Literary theory and the problem of aesthetics; memories and musings

I received my doctorate, in English, from SUNY Albany, at the height of the literary theory wars.  So basically I was trained to understand many texts that many American philosophers believe to be obscurantist gobble-de-gook. (My dissertation was on Paul de Man.)  Although I don’t particularly agree with much of Post-Structuralism, I do actually understand it.  (I think Foucault’s social constructivism is useful, although his prose style is a little serpentine.  I’ve never had a use for Lacanians, and Deconstruction now seems a trivial exercise in contrarianism.)  And most of the political theories of the time are now out of date.  (I was amused to discover recently that Marxist Terry Eagleton has become an apologist for Catholicism.  Well, so it goes.)  But I did learn a great deal in that encounter.  Primarily, I began to question the whole nature of what it is we call “Literature” – yes, with that capital “L.”  Because that became the real problem.  Why should some texts be valorized and argued over?   Was there really any objective criteria that could be used to privilege Shakespeare over Mickey Spillane?  (There are, but they have to do with such non-critical issues as command of language and generosity of spirit.  And even then, there really is no way to argue a fan of Mickey Spillane from preferring My Gun Is Quick to Macbeth.)  Eventually I came to see “Literature” as an artificial construct – useful to professionals involved with it, but not a necessity to discovering what it means to live a good life, and living it. 

This doesn’t mean to say that reading books is not necessary to that.  Indeed, reading a lot of books, and a lot of different kinds of books, is absolutely necessary to the good life and to expansion of the mind.  But exactly what particular books you should read, that cannot be determined by any theory.

I remember that during my time in graduate school, there was still considerable debate between traditional scholars of  the 18th century novelist Samuel Richardson, and feminists critics who wanted to read Richardson in an adversarial way.  I always found that amusing.  By 1985, no one was reading Richardson except Literature scholars (and their unfortunate students).  Richardson happens to have been a bad writer, even taken in his historic context.  He books are impossibly dull; I never got through more than 3 pages of any them.  So here were essentially dead texts, nothing more than historic artifacts, and supposedly intelligent people were haggling over the value of teaching them.  Absurd. 

(There is certainly a social value in the study of historic artifacts as such; one could certainly learn something about 18th century England from Richardson’s text.  But I for one would never find such a chore entertaining, or worthy of critical debate.)

By the time I completed my doctorate, the resolution of my perplexities over such matters arrived, by way of Umberto Eco, in a reading of Charles Sanders Pierce and the tradition of American Pragmatism, and in the practice of semiotics.    One of the things I like about semiotics is that it carries with it no necessary aesthetic evaluations.   A professor of cinema studies once complained that semiotics couldn’t tell us whether a film was good or not; I wrote him that this was a good thing, I didn’t want any theory to tell me what films to watch (he never answered).  Semiotics is about how signification works; values we place on supposed aesthetic objects is a different kind of signification, a communication about how we communicate about the aesthetic object and arguments about such communication.  In other words, theory and criticism of the arts, music, literature, are actually normative efforts to maintain discourse about assumed aesthetic objects in order to maintain the value of those objects as worthy of discourse.  This is is not a circular argument, I mean that aesthetic theory and criticism is itself a circular reasoning; e.g.,  “we ought to admire S because S is worthy of admiration.”  But all the evidence given for such a statement prove to be a complex set of  generalizations that simply loop back into the circularity of the initial statement – “S shows great sympathy for the poor,” whatever that might mean – or we get particular examples that, curiously, end up reading like a species of semiotics: “S here reflects the class bias of the day since we can read similar remarks in letters to the editor of contemporary journals.”  And try as we may, we can’t get such remarks to refer to the aesthetic value of S.

So I just skipped the aesthetics and went into semiotics.

There’s more to say on this eventually.  But for now I will make one last remark on aesthetics and why I have little interest in it. 

In Kant’s Critique of Judgment (which is my Kant, however his other texts have fared over history), he writes:

“The beautiful is that which we all agree is beautiful.”

This is not a circular argument either.  Kant is saying that what we call ‘beautiful’ is a social construct.  There is nothing that is inherently beautiful.  It is just a social activity that invents the notion of beauty and attaches it to paintings, music, texts that we find moving, thrilling, entertaining, pleasing to the eye or ear.  It’s really a way of saying, “hey, I like this, don’t you?”  If the other person agrees, the aesthetic object is born.


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