Michael Sinding: Big Picture


I’ve got some remarks on the interesting recent discussions about literary theory, cultural studies & new historicism, social aspects of literature, and the like. These remarks started out small but grew rapidly, as remarks are wont to do if they’re not nipped in the bud.

I agree about some of the problems in literary studies today diagnosed by others here. You do seem often to get, as Joe Adamson suggests, an assumption that ethical issues are cut and dried, that it’s obvious what the right opinions or ideologies are, and that they should be monitored. The critical work then gets highly political, without being highly ethical: they’re not interested in thinking about, say, how a text might complicate ideas about what’s right and wrong and why, just in castigating the wrong-thinkers and praising the right-thinkers.

And I would agree with Russell Perkin that cultural studies and new historicist critics do pay a lot of attention to the social function of literature. The thing is, they tend to have quite a narrow notion of that social function—essentially, as Joe says, that literature is a ‘shill for the establishment’. Often it’s just assumed, but here’s Franco Moretti putting it baldly, in Signs Taken for Wonders (1983, rpt. 2005): “let us say that the substantial function of literature is to secure consent. To make individuals feel ‘at ease’ in the world they happen to live in, to reconcile them in a pleasant and imperceptible way to its prevailing cultural norms. This is the basic hypothesis” (27). Moretti is a brilliant guy, but still. Why is the hypothesis so narrow, and basically wholly negative? Literature is just another kind of mystification. He may have changed his views since this book, but throughout, there is no hint that there is any other social function, or any other function at all. And it seems in line with views that persist today.

The big However is, that I would want to guard against a too simplistic and monolithic picture of what’s actually going on across the landscape of literary studies, and within individual thinkers. Moretti, for example, breaks with many in being quite critical of deconstruction, and in striving, like Frye, to make criticism scientific-ish:

criticism … has always taken its own empirical foundations lightly, and, instead of struggling to set up a scientific community with common aims and clear rules, has tacitly preferred to legitimate a state of affairs where everyone is free to do as they like. The lexico-grammatical euphoria of the last few years is only the latest episode in a long and illustrious tradition of intellectual irresponsibility. … If criticism can give itself a reasonably testable foundation, then rhetorical analysis will necessarily acquire a different status within the ‘stronger’ social sciences (24).

What’s more, it’s not as if all critics now (or all cultural studies and new historicist critics) think that literature is just all ideology, period, and operate in a closed bloc to damn, then demystify it. Not all are like that. So how about a few exceptions? Eve Sedgwick has been mentioned.

I ran across a different kind of cultural studies at Michael Bérubé’s blog:


(I can’t recall how I found it; maybe through www.thevalve.org.) Bérubé is unlike the cultural studies stereotype/ straw man in at least three ways: he thinks for himself, so is ready to criticize the eminences of Theory and some of its tendencies; he writes well; and he has a sense of humour. (The blog spends more time on political matters than on literary matters, at the moment at least, and unfortunately there’s no organization by topic, but you can use the search box to find what you’re interested in.) I especially liked his ‘Theory Tuesday’ posts, where he discusses, among other things, the lessons of the Sokal Hoax, recent books critical of poststructuralism, like Theory’s Empire, and takes on big names like Eagleton, Jameson, Fish, Althusser, Lacan, and others (and even Chomsky’s political theories).

Here’s a quite different take on the Sokal Hoax, and literary studies in the 1980s:


Here’s his perspective on encountering knee-jerk traditionalists a few decades ago, the many professors who would simply scoff at anything “French” (Theory, Marxism, etc.) without giving it a hearing, wouldn’t even ask historical and cultural questions, but just chant ‘timeless, timeless, timeless’ (as some cultural pundits indeed still do):


He nicely puts it that what he calls the “intellectual right” “hasn’t brought anything to the table in decades.  Instead, they’ve met each new school of criticism and theory since the advent of structuralism by singing that immortal Groucho Marx tune from Horse Feathers, “I’m Against It.””

And far from encouraging right-wing mouthpieces, Bérubé has made himself a nemesis of Arch-Wingnut David Horowitz, who in the US has attempted, with disturbing progress if not success, to get the government to force humanities departments to be more right-wing, in the name of academic freedom and balanced opinions.  

So as a practitioner of cultural studies he sees the general landscape rather differently from the way it’s been represented on this blog. A recent essay of his critically reflects on the relative marginality of CS.


Bérubé encouraged me to look more closely and carefully at cultural studies & new historicism, and I discovered that they are more complex and interesting than I had thought. When I looked through some anthologies, I continued to find some garbage, but I also found some gems. There were critics who are brilliant, and really opened my eyes to new perspectives and convinced me of some things, though I still disagreed with them about other things—Raymond Williams, Edward Said, Stephen Greenblatt, Louis Adrian Montrose, Janice Radway, Meaghan Morris, for example. Oddly, with other thinkers like Foucault, Bourdieu, and Jameson, I would find myself thinking, ‘this is pretty brilliant, but basically wrong about some key things.’ With still others, I just thought, ‘this is not only wrong in a big way but batty’—unfortunately, some of these were the intellectual leaders: Barthes, Althusser, Baudrillard. That may be why, for some of us, these schools start out with a black eye.

And yet I found others still who occasionally sounded enough like Frye to show that they shared important ideas, while being involved in quite different projects.

Here’s Raymond Williams:

art is one of the primary human activities, and [. . .] it can succeed in articulating not just the imposed or constitutive social or intellectual system, but at once this and an experience of it, its lived consequence, in ways very close to many other kinds of active response, [. . .] but of course often more accessibly, just because it is specifically formed and because when it is made it is in its own way complete, even autonomous, and being the kind of work it is can be transmitted and communicated beyond its original situation and circumstances (Culture and Materialism 25).

And Cornel West:

I call demystificatory criticism ‘prophetic criticism’—the approach appropriate for the new cultural politics of difference—because while it begins with social structural analyses it also makes explicit its moral and political aims. [. . .] Yet the aim of this evaluation is neither to pit art-objects against one another like race-horses nor to create eternal canons that dull, discourage, or even dwarf contemporary achievements. We listen to [these artists] not in order to undergird bureaucratic assents or enliven cocktail party conversations, but rather to be summoned by the styles they deploy for their profound insights, pleasure, and challenges. Yet, all evaluation—including a delight in Eliot’s poetry despite his reactionary politics, or a love of Zora Neale Hurston’s novels despite her Republican party affiliations—is inseparable, though not identical or reducible to social structural analyses, moral and political judgements, and the workings of a curious critical consciousness. The deadly traps of demystification—and any form of prophetic criticism—are those of reductionism, be it of sociological, psychological, or historical sort (The Cultural Studies Reader, ed. During, 213-14).

At the very least, one has to say, these critics are dealing with fundamental questions that cannot be ignored. And that’s all the more reason to get Frye and his thinking into this conversation.

This post is rather long in wind, and the wind is composed of a lot of links and a lot of quotes, but they’re needed to make the point. I second Joe’s support for Russell’s approach of ‘practicing one’s own kind of cultural studies,’ and I think it would be a great idea (for Joe, and others) to teach and write more on Frye’s social and cultural analyses. I’m saying this is not so far beyond the pale as one might at first think.

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2 thoughts on “Michael Sinding: Big Picture

  1. Alan

    Thanks for the link to Berube – he is now on my Google Reader list – though his comparison of the Sokal hoax to Pons-Felischmann is fatuous, so I distrust him automatically; Pons-Fleischmann set off a firestorm of skepticism (I remember, I was there) in the scientific community, which is neither so gullible, nor so in love with false scientific legitimation, as the cultural studies community. Sokal went beyond his original hoax, and produced further devastating critiques of many in the ‘theory’ community (never Derrida, though, if I recall).

  2. Russell Perkin

    There many points that one could engage with in Michael Sinding’s post; I plan to come back to some of them in relation to Michael Happy’s response. For the present, a few random comments: I enjoyed and largely agree with the assessment of “the brilliant, the wrong, and the batty.” Eve Sedgwick is undoubtedly important, but her prose is off-putting: Susan Gubar noted in a review of _Epistemology of the Closet_ that she turns English into a foreign language with her critical jargon, arcane vocabulary, and elaborate qualifications. Re Michael Berube’s blog: having gone through quite a few posts at random, he seems to have missed his true calling as a political commentator. Though I agree that he is a good writer, as well as something of a satirist. I also see he is a candidate for the MLA presidency.
    Re the Cornel West quotation, with its reference to Zora Neale Hurston’s Republican affiliation: John Dos Passos is another example of an American writer with a problematically complex political identity, beginning as a radical leftist, and moving to support of Barry Goldwater and writing for the _National Review_. The case has been made that underlying the shift of allegiance was a commitment to the individual and to ideas of liberty and democracy; on the other hand, few people seem to read the later works of Dos Passos (and I am not among them, and so cannot comment personally on them). Perhaps there’s somewhat of a parallel with Wordsworth – in relation to whom T. S. Eliot wrote (with some self-reference?) “when a man takes politics and social affairs seriously the difference between revolution and reaction may be by the breadth of a hair, and … Wordsworth may possibly have been no renegade but a man who thought, so far as he thought at all, for himself.”


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