Course Requirements
We Wanted to Be Writers

General Symbolic Interpretation

In "The Critic as Ethnographer,” (New Literary History) Richard Van Oort) writes:

The discipline of literature is no longer restricted to literature. Literature still forms a large part of what we study in English and Modern Language departments, but our interest in the interpretation of classic works. . .has been extended to embrace all kinds of other texts, including texts that do not appear to be literary at all, for example, oral testimonies, rituals, advertisements, pop music, and clothing.

But in what sense are these nonliterary objects "texts"? They are texts because they invite interpretation. But what is interpretation? Interpretation is the symbolic process whereby we translate the significance of one thing by seeing it in terms of another. For example, to those who worship it, the totem at the center of the rite is not just a piece of wood (that is, an object to be described in terms of its intrinsic physical and chemical structure); it is also a symbol of the deity who inhabits the wood as a living presence. . .

This irreducible anthropological fact explains the current preoccupation in literary studies with culture as an object of general symbolic interpretation. For if humanity is defined as the culture-using animal, and if culture is defined as that object which invites symbolic interpretation, then it follows that literary studies stands at the center of an anthropology founded on these assumptions. For who is better trained than the literary critic in the exercise of searching for symbolic significance, of reading beyond the literary surface to see the deeper, more sacred meaning beneath?

Even if you accept the qualifying statement that literature "still forms a large part of what we study in English," the rest of the passage makes it clear to what use literature is being put by the "ethnographic" approach described by this writer: The study of literature is merely an "anthropology" whereby, along with the other "non literary objects" mentioned, it serves as a case study for interrogation into "culture as an object of general symbolic interpretation." Van Oort advocates reducing the study of literature to a branch of the social sciences, bypassing whatever purely "literary" value a work of literature might have in favor of the social and cultural "information" that might be wrung from it. I would argue that this has become the most prevalent approach to literary study among academic critics already, supplemented most recently by the literal information to be gleaned through data mining in “digital” scholarship.

I don't particularly have any objection to studying such things as rituals or pop music or clothing, "texts" about which interesting things might be said using a method of analysis that could very loosely be called "literary"—one of my own academic subspecialties was film—but the move toward critically examining such things has a) siphoned off interest in literature itself, the subject that ostensibly forms the core of this discipline, and b) led to a general levelling of evaluation, by which literature is seen as no more interesting, meaningful, or valuable than these other objects of scrutiny. I don't even necessarily have a problem with this, but it does seem to me that those engaged in this sort of "general symbolic interpretation" ought to confess that they don't really care much about literature, and ought as well to be willing to relinquish title to "literature" as the nominal subject of their critical efforts. If "culture" needs to be studied in the way Oort would have it, fine, but why not allow literary criticism per se, which has now been held hostage by academic critics for forty years or more, to be returned to those who want to read and write about literature for its own sake?

In my opinion, many academic scholars want to retain "literature" as the name of what they profess because they perceive it to still have a certain intellectual cachet they couldn't claim if they admitted they'd rather study clothing. They do their best to dress up their real interests by talking about "interpretation" and "symbolic processes," but finally studying advertisements and tv sitcoms just doesn't elevate their sense of worth as highly as the title of "literature professor.” That Van Oort is driven to speak of the "sacred meaning" to be found in the subjects of "ethnographic" criticism to me only suggests that he and his like-minded colleagues are desperate to find profound significance in their study of what could simply be called trivia and detritus.

And not only is Van Oort's definition of interpretation itself—"searching for symbolic significance"—the sort of thing that has always struck fear in the freshman literature student, but it is precisely the orientation to reading and to the formal study of literature that Susan Sontag had in mind when she wrote "against interpretation" and called for a new "erotics" of art, including literature. The description of the "discipline of literature" provided here by Van Oort is one that indeed enforces "discipline" on works of literature, of a sort more reminiscent of the archaeologist than the anthropologist, digging "beyond the literary surface" to the foundational "meaning" to be discovered there. Sontag had this to say about such an endeavor:

Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art, much less to squeeze more content out of the work than is already there. Our task is to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all.

The aim of all commentary on art now should be to make works of art—and, by analogy, our own experience—more, rather than less real to us. The function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means.

Of course, I would not claim that something like Sontag's notion of an "erotics" of reading—an unmediated or aesthetically pure experience of a work of literature—could be the basis of academic literary study in any sustained way commensurate with the requirements of disciplinary scholarship, if at all. While I can't finally think of anything more truly useful to students of literature than the attempt to encourage this kind of reading, the difficulties of accomplishing it in a high school or college classroom are probably insurmountable. Finally it can only be left to individuals to learn for themselves how to value literature simply for the pleasure of reading it. But the heavy-handed approach advocated by the likes of Richard Van Oort is not an adequate substitute. If "ethnography" is the only way by which literature and literary criticism can be incorporated into a college curriculum or into academic scholarship, best to leave them be.

Perhaps literature and the academy have finally proven to be not such a good "fit." If historians or philosophers or sociologists (or literature professors, for that matter) want to use works of literature to illuminate or illustrate non-literary issues in those disciplines I surely have no objection, but I just can't see how such practices could be called part of "literary study" unless, again, the word "literary" is simply an empty expression having something to do with "writing." I have an especially hard time seeing how adopting such practices in courses nominally devoted to "literature" adds much to the understanding of either literature or any of the other disciplinary subject to which it is subsumed. At what point do we say that, as far as the academy is concerned, both literature and "the literary" have become so thoroughly shorn of any value in particular that it's no longer very useful to claim them as subjects at all?


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