Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Literary Scientific Method, Part One

Jonathan Gottschall’s article in the Boston Globe today suggests that literary studies become more like the sciences, which, he implies, “would set things right” with literary scholarship since it’s so beaten-down. The interesting aspect of his article is that he calls his proposal a “clear solution to the problem.” Professor Gottschall implies (or is this my inference?) that, there is one solution to the problem of literary studies in the United States, and it resides in forcing professional reading to prove its conclusions. I don’t doubt that this is one avenue for literary criticism to take, but it is only one.

There are, however, other thoughtful scholars who have written on the topic of the future of “literary culture,” a more useful term for literary studies since it encompasses the world and the manner in which books are read closely, by professionals and amateurs. William Paulson’s Literary Culture in a World Transformed, a follow-up to his intriguing The Noise of Culture: Literary Texts in a World of Information, is well worth reading on the subject. Paulson is a Professor of French at the University of Michigan, and his basic idea is that literary scholars need to be trained in the broader culture, rather than limit themselves to the narrow study of literature. When read in conjunction with some of the essays in Morris Dickstein’s A Mirror in the Roadway: Literature and the Real World (he is Distinguished Professor at the City University of New York Graduate Center) and other books that argue in favor of recognizing textual links to a broader culture, one may conclude that the way back to scholarly relevance in literature is to re-embed literature into the various disciplines, let’s say, to abolish literary studies as a separate course of action and encompass them in the study of the world, and as part of the world.

This would not entail returning humanistic study to the idea of a medieval trivium, but would employ the breadth of centuries of scholarship of science, social change, and twenty-first century technology to create intellectual links between the humanities and sciences, as Paulson (and Ong and Kernan and others) have shown us already exist in fact, if not in the mind of most of today’s scholars.

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