Monday, December 17, 2007

A useful distinction

From Tom Lutz's book Cosmopolitian Vistas
"Instead of falling for what Fredrick Jameson called the 'false problem of value,' critics are now required either to disavow evaluative literary judgments or to cop to their own place of elite privilege, their own exclusionary biases. To engage in discriminations about literary value, even to declare, for instance, that Henry James is a better novelist than Zane Grey or Thomas Dixon, is simply 'leisure-class gossip,' and such 'debaucheries of judiciousness,' as Northrop Fry called them almost fifty years ago, are theoretically considered more appropriate at cocktail parties than in professional discourse. But I am going to argue that literary critics continue to make such discriminations and that the prime literary values that provided the ground for 19th century regionalism are very similar to those that are implicitly agreed on today across not only much of the academy but by the larger literary public--that public against which academics now find themselves pitted..."

"What we share is what I will call literary cosmopolitanism: briefly, an ethos of representational inclusiveness, of the widest possible affiliation, and concurrently one of aesthetic discrimination and therefore exclusivity. At the same time that it embraces the entire world, in other words, literary cosmopolitanism necessitates an evaluative stance, and it is this doubleness, this combination of egalitarianism and elitism, that has animated American literature since the Civil War. Literary cosmopolitanism is a way to describe literary taste and at the same time suggest that literary distinction and discrimination over the last 150 years has always been political, not just in the trivial sense in which all discourse is political or because of literature's class parameters, but precisely because, as I will explain, it has been tied so closely to an ethos of textual density and overdetermination."

Thought it was a nice coda to Evan's post and also interesting...What Lutz goes on to argue later is that the classic American Literary Text is always cosmopolitan and thus, "committed to representing the political issues of its day and committed to neutrality in relation to them". Even if the author's nonfiction is partisan, their 'canonical' works usually have an air of neutrality, meaning they aren't super didactic or allow a 'cosmopolitan vista' to exist with a stance with some room to breath.

Lutz argues his approach differs from New Critics in that for him and what he sees in the canon at large, a classic text achieves its 'ambiguous complexity' not from removing itself from the world of social and political reality as the New Critics argue, but by thoroughly immersing itself in that world.

"The 'bloody crossroads' was Lionel Trilling's nickname for the intersection of politics and aesthetics in literary culture: I want to suggest that instead of violence we have a kind of meld, that our politics, the politics for which we in academia have been pilloried of late even more than for our excesses of theoretical elaboration--and our aesthetics--which we have been discussing primarily as historical artifacts--together stem from the same cosmopolitan ethos. And this ethos of literary cosmopolitanism provides a common ground that unites the many disparate, warring factions of what continues to be a literary community--that group of readers whose work or leisure involves the reading of literary texts."