27 June 2011

“A seemingly endless series of rich and unexpected interpretations”

More from Steven Knapp’s remarks on “The Enduring Dilemma of the Humanities”:
Defenders of scholarship in the humanities sometimes think the way to give it a social standing and public support equivalent to that of the sciences is to defend either the rigor and objectivity of its research or the social relevance and utility of its implications.

In fact, however, what the public values in the humanities is their relation to the particular power, prestige, and interest of the objects of humanities inquiry — not, I regret to say, the more general benefits allegedly derived from such inquiry itself. What matters to the public is Shakespeare, not the logic of theatrical representation. What matters is the story of America, not the ideological structure of American exceptionalism. . . .

Because, in my view, the humanities cannot escape this problem, the best approach is, and has always been, to embrace it and make the best of it. But how?

Well, decades ago, that kind of modus vivendi could be achieved by strongly connecting the professional academic pursuit of advanced humanities scholarship to the teaching of undergraduates; the unspoken assumption was that parents wanted their children to have contact with the prestigious histories imbedded both in classic works of literature and other arts and in the emergence of the modern world.

Perhaps the most brilliant example of that strategy, at least in the Anglo-American context, was the invention of the so-called New Criticism. For those who were never exposed to it or have since forgotten it, this was a set of techniques for generating close readings of just about any kind of text, although the objects to which it was mainly applied were shorter works — mostly poems — from the canon of English literature. By looking for certain kinds of paradoxes in a poem’s rhetorical structure, one could generate a seemingly endless series of rich and unexpected interpretations.

Because they were unexpected and in that sense apparently original, these readings were eminently publishable, so they helped fuel an explosion of academic publishing and formed the basis of countless academic careers. And because the technique itself was so eminently teachable, it enabled countless students with little or no background in literary history to produce extraordinarily sophisticated critical papers that made them seem astonishingly learned and cultured, to themselves and others. (I mean that statement less ironically than it may sound.)
Knapp is president of George Washington University. His books include Literary Interest: The Limits of Anti-Formalism, and an article he wrote in 1982 with Walter Benn Michaels titled “Against Theory” was an early sign of the crumbling appeal of New Criticism and the deconstructionism that followed.

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