Culture Magazine

Time is Tricky: Looking Back at Looking Forward in Literary Criticism

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
Some crude thoughts in the course of mulling over my rejection at NLH. I’ve said most of this before, though not quite in this form.
Time is tricky. When I shuffled off to Buffalo in 1973 I thought I was going to get the training and credential, Ph.D. in English, that would allow me to enter the profession. I realize in retrospect, though, that by that time I had already left the profession intellectually. No one realized that at the time, not me, but not the people I studied with in the English Department at Buffalo. Yes, it was obvious that my interests were quite outside the mainstream. The department at Buffalo was deliberately conceived as an experimental one and encouraged work that was outside the mainstream. But my work, it was outside the ‘envelope’ at Buffalo.
It’s clear that my work with David Hays in linguistics was the center of my studies at Buffalo. Of course the English Department knew of this and approved. It was while at Buffalo that I published my cognitive networks article in MLN. That article was full of technical diagrams and well-night unintelligible to humanists. My 1978 dissertation, “Cognitive Science and Literary Theory”, was similar. The department awarded me a degree for it, but I doubt that anyone understood it.
When, then, grant me a degree? For one thing, their colleague in linguistics, David Hays, signed off on it. For another they had faith in me. Perhaps they were open and optimistic about the future of the profession; that’s what the department was for, no?
I have trouble imagining any English department today awarding a degree for the dissertation that I wrote back then. Back then no one was working on cognitive science and literature. Now it is a recognized, if minor, specialty. But that 1978 dissertation is very different from current work in literary cognition. Contemporary literary cognitivists haven’t looked at computation, and the don’t do the kind of thinking that requires diagrams (or formal expressions). The technical content of that old dissertation would make it a tough slog for contemporary literary cognitivists.
Back then – the 1970s – the profession was open and looking ahead. That’s not true today, at least not in the same spirit. A lot of people know that things have to change. But I don’t see a lot of people looking for new things. People are just drifting. But, and here’s the tricky part, it is clear in retrospect that it was during those same optimistic 1970s that the profession opted for the course that now seems cramped and closed. Though I don’t think this is quite the right formulation, the profession rejected any mode of thought that required non-discursive thinking. That means the “technical structuralism” that bothered Geoffrey Hartman.
But it also means – and this linkage is new to this story – the kind of formal analysis that Mark Rose employed in Shakespearean Design (1972). For that required him to use diagrams, simple diagrams that are nothing like the complicated cognitive diagrams that I use, and he was apologetic about that. As far as I can tell (I hope I'm wrong) that study has been without substantial intellectual issue until James E. Ryan's, Shakespeare’s Symmetries: The Mirrored Structure of Action in the Plays (McFarland 2016).
Digital criticism is the major exception. As far as I can tell this is the only arena in literary studies where non-discursive modes of thinking are important. Who knows where that will lead. Maybe it will lead literary criticism to open up. But it might also lead to a split where the digital critics form their own departments – they already have their own conferences and journals (like other specialties). We’ll see.

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