We continue now with our discussion of Brian Boyd’s article, “Getting it All Wrong,” from the Autumn 2006 issue of The American Scholar. Click here for Part One.
We have already seen Boyd’s characterization of modern literary criticism as resting on two pillars: Anti-foundationalism and difference. The former refers to the lack of a secure foundation for knowledge, while the latter refers to the lack of universals in human culture.
In discussing anti-founationalism, Boyd provides the following excellent summary fo the merits of science:
Human minds are as they are because they evolved from earlier forms. Being ultimately biological, knowledge is likely to be imperfect, affording no firm foundation, no “originary” moment, in Derrida diction. Reality is enormously complex and vast. If we want to go beyond the familiar, beyond the immediate world of midsized objects that our senses were shaped to understand, beyond the inferences our minds naturally make, all we can do is guess, grope, or jump from whatever starting points we happen to have reached. Almost all our attempts at deeper explanations are likely to be flawed and skewed, as the hundred thousand religious explanations of the world suggest.
The best we can do is generate new hunches, test them, and reject those found wanting in the clearest, most decisive tests we can concoct. Of course we may not be predisposed to devise severe tests for ideas we have become attached to through the long cumulative processes of evolutionary, cultural, or individual trial and error. And it is not easy to discern what can be tested, let alone how it can be tested, especially in the case of “truths” we have long accepted. But in a milieu that rewards challenges to received notions, others will test our conclusions if we do not. If exacting tests contradict our predictions, we may be motivated to seek new explanations or to find flaws in the critics’ tests. The discovery of possible error can prompt us to look for less inadequate answers, even if there is no guarantee that the next round of hypotheses will fare better. Most, indeed, will again prove flawed – yet one or two may just inaugurate new routes to discovery.
Exactly right. Boyd later summarizes his conclusions for this section as follows:
A biological view of our knowledge shows both its insecurity and its dependence on older and poorer forms of knowing, while also explaining the possibility of the growth of knowledge. Derrida’s challenge to the basis of knowledge seems bold, but it cannot explain advances in understanding, evident in the slow gradient from single cells to societies and the steep one from smoke signals to cell phones. Evolutionary biology offers a far deeper critique of and explanation of the origins and development of knowledge, as something, in Derrida’s terms, endlessly deferred, yet also, as biology and history show, recurrently enlarged.
Moving on to “difference” Boyd writes:
Menand supposes that others resist the claim of difference because they resist the challenge to ethnocentrism. In fact challenges to ethnocentrism had been widespread long before Derrida’s seminal paper of 1966, in the recoil from the horrors of Nazi racism, in the hope for a better world that led to the founding of the United Nations and to anti-colonial independence movements; in the American recognition of and interest in African-American musical cultures in the 1950’s and 1960’s; and in anthropology, from early in the 20th century. It is a strange fantasy to suppose that the humanities, inspired by the “greatest generation,” have led the attack against ethnocentrism that was already well established in both intellectual and political culture.
What others resist in Cultural Critique is not critiques of ethnocentrism but the self-contradictory and defeatist claim that all knowledge, except the knowledge of the situated ness of all knowledge, is situated and therefore flawed. A corollary, making the idea even less inviting, has been that if all claims to universality and transparency of knowledge are false, then the appropriate response is to challenge the claims obscurely. Hence, in part, the vogue for bad writing, the self-confessedly exclusionary opacity of much writing inspired by Theory. (Emphasis Added)
That bold-faced line really caught my attention. On several occasions I have made an attempt to wade into Derrida or Foucault, or other representatvies of literary criticism. I have never made it very far. After just a few paragraphs you find yourself sinking, quicksand-like, into worthless, turgid prose. I am always reminded of the following line, from P. B. Medawar’s review of Teilhard de Chardin’s The Phenomenon of Man:
The Phenomenon of Man cannot be read without a feeling of suffocation, a gasping and flailing around for sense. There is an argument in it, to be sure – a feeble argument, abominably expressed – and this I shall expound in due course; but consider first the style, because it is the style that creates the illusion of content, and which is in some part the cause as well as merely the symptom of Teilhard’s alarming apocalyptic seizures.
This is an admirable description of both Teilhard de Chardin, and much literary criticism. It is literally, physically difficult to pass your eyes over their words.
One final quote for this installment:
The idea that there is only cultural difference between peoples discourages cultural contact and cultural sharing, which has been of benefit to all, over the years, from stone tools to the Internet. The insistence on difference, on refusing to see similarities, inhibits dialogue and the chance to learn from, understand, and appreciate others. This is particularly disturbing in the case of art and literary studies. Menand writes that a “a 19th century novel is a report on the nineteenth century; it is not an advice manual for life out here on the 21st century street.” So all those who have read Pride and Prejudice in the 20th century and since and felt that it showed something about the dangers of first impressions and the error of equating social ease with merit and social stiffness with coldness or disdain have been wrong?
I would want to read Menand for myself before passing final judgment on his remarks. But what Boyd says here is spot on. I always thought the main reason for reading literature from other times and places was to gain a better appreciation of the universals of human existence. (That, and hopefully to enjoy a ripping good story). If I want a report on the nineteenth century I’ll read a history book.