1) This is an explainer thread for anti-PC, anti-SJW, anti-pomo types about recent (~100 years) developments in literary study, apropos of recent convos. This might get barbed, I fear, but I genuinely mean for it to be useful. I’ll avoid jargon as best I can. Please share:
2) Mostly what I’m responding to here is a huge misunderstanding about the relationship btw so-called ‘modernism’ and ‘postmodernism.’ The basis of this misunderstanding is that the term ‘modernism’ is not used in lit studies the same way as it’s used in anti-pomo, etc. circles.
3) So far as I can tell, this misunderstanding is generated from a series of Quillette articles, like this terrible one from Michael Aaron, that purport to explain ‘modernism’ and ‘postmodernism’ in gravely oppositional terms:
4) In this Quillette Universe (QU), the term ‘modernism’ means almost the exact opposite of what it means in literary studies. In QU, ‘modernism’ describes a generalized ‘Enlightenment’ way of thinking: stable truths, empiricism, rationalism, etc.
5) In literary studies, ‘modernism’ describes a counter-Enlightenment literary movement: it’s an upheaval against the notion that the Enlightenment explains the modern world, industrialization, urban growth, world war. (I’m generalizing, but this is for non-specialists).
6) Ezra Pound’s ‘make it new!’ was not an injunction to look to the Enlightenment as a way of explaining the world. It was an injunction to look past it. In art, literature, and architecture, neoclassical and baroque and their cultural referents were not the friends of modernism.
7) So if you’re someone who knows something about literary and artistic modernism, and you’re scratching your head because people keep calling everything ‘social justice’ ‘postmodern,’ it’s partly bc these people are confused about *modernism* in the first place, never mind pomo!
8) So bracket that for a sec. The substance of most of what I’m addressing as it applies to desires for how lit studies should be today is roughly this: lit studies is too politicized, it serves a social justice agenda over reading texts for wisdom and artistic value and meaning.
9) The accusation is therefore that ‘postmodernists’ have killed lit studies by reading for political agendas instead of just reading what the text says and what the author meant. In this sense, in QU, ‘modernism’ = ‘Enlightenment’ = New Criticism, wherein...
10) ...’New Criticism’ is a literary criticism movement that occurred alongside literary modernism (I know, confusing, right?). Hence so much confusion: literary modernism was counter-Enlightenment (Pound, Joyce, Woolf), but the New Critics contemporary with literary modernism...
11) ...were (*ostensibly*) not bothering with all the politics and ideology, and just trying to figure out what the texts themselves mean, so in this way they get aligned with modernism (awkwardly) and a pre-political kind of literary study, therefore against ‘postmodernism.’
12) What this all amounts to is that the ‘modernism’ versus ‘postmodernism’ framework for describing literary studies over the past 100 years is extremely fraught and not terribly useful. If I may be reductive: literary modernism & literary postmodernism are actually kin.
13) New Criticism, meanwhile, reckons w/ a serious challenge: As soon as you begin to read texts for what they mean, what the author means, which are ‘great’ & deserving, etc., you encounter this problem: a lot of our ideas about the above are culturally informed.
14) They’re also politically informed. Just think about how much modernist literature responds to the war. And just think about how World War might leave people disillusioned, worrying the Enlightenment actually hasn’t explained the world they see.
15) It’s not important (here) whether the modernists were right about the Enlightenment; just that you understand that our values and experiences shape something of our literary appreciation, our sense of what is good and wise. So do political and ideological currents.
16) What this means is that in 2019, as in 1919, you can’t just ignore the empirical fact that what’s ‘great’ and ‘wise’ is not just individual talent (as TS Eliot well understood); it’s shaped by a literary culture. It’s also shaped by political & material cultures.
17) That’s why you can’t *wish back into excistence* a *naive* notion of literary study as merely gleaning gems of wisdom from ‘great literature’ based on the historical meaning of words. You have to study literature in its contexts.
18) You have to ask, as modernist Virginia Woolf did, whether Shakespeare’s sister could ever have become Shakespeare. You have to ask whether the fact that global publishing centers in London and New York shape who gets published, in what language, on what subject matter, etc.
19) In short, you have to understand that literary studies didn’t get ‘corrputed’ by political agendas. Literary studies got smart! Literary studies got wise! Literary studies gained knowledge! This is called progress. We now know more abt how lit production & reception works!
20) So you if you want to call yourself a proponent of the Enlightenment, of ‘Enlightenment values,’ etc., my ultimatum for you is: You don’t get to celebrate progress in all domains of human knowledge, and then deprive lit studies of its own progress! You don’t get to...
21) ...snidely call us ‘anti-progress’ ‘intellectuals’ out one side of your mouth while with the other you’re begging lit studies to go back to naive apologia for your favorite books and ideologies!
22) You have to understand that your nostalgia for a kind of lit studies that ignores empirical knowledge about how books are written and studied valued in the world—which is *partly* about power dynamics—is itself both a political agenda and an anti-Enlightenment attitude. /end
By the way I wrote a book on now characters modeled on Don Quixote were prominent vehicles for Enlightenment theories of exceptionalism. You can buy it here: upress.virginia.edu/title/5267
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