Culture War Dispatches

from a Progressive People's Republic

Monday, May 12, 2008

One of the founding giants of poststructuralist literary theory

Jonathan Gottschall recognizes that postmodern literary criticism is ailing, but I have doubts about his recommended course of treatment (Boston Globe, Ideas, 5/11/08). Making literary criticism “scientific” may yield some interesting studies. Mr. Gottschall however seems unaware of the most elemental wrong turn that critics took a few decades ago—that of “privileging” the critic over works of literature. The article’s subheading, for instance, claims that “Literary criticism could be one of our best tools for understanding the human condition.” No, I would argue, not literary criticism, but literature helps us understand the human condition.

Gottschall mentions Roland Barthes’s notion of “the death of the author,” which attributes creative power to the reader of the text over that of its author. (The word “reader,”is disingenuous since the best reader in the mind of the critic is the critic himself.) Gottschall uses scientific methods to disprove Barthes’s thesis, but the exercise is unsatisfying to the vast majority of readers to whom it never made sense in the first place. Resolving internecine postmodern squabbles will not bring back the interest of the reading public.

Although Gottschall finds fault with Barthes, he still refers to him as “one of the founding giants of poststructuralist literary theory.” Elsewhere he refers to the “charismatic leaders” and “the great minds of literary studies.” My undergraduate professors, like the wonderful Peter Bien at Dartmouth, never saw themselves as “giants” of theory; their job was to communicate a love of great literature to their students. As long as the cult of the critic continues, literary criticism will continue, in Gottschall’s words, to “wander in continuous circles.”