Culture Magazine

A Note on Mutual Knowledge of and Commentary on Literary Texts

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
I've been running an Academia.edu Session on my old open letter to Steven Pinker about storytelling and literary criticism. Here's a  note I've appended to it.
There are two reasons why I put the Trickster at the center of this open letter: 1) the story does not support various utilitarian proposals for the cultural importance of stories, and 2) I was interested in the physical and social context in which those stories lived, face-to-face story-telling. That second reason is more important.
I also believe that function has been served when the story-telling ends. Commentary on the stories is a secondary matter. The Winnebago certainly did not have New Critical, psychoanalytic, Marxist, deconstructive, post-modern, feminist, post-colonial etc. readings available to them. Nor were such readings readily available to anyone until after WWII or even the third quarter of the last century.
I’ve been told that Victorian literary criticism was primarily moral. The stories and characters were taken at face value and the critic was concerned with the morality of their actions. I’ve read a bit of fan commentary on the web and it is not, for the most part, interpretive. I know some work has been done on reading groups, but I don’t know whether any of that has been on the kinds of discussions that take place. But I’d be surprised if interpretive commentary was common, if only because fluency in the craft requires more focused practice than most people have. It wasn’t until my final year in college that I was able to “open” a text myself and develop my own line of thought without being “captive” to commentary by others (the instructor, critical articles).
Finally, I offer an anecdote from graduate school. I studied Shakespeare with one Richard Fry. At one point we were talking in the hallway – before, after class? I don’t recall the occasion – and he remarked that he didn’t see why we had criticism for modern texts. After all, they are about the world we’re living in, more or less. We don’t need commentary to usher us into that world. Shakespeare, though, is rather different. The language itself is a bit different, many strange words, and the world is quite different, no capitalism, no representative democracy, very different technology, different social arrangements, and so on. It wasn’t a long conversation at all, just a few quick remarks; I’ve already been more explicit than that conversation was. But I don’t think I’m being unfair to the spirit of his comment.
As far as I can tell, then, interpretive commentary on secular texts is quite new. Why do we do it? In particular, what is the relationship between our commentary and the (potentially) mutual knowledge that somehow resides “in” those texts? (I’ve put the scare quotes around “in” because I know perfectly well that nothing whatever is IN those ink splotches on paper or patterns of light on a monitor. The structuralists and deconstructionists won that one.)
I think those are complicated and messy questions. One thing I’m pretty sure about is that much of my interest is in how the mind works and how culture works. I don’t think that whatever I find out has any direct bearing on the mutual knowledge that is (potentially) in the texts I study. I’m quite satisfied with this as I think it is important that we gain a deeper knowledge about the workings of the mind and of culture.
And as a practical matter, I think that a great deal of literary criticism is more or less like that, regardless of what the critics think they are doing. What is not clear to me is the status of mutual knowledge (potentially) in the texts. How does this or that kind of criticism advance / serve / participate in that?
Much literary criticism has been advancing this or that program of critique. And critique is surely directed at mutual knowledge. At that same time we’ve see critical attention directed to texts that had not been studied before, texts by women, African-Americans, and groups, but also texts from popular culture. This precipitated the so-called canon wars of the 1980s and 1990s. And they were surely about mutual knowledge. People cared about the canon because they were concerned about the source of mutual knowledge.
But wasn’t that wide range of critical attention simply acknowledging what was already there? Wasn’t it also a move toward a more objective view of the world, toward a more distanced view of that world? If so, than the cultivation of mutual knowledge of cultural values and lifeways, things one can live, starts to take second place to knowledge about the mechanisms of mind and culture.

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