Scientific Humanism

Guillory’s account of the rise of Literary Studies makes clear that the discipline in a state of nature—namely that soft Darwinian habitat, the Academy—is but the history of its models, that is to say, a history of precedents, paradigms, and prototypes, all of which recur as such. It seems the early breeders of our discipline, piqued to the truth-appeal of the natural sciences, meant to avail themselves by laying claim to their own scientificity. They held forth from the fact-checking trenches of an early sort of historicism, these philologists. They did research. They collected textual and archival evidence; and these findings proved vital to choreographing the history of literature. From then on, equipped with ‘techniques of historical interpretation’, they could call themselves a discipline. Meanwhile, the bellelettrists (i.e. ‘generalists’) taught books. Their classes were well attended, enjoyed even. But these two species of intellect, sharing a habitat and vying for the same resources, over time, had the effect of checking the other’s population. Nominally, neither survived. But ideologically, I think, their lineages can be traced right up to the present.   


The unfortunate irony is that Literary Studies appears to have solidified its place in the university by being set at variance to science, and by association, opposed to the very march of modernity. Literary knowledge was then thought distinct from scientific knowledge: one represented all that was human, the other all that was humanly possible. Like it or not, this apparent imbroglio (partly constructed) lingers on today in the form of misconceptions about what it is exactly we’re teaching in Literary Studies. The simple answer is, “We’re teaching young people to be sophisticated consumers of texts! To worry less about getting it right and more about getting something useful!” To add insult to injury: “It is worth noting,” Robert Scholes writes in The Rise and Fall of English, “that the status of the Humanities continues to shrink just at the moment when they are moving toward a gender balance in their faculties, while the ‘higher’ faculties [STEM] continue to be dominated by men” (47). The question now is precisely what role literature will come to play in this state of nature, our present political economy. Fields of study are more specialized now than they ever were. The move towards interdisciplinarity can be a fruitful one, so long as it is not a move to get more terms onto the blackboard. We might heed the lesson of our forbearers, the philologists. They worked rigorously, successfully, to periodize literature for pedagogical ends; but the more they tried to assert themselves professionally the sooner their work became just a piece of the politics it was supposed to lead out of.


Over the years the emphasis in Literary Studies has decidedly become a philosophical one. This unhappy marriage between philosophy and literature—Theory, as we’ve come to know it—can be traced in part back to Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria, that is, back to a time when, as Jay explained, there was much cross-breeding between disciplines. Must have been nice! In any event Coleridge’s work helped to systematize the study of literature, laying the groundwork for our profession. Still, I rather enjoy Byron’s response to Biographia Literaria. It was something to the effect of, “He explained metaphysics to all of England. I wish he’d explain his explanation to me.”


In Byron’s spirit, I suppose, I’d like to recall something from my days of publishing literature. It so happened that one of our authors, not to name names, was significantly inept in all technological matters. In short, this author did not know how to email. And so the author sent along his manuscripts in manila envelopes. Fortunately for us, we had a program that could transform the author’s hard copy into a Word file. We did, scanning some three-hundred pages. The book was then shuffled along through the various stages of editing, editing, and editing. After a month had passed, having sent the book off to press, we received a box of a hundred or so galleys. But little did we know that in transforming the hard copy to a Word file the program had mistakenly, egregiously, misrepresented the word ‘arm’ as “anus” in fifteen different places throughout the text. It took three interns and two trips to Office Depot for white-out to clean the mess up. Some of it, we’re still paying for.  






~ by B.L. on January 29, 2009.

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