“Reasons Literature Alone Can Satisfy”


Readers of The Educated Imagination may be interested in this post on Rohan Maitzen’s blog Novel Readings.  Responding to a review of Louis Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas, Professor Maitzen provides a cogent reflection on the dangers of emphasizing the practical benefits of literary study, at the expense of the actual subject matter of the discipline.  She argues that “We need to justify the study of literature for reasons literature alone can satisfy.”

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2 thoughts on ““Reasons Literature Alone Can Satisfy”

  1. Peter StirFrye Yan

    Relevant as Nazi Word

    Maitzen’s blog is right in general…Frye also was tired of defending literature, citing “relevant” as a Nazi word to base their ideology.

  2. Joseph Adamson

    Yes, Frye cites the Nazi term Zweckwissenschaft, which means target-knowledge; the Nazis may have invented it, but it is a term very relevant to what has been going on in universities for some time now.

    For example, in my faculty we are constantly reminded that the best way to get funding is to link your research in some way to the “purposive” areas of research in the university, such as areas of medical research, neuro-science, business. So we end up, for example, with funding in our faculty for a program in music and neuro-science. This is one reason, I think, for the success of cultural studies: it is a discipline based on applying existing social sciences such as sociology to the contemporary cultural scene and thus it presents itself in a very direct and obvious way as socially “relevant.” In addition, courses on popular media, music, and visual culture fill the seats. You may not be as relevant as the medical and business schools, but you can be forgiven if you draw in students.

    The seductiveness of relevance also explains the allure of evo-criticism, neuro-criticism, cognitive criticism: the more scientific you are the more relevant you can claim to be. This is not of course in any way what Frye meant by making literary criticism scientific. It is, in fact, a flagrant instance of what he inveighed against in Anatomy, the turning of literary criticism to other disciplines for its authority.

    Literary scholars feel the pressure to prove their usefulness, and, unfortunately, the strong argument that Frye makes about the inherently prophetic and counter-cultural authority of literature and the arts in society–the social context of literary criticism he discusses in The Critical Path–is not what most university administrators have in mind. They are, as their institutions dictate, mostly “pigs,” in Rohan Maitzen’s (and Mill’s) sense of the word.


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