It seems hard to believe, from our current vantage point in which the academic study of literature appears to be in a state of perpetual crisis, that there was a time, not so long ago, when the literary humanities reigned over an expanding scholarly empire — one that was not unlike the empire of the quantitative social sciences, and especially economics, today. Instead of literary academics feeling tempted or obligated to apply quantitative methods to the study of literature — as, for example, Franco Moretti has done, with results of (predictably, it seems to me) real but limited value — non-literary scholars felt tempted or obligated to become conversant in literary theory.
I was reminded of this while reading some essays by Jerome Bruner, an academic psychologist who died in 2016. In works like “Life as Narrative” (1987), Bruner found it useful to draw on literary theory about the structure of narratives as a source of ideas for understanding his own field, and even for designing empirical experiments. He cites Vladimir Propp, Frank Kermode, and Paul de Man, among many others.
Who outside of literary academia reads the works of literary academics today? What happened?
I would like to propose, a little controversially, that the literary humanities finds itself in its current state of isolation in part because of its rejection of structuralism. By “structuralism,” I do not mean only what Lévi-Strauss meant when he introduced the term. I mean something more broad: arguments that attempt to reduce complex, unwieldy human phenomena into relatively simple structures that can then be used to make predictions. The kind of models that the structuralist anthropologist Mary Douglas developed, for example. In its turn to poststructuralism, American literary academia developed a profound antipathy toward this kind of thought — an antipathy, I would argue, that has discouraged literary scholars from developing insights and models that might be of use outside of academic literary studies.
When literary scholarship turned against structuralism, it also implicitly turned against modeling. But models are a large part of what we use to make sense of our worlds, and they are one of the primary ways that ideas move between academic disciplines. To reject the search for predictively useful models is to invite the kind of intellectual isolation in which literary academia currently finds itself.
Part of the standard narrative of postwar literary academic history is that U.S. humanities departments mirrored the shift that took place in France between the 1960s and the 1970s, when Lévi-Strauss gave way to Derrida and Foucault — a shift reflected, for example, in the work of the American literary scholar Jonathan Culler, who helped introduce structuralism to American literary academia with his 1975 Structuralist Poetics, and then in the early 1980s helped to introduce poststructuralism with his On Deconstruction. (As Mark Lilla notes in The Reckless Mind, the French do not use the term “poststructuralist” to refer to the second generation of structuralists. Because my interest is American academia, I follow the American usage.)
How the obscure writings of Lacan, Derrida, Deleuze, and Foucault succeeded in taking over the academic humanities in the United States is not my concern, although I suspect Lilla’s account of the rise of structuralism in France as a utopian political phenomenon would be relevant in the United States as well. In any case, already in the late 1990s and early 2000s, there was a sense of growing exhaustion in literary academia with the then-dominant theoretical schools, above all deconstruction, and an accompanying desperation to find some replacement — a transfusion of new jargon to restore the field’s youth.
In 2001, it was still possible to hope that Hardt and Negri’s “empire” could be the next big idea that would save literary theory from a further decline into irrelevance. By 2017, the idea that the next big thing in literary study might be an idea, a new grand theory, seems hopelessly utopian. Countless critiques of the decadent state of literary theory and its corrosive effects on literary study have been written, but for lack of a viable alternative, contemporary literary academia continues to be dominated by esoteric, jargon-intensive exercises in theoretical mystification, often allied to an imaginary politics of emancipation for subordinated identity groups. The main difference between today’s theoretically inclined literary scholarship and the scholarship of twenty or thirty years ago seems to be that now, instead of importing key terms almost entirely from post-Hegelian, radical-Left French philosophy, it has become acceptable to make the focus of one’s “work” virtually any term at all, with faddish trends spreading and burning out like viral contagions.
“What will be the focus of attention at next season’s conferences?” “I propose: lateness, the body, witnessing, the voice, decoloniality, and pornotroping.”
That is where we are today. Literary academics develop neologisms or pluck terms from ordinary usage, then treat them as though they contain a kind of mystical, captivating depth — as though the terms contain hidden meanings that go far, far beyond the ways in which they are ordinarily used — as though, in fact, the terms contain profound secrets, and it obviously makes sense to dedicate years of one’s life to the study of the secrets buried within “lateness,” “the body,” or “witnessing” — secrets that can apparently be grasped only through the development of the terms in esoteric directions guided, obscurely, by the close reading of a farrago of literary and non-literary texts. Within the priesthood of the literary humanities, the latest sacred terms circulate, treated with appropriate solemnity. Outside of the priesthood, the conversation is almost entirely ignored.
Far from seeking to make sense of the world by arriving at useful, simplifying models of how something or other works — what might be called “structuralist” models, models that cut through what is less important in a given practical context in order to focus on the most causally important underlying structures — the contemporary literary humanities is guided by an anti-structuralist ethos: the more subtlety and complexity, the better; the more obscurity and difficulty, the better. The last thing one wants is to be reductive. The most valued gesture is complicating things. Rather than finding a problem and solving it, the goal is problematizing. One does not aim to find something that does not make sense, and make sense of it; to the contrary, the highest goal is to find something that appears to make sense, and then to find various creative ways of showing how it does not make sense — usually because our neoliberal ideological blinders prevent us from seeing hidden paradoxes and contradictions.
(All of these comments, by the way, also relate back to earlier thoughts on this blog about the practice of “critique” on the anti-liberal academic Left — as well as earlier thoughts on modeling and the social sciences.)
In large part as a result of these developments, it seems to me, academic fields that once turned to literary scholarship for tools and inspiration, such as legal studies or anthropology, for the most part no longer do so. Instead, they look to quantitative social science, and especially economics — or, more broadly, rational choice theory. When a scholar outside of the literary humanities cites scholarship related to an aspect of literature, such as narrative, the citations will mostly be to older scholarship — such as formalist work on narrative, from before the turn away from structuralist modeling — or to scholarship on narrative written outside literary academia, for example by psychologists or sociologists.
The economist Robert Shiller’s recent paper on “Narrative Economics” provides a good illustration. Why does contemporary literary academic scholarship have so little to contribute to Shiller’s concerns? Why does he end up citing a non-scholarly how-to book as a source on narrative construction? Well, an empirically inclined economist attempting to make sense of serious, empirical phenomena in the world, such as macroeconomic fluctuations, will have little interest in the poststructuralist critical resistance to simplification and reduction. He will be looking for models that might shed light on how narratives work. Little that has been published in the last few decades in any of the leading academic journals of literary scholarship will be very likely to help him in this goal.
If literary scholarship wishes to return to a position of broader relevance — and perhaps it does not, perhaps it is content to occupy a position of defiant critical resistance to the pragmatic demand for usefulness, happy in its Bartleby-like refusals of what it perceives as the demands of neoliberalism — one path forward would be to engage seriously with contemporary empirical work in the social sciences, especially those areas where a close acquaintance with literature might be of value.
As Shiller notes, narratives may be important to understanding economics in many ways, not only in terms of the macroeconomic fluctuations that are his focus.
Or consider rational choice theory. Nearly all mainstream economic models rest on some variety of rational choice theory. Behavioral economics has succeeded in mildly challenging these assumptions by showing the many ways in which human beings are predictably irrational, especially in the evaluation of risk and the weighing of costs and benefits.
Could tools drawn from literary study be helpful in modeling other predictable aspects of human behavior that are not captured even by behavioral economics? I have in mind especially the role of meaning in determining how we think, choose, and act — both in the interpretive sense (“What do you mean by that?”) and the sense of significance (what is meaningful, what matters). Both senses are closely related to narrative, and thus to literature and literary study. For example, I may express the meaning something has to me by telling a narrative about its relation to me; and the teleological structure of narrative may be related to the structure of meaningfulness. Both have something to do with purpose, and with answers to the question “Why?”
There are many ways in which meaning as a subject of literary study might be relevant to concerns beyond literature. For example, economists tend to treat preferences as exogenous, rather than attempting to explain and predict how an actor ends up with the preferences she has. Could a model be developed based on meaning in its dual senses that would shed light on preference-formation in some context, so that we might attempt to predict preferences, rather than simply taking them as given? What implicit models of meaning-making do we find in literary study, and in literature itself, and might it be possible to generate predictions based on these models, and to design experiments to test our predictions?
The philosopher Susan Wolf‘s work on meaning and meaningfulness might be relevant for such a project, along with scholarship on Kierkegaard and Heidegger by, for example, Charles Taylor, Thomas Sheehan, and Hubert Dreyfus.
In any case, proposing predictive models based on the literary study of meaning, meaningfulness, or narrative is only one of the many ways that literary study might regain some of its broader interdisciplinary relevance. Unfortunately, there seems to be little indication that literary academia is open to this kind of engagement with the social sciences. Perhaps in another decade there will be an intergenerational change — or some other path forward will present itself — if departments of literature continue to exist.