The long history of humanistic reaction to sociology.

N+1’s recent editorial on the sociology of taste is worth reading. Whatever it gets wrong, it’s probably right about the real source of tension in the humanities* right now.

People spend a lot of time arguing about the disruptive effects of technology. But if the humanities were challenged primarily by online delivery of recorded lectures, I would sleep very well at night.

The challenge humanists are confronting springs from social rather than technological change. And n+1 is right that part of the problem involves cynicism about the model of culture that justified the study of literature and other arts in the twentieth century. For much of that century, humanists felt comfortable claiming that their disciplines conveyed a kind of cultivation that transcended mere specialized learning. You learned about literary form not because it was in itself useful, but because it transformed you in a way that gave you full possession of a collective human legacy. I have to admit that the sociology of culture has made it harder to write sentences like that last one with a straight face. “Transformation” and “possession” are too obviously metaphors for cultural distinction.

John Guillory, Cultural Capital, Chicago, 1993.

John Guillory, Cultural Capital, Chicago, 1993.

This isn’t to say that Pierre Bourdieu and John Guillory are personally responsible for our predicament. I remember reading Guillory in 1993, and Cultural Capital didn’t come as a great shock. Rather, it seemed to explain, more candidly than usual, a state of imperial unclothedness that sidelong glances had already led most of us to privately suspect.

The n+1 editorial seems weakest when it tries to inflate this recent dilemma for humanists into a broader crisis for left politics or individual agency as such. If social theory necessarily sapped individuals’ will to action, we would be in very hot water indeed! We’d have to avoid reading Marx, as well as Bourdieu. But social analysis can of course coexist with a commitment to social change, and it’s not clear that the sociology of culture has done anything to undermine that commitment. The solidarity of middle and working classes against oligarchic power may even be in better shape today than it was in 1993.

That’s a bit beside the point, however, because n+1 doesn’t seem primarily interested in politics as such. They cite a few dubiously representative examples of contemporary(ish) political(ish) debate (e.g., David Brooks on bobos). But their heart seems to be in the academy, and their real concern appears to be that sociology is undermining academic humanists’ ability to defend their own institutions forcefully, untroubled by any doubt that those institutions merely reproduce cultural distinction. At least that’s what I infer when the editors write that “the spokespeople most effectively diminished by Bourdieu’s influence turn out to be those already in the precarious position of having to articulate and transmit a language of aesthetic experience that could remain meaningful outside either a regime of status or a regime of productivity.”

But here it seems to me that the editors are conflating two conversations. On the one hand, there’s a social and institutional debate about reforming and/or defending specific academic disciplines. On the other, there’s an abstract debate about the tension between social analysis and “aesthetic experience.” The rationale for treating them as the same seems weak.

Bowie, Heroes, 45 rpm, photo by Affendaddy. CC-BY-NC-SA.

Bowie, Heroes, 45 rpm, photo by Affendaddy. CC-BY-NC-SA.

For after all, aesthetic appreciation is doing just fine these days: the sociology of culture hasn’t even dented it. I don’t find my appreciation of David Bowie, for instance, even slightly compromised when I acknowledge that he concocted a specific kind of glamour out of racial, national, gender, and class identities. A historically specific fabulousness is no less fabulous.

The social specificity of Bowie’s glam does, on the other hand, complicate the kind of rationale I could provide for requiring students to study his music. It makes it harder to invoke him as a vehicle for a general cultivation that transcends mere specialized learning. And that’s why the sociology of culture has posed a problem for the humanities: not that it undermines aesthetic discourse as such, but that it complicates claims about the social necessity of aesthetic cultivation.

This is a real dilemma that I can’t begin to resolve in a blog post; instead I’ll just gesture at recent scholarly conversation on the topic broadly construed, including articles, courses, and presentations by Rachel Buurma, James English, Andrew Goldstone, and Laura Heffernan, among others.

The one detail I’d like to add to that conversation is that the concept of “the humanities” we are now tempted to defend may have been shaped in the early twentieth century by a reaction to social science rather like the reaction n+1 is now articulating.

It has been almost completely erased from the discipline’s collective memory, but between 1895 and 1925, literary studies came rather close to becoming a social science. The University of Chicago had a “Professor of Literary Theory and Interpretation” in 1903 — and what literary theory meant, at the time, was an ambitious project to articulate general laws of historical development for literary form. At other institutions this project was often called “general literatology” or “comparative literature,” but it had little in common with contemporary comparative literature. If you go back and read H. M. Posnett’s Comparative Literature (1886), you discover a project that resembles comparative anthropology more than contemporary literary study.

This period of the discipline’s history is now largely forgotten. English professors remember Matthew Arnold; we remember the New Criticism, and we vaguely remember that there was something dusty called “philology” in between. But we probably don’t remember that Chicago had a Professorship of (anthropologically conceived) “Literary Theory” in 1903.

The reason we don’t remember is that there was intense and effective push-back against the incorporation of social sciences (including history) in the study of arts and letters. The reaction stretched from works like Norman Foerster’s American Scholar (1929) to René Wellek’s widely-reprinted Theory of Literature (1949), and it argued at times rather explicitly that social-scientific approaches to culture would reduce the prestige of the arts by undermining the authority of personal cultivation. (One might almost say that critics of this period foresaw the danger posed by Bourdieu.)

humanitiesIt may not be an accident that this was also the period when a concept of “the humanities” (newly identified as an alternative to social science) became institutionally central in American universities (see Geoffrey Harpham’s Humanities and the Dream of America and my related blog post).

I’ll have a little more to say about the anthropologically-ambitious literary theory of the early twentieth century in a book forthcoming this summer (Why Literary Periods Mattered, Stanford UP). I don’t expect that book will resolve contemporary tension between the humanities and social sciences, but I do want to point out that the debate has been going on for more than a hundred years, and that it has constituted the humanities as a distinct entity as least as much as it has threatened them.

Postscript: For a response to n+1 by an actual sociologist of culture, see whatisthewhat.

* Postscript two days later: I now disagree with one aspect of this post — the way its opening paragraphs talk generally about a challenge “for the humanities.” Actually, it’s not clear to me that Bourdieu et. al have posed a problem for historians. I was describing a challenge “for the study of literature and the arts,” and I ought to have said that specifically. In fact, the tendency to inflate doubts about a specific model of literary culture into a generalized “crisis in the humanities” is part of what’s wrong with the n+1 editorial, and part of what I ought to be taking aim at here. But I guess blogging is about learning in public.

11 thoughts on “The long history of humanistic reaction to sociology.

  1. This is the sort of thing I’ve been thinking about off and on for some time.

    But it has just struck me that, while I’ve heard about this “cultivation that transcended mere specialized learning” I’m not sure I’ve read much evidence of it in print. Is this something real, or is it a Platonic Ideal we invent for the purpose of defending disciplinary boundaries? Do we really believe that, because a novelist must conjure up a whole world, that we can, by commenting on that novel, comment on the whole world? Well of course we can, but what’s the value of our commentary, which is not the novel itself, but just commentary?

    In any event, it seems to me that there has always been a tension between speaking on behalf of the cultural project (asserted to be) embodied in a selected set of texts and standing outside those texts (or at least attempting to do so) and examining them as instruments of cultural practice. It’s the former that’s threatened by the “sociology” of culture (scare quotes in recognition of that sociologist’s rebuttal), but not the latter. In fact, the sociology of culture is a necessary aspect of the latter.

    As for an anthropology of literature, I’m not familiar with the early 20th century theorizing you mention, but it seems to me that, for example, Moretti’s brief for ‘distant’ reading is, in part at least, anthropological: If we’re going to study these people through their texts, then we have to take ALL their texts into consideration, not just a carefully selected set of texts around which they’ve erected special institutions.

    • I think I agree with what you’re saying here.

      I’m trying to be sort of semi-neutral in this post (maybe to the point of being unclear). But to clarify my own stance: if I dropped the neutrality I would say that literary history has never been hard to justify as history. There are straightforward practical reasons why we need to understand the human past: you don’t have to invoke “cultivation” at all. And I agree: that umbrella would cover Moretti and a great deal of other recent work. Whether you call it “history,” or “sociology,” it’s not hard to justify.

      On the other hand, I understand that there are people (like the n+1 editors, apparently) who feel confined by a purely sociological/historical conception of the humanities, or who see that somehow as a diminished mission. And it’s not part of my agenda to insist that they color within a particular set of lines. Wherever humanists can find other projects to take on — formal, or psychological, or what have you — that’s fine by me.

      What’s not fine with me is an attempt to define the humanities by opposition to social-scientific analysis, which is the project I see gearing up in that n+1 editorial.

  2. On the other hand, I understand that there are people (like the n+1 editors, apparently) who feel confined by a purely sociological/historical conception of the humanities, or who see that somehow as a diminished mission.

    And, for that matter, it seems to me that the “passing on the culture” function is a necessary one; call it the ethical function (here I’m following Wayne Booth’s usage in The Company We Keep) of criticism (and, of course, literary criticism is only an aspect of the humanities). The problem is that we’ve not cleanly differentiated such ethical criticism from what I’ve elsewhere called naturalistic criticism, which would cover a range of sociological, historical, psychological, and linguistic approaches. As Booth pointed out (following Jamison, I believe) most criticism is, in fact, ethical criticism. But, since academic criticism has long since disavowed value judgment, we’ve not acknowledge it as such.

    Here’s J. Hillis Miller talking about the undergraduate humanities mission at Hopkins back in the 50s and 60s:

    Now, there was a second mission for the humanities, which was equally in place—the teaching part. Many of the undergraduates were premeds, but most of those premeds were brilliant students in the humanities. If you asked me what I was doing, and what we were doing collectively in the humanities, I would have had an answer to that: we were teaching students the literature they need to establish the ethos necessary to be a good citizen of the United States.

    The research mission (and graduate education by implication) was different:

    …if you’d asked me what I was doing in my research, my answer would have been to say, “I’m doing the same thing my colleagues in psychology, or biology, or physics are doing: I’m seeking truth, new truth, in my discipline.” You had an answer, respected by the scientists, that essentially we were engaged in the same kind of research.

    But it was all one discipline housed in a single department. Of course, Miller is looking back in retrospect (noting that it took him three decades to realize how weird it was to be teaching British literature as the ethos for American students) I don’t know how that looked to Miller at the time. But the two missions are distinct, but haven’t really been given distinct (“clear and distinct”?) institutional recognition. I think that lack of institutional distinction creates problems.

    Miller also notes:

    The courses in literature at Harvard when I was there [graduate school], I would have to say, were very thin. None of these people, including Douglas Bush, really had any idea about how to talk about a poem, in my opinion.

    And:

    There was nothing [at Harvard] to encourage me to think there would be any value whatsoever in reading Empson or Richards or Burke or any of those people. But, when I read it, I thought it was amazing. I’d never read anything like it. Here was somebody who looked at the actual texts of poems and tried to explain what was going on in them, which none of my teachers were doing.

    But there was a lot of editorial work going on, and a Yale as well when he moved there. The whole interview makes for fascinating reading, especially his comments about the politicization of his criticism, which came late in his career. And that, of course, is a fundamentally ethical commitment.

    What’s not fine with me is an attempt to define the humanities by opposition to social-scientific analysis, which is the project I see gearing up in that n+1 editorial.

    Agreed. And that sort of thing, as you point out, has been going on for a long time. And as long as we conflate two different missions that will keep happening. Both missions are valid and necessary. There’s no need to validate one over against the other.

    • Fascinating interview, and your point is well taken. Catherine Gallagher has an article in Daedalus (back in the 90s) arguing that the teaching mission and research mission of literature departments have often been distinct. She’s somewhat cagy about her own opinion in that article, but reading between the lines I think she’s saying something close to what you suggest here — that it might not be a problem to have two distinct missions.

  3. ‘I now disagree with one aspect of this post — the way its opening paragraphs talk generally about a challenge “for the humanities.” Actually, it’s not clear to me that Bourdieu et. al have posed a problem for historians. I was describing a challenge “for the study of literature and the arts,” and I ought to have said that specifically.’

    If you don’t mind my (a) arriving to this discussion rather late, and (b) contradicting you, I’m not sure you’ve quite put your finger on it there. The humanist activity problematised by the sociology of culture is not so much the study of literature and the arts as the institutionalised appreciation of literature and the arts. Study and appreciation can be distinguished from one another – as indeed they are in history and in non-humanist disciplines – but the confusion of the two has been foundational for English Literature as a university subject. It’s arguable that this confusion is as harmful to appreciation as it is to genuine study.

    So I don’t agree with you that ‘[t]he social specificity of Bowie’s glam… complicate[s] the kind of rationale [one] could provide for requiring students to study his music.’ What it would complicate is any attempt at a rationale for requiring them to appreciate his music.

    But that is (or ought to be seen as) a very different thing.

    • Actually, I stand corrected, because I think I agree with you here. I brushed over this distinction because it opens onto other, difficult disciplinary conversations. But I do agree: there are approaches to literature for which Bourdieu is not a problem.

      • I thought you might agree: I can’t see that Bourdieu presents a problem for your research, for example. I know that things get more complicated in the classroom, though.

        Appreciation makes its way into Jerome McGann’s approach to literary study in ways that I think would have been acceptable to Bourdieu: an appreciation of cultural distance, and of the use a writer made of the cultural resources available in a particular place and time. That’s very close to Bourdieu’s own approach to Flaubert. Bourdieu was head over heels in love with Flaubert – yet he never lost sight of Flaubert’s social and historical specificity. In many ways, Bourdieu’s appreciation of Flaubert precisely was an appreciation of his specificity.

        What Bourdieu really makes problems for is the idea of a charismatic succession of great authors whose works we must teach students to appreciate through ‘internal analysis’ (i.e. close reading). The trouble is that undergraduate English Literature syllabi the world over are built upon exactly this idea – and it’s hard to get a job teaching English Literature without signing up to it (at least implicitly).

      • Your references to “cultural distance” and “historical specificity” here are interesting to me, for reasons too long to fully explain. But the book I’ve got coming out this summer is exactly a sort of Bourdieuvian reading of the role “cultural distance” has played in literary studies, which suggests that historicism does after all depend on a peculiar kind of cultural capital.

    • Study and appreciation can be distinguished from one another…but the confusion of the two has been foundational for English Literature as a university subject. It’s arguable that this confusion is as harmful to appreciation as it is to genuine study.

      Yes. But I note that, in one way or another, people have been trying to disentangle the two for a long time. For example, the need to distinguish the two loomed large in the “Polemical Introduction” to Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism. One problem is that the profession’s strongest claim to institutional authority has been grounded in the cultural authority of the canon, and that authority would seem to be a matter of appreciation. The profession wants to claim the authority of the canon for itself: “What we say is important because we are the keepers of the canon.”

      That’s quite different from studying texts because those texts play an important role in socio-cultural process and you want to know how that process works. Here you get authority, not from the texts you study, but from your ability to study them well.

      • ‘Yes. But I note that, in one way or another, people have been trying to disentangle the two for a long time. For example, the need to distinguish the two loomed large in the “Polemical Introduction” to Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism.’

        Absolutely. And I think Frye would have been an ideal candidate for that 1903 Chicago professorship Ted mentions above! But these attempts to make sense of the critical enterprise always seem to get brushed aside. As you say, it’s all about authority. I do think something’s changing now, though. There are all sorts of ways in which the old (or, as the blog post above reminds us, relatively new) orthodoxy is being challenged – even if it still takes a lot of work to reflect that in bread-and-butter undergraduate teaching.

        Funnily enough, I quoted the ‘Polemical Introduction’ last year in an article on professional authority, and on how these strange contradictions of literary study play out in the undergrad classroom. I’d be interested to know what you think of it:

        http://www.danielallington.net/private-experience-textual-analysis-and-institutional-authority-the-discursive-practice-of-critical-interpretation-and-its-enactment-in-literary-training/

        (from that address, you can click through to a free copy from my institutional repository)

  4. ‘…which suggests that historicism does after all depend on a peculiar kind of cultural capital.’

    I’m not sure I’d want to argue with that. I was just admitting (pace the position taken in my earlier comment) that there are ways of reconciling Bourdieu – or at least, aspects of Bourdieu – with certain forms of literary appreciation. They aren’t aspects of Bourdieu that have been much worked with, although I’m committed to writing a chapter on them if and when a certain book gets a contract.

    I wish this sort of thing would be discussed more, actually. But it’s very difficult, when discussion is dominated by the sort of ignorance paraded in that ridiculous n+1 editorial.

    Anyway, I’ll be looking forward to your book.

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