literary studies, modesty, and a second empiricism

Perhaps you were like me and didn’t catch this Chronicle piece last month when it was published in the run-up to MLA where Jeffrey Williams touts the “New Modesty in Literary Criticism.” What is this new modesty? Williams suggests that

Literary critics have become more subdued, adopting methods with less grand speculation, more empirical study, and more use of statistics or other data. They aim to read, describe, and mine data rather than make “interventions” of world-historical importance. Their methods include “surface reading,” “thin description,” “the new formalism,” “book history,” “distant reading,” “the new sociology.”

No doubt part of this is a gesture toward digital humanities with his mention of data and distant reading in particular. However much of it is not necessarily DH. Instead, there is an interest in a broader range of maybe empirical practices (though if you follow through on some of the article links in the piece you’ll see a lot of careful trodding around the idea of empiricism). However there is a fair amount of interest in Latour, which is where my interests come in.

So here’s my question. Whether it’s an article like “Why critique has run out of steam” or books from We Have Never Been Modern to An Inquiry into Modes of Existence I’m just not sure where the “modesty” starts showing up. There’s not a great deal of modesty in the argument that what the humanities have been doing for the last couple decades is a load of bollocks. Now, it appears that the literary scholars cited in the article want to hold on to the hermeneutics of suspicion, so maybe that’s where the “modesty” lies: they are modest in their criticisms of their predecessors. Maybe, but somehow I don’t think that’s the point here.

Maybe this is modesty in reference to the “modest witness,” that foundation of scientific method. If so, then this wouldn’t make too much sense with Latour, who would want to account for the many hybridized actors that allow for the construction of modest witnessing. This might make sense inasmuch as the main thrust of this article is to report on a constellation of literary methods that foreground description over interpretation. However I think it is too subtle a connection in the end. As “modest” as the witnesses of scientific experimentation may be, the words modest and science are not generally associated.

No, instead, there’s a very strange kind of modesty that is suggested here. As Williams writes, “surface reading and allied approaches seem to return to an older orientation of criticism, one that sees its mission as more scholarly than political.” Those of us in the humanities business understand exactly what this implies.  To be “political” is to share not only in a kind of leftist political view but also to assert that humanistic interpretation (e.g. literary criticism) is a direct form of political work with a primary obligation of seeking to achieve some political objective. That is, this isn’t simply a wishy-washy way of saying “everything is political;” it is an insistence that humanities scholars conceive of their work as directly participation in an emancipatory project of some kind. Personally, I would suggest that it is debatable the extent to which all humanists really thought (or think) of their work in these direct-action political terms. That said, there have, in my experience, always been a fair number of true believers out there ready to put anyone to the question if their political commitments appeared in doubt. But the modesty here is not even a suggestion that the scholars do not have these political commitments. Instead, it is a suggestion of one of two possible positions: 1) that literary criticism is an ineffective method for achieving political change (imagine that) 2) the focus on interpretation as politics obscures the study of literature.

Either way, Williams ends with the following:

It remains to be seen, though, whether surface reading and allied approaches re-embrace a more cloistered sense of literary studies. I’d like to think that criticism has more to do than accumulate scholarly knowledge, at the least to explain our culture to ourselves, as well as serving as a political watchdog.

Today’s modesty may not bode an academic withdrawal from public life. It may simply register an unsettled moment, as past practices cede and a new generation takes hold. The less-optimistic outlook is that it represents the decline of criticism as a special genre with an important role to investigate our culture. While realism carries less hubris, it leaves behind the utopian impulse of criticism.

Maybe this is good news for realist ontology. Apparently it is no longer arrogant to abandon postmodernity. Apparently there’s no hubris in describing the “modes of existence.” But let me briefly take issue with some of these claims… not in the name of these literary critics but for this more general project of realism or, at least, a Latourian “second empiricism.” In many ways, these approaches are less cloistered. Who is more cloistered than the traditional humanist typing out yet another rehearsal of a critical position, who sits in his/her office with the same old set of books because there’s no point in empirical evidence anyway, no reason to leave the office?

I’m not sure what difference is suggested between accumulating scholarly knowledge and explaining our culture. Of course, in the tradition of postmodernity explaining culture doesn’t require doing scholarship because one already knows what culture is before one begins. It’s deductive reasoning where one already knows what the rules of culture are. Postmodern scholarship never led to an understanding of culture; it just began with one.

Of course what is ultimately at stake here are ideological commitments: scholarship as “political watchdog;” the “utopian impulse of criticism.” These are familiar critiques/attacks from my perspective.  In my 20+ years in academia, it’s always been the case that there are scholars who will insist that everyone must do what they do and share in their theoretical-ideological perspective, To do otherwise is to become some horrible, anti-intellectual, capitalist dupe or collaborator. To which I have learned to say “don’t feed the trolls.” At the same time, I think it is unfair to accuse Latour of not having a political project. Maybe you don’t agree with it, but that’s another matter. It’s true that it isn’t “utopian,” but how can any postmodernist be utopian?  I suppose if one is modest because one does not believe that one’s scholarly work in the humanities (writing scholarly articles, teaching classes, going to committee meetings, etc.) is taking the world on a direct path to utopia, then I’m a modest guy.

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