20c sociology of literature

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.