The Purpose of Criticism – Towards an Aesthetics of Ideas

The other day, I listened to a podcast that challenged my vision of criticism by bringing together two previously distinct ideas that had been kicking around the inside of my skull for a little while now.  The podcast in question was an episode of The Marketplace of Ideas in which Colin Marshall has a conversation with the literary scholar Jonathan Gottschall, author of Literature, Science and a New Humanties (2008).

Gottschall cuts a fascinating figure.  Here is a someone who has put themselves through the meat-grinder that is graduate school only to emerge on the other side having retained enough passion and ambition to carve out a career at a time when graduate school is increasingly becoming little more than an aspiration-trap through which universities monetise the intellectual fantasies of their students, exploiting their youth and naivete by dangling before them the prospect of an academic career that is utterly beyond the reach of all but the most gifted and driven of supplicants.  In a voice tinged with bitterness, Gottschall speaks of how the humanities have lost their way.  Rather than studying literature and unearthing truths about the books they work on, most literary humanists are now engaged in the construction of elaborate intellectual architectures.  Cathedrals of ideas drawing upon the pseudoscience of centuries past in order to construct readings and interpretations of texts that are completely unfalsifiable and completely uninformative.  This is not study conducted with the purpose of uncovering truth, this is study as a form of self-indulgent play.  Gottschall’s solution to the problem is to replace Literary Theory with science and quantitative analysis as the analytical engine of the humanities.

I have not read Gottschall’s book and so I cannot comment upon the feasibility of his manifesto, but the idea of literary criticism as a form of play does chime quite neatly with some of the aspects I enjoyed in M.D. Lachlan’s recent Fantasy novel Wolfsangel (2010).  That novel, it seems to me, is about exploring a metaphysical construct.  A spell, a prophecy and a werewolf that are bound together by the powers of madness, pain, love and identity.

Is Gottschall correct that criticism is completely severed from any notion of truth?  If he is, then that need not be a bad thing.

Continue reading →