Tuesday, December 14, 2004

"Smart Criticism" vs. Good/Useful Academic Writing

Jeffrey Williams in the Chronicle of Higher Education historicizes the idea of "smartness" in scholarship. He is primarily focusing on literary criticism, though I presume his argument could apply to other disciplines as well. In the old days, smartness was valued less than soundness:

In literary studies -- I take examples from the history of criticism, although I expect that there are parallels in other disciplines -- scholars during the early part of the 20th century strove for "sound" scholarship that patiently added to its established roots rather than offering a smart new way of thinking. Literary scholars of the time were seeking to establish a new discipline to join classics, rhetoric, and oratory, and their dominant method was philology (for example, they might have ferreted out the French root of a word in one of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales). They sought historical accuracy, the soundness of which purported a kind of scientific legitimacy for their nascent discipline.

The first move to smartness came with Lionel Trilling's "The Moral Value of Being Intelligent," though it manifested itself at an institutional level in the move to technocracy and standardized testing that swept academia in the late 1960s, and turned the Ivy Leagues from simple bastions of privilege to bastions of privilege where you have to a) be intelligent, and b) work like a dog.

I find this part of Williams's essay a little confusing -- why did the rise of American technocracy (which Williams also connects to the Cold War) require more "intelligence" than before? Also confusing is how English departments in particular then went on (starting in the early 1970s) to leave "intelligence" behind for a time, to take on a new emphasis on quasi-scientific "rigor," whose chief proponent and examplar was Paul de Man. One can see why rigor became popular from a disciplinary point of view -- the seductions of literary theory. But since Williams is trying to historicize intellectual trends, I would expect a historical explanation for this trend.

At any rate, now "rigor" and theoreticism is apparently gone again, in favor of a new cult of smartness. And here is where I think Williams makes a great point.

Individual specializations have narrowed to microfields, and the overall field has expanded to encompass low as well as high literary texts, world literatures as well as British texts, and "cultural texts" like 18th-century gardens and punk fashion. At the same time, method has loosened from the moorings of grand theories; now eclectic variations are loosely gathered under the rubric of cultural studies. Without overarching criteria that scholars can agree upon, the value has shifted to the strikingness of a particular critical effort. We aim to make smart surmises among a plurality of studies of culture.

[...Omitting a couple of paragraphs on further historical changes in the academic environment...]

Smart still retains its association with novelty, in keeping with its sense of immediacy, such that a smart scholarly project does something new and different to attract our interest among a glut of publications. In fact, "interesting" is a complementary value to smart. One might praise a reading of the cultural history of gardens in the 18th-century novel not as "sound" or "rigorous" but as "interesting" and "smart," because it makes a new and sharp connection. Rigor takes the frame of scientific proof; smart the frame of the market, which mandates interest amid a crowd of competitors. Deeming something smart, to use Kant's framework, is a judgment of taste rather than a judgment of reason. Like most judgments of taste, it is finally a measure of the people who hold it or lack it.

The promise of smart is that it purports to be a way to talk about quality in a sea of quantity. But the problem is that it internalizes the competitive ethos of the university, aiming not for the cultivation of intelligence but for individual success in the academic market. It functions something like the old shibboleth "quality of mind," which claimed to be a pure standard but frequently became a shorthand for membership in the old boys' network. It was the self-confirming taste of those who talked and thought in similar ways. The danger of smart is that it confirms the moves and mannerisms of a new and perhaps equally closed network.

"Smart," as a designation of mental ability, seems a natural term to distinguish the cerebral pursuits of higher education, but perhaps there are better words. I would prefer the criticism I read to be useful and relevant, my colleagues responsible and judicious, and my institution egalitarian and fair. Those words no doubt have their own trails of associations, as any savvy critic would point out, but they suggest cooperative values that are not always inculcated or rewarded in a field that extols being smart.

There is much that I agree with here. I have on my bookshelf a long list of academic books that make exactly the sort of "sharp connection" Williams is describing. Ironically, most of them are not especially "useful"; when I prepare to teach a course on 20th Century Indian literature (as I am now preparing to do), very few of these very smart books are suitable as secondary materials to recommend to undergraduates. There is no chapter summarizing Indian literature before the twentieth century leading up to Tagore, which mentions ancient and medieval Sanskrit writers, the different language traditions (i.e., the Bengali Renaissance), the influence of the Mughal tradition (Ghazals; Mehfil; Shayri), and finally, the transformative role of the British. There are fifty books out right now dealing with Indian literature in one way or another, but if I want a ten page excerpt that covers major concepts along the lines mentioned above, I pretty much have to write my own. (No shame in that, of course... keeps me busy)

Side-note: Another factor affecting the utility of smart criticism is also jargon. Williams doesn't say it, but over-use of jargon is one dire consequence of the plague of smartness.

I don't advocate, as Williams seems to, yet another turn in academic fashion -- yet another return to pseudo-science, or strictly utilitarian criticism. I think there ought to be room for publishing books that do several different kinds of things. On the one hand, we need textbooks that collect and propagate information (not just anthologies; I believe we need textbooks on literature, and maybe also on cultural studies topics). There is an art in putting together the kinds of arguments, and the style of writing, that is designed to offer information to undergraduates.

That said, the field continues to need studies that do aim to represent what I still naively think of as "new knowledge." In literature, this might involve discovering literary texts that no one has read; proposing a new, contrarian reading in texts that everyone has read; various kinds of archival work; and, the surveying of new forms or genres, to name just a few. And though I think Williams makes a very good point, I do feel that smart criticism can potentially belong in the category of "new knowledge" -- if it is either exceptionally well-written or thoroughly original.

Q: Is "smart criticism" a problem in other disciplines?
Q2: Is the smartness trend tied to jargon, as I've suggested?
Q3: Is the smartness trend tied to "academic groupthink">
Q4: Do you buy Williams's argument? Are there other holes?


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