind feels in its encounter with the beautiful object? And if interpreting the world entails also changing it, then how is this anything but a trivially true constructivist--rather than non-trivially true political--claim? Unfortunately, Garber merely posits delight and edification. Thus, at the very moment when a manifesto must turn toward argumentation so as to exceed the force of proclamation and assertion, Garber remains silent, unable to sufficiently address critics of the discipline from within and without. For starters, Herrnstein-Smith has challenged the idea that an autonomous aesthetic can be bracketed from pragmatic interests and goes on to criticize pleasure as an end in itself (30-53) while Stanley Fish has contended that academic interpretation cannot change the referent about which it speaks (1995, 90-91). Nevertheless, one can piece together a more robust account of the object domain and value of literary studies from Garber's arguments in her second and third essays.
It can be inferred from her second essay "Who Owns 'Human Nature'?", a rather late but important intervention in the science wars of the mid-1990s, that Garber substitutes human nature for literature as the appropriate object domain of literary studies. In the past, Garber remarks, the exploration of human nature had been the province of the humanities, but since the 1950s human nature disappeared from humanist vocabularies and was left to journalism in the public domain and science in academe. Why, how come, and for what reasons? The short answers are multiculturalism, unified theories of evolutionary biology and genetics, and our theoretical misgivings, respectively. Garber's historical sketch suggests that humanistic critiques of essentialism--both with regard to the human as opposed to a world of others and nature as opposed to particular, historically and culturally constituted humans--opened the door for the appropriation of human nature by the natural sciences. But, according to Garber, it is not just that the concept of human nature has changed hands or that natural scientists have effectively popularized their ideas in the public domain but that some scientists have purported to explain human phenomena. Much of her second essay, then, is devoted to the place that literature takes up in influential evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson's On Human Nature (1978) and Sociobiology (1980) and aims to reclaim human nature for the humanities.
It should be said that since humanistic knowledge has for the most part been discounted in modernity, art is often reduced to mere form or ornamentation. Tracking Wilson's occasional citations of James Joyce, WB. Yeats, William Shakespeare, and Sappho, among others, Garber notes that art merely expresses the truth of biology in a pithy, condensed form and need not be interpreted. She seems to suggest that in Wilson's hands literature becomes simply a series of quotable epigrams about morality, passion, psychology, or religion whose beauty requires little comment and whose deep content and unacknowledged source is biology. Indeed, what is moral conduct but an evolved form of self-preservation (2003, 27)? Garber's deconstructive gesture is to claim that the history of the humanities has "produced" "human nature" (33): who but humanists like Baruch Spinoza or Thomas Jefferson (33) have set the terms such as altruism and hope for any meaningful discussion of human nature?
While Garber's history of the discourse of human nature in the latter half of the twentieth century is spot on, her diagnosis of our theoretical qualms with human nature--interdisciplinarity, fear of universals, verbalization--is not. First, for Garber interdisciplinary studies have all along been speaking about human nature directly but inexplicitly. Yet is universal human nature expressed completely in each interdisciplinary intervention, or are different aspects of human nature expressed in different human experiences? Without any rational basis, Garber's assertion devolves into mere nominalism as though naming something human nature necessarily made it so. Second, on Garber's view our turn away from universals is of a piece with perspectivism. If I cannot attain to an Archimedean point of view beyond space and time, then my perspective must necessarily be partial and incomplete. This fear of universals can for Garber be overcome dialectically by noticing that my experience of human finitude is an experience of "human life" (2003, 34): "blindness" (34), a condition for everyone, is human nature. But Garber's precipitous conclusion glosses over the very real problem arising in Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason: from within human consciousness, how do I demonstrate that my subjective perspective of the world has objective validity? Third, Garber pulls out the strong constructivist card which she calls verbalization to argue that language is at the core of human nature. Garber is right that the "power to generalize" (34) is vital to the humanities, but her account of our "Fear of Taking Language Seriously" (35) and our fear of universals is unconvincing because she overextends the scope of language to all of human experience and because she too facilely combines perspectivism with strong social constructivism. How can Garber presuppose that perspectivism with regard to human consciousness and constructivism with regard to the constitutive power of language are self-evidently compatible?
In her final essay, "Historical Correctness," Garber criticizes the recent historical turn for its penchant for making unwarranted truth claims about historical contexts while losing sight of the realm of literature; she also offers a more sophisticated version of literary history based on anachronism. To Garber, the repeated charges of political correctness ultimately led to a regression in literary scholarship. The allure of "historical correctness" is that "history grounds and tells the truth about literature" (2003, 49) and, as Garber will show, it forecloses our asking literary questions. Garber's specific qualm with literary historicism is that it presumes a crude mimesis indeed and is unable to answer fundamental questions such as why we read and teach literature in the first place (58). Drawn to Walter Benjamin who avers that literature can only be historical in folding our epoch into the epoch in which the work of literature arises, Garber champions anachronism as a full-blooded mode of literary history. History is within literature (one of Garber's favorite examples is the clock striking in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar) in the sense that the text presents the relation between the present and the past and the current preoccupations driving that juxtaposition or reinterpretation. And the literary is within history in that anachronism foregrounds themes, structures, and form rather than chronology. Whereas, as Garber argues, literary scholarship is an endless search and re-search to fill in all the gaps and to have a complete picture of a work in its historical context, literary criticism can be a creative enterprise that follows the "associative thinking" (67), the fits and starts of a text which "shocks us into [an] awareness" (67) that something about literature exceeds rational, scientific, and historical determinations.
To her credit, Garber elegantly restages something like the long-standing philosophical problem of human freedom (here the imaginative play and relative autonomy of literature) and determination (here science and historicism). Bracketing literary questions, both scientific and baldly historical understanding of literature makes the latter into a mere instrument through which external reality can be known. If we are guided by the demand that all three essays cohere, we could say that Garber does make a formidable defense of institutionalized literary criticism. Simply put, literary critics ask literary questions about human nature both to exercise the mind in a creative way simply not possible in other fields and to provide associative, imaginative kinds of knowledge of human experience, kinds of knowledge not reducible to science or historicism. It is unlikely that Farrell would have a complaint about the function and value of literary criticism were our self-description put just so. However, because Garber's overestimation of language is at odds with the magnificent scope of human nature and, in turn, with the wealth of possible literary questions about imaginative literature, Farrell will accuse us of understating and eliding over what literature can do--and do exceptionally well.
That literature does much more than explore language and power is Farrell's most general claim in Why Does Literature Matter? Written in the aftermath of the culture wars, Farrell's book is at once a more sober yet more jaded reckoning of and reflection on literary theory. The peculiarity the literary critic finds in Anglo-American philosopher Farrell is that he does not deign to engage in conversation with literary critics so much as dismiss the field tout court (the sole exception being feminism [2004, 148])--but not without taking the time to vehemently argue against literary theory. If Farrell's purpose is neither to change the field nor to make possible the study of literature in philosophy departments, then what motivates this project? And why such animosity? The book moves in two interrelated directions: in one direction, adumbration of the salient features of literary space in chapter 1 and explication thereof in subsequent chapters; in the other, a critique of the linguistic, cultural, and historical turns in literary studies. Chapter 1 catalogues twelve properties such as metaphysics, phenomenology, the prelinguistic, and regression which do not make up a "general theory of literature" (9) but contribute to an "internalist account of literary space" (9) and contrast polemically with what specialists have unwittingly neglected (9).
I would argue that there are two reasons for the interrelation of literary space and critique. The first is that Farrell critiques literary studies to free literature from its grasp. In culture war logic, literary studies has not only forfeited its expertise status to read works of literature but has corrupted literature. Only through critique can literary value be preserved. The second is that literary studies has upheld a certain brand of philosophical non-realism. If generic realism states that an object and its properties exist independent of our conceptions (Miller 2005) but is nevertheless knowable, then one form non-realism can take is standard constructivism which grants the existence of objects independent of our conceptions but avers that they are made by and are only intelligible through our conceptions. Farrell's first book, Subjectivity, Realism, and Postmodernism--Recovering the World (1994), is written in the spirit of polemic. Richard Rorty, the consummate postmodernist, simply gets things completely wrong (xi). The spirit of modernity is disenchantment, but for Farrell the latter issues in richer rather than impoverished experiences of phenomenology and metaphysics--that is, richer forms of realism. "The alienated self of modernity is assured that its concepts are at home in the world as it is, and the world itself recovers from a process of thinning out and contraction that it suffered in relation to the powers of the modern subject" (xi). To the extent that he believes that literary studies has bought Rortian pragmatism hook, link, and sinker, he will marshal similar, albeit condensed, arguments against literary studies' thinned out disenchantment of subjectivity, the world, language, and power in order to defend an account of thick disenchantment and ethical content at work in some works of literature.
Let's consider in some detail how Farrell understands disenchantment. In his brief history of epistemology in chapter 1, he sees theological voluntarism operating in thinned out disenchantment at each stage. Through knowing and willing, the Thomistic God creates and maintains his creation (2004, 2). This logic whereby the continued existence of an object depends upon a being of another order gets passed on to modernity. First, the disenchantment of the world transformed an independently existing and spiritually endowed nature into an inert object apprehended by the mind and conforming to its laws. Thus idealism. Second, the powers of the mind are disenchanted when we realize that a disengaged subject conferring meaning on the world makes little sense once we analyze the operations of language. Thus the linguistic turn which determines mental and physical states completely. Farrell holds that Rorty, Paul de Man, Jacques Derrida, and Marjorie Perloff all take this position. Third, the disenchantment of language makes language, the world, and subjectivity into the mere effects of social power. Here Farrell yokes together Michel Foucault, New Historicists such as Stephen Greenblatt, and cultural studies critics. For Farrell, all earlier levels become solely projections of the new level which determines them.
But this is not at all how modernity looks to Farrell. Disenchantment is not a radical break with the past but an unending vacillation between gains in the present and the loss of the past. In each disenchantment, the world as it is, self-to-world relations, silence before language, and linguistic play are not left behind. Rather, rich disenchantment, a space of torturous transition, oscillates between "states of controlled regression" (2004, 160) and progression, Catholic communal ritual and Protestant individuation, metaphysical openness and linguistic play, allowing things to emerge and styling them, pain and pleasure. For instance, far from giving up on the world, disenchantment on occasion makes it possible to feel the metaphysical weight or background behind objects as they appear. We will see that literature is valuable to Farrell insofar as some authors are especially good at illuminating the rich disenchantment of human experience.
Given Farrell's theoretical allegiance to a thick realism just outlined, the reader should be prepared to witness Farrell's trenchant disagreements with de Man in chapter 5 and New Historicism and cultural studies in chapter 7. Farrell summarizes de Man's main claims concerning the autonomy of language as follows: one, language produces psychological and physical states; two, language undermines its own claims, returning denotation to grammar; three, language is consistently and thoroughly self-reflexive so that any claim about something else is in essence a claim about language. Farrell's reply in "Philosophical Backgrounds" (chapter 3) is that language is complex, not autonomous or thinly disenchanting. Drawing on the work of Donald Davidson, Farrell argues that for any meaningful interpretation the world and sophisticated mental states are both necessary settings for linguistic operations. (In this brief chapter, he does not consider the coherentist objection.) What is more, meaning is relatively stable because the world is relatively stable and humans minimally rational. He concedes that word-to-world relations are potentially inscrutable but against global antirealism holds that sentences, the linguistic bits we should be focusing on rather than spending our time on signs, pretty accurately refer to the world.
In the story Farrell tells, New Historicism and cultural studies take up where the linguistic turn left off. Farrell generalizes from his reading of Greenblatt to make standard charges against New Historicism. New Historicists make unwarranted comparisons of cultural objects and literary works. Because it is an externalist account smuggling in the stuff of pamphlets and manuals which are putatively on par with literary works, New Historicism has no way of speaking about the unique space and value of literature. New Historicists' commitment to a theory of power and subversion is really colonialist in spirit: theory submits the text to its own ideals, motivations, and scruples. Likewise, cultural studies critics are externalists. Here Farrell's argument peaks one's interest. For his claims that cultural theorists who constantly shine a light on social injustice lack a vision of the social whole, overestimate the workings of power and the hegemony of reason at the cost of more sober accounts of truth and rationality, and overvalue difference while ignoring mental and communal sameness are compelling, though unnecessarily abridged.
In fact, the book itself feels abridged as though half of it were a corollary to his first book and the other half a precis for a later work on literary aesthetics. To be sure, Farrell's chapters written against thinned out disenchantment and for rich disenchantment read very much like assertions ("Language makes the world." Or "power is everywhere.") and counterassertions ("Nonsense! Language presumes the world as a context for meaning, and power has limits.") and are slim on the well-developed arguments of his first book. Farrell's rhetorical move throughout is usually concession (yes, x is important) followed by critique of a hasty generalization (but x goes too far) or a rash conclusion (but y does not follow) before going on to offer a truncated yet more capacious account of his own. Surely literary theory--not "rigorous" (2004, 143), "of poor scholarly quality," (143), "impressionistic" (143), "ideological" (143), much "inferior" (241) to literary texts, "empty" (148), and impoverished--is besotted with exaggeration. Expansionist in nature, it holds to a conception of language or social power that is autonomous and is specially tailored to explain other fields in a jot. Undoubtedly, the Grand Pronouncements of some literary theorists about language--that how a statement means always supersedes what it says--or politics--that who is speaking is always more important than what is being said--can sound vacuous each year at the MLA Annual Convention. But only the most illiberal of spirits would write off all literary theory and, by extension and at times by contrast, all literary criticism in judgments proclaimed from on high instead of calling for a more judicious reappraisal of its merits and demerits.
So far, we have said very little about the value of literature, having been content to review the impoverishment of literature by literary studies. Farrell speaks glowingly of literature because it (a) affords rich moral experiences of various properties of literary space such as phenomenology and metaphysics, experiences (b) not available in the marketplace; and it does so in (c) an exceptional manner (2004, 24). If this is true, then literature is rewarding for its own sake. So what constitutes aesthetic experiences for Farrell? At first blush, the cognizing mind simply tracks the salient features of the work and explicates or draws out the richness of these features in the process. For the kind of aesthetic experience that Farrell admires, it is not sufficient to identify said features; one must also interpret them, thereby becoming taken up by them.
Therefore, the first answer to the question, why do some works of literature matter? leads us back to eighteenth century aesthetics where the autonomy and intrinsic value of art are bound up with the disinterested position of the percipient who is free from all interest. Though Farrell's account may appear strikingly formalist insofar as these properties elicit aesthetic experience in the first place, various properties he adumbrates in chapter one are not all formal in nature; some like psychology and phenomenology are pregnant with representative content. Certainly, though, this kind of defense of the autonomous space of literature is not just unnoteworthy and conservative; it is also neglectful of the dialectic between literature and life. But, Farrell suggests further, significant works of literature have both intrinsic and extrinsic value-and the latter in a specific sense. His more interesting premise is that the rich experiences had exclusively and exceptionally in some literary works are valuable for the sake of living well. Farrell envisions some works as 'providing exercises in establishing richer psychological and ethical subjectivity. It is not just that we see characters going through kinds of ethical decision-making; we become aware more reflectively of our patterns of identification and investment, of the ways in we set ourselves in relation to an ethical world' (2004, 21, my emphasis). Farrell's realism, which does not stress the mimetic relation of word to world, here concerns not just seeing but actively becoming aware of the similarity of one mental state--the character's--with another's--the reader's. In this case, realism means that the rich way we experience things in literature is the way we could experience things in the world: literature is a means to the moral end of the self unfolding in all its richness within the world and across a life. If Farrell is right, then evaluative judgments are easy to make indeed: the more thickly disenchanted the work is and the richer the experience the work provides, the better the work.
Farrell's defense of literary value is not without its shortcomings. It is strange that for one who valorizes the exclusivity and exceptionality of literary space, Farrell says nothing of scientific cognition, practical reason, or cultural practice. It is not self-evident how literary space is uniquely different from these other value spheres or why these candidates cannot do as well as or better than literature at moral education. What is more, Farrell appears to be entirely ignorant of debates in Anglo-American philosophy of art. Shouldn't one who is so committed to aesthetic experience (without, of course, mentioning it by name) be well-versed in the discipline most suited to such a discussion (see, e.g., Carroll 2001)? If not to literary critics (remember we've been dismissed) and not to aestheticians (remember they've been ignored), then to whom is this book addressed? Farrell's absenting himself from, or lack of familiarity with, philosophy of art manifests itself as an inability to provide a classical or an open concept of experience, a concept integral to his polemic. Without the latter or--to change course--without a "phenomenology of aesthetic experience" (Jarvis 2002, 5), it is difficult to make out (1) what exactly we experience--that is, what exactly we apprehend, feel, and cognize beyond the practice of tracking and exegesis summarized above, (2) how literature trains us to live well, and (3) thus how literature is extrinsically valuable. "Beckett's textual scenes are scenes of the experiencing self; we see the structure that remains in a reduction to a shape still able to keep a minimal selfhood going" (Farrell 2004, 122). What is the relation between a character's experience and our seeing? If our aesthetic-moral experience requires not only that we track the salient features of literary space but also that we identify and invest in characters' experiences (21), then how are these mental operations necessary and sufficient for moral experience? How indeed do they train us to live well? For his time and his troubles, the scrupulous reader of Farrell's book, interested in a modern edition of moral education, is left empty-handed.
Writing at a time when cultural studies has steadily been gaining ground as a viable interdisciplinary pursuit within or at the edge of literary studies, Farrell and Garber are united in assuming a la Harold Bloom that one affirms either aesthetic value or its other. Posing the question as a dilemma between formalism and its negation springs from the right impulse but relies upon the wrong logic and thus can only lead to a deadlock between reification and the world. However, if in actuality literature is conditioned by politics, history, genre, culture, science, language, and authorial decisions but is irreducibly different from these conditions, then asking about the function of literature will necessarily entail asking after the value of literature for us today. A justification of literary studies depends in the final analysis on illustrating the relevance of literature of thinking and living in modernity.
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Andrew J. Taggart is a Ph.D. candidate in contemporary British literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is completing a dissertation on "The Moral Life of Modernity from Beckett to McEwan."