Literary Criticism Is Anti-Intellectual 8 March 2007Posted by Todd in Academia & Education, Literature, Philosophy & Social Theory, Science, Social Sciences.
I just read this irritating article by Tom Lutz on Salon.com excoriating people who don’t like literary theory. Here’s my response.
Earlier letter-writers [responding on Salon.com] have already made two solid arguments against the current state of English departments in academia: first, the language employed by literary theory is messy and imprecise; and second, much of what passes for literary studies today is thinly veiled political advocacies or social studies through the lens of literature. I would argue that these critiques don’t go far enough.
1) Literary criticism borrows from social theory (e.g., Marxism) without any anchoring whatsoever in the empirical data behind those theories or the long history of empirical engagement them, which has modified and challenged and in some cases rejected them altogether over time. Lit-crit picks up theories that appeal to them with no training in how to ask the related empirical questions other than “using” theory to “read” a text. And so social theories aren’t treated scientifically — as “best possible answers given current data, but changing as we gain more data” — but instead are treated as “lenses” through which to “see”. [These people still take Freud seriously, for God’s sake.]
2) Ironically, lit-crit simultaneously deconstructs the idea of “truth” (usually from a Derridean perspective) even as they treat their disconnected theories as such and while willfully ignoring a raft of scientific data about how our brains actually produce knowledge. They already know that science is a suspect (or Western, or colonial, or sexist, or racist, or whatever) “universalising discourse” and therefore NOT true [e.g., see the writer’s blithe and ignorant dismissal of sociobiology.].
3) Lit-critics are not trained in science or in social science, yet the pretend to be able to speak authoritatively about society and culture and human nature. Not only do they not do actual research, they don’t know how to conduct that research; and worse, they usually spend a lot of time arguing that such research isn’t possible. In other words, lit-crit makes claims about society and culture for which they have ZERO evidence or justification for making.
So the problem isn’t with the anti-intellectualism of the ignorant masses who “just do not get” lit-crit. The problem is that lit-crit is itself anti-intellectual, having set itself up as the purveyor of true-sight while dismissing whole fields of empirical research psychology, social interaction, or even human biology. [They reject this criticism, however, because they know that privileging “empirical” research is situated, dominating discourse and relies on a subject they’ve already “proved” to not exist.]
I’m not against complex social analyses of literature; and I would also argue vehemently for the value of the humanities, the study of human meanings and human aesthetics. But as a social scientist, I’d appreciate some good old-fashioned humility from the lit-crit crowd, and admission that they study LITERATURE, which is an ART FORM, and that they are limited in what they can with any degree of scholarly seriousness make reliable claims about.