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ENG 6018
Criticism and Theory I


Class 2: Crisis in the Humanities


Class Objectives:

  • Procedural questions
  • Discuss reading on "Crisis in the Humanities": Perloff.
  • Discuss English Studies as a discipline: McComiskey, et al.
  • Discuss overview of literary criticism and theory in NATC

Reading Assignment:

    NATC Introduction (pp 1-28);
    Perloff, "Crisis in the Humanities" avail in Course Documents;
    McComiskey, "Introduction" and one additional chapter in English Studies: An Introduction to the Discipline(s)

    At some point prior to reading Aristotle's Poetics students should read Oedipus the King

    Due: Group Discussion #1; Post #1


Notes and Discussion Questions:

    Based on your reading of Fish and Perloff, how would you describe the "Crisis in the Humanities"? Is this a recent phenomenon attributable to current conditions or events? What are the implications of the "crisis"? Why is it called "crisis"?

    Of the four paradigms for analyzing poetry (poetry as rhetoric, poetry as philosophy, poetry as art and poetry as cultural productions) which ones are most persuasive and why?

    What role do the early critics / theorists play in Perloff's assessment of the current crisis in the humanities? What role might the history of literary criticism and theory play in understanding the current crisis?

    She closes with the idea that "it is ... the contemporary fear of the pleasures of representation and recognition -- the pleasures of the fictive, the what might happen -- and its subordination to the what happened -- the historical / cultural -- that has trivialized the status of literary study in the contemporary academy and shrunk the corresponding departments. Indeed, the neo-Puritan notion that literature and the other arts must be somehow 'useful,' and only useful, that the Ciceronian triad -- docere, movere, delectare -- should renounce its third element ('delight') and even the original meaning of its second element, so that to move means only to move readers to some kind of specific action, has produced a climate in which it has become increasingly difficult to justify the study of English or Comparative Literature at all" (18).

    Evaluate these claims in terms of your understanding of the current critical issues for the humanities.


    Bruce McComiskey's introduction to English studies: An Introduction to the Discipline(s) locates the crisis within the departments of English in the United States. What are some of the similarities between McComiskey's concerns for English and the problems articulated by Fish and Perloff?

    To what extent is McComiskey's historical context for English Studies instructive? What do we learn about the "crisis"?

    To what extent do you think McComiskey's solution -- integration -- answers the problems effectively?

    How might a course like this -- on the history of theory and criticism -- contribute to your understanding of the discipline(s) of English?

    Choose one of the discipline chapters on Rhetoric and Composition, Creative Writing, Literature and Criticism, and Critical Theory and Cultural Studies, and offer an analysis of the discipline vis-a-vis early theory.

    For example, Janice Lauer in the chapter on Rhetoric and Composition, notes that the most prominent debates in the field today involve disciplinarity, writing processes and pedagogies, and writing ideologies. How do these debates involve or reflect the issues of early critical theory -- such as mimesis, audience, pleasure and utility?

    Katherine Haake believes that critical theory plays an important role in creative writing: "In my own view, creative writing, like other strands of English studies, can be organized conceptually around the three fundamental questions David H. Richter poses in Falling into Theory. Though Richter's subject is literature and the question is reading, the essential critical framework he poses -- asking what we do, why we do it, and how we do it -- applies as elegantly, and as productively to writing as it does to reading. In turn, this framework can be used to illuminate what has emerged, since the time when Wendy and I were starting out together, as the enduring triptych of our field -- product, process, writing -- which can be said to define and organize us" (166). What are the implications of connecting theory to creative writing in these ways? What does this suggest about unifying the project of English Studies?

    In exploring the narratives of origin for "literature" and literary study in the university, Richard C. Taylor suggests that the roots in classical languages, literature and rhetoric has a far longer history than the study of nationalist literatures such as British and American, and that for many critics the idea of humanism is passe: "the idea of a cultural traditions is one that should be challenged rather than uncritically conveyed" (202). What might this suggest about our study of classical and early modern criticism and theory? How does this study compare with or feed into our contemporary practices of cultural and ideological criticism?


    Introduction to NATC

    Although very simplified, this introduction provides an overview of the major movements in literary criticism and theory over the expanse of Western history. It usefully sets up a discussion of different theories in terms of two fundamental questions: What is literature? and What is interpretation?

    As you consider the different theoretical texts this semester, keep in mind how each constructs or assumes a concept of literature and a method of interpretation. Also consider the reader: "In depicting the critical encounter, theories of reading and interpretation invariably assign characteristics to texts and allocate particular roles and tasks to readers" (NATC 2).

    Your role in this class will be first to understand the meaning of the texts we are reading so as to create a clearer sense of the history of approaches to these fundamental questions, and second to analyze the texts and raise questions about the ways in which they answer these questions.

    Consider the schematic from M. H. Abrams offered on page 5. What are the theories that reflect a primary orientation toward the universe? What theories reflect a primary orientation toward the artist? Toward the audience? Toward the work itself?

    The introduction suggests that the theories we will be reading -- from Ancient through Enlightenment texts -- are primarily oriented toward the universe. What does that suggest about the function or value of literature during this vast historical expanse? What might you expect for the role of mimesis in these theories? What might you expect for the role of didacticism?

    As we begin to read the actual texts and discuss their complexities, we will return to these questions to see if these generalizations bear scrutiny. Is there room for theories of reader-response or authorship in this era?

    On page 6-7, the editors suggest that theories of literature often go hand in hand with theories of interpretation. What does this mean? How might we apply this idea to the theories in this class?


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