Sunday, November 22, 2009

The New Old New Criticism

That's quite a mouthful, isn't it?

'The New Criticism' is a form of literary criticism, developed during the 1920s and 1930s, and very much en vogue during the early post-WWII years. While Wikipedia is not always the number one source I would prefer to cite, their description of New Criticism is fairly accurate and good enough for someone who is not a pedantic intellectual snob to understand the general meaning of the term.

The really important facet of the New Criticism was the idea that text itself has a unique and self-contained meaning that can be understood by a close, strict reading of the text itself. Nothing outside the specific text itself contributes anything of value to understanding the meaning of the text itself. This is most important, for the purposes of our discussion, because it means that the actual meaning that the author is deliberately intending to convey is irrelevant. The text means what it means, regardless of what the author meant when he wrote it. This is very convenient device for those critics who want to read their own prejudices into the text. Here we have the fundamental flaw of the New Criticism: a text ultimately means what the critic says it means. If the critic is judged to be following the rules of close reading of the text itself in a vacuum, then the critic's interpretation of the text's true meaning even trumps that of the author.

Wow. I thought I was an elitist.

T.S. Eliot expressed his view of this problem extremely clearly:

"When I wrote a poem called The Waste Land some of the more approving critics said that I had expressed the ‘disillusionment of a generation,’ which is nonsense. I may have expressed for them their own illusion of being disillusioned, but that did not form part of my intention."

The irony, of course, is that Eliot was himself (in some areas) a pioneer of the New Criticism. Ultimately, however, he decided the author's intention came first.

So why have I made you sit through a dissertation on a form of literary criticism I obviously have little use for and that has fallen into disrepute in many literary circles?

Well, it's because of the political renaissance of the New Criticism as it might pertain to political speeches, policy, and debate. Now, representing the other side's comments in the worst light is not entirely new to politics. In some ways it is very old. Even the political lie is hardly a new thing.

However, the right wing has increasingly taken the position that they know the meaning of the things said, written, or proposed by their political opponents better than the people actually speaking, writing, or proposing. It is ironic that a literary tool accused of too universally assuming a natural state of 'liberal humanism' has become the political tool of conservative anti-humanists. Whether one is watching Fox News, listening to talk radio, or reading conservative blogs and opinion columns makes little difference. One can see a twisted and deconstructive variant of the New Criticism being applied to everything the left and center say, write, or propose. There is one constant and universal truth being communicated: the 'critics' of the right know what it all really means far better than the actual originators of the material they 'criticize.' Even their lies are true because they understand the meaning so much better than anyone else.

'Death panels', 'government takeover of health care', and 'cutting Medicare' are the slogans of the new, political incarnation of the New Criticism. None of these catchy and frightening phrases resemble the actual intention of the authors of health care reform policy. Yet they are trumpeted by conservative critics who claim they know better than those actually taking a hand in making the policy. One can find a similar tack taken on nearly every political issue one might mention. Cap and trade? It's 'a punitive and economically dangerous tax on business' despite the fact that cap and trade policies are pursued by countries who are far more successful in the manufacturing market than the United States. The New Criticism, you see, does not allow one to consider anything outside the immediate words being dissected. So the fact that cap and trade policies or health care reforms are successful elsewhere has nothing to do with the specific policies being attacked by the right.

I've gone on the record as saying I have certain reservations and objections to the direction health care reform is currently taking. I've also been equally critical of the green left and the oil-loving right. I don't believe cap and trade is a solution to environmental risks, though I do think it is a sensible and moderate policy. I am somewhat apart from many on the left in that I believe the maintenance of a modern, civilized society and the extension of the benefits of that society to as many people as possible takes precedence over environmental issues. I believe we should find ways to maintain and extend civilized society in ways as environmentally friendly as possible, but I believe human life and human advancement is of prime importance.

Yet I believe it is tremendously important to speak the truth in these matters. The American political right is not doing so. On the subject of the environment, many on the European and international right are also lying. Worse, they are representing their own views as a more clear understanding of the actual meaning of their opponents' ideas than the authors of those ideas. They mischaracterize their opponents' intent or disregard it entirely.

The New Criticism is arrogant and elitist in literature.

It's deadly in politics.

16 comments:

Anonymous said...

What an excellent launching point to continue our discussion from Liberal Values. :) To broaden it a bit for the moment, I'm reminded of legal contract law. If I recall correctly, this New Criticism would fall nicely within it. If one has a contractual dispute, one has to rely entirely within the document of the contract and not go outside it. If a judge ends up deciding an ambiguity, it is always suppose to lean in favor of the person who DIDN'T write the contract as who ever wrote it was "master of the contract". Essentially saying, if something could be interpreted two ways the writer should have done better writing it, the non-writer can assume the why they understood it was correct. I'm not sharing any of this as a dispute with your article, actually I generally agree with what you presented, just musing and "stream of concious" type writing. It also made me think of author of Don Quixote (pardon if misspelled) Cervantes. I just love the way he opened his writing with a big disclaimer that he gives up all license to the meaning of his writing and allows anyone to be "right" on however they take what his writing means. While I think his real intent was to make fun of chivalry, I read Don Q. as a powerful inspiration to "reach for the stars" despite any handicap you may have. Now to slowly get back to the subject on hand. Yes, I see the right/conservatives do the "text by itself, out of context" quite frequently. Ultimately, I think this stems from, as I think you agree, the idea the person A thinks he knows what person B meant more than person B knows what he meant. In my mind, an example could be Obama using the word "redistribute" . Some of us, darn it, I've just painted myself in a corner, yes I'll confess I'm one who, if I'm completely honest will admit the following: In my belief, Obama honestly doesn't realize how much of the communist philosophy he embraces. My belief, as flawed as it may be, is that if we had an infallable lie detector test, and Obama was asked if he believed in capitalism, he'd say yes and the detector would indicate he wasn't lying, but his ideas of how America should be, is actually much more in line with communist style than capitalist. So too, I believe, without much evidence to support it, that liberals think they understand the hearts of conservatives better than conservatives know themselves. They think, that we honestly believe we aren't racist haters of poor and minorities, but they "know" we are. Is there any possibility both sides are correct? It seems to me there is a Bible text that says: The heart is the most deceitful of all things. Pehaps our opponents know us better than we do. For me, despite thinking that I know the Bible somewhat well, if I saw the bumper sticker for the first time we were discussing, I wouldn't have a clue what Psalm 109:8 was about. I might suspect it was a joke before even looking it up. Once finding it, I wouldn't have studied the whole passage (but for all the attention it got from bloggers) and likely had a chuckle and put it in the category of deliberately out of context jokes like saying Moses served in Pharoh's court being a reference to tennis. (Incidentally, I searched for that text, and can't find it anywhere, I'm now suspecting it isn't even a direct quoute from the Bible.) But anyway, maybe I'm just fooling myself, perhaps my 9 months as an unpaid volunteer English teacher in the Democratic Republic of Congo and my 21 years of marriage to a woman who has the rare family records that can actually trace her family tree to a slave woman sold off a Dutch ship on the island of Tortolla, Virgin Islands, well maybe all that just masks my racism towards a black president. Mike Hatcher

Chris Richards said...

Mike, I've never called you racist. I don't believe you should feel that you need to prove to me that you are not. I do believe that American society has evolved in a way that is racist in a practical sense, even if racism as a serious theory is in great disrepute.

I also think that American exclusivity leads to a knee-jerk defense of any attacks on anything critical of 'America' without judging it on its merits.

I think you are wrong on a great many issues, one of these being the degree of racism present in others who agree with you politically. That said, while you occasionally make me want to hit you (largely because I like you, think you are pretty smart, and sometimes feel you are listening too much to people nowhere near as smart as you with a little too much blind faith), I respect your ability to admit when the grounding of your arguments slip out from under your feet and I enjoy arguing with you.

I'm certainly glad for vigorous debate, as I hope my replies to comments here show.

I think there is some truth to the idea that there can be 'deeper meaning' in literature. I think writers can write things that mean things they do not mean them to actually mean.

I think it is tremendously arrogant for critics to assume they know better than the writer him/herself as a matter of course and that the writer's intended meaning is as important as the reader's perceived understanding. I also think that one can talk about what something 'means to them' and that is a valid topic of discussion... but I also believe that ultimately one has to judge the 'meaning' of any communication by the intent of the person communicating.

Mike, my economic philosophy is Radical and my practical political philosophy is what I would call Democratic-Republican-Socialist (by which I mean that I believe in universal citizen suffrage to elect the people who run the government and that the government is responsibility for the administration of civil society in a manner that brings as many of the benefits of civil society to as many people as possible.) As of this moment, the quote on my 'letterhead' is from Bakunin.

In other words, I'm as close to a 'Communist' as you're going to find in America these days outside the lunatic fringe.

Trust me. Speaking as someone on the far left, Obama is a LOT closer to you than he is to me on the political scale. It might be elitist of me to say this, but I feel more qualified to judge left-wing views and policy than those on the right. If the Democrats were really 'socialist' there would be a lot less material on this blog bashing them for disappointing half-measures.

I read through the Bible from cover to cover every so often just to keep up a certain degree of familiarity, though not often enough to quote chapter and verse it is just often enough to know where to find most anything given a few minutes.

The expressed suspicion that 'Moses served in Pharaoh's court' is not a literal quote is correct. What the Bible actually says (generally speaking, not an exact quote) is that Moses grew up in the Egyptian court as Pharaoh's de facto grandson. :)

Chris Richards said...

As something of a postcript, I think many conservatives who are not personally racist are hypersensitive about accusations of conservative racism because of their own belief that they personally are not and the general human belief that the people we like are not that different from us. I think this hypersensitivity makes you, and others, overly defensive about /real/ conservative racism.

Leslie lives in the South. I live in the South. Particularly, we both live in a state where a white Republican Senator won an election on the strength of a political commercial depicting his black opponent on dates with white women.

Not entirely coincidentally, Tennessee went for McCain and against Obama by a massive margin. Do you see where Leslie might have a legitimate and strong empirical justification for some of her beliefs about much of the opposition to Obama?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the feedback. Now on a much weightier matter. I think the Patriots were right to go for it on 4th down simply because I'd put my faith in Brady and team making 3 yards than Peyton Manning and team not making a touch down. Oh, wait, you are the boxing expert, sorry, wrong discussion. I'll have to tell you sometime in great detail how I financed my 2nd trip to Africa, two weeks in Rwanda, off a $700 bet on Holyfield the bout he won by Tyson biting his ear. I netted over 2K with that and I don't/didn't follow boxing, I just had a friend that did, and sold me on the value of making that bet. Mike Hatcher

Chris Richards said...

I agree with you. The Patriots were right to go for it. The same people bashing Belichick for letting his ego drive him to go for it this year were praising his willingness to go for it the year the Pats almost went undefeated before the Super Bowl went so terribly wrong.

There are four downs for a reason, sometimes you have to make the defense play all four downs. Sometimes it doesn't work out.

I am not a boxing expert, I am a boxing geek. I study fight history and, before economics drove me to abandon my HBO and Showtime, watched every big fight I could on tv. I sound like an expert when I write about boxing because so many idiots write about boxing thoughtlessly and I am not an idiot and try to put thought into my writing. ;)

I would have bet on Holyfield too. Good job listening to your bud.

Leslie Parsley said...

It is now 12:30 AM Nashville time. I can't sleep, so thought I'd travel around to see what's happening. I'm really too tired to make much sense of the connection between New Criticism of literary works to New Criticism of political speeches, policy and debate. To the Far Right getting their instructions from wherever. To Don Quixote. And ending with the Patriots. And throughout the numerous, but interesting, essays are gzillions of other little tangents. Am I in my cups? Nope - just kind of spoofing, in a very tired way.

BTW, Nashville/Davidson County was the only county in TN to carry Obama. It'll be interesting to see what, if any, fallout there will be from Lamar Alexanders' claim that Obama's health care is a "ghetto." Would you consider that new criticism?

Leslie Parsley said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Chris Richards said...

'It'll be interesting to see what, if any, fallout there will be from Lamar Alexanders' claim that Obama's health care is a "ghetto." Would you consider that new criticism?'

No, I'd consider that further proof that Lamar Alexander either does not care about ordinary people or that he does not understand their problems.

This has become very popular, and people on the right are spreading the idea that the public option will be a dumping ground for people who can't afford 'real insurance.' It isn't true, it's why the House plan includes a Medicaid expansion. The public option will likely be very comparable to the other policies in the national exchange as far as price.

But the truth rarely stops good ol' Howdy Doo--- err, I mean, Senator Alexander.

Leslie Parsley said...

Didn't mean to repeat myself there.

Chris Richards said...

S'okay, I've taken care of the dupe. :)

Anonymous said...

I'm not familiar with the term: "Am I in my cups?" On a separate note, I could perhaps believe that Obama is closer to me than to you on the conservative/liberal spectrum. But I'd like to ask you, to suppose, just suppose someone was at heart as radically socialist as one could be but at the same time cautious about how far to push the envelope, what would you expect to see different from such a politician than what you see from Obama? I do see restraint, and not a full throttle move to the left, but a clear move to the left that is perhaps tempered only by caution. I am truley interested in what you might think a more radical socialist might try if they didn't want to catch too much backlash by going for too much too fast. Mike Hatcher

Chris Richards said...

The term 'in my/his/her/their cups' is a reference to being drunk, Mike.

'I am truley interested in what you might think a more radical socialist might try if they didn't want to catch too much backlash by going for too much too fast.'

I'm much more interested in your definition of a 'clear move to the left', actually.

Left of what?

Of Bush?

I mean, a Democrat defeated one of the most unabashedly right-wing presidents in history (perhaps THE most) and you think it is at all possible there would /not/ be a 'clear move to the left' of the previous administration's policies?

In fact, that is precisely what most people wanted. Indeed, the biggest complaint about health care reform is that it is too conservative. From nearly everyone but the right wing and those fooled by the bullshit.

If one compares Obama's policies with the traditional policies of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party (let's leave socialists out of it entirely for now) then he's pretty conservative.

And the left wing of the Democratic Party is far from 'socialist.' Just ask Bernie Sanders.

Anonymous said...

Even if 1) We as a nation were quite far to the right as a starting point to Obama's administration. 2) You could argue the voice of the people/voters was to move a different (to the left) direction. My question still stands. One might say we were so far to the right there was no where to go but to the left, but I don't think someone who wanted to go "hard left" could turn it much more than Obama is turning it. I'm not even saying it is all bad, but extentions of unemployment benefits, cap and trade, more government control of business, the push for health care, moves to close Gitmo, big labor union support, efforts to expand rights of foreign enemy combatants to that of U.S. citizens. The stimulus bill. What in that is not to the left? Perhaps some of that corporate bailout stuff could be labeled as classical "corporate welfare" but I didn't hear any conservatives supporting it. To try to answer my own question, I don't see why Obama couldn't just end "Don't ask Don't tell" policies in the militairy with one instant executive order. You mentioned health care reform being too conservative, but it seems clear to me that Obama wants a far bigger change but is battling for something perhaps more acheivable than for what he really wants. To rephrase, in what area do you think this, or any president could sucessfully move towards the left that Obama isn't moving? Immigration perhaps? Doesn't seem like there has been any movement there, but I see this more as strategic with so much on his plate than some desire to keep things as they are. Mike Hatcher

Chris Richards said...

Cap and trade is a conservative policy, thought up by the European /right/ to make practical inroads into their carbon emissions without unduly hampering their manufacturing industries. It is only 'left' in the US because the American right prefers not to acknowledge the need for environmental concern of any kind.

Extension of unemployment benefits is plain common sense, hardly a huge move to the left. The Republican Congress of the Bush Years extended unemployment benefits on several occasions as well.

'More government control of business' is simply a lie. I assume that what you mean is tightening of regulation... which the administration has consistently resisted doing. The Obama Administration has attempted to gain some sensible control of the TARP money given out by the Bush Administration and put some strings upon it where possible, as opposed to simply writing black checks as the Bush Treasury did. However, regulatory measures necessary to curb the real abuses that led to the economic problem has not been taken.

I am frequently amazed by the failure of 'law and order' conservatives to properly understand the need for corporate regulation. They would never question laws against murder, kidnapping, assault, theft, etc to prevent individuals from committing such crimes. However, the idea that corporations should respect similar human law is entirely alien.

Labor unions have been pretty much screwed. Perhaps not as badly as they would have been by a Republican administration, but screwed all the same. Congress and the administration have dropped the portions of the EFCA that really matter, tended to favor management over labor in the GM bailouts, and President Obama's badly misguided education policy includes quite a few provisions that the teachers' unions consider absolute betrayal. So the 'big labor union support' can pretty much be dismissed as simply not so.

The stimulus bill was necessary and ended up being much smaller than most of the economists who really know what they are talking about said it should be. Paul Krugman is still going on about a much longer period of depression than expected, because of the insufficient investment in stimulus. The actual bill was very moderate, deliberately designed to win the support of conservative Democrats.

On this issue one can certainly argue that more was not possible... but the kind of effort to bring the Democratic Party into line that might have accomplished more was never made in the kind of ruthless way the Bush Administration worked to force the GOP into lockstep on its issues. A president more committed to a radical left-wing agenda would have made such an effort.

Indeed, the administration has very deliberately resisted such attempts and has sought consensus instead.

This has been a big complaint made by liberals, in fact.

As for health care...

The stupidity of the right on this issue is incalculable and only exceeded by their dishonesty on this issue. We are the only nation in the 'free world' that does not make certain its citizens have access to health care. The fears trumpeted by the right, of a corrupt and totalitarian government health care bureaucracy, already exist in the form of a corrupt and totalitarian corporate health care bureaucracy.

Instead of seeking to dismember that corrupt machinery and establish a working system of health care delivery, lawmakers are tinkering with the gears.

Leslie Parsley said...

OT I'm afraid. You provided the following piece of satire on JL"

"I am a Senator from the State of Connecticut and the capital of my state is the capital of the nation's insurance industry. The insurance industry brings money and jobs to my constituents and donates massive amounts of money to my campaigns against that Lamont guy. So naturally, I'm far too deep in their pocket to have any interest whatsoever in supporting a public option."

I think it's hilariously original. But my manners were slipping and I failed to respond. Just know that every time I think of it I laugh.

Chris Richards said...

It makes me smile to know that I was able to make you laugh.

I am usually not terribly good at 'funny.' :)