“Literary Theory and Historical Understanding,” Morris Dickstein

Morris Dickstein writes on “Literary Theory and Historical Understanding” in a diffuse article that exemplifies the doom of the provider of an afterword to an anthology. He has to provide an authoritative, paternal perspective without being dismissive of the disparate viewpoints enclosed. The result is skeptical and non-reductionistic, both good, but confusingly equivocal. But I like Dickstein, and he makes some good points that bear blunt extraction.

He treats three main forms of modern literary criticism:

  • New criticism, the more classical approach of close reading, attempting to ferret out tropes and devices that form the shape of a work, usually in a vacuum-sealed context. (F.R. Leavis, Cleanth Brooks, Northrop Frye, Helen Vendler, etc.)
  • New historicism, that which roughly tries to place work in a very specific historical context, play down the individualistic nature of authorship, and show novels as products of obvious and submerged social forces. (Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Benn Michaels, Nancy Armstrong, etc.)
  • New theory, that which uses a deductive approach from some overarching framework, often political and/or Hegelian, to produce architectonic schemas to apply to work. (In my opinion this is the most varied category he uses, and can include everyone from Harold Bloom to Jacques Derrida to Tzvetan Todorov to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick to Michael Denning.)

The categories are debatable and overlap; Dickstein admits that. But despite his problems with new historicism, Dickstein essentially gives it a pass over what he says is the staid new criticism and the impotent new theory.

My instinct has always been to group theory and historicism closer together than any other pairing: both can be tremendously reductive and both are inclined to load the dice with an a priori political view which is then used to bludgeon authors into the needed positions. (Read David Lodge’s academic novels of the 70′s for treatments of both approaches.)

But Dickstein strongly pushes the view that it’s theory and new criticism that share a similar self-marginalization and conservatism. Theory, in his mind, was constructed as an apolitical ghetto:

Theory set out to revolutionize the academy, where it had taken refuge from an unsympathetic society. It aimed at a radical transformation of the interpretive disciplines, only to burden them with a sense of skepticism, disillusionment, and broken connections. During the backlash years of Nixonian demagoguery and Reaganite restoration, theory became catastrophe theory, a way of compensating for the sense of impotence, or of recouping failure by showing that it was inevitable, even as critics asserted their power over the text, their refusal to be dominated by its structures, themes, or rhetorical patterns. Emphasizing ideology over interpretation, literary scholarship became a way of seeing through literature, of not being taken in by it.

This is very extreme, basically positing theory as a defense mechanism, and a way of exerting academic superiority not just over texts, but over the common readers who allow themselves to be manipulated. As such, Dickstein paints theory as dishonest and petty. It is a thesis that has recently been taken up by Happy the Tutor. I don’t think it applies in all the cases he believes. Harold Bloom prostrating himself before the altar of Shakespeare and Derrida humbling himself before Poe, among others, seem to advocate an egalitarian engagement and sparring with texts. But both structuralist and the more extreme deconstructionist approaches do advocate such a strict reframing of the work under consideration as to evoke Hamilton Burger browbeating a witness.

Are they, by nature, apolitical, or even conservative? I don’t think the question has a definitive answer, but it’s hard to deny that very little of practical, political worth has come out of theory (Richard Rorty’s strained efforts included). And this willful seclusion has both a cause and effect relationship with the marginalization of the literary academic institution.

Does this match up with the anemic and unimaginative beast that Dickstein makes of classical close reading and new criticism? Partially. The myopic focus on linguistic devices over ideology, character, and authorial intent makes trudging through, for instance, Leavis’s dissection of T.S. Eliot heavy going, but Dickstein sells it short. To the extent that there is still a moral underpinning of the proposed reading, Leavis is selling more than mere lists of tropes. I disagree with Leavis, but at least it’s there. Now, you can say that Leavis isn’t a pardigmatic new critic and five pages of Cleanth Brooks would have me climbing the walls, and you’d be right, but the empiricism is similar, as is the lack of engagement with the world at large, which is the point on which Dickstein condemns them. But that doesn’t quite justify some of the harsher points Dickstein makes about theory, nor does it give much credence to the (heavily conditional) elevation of historism:

Historicist readings too often seem idiosyncratic, empirically tenuous, or merely suggestive. In addition, they are often all too predictable in their political sympathies. Eager to weigh in on the side of the insulted and the injured, they seem determined by their well-meaning political agendas. Yet compared with other ways of reading, they call upon a larger knowledge of the world, and often do more to link literature or theory to the actual flow of human life.

Here I’m skeptical. Analysing Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in an exclusively feminist context is valuable, but the degree to which the interpretation crowds out all others is more blinkered than illuminating. (I’m not picking on feminist readings here: so much has been done to Hawthorne in the Puritan context that he can hardly be read for the first time. Melville survives better because his books are too big, literally and metaphorically. I do think Shelley has been done a similarly large disservice.) If the new historicists haven’t been especially good historians, they’re plugging as much a false engagement with literature as the theoreticians. But the key word is “engagement”:

The radical students I taught in the late ’60s were scarcely bent on deconstructing the residues of metaphysics in Western humanist texts. On the contrary, they responded with passion to the classics as subversive works whose humane promise remained unfulfilled. They connected with art and philosophy not because it was canonical but because it felt so fresh, so immediate — and so visionary. Blake, Dickens, Ruskin, and Lawrence seemed like their contemporaries, not the authors of musty classics. Never had the Great Books felt more relevant than when the whole direction of society was in play. The lineage of deconstruction takes us back not to the politics of the ’60s but to its ultimate betrayal and blockage.

What I come away with is Dickstein’s agenda that it’s time for critics to involve themselves in reality again, and if the new historicists are a little shallow or reductionistic, by all means condemn them, but be aware that their aims are noble and practical in the best Thomas Dewey sense. Unfortunately, I believe that this way lies social realism and dreary Upton Sinclair novels. Dickens is so absorbed in his time and place he’s his own new historian, but someone like Blake so defies a historicist reading that Dickstein’s use of him here undermines the point. While Dickstein makes a case that much theory has no place except to belittle greater authors, he basically ignores the longstanding tradition that isolation and myopia have produced in academia, which I’m not yet prepared to discount.

Dickstein makes all these criticisms and more, quite blatantly, against the new historicists, and still seems inclined to give them a break, because of the political agenda. The historians, like Dickstein did, can still serve to point would-be radicals to the ideals set forth in the classics. It’s just that by privileging the near-term practical outcome over the purity of the methodology, they are offering image over substance, much as the 60′s themselves did.

[Probably more to come on this...one afterthought is that I probably shouldn't have used the word "political" when referring to the broader attitude of "engagement."]

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