Literature, Philosophy, Science

Structuralism, Poststructuralism, and the Decline of the Literary Humanities

Free Photo: Man With an Artificial Arm, Welding in 1919

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.

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Philosophy after Wittgenstein: Deleuze’s production of concepts

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For those who find Wittgenstein’s critique of contemporary philosophical problem-solving compelling, but who resist the idea that philosophy should be nothing more than Wittgensteinian therapy, where can philosophy go?

Continuing from where an earlier post left off, one answer would be to agree with Gilles Deleuze that philosophy should be engaged in “the production of concepts.” This is very different from the puzzle-solving philosophy that Wittgenstein critiques. Whether this puzzle-solving is labeled by its practitioners as a form of analytic philosophy or an alternative to it, it is motivated by the attempt to discover the answers to philosophical problems. It assumes, against Wittgenstein, that there are correct answers to these problems, and that these answers can be determined by logical inference from the linguistic materials at hand, whether these materials come from intuition, natural science, or psychological experiment.

A philosophy based on the production of concepts, by contrast, would seek to create rather than discover, to make rather than find. It could be seen as dedicated to the creation of new “vocabularies,” in Richard Rorty’s use of the term. These new vocabularies might serve some of our ends better than the vocabularies we already use.

What kinds of vocabularies does Deleuze himself create?

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Vocabularies, blind spots, and defenses of the humanities

A few weeks ago, JK at the Kugelmass Episodes posted the latest entry in our sporadic back-and-forth on defenses of the humanities. Earlier, I had clarified that I wasn’t necessarily offering my own personal reasons for caring about the humanities, or even reasons that might appeal to a committed humanist, but rather that I was trying to think of the kind of reasons that might persuade someone with power over jobs and money that it is valuable to dedicate resources to the humanities. This seemed like a worthwhile thought experiment to the extent that the humanities are under institutional threat, as I think they are — and not only as a result of students lacking interest. JK responded:

If I did come face-to-face with a university administrator, and had to defend the humanities to him, I would say this: the humanities are, and have always been, of great interest and value to the rich. Harvard’s Department of Philosophy is not in danger, after all. At the best private high schools in the country, English has the high profile it deserves, and students may take classes in Greek and Latin. These are the facts, and up to a point, they are genuinely heartening. The significance of such regard for the humanities extends far beyond the Ivy League. Anyone who knows a prosperous, thriving family, knows that books matter around that dinner table. So do films, and plays, and music. In “The Talented Mr. Student,” I criticized using literature to “pass” as privileged. Well, that is an extreme and unrealistic goal. On the other hand, ignoring the humanities is vulgar, and perfectly conspicuous. That is my defense of the humanities, Mr. Administrator! You can’t downsize them without creating a glass ceiling for your students.

Fair enough, I thought and still think — the more defenses of the humanities, the merrier — although if the institutional foundations of the humanities crumble away enough, it might be wondered how long their aura of social prestige will persist.

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