Instead, the essay casts the current "return to aesthetics" as the natural consequence of shortcomings in deconstruction and new historicism, which led to a reconfiguration of aesthetics. Subsequent essays demonstrate the value and versatility of aesthetic considerations in literature, from eighteenth-century poetry to twentieth-century popular music. Organized into four groups -- politics, form, gender, and theory -- contributors revisit the canonical works of Henry James, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Stephen Crane, introduce the overlooked texts of Constance Fenimore Woolson and Earl Lind, and unpack the complexities of the music of The Carpenters.
Deeply rooted in an American context, these essays explore literature's aesthetic dimensions in connection to American liberty and the formation of political selfhood.
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Contributors include Edward Cahill, Ivy G. But as necessary and hermeneutically fruitful and historically nuanced as that critical position has been, it also depends, ironically, upon reifying the aesthetic as it renders ahistorical questions of taste, beauty, affect, and feeling. In an elegant statement that anticipates this volume, Richard Brodhead presciently writes in Cultures of Letters , one of the most important new historicist monographs to come out of the s: The most compelling reason for studying the social relations of literary forms is that this dimension has been so long and so systematically ignored.
Once this territory has been scouted as thoroughly as some others, visiting it will become comparatively less rewarding. Along with other scholars in the profession, we have begun to wonder if the category of the aesthetic and the artifacts that have been designated as aesthetic was worth revisiting with a less suspicious attitude. We wanted to examine whether aesthetics was useful only insofar as it was one more exemplification of the operations of what Louis Althusser has described as ideological state apparatuses.
As should be evident, the goal of this volume is not to resuscitate aesthetic categories in order simply to go back to a New Critical moment when the text stood alone as an object of study, cordoned off from the putatively disfiguring effects of politics, biography, production, and reception—in other words, context; rather, the aim is to reintroduce aesthetic categories—such as style, form, beauty, pleasure, imagination, in order to demonstrate the ways in which aesthetics and politics are dialectically engaged.
Indeed, one of the primary reasons for this volume that sense of something missing has to do with how that homology has defined and limited analyses of American literature. With that caveat in mind, let us turn again to one of the defining texts of the s, Ideology and Classic American Literature , in which the contested relation between aesthetics and politics is, as in this volume, the impetus for a set of ambitious and powerful essays. When Sacvan Bercovitch, in his afterword, wished to critique the American ideology that is adopted from the start precisely for its capacity to transmute radicalism of all forms, from religious protest to revolutionary war, into forms of cultural consensus, he described that ideology as an aesthetic flowering Imperialism is to follow the logic of a text without lapsing into trivial formalism or celebration of literary ambiguity or linguistic undecidability.
They cordon off the canonical from the noncanonical, thereby limiting our exposure to and understanding of historical contexts.
Part 1. Aesthetics and the Politics of Freedom
They tend to focus on the moral conclusions and aesthetic pleasures of the middle-class novel And they privilege literature as a domain outside ideology in a footnote, Rowe alludes to traditional literary study which often tacitly supports an aesthetic ideology [ n 36]. Perhaps Janice A. Matthiessen to devise a national consensus that converted the conflicting claims of antebellum political rhetoric into the achieved art of the American Renaissance.
Davidson, aimed to subvert the notion of the canon itself. And this is so because of a shared sense that the dismissal of their archive is based on grounds which have come to seem universal standards of aesthetic judgment Tompkins In fact, it is important to keep in mind that the aesthetic has been deployed to keep certain authors in the canon and others out. In challenging traditional and historically decontextualized definitions of aesthetic judgment, works by women, African Americans, Native Americans, queers, and other previously all but invisible writers have been able to find their place in the critical discourse.
Davidson, for example, distinguishes her work from traditional literary criticism, which she defines this way: literature is not simply words upon a page but a complex social, political, and material process of cultural production viii. For these critics, the ultimate value of literature inheres in what it has to say about the social world, and because the aesthetic somehow seems separate from that world, or obstructs our understanding of that world, we must turn away from it.
This critical approach is sometimes described as new historicism, and among its eclectic inspirations are the deconstructive work of Jacques Derrida, Paul de Man, and others who became known as the Yale school, as well as the theoretical works of Michel Foucault and the thought of cultural anthropologists such as Clifford Geertz.
American Literature’s Aesthetic Dimensions | Columbia University Press
It is worth briefly rehearsing the theoretical engines of new historicism because the terms they have given us—terms such as writing and discourse , for example—are now such a crucial part of our interpretive fabric as to seem almost invisible, perhaps even commonplace. Although this discussion will move us away, for the time being, from the topic of aesthetics, it is a necessary digression because these theories have had an enormous influence on how we define literature and how we practice literary criticism.
The question of aesthetics and the status of the literary text are pivotal, even when the term is out of sight. Let us begin with deconstruction. The meaning of the outside was always present within the inside, imprisoned outside the outside, and vice-versa.
Its repetition merely creates the illusion of presence. Beneath the established signs, and in spite of them, he hears another, deeper, discourse. In The Archeology of Knowledge , Foucault gives literary critics both a definition and a methodology: The frontiers of a book are never clear-cut: beyond the title, the first lines, and the last full stop, beyond its internal configuration and its autonomous form, it is caught up in a system of references to other books, other texts, other sentences: it is a node within a network….
As soon as one questions that unity, it loses its self-evidence; it indicates itself, it constructs itself, only on the basis of a complex field of discourse. For Foucault, this scattering of unities and understanding of the interplay of relations within it [the book or any other literary statement or event] and outside it serves to answer the key question, how is it that one particular statement appeared rather than another?
American Literature’s Aesthetic Dimensions
In terms of the aesthetic stakes of this argument, the Foucauldian discursive network is constituted by a variety of texts from a variety of disciplines, leaving open the question of whether or not aesthetic discourse should be granted a certain privileged status by virtue of its beauty as compared to, say, psychological discourse , self-awareness relative to, say, ethnographic discourse , or its breadth of referentiality relative to, say, economic discourse.
In large part, the role of the new historicist critic is the reconstruction of this network, the optimal result being what anthropologist Clifford Geertz famously called the thick description of cultural discourse. Moreover, in an interpretive move that turns the outside inside and vice versa , she argues that the individual [himself] shares the definitive principle of domesticity: its withdrawal from the marketplace.
What does this mean for the aesthetic? It means what Brodhead said it means: a radically new and productive way of understanding literary forms in relation to social relations. It does so first by leveling the playing field, in the sense that literature takes its place as one more discourse in the cultural field, which includes economics, psychology, sociology, etc. This resituation of the literary text—which had for so long been constructed as a unique object untouched by social context and was then being understood as fully imbricated in that context—infused literary criticism with renewed energy and conviction.
The notion of literature as posit[ing] a space outside the culture in order then to interrogate the relations between that space here defined as literature and the culture is one that Michaels in particular and new historicists more generally worked to dispel. What you can get from it, however, is an " exemplif [ication] [of] that culture. In that regard, Melville dramatizes the very juncture where the logic of freedom dovetails into the logic of empire … where the imperial self of Jacksonian individualism recapitulates the logic of Jacksonian imperialism.
In one of the most illuminating readings of Melville, Dimock explains how his works repeatedly recapitulate a logic of individualism that is itself a recapitulation of the logic of empire.
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She writes: the instrument of indictment, in both cases, is the very figure of selfhood, a figure that both encloses and excludes: a tautology, finally, within whose confines one always is what one is Our observation here is simple. One should observe here the theoretical kinship between deconstruction and new historicism as the author-function becomes the site of the deconstructive aporia.
These analyses accomplish the Foucauldian mandate, which demands that the subject and its substitutes must be stripped of its creative role and analysed as a complex and variable function of discourse. If literature is one discourse among many, without any exceptional status, and if the author is a function of those discourses, without the pedigree of creativity, it would seem that the category of the aesthetic has been fatally wounded. But that is not exactly true.
What has been wounded, and deservedly so, is a particular definition of the aesthetic that links it to a notion of textual or authorial transcendence, not, in other words, a wholesale dismissal of the notion of the aesthetic itself. Not only does she focus on a genre popular romance novels that perhaps more than any other has been dismissed on aesthetic grounds, but she also eschews a reading about the meaning of romances to offer a reading of "the meaning of romance reading as an activity and a social event 7.
She is writing about books that are, for all intents and purposes, duplicates of one another, stylistically and narratively repetitive. That said, however, she, like Tate, discovers a value in their ability to gratify, or, as Radway puts it, the reading experience is valued for the way it makes the reader feel … a general sense of emotional well-being and visceral contentment Moreover, Radway, whose introduction describes a process whereby she realizes the book she is writing is not about romances as texts 7 , nevertheless ends up with a meditation on the romance and the narrative technique[s] employed that create the powerful experience of reading the romance.
If the literary really is a manifestation of the social, if popular culture really is literary, why reinforce that separation with a doubling of quotation marks?
American Literature's Aesthetic Dimensions
Is it because the literary is somehow and this is where the essays in this volume come in in a different relation to the social, a distinctive relation of the aesthetic to the social that is designated by punctuation if not always by prose? She writes in her introduction that she was trying to understand what gave these novels traction in their original setting i. The romances represent the world here and elsewhere, now and some other time. That is the power and complexity of their artistry. For Tompkins, non-fictional discourse, when set side by side with contemporary fiction, can be seen to construct the real world in the image of a set of ideals and beliefs in exactly the same way that novels and stories do xv.
This striking formulation produced a series of readings that, as Tompkins writes in her final chapter, is a "competing attempt [ contra Matthiessen] to constitute American literature" She succeeded in reconfiguring the canon. But, if these texts are typical and familiar, why read these particular texts and not other typical ones? Why read novels if one can get the same cultural information xvi from religious tracts? Going back to Foucault, why constitute the discursive network of American sentimentalism through The Wide, Wide World and not one of the hundreds of other sentimental novels written at the time?
Is it perhaps because this novel is more typical or more capaciously referential than those others? Does it do a better job, as it were, of tap[ping] into that storehouse and might that have something to do with their aesthetic properties?
Tompkins is profoundly aware of these questions and attempts to answer them in her final chapter, aptly named, But is it any good? Her position is that this question is the wrong one to ask because the term good already assumes that everyone knows what is good, and that is precisely what Tompkins is disputing. We agree with Tompkins that the notion of good is historically grounded and not universal or transcendent code words, as we have seen, for the aesthetic.
But we think that Tompkins overstates the case, though not necessarily so at the time of writing the book.