The scientists I know--Genome-mappers, Alzheimer's-busters--are happy intellectuals. Not for them the humanist's anomie. The gardens they cultivate give forth publicly-approved fruits, and whatever ethical danger new knowledge may pose, they have no doubt that knowledge exists and that they are expanding it. For some in the academy, these are heady times.
But not for all. Pity the poor humanist, and especially one so incautious as to agree to speak at a conference called "Science & Literature."[I] In the 1950s, the opponents in the "Two Cultures" debates were evenly matched: on both sides they were tweedy men who believed in truth and thought their path toward it was the right one. Their public-school educations gave them the tools to understand if not agree with each other, and they felt equally entitled to a place in the university. My experience of late has been quite different. Like most of my humanist colleagues, I no longer compare my practice to that of scientists. Nor could I do so in any but a Pataphysical manner, having never studied any science at the university level nor pursued mathematics beyond set theory, which I experienced as a cross between IQ tests and doodling. I am not proud of my ignorance, nor happy about the intellectual limbo of contemporary humanistic study. Neither am I quite confident about the claim commonly made by humanists, including myself on occasion, that scientific knowledge and facts are no more grounded than those in any area of inquiry. Moreover, the image of humanistic scholarship I get from scientists--a cross between kindergarten teaching and creative writing--bears no resemblance to what I do. Alienated, daunted, I girded my relativism and my dronelike social nonutility in preparation for a conference with the "real researchers."
Expressing my misgivings to a friendly medical dean, I mentioned that the title of my paper would be "Practice without Principle." "Oh," he said, "you're going to talk about the lack of ethical guidelines in medical practice--assisted suicide, abortion, that sort of thing." "No," I said, "I'll be talking about the practice of criticism when it's carried on with no shared method or assumptions or even subject matter, when it departs entirely from a scientific model." His brow furrowed, and he suggested that I look into the case of Dolly the sheep. "I'll bet cloning has a lot to do with literature," he said.
This is the way, I imagine, that most scientists see the dilemmas of literary critics in this post-post-structuralist moment--as irrelevant to their practice, and finally, as intellectually embarrassing. But we in the business are still hopeful that our academic discipline can continue, even when its practitioners agree on virtually nothing. Thomas Pynchon has given us an image for such a state of blissful disarray: a deafmutes' ball, in which a roomful of couples each dances to its own internal music without bumping into the others. It is an "anarchist miracle"[II] and every humanist's dream--that literary criticism can carry on as such a harmony of idiosyncracy. But the current dance of criticism is far from Pynchon's ball. Despite our hopes and wishes, it has become a graceless stagger, unharmonious, disingenuous, and decidedly not miraculous.
Our forays into science must appear particularly absurd to practitioners of the Other Culture. Here we go, bowdlerizing Einstein and Heisenberg in our discussions of indeterminacy, appropriating Freud when no psychology department would touch him with a barge pole, savoring Thomas Pynchon when he tropes on the third principle of thermodynamics or Tom Stoppard when he plays with catastrophe theory. We know what we think of science: ultimately, it must be in the same leaky boat as we are. But somehow scientists seem neither concerned about the state of their craft nor convinced that we are actually with them on board. Their government grants may have decreased, but they still get grants, carry out experiments in labs, posit paradigms, and push them to the point of breakdown. They are still in business, whereas we appear to be at play, but without knowing the rules of the game.
Tom Stoppard presents the humanist half of the Two Cultures even more bleakly. In his espionage drama, HAPGOOD,[III] it is the scientist, a Russian nuclear physicist named Joseph Kerner, who revels in the connection between indeterminacy and art. Kerner is not only a physicist but a double (or triple or quadruple) agent. In contrast, his British spymaster Blair is a humanist with an Oxford B.A. in Classics. Blair sees his mission in life as upholding the unchanging Western values he learned in public school, and to do so he must find out which side Kerner is actually on. But for Kerner, this question does not permit an easy answer. One's allegiances are as tricky as light--sometimes they're waves, sometimes particles. It all depends on who's looking and what they're looking for. Kerner believes that everyone enshrines this duality--that we are both ourselves and our doubles. The square root of 16 is both 4 and -4, he says, and even Blair is not what he appears. "Your cover is Bachelor of Arts first class, with an amusing incomprehension of the sciences, but you insist on laboratory standards for reality, while I insist on its artfulness" (p. 72). Finally a scientist understands the aesthetic nature of reality; it is the humanists who are the flat-footed objectivists, looking for security in an outdated model of science.
Kerner's indeterminacy, however, invites a different danger: the intrusion of the personal and the sentimental into judgments of truth. Kerner was "turned" to the West by the woman who is now head of British espionage operations: Hapgood, also known as "Mother." She got her code name because when it came time for tea she, being the only woman in the office, "played mother." But she is also the mother of a boy Joe, whose father, secretly, is the physicist-spy Joseph Kerner. Kerner is also Hapgood's "joe"--in spy jargon, her agent, and in Scottish dialect, her lover. Stoppard entangles spycraft not only in physics, but in love. And that is its vulnerability.
We can see the problem when Kerner explains to Hapgood his views on the indeterminacy of knowledge. "There is a straight ladder from the atom to the grain of sand, and the only real mystery in physics is the missing rung. Below it, particle physics; above it, classical physics; but in between, metaphysics. All the mystery in life turns out to be this same mystery, the join between things which are distinct and yet continuous, body and mind, free will and fate, living cells and life itself; the moment before the foetus. Who needed God when everything worked like billiard balls?...The man who took the certainty out of Newton was Einstein. Da!" (pp. 49-50). This space for metaphysics becomes in the play an opening for God, love, family, and nostalgia for homeland ("Toska po rodine", p. 51). The whole affective world enters through that metaphysical gap.
Contemporary humanists have come to occupy this space more and more. Since science cannot provide "laboratory standards for reality," indeterminacy has authorized humanists to explore the personal. So has literature itself. Throughout the 1990s, memoir and autobiography have dominated American culture. As the novelist Mary Gordon complains, "I entered the cave of memory, which nowadays seems like a tourist trap in high season. Everyone's talking about memory: French intellectuals, historians of the Holocaust, victims of child abuse, alleged abusers."[IV] Literary critics, faced with such testimonies, have succumbed to the imitative fallacy. The flight to the personal has already acquired a title: "intimate criticism."[V] In it, the critic becomes an autobiographer, the classroom a confessional, and readers and students, like priests, find themselves under some obligation to be forgiving.
For example, in an essay entitled "Last Will and Testament of an Ex-Literary Critic" published in Lingua Franca, Frank Lentricchia admits to a doubleness worthy of Stoppard's physicist-spy: "I once managed to live for a long time, and with no apparent stress, a secret life with literature."[VI] This life seems to have involved Professor Lentricchia's comporting himself like a gun-toting theorist in public, while underneath beat the heart of an achingly responsive reader. "My silent encounters with literature [were] ravishingly pleasurable, like erotic transport," he confesses (p. 59). But when political correctness began to dominate the academy, the conference bully gave way to the classroom enthusiast. "Anybody here like literature?" Lentricchia would ask his puzzled Duke undergraduates (p. 60). Nowadays, he closes the classroom door and allows literature to speak through him. "Behind closed doors, with only undergraduates in attendance, I become something of a rhapsode. As Plato says in the Ion, rhapsodes are enthusiasts. We're out of our minds. Like all rhapsodes, I like to recite from the text. I tell my students that in true recitation, we're possessed, we are the medium for the writer's voice" (pp. 65-66).
Though the voice speaking through the rhapsode sometimes sounds suspiciously like the conference bully, I confess to some sympathy for Lentricchia's views. In THE SCANDAL OF PLEASURE, I described myself as a disappointed quasi-scientist. "I believed [when I began my career] that criticism should model itself on science. It should have a framework of defined terms, accepted axia, and shared methods whose aim was to provide accurate descriptions of artworks and to reveal the principles underlying categories such as genres, styles, and forms. I was therefore much taken with semiotics and structuralism with their links to the Unified Science Movement, and though I denied that such views were formalistic in the strict sense, I had little patience with historical or biographical approaches. When people advocated art appreciation, I snottily replied that you do not catch a physicist claiming he did his job because he liked light!"[VII]
Probably the most sophisticated application of such thinking to literature were the poetic analyses by the great linguist and aesthetician, Roman Jakobson. As a graduate student, I found the intricacy and foundedness of his descriptions and the productivity of his generalizations exhilarating. Yet I would be the first to agree that the more definitive these analyses became, the less one felt impelled to do the same with other texts. What would be the point of describing the phonological, syntactic, and semantic levels of every poem? It was wonderful that it could be done, to be sure, but, almost for this reason, it became unnecessary to keep doing it. It was what Jakobsonian analysis could not do that seemed the challenge: to understand art in relation to history, milieu, authorial life and belief--the whole messy, conjectural sphere of extra-artifactual meaning.
Since the 1970s, semiotics and structuralism have passed by like a dream in the frantic succession of critical theories, so that by now, identifying oneself with a particular approach to literature seems a fool's game. "Aesthetic theory over the past twenty years reminds me of a shooting gallery," I wrote, hoping to cover my professional despair in cheerful simile. "Up pops a duck, only to be shot down and replaced by a new duck bearing a certain family resemblance. Formalism, structuralism, semiotics, Marxism, feminism, the New Historicism--the approaches keep perpetrating their little murders, transforming ducks who have barely shed their down into dead ducks piling up in English departments" (p. 6).
Valuable as the precision of semiotics and structuralism seemed, they were responsible for a ghastly parody of science: endless essays coining terms, proliferating typologies, using art merely to justify or exemplify emergent categories. "I have given up on being such a scientist," I confessed. And then came the Lentricchiesque moment: "It has taken me a long time to admit that the thrust of criticism is the 'I like,' and whatever expertise I have accumulated conspires in this admission. The authority of one's institution of higher learning, one's academic credentials, one's ever-increasing experience may establish 'objectively' one's claim to being an expert, but at the heart of any critical act is a subjective preference. To like, to find important, at this time and in such-and-such a situation: this is the essence of the critical act" (p. 7).
Well, there it is. Deep down, I suppose, I do not believe that science at this moment has a lot to say to literary criticism. In Stoppard's ladder of scientific explanation, classical physics offers a "laboratory standard of reality" that has only a partial application to the study of the arts. True, there are verifiable facts about art: all that strict formalism investigated, all that archival historians attempt to ascertain. And yet, this realm of fact does not explain the interaction between a work and a reader or viewer or listener, except through the crudest statistical assumptions, and scientists would surely turn up their noses at the imprecision of such findings.
Particle physics is equally problematic as a scientific model for criticism, though of course there are some surface similarities. In particle physics, science would appear to be subjective: the nature of reality depends on whether one is looking and what one is looking for, and no single account of reality is descriptively adequate. As assumptions, these are criticism-friendly. And yet, where for science they have produced the exhilaration of a paradigm shift, such notions have just about undone the criticism of the various arts as university disciplines. In particle physics, there is not an endless set of explanatory possibilities for light, but merely more than one. The particulars of a given physicist's psyche and upbringing do not justify the result of her inquiries, though no doubt gender, class, race, language, and nation help condition a scientist's access to and interest in specific problems. Above all, science seems to go on--convincingly--in the midst of its current complexities, whereas criticism is in a state of real uncertainty. The outside world thinks of literary critics as overindulged layabouts who neglect their teaching in order to produce books and articles that are incomprehensible even to other critics. Within the field, though literary scholars still doggedly produce "work," there is so little agreement about its aims, methods, and even subject matter that giving a paper or teaching a class seems like a foray into Looking-Glass Land.
Take postcolonial scholarship, for example, an approach concerned with the ideology of Empire as reflected in the arts and general culture of European countries and their colonies, both before and after independence. Postcolonialists argue that everything in a culture is conditioned by the structure of political power within it. But even here, the absurdism of current criticism is apparent. At a recent conference on modernism, for example, a prominent postcolonialist critic spent her time on stage inveighing against the policies of the World Bank. Another called on critics to search for universals in art, arguing that the DNA of men and women or whites and blacks is virtually identical.[VIII] Are we not to be surprised when a postcolonialist critic bases an ideological position on science, stressing biological essentialism over cultural difference? And are we not to wonder at the intellectual conditions of a criticism in which there is nothing that cannot be asserted or denied, in which the study of literature encompasses anything that can be referred to in a work of literature? Under these circumstances, literature departments are no different from conservatories, training performers of various sorts--rhapsodes, demagogues, pedants, journalists--and the choice of which to become or which to approve is itself just a matter of personal preference. As far as I can tell, the changes produced by Einstein have not been as subversive to the scientific disciplines.
How have we gotten into this fix? Perhaps the answer is that we have abandoned the train of thought that began in the eighteenth century and carried us more than halfway into the twentieth. It was called aesthetics, resolved itself into formalism and structuralism, and had among its most fundamental assumptions the idea that the study of art should be what we would now call a discipline: sharable, principled, containing standards of verification for its claims, in short, something like a science. The founding move in virtually every eighteenth-century aesthetic theory was to discard the unpredictability of individual responses to art in favor of the stability of an objective standard of judgment, and to build aesthetic discourse on that objective basis. We have become thoroughly disillusioned with this move for some very good reasons, but we have no idea how to proceed in its absence.
We might note a few key moments in the history of aesthetics in which the "disciplinary move" was made. David Hume's 1757 work "Of the Standard of Taste," for example, differentiates between sentiment and judgment: "a thousand different sentiments, excited by the same object, are all right: Because no sentiment represents what is really in the object."[IX] But judgment relates to features that inhere in objects; their presence is statistically verifiable by anyone who cares to look. Hume's contemporary, Burke, went so far as to claim that the standards of both reason and taste are uniform in "all human creation."[X] As Hume put it, "Whoever would assert an equality of genius and elegance between OGILBY and MILTON, or BUNYAN and ADDISON, would be thought to defend no less an extravagance, than if he had maintained a mole-hill to be as high as TENERIFFE" (p. 33). This uniformity persists across time as well. "The same HOMER, who pleased at ATHENS and ROME two thousand years ago," says Hume, "is still admired at PARIS and at LONDON" (p. 34).
The statistical criterion--ask any sane man--depends on the uniformity of both sensory organs and sentiments among healthy people, but aesthetic judgment for the eighteenth century was also a function of practice, experience, and delicacy. And here the statistical claim shifts imperceptibly to an elitist one in which certain people are universally recognized as having an extraordinary delicacy of taste, and hence are deferred to in matters of judgment. It is unclear whether their ability depends on innate sensitivity, extensiveness of experience, or a third category: the ability to abstract themselves from the specificity of their time and culture. Hume says that the work must be received by me "considering myself as a man in general,...[forgetting] my individual being and my peculiar circumstances" (p. 38). How extraordinary that the postcolonialist at the conference should embrace universals, considering the effacement of context and self that this move entails!
Most famously, Immanuel Kant distinguished between the agreeable which is subjective and the beautiful which is objective. "Many things may be charming and agreeable to [the man of taste]; no one cares about that. But if he proclaims something to be beautiful, then he requires the same liking from others; he then judges not just for himself but for everyone, and speaks of beauty as if it were a property of things."[XI] For the "Beautiful is what, without a concept, is liked universally" (p. 48). Its conceptlessness is directly related to the disinterested interest with which it is experienced. And here we arrive at a Kantian paradox of sorts: "Beauty is the form of the purposiveness of an object, so far as this is perceived in it without any representation of a purpose."
At this point, the pieces are all in place for the formation of a literary-critical or aesthetic discipline. The critic can identify the beautiful because the beautiful is an objective property of artworks, uniform across cultures and periods. It can be discerned by anyone with sufficient sensitivity and training, but most reliably by what we would now call experts. The only thing missing for the founding of a modern literature department is a belief in the value of vernacular literature and in the need to disseminate higher education across the population. These arose a century ago, at which time departments of national literatures were established in American universities. Though early literary studies often concentrated on questions of historical influence or humanistic morality, the central disciplinary impetus for criticism in this century has been formalism, in all its modern guises.
In America, the New Critics were the most influential formalists, dominating literature departments from the 1940s through the 1960s. For them, the work of art was an irreducible object which could be described only qua object, and not through its relations to its creator or audience, as Wimsatt and Beardsley explained in their articles on the Intentional and Affective Fallacies.[XII] This principle forced an increasing emphasis on textual construction, the technical factors in the work that make it what it is. Meaning and form were inseparable in the New Criticism, and so any paraphrase of a poem would be inadequate to it, a position memorably stated in Cleanth Brooks's "Heresy of Paraphrase."[XIII] It was in the thing-quality of literature that its value lay, for being irreducible to its paraphrase it could not turn into mere pseudo-statement or pseudo-philosophy. Instead, it delivered up the fullness of reality as such--what John Crowe Ransom called the "world's body."[XIV] As both the British and the American New Critics insisted, the critic's job was to describe the art object so as to make this fusion of form and meaning evident. When this happened, the reader of the criticism or the student in the classroom would come to appreciate the beauty of the work of art, inducted into the ever-enlarging circle of judgment that the academic study of vernacular literature was meant to create.
And this is the key point. The Neo-Kantianism of the New Criticism and of many formalist movements of the twentieth century was related to the pedagogical aims of its practitioners. Formalism made criticism "disciplinary." English departments could claim a stable object of study and describe that object through shared assumptions and approaches that could be taught. Poems could be objectively described. Their descriptions were not the same as the poems, to be sure, but neither is physics the same as light. The critical descriptions were technological devices meant to unlock the secrets of art. Once exposed to those secrets one could recognize them in other artworks and formulate one's own descriptions. Formalism created the basis for a quasi-scientific structure of investigation and a quasi-scientific social organization of investigators. However much the New Critics might argue over basic principles and posit their identity in opposition to what they saw as the philistinism, mechanization, and abstraction of science, insofar as they functioned as members of a discipline within a university and attempted an objective account of a shared subject matter, their activity was to some degree modelled on science. And it was their formalist assumptions--developing out of eighteenth-century aesthetics--that made that modelling possible.
Compare the situation in our day. The list of canonic texts from which doctoral students in English at my university select fifty for their oral examinations has expanded to 500. After some faculty members pled for a reduction on the grounds that they had not read all of this purportedly essential canon, our students agreed to reduce the number to 400. We still, all, have not read them. They are not only not the canon, they are not a canon, and the particular set of fifty books any student may select will differ greatly from those of his or her peers. In scientific disciplines, it is not up to students to choose what constitutes basic knowledge, since the discipline itself defines its object of study, however much this might change over time. Can you have a discipline without a shared object of study? Probably not. But you can have a critical conservatory, and that might be all right, too. As to method, today anything goes, and we pride ourselves on our toleration and our students' varied allegiances. We never fail anyone, not because we think they all have passed but because in some way, from some point of view, there is value in at least some of what they say. We have gone from strictly English literature to English and American, to the British empire and the literatures of the Americas. And we have grown from disciplinary scholars to interdisciplinary ones. The scope of literary criticism has also expanded. I recently spoke at the University of Colorado at Boulder on the subject of civility. There is certainly no topic that my graduate training less prepared me to address.
Of course, the history of aesthetics is not made up solely of formalists. It contains many voices that would in fact welcome the current state of affairs. For example, Nietzsche takes Kant's disinterested interest to task, claiming that "the fight against purpose in art is always a fight against the moralizing tendency in art, against its subordination to morality."[XV] On the contrary, all art praises, glorifies, chooses, prefers. "Art is the great stimulus to life; how could one understand it as purposeless, as aimless, as l'art pour l'art?" One could go all the way back to Plato for such views, and forward into the heart of postmodernism. But however long the pedigree or powerful the currency of this anti-formalism, it does not lead to a disciplinary approach to the study of literature. The professional treatment of literature has been distinguished from that of the amateur precisely on the grounds that it focusses on art's essence rather than its morality or utility. When contemporary critics denounce formalism on the grounds that it is not value-free, disinterested, or even coherent in its claims, they are at the same time effacing the distinction between professional and amateur criticism.
To put this apocalyptically, the move to undermine formalism, standard in poststructuralism and all that has followed, marks the end of literary criticism as a conventional university discipline and the end of any close analogy between its operation and that of science. On all kinds of grounds, this is a good thing. But since the study of literature still goes on in universities alongside science, with the same structures for evaluation, the same departmental organization, and the same pattern of career development, the contradictions involved in critical life have become extremely trying. It is very difficult to inhabit a discipline that is not disciplinary, and particularly hard to train students in it. A chemist I know told me that most scientists do not know and do not need to know the history of science, since most of it is irrelevant to current practice. I somethimes think that all we can teach these days is the history of criticism, since, in the absence of shared principle and coherent disciplinary practice, the only things we can explore collectively are the ideas and events that have brought us to this state.
The infamous Robert Mapplethorpe trial in Cincinnati was a crucial chapter in the humiliation of formalism. Holding up one photograph of an arm thrust into a pair of buttocks and a second of a man urinating into another's mouth, the prosecutor asked an expert witness to explain under oath why these should be considered works of art. The expert said the photograph of fisting was art because of the "centrality of the image" in it, and that the other was art because of its beautiful diagonal. The defence won, but probably not because of this witness. Any account of the aesthetic value of these works that does not consider their moral, social, historical, and, indeed, physiological impact would seem doomed. And yet as soon as one includes these factors, the disciplinary boundaries of criticism are breached and one ends up speaking as a rhapsode, demagogue, pedant, or journalist.
The alliance that has recently been forged between the law and the arts is eroding aesthetic disciplines further. The law protects art from censorship on the grounds that it contains ideas, and "All ideas having even the slightest redeeming social importance--unorthodox ideas, controversial ideas, even ideas hateful to the prevailing climate of opinion--have the full protection of the guarantees."[XVI] It is good that the law can save art from censorship, but unfortunate that this rescue undermines the conception of art that has permitted it to be studied within a discipline. From a formalist perspective, the treatment of art as idea renders it indistinguishable from non-artistic representation. Novels become interchangeable with political tracts, art photos with billboards. And as a natural corollary, the authority of the expert to construe artistic meaning is no greater than that of the historian, sociologist, politician, TV commentator, or indeed, any construer of meaning.
Again, for many people, this is not a tragic state of affairs. The experts' take on art has not in the past been harnessed to the public good, and seems eccentric in the extreme, even to educated laymen. The public is more and more disenchanted with art experts in the academy and outside it. The sudden interest in Outsider Art is symptomatic of this alienation. Whether artists are Outsiders because they are insane, poor, non-white, or rural, their one common feature is that they have no formal art training. This lack of contact with experts makes it impossible for them to function within the system of problems in which twentieth-century mainstream artists operate. The academy, as a result, has been silent about them. Moreover, they pose a devastating threat to formalism. Outsider Art is frequently indistinguishable from kitsch--a huge model of the Cutty Sark, for example, executed in popsicle sticks, a painting of Adam and Eve in the Garden with pretty flowers and birds in the trees--but it may be equally indistinguishable from the practice of mainstream, "high" artists. Cubist collage, the dadaist "found object," abstract expressionist splatters, magic-realist cityscapes, book art, Rauschenbergian assemblage, and Pop appropriation are staples of Outsider Art, except that the collage does not derive from cubism, the found objects from dada, and so on. Formally comparable, the artifacts of Outsider and high art are often totally disjoint in source and meaning.
In short, though the study of the arts purports to share its disciplinary structure with science, the analogy between the Two Cultures is growing ever more tenuous. And it is not only the relativism of the humanities that is to blame, but the law, politics, and popular taste as well. Under the circumstances, try as I might, I cannot see what the case of Dolly the sheep has to do with literature. But having said that, I know that someone will.[XVII] It is just a matter of time before we open the pages of PMLA and find essays entitled "Dolly's Dilemma: Cloning and the Family Romance," or "The Mytochondrium Is the Message," or, most fatuously, "The Critic as Clone."