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The Death of Criticism

May 12, 2008

Jonathan Gottschall has an article in the Boston Globe which supports my view that academic literary criticism has reached a dead end and is slowly dying. This is partly to do with demographics I think. The average age of academics has been rising for years and while younger scholars struggle to find a foothold ideas and approaches that might otherwise have been pushed aside linger on. And on. The recent arguments over whether academics should retire at 65 shows how deep-rooted the problem is; it is based after all in careers and personal positions and final salary pensions. And of course the most powerful individuals–also frequently the oldest–hire and promote successors in their own image, breeding weaknesses into the flock.

Gottschall points to intellectual failures: the lack of scientific testing of literary theories and the way in which literary criticism finds supporting evidence rather than attempting to falsify its claims. In many ways his description of English resembles descriptions of the field of psychology before the cognitive revolution of the 1960s. Nevertheless this is an optimistic article suggesting that a more scientific approach to literature might bring with it a resurgence in literary studies as a way of understanding the human condition:

I think there is a clear solution to this problem. Literary studies should become more like the sciences. Literature professors should apply science’s research methods, its theories, its statistical tools, and its insistence on hypothesis and proof. Instead of philosophical despair about the possibility of knowledge, they should embrace science’s spirit of intellectual optimism. If they do, literary studies can be transformed into a discipline in which real understanding of literature and the human experience builds up along with all of the words.

This proposal may distress many of my colleagues, who may worry that adopting scientific methods would reduce literary study to a branch of the sciences. But if we are wise, we can admit that the sciences are doing many things better than we are, and gain from studying their successes, without abandoning the things that make literature special.

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Posted by Chris Routledge. Powered by Qumana

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 26, 2008 7:34 pm

    There has been some interesting related discussion at the academic blog The Valve (http://thevalve.org), which in itself is, I think, evidence of some energetic activity among younger literary scholars (and even some, like me, who might not qualify as ‘younger’ anymore!). Blogging itself, in fact, is one way some academics are expanding the range and form of their criticism. Despite recent books like Ronan McDonald’s “The Death of the Critic,” then, there are signs of life. (Also, of course, some would dispute the initial premise that what currently goes on within the universities and in academic publishing is not, in its own right, lively.)

  2. admin permalink*
    May 27, 2008 8:17 pm

    Your optimism is infectious, but I’ve built up a resistance I think. It’s not that there isn’t interesting and lively work going on, but demographics are a huge drag on development and have been for going on a couple of decades now. In the UK the number of jobs advertised in English each month in the trade papers is down to one or two at best, nationally–not enough to revitalise it. I agree many of these people are now blogging, so criticism is probably healthy enough in itself. I hope you’re right anyway.

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