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.

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The Reckoning (2003) – Who Narrates The Narrators?

In the introduction to his The Function of Criticism (1984), Terry Eagleton writes :

“criticism today lacks all substantive social function.  It is either part of the public relations branch of the literary industry, or a matter wholly internal to the academies.”

The problem, according to Eagleton, is that criticism is only of social use when there is a robust public sphere.  A public sphere, according to Habermas, is an intellectual void in between the sphere of public authority (dominated by the state and the law) and the private sphere (dominated by the exchange of commodities and the market).  In the sphere of public authority, the government and ruling elite speak with authority, determining values and the prominence of some ideas at the expense of others.  By contrast, in the private sphere, this kind of ordering is done according to the demands of commerce.  Criticism, according to Eagleton, currently lacks a social function, as the private sphere has come to dominate those matters that were previously considered to be exempt from the marketplace.  The role of the critic still exists, but he has no constituency and no natural subject matter.  An example of this kind of modern-day criticism can be seen in R. J. Cutler’s documentary about Vogue magazine The September Issue (2009).  Anna Wintour is a private sphere Doctor Johnson : She takes it upon herself to decide what will be ‘fashionable’ in a particular season and the commercial interests that make up the fashion industry abide by her judgement.  The same process exists in the sphere of public authority.  When a problem affects the state, the ruling class make a decision and the apparatus of the state then enacts that judgement.  While the members of the ruling class may be determined by democratic or aristocratic means and members of that elite may be more or less open to public opinion, the process is the same.  The people no more get a say in the day to day realities of how the state is run than they do in determining whether purple or mauve will be the fashionable colour to be seen in this autumn.  The process is just as autocratic as it was during the heyday of the 18th Century critic.  As Eagleton quotes, the criticism of the time was characterised by :

“its partisan bias, the vituperation, the dogmatism, the juridical tone, the air of omniscience and finality”

Of course, the importance of the three spheres varies significantly over time.  As I suggested in my review of Sidney Lumet’s The Offence (1972), the moral corruption of the state, the ruling classes and the church, mean that a form of moral public sphere has opened up.  One in which rabble-rousing journalists compete with traditional intellectuals and people equipped with social networking tools to impart some kind of moral sentiment upon a supposedly individualistic and relativistic general public.  Paul McGuigan’s The Reckoning, a cruelly over-looked adaptation of Barry Unsworth’s 1995 Booker-nominated novel Morality Play portrays a similar shift in spheres of debate : A moment in history in which the church and the state began to surrender their moral authority to a burgeoning public sphere.

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