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Author Topic: Reading-Yes/Readings-No  (Read 12287 times)
humana
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« on: April 21, 2009, 12:23:18 pm »

I have long been a fan of Mark Edmundsen's insights into academic life, beginning in 1997 with his essay on the purpose of a liberal arts education in Harper's Magazine, an essay that was reportedly the most-copied article on university campuses for a number of years.  Again, I find much to admire in his latest contribution to the Chronicle as well.

However, it seems that he holds to the old argument that art can replace religion, a notion I disagree with.  When he talks of "conversion" and morality and so forth and the ability of literature to create meaningful experiences in these domains, it's not that I entirely disagree with him (I can easily conceive of literature as a religious experience), it's just that his line of reasoning seems to call for literature/art that is actually capable of replacing religion.  While I believe literature can be ancillary to religion (and vice versa), I believe that one simply cannot replace the other.  Literature simply cannot do what religion does, at least not on its own.

Also, there is obviously much room for debate when Edmundsen contends that "doing readings" of literature can be/has been detrimental to the literary profession.  What do people make of this?

http://chronicle.com/free/v55/i33/33b00601.htm
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pournelle
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« Reply #1 on: April 21, 2009, 6:12:33 pm »

I liked some things about this piece, but its target does seem to me something of a straw man. Who--besides new graduate students--does 'readings' of the kind he describes? Who 'applies' Foucault or Derrida or Butler or whoever anymore? If people are still doing this, they should stop, but I see little evidence of it in the better journals and presses these days.

Clearly he's not really taking aim at 'readings', but at some larger problem in criticism. I certainly would agree that a lot of criticism is in real trouble. But pointing out that trouble is tricky work needing real arguments. I suppose that one could interpret this essay in such a way that shows how the gesture to transformation as the goal of literary study and criticism does count as a real solution to the problem of locating english vis-a-vis other disciplines. And in the wake of the collapse of cultural studies and 'theory' this is an urgent question, and the essay is slightly provocative on this score, though one would wish for something a little better thought out.
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sibyl
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« Reply #2 on: April 22, 2009, 11:32:18 am »

I interpreted Edmundson not as saying, "It's pointless to apply Lacan to Shakespeare," but rather "Don't read Lacan on Shakespeare, read more Shakespeare."  Undergraduates of my acquaintance are indeed assigned to read a lot of criticism.  I think that it's useful for them to read criticism so that they get a sense of the possibilities of multiple interpretations and additional layers of meaning, but I'd prefer that by the end of the term they themselves are writing criticism rather than reading it.
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"I do not pretend to set people right, but I do see that they are often wrong." -- Jane Austen, Mansfield Park
fiona
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« Reply #3 on: April 22, 2009, 3:47:44 pm »

I agree with Sibyl's interpretation, and with what Edmundson is saying. Students often aren't encouraged to read for themselves, but to read as if they were channeling Marx, Freud, or whoever.

It's like eating through a napkin, instead of forking the food yourself.

It deadens the taste, and in the case of college students, it often turns them off literature (as brain food) forever.

The Fiona
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The Fiona or Them FionŠ or Fiona the Sublime

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juanb
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« Reply #4 on: April 23, 2009, 2:08:33 am »

Reading literary criticism rather than literature itself is like going to a fine French restaurant and eating the menu. 
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nordicexpat
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« Reply #5 on: April 23, 2009, 3:31:19 am »

Let me offer my own provocative defense of "readings" as a dissenting voice.  Of course, no one ever advocated that students "apply" Lacan, Foucault, Butler etc. to literary texts or to "channel" said theorists when reading literature, or to stop thinking for themselves.  The issue was always how to characterize the aims and objectives of literary studies in an age when the inherent worth of studying literature as an academic subject is no longer seen as inherent good. Even professional humanists probably spend more of their free time (the little they have) engaging with popular media than with high literature.  (it was interesting for me to note that even Thomas H. Benton apparently spends his evenings watching Tim Gunn and Gordon Ramsey than reading Shakespeare or Milton). Yet while almost everyone recognized the problem, the profession seems to have split, with some seeing a radical restructuring of literary studies as the only means to save it, and others seeing the radical restructuring of literary studies as a means of killing it off.  Unfortunately, neither side won, and the result was a messy compromise in which neither side is happy with the status quo. (I can give my own reasons why I think traditionalist won, but that would take us too far afield).

I think it is debatable that the collapse of literary and cultural studies is a good thing: if you believe say, that our experience of reality is constituted through such literary devices as narrative, metaphor, etc., then it is obvious why such devices should be studied at a university. Individual authors and texts would necessarily be downgraded, since the important aspect of study would be these larger literary structures and their relationship to and influence upon the culture at large.  Still, the discipline itself would have some justification.  I don't think Edmundsen's "quasi-religious" justification (I agree with humana's characterization) is going to really work, although I can recognize that many have had the experience he describes (and probably go on to become English teachers).  The secular priesthood is simply too small, and its influence upon society has been diminishing for at least the last 150 years. 
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juanb
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« Reply #6 on: April 23, 2009, 6:09:37 am »

if you believe say, that our experience of reality is constituted through such literary devices as narrative, metaphor, etc., then it is obvious why such devices should be studied at a university.

I would argue that neither narrative nor metaphor (nor "the etc.") are primordially "literary devices."  Rather they part of the warp and weft of language itself.  There is little to be found in literature that can't also be found in ofter forms of human discourse. 
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nordicexpat
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« Reply #7 on: April 23, 2009, 6:50:22 am »

Agree completely that "devices" was an unfortunate term and didn't mean to exclude linguists, despite my references to literary studies.  Sorry 'bout that.
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pournelle
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« Reply #8 on: April 23, 2009, 11:57:00 am »

Nordicexpat makes some good points. But I would suggest that ideas of what exactly literary studies can offer beyond the study of literature have proved worthless. Vague ideas that literature shows us how we all use metaphor to make our lives etc. simply can't withstand comparison with the rigorous work done in linguistics, philosophy, and neuroscience along these lines. The yearning for a special disciplinary competance beyond literature has turned english departments into the dumping ground for social and natural scientific ideas and methods no longer taken seriously by social and natural scientists (marx, freud, 'social construction,' etc.). Cultural studies and theory proved far less durable than what nordic characterizes as 'traditionalist' commitments to literature.

The core of the discipline should remain the study of literary works. What is the value of this study? I would simply say that literary works are some of the most fascinating and powerful human artifacts. Many students recognize this value, people are still reading at historically high rates (and thanks, Amazon!). In addition, certain basic, one might say existential, questions are raised in the vicinity of literary works and english departments provide a convienient--though perhaps not the sole--locus for the academic study of these questions.

So what do we do? We interpret literary works. Certainly literature no longer possesses the social centrality it had between say 1850 and 1950, but this was an unusual state of affairs.  If literary studies were to shrink in a generation to the size of current philosophy departments, I would be untroubled. But if we must keep our current size, I'd side with John Guillory who's been arguing that we simply expand our sense of primary texts to film and new media, and not let these slip into stand-alone departments or (god forbid!) communications. Plus keep the comp/rhetoric people on lock.
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shastymcnasty
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« Reply #9 on: April 23, 2009, 1:14:02 pm »

If we encourage students to read literature for its life-changing, perspective-skewing, transformative potential--if we regard it as a record of the best that has been known and thought--then where's the place for "recovered" (read bad) literature that lacks transformative potential?  We have to perform "readings" to cover that fact that much of the "literature" we teach is not worth reading.

   
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fiona
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« Reply #10 on: April 23, 2009, 8:37:42 pm »

If we encourage students to read literature for its life-changing, perspective-skewing, transformative potential--if we regard it as a record of the best that has been known and thought--then where's the place for "recovered" (read bad) literature that lacks transformative potential?  We have to perform "readings" to cover that fact that much of the "literature" we teach is not worth reading.

   

I don't know what you mean by "bad" literature or literature that is not worth reading. Popular literature, for instance, embodies much more clearly the mainstream values of a society. "Great art" is necessarily somewhat at odds with mainstream values and has a smaller audience.

Responding to Nordicexpat's statement that "Of course, no one ever advocated that students "apply" Lacan, Foucault, Butler etc. to literary texts."

That, in fact, is a very mainstream and common assignment, and has been so for 20-30 years. That's part of Edmundson's objection: that students are asked to see Austen, say, through Butler, rather than through their own eyes and minds.

The Fiona
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The Fiona or Them FionŠ or Fiona the Sublime

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nordicexpat
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« Reply #11 on: April 24, 2009, 1:57:52 am »


That, in fact, is a very mainstream and common assignment, and has been so for 20-30 years. That's part of Edmundson's objection: that students are asked to see Austen, say, through Butler, rather than through their own eyes and minds.

The Fiona

I'd admit that I am as skeptical as anyone else about how literary and cultural theory was incorporated into English studies (I'll use a broad term so as not to exclude linguistics, which I would like to see reincorporated into English departments).  And I have my own critique of the "apply x to Y" school of criticism (which I attribute more to the notion that the study of literature needs to be about the reading of specific texts than it is to anything else).  Still, even the kind of assignment The Fiona describes is not necessarily about Butler, Foucault, or whoever per se.  It is about reading as a specific methodology and not as some kind of transparent and innocent activity that students (or anyone else, for matter), simply do.  So I really don't understand what people mean when they say "rather than through their own eyes and minds," since English teachers dating back to Richards have tried to show students the inadequacy of their own readings and to replace those readings with something else.  The difference is that prior to the advent of "theory," the methodology students were supposed to have internalized was not itself examined (and, for that reason, could easily become unquestioned dogma that it is the "natural" way to read literature). So I would stand by contention that the purpose is not simply to "apply" Butler to Austen (although bad teaching could make it so).  The purpose is to replace the methodology students have internalized through years of schooling and other social and cultural conditioning with something more rigourous and self-reflective.  Whether that aim has been achieved is another issue entirely (I don't think it has been, but I think that has more to do with historical, cultural, and institutional contexts of English/literature departments than through any inherent failing of the project per se: why can't literary studies be just as rigorous as philosophy and linguistics?

Again, for me, the question about which particular methodology is the appropriate one for English Studies is ultimately an empirical as well as a disciplinary question, so I don't want to get dragged into a discusssion about the merits of Brooks, Kenner, Kermode, Foucault, Derrida, Butler, Spivak, Zizek, or whoever.  (I also wonder what other fields would survive if their merits were judged on the first fifty years of theur existence). But I think it is really disingenous to claim that debate is between those who want to students to think for themselves and those who want students to think like Butler. For me, the purpose of higher education is getting students to exhibit independent thinking within the confines of a particular methodology, and the argument is about which methodology is most suitable for the 21st century. Once we leave methodology behind, what separates what we do in our teaching and research from the kinds of discussions that occur (for free) in book clubs?
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fiona
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« Reply #12 on: April 24, 2009, 2:29:43 am »

I'm going to be very honest (why not? it's a semi-anonymous forum).

The kind of literary study nordicexpat describes is excruciatingly boring, indeed insufferable.

If I had had lit courses that were devoted to telling me that what I thought I found (or what I loved about literature's power to move the emotions) was "wrong," I would simply have dropped the courses and (like many of our students) never read a book again.

I don't see the purpose of education as teaching students their "inadequacy." I'm not rah-rah (everything you do is wonderful, Snowflake), but I think the scolding approach is useless and just drives all but the most driven theory heads away, never to return.

The Fiona
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The Fiona or Them FionŠ or Fiona the Sublime

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nordicexpat
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« Reply #13 on: April 24, 2009, 3:07:23 am »


If I had had lit courses that were devoted to telling me that what I thought I found (or what I loved about literature's power to move the emotions) was "wrong," I would simply have dropped the courses and (like many of our students) never read a book again.


Well, I think this is a somewhat misleading characterization of the pedagogy I had described.  No good teacher would say, "you're wrong when you say X."  A lot of teachers instead talk about "showing students the complexity of the text" (which is more or less the same thing as showing students the inadequacy of their own readings, albeit phrased more constructively).  I once had an entire class of (American) students tell me that the message of Toni Cade Bambara's  "The Lesson" was, "If you work hard, you too can get out of Harlem and afford to buy the toys at FAO Scwartz."  Later, I was talking to a colleague who worked at a historically African-American college about teaching that text.  She immediately interrupted me and said, "Let me guess. They said that 'if you work hard . . .  Mine did too."  You think students were "thinking with their own eyes and minds" when they said that?
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fiona
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« Reply #14 on: April 24, 2009, 3:18:28 am »


If I had had lit courses that were devoted to telling me that what I thought I found (or what I loved about literature's power to move the emotions) was "wrong," I would simply have dropped the courses and (like many of our students) never read a book again.


Well, I think this is a somewhat misleading characterization of the pedagogy I had described.  No good teacher would say, "you're wrong when you say X."  A lot of teachers instead talk about "showing students the complexity of the text" (which is more or less the same thing as showing students the inadequacy of their own readings, albeit phrased more constructively).  I once had an entire class of (American) students tell me that the message of Toni Cade Bambara's  "The Lesson" was, "If you work hard, you too can get out of Harlem and afford to buy the toys at FAO Scwartz."  Later, I was talking to a colleague who worked at a historically African-American college about teaching that text.  She immediately interrupted me and said, "Let me guess. They said that 'if you work hard . . .  Mine did too."  You think students were "thinking with their own eyes and minds" when they said that?


Yes, they were expressing a collective societal understanding. That's how people think. I don't see the problem.

"Showing students the complexity of the text" mostly bores them. I think maybe you don't have experience with middle-to-lower-level American students, who are often reluctant to read the text at all.

The Fiona
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The Fiona or Them FionŠ or Fiona the Sublime

Professor of Thread Killing, Fiork University
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