Thursday, January 04, 2007

How Richard Rorty learned to Stop Worrying and Love Harold Bloom

So back to Rorty's "The Inspirational Value of Great Literature." My recent posts on what makes great novels great--perhaps summarized as "The Technical Value of Great Literature"--have gotten me thinking not only about literary value, but also literary pleasure, which has gotten me thinking about Richard Rorty again. Looking back on the essay, which targets many of the theoretical positions I've inhabited, has crystallized a question I've asked myself: Have my studies of literature inhibited, affected, or enhanced the pleasure I take in reading?

Rorty begins the piece by taking a jab at Jameson's Postmodernism, which he accuses of being--gasp--"unromantic." The postmodern perspective, he argues, assumes a smarmy air of "knowingness"--a theoretical 'tude that precludes the ability to enjoy reading. Citing Bloom, Rorty claims that contemporary critics (re: post-structuralists) have sullied the humanities, mutating the study of literature into a lowly social science. He compares the dilemma to one he feels has already stagnated philosophy, a field that has, he believes, become culturally irrelevant, "derived of romance and inspiration" because of the analytic tradition.

Rorty offers a detailed lamentation of what he claims has been lost. Inspiration via reading, he states, is garned through the realization of of "someting greater to hold onto," "something more to this life" that cannot be manufactured mechanically or similarly excavated, something that necessitates individual genius (are we starting to see why he gets along with Bloom?) to write or understand. More succintly: sublimity through humanism = a good read.

For a philosopher, Rorty makes some pretty illogical equations; to locate literary value within the ability to inspire is one thing, but his claim that inspiration necessitates hopefulness belies a more problematic conflation of hopefulness and willful ignorance. By Rorty's reasoning, it is impossible to derive inspiration from a text when one's "righteous indignation and social hope" have led him or her to constantly hunt for the cultural machinery that has fabricated its ideology. The notion reminds me of a photograph we saw in Brain and Thought, of a mouse whose mutated, oversized cortex bulged out of its skull and impeded its ability to survive.

Which brings me back to my initial question, which leads to a conflict that has plagued the focus of my studies at Yale. After focusing my academic work on postcolonialism, postmodernism, the dangers of identification and the cultivation of resistant reading, I've found that--while I do derive pleasure from Rushdie, Naipaul, Kincaid, et al--my favorite novels are those produced on the wrong side of the ocean. And herein lies the hole in the sheet Rorty is casting over the post-structuralists: A reading that induces inspiration--wonder, pleasure, catharsis--can coexist with a critique of the structures that have shaped the text.

The romantic magic whose depletion Rorty bemoans, then, does not evaporate when the author's context is examined and when his or her words are deconstructed--it is aroused in their reception. Sublimation is not, as perhaps Bloom would wish, achieved in the deification of the genius; it occurs when the genius' words induce the reader to reflect on the process of reading, to consider his or her dis/identification with ideas, language, tropes, and to see the world in a different light.

9 comments:

Matt said...

Rorty and Bloom don't worry as much about a "theoretical 'tude" (uh, thanks Maureen) as they do about a method of reading that puts the self or interpretive school before/above the text. Rorty points out that while this Horace-and-hipster move saves you from feeling something wrong and looking like a sap, this is reading with a condom: basically safe, doesn't feel as good, ultimately unproductive. Bloom is a strict sex-for-procreation guy, but Rorty's been around a little and knows the analytical thing is fun and important, but ultimately not the point. Both want people to get knocked up by literature--no fans of extinction, after all--and they believe it requires the real risks of approaching literature on its own terms.

Which for them--and I think for me--means reading it as the literature it was meant to be, i.e., treating a poem as a poem and not, for example, an anthropological or historical artifact. These are valid things for a poem to be (really, can't help being), but reading it as such precludes one at that moment from reading it as a poem: you can hammer a nail with the heel of a shoe, or you can wear the shoe. The point isn't to deify anything, but to be alive to what's in the poem or novel, meaning what another person put there--and then to actually teach other people to approach (at least sometimes) with the same attitude. Rorty's worried that the drive of humanities departments to justify their existence in a world driven by (i.e., funded based on) results means a sciencing of the humanities which threatens to become total as professors find it more professionally attractive--and a resulting student class that thinks Christian Louboutin is a hardware store. Rorty wants to reaffirm that, pace Auden, art actually does something: it's of inspirational value, so the English professor need not feel he has to compete with the economic-modelers and cancer-curers of the world, but if he did, wouldn't assume he'd lose.

As English profs' preoccupations go, inspiration is these days less sexy than saying Shakespeare was actually a gay black Martian (actually true), and less glorious than leading a revolution, but more, well, human. And this is where Jameson and the "death of the subject" fail: individual selves, our own and others, are really pretty much all we've got.

elmrockcity said...

A guy who defends the legitimacy of using "gay" as derogatory slang is critiquing my rhetoric as overly cheeky? Interesting.

Here's why you're wrong: the "sciencing of the humanities" that you think Rorty is alarmed about already happened. It was called the '80's (or, if you want to plunge further back, the 1920's). What Rorty--and his humanist brethren--are really itching about is the threat that post-structuralism--feminist, marxist, postcolonial theory--poses towards their readings. Hence the fatuous, defensive logic: look at the stark binary he sets up, labeling such interpretations as "unromantic," cold, close-minded, and scientific, then pitting them against warm, "inspired" readings.

So the conflict that's really at stake isn't the same one that Rorty's pinpointing in philosopy, but an entirely different animal. It's not about science vs. romanticism, but rather sociopolitical awareness vs. privileged ignorance (because, let's face it, he's endorsing a special form of ignorance).

If you want to revive New Criticism and endorse reading "a poem as a poem," that's fine, but inspired readings can coexist with ones that care about the contexts in which they are produced, transmitted, and received. Now that's open-mindedness.

Matt said...

Ohmagawd! They done had a Culture War while me 'n the boys was out at the Fag-Stompin' Negro-Hasslin' Oil-Extractin' Jamboree! You shoulda seen ol' Jed when she said they done already SCIENCED ev'rythin' already, why, he just about swallered his see-gar!

But I mean, for real, it's 007; time to get out of the old and into the cold. How can we read anything without bringing our heightened sociopolitical awareness to the table, or our sophisticated understanding of all the ways language plays and conceals? Well, it's very hard, which is why you need good teachers to show you how you might do it (and full disclosure, I happened to have Brontosaurus Bloom himself). I'm not sure, however, what evidence actually exists that fewer professors do this than before, so I don't think I actually agree with R&B's siege mentality. But I agree that "inspiration" (which, let's face it, is pretty gay) is a living value worth celebrating, preserving, and transmitting.

Rorty's project is patently messianic, so I think it makes sense to look at another Matthew for context (specifically 11:25): "At that time Jesus said, 'I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.'" And all of the synoptics agree: "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these." Rorty and I may just be suckers for this kind of thinking, nostalgic for the days before we realized God was at best a good story, and someone like you, ERC, may think us hopelessly benighted for it. But for whatever reasons, there's a deep tradition in most salvation-oriented enterprises of placing value on unknowing (or ignorance) and innocence, while simultaneously slagging sophistication (or sophistry) and experience.

I think it's dumb to be so binary about it, but I value what happens to me when I approach a text without trying to read the shit out of it. Which is to say, confronting the text's internal and local strangeness (both within itself and from the reader) forces the reader to do certain work that can be avoided by immediately plunging into contexts and variant readings. It's just another technique, of course, but one I think has a significant place in understanding how and why literature is written. And while it can co-exist with the other kinds of reading you mention, it can't be done at same time as them because to do it requires willfully putting oneself in a position of unknowing--privileged ignorance, indeed.

elmrockcity said...

The only point I can really extract from this is that, for you, inspiration is derived from initially approaching a text with a sense of willful blindness. Which is fine, for the first reading--in fact, it's a tactic that many of the theorists take, if only to highlight later the affective power of rhetoric.

But asking for an innocent First reading and entreating readers to always read blindly are two different things, and I can only find fault with a perspective (like Rorty's) that endorses the latter.

Matt said...

"If it is to have inspirational value, a work must be allowed to recontexualize much of what you previously thought you knew; it cannot, at least at first, be itself recontextualized by what you already believe. Just as you cannot be swept off your feet by another human being at the same time that you recognize him or her as a good specimen of a certain type, so you cannot simultaneously be inspired by a work and be knowing about it. Later on--when first love has been replaced by marriage--you may acquire the ability to be both at once. But the really good marriages, the inspired marriages, are those which began in wild, unreflective infatuation." -- RR

elmrockcity said...

I cited that quote from the Rorty essay and tried to embody it in my post on All The King's Men because I believe in it. It's a convenient analogy for Rorty to espouse, and I'm not disagreeing with the idea--which is why I reproduced it, outside of the essay's context--I'm disagreeing with the fact that he posits against the theory he critiques.

So if one wishes to believe that Rorty's perfectly open to an "unromantic" interpretation of the feminist, marxist, postcolonialist, etc. variety after the First Inspired Reading, then all is well and good; but the analytic philosophy / post-structuralist literary theory comparison he sets up and the dismal irrelevance he lays onto the former, coupled with everything else I have read by him, suggest otherwise.

elfvillage said...

I wandered onto this page by accident, and my impression, e-Rock, is that you just haven't read a lot of Rorty.

I'm a student in analytic philosophy, not sympathetic to Rorty, and would rather stop reading than read literary criticism.

But I have enough respect for the clarity of Rorty's expression that I can't help but finding your response silly and self-involved.

You quite simply mistake Rorty's modest claim for a much stronger and utterly implausible one (which, ironically, permits you to condemn him knowingly while also insulating you from the possibility of appreciating much of what he has to say -- or even carrying on a genuinely two-sided conversation with Matt).

>But asking for an innocent First reading and entreating readers to always read blindly are two different things, and I can only find fault with a perspective (like Rorty's) that endorses the latter.<

I read Rorty as hoping that we might to preserve a space in literature departments for people who want to read and write personally, i.e., in reference to themselves and the situations of their lives -- and, yes, bracketing out the rest.

If Rorty were urging literature departments to permit nothing other than this, I would be sympathetic to your fault-finding. But I don't think he's arguing for that.

Indeed it seems to me that no one could reasonably hold that view, as you suggest -- which makes it painfully obvious that, in attributing it to someone else, you are ...

elfvillage said...

I wandered onto this page by accident, and my impression, e-Rock, is that you just haven't read a lot of Rorty.

I'm a student in analytic philosophy, not sympathetic to Rorty, and would rather stop reading than read literary criticism.

But I have enough respect for the clarity of Rorty's expression that I can't help but finding your response silly and self-involved.

You quite simply mistake Rorty's modest claim for a much stronger and utterly implausible one (which, ironically, permits you to condemn him knowingly while also insulating you from the possibility of appreciating much of what he has to say -- or even carrying on a genuinely two-sided conversation with Matt).

>But asking for an innocent First reading and entreating readers to always read blindly are two different things, and I can only find fault with a perspective (like Rorty's) that endorses the latter.<

I read Rorty as hoping that we might to preserve a space in literature departments for people who want to read and write personally, i.e., in reference to themselves and the situations of their lives -- and, yes, bracketing out the rest.

If Rorty were urging literature departments to permit nothing other than this, I would be sympathetic to your fault-finding. But I don't think he's arguing for that.

Indeed it seems to me that no one could reasonably hold that view, as you suggest -- which makes it painfully obvious that, in attributing it to someone else, you are ...

euprattin said...

I stumbled upon this post rather accidentally as well.

I too was quite surprised by your interpretation of Rorty’s said approach to literary criticism, particularly these remark:

“Rorty [denies that] A reading that induces inspiration--wonder, pleasure, catharsis--can coexist with a critique of the structures that have shaped the text.”

And…

“By Rorty's reasoning, it is impossible to derive inspiration from a text when one's ‘righteous indignation and social hope’ have led him or her to constantly hunt for the cultural machinery that has fabricated its ideology.”

I am perhaps most grateful to Rorty, by way of Dewey, for enabling me (and I think many others) to comfortably appreciate both Nietzsche and Christianity. Rorty quite publicly sympathizes with both Nietzsche’s anti-foundationalism as well as Christian egalitarianism. This seems to be a rather monumental contradiction to your argument, as even Nietzsche (painfully, of course) admitted that even his most original thoughts were perforce a product of Platonism/Christianity.

Rorty could not agree more with your closing remark about seeing the world under new lights – as far (or short) as I perceive, that remark basically summarizes his position on epistemology.

Give “Philosophy and Social Hope” a shot. From my limited experience with your thought, I think the two of you will get along nicely.