Saturday, January 31, 2009

Geoffrey Hartman, Geoffrey Hartman

Many weird moments of recognition today, reading around in Geoffrey Hartman's Beyond Formalism. This is what inevitably happens when you take a look at work by any prestigious and influential academic or intellectual of the past: you start to see where certain ideas, attitudes, turns of phrase originated, or at least became codified (perhaps not for the first time), to survive in other scholars' essays, lectures, marginal notes, classroom banter or department small talk. The university system is an echo chamber, and words uttered as loudly and persuasively as Hartman's ultimately travel all over.

Anyway, there's a lot I could pick up on, but I'll focus on one thing, which kind of builds off Mike's recent post about a kind of return to structuralism that may or may not be happening in the American academy today. A running theme in the book is Hartman's anxiousness to avoid charges of elitism which I guess were being leveled at English academics — particularly formalists — around that time, and to develop a rationale for the teaching of literature that pays equal attention to both form and history while avoiding mystification. (Sound familiar? If not I guess we're not having the same nightmares.) This desire — to reach more ordinary citizens while holding on to literary and academic respectability — somehow got bound up with the project of structuralism, as embodied in the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss. From the first essay, "Structuralism: The Anglo-American Adventure," one can scent the pre-Althusserian humanist hopefulness in the air: "The aim of myth criticism … is to save the common nature of man — despite fragmentation, specialization, and ideological wars" (9); and, even more touchingly: "[c]ulture aims to do away with classes, as Matthew Arnold says; we are all spiritual Marxists" (11).

The best hope Hartman sees for this on the American scene is Northrop Frye, who, as Mike points out, Hartman saw as a North American analogue to the kind of structuralist myth criticism Lévi-Strauss was doing. In the second essay, "Ghostlier Demarcations: The Sweet Science of Northrop Frye," Hartman sees Frye as making a further advance on the democratizing impulse of the New Criticism, "the attempt to open literature to the direct understanding of students of any background." This is a way of seeing the New Criticism that we sometimes lose: not a power grab by prestige-hungry literary scholars, nor an attempt to banish history by ideologically motivated aesthetes, but a concerted effort to distribute cultural capital to the dispossessed: in other words, an American Leavisism. The scientistic trappings of the New Criticism, which Frye took even further, is seen not as a pretension but as a genuine attempt to make literary knowledge more accessible to students: "To systematize criticism is to universalize it, to put its intellectual or spiritual techniques into the hands of every intelligent person, even every child" (25).

But Hartman also charges Frye with "fus[ing], or confus[ing] … two notions of universality": the "scientific" and the "evangelical." The "scientific" notion insists on the subject's learnability, the establishment of "elementary principles explainable to everyone" — thus, as in the sciences, requiring a caste of literary scientists who decide the rules, and explain the principles, and keep things from getting too muddled. The second, on the other hand, "holds that critics have stood like priests between literature and those desiring to participate in it" — it thus opposes the critic's claim to a special status vis-à-vis the child/student.

Hartman very shrewdly zeroes in on this tension within universality. As I see it, the two notions are not really incompatible — we may need scientist/priests to teach students the rules of literature, as we do the rules of math, but then want them to step aside and let each reader perform the operations as they will — but the emphases are different, and the difference has large consequences for how we view literary criticism and professorship. The scientific notion continues to value the critic/professor, but just makes her role a lot more specific and specialized; the evangelical notion devalues her, by insisting that her job is to do no more than provide an elementary introduction, and then step aside.

My problem with Frye's "evangelical" position, as Hartman represents it, is that it works well only if we view all of literature as a set of static categories. That is, if we think that, once a student has mastered a typology of literary genres, periods, forms and authors, they will have a practical mastery over the field of literature. This (very weak) version of structuralism lacks any sense of agency, of the ways by which this diachronic structure (The History of Literature) is affected by a new synchronic arrangement (Literature Today). (Hartman himself makes a similar complaint about Frye's methods, on the level of the individual work, when he says that "Frye's concept of literary structure is consciously spatial. It depends on a disjunction between our immediate experience of literature, which is guided by the tempo of the work, and criticism, which lays out the completed pattern spatially," 33.) In other words, one of the most significant properties of literature as a social practice is that it is susceptible — one might even say especially susceptible — to undergoing revolutions and revaluations. These happen, in fact, much more frequently than Kuhnian "scientific revolutions" or Foucaultian epistemic breaks: they are happening almost all the time, as styles and texts and authors become de- and revalued by various agents at various levels of the structure. So that one of the most important parts of understanding literature is understanding how literature continually reshapes itself, as a structure.

So, my argument runs, we need professors and critics not only to judge literature, but also to understand intuitively how literature functions, in something like the way that first-order practitioners (authors, publishers, informed readers, etc.) understand it. This view is something like Frye or Lévi-Strauss' synoptic vision, but it includes within it the principle of change, of agency (and this necessarily includes a sense of the limitations on change and agency that the literary field imposes).

But, a further question: could one teach this principle of change? Is there something operating here besides intuition, and a good working knowledge of the structures literature has formed in the past? And, further yet, would it be a useful skill to impart? Could understanding how a loosely held-together structure like literature adapts itself to cultural change help students seize something of the logic of cultural change around them? I think it might, but one has to avoid the short-circuit, the scholastic fallacy that to understand is to master. One would have to emphasize that understanding literature as a structure or system improves your chances of affecting it, or even participating in it to the extent of reading at the level of its first-order practitioners, but that "figuring it out" is not the same as "seeing through it" (as some versions of Marxist theory, grounded in ideology critique, still suggest). The advantage of an approach like Franco Moretti's is that it's bringing back the sense of literature as a contingent structure; but what it doesn't offer is any idea of how one might impose oneself into that structure: how to contribute to it or, if you prefer, fight against it or change it. Similarly, Frye's schema would teach students how to classify the literature of the past, but not necessarily how to look at two literary works of the same period — as one does, for instance, in a contemporary literary magazine — and relate them to each other, and to the structure of society. And this is what people do all the time with literature (and other forms of art): it's ordinary. Which is exactly why we should be teaching people to do it better.