Nostalgia for the New Critics


Image of U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Penn Warren

Image of U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Penn Warren (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The field of English is in shambles, and the Modern Language Association is a gaggle of voices for various interest groups based on race, class, gender, and sexual orientation. Dissertations in English appeal to Derrida and Foucault long after they became passe in France. A presentation on any topic by any writer at a conference sponsored by a college or university English Department that does not mention the four “code words” listed above will be considered quaint and out of date by most of the audience. Much of the radicalism in academia stems from English Departments (although other departments can be guilty as well–philosophy, with its analytic bent, may be narrow in methodology, but at least it eschews the relativism of many people who call themselves “postmodern”). Although many English professors are old-fashioned social democrats who are liberals, not radicals, the radicals have a missionary-like zeal in pushing their agenda. This agenda is anti-Western Culture, anti-traditional Christianity (and Muslims take note–if Christianity were to falter in the West, Islam would be the next target of the radicals, who are engaged in a “divide and conquer” strategy now). When radicals take over, ideological diversity dies, and the departments become as one-sided, closed-minded, Puritanical, and bigoted as religious Fundamentalists.

I long for the days of John Crowe Ransom, Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren, and T. S. Eliot. They may have failed to give psychological and sociological factors sufficient treatment in literary criticism, but their focus on a close reading of the text is surely a better approach than seeking the alleged hidden motivations of the authors. From the New Critics I have read, I see no evidence that they denied the existence of polysemy, but they limited their discussion of polysemy to what was suggested by the text and various historical and mythological allusions found in the text. Postmodern criticisms of the New Critics seemed to confuse the New Critics with European Structuralists–Structuralism was more narrow in approach than the New Criticism, must more Platonic than Aristotelian in approach, much more abstract than concrete. Structuralism deserved the scathing critique of Derrida. The New Criticism was a horse of a different color.

With the emphasis on “newness” in academia, the decline in the New Criticism had to be replaced with something, and that something included Marxist, feminist, womanist, African-American, and queer approaches to literature. Some approaches (such as Marxism) were not necessarily subjective, but the other approaches I listed are largely subjective. Since the advocates of radical theories consider themselves social reformers, including reformers of the academy, they push their agenda like a Fundamentalist preacher pushes being saved from hell fire. The resulting cultural rot spreads to other humanities departments, to the extent that it is difficult to blame students who do not want to major or minor in the humanities. Frankly, I cannot blame them–the New Criticism probably offered more that is relevant to their lives–Shakespeare’s plays concern the universal human experience of revenge, pain, suffering, and happiness. The New Critics could at least point out where the text does relate to students’ lives. Poststructuralists focus so much on polysemy and a political reading of the text that students walk away in disgust. They should be disgusted. Let’s bring out some “New New Critics” to restore intellectual coherence and sanity to English Departments.

Azathoth the Postmodernist

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“….the spiral black vortices of that ultimate void of Chaos wherein reigns the mindless daemon-sultan Azathoth”–H. P. Lovecraft, “Dreams in the Witch House”

Since postmodernist relativists are so inconsistent–they say there is no metanarrative even though their denial of a metanarrative is itself a metanarrative–I decided to search for a consistent postmodernist. Such a consistent creature would be mad–indeed It would be Madness Itself since a deconstruction of all narratives includes a deconstruction of the self–and thus the destruction of the self. If only fragments of self really remain, where can we find a god that consists of such chaos. H. P. Lovecraft, the great American writer of fantastic fiction has the answer–the blind mindless deity Azathoth.

Azathoth inhabits the void of chaos which is his being, or lack thereof. He has no mind per se; at best, he is an uncordinated series of mind-fragments (if even that). Around him mad musicians pipe a tune so dissonant that Arnold Shoenberg’s atonal pieces would sound like Mozart in comparison. The most frightening part of Lovecraft’s fiction is the suggestion that ultimate chaos is the principle behind the entire universe. There are other elder gods, but Azathoth, the Anti-Order, Defeater of ALL metanarratives, is the “top god.”

If academic postmodernists and their followers were consistent, they would emulate Azathoth. Their lives would be as disorderly as Azathoth’s–they would be insane to the point that the worst current case of schizophrenia would seem normal by comparison. But most of these postmodernists live orderly lives–they get married, have families, teach for many years until they retire, grade student papers according to a standard–they do not literally try to deconstruct everything. They are hypocrites. When I see a mindless postmodernist sitting catatonic in the center of a circle of raving postmodernists playing dissonant pipes, I will take these pseudo-academics seriously. Otherwise, they should work to be more consistent in their madness. Until then, may Azathoth rant and scream mad non-words that echo through the mindless postmodern universe.

Is “Postmodernism” Postmodernism?

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Cover of "Derrida"

Cover of Derrida

Does each of you reading this sentence understand its meaning? Does it have an objective meaning? Or is meaning a subjective matter that differs according to one’s race, socioeconomic class, gender, and personal idiosyncrasies? If the latter, then I am wasting my time writing this, for I intend to communicate a particular set of meanings that are limited in scope. If I wanted to say something that means nothing beyond the quirks of the individual reader, then I would teach in an English department rather than in a philosophy department.

How did much of contemporary intellectual thought move from universal standards to cultural relativism to linguistic relativism? Is such movement really a movement from “modernism,” the idea that human beings can discover standards through universal reason, to “postmodernism,” the idea that there is no “Truth” with a capital “T,” and that even meaning itself is wholly relative to the observer?

The theologian Thomas Oden has argued that the radical cultural and linguistic relativism that is a fetish in today’s academic climate is not really “postmodernism” but “ultramodernism.” Modernism claimed to reject tradition (while substituting its own tradition for the (primarily religious) traditions it supplanted. With the exception of Grotius and some eighteenth century philosophers (including, oddly enough, David Hume), modernism rejected a natural law ethic in favor of abstract reason. But abstract reason is not enough to unify human communities with disparate cultures and traditions–thus, in the face of clear evidence of cultural diversity, some strands of modernism accepted cultural relativism (the work of the anthropologist Ruth Benedict is an example). With the politicization of academic discourse in the 1960s, with its focus on race, class, and gender (and later, sexual orientation), the view arose that one’s identity (and perspective on life) is determined by these factors. All of these developments are logical extensions of modernity’s emphasis on abstract reason–so-called postmodernists take a rationalistic framework, the “race/class/gender/sexual orientation” paradigm, and try to apply this framework to real human communities.

It was a small step from this division of cultures in the modernist Babel to the division of tongues. Jacques Derrida rightly criticized the abstract rationalist framework of structuralism–if he had stopped there, well and good. However, he went on to deny any objective meaning to texts, accepting a radical “reader response” theory of meaning, in which the only meaning a text has is that provided by the reader. There is no common understanding and ultimately no common language.

The late British philosopher C. D. Broad refers to what he calls “silly philosophies.” A silly philosophy is one that, if accepted by a non-philosopher, would result in that non-philosopher being considered insane. What sounds good within the halls of academia may make little sense in everyday life. And it is clear that, while we do bring our assumptions to the texts we read, and our background influences our reading of texts, we still find a common core of meaning. Take, for example, a science text. Students in Africa, India, China, and the United States will understand some common meaning in the text; otherwise, scientists would be wholly unable to communicate their findings to people in different cultures. In literature, Shakespeare’s plays have a universal meaning (Hamlet’s struggle with vengeance) that people from different cultures can and do understand (Quine’s “indeterminacy of translation”–another “silly philosophy”– notwithstanding). This is not to say that communication through language cross culturally is perfect–but to deny it takes place at all is insanity.

Such “ultramodernist” insanity is the logical development of a modernism which rejects both tradition and a common human nature. What is needed is a true “postmodernism” which accepts the role of tradition in interpreting and understanding reality while also accepting that humans share a common biological and rational nature. This postmodernism would accept the best science of its day (rather than rejecting it, as Christian Fundamentalism, a modernist movement, does). It would interpret “reason” not in an abstract way, but would understand how reason functions in concrete human communities with their traditions through which they interpret reality. Such a view does not imply relativism, for there remains a common human nature, common desires and needs that all human beings have no matter what their tradition might be. Cross cultural communication would be possible (here I am following Alasdair MacIntyre) by a process of “translation” of the discourse of one tradition in a way that someone in another tradition can understand. For example, I must admit that, as a Western Christian, I have difficulty understanding Buddhism’s “no-self” doctrine. But that does not mean I am incapable of partially understanding it through comparisons with similar Western theories of the self (such as Hume’s, though Hume would deny the strict causality of the Buddhist doctrine of dependent origination). The same follows for other views.

If this essay elicits angry responses from “ultramodernists,” I wonder if I should reply. After all, according to them, I can interpret what they write according to my background and whims. So I’ll interpret them as really agreeing with me. And they are free, on their own account of meaning, to interpret me as agreeing with them. And if I really believed what I just wrote, then I would deserve to be institutionalized.