TheLitCritGuy is part of a community of scholars on Twitter– which is actually a very interesting and entertaining group for the modern academic. This tweet and the subsequent thread was posted on Monday, and summarized Edward W. Said’s 1984 essay “The Future of Criticism”.
Yeah, this week’s gonna get a bit technical.
I read Said’s essay. There’s a lot to agree with. Literary criticism has become more inter-disciplinary, though it’s a slow moving process as with anything in academia. There are things that could be better, but it could be much worse. There are two problems I saw in his analysis, however. One is something he could not have seen coming, that no one saw coming, and that is the advent of the World Wide Web and its impact on every facet of life. The other is a more personal issue, one that informs almost my entire critical process, and that’s the implication that there is literature that is worth being thought of critically, and literature that is not. The two dovetail, so I’ll talk about each in the context of the other, but what’s important to understand before I start is that there are no wrong answers. Every person that writes criticism does so for their own reasons, and picks their subject matter similarly. If you want to study every word that Lord Byron ever wrote, research his life to the last detail, find every person he ever slept with or was rumored to have slept with, and become the premier Lord Byron expert of your generation, go for it. Send the journals my way, I’ll read it. But as Said pointed out, there’s more types of criticism out there than essays about poetry.
Maybe even more than Said thought.
Don’t take my criticism of this essay to think that I disagree with Said completely– I don’t. Literary criticism completely deserves input from other areas of study. Inter-disciplinary research within the Liberal Arts is absolutely necessary for everyone’s survival. The STEM guys have been doing it for a while now, we should probably join in. I’m sure it’s gotten better than it was in the 80’s, but there’s always more we can do to reach out across departments. And that was really the bulk of his argument for the paper, so overall I do agree with him.
Something that has helped with that, of course, is the Internet. To rehash my argument in “The Case for Critics”, the Internet has created a platform for people from many disparate disciplines to join in the conversation about literature. This has added an immense body of work to the thought pool, and it’s only getting bigger. It’s also facilitated ease of access– instead of pawing through journals trying to find that one article, I can just search a few key terms on JSTOR and find it in seconds. It also allows people that would otherwise be uninterested in this kind of academic thought a better resource, with people like TheLitCritGuy and others talking about highly technical theories and concepts in ways that a wider audience can understand, where you don’t have to have a PhD in English to understand what they’re saying. For all the crap that the Internet gets, people seem to forget just how wonderful it also can be.
Now, in the previous post, the kind of critics I was talking about were those that practiced literary review as opposed to literary criticism.
The difference between the two concepts is becoming less and less every day. My main critical influence is Brows Held High‘s Kyle Kallgren (I’ve talked about him in these blog posts) and he falls somewhere in between. I think the main difference is that while reviewing is trying to determine whether or not a piece of art is good, criticism begins with the assumption that it already is and works to analyse why. I don’t think I agree with that system, in fact, I know I don’t. Said states that “…literary departments play a necessary conservative or curatorial role since they maintain, elucidate and modify canons”. That wasn’t what I disagreed with– to some extent, it makes sense that this would be so, and they’ve done an okay job of it so far. No, what really made me pause was his earlier statement:
“Perhaps it is worth saying first that the domain of mass culture is likely to enlarge, almost definitely at the expense of what criticism has traditionally been associated with: the domain of elite culture. A corollary is the dramatic downward shift in literacy or, if you prefer, a dramatic alteration in the standards defining levels of accepted literacy. The trend has been in unmistakable evidence since the early years of this century, with the consequence, I believe, of rendering marginal what most academic critics do, at least so far as expanding their audience is concerned.”
This really bugged me, because this was where the essay started getting into the things I agreed with about inter-disciplinary study and expanding both authors and audiences and the really good stuff that came out of this, but it hinges on the idea that pop culture is taking over the literature to such an extent that there might not be anything left to criticize that anyone cares about. And this wasn’t written in the 1960’s! It was published in ’84! Perhaps there is some irony that is escaping me due to the nature of the printed word, but I can’t help but see this as a variation of the exact thing that he’s arguing against. He argues against horizontal elitism by encouraging inter-disciplinary study of the canon as it stands, but fails to see how critics’ elitism is also vertical in that the canon excludes so much work to begin with. To some extent, this is changing too, but it has yet to catch on. Harry Potter helped, but maybe not enough. Not yet, anyways.
Lets say you want to fill two buckets with water. One bucket gets filled with a tap that runs at 2 drops every 30 seconds. The other is filled with a tap that runs at 20 drops every 30 seconds. Every 8 0z, the bucket is emptied, but every 5 minutes, the second bucket is emptied into the first, regardless. This is sort of what we’re dealing with. The second bucket will always get emptied faster, but it also gets filled faster and in the end, collects more water. However, the water collected in the first bucket stays for longer. No analogy is perfect, but consider this– it’s all water. H2O. And some of the stuff in the second bucket ends up in the first after some time (lookin’ at you, Dickens).
If it could be said that I belong to any particular area of study, I would say that I study comparative literary analysis. It’s what I cut my teeth on in my first major essay– comparing Arthurian Legend to Harry Potter to discuss the former’s influence on the latter (spoilers, it’s more than you think!)– and it’s done well for me since then. It’s fueled by my uncanny ability to free associate seemingly disparate concepts and then draw a logical argument for why the two are connected. The “problem” is that I consume so much of what Said calls “mass culture” (it’s pop culture, there’s already a word for it, dude) that often times I’ll make a connection to something from Harry Potter or Star Wars or Star Trek or what have you. My blog is to literary criticism is what Buzzfeed is to journalism.
But it doesn’t have to be like that.
My hopeful view of the future of criticism is to eliminate the vertical elitism. Expand the canon and you’ll find tons of things to talk about– Disney, comics, Harry Potter, Rick Riordan, Tamora Pierce, The Series of Unfortunate Events. And not just children’s media– curious how James Bond influenced Tom Clancy’s novels? There’s an essay. Want to talk about how Neil Gaiman portrays Death in his Sandman series? There’s an essay. Love books and movies? Talk about an adaptation you particularly enjoy. Look at different portrayals of Aphrodite across media and genre. Consider the philosophical idea of the “self” using the Doctor as an example. Again, the Internet is doing this already.
The concept of “literature” can be so limiting and it doesn’t have to be. Said states that “To conceive of criticism as… playing a service or management role in the culture industry is therefore to diminish its potential as well as actual importance to drastically.” In his F for Fake review (which I must have talked about, like, 12 times on here), Kyle Kallgren defines art as “a thing that exists for you to contemplate”. And that thing that you wish to contemplate? It can be anything from Frost to Hamilton to Rowling to Disney. And if enough people are contemplating, it will capture academic attention. The only question is, how soon?