i suppose i should stop trying

The latest comment from Henry Farrell in the CT thread:

…the kind of division that some commenters here are trying to create, between academic literary criticism (which only other specialists, or those who read ìcontemporary literary fictionî are allowed to criticize), and vulgar debate over books is very strongly reminiscent of the division between ìhigh cultureî and ìordinary cultureî that Raymond Williams tells us about, or the processes of distinction that Bourdieu describes. To be blunt, it smacks of defensive manoeuvres that aim to preserve discursive power, and to shut out debate that might be awkward or uncomfortable.

Tell you what, Henry: I’ll start a blog about the current state of political science. I have a PhD in English, not political science, but what the heck. Then, when political scientists question the accuracy of my comments, and question the adequacy of my training for such an enterprise, I’ll accuse them of being elitist and solemnly lecture them about Raymond Williams and Pierre Bourdieu. Maybe then they’ll see the light.

What literary scholars do is an academic discipline that, whether people like it or not, requires years of advanced training. Do you honestly not see why saying otherwise is insulting to many of us?

I’m dropping Crooked Timber from my RSS subscriptions. (Yes, I’m sure they’ll be heartbroken to learn this.)

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3 thoughts on “i suppose i should stop trying

  1. *laughs and laughs*
    Oh, man. It devolved into a “why do we need to study literature?” thread.
    Curse you, GZ. You got me back into commenting on Crooked Timber. I’ll try not to make a habit of it.

  2. Let’s suppose you started that blog about political science.
    Let’s suppose the first thing you blogged about is something that outsiders to political science can readily perceive: the domination of quantitative methodology over older traditions of political science scholarship. Let’s suppose you mourned the relative ebbing of political philosophy, political history and so on from political science as a discipline.
    You might get many political scientists replying that this is a caricature, that there are still philosophical, sociological, historical, etc. components to political science. Or that you were exaggerating the quantitative domination. Or that you didn’t understand the quantitative work and so were just slagging it ignorantly. Or that you didn’t understand the disciplinary histories that had produced the movement you were criticizing.
    They’d be right.
    But you’d be right, too. You would have a point, several points, that would be very valid, despite the fact that you’d overstated or misstated your claims about political science at another level.
    Of course academic literary criticism takes years of work to do and understand. But this is definitionally true of any academic discipline not because of their intrinsic content but as a sociological observation about disciplinarity. If any discipline should understand that, it’s literary criticism, given the depth of understanding that has developed within its scholarship about canon formation.
    Moreover, most current academic literary criticism lies exposed to outsider appropriation in various ways precisely because of its vectors of intellectual movement in the last twenty years. The interpenetration of history, anthropology, cultural studies, art history, film studies, literary criticism, and continental philosophy is now very profound: as disciplines, they now overlap enough that each can legitimately claim strong insight into the others. That’s the vulnerability that comes on the backside of interdisciplinarity: when you want to define a specialized practice that other scholars cannot immediately share, it takes much more work. Believe me, I find it fascinating when historians grouse about historicism: sometimes they make a valid point that historicist literary criticism is “history light”, that it doesn’t have a strong command of archival methodologies or a broad understanding of intertextuality. But then you look at how historians “work” a text and the reductiveness of using texts merely or solely as evidentiary, and you see it flows both ways. You can’t defend academic literary criticism from this kind of surveillance: we are all in each other’s backyards now.
    This is separate from the more provocative point I’m making over at CT, that the humanities ought to be asymmetrical to knowledge production and expertise in the sciences. That’s a horse of a different color and I readily acknowledge something that needs a different and deep discussion. However, in that vein, why is “Why do we need to study literature?” a devolution? I find that academic historians don’t often actually ask themselves, “Why do we need to study history?” amongst themselves, and yet have the same kind of eye-rolling reaction when someone outside history asks that question. If we don’t talk about it amongst ourselves and yet regard it as annoying when others ask it, when do we talk about it? Isn’t it an awfully important question to have a good answer to?

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