Mark Sussman

Writer - Researcher - Teacher

Naivette and English

I’m not quite sure what to think of today’s entry in the New York Times philosophy blog The Stone. Titled “In Defense of Naive Reading,” the column by University of Chicago prof Robert Pippin offers a kind of retrospective glance at the whole “theory wars” thing. Though Pippin is about a thousand times more thoughtful in his (admittedly gentle) criticisms than your average conservative anti-theorist, the central rhetorical move that keeps the whole column running is a straw man, and a familiar one.

So Pippen wants, first, to gain some perspective on the phenomenon of theory. He ties “theory” back to the introduction of the study of vernacular languages into research universities. Academics studying works of vernacular literature needed a research program in order to justify his department’s inclusion in the university:

The main aim was research: the creating and accumulation and transmission of knowledge. And the main model was the natural science model of collaborative research: define problems, break them down into manageable parts, create sub-disciplines and sub-sub-disciplines for the study of these, train students for such research specialties and share everything. With that model, what literature and all the arts needed was something like a general “science of meaning” that could eventually fit that sort of aspiration. Texts or art works could be analyzed as exemplifying and so helping establish such a science. Results could be published in scholarly journals, disputed by others, consensus would eventually emerge and so on. And if it proved impossible to establish anything like a pure science of exclusively literary or artistic or musical meaning, then collaboration with psychoanalysis or anthropology or linguistics would be welcomed.

So far so good. I seem to remember Gerald Graff giving a similar account in Professing Literature, but it’s been a while. Just before that, Pippin makes the point that “poems and novels and paintings were not produced as objects for future academic study,” and so academic study of works of art needed “justification” within the university setting. On one hand, it’s clear that Pippin is right to point this out, and one can see that, when the university model takes the sciences as its core, a research program for literature settles in uneasily. But on the other – and maybe my beef here isn’t with Pippin but with history – atoms weren’t produced as objects for academic study either. Neither were marine mammals, geological formations, stars, gravity, or human cultures. Yet each of those things have their own particular discipline associated with them, their own sub-fields, and even narrower specializations within those sub-fields.

I’m only being half serious here; it’s clear that literature and art are distinct from those things in that one can’t apply the same methods to studying them as one can a star, a rock, or gravity. That’s because nobody really agrees on what it is we’re studying when we’re studying literature. Pippen sees theory as a development that stabilizes the object of study by positing a common element within the literary object that defines it as a literary object. From there you can formulate a research program.

But here’s where things get slightly weird. Because Pippen, like so many, seems to believe that when teachers teach literature “theoretically,” they run every poem and novel through the same theoretical (but all too real) meat grinder:

While it is important and quite natural for literary specialists to try to arrive at a theory of what they do (something that conservatives in the culture wars often refused to concede), there is no particular reason to think that every aspect of the teaching of literature or film or art or all significant writing about the subject should be either an exemplification of how such a theory works or an introduction to what needs to be known in order to become a professor of such an enterprise.

Does anybody actually teach literature this way? Can anybody teach literature this way? In the next paragraph Pippen writes that the meat grinder approach is untenable because  works of literature “invite or invoke, at a kind of ‘first level,’ an aesthetic experience that is by its nature resistant to restatement in more formalized, theoretical or generalizing language.” I would wager that the literature class that bypasses this “first level,” the level of the text itself and the experience of the text, does not exist. Nobody could teach “theoretical” readings of literature without engagement in this first level – Pippen seems to imagine a literature class in which texts literally aren’t read. In this way, teachers of literature get the rhetorical shaft, because in critique of the place of theory in the classroom, the teaching of “literature” and the teaching of “theory” are figured as mutually exclusive, or at least naturally antipathetic, rather than as aspects of each other. The teaching of theory always comes on the heels of literature. Even if theory precedes literature chronologically, there is always an interpretation of a text. This can be done well or poorly but, at the conceptual level at least, that’s what happens.

This is the straw man, then. Show me a class in which a “purely” theoretical kind of reading is taught, and I’ll buy a hat and eat it. What leads to this mistake in Pippen’s case is, I think, a confusion between the “research programs” that give the academic study of literature a place in universities and what happens in English classrooms. I think you’ll find that, with the exception of things like honors seminars and independent studies, literature is by and large taught “naively,” in Pippen’s phrase. That is, with an eye to understanding the text in a fashion “unmediated” by theory, to simply learning how to think and talk about literature with the kind of heightened attention that its professional academic study will eventually require.

Of course all of that stuff about “unmediated” reading is bullshit. There’s no such thing. We all kind of know that – we all have theories about the way the world works, theories about what we’re doing when we read literature, ideas about what constitutes literature, and so on, even if we’re not aware we have them. And we bring these ideas to bear on the texts we read. But, to bring back the rest of the university, one doesn’t go learning Einstein before Newton, even if Einstein’s model of the universe displaced his. There’s a sense that a certain set of concrete skills have to be imparted, a certain provisional notion of objective truth instilled, to get a student to the point where they can eventually use those skills to disassemble that notion of truth. That’s something like what happens in a good literature classroom, even one with theory on the syllabus.

2 Comments

  1. What about a “History” class?

  2. Same deal, probably. Any historian will probably have a theory about the nature of historical writing, what constitutes proper history, and how we can make theoretical claims about the causality of events out in the world, though those may remain unspoken in the classroom. I’m not a history teacher, though, so I don’t really know what goes on in undergrad history classes anymore. I can’t imagine it’s radically different from literature classes though – somewhere along the line, interpretation is necessary, and at that point “theory” is going to enter the game whether or not any specific theory is made explicit.

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