- Against Research: Literary Studies and the Trouble with Discourse
What we wanted was a machine that could learn.Alan Turing, “Lecture on the Automatic Computing Engine”
1. A Science of Literature?
Recently, in these pages, Eric Sundquist described what he called the “perilous” state of the humanities, pointing to the “avalanche of books about the crisis in liberal arts education in recent decades” (591). Indeed, “crisis,” as Sundquist acknowledges, has been the very condition of literary studies since its relatively recent beginnings. Already in H. C. G. Brandt’s 1884 keynote address at the first-ever meeting of the Modern Language Association (MLA), attendees were warned that if “teachers of modern languages . . . do not realize that their department is a science,” they are forced to conclude that “anybody can teach French or German or what is just as dangerous, any body can teach English” (58, 60; emphasis original). But Brandt assured his listeners that a “scientific basis dignifies our profession” (60), since English is the “historical scientific study of the language, Beowulf and Chaucer” (61) and that the practitioners of such a discipline “must be . . . specially and . . . scientifically trained” (60). While the context for Brandt’s claims about the scientific basis of English was the idea that modern languages could be approached with the philological rigor brought to the study of Greek and Latin, the first MLA address shows a basic anxiety about what it [End Page 647] means to think of literary studies as a science. Louis Menand has described this as arising from the “incorpora[tion of] literature into the structure of the research university,” and so of giving the study of literature a “sciencelike status” (109). While the sense of crisis would persist over the next century in a series of atavistic resurfacings—researcher versus generalist; scholar versus critic; formalist versus historicist1—what is perhaps genuinely new in the latest wave of what Menand calls literary studies’s “obsessive” “self-examination” (61) is the shift from questions about how literature should be studied to more pointedly skeptical questions: just what is it that disciplines like English or comparative literature or philosophy teach? What are the statuses of claims in these disciplines and what are the criteria for how evidence is used to evaluate them? What problems are they inheriting and trying to solve? What are their objects of analysis? What exactly constitutes research in these disciplines?
One of the more provocative instances of literary studies’s self-examination—Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels’s 1982 essay “Against Theory”—claimed that if “theory” names in part the attempt to arrive at general principles for the practice of literary criticism, then to be “against” it is to be against the idea that there could be a metalanguage that would prescribe methods for criticism from a standpoint outside practice. Knapp and Michaels treat the question of whether literary criticism needs a theory of practice as closely linked to another question central to scholarship across the humanities: understanding what goes on when one intends something or looks for intention in another’s sayings or actions. If the relation of theory to practice is bound up with the question of intention, then this invites a further set of questions about language and meaning: are meanings timeless linguistic types or is meaning always context-sensitive? Are persons required for there to be meaning or can meanings impersonally circulate? Could there be such a thing as an “intentionless meaning” (727)?
Thirty years later, in an essay declaring himself “sympathetic to the aims of and the argument of ‘Against Theory,’” Charles Palermo notes “how unavoidable the debate about intentionalism is,” saying that intentionality is “not an issue one may take a pass on.” Palermo raises the issue of intention in relation to what he calls the “anti-intentionalist default position” in literary studies, tracing this back to two essays which had an immense influence on the study of literature in the US and which are touchstone writings for much of what would come to be called “theory”—Roland Barthes’s “The Death of the Author” (1968) and Michel Foucault’s “What Is an Author?” (1971). Barthes’s essay questioned the...