Michael Sinding: Big Picture, Cont’d


Michael Sinding responding to the responses to his original post:

Thanks for responses, all. I’ve got a couple more responses to your responses, but let me start with this. 

I am sympathetic to the frustration at the current landscape and how it arose, and the regret at what was lost. But I think the frustration can lead to an over-stark picture of the landscape and the people in it, and I think that is counter-productive. 

Let me explain my motivation for this view. Since we’re talking about Frye, I think what’s most important to preserving and developing Frye’s ideas is to get them back into circulation, which means getting them back into the scholarly conversation. To do that, we need to see him in a relation to the current landscape that is not simply contradiction, and for that we need a richer picture of it, what it’s talking about and how, its pros as well as its cons, how it’s contributed new perspectives on important topics. Once we’ve got that, then we can develop his ideas in some kind of dialogue with other theories and thinkers. I’m talking about a genuine dialogue, of course, not twisting Frye out of shape to fit a trend, or sneaking him in the back door while currying favour with the Powers. No theory should be swallowed whole or taken up uncritically (bricolage should be the norm), and the conversation should be geared towards improving our understanding of literature and culture (not theory wars). 

But if instead we frame the situation just as a disastrous fall from a golden age of Frye, the natural response is to lament the fall, deplore the current situation, wish for some kind of miraculous return in the future. Miraculous, because there’s no foreseeable way for it to happen. To squeeze the metaphor a little further, we need some kind of detailed map of the landscape in order to move in it at all, never mind get through or beyond it—and you can’t get that with a huge brush that paints it all the same way all at once. 

That’s why Bérubé’s view from the other side is a helpful corrective: the new paradigm was partly an understandable reaction to an existing entrenched paradigm that similarly dominated scholarship and teaching: literature as Timeless Transcendent Truths, unsullied by the world. I’ve read enough pre-1970s criticism to know he’s got a point, and that it has its very fair share of oversimplification, caricature, and distortion too. So I never had a strong sense of great loss after the revolution, though I couldn’t understand why some people were so gung-ho about it and so un-gung-ho about Frye. (By the way, I had the impression that the revolution was more against New Criticism and Structuralism, and Frye got lumped in with both.) 

As I indicated, I don’t wholly agree with any of the critics I mentioned, so I wouldn’t hold them up as ideal models to follow. But that’s not the point. Some authors are not worth the trouble, but with most, I can see past the things I disagree with or dislike to see what’s valuable about them. Same goes for Bakhtin, in fact: he’s repetitive, and he can be sweeping: his monologic/ dialogic distinction is exaggerated, as is his praise of carnival. Nor do I agree with everything about Frye. But Bakhtin and Frye and some of the others are intelligent enough that I prefer to give them the benefit of the doubt and make an effort to see the potential in their writings. 

So, no doubt it’s a matter of taste, but I find Greenblatt interesting. Going by “The Improvisation of Power” (from Renaissance Self-Fashioning) in my New Historicism Reader, I find him far more readable than some of the other big names, I don’t find him unduly jargony, and I think he’s got some important ideas. I do find his assumptions about psychology, society, and history quite limiting, though. The attitude of suspicion towards the human mind and culture and what they claim for themselves, suspicion that it’s really all about power and self-interest and nothing else, is too absolute. A skeptical attitude towards self-serving pieties is in order, of course, but when it becomes knee-jerk and never seriously questions itself, it becomes unrealistic. This tendency seems to go far beyond Greenblatt (compare Moretti). Maybe there’s a myth behind it. I don’t know the Said book you mention, Joe, I’ll keep an eye out for it. Maybe I’ll say more about him later. Frye’s remarks are fascinating, as always. But I wonder if anyone else can really do this kind of thing? Not just because it’s so dazzling, but also there doesn’t seem much method in it. “Follow the archetypes.” How? (Maybe more context would explain.) 

I notice too that the responses offer criticisms that are often ad hominem—e.g. about the psychology of the revolution, e.g. how it appealed to what’s worst in the academic character, etc. Such arguments are I think essentially unfair, because they’re purely speculative and basically unanswerable. Isn’t such invention of obnoxious motives similar to what we’ve been complaining about in some ideological criticism? Moreover, they can hardly be accurate for everyone in all of these schools. Surely many critics dealing with race, class, gender, ideology, etc. are motivated by genuine social concern, not simply superiority and entitlement. I know enough of them, profs & students, to know this is so. Finally, ad hominem criticisms miss the point because they turn the focus away from the ideas, and it is far more important to deal with the ideas, rather than whatever personal motives and dynamics may be imputed to those who hold them. And it should be a basic principle that in dealing with any approach or school, we deal with the best representatives of it and the best arguments for it, not just any hack job that can be trotted out or invented.

Dealing directly with the ideas can be difficult. As has been said before, Frye’s theories and those that followed are in many ways divergent. If we can use Thomas Kuhn’s over-used idea of paradigms and paradigm shifts for the humanities as well as the history of science, as I have been doing, then the revolution in literary theory was a paradigm shift. (It would be more accurate to say there is a cluster of related paradigms, but I’m speaking in general terms.) And it is much easier to work within a paradigm than to try to change it, or to use some previous paradigm, or to create or use some alternative paradigm. In a sense, this is not fair. Why should people who want to study and teach literature suffer for not buying into a certain paradigm? But there it is. I suppose any field of study always has some paradigm, or a handful of them, and you have to deal with it as you find it. And to once again flatter the cup as half full, we can also see this as an opportunity. There are signs that people are hungry for new ideas. If you have to work harder to budge an entrenched paradigm, the rewards are also potentially greater. And paradigms in the humanities, being looser than those in the sciences, are also more amenable to combination with one another.

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3 thoughts on “Michael Sinding: Big Picture, Cont’d

  1. Clayton Chrusch

    I really liked this post, but I’d like to focus on the one paragraph that I disagree with.

    Ad hominem fallacies make an inference from a person’s character or motivations to the falsehood of their ideas. Making statements about a person’s character or motivations in itself is not fallacious, nor is the belief that a person’s character can affect the quality of their ideas.

    Statements about motivations are not unduly speculative. They constitute practical knowledge that we cannot live without. Similarly they are not unanswerable, since human relationships often depend on clarifications of motivation.

    “Obnoxious motivations” are not always inventions, they are often clearly perceived realities.

    Your point about ad hominem statements missing the point is very debatable as well since the truth of an idea is not something that adheres to the idea alone, but it is something that depends on a person’s motivations for holding the idea and a person’s way of putting that idea into practice.

    I agree that speaking to the best representatives of an idea should be a basic principle for furthering knowledge, but in the real world we often don’t have the luxury of ignoring everyone we would prefer to ignore.

    These are principles that go way beyond literary studies, and so its important that we don’t insist here that reality be nicer or more PC than it actually is.

  2. Russell Perkin

    Excellent post, Michael. I think it is important to remember, too, that there was never a golden age of Frye in the sense that his ideas were strongly resisted by those committed to New Criticism, those who believed in evaluative criticism, and especially by public critics of the Trilling school. In fact, for some people Frye’s abstractions (the “structural poetics” of the _Anatomy_) were seen as the precursor, even the cause, of the whole turn to theory! So he has always been a controversial figure. I had professors in the 1970s who were as resistant to him as any cultural theorist of today.

  3. Joseph Adamson

    Thanks for this post, Michael. I think the discussion is useful, as it forces each of us to examine, clarify, and perhaps even change our positions, which is the point of good dialogue and dialectic. I have found your arguments have made me do a lot of thinking and at least consider that there may be indeed a blindness and stubbornness in my own way of thinking that is worth taking a harder look at.

    Three specific points you make that I wanted to address:

    First, I agree completely that a lot of postmodern criticism is driven by genuine social concern, but, as the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and nor are genuine concern and good intentions, I am sure you would agree, an excuse for intellectual dishonesty or incoherent writing and forms of argument.

    Secondly, your point about the apparent absence of method in archetypal criticism. At first the question surprised me. Of all critical theorists to accuse Frye as having no method seems counter-intuitive. But it is a good question. I think Frye outlines a good deal of his method, and then there is perhaps much that can be inferred by simple exposure to the way he thinks, and it would be perhaps a real contribution to Frye studies to bring that element of method to the fore. But it is pretty clear that there is a method to what Frye is doing, and, to allude to an earlier question of Clayton’s, I think it is related to archetype and the question of why archetypal is a very good term for the basic principle of Frye’s thinking about literature. Anyway, I am working on it and will get back to you about it. And I would love to hear from anyone else on the subject.

    Thirdly, the whole question of paradigm shifts. The paradigm shift in literary theory, in my mind, was ushered in by Frye, and perhaps we just don’t fully recognize it yet. This last quarter century of high theory and cultural studies and New Historicism, etc may be simply a period of confusion and hideous mental darkness. I am being somewhat facetious, but only somewhat.

    It is worth observing that all the current forms of critical determinisms offered up in this period can easily be aligned with the forms of criticism Frye identifies in the Anatomy, in his polemical introduction most specifically. In fact, he identifies them and views them as valuable critical modes that are an indispensable part of literary criticism and even of a structural poetics. For example in Notebook 19, written at the end of the sixties, he writes:

    “[45] I have occasionally played around with the idea that all determinisms are elements in a manifold criticism. Thus every literary work would have its sexual, “Freudian,” erotic, or fetishistic aspect; also a cultural or class “Marxist” aspect; also a historical “Spengler” aspect, and perhaps a primitive or Frazerian aspect. “

    “[349] The point is that literary criticism has to develop canons for–not judging, but–incorporating Marx, Freud, Luther, Paul, Jesus, instead of following determinists to make them standard for critical categories.”

    The brains behind critical theory today, in fact, are still the same three guys: Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud. It is the same philosophy of suspicion at work, and it is clear that Frye had completely absorbed their lessons himself by the time he started writing his first published essay: Freud and Marx pervade his writings but they are incorporated into a comprehensive theory of literature that remains subordinated to an imaginative conception of literature and culture The only thing that has changed– besides the contemporary scene’s pronounced sacrifice of clarity, logic, and intellectual honesty to rhetoric and ideology–is that what Frye calls the “Freudian proletariat” and Marxist one have branched out a lot more: the proletariat or excluded group includes now a great variety of oppressed minorities, not simply a social class. But the basic determinisms haven’t changed.

    Finally, I am not even sure if postmodernism, even as a literary mode or period, is not just an extension of the ironic mode that he identifies in the Anatomy.

    I hope the discussion continues.


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