What Does Literature Know?


Michael W. Clune in 3:AM Magazine [h/t: Jonathan Kramnick]:

Alex Rosenberg’s diagnosis of the ills of the humanities is in fact aimed at literature departments, which he describes as suffering from “self-inflicted wounds.” But his confident attack on literary studies reveals a basic ignorance of the field. The one book he refers to as exemplary of the failures of literary research — Proust Was a Neuroscientist — was written not by a literature professor, but by a journalist subsequently discredited for plagiarism. Rosenberg’s claim that women and minority authors have shoved out the classics in English curricula is untrue in every department with which I am familiar. (We teach Phyllis Wheatly alongside Walt Whitman; Shakespeare’s stock has never been higher.) Finally, Rosenberg’s suggestion that humanities majors are in sharp and recent decline is misleading. While there was a big drop in the mid-seventies, for the past three decades the percentage of B.A.’s who receive English degrees has been stable.

Rosenberg’s solution to these imaginary problems? Literature professors must stop trying to produce knowledge, and should instead devote themselves to helping literary works “emotionally move us.” The idea that one can separate knowledge from emotion when talking about literature is puzzling. Here Rosenberg appears to be inspired not by Joseph Brodsky, but by Robin Williams’ performance in Dead Poets Society. Perhaps he believes that literary instruction should consist of professors intoning the classics soulfully to rapt classes. One wonders how he would have us respond to a student with a question about what a poemmeans.

While literature professors are hardly responsible for Rosenberg’s ignorance, we do share some responsibility for the confidence with which he expresses it. In particular, we have done a poor job of describing and defending the kind of knowledge literature can give us. The study of literature is inherently interdisciplinary. Melville’s fiction, for example, contains scientific and economic speculation, images expressive of emotional states, images expressive of philosophical beliefs, linguistically diverse characters, and a kind of technical handbook on whaling. Literary works move across the disciplinary borders of the modern research university.

More here.