Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Derrida wha?

It's pretty awesome to be a person who likes to read in a culture where people are constantly decrying the death of the written word (what are people doing on the intertubes, though, huh? reading!), since my whole life I've been getting pats on the back for reading shit that someone made up to entertain me. And, inevitably, people who like to read also like to break that shit down.

This is a super interesting article about the current and future state of literary criticism. He loses points for talking about "the human condition", but he does reference "shibboleth", which was the subject of a West Wing episode and thereby sits on my mental mantle like bronzed baby shoes.

The writer's thesis is that literary criticism should model itself more on the sciences. As a book person in the tech industry, that's pretty appealing - I'd much rather leave the moony-eyed obsession with fictional characters to the wolf shirt girls.

It seems, though, like "literary science" will wind up as just another form of criticism, like Deconstruction or New Historicism. He's talking about a different mode of thinking about and interpreting the text, not a different mode of thinking altogether. He's not revolutionizing the way scholarship is done; he's not proposing that literary scholars change their research methods so that they are more like scientists'. I mean, how could they? They already propose a hypothesis (Shakespeare liked dudes), research it (letters from Shakespeare to dudes), and come up with a conclusion that is limited by the data that is available (the evidence points to the fact that Shakespeare didn't like dudes in that way). Adapt to your preferred form of literary criticism, of course (Mike, that's your cue to see how Shakespeare felt about American Indian dudes), but scholarship is scholarship, and it doesn't seem like this guy is proferring anything new.

He and and some colleagues did do a cool thing where they interviewed readers "to determine how different their reading experiences truly were. Did reactions to characters vary profoundly from reader to reader?" He finds that "there were variations in what our readers thought and felt about literary characters, but it was expertly contained by the authors within narrow ranges."

Duh, dude. That means the author did a good job - he or she corralled language in such a way that the readers, no matter what they brought into the reading, had the kind of reaction the author was aiming for.

All that said, it's a great idea to use modern technology for lit crit (stylometric studies?), and to have a number of people working on a thesis, rather than a French guy alone in a room, smoking cigarettes and plotting how to make my life difficult.


nicole drespel said...

At the beginning of your post I was going to read the article, but now I feel that I no longer need to. That's my favorite thing. It's like talking to you and absorbing your knowledge at the same time. The Guardian Digested Read has NOTHING on you.

GGB said...

I should be a teacher. "No need to read, folks - just listen to me. I'll teach you real good."