A second defense of the humanities

Following on the heels of my first post dedicated to neglected defenses of the humanities, here’s a second defense. Another extremely valuable activity that by definition belongs exclusively to the humanities, and not the social sciences, is thematic reading.

What I mean by thematic reading is analyzing a text, typically a work of literature, to extract some meaningful idea from it. We imagine that the text was created as a result of choices involving form and content, and that these choices were motivated at least partly by the writer’s desire to convey the thematic meanings that we take from the work. What the actual author actually intended isn’t necessarily relevant. For the most part, the thematic reader doesn’t really care about what motivated the historical person Herman Melville, as a historical fact, to make the choices of form and content that resulted in Billy Budd; we care about the useful meanings that we can get from the work, whether the actual author intended them or not.

In other words, thematic reading is the kind of ordinary, run-of-the-mill literary analysis that a lot of American high school students have been forced to do ever since New Critical “close reading” took over college English departments after World War II and began to filter down through the secondary education system. It’s something that you can teach high school and college students to do with a novel or play or poem, without much prior training: make sense of why everything is the way it is in the text by assuming the writer chose every aspect of the form and content in order to say something, to convey significant statements about the way things are or should be. A very simple example of thematic reading would be the “analysis” that appears after every chapter of plot summary in Cliffs Notes; a very complex example would be Helen Vendler’s analysis of the way Wallace Stevens conveys through his poetry a model of “plenary desire” metamorphosing into “wasted despair” and then being rearoused into “affluent desire” again, in a “recurrent and unbiddable cycle.”

So that’s what I mean by thematic reading. You analyze the choices that apparently went into a written work in order to extract some statement of what the work says, some theme that could be rephrased as a claim or series of claims about something. Toss a poem into the thematic-analysis mill, and out comes an interesting thought or two. Reach into a play and extract an intriguing claim about jealousy. And the work you analyze doesn’t even have to be literary. It could be a work of philosophy or narrative history. It could be a meaning-rich but less literally textual object like a film or a painting. The work doesn’t even have to consist of words. You can play the thematic interpretation game with license plates or children’s picture books or conceivably even things that were created without intention, like clouds, although in my experience you’re less likely to find thematic meanings there that will be interesting or valuable to anyone.

Alternatives to thematic reading would include: analyzing a text as a cultural object, and asking what economic or cultural or ideological forces shaped its creation; aesthetically evaluating a text, or even simply appreciating its beauty or sublimity by, for example, reading a poem out loud; locating a text within the history of literature by, for example, evaluating its innovations and distinctive features and its significance to later works; and so on. Usually, good thematic readings end up containing a little of all of this – a little authorial biography or cultural history to make the laborious unearthing of a deeply buried meaning more plausible, a little aesthetic or literary-historical evaluation interspersed with the thematic interpretation, and all of it blended together without distinct labels.

At this point, I should note my awareness that a defense of the value of thematic reading, especially in the terms laid out above, will probably sound hopelessly, embarrassingly crude and naive to nearly anyone with a professional involvement in the humanities, such as graduate students and professors of literature.

This is a large part of the problem.

Thematic reading is, by definition, an activity that belongs exclusively to the humanities. Natural scientists don’t do it; social scientists don’t do it; mathematicians and engineers don’t do it. If you did a thematic reading of a social science paper, you would still be doing the humanities, not social science.

Thematic reading is also an extremely valuable activity, one that we would be foolish to abandon or sideline in favor of the social sciences.

Why is thematic reading valuable?

Let me count the ways. To begin with, close attention to a literary text is great training for close, critical attention to any kind of text or cultural object, from a legal contract to a commercial to a Bible to a statement in a political debate. We are surrounded by texts and cultural objects that are full of potential meanings, and it is often valuable to be able to understand what these meanings are or might be, as well as understanding how reasonable minds might differ in their interpretations. Misreading a contract, failing to recognize the potential for ambiguity in the Koran, or being unable to understand a political debate, can all have serious consequences.

Still, it’s possible to gain expertise in close reading and critical analysis without making literature the focus of study. Why not analyze, say, commercials instead? Why spend so much time reading outdated, difficult, unpleasant works like Paradise Lost?

One answer would be to say that difficult literature in particular, along with some kinds of philosophical writing, provides the most strenuous training in textual analysis. After struggling to make sense of Finnegans Wake or The Phenomenology of the Spirit, interpreting even the most dense statute or contract will seem like child’s play.

My argument here is not entirely dissimilar from the literary theorist Joshua Landy’s defense of reading difficult literature in How To Do Things with Fictions. Like me, Landy is deeply skeptical of the notion that literature can be effectively defended based on its powers of moral improvement. Instead, he defends the study of literature as a kind of mental and emotional training or exercise. But I also think that the study of literature can be defended on what he would describe as a “cognitive” basis – something he rejects.

That is, from thematic readings of literature, we can arrive at ideas about love, work, justice, inequality, fathers, hunger, envy… In fact, as noted in an earlier post, any insight or idea that might be gained from experience (“What I learned from spending the summer in Tanana was…”) can in theory from drawn from a work of literature (“By presenting the summer in Tanana in this way, the author suggests that…”). If thinking about the most meaningful aspects of one’s life is valuable, then thinking about literature can be valuable in many of the same ways.

The common objection to this line of thought would be to say: to the extent that the value of reading literature thematically rests in the ideas we extact from literary works, why not simply read an essay consisting of those ideas, and skip the literary work itself? Literary scholars bristle at the idea that works of literature contain “messages,” which is the crudest way of putting the cognitive claim that we can learn valuable things from literature. If the point of reading a poem is to understand a message, why not just teach the message and save time by ignoring the poem?

My answer to this – my defense of the cognitive value of the thematic reading of literature – is a defense that I’ve never heard offered before, and the argument is a little complicated, so please bear with me. The defense would be something like the following:

Begin by assuming that an essay on a work of literature consists of a series of statements of the themes in the work. Based on this assumption, there are at least three reasons why the essay cannot replace a work of literature, and thus why valuing the kinds of thematic readings that can result in theme-focused critical essays does not entail devaluing literature.

First, any number of different, perhaps even contradictory thematic statements can plausibly be arrived at through the thematic interpretation of a work of literature, especially a rich and difficult one. In fact, this is one of the defining characteristics of works of literature that are routinely recognized as “great”: they are susceptible to numerous, conflicting interpretations. They are inexhaustible. Each new generation of interpreters finds something new, and the arguments never end.

By contrast, an essay summarizing a thematic reading of a literary work – as described above – only contains the thematic statements that it contains. If we throw away the work of literature and keep only the essay, we will lose all but one of the countless possible thematic interpretations to which a work is susceptible.

Second, and relatedly, the meaning of each of the statements in the essay – standing alone, and without knowledge of the work of literature itself – will be indeterminate in a way that a statement understood in light of the work of literature will not. A bare, abstract statement of a theme in several words will often leave it very unclear how the statement should be understood. It is often only by seeing how an abstract statement applies in factually rich and concrete contexts that we can understand what the statement means.

Again, an essay of thematic statements cannot replace the work of literature from which the statements were drawn. We often need the concrete specificity of the work of literature to make sense of what, precisely, the essay’s abstract claims mean.

Third, practically speaking, there is a difference between struggling to make sense of a literary work thematically, and being handed themes on an essay-shaped platter. Especially when reading difficult works of literature – works in which the author’s choices are hard to understand – the struggle to make sense can result in a sense of revelation when a plausible meaning finally coheres. A theme arrived at through such struggle will often have a greater salience for the reader than a theme delivered ready-made in a critical essay.

Once again, the defense of the humanities on thematic grounds does not imply that literary works could be discarded in favor of the abstract ideas drawn from them through thematic interpretation.

In closing, humanities scholars often appear reluctant to give thematic reading a central role in their defenses of the humanities. Perhaps they are embarrassed to say that one of their most valuable activities is the general type of reading done by high schoolers – but performed with greater expertise. I think this reluctance or embarrassment does more harm than good. The ability to make sense of what the creators of a text or cultural object meant by creating it is an endlessly valuable skill. Thematic reading, especially of literature or literary philosophy or history, and especially of difficult works, is the most challenging and rewarding form of this meaning-making – second only to making sense of our lives.

(I should probably refrain at this point from noting that a lot of conceptual puzzles can be generated by trying to clarify the epistemological status of thematic statements extracted from literature. After all, literature typically involves fictional or fictionalized characters, personae, worlds – how can claims drawn from a work of fiction be relevant to understanding our own actual world? I have no interest in contributing here to the characteristically futile, ever-accumulating contemporary philosophical disputes about the epistemological status of fiction. What I will say is that the potential subject-matter of literature has no limits; in theory, any claim about anything whatsoever could be drawn from a work of literature through thematic reading. These claims could be about fictional characters in the work, or more general claims about people in general, or claims about anything. And once you’ve extracted a claim from a work through thematic analysis, it’s up to you to decide whether the claim is true or untrue or partially true or true by analogy, uninteresting or interesting, relevant to your life or not. The fact that the claim came from the thematic reading of a work of literature has no significance whatsoever to its epistemological value. So regardless of the epistemological status of fiction, claims derived from literature through thematic reading may end up teaching us valuable things.)

Thematic reading is irreplacable. The sciences cannot provide a substitute method for arriving at the kinds of meanings discussed throughout this post. It would be a great tragedy if thematic reading were to be neglected simply because it is unscientific in the sense of offering no contribution to our ability to predict and control nature. It is not as though in the realm of thematic reading, anything goes. A thematic reading is an argument. It requires the offering of reasons. It can be wrong. This should be enough to establish its intellectual validity, provided it offers us something we want. And, as described above, it does.


9 thoughts on “A second defense of the humanities

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