Literature, Philosophy, Science

Structuralism, Poststructuralism, and the Decline of the Literary Humanities

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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Thomas Sheehan on Heidegger

Free Photo: Mail Chute of the Lusitania

For anyone who has been perplexed by some of this blog’s past references to Heidegger, I wanted to draw attention to some recent appearances on the Internet by Thomas Sheehan, a professor at Stanford. Sheehan’s writings, some of which are available on his Stanford website, are the route I would recommend to anyone trying to make sense of Heidegger. The appearances coincide with Sheehan’s new book, which is called, appropriately enough, Making Sense of Heidegger.

Sheehan is apparently a little controversial in the world of Heidegger scholarship — a student in Germany once responded to my mentioning him by saying: “Thomas Sheehan? Oh, you mean the one who says ‘everyone is wrong about Heidegger except me’?” But based on my limited reading of Heidegger, Sheehan actually is right. He’s right by a standard that even non-experts can use: when you adopt Sheehan’s understanding of what Heidegger is getting at, Heidegger’s otherwise impenetrable texts make sense. By contrast, other interpretations — especially, I’m sad to say, many interpretations by literary scholars — all too frequently seem simply incorrect, as when the interpreter treats Heidegger’s ontological claims about the structure of human existence as though they were evocative literary descriptions of common emotions. Or they take Heidegger’s initially mystifying language and use it to spin further mystifications — as Sheehan criticizes in both of the pieces below.

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