In Defense of Naïve Reading

Remember the culture wars (or the ’80s, for that matter)? “The Closing of the American Mind,” “Cultural Literacy,” “Prof Scam” “Tenured Radicals”? Whatever happened to all that? It occasionally resurfaces, of course. There was the Alan Sokal/Social Text affair in 1996, and there are occasional flaps about winners of bad writing awards and so forth, but the national attention on universities and their mission and place in our larger culture has certainly shifted.

Those culture wars, however much more heat than light they generated, were at least a philosophical debate about values, about what an educated person should know, even about what college was for. All of that has been displaced in the last decade by another sort of discourse: stories about the staggering and growing expense of a college education; the national hysteria about getting one’s children into an “elite” school (or at least one the neighbors might have heard of); the declining impact of a college degree on one’s job prospects; rampant plagiarism; the vast multitudes of part-time or adjunct faculty, usually without health care or much of a future, now teaching our undergraduates; pronouncements on the end of the book, the end of attention spans, even the end of reading itself. But the question of what all this expense and anxiety might ultimately be about, or what the point of it all is, has not surfaced much lately.

It might now be possible to get a different sort of perspective on that discussion of 20 years ago. It is not as if anybody won. The underlying issues ─ especially the philosophical issues ─ have not been resolved. The debate, in the manner of many such public debates and old soldiers, just faded away.

While the public debates may have died down — and while there continue to be such methodological debates in sociology, anthropology and history — it is still the teaching of literature that generates the most academic, and especially non-academic, discussion. There are such debates in philosophy, too, but we tend to get a pass on this issue since debates about what philosophy is have always been one of philosophy’s main topics. 

Most students study some literature in college, and most of those are aware that they are being taught a lot of  theory along with the literature. They understand that the latest theory is a broad social-science-like approach called “cultural studies,” or a particular version is called “post-colonialism” or “new historicism.” And there are still plenty of gender-theoretical approaches that are prominent. But what often goes unremarked upon in the continuing (though less public) debate about such approaches is that, taking in the longue durée, this instability is in itself completely unremarkable.

The ’80s debaters tended to forget that the teaching of vernacular literature is quite a recent development in the long history of the university. (The same could be said about the relatively recent invention of art history or music as an academic research discipline.) So it is not surprising that, in such a short time, we have not yet settled on the right or commonly agreed upon way to go about it. The fact that the backgrounds and expectations of the student population have changed so dramatically so many times in the last 100 years has made the problem even more difficult.

In the case of vernacular literature, there was from the beginning some tension between the reader’s point of view and what “professional scholarship” required. Naturally enough, the first models were borrowed from the way “research” was done on the classical texts in Greek and Latin that made up most of a student’s exposure to literature until the end of the 19th century. Philology, with its central focus on language, was once the master model for all the sciences and it was natural for teachers to try to train students to make good texts, track down sources, learn about conflicting editions and adjudicate such controversies. Then, as a kind of natural extension of these practices, came historical criticism, national language categorization, work on tracing influences and patronage, all contributing to the worry about classifying various schools, movements or periods. Then came biographical criticism and the flood gates were soon open wide: psychoanalytic criticism, new or formal criticism, semiotics, structuralism, post-structuralism, discourse analysis, reader response criticism or “reception aesthetics,” systems theory, hermeneutics, deconstruction, feminist criticism, cultural studies. And so on.

Clearly, poems and novels and paintings were not produced as objects for future academic study; there is no a priori reason to think that they could be suitable objects of  “research.” By and large they were produced for the pleasure and enlightenment of those who enjoyed them. But just as clearly, the teaching of literature in universities ─ especially after the 19th-century research model of Humboldt University of Berlin was widely copied ─ needed a justification consistent with the aims of that academic setting: that fact alone has always shaped the way vernacular literature has been taught.

The main aim was research: the creating and accumulation and transmission of knowledge. And the main model was the natural science model of collaborative research: define problems, break them down into manageable parts, create sub-disciplines and sub-sub-disciplines for the study of these, train students for such research specialties and share everything. With that model, what literature and all the arts needed was something like a general “science of meaning” that could eventually fit that sort of aspiration. Texts or art works could be analyzed as exemplifying and so helping establish such a science. Results could be published in scholarly journals, disputed by others, consensus would eventually emerge and so on. And if it proved impossible to establish anything like a pure science of exclusively literary or artistic or musical meaning, then collaboration with psychoanalysis or anthropology or linguistics would be welcomed.

Finally, complicating the situation is the fact that literature study in a university education requires some method of evaluation of whether the student has done well or poorly. Students’ papers must be graded and no faculty member wants to face the inevitable “that’s just your opinion” unarmed, as it were. Learning how to use a research methodology, providing evidence that one has understood and can apply such a method, is understandably an appealing pedagogy.

None of this is in itself wrong-headed or misguided, and the absence of any consensus about this at this still early stage is not surprising. But there are two main dangers created by the inevitable pressures that the research paradigm for the study of literature and the arts within a modern research university brings with it.

First, while it is important and quite natural for literary specialists to try to arrive at a theory of what they do (something that conservatives in the culture wars often refused to concede), there is no particular reason to think that every aspect of the teaching of literature or film or art or all significant writing about the subject should be either an exemplification of how such a theory works or an introduction to what needs to be known in order to become a professor of such an enterprise. This is so for two all-important reasons.

First, literature and the arts have a dimension unique in the academy, not shared by the objects studied, or “researched” by our scientific brethren. They invite or invoke, at a kind of “first level,” an aesthetic experience that is by its nature resistant to restatement in more formalized, theoretical or generalizing language. This response can certainly be enriched by knowledge of context and history, but the objects express a first-person or subjective view of human concerns that is falsified if wholly transposed to a more “sideways on” or third person view. Indeed that is in a way the whole point of having the “arts.”

Likewise ─ and this is a much more controversial thesis ─ such works also can directly deliver a  kind of practical knowledge and self-understanding not available from a third person or more general formulation of such knowledge. There is no reason to think that such knowledge — exemplified in what Aristotle said about the practically wise man (the phronimos)or in what Pascal meant by the difference between l’esprit géometrique and l’esprit de finesse — is any less knowledge because it cannot be so formalized or even taught as such. Call this a plea for a place for “naïve” reading, teaching and writing — an appreciation and discussion not mediated by a theoretical research question recognizable as such by the modern academy.

This is not all that literary study should be: we certainly need a theory about how artistic works mean anything at all, why or in what sense, reading a novel, say, is different than reading a detailed case history. But there is also no reason to dismiss the “naïve” approach as mere amateurish “belle lettrism.” Naïve reading can be very hard; it can be done well or poorly; people can get better at it. And it doesn’t have to be “formalist” or purely textual criticism. Knowing as much as possible about the social world it was written for, about the author’s other works, his or her contemporaries, and so forth, can be very helpful.

Secondly, the “research model” pressures described are beginning to have another poorly thought out influence. It is quite natural (to some, anyway) to assume that eventually not just the model of the sciences, but the sciences themselves will provide the actual theory of meaning that researchers in such fields will need. One already sees the “application” of “results” from the neurosciences and evolutionary biology to questions about why characters in novels act as they do or what might be responsible for the moods characteristic of certain poets. People seem to be unusually interested in what area of the brain is active when Rilke is read to a subject. The great problem here is not so much a new sort of culture clash (or the victory of one of C.P. Snow’s “two cultures”) but that such applications are spectacular examples of bad literary criticism, not good examples of some revolutionary approach.

If one wants to explain why Dr. Sloper in Henry James’s novel, “Washington Square,” seems so protective yet so cold about his daughter Catherine’s dalliance with a suitor, one has to begin by entertaining the good evidence provided in the novel ─ that he enjoys the power he has over her and wants to keep it; that he fears the loneliness that would result if she leaves; that he knows the suitor is a fortune hunter; that Catherine has become a kind of surrogate wife for him and he regards her as “his” in that sense; that he hates the youth of the suitor; that he hates his daughter for being less accomplished than he would have liked; and that only some of this is available to his awareness, even though all true and playing some role. And one would only be getting started in fashioning an account of what his various actions mean, what he intended, what others understood him to be doing, all before we could even begin looking for anything like “the adaptive fitness” of “what he does.”

If being happy to remain engrossed in the richness of such interpretive possibilities is “naïve,” then so be it.

Robert B. Pippin is the Evelyn Stefansson Nef Distinguished Service Professor in the John U. Nef Committee on Social Thought, the Department of Philosophy, and the College at the University of Chicago. He is the author of several books on German idealism and on  theories of modernity. His next book, on the problem of fate in American film noir, will appear in 2011.

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Full article and photo: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/10/10/in-defense-of-naive-reading