The Sociology of Literary Value

This will be my last entry in the Troppo literature wars, which I suspect are running out of steam with the same positions being reiterated. However, I wouldn’t be doing my job as a sociologist if I didn’t point out that the way that we read literary works and assess their value is conditioned by social and cultural factors. I also want to challenge some participants to sharpen their positions, which I feel are not being drawn out to the extent that they can be.

Chris Sheil argued on Sophie’s thread that gender often marks our reading of literary texts, a point with which I agreed. Sophie disagreed, saying “there are as many ways of seeing things as there are people”. That’s true in a sense, but there could be no consensus about literary value if there were not patterns in how we see things, nor could there be any understanding or sense-making of the world we find ourselves thrown into. Anyone familiar with how literary reputations rise and decline over time can illustrate this. Anthony Trollope for instance did great damage to his reputation when his autobiography was posthumously published, because he described his method of working – he held himself to a rigid word goal every morning. This was contrary to the idea (influenced by Romanticism) that an artist should rely on inspiration and creativity. Later, his reputation revived because Henry James praised him in several essays. Similarly, the current perception that there are few works of quality Australian literary fiction relates as much to shifts in the publishing process which are largely economically driven (the decline in the role of the editor, changes in the retail market, amalgamations) as well as the conditions of possibility for young writers to succeed (must be marketable as a person as well as a writer, their financial support or lack thereof), as to any difference in the quality of what’s being written as compared, say, to the 1970s.

Secondly, interpretations are coloured and marked by where we stand.

To use the example of George Eliot’s Middlemarch, the plot is driven by Dorothea’s desires to be an independent woman making a mark in the world, the way she is constrained to seek this desire through marriage to Casaubon (surely a brilliantly drawn portrait of a desiccated and dryasdust scholar), and her eventual coming to terms with the limited role that was possible for her in the society that then existed. If you go back and look at the contemporary reviews, it’s clear that Dorothea’s story was understood differently than it is today due to different patternings of property rights, gender relationships, marriage laws and so forth. How we read it now will depend, among other things, on our gender – which will affect our identification with the characters. Similarly, Jude the Obscure would have been read very differently by people from different class situations, then and now. The notion that there is one true interpretation (usually the author’s intention) seems to sit uncomfortably with the idea that we can read different things into texts, but that those readings will not be coloured by our lives and experiences which are in turn in part shaped by the society and time in which we live. The point’s been made on the thread about children’s literature that our reading of books that we return to later in life is very different. The Bible, obviously, is understood very differently by Catholics and Evangelicals, because of the different status accorded to its authority and a different religious culture. In fact, I’d argue that a lot of this debate is coloured theologically, as hermeneutics and “scientific” philology and textual criticism developed originally as a method for understanding the actual historical context of the Biblical books and narratives. Immensely controversial in its day, and I think the resistance to social and political readings of literature has a similar resonance in our day.

This leads me to my final points. As I read them, Sophie and Kevin Donnelly (the principal protagonists of a literary mode of reading in School English) argue that literature is somehow devalued by being read according to social contexts. Sophie says people can do that at University if they like, but if I’m not mistaken, Kevin is arguing that literature exists in a realm outside its social context. I’d really like this clarified, as it seems to me crucial to the debate. The original impulse of course behind critical theory in its postmodern incarnations was to claim that if one saw literature and aesthetics as fields separated from the social, then what one was really doing was harnessing them to a set of conservative and unstated (and thus unexamined) values. Hence, the desire to expose gender relations in literature, for instance. While I’m sympathetic to aspects of the critique of contemporary School English, I’m utterly opposed to the notion that literature should not be taught without regard to its social and political contexts, as this is the opposite of a critical appreciation. I’d also like to hear how people think their desired changes can be practically implemented, a task I regard as fraught with difficulty and raising important issues of principle – such as academic freedom. Over to you!

About Mark Bahnisch

Mark Bahnisch is a sociologist and is the founder of this blog. He has an undergraduate degree in history and politics from UQ, and postgraduate qualifications in sociology, industrial relations and political economy from Griffith and QUT. He has recently been awarded his PhD through the Humanities Program at QUT. Mark's full bio is on this page.
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Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

I think you’re being a bit unfair to Sophie, if not Kevin, in suggesting that they “argue that literature is somehow devalued by being read according to social contexts. Sophie says people can do that at University if they like, but if I’m not mistaken, Kevin is arguing that literature exists in a realm outside its social context.”

Sophie deals with this issue quite specifically in this morning’s post, when she says:

“A historical context was an important part of this, and when we were studying John Donne’s poetry, for instance, we were given background not only on what was going on historically, but what the ‘metaphysical poets’ like him, were working from; and also we were given a great deal of help with understanding where the often extraordinarily arcane images and metaphors came from, in terms of symbolism and what people were doing with it at the time.”

In other words, she agrees that its appropriate and necessary to teach students to consider and analyse the social and historical context of a work, but suggests (rightly in my view) that one should do this in response to the text itself not some standard ideological template. It’s obviously relevant to consider Middlemarch by reference to a gender-based reading, and the same is true of just about every work of Jane Austen or the Bronte sisters. Gender relations are quite central to their literary concerns. But why one would force students to construct gender-based, post-colonial or psychoanalytical readings of Cloudstreet is a lot less obvious. Surely, as Sophie suggests, it’s better to give kids the social and historical context and then let them respond to the text itself in light of that information and the knowledge they’ve gained of where the work fits in the literary canon etc etc. It’s the prescriptive, relentlessly ideologically-based authoritarianism to which we object (I think), which results in the student being forced to impose “meaning” on a text rather than responding to and analysing the author’s words and intention.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Well, I try not to be unfair, Ken, but as I said I think people at times have said somewhat contradictory things and some statements which seem to me to head in the direction of coralling off literature from the rest of the world, so I’d like it clarified, just so we know where everyone stands. I’ve made it clear where I do.

For instance, an extract from one of Kevin’s posts:

“The dangers and weaknesses associated with the new orthodoxy are numerous. The most obvious is that while there might be some therapeutic value in giving free play to one’s personal response there is even greater value in being able to understand and appreciate what is actually written in the text.

The second is that the argument that all texts are inescapably political is both reductionist and simplistic. While some texts are political there are also those that can be valued because of their aesthetic quality.

It must also be remembered that one of the strengths of great literature is that it addresses the type of existential questions and predicaments that humanity has had to face since the dawn of time.”

It seems to me that to suggest that there are non-political texts which are purely of aesthetic value and that there are timeless existential questions (presumably unpolitical ones!) is to go very far towards claiming that the aesthetic domain is a domain of purity which shouldn’t be sullied with politics.

Sophie wrote this:

“There may be a place for all this kind of dusty and arcane theory in the academy–as a matter of choice, not imposition. But to impose this on young kids is cruel, stupid and counterproductive. ”

Somewhere or other I’m sure Kevin said specifically he didn’t want to see any literary theory of any stripe taught in High School, but I lack the time to trawl through what’s become a very long discussion.

Above and beyond this, the general argument of the polemics against critical theory in the academy (for instance that of Rafe’s friend Rene Wellek) is a sort of humanistic defence of aesthetic purity and an argument that theory is parasitic upon literature. Literature, it’s argued, is a domain that is not amenable to theoretical analysis because literary value and quality is sui generis in some way. This goes back to the marking off of the aesthetic by philosophers like Kant. As I commented on an earlier post, this is very hard to defend once you begin to uncover its presuppositions:

http://troppoarmadillo.ubersportingpundit.com/archives/008446.html

So, all I really want Kevin and Sophie to clarify is whether they think High School English should be taught without reference to theory and without reference to the social and political contexts of literature. It seems to me that this is the sense of their arguments. They’re ones, Ken, that you and I disagree with, if I recall your comments about Heidegger, Gadamer and hermeneutics correctly, and also clearly opposed by Chris.

Tim Dunlop’s post argued that there was a consensus in this Troppo debate. I doubt there actually is – I think there are two positions:

(a) defence of apolitical appreciation of literature for its value

(b) a defence of the appreciation of literature within its contexts for its value and for the fostering of a critical understanding

I think Sophie and Kevin are arguing the first, and you and I the second.

But we need to be clear about it. Hence my post.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

In fact, I’d agree with this comment from Tim D’s post:

“Look, I’m not exactly defending theory unreservedly–and I would highly recommend the book Rafe Champion is always going on about–but to complain about its “value based” approach (gender, race etc) while all the while expressing your complaints on the basis of completely unacknowledged and, perhaps, unexamined values of your own is not the way to go about mounting a case.”

Like it or not, the traditional ways of reading teaching Shakespeare contained implicit values. By which I mean social and political values, not literary values.

wen
wen
2022 years ago

Mark — I’m a woman & a feminist, yet find your reading of Middlemarch distressingly reductive. Yes, Dorothea was a woman, & yes, she was constrained by the expectations of her times – as women were — yet her story is about far more than her gender. Isn’t it (amongst other things) about youth & idealism, betrayal & disappointment…none of which are necessarily gender-specific — as the parallel, echoing story of Lydgate surely indicates.

Eliot was certainly a proto-feminist, but in her fiction her attempt to widen “the skirts of light” and make the “struggle with darkness narrower” as Dorothea herself puts it, is all-embracing. Even dry-as-dust Casaubon is treated with consideration — we know he’s a deadshit, we know he’ll stuff up Dorothea’s life (where’s Lady Russell when you need her?), but Eliot makes sure we understand too that Casaubon is multi-dimensional (not just a representative of the oppressive patriarchical paradigm), & as much to be pitied (“In everyone there sleeps/A sense of life lived according to love” as Larkin wrote), as to be despised.

Francis Xavier Holden
2022 years ago

ha ha Mark. I see Brendan Nelson’s biggest insult to teacher education was to call them “quasi sociology departments” hehe

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

With respect, Mark, I think you are trying to neutralise the point that Sophie and Kevin see as the heart of the matter: the subordination of aesthetic values to a process of ideological indoctrination.

There have always been theories of literature and insightful commentaries have always assisted students in coming to terms with complex texts. (Personally, I would welcome such help in the case of James Joyce.)

Understanding such works in their social and cultural context is not a problem either. The problem is that, in the kind of process Sophie describes, that context itself is relentlessly ideologised. The author’s environment is assumed to be permeated with the kind of sexism, racism, disadvantagement of minorities, imperialism, etc., etc. which the modern left sees as characteristic of its own society. Students are then sent to look for these things, and to find confirmation of them within the text itself. What flows from that is often a condemnation both of the book and its author, as I argued somewhere else I’ve seen occur in the case of Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ (Conrad was a sexist and a racist).

Sometimes – often – these qualities will, indeed, exist within the book itself. SF fans may recall the ‘Tarnsman of Gor’ series by (I think) John Gorman. The sexism and mysogyny of those books is disgusting; but these qualities announce themselves within the text itself. You don’t need to go looking outside it.

What we object to is taking books and poems where those qualities do not exist within the text and stretching them across an ideological grid that presumes they are universal and ubiquitous. This process injects meanings into the text which were never there and were never the author’s intent. And it’s accomplished using a highly suspect set of philisophical tools (clumsily borrowed from postmodernism) and a methodology articulated in a language of quite breath-taking stupidity.

I said ‘grid’; but perhaps rack is a better word, because the end result is indeed the dismemberment of the text. Sophie has described this as an ‘act of hatred’ and that sums it up better than anything I could think of.

wen
wen
2022 years ago

Sorry — shouldn’t have said “distressingly” – I’m certainly not distressed — & of course my own analysis is entirely inadequate. (here’s Middlemarch, 800 pages neatly summed up in two lines….) Argh!

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Thanks for the comment and the correction, Wen. By no means is this all that’s in Middlemarch (if it was a bit like the didactic feminist science fiction of the 70s there’d be little to enjoy) and as you noted yourself, you can’t do a full reading in a couple of lines – it’s also years and years since I’ve read it :) I do largely agree with what you write, but my point is that not to grasp the basic gender reading impoverishes one’s understanding. It’s a starting point, or a necessary component of an appreciation of the book. Nor do I argue that one should only read books for political purposes – quite the contrary.

Rob, but the context (ie the world we live in) is relentlessly ideologised. That is to say there is no neutral way of viewing it – ideology doesn’t just exist on the left. Nor are readings of Conrad in terms of colonialism new. Clearly, Conrad wrote “Heart of Darkness” (another book I love) in part to comment on colonialism. I once read a book of readings and reviews and articles on “Heart of Darkness” – compiled in the early 60s – which included any number of commentaries on the book’s themes in relation to imperialism – all written before po/mo critical theory came along. Similarly, the argument that “The Tempest” is (in part – which I underline) about the perception of foreignness and the stranger goes way back. And to read “Heart of Darkness” and “The Tempest” just as a narrative or in terms of characterisation is an inadequate reading.

This brings me to a point I should have brought out in response to Ken – there’s a big difference between notes or contextualisation which merely helps students understand the historical context and a contextualisation which helps students understand the stakes of the historical context – ie what was Eliot’s motivation in drawing Dorethea’s character as she did (sticking to the author’s intent which appears to be a touchstone for the more traditional literary interpretation)?

I believe there is more disagreement in this whole debate than has been brought out – I believe that we need not only to understand the historical setting but also its significance in terms of the way society was structured – which is always in the texts themselves – sometimes very obviously – think of Shylock’s speech about being Jewish – “if you prick me, do I not bleed?”.

I hope I’m being clear about the difference – I’m sure it’s there – which is why I tried to isolate in response to Ken two distinct positions which I think are evident in this conversation. I think it helps to clarify things if people come out and admit the implications of their arguments.

Francis, the feeling is bipartisan. Peter Walsh famously argued in cabinet in favour of HECS that the taxes of the working class shouldn’t support North Shore divorcees sipping martinis and doing sociology degrees. Regular cocktail infusions, in my humble opinion, are necessary for a better understanding of sociology.

Don Wigan
Don Wigan
2022 years ago

I’m not sure that Sophie or Kevin were necessarily saying that context (by the writer and his/her time and environment; and by the reader, viewing through modern eyes and values) is irrelevant.

There is the risk of burying plot and character and what the author is trying to say by trying to narrow it to theories or deconstruction or whatever. We can even misunderstand what the writer is on about if we don’t allow for both contexts, and this seems the danger with the current approved approach.

When I was a young leftist, I was inspired by Swift. I saw him as one of us the way he got stuck into the establishment, especially its smugness. Yet as I grew older and more experienced, I realised that he was a genuine Tory and an Anglican believer into the bargain. His appeal was not to politics but to humanity.

You can’t fully appreciate Jane Austen without understanding the context – pre industrial revolution, the limitations on village life (where the biggest news might be the moving in of a regiment) and the comformity and materialist values it all imposed.

The reverse also holds. An economic historian would gain as much from reading Dickens’ novels as from studying texts on the industrial revolution. Even today we can get a better perspective on the madness of excessive economic rationalism by reading “Hard Times”.

I think that part of Sophie’s complaint is that many of the current methods actually restrain real enquiry rather than opening it.

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

I don’t think I’ve been making myself clear, either. Here’s a last go at it.

I think the distinction is between understanding a work on its own terms – including the social, cultural and political themes reflected in the text itself – and passing judgement on it, on the basis of values external to it. The former is just and fair to the text and the author; the latter is unjust and unfair.

Also, I don’t think I agree with this:

‘Secondly, interpretations are coloured and marked by where we stand.’

The implication appears to be that our responses to what we read are pre-determined by our current political or ethical positions. This is tantamount to saying that our readings of literature are always prejudiced; that we can’t step outside our class, gender or ethnic envelope and undertake a reading in a ‘neutral’, uncoloured way.

That’s not really true. I think readings can change the positions we currently occupy, and sometimes very dramatically. I mean, lots of people have said that reading Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom changed their entire perspective on life. In my own case I’d say that reading Robert Hughes’ The Shock of the New changed my understanding of art. I went to it with the ‘prejudice’ that all modern art was crap and came away with a quite different view.

In fact, Mark, isn’t that the great thing about art? That it can change you, that you can grow and learn and unlearn through experiencing it. But you have to let it, you have to be open to it, you have to let it work its magic. I think where Sophie’s coming from is that the kind of program her poor son has to endure will do the exact opposite.

Anyway, I’ll stop boring people on the subject now.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Don, you may well be right about Kevin and Sophie’s position. I think it’s certainly reasonable to infer on the basis of what they’ve said that they really want to argue in favour of appreciating texts purely on the basis of aesthetic or literary value. That’s generally, as I noted in my post, the argument made within literary studies by critics of postmodernism. I’ve also argued that this is a conservative position politically in that by failing to highlight the values which inform the text, it also fails to subject those values to criticism and thus implicitly reinforces prevailing values – this is very similar to the argument Tim Dunlop made, as I’ve observed. I really just want them to clarify whether or not they hold this position, as I think it’s important to where people stand in the debate.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Rob, thanks. To clarify further:

“‘Secondly, interpretations are coloured and marked by where we stand.’

The implication appears to be that our responses to what we read are pre-determined by our current political or ethical positions. This is tantamount to saying that our readings of literature are always prejudiced; that we can’t step outside our class, gender or ethnic envelope and undertake a reading in a ‘neutral’, uncoloured way.”

No, “marked and coloured” – the words I used do not imply “determined”.

I don’t see how it can be argued that who we are is not *in part* determined or shaped by where we are and where we’re going in terms of social variables (a conservative sociologist would also make this argument for instance) but I’ve been very careful to underline *in part* in what I’ve written.

Of course we can be changed by literature or political theory for that matter. But it doesn’t create a tabula rasa. Witness the phenomenon of the ex-communist who vociferously supports a sort of permanent revolution of a conservative kind in politics – the habits of thought are the same, but the content is opposite. It’s much more difficult for humans to radically reshape their ways of thinking and behaving than usually thought – and more so as we get older. But then I suspect I’m digressing now.

What interests me in this debate now, and why I’ve put up this post, is that clearly there’s a political component to why the debate becomes heated – and I don’t see it as just politics (=left) vs aesthetics (=neutral) because the stance of the separateness of the aesthetic is also underpinned by political values.

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

I know I said I’d shut up, but……..

Can you explain exactly what political values you are talking about in the last paragraph? I listen to Beethoven with astonished awe. To Mozart with enchanted delight (sorry about the purpleness of the prose). In both cases I think I am responding aesthetically. I could say much the same about reading Dickens, Carter, Lessing, Borges or Calvino.

Where and how are political values informing my response? How is my sense that the beauty of the music or of the words is the only thing that matters at that moment underpinned by some political construct or constraint?

I may well be missing your point entirely but the statement just baffles me.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

I think there are two different things going on, which I haven’t made clear enough, Rob.

First, my liking for Bach and yours for Mozart is in part a factor of our class/cultural backgrounds – which can be correlated quite closely with taste according to a range of sociological studies –

http://troppoarmadillo.ubersportingpundit.com/archives/008446.html

That doesn’t mean that we don’t enjoy these composers, just that the odds are that something in the way we’ve been taught to distinguish between different genres of music and adjudicate on its quality shapes that – and that in turn is often related to class.

Clearly, there’s no direct political content in classical music – though I could start banging on about Mozart and Beethoven and the French Revolution and the Enlightenment. But most of the time it’s a non-verbal medium – though the politics of the Magic Flute and the Eroica Symphony are fairly clear.

Secondly, Dickens clearly had a particular take on the social and economic structure of Victorian England. Most of the time you wouldn’t bring this to the forefront, but if you were (for the sake of argument) a Marxist, you’d probably notice it a lot more because your political values would be more dissonant with those of the society Dickens writes about. Hence my argument (and it’s not just mine I hasten to add – it’s at the core of this whole pro and anti po/mo thing) that not reflecting on the politics of literature is to adopt a conservative position with respect to failing to articulate its social and political values.

James Farrell
James Farrell
2022 years ago

Rob, isn’t ‘baffles’ overdoing it a bit. It’s akin to telling nme I ‘missed the essence’.

When we read novels, we jude the characters, like or dislike them, approve of their actions, empathise with their predicamants, in some cases rejoice in their demise, according to our values and life experiences. Much of this baggage is political in some sense. I get the feeling that political to you means an infringement of some pedant’s code of politically correct behaviour.

There may well be some kind of inate response to beauty or universal truths as revealed in books. But it is still valuable to unpack these responses. What’s revealed in this process doesn’t have to be something discreditable, like your friend Gorman’s mysogyny, or Enid Blyton’s snobbery, but why wouldn’t one want to be self aware?

For what it’s worth I’m sceptical about Mark’s sociolgy of music appreciation, though. Obviously a wolf child doesn’t appreciate music, but that doesn’t mean that a socialised person responds politically to music (although they may to lyrics).

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

“When we read novels, we jude the characters, like or dislike them, approve of their actions, empathise with their predicamants, in some cases rejoice in their demise, according to our values and life experiences. Much of this baggage is political in some sense. I get the feeling that political to you means an infringement of some pedant’s code of politically correct behaviour.”

James, you put that well.

As to my sociology of music appreciation – it was half-hearted, because classical music is largely non-verbal. My point was that we are socialised into forming music tastes (up to a point – they have to appeal as well) and there’s a strong correlation between what the advertisers and marketers call the AB audience and classical music appreciation. I spelled all this out in much greater detail in my previous post.

With regard to pop music, wasn’t it James Russell (or James Hamilton – it was one of the Jameses) last year who found out that one of their fave bands was backing the anti-Bush music tours in the States and was shattered by the news. Obviously also you don’t like listening to Ani DiFranco’s anti-Bush song if you’re W’s biggest fan.

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

I’m still struglling with this, Mark, and I’m sorry if I’m being tedious. But as you say it is a core issue.

I’ve spent most of life around people of roughly my own class and background and education. And yet – maybe I’ve just been unlucky – I’ve met very few people who actually like classical music. I know far more people who think opera is for wankers, not to mention gays, than have actually been to the opera or listened to a recording of one.

My parents tried to introduce me to classical music when I was young but I rejected it – in the good ol’ spirit of youthful rebellion. My passion for classical music began spontaneously and independently out of a mere accident of circumstance. I grew up reading the Norse legends and folk-tales, available to any kid of any class, thanks to school libraries. One day I was in Thomas’, the once-great record store in Melbourne, looking for something or other – certainly not classical. I happened to see offered on sale a recording of Sibelius’ ‘Four Legends of the Kalevala’ (Finnish folk tales). I thought, ‘Hmm… I wonder what that’s like given my fondness for northern folk tales?’

Bought it, took it home – I was hooked; never looked back.

To me, that’s a purely personal, individual choice, an aesthetic response to a new kind of music which I had not previously experienced – one that DID enter my life in a life-changing way.

I recall also reading a biography of Kwame Nkrumah, the first PM of independent Ghana. At one point, the author described how Nkrumah was listening to Handel’s Messiah. After a while, he took the record off the turntable and said to the author something like: ‘This isn’t just for Europeans. This is for everyone, for the whole world’.

How does sociological theory account for these, which seem to me to be purely aesthetic experiences?

I’m sorry for the emphasis on the personal, but it’s part of the point I’m trying to make. Nobody chooses art for us; we choose it for ourselves.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Within bounds, Rob. Generation is another relevant sociological variable.

As you’d know, social science doesn’t explain every instance – what it does is look for regularities and patterns – and then causation through correlation. The sociology of culture is not a core interest for me, and I’d hazard a guess that the link between class and classical music is far less strong than in France than where Bourdieu did his statistical research. I am aware of Australian studies on this phenomenon – but haven’t read them. I can give you the references if you like.

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

I’m sorry if I offended you, james. I unreseservedly withdraw ‘missed the essence’

James Farrell
James Farrell
2022 years ago

Not offended, Rob. And naturally I enjoyed the abridged story of your musical odyssey. I’m tempted to tell mine in return, but anecdotal evidence on the socological underpinnings of musical taste is too thin a pretxt on which to hijack Mark’s thread. Especially when its his declared last final statement on this ongoing topic (snort).

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

James, why not do so on the ‘Graveyard of Ideologies’ past? It seems to have become the Troppo equivalent of Quiggin’s message board (with the difference that you’re required to answer multi-choice questions on Hayek before you can participate). Oh, and it’s a thread on which Rob is allowed to quote from Quadrant to his heart’s desire (provided he agrees to be Rafe’s research subject):

http://troppoarmadillo.ubersportingpundit.com/archives/008227.html

Go for it, I say. I was disappointed the discussion on baroque Opera on that thread never took off…

Brian Bahnisch
Brian Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Mark FWIW I got the impression that Sophie and Kevin are both allowing contextual understanding but are arguing that we should always finally respect the text as written and the intentions of the author insofar as they are known. There are differences, however, and they don’t strike me as soul-mates on the issue. Take Kevin’s statement that curriculum, to be successful, should:

“Be related to specific year levels instead of covering a range of years; acknowledge the central importance of the academic disciplines; be benchmarked against world’s best equivalent documents; incorporate high stakes testing and be specific, easily understood and measurable.”

Where they would part, I think, is on the question of measurability and high stakes testing. Sophie’s approach is not very amenable, I would think, to high stakes testing. As a matter of fact it is hard to imagine how Kevin would incorporate the same in his desired approach to an English curriculum.

They also part in terms of the number of allowable interpretations. Sophie would, I think, accept the notion that an understanding and appreciation of a work is finally and only created within the knowing subject, which means that every-one interpretation is different, while still (hopefully) being in sympathy with and respectful of the work.

Kevin says quite explicitly that she is wrong.

“Your point that there are as many readings as there are people is wrong. I can say that because I believe that some interpretations are right and some are wrong; or some more closely approximate the truth. Theories like reader/response etc eventually drown in their own relativity and subjectivity. There is an author and there is a text; maybe readers should take note of both.”

Kevin clearly believes that the truth is expressible and recognisable. When you consider that he is talking about an interpretation he’s into absolutism which is quite beyond me. I think he needs a bit of help from Derrida!

But Kevin’s first quote highlights the difficulty. Students of English are being taught how to appreciate literature and to undertake behaviours which are measurable (assigned a numerical value in relation to their peers and in raelation to some supposed ideal) and demonstrate that they have learned what they have been taught so that they can be certified as suitable to enter the academy. An academy, moreover, that has gone troppo.

This kind of education is not much to my taste, but we are not going to get rid of the existing structures overnight. Certification is central to the ‘sifting and sorting’ function of secondary schools. The certification establishments are deeply embedded at state level, and curriculum development should continue to be as decentralised as we can afford, while bearing in mind also that it needs authority and standing.

So what to do?

I think the only line of attack open is to argue for an additional Sophie-style option which can be taken as an alternative to the quasi-sociological ‘critical literacy’ approach. I reckon there would be enough teachers in the system and as the students voted with their feet the academy might take notice.

It is interesting, and unjust IMO, that you only have one choice of English in Qld if you want an OP score (required for tertiary entrance). In Maths you must either take Maths A or Maths B. Maths B seems to be designed for prospective entrants to the maths academy, whereas Maths A seems to cover maths for living for every-one else.

I would love to have a crack at Rob’s comments on music, but I really need to go to bed.

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

I’m still a bit puzzled by this:

‘I’d hazard a guess that the link between class and classical music is far less strong than in France than where Bourdieu did his statistical research.’

When my wife and I were in Europe a couple of years ago, we were both struck by how ubiquitous classical music was, especially in Italy: it seemed everywhere you went, big cities, towns, whatever, there were always groups that were putting some modest concert in the local church or wherever. And some of them were pretty good. I remember a lovely performance of The Four Seasons, period performance, complete with the right costumes, a mile or so back from the Grand Canal in Venice.

And it was for the locals, not the tourists. Robbie and I were the only ones that walked back towards the Grand Canal afterwards – everyone else headed for the suburbs (where they lived).

Admittedly I’m not talking about France and maybe it’s all class-based there, but somehow I’m doubting it. Classical music seems to be part of the air they breathe over there.

I can’t help feeling there’s something wrong with your sort of sociological analysis of music but I just can’t put my finger on it.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Rob, the question would be whether the European audiences were bourgeois or working class. In any case, if you want to go into this question seriously, I’d recommend reading Bourdieu.

cs
cs
2022 years ago

Interesting comment Brian.

Re Kevin’s ‘absolutism’, surely any interpretation is available whatsoever, in principle, subject only to how well the case is presented and in line with the conventions of the discipline.

sophie
sophie
2022 years ago

Mark, I really feel that you have missed my point, rather. Many commenters on this thread have pointed out that I did talk about historical context and that students need it pointed out to them, that they won’t know it by osmosis. Historical context is always important–and that may well include political and social aspects, esp as Chris Sheil pointed out in another comment somewhere, when you’re dealing with an explicitly political work like Animal Farm(though I’d strongly question the idea that Orwell’s anti-totalitarianism was purely a political stance; it was emotional, moral, cultural, intellectual and aesthetic as well). What I hate about the new NSW HSC curriculum is that it is so reductionist and attempts to shoehorn all art into some pre-digested, half-baked theoretical framework(sorry for the dreadful mixed metaphors there!) which not only strips all the enjoyment out of English, but also is quite ignorant and closes down all freedom of thought, unless you call it ‘free’ to be obliged to interepret texts in the approved manner. How different is that from being obliged to interepret in a Leavisite manner, or a modernist manner, or any label you care to stick on it? It does not, repeat, not, give you any sense of historical context, only of what some bod has thought about how the work reflects some pre-determined idea of what people thought.
With respect, Mark, I do feel that perhaps your training as a sociologist–and your great interest in such things–has led you to perhaps discipline your responses to art in those terms. But that is not the way most people respond; and it is not the way books, or films, should be introduced at school. My feeling is this new curriculum is regressive, hectoring, and what’s more, banal and dull.
I was talking to one young man yesterday who did his HSC two years ago and he was saying that he felt really ‘ripped off’ because the only novel they got time to study in Year 12 was Cloudstreet..Now, I don’t share Tim Dunlop’s dismissal of Winton–unlike my son who loves all his work, I like some and not others, but he’s still a good writer who has managed to bridge the chasm between ‘literary’ and popular’–but I don’t think that’s all a Year 12 student should be exposed to!
As to your comments re people’s responses to music, can you please explain to me why it is that for instance, Japanese and Chinese people have responded extremely well to European classical music in recent times, with several distinguished and wonderful classical musicians emerging from both countries? Could it be that that perhaps there’s an aesthetic and emotional value in this music over and avove the ‘culturally determined one’??

James Farrell
James Farrell
2022 years ago

This music thing is really a bit of a no-brainer, isn’t it? There’s aesthetic and emotional value in every kind of music (except rap). Generally you need to listen to something a lot in order to extract that value. What you listen to frequently depends on what you’re exposed to, and in turn on your soicial milieu. People learn to love certain types of music because their parents and peers play it: hence, country, family and class become statistical predicters of musical taste. This is not say that individuals can’t follow their curiosity and explore new music on an individual basis, or break away and join a different subculture, or be smitten by Sibelius in a shop. It’s just that such randomising events aren’t enough to destroy the broad correlations. There will be specific factors that explain why, say, classical music is popular across a wider social spectrum in Italy than in France.

Brian Bahnisch
Brian Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Rob, re Beethoven, Mozart, Handel et al you would know that music back then was composed within the patronage system for performance in the drawing rooms of the upper class. As such an easy accessibility was one of the constraints within which such composers had to work (and we all are the beneficiaries of it). The people who paid them often had little music taste or appreciation themselves but were happy to live in the reflected glory of their musicians who were praised by others, whose musical appreciation was not necessarilly all that flash either. It is to the credit of these composers that the produced works with many layers of depth that reward further exploration on the part of the listener.

This combo of accessibility and depth also allows such works to cross the cultural barriers and provide rich rewards to any-one willing to put in a bit of effort. But the works were generated within specific cultural and class/political contexts, and, although often abstract and unprogramatic, still reflect to some degree their origins.

Have to go now, but might get time to say a bit more about the cross-cultural thing tonight.

But on cultural characteristics, think of the ‘white’ sound you get from English choirs, especially boys, the thinner, more spare works of northern Europe v the full-on passion of the Latins in opera.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Sophie, thanks, that’s clarified your position for me very helpfully.

“Could it be that that perhaps there’s an aesthetic and emotional value in this music over and avove the ‘culturally determined one’??”

But I was never saying that music only had a culturally determined value, just that some social factors predispose (but don’t determine) that some groups will like certain types of music. So, yes, of course I think there is aesthetic and emotional value in music just as I think there is in literature.

But nothing comes to us from heaven (who’s ever heard the music of the spheres?) or in a social vacuum. Brian makes a point about some of the economic conditions for the composition of classic al music in the late 18th and 19th centuries, and that’s similar to the point I was making about some of the factors which influence what gets written and what gets published in Ozlit today. Understanding this, and changing tastes and standards of quality and value, does nothing IMO to decrease our appreciation of what we like in art.

James Hamilton
James Hamilton
2022 years ago

“The people who paid them often had little music taste or appreciation themselves but were happy to live in the reflected glory of their musicians who were praised by others, whose musical appreciation was not necessarilly all that flash either. It is to the credit of these composers that the produced works with many layers of depth that reward further exploration on the part of the listener.”

They wouldn’t have composed too fucking much in the way of layers if they didn’t fucking eat.

Everybody is being so polite. What this whole discussion about is releasing our children from the stultifying clutches of the Left. That’s the aim. That’s the agenda. You either support it or you don’t.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

“What this whole discussion about is releasing our children from the stultifying clutches of the Left”

Only to thrust them into the stultifying clutches of the Right, I guess.

James Hamilton
James Hamilton
2022 years ago

We have our Wayne Sawyers Mark but I don’t think there are too many (or enough) in secondary education.

I apologise for my tone above but really the ideological positions here are so thinly veiled we can probably dispense with them.

Brian’s comment regarding the rich of 300 years ago was laughably Sawyeresque.

Choosing to see ugliness in the face of beauty is a lifestyle choice that is beyond my comprehension. I am happy to accept my obligation to tolerate it but not in kids classrooms.

Kevin Donnelly
Kevin Donnelly
2022 years ago

Hi Rob,

Liked your comment:

“Understanding such works in their social and cultural context is not a problem either. The problem is that, in the kind of process Sophie describes, that context itself is relentlessly ideologised. The author’s environment is assumed to be permeated with the kind of sexism, racism, disadvantagement of minorities, imperialism, etc., etc. which the modern left sees as characteristic of its own society. Students are then sent to look for these things, and to find confirmation of them within the text itself. What flows from that is often a condemnation both of the book and its author, as I argued somewhere else I’ve seen occur in the case of Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ (Conrad was a sexist and a racist).”

Many of the posts seek to interpret what I have said. This is good, but is it not strange that the assumption is that there is an author (me) and that what I have posted, the text, I have written with the intention that it should be interpreted in a particular way. The whole process over the last week proves my argument that there is a readily understood discourse whose rules we all must abide by and that interpretion is not subjective and relative. Or will somebody deconstruct me as we speak?

By the way, why is ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’ an inspired capitalist tract that reinforces class division and why do some feminists hate the story ‘Shane’ because the guys cut wood while the mother makes cookies and lemonade?

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

“Many of the posts seek to interpret what I have said. This is good, but is it not strange that the assumption is that there is an author (me) and that what I have posted, the text, I have written with the intention that it should be interpreted in a particular way.”

Yes, but I’d still like some clarification as to whether you’re arguing that literature and the aesthetic domain are separate and should be separate from their political and social contexts. It seems to me you are, but some of your comments can be read differently. So what’s the intention of the author?

Thanks for sending me the thesis chapter by the way. I’ll read it with interest when I have a chance.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

In other words, Kevin, for one reader at least (me), your intention isn’t totally transparent. I can infer what I think you mean from the context of the entire discussion, as well as from other writers who hold similar views, but I’d still like an unambiguous statement one way or the other on the point I’m unclear about.

We can do that on blogs, but of course we can’t email Thomas Hardy and William Shakespeare or post to their webpages to ask what they meant or to clarify something. The register or genre is also different, as the incongruity of what I’ve just written demonstrates. We’re participating here in an argumentative discourse, whereas Hardy and Shakespeare are writing fiction, which is less amenable to questioning because it doesn’t make truth claims or seek to persuade, but rather to move and inspire.

I think we could do with a dose of Aristotelian literary analysis by the way. Reading Aristotle was immensely illuminating for me about how texts work.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Just home and currently listening to Schubert’s String Trio in B Flat, D.581 btw Rob.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

“Brian’s comment regarding the rich of 300 years ago was laughably Sawyeresque.”

No idea what you mean by that, James. Brian was just stating a fact.

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

Mark, I will meet your D.581 with Brahms’ Horn Trio, and raise you one Faure Piano Quintet.

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

‘But on cultural characteristics, think of the ‘white’ sound you get from English choirs, especially boys, the thinner, more spare works of northern Europe v the full-on passion of the Latins in opera.’

Yes, Brian. And I grew up with said ‘white sound’ especially King’s College Choir, and now I hate it, much preferring the passion and conviction of continental singers, especially the Spanish. More cross-cultural currents and individual choices, I suppose.

More seriously, though, doesn’t this ‘the aesthetic is at least partly the political’ lead to a reductio ad absurdum – phew, did I really try to (mis?)quote a latin tag?

I mean, every aesthetic judgement could be understood in this way. Why I prefer white wine to red (makes me a pleb, I know – so why do I do it?); why I prefer brie to processed Kraft slices; wny I prefer the architecture of Flinders Stree station to that of Federation Square. You could surely apply the same criteria. And if you do, doesn’t the very word ‘political’ become so universal and all-embracing that it loses not only its meaning but its heuristic value?

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

‘But nothing comes to us from heaven (who’s ever heard the music of the spheres?)’

I’ve only just seen this comment of yours (just got home from work) and at the risk of making a complete fool of myself I’m going to respond to it.

It DOES come from heaven – or at least from some place out there where everything is word and image and you are just the humble conduit for it. Playing blues, on the right day, your fingers just passively communicate something that flows into you from some place else. You have no idea how it happens;your hands just somehow make it happen. You just hope it won’t stop too early in the gig. It’s got bugger all to do with politics or anything. Just music. Explanations can be political; but experience isn’t.

On words: I recall Nawal al Sadaawi, the Egyptian feminist, saying of her book ‘The Fall of the Imam’ it was the characters that she putatively ‘created’ who themselves demanded she tell their stories. She simply did what they told her. She didn’t seem to have much to do with it; she left it to them to tell her how the story should go. I think Salman Rushdie said something similar about ‘The Satanic Verses’.

Maybe the act of creating an art work is like giving birth; it involves a contortion of the soul – so much so that some psychologists regard it as an inherently pathological act (the poor, cloth-eared sods).

When I listen to Bach’s cantatas and sonatas for solo violin, I don’t hear anything political at all. I hear the clear voice of an incomparable genius speaking with the voice of the creature to the creator: It’s that profound. It’s Adam speaking back to God. And please don’t counter that this is a political response: it’s a spiritual and aesthetic one. I’m not even religious.

To get back more obviously on-topic – I think the kind of sociological exegesis you apply to art tends to degrade or neutralise the actual act of creation, and deny its full impact on the reader or listener. That’s why I am unambiguously on Sophie’s side.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Rob, it doesn’t come from heaven though we are sometimes blessed by the muses. We’re still people and it’s under-rating the human spirit to suggest that that creativity isn’t a human gift. It’s also a social process – writers don’t write without an awareness of other texts, jazz musicians improvise on the basis of chords which others play, and so on.

And humans are social creatures – we create meaning and beauty intersubjectively not as isolated monads communing with the gods.

I wish I’d never said anything about music and politics. It is clear that if you read my original comment, I said that *some* classical music – with lyrics – is political. I am very far from saying that music must be understood politically.

I think you are conflating what I said about class and taste with what I argued about literature, and you’re building a house of straw on a single comment tossed away. Evidently this author is having his intention misunderstood :)

It would be absurd to state that it is necessary to understand music as political to enjoy it, and I don’t hold that opinion.

Sorry if I sound grouchy, but the constant misunderstandings about what I write are starting to annoy. Ironic given what we’re talking about, isn’t it?

“I think the kind of sociological exegesis you apply to art tends to degrade or neutralise the actual act of creation, and deny its full impact on the reader or listener.”

I absolutely and unreservedly deny this is the case.

Clearly, as I tried to bring out with this post, this is where the dispute lies. You think that politics somehow dilutes art. I don’t. Your attitude, Rob, itself has its roots in a particular time and cultural milieu – the Romanticism of the late 18th and early 19th century. That’s where the sort of aestheticism you defend derives from – and that’s the sort of tradition of literary scholarship that *I* regard as impoverished.

Therefore your opinions are not unique. Nor are mine. We’re replaying a conversation that has gone on and on. It would repay people, as I’ve said on a number of occasions, to go back and read some of the great texts in the philosophy of aesthetics. It is simply impossible – *rationally* – to defend any particular criterion of eternal beauty. Kant did his best, failed, and he’s a much greater thinker than all of us here. Therefore the argument you defend is irrefutable because it appeals to emotion rather than reason. Hence the frustrating quality of this discussion for me as I’m trying to advance arguments based on reason, and all I am told in return is that I can’t possibly understand the creative spirit or the beauties of art because I dare to apply some rational thought to its contexts and the conditions of its composition. Well, I am a social scientist and I believe truth is discovered through reason and I refuse to apologise for my point of view.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

I’m sorry if that sounded harsh but your comment in the last paragraph borders on personally offensive to me, Rob.

I’m going to listen to some Bach Cello to calm down…

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Kevin, I’m deleting your last comment as it was garbled and only read:

“Hi Rob

And Kevin’s”

Please try posting it again – something obviously went awry.

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

As I so often seem to do on Troppo, Mark, I apologise for any unintended offence and withdraw. And thank you for being so tolerant. An Andrea Harris would have pichforked me out long ago – in fact, she did once.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

That’s ok, Rob, I shouldn’t get so steamed up. Bach is working his magic now.

I’m honestly coming to the view that we’ve all said all we can usefully say on this topic after a very long discussion. I’ll keep the thread open for a little while longer though, but will close it off if things become more repetitive.

Brian Bahnisch
Brian Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Rob, I was going to respond to your comments about music, and to Sophie’s about the Japanese, Chinese etc and their recent achievements in performance of classical music, but I think Mark’s right. It’s really a distraction in the current discourse. Actually I don’t think he started it; I think it was started by some-one else on another thread, but I’m not going to check.

I’m on limited time, as I am going to have to spend my spare time on something else for a while after this weekend.

Before I go, can I say I didn’t take offense at James H’s salvo above. I see it as a problem he’s got and I can’t actually understand what he’s on about. I haven’t commented a lot in this discourse, but I see myself miles away from Sawyer. I agree with most of what Sophie says. I agree also with 95% plus of what Kevin says, but find strange comments coming through that open whole new areas of dispute and contestation.

An important issue that has not received enough attention amongst all the words so far is the power that the exit exam for secondary schooling wields over the educational process. The great Garth Boomer said a few decades ago that if he wanted to transform the maths curriculum he woulkd do so by the simple means of specifying an oral examination in maths.

The requirement to quantify achievement and make such quantification significant for life opportunities runs counter to education for personal development, which must necessarily emphasise choice and divergence in experience. Kevin is fully in favour of quantification, measurement certification and benchmarking. I’m actually a pragmatist who recognises that nothing much will change and the best that we can hope for is wriggle room so that teachers can still organise educational experiences that maximise personal growth and minimize coercion. It is a coercion that values individual, competitive (as distinct from cooperative) conforming behaviours.

I expect what I’ve just written to be largely misunderstood btw but I’d need about 5,000 words to make my case.

Back to James H. Over 64 years and 11 months I’ve mostly been treated with courtesy and respect. I have made people angry at times, you don’t win them all. But never before have I been yelled at, sworn at and laughed at in one go (well two if we’re going to be pedantic.)

No apology necessary, mate, because I can’t actually imagine it would be sincere.

But if I’m asked to side with Sophie/Kevin or Sawyer I’m with Sophie/Kevin. Sawyer, it seems to me, is aware that texts are used in communication to position and manipulate an audience. He seeks to innoculate us from this power play, but in doing so has put the reader fully in charge. So the partnership and mutuality necessary in artistic communication is replaced by assigning all power to the reader who can then exploit the artist at will. Having thus set all political subjects free to make up their own minds in our great democracy he has committed the ultimate crime of specifying what they must think.

btw, I think there has been a slippage of terminology in this discourse. We started with ‘critical literacy’ and have slid to ‘critical theory’. The latter is bespoken in a sense, representing Habermas et al, no? “Critical literacy’ I think has another genesis. Back in the 1970s we had ‘visual literacy’, later we had ‘computer literacy’ and then people started to talk about ‘multiple literacies’. Critical literacy is presumably meant to make students aware of the main schools of theory used in the criticism (or critical appreciation) of literature. Again it seems that after due consideration of the offerings, the gatekeepers of the academy may have preferred just one.

While 16-17 year olds have the brain processing power (mabe not all of them) to handle these concepts it is far too early to go into such concepts in any depth. Not only are they insufficiently well read, they lack the personal maturity.

That’s my rant for the night.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Brian, “critical theory” in this sense is a term internal to the discipline of English and means the theory of literary criticism. Nothing to do with Adorno/Horkheimer/Marcuse/Habermas etc. I agree it’s confusing!

As I’ve been trying to suggest, I think there’s a third position between Sawyer and Sophie/Kevin which I’m trying to occupy. But the lot of a Third Way proponent (irony intended!) is not an easy one!

Kevin Donnelly
Kevin Donnelly
2022 years ago

Mark asks:

“So, all I really want Kevin and Sophie to clarify is whether they think High School English should be taught without reference to theory and without reference to the social and political contexts of literature. It seems to me that this is the sense of their arguments. They’re ones, Ken, that you and I disagree with, if I recall your comments about Heidegger, Gadamer and hermeneutics correctly, and also clearly opposed by Chris.”

In relation to high school English (having taught it for 12 years and helped set the exam as a member of the panel of examiners) I would say ‘no’ to theory. Get the students to read and learn to value good literature and leave the theory to later. Sophie’s example of what is happening with year12 English in NSW shows how bad things are.

Should literature be taught with reference to its social and political context? Depends on the text and what you actually mean by social and political context. As I’ve previously mentioned, all texts can be studied as cultural artefacts. If that’s your thing, good, but do not confuse cultural studies with a study of literature.

Secondly, some literature is intensely political and such a study is an important part of English. Swift’s ‘A Modest Proposal’, Blake’s ‘London’ and the works of Orwell all have a political bent. Also, to teach something like ‘Animal Farm’ it is important to put it in its context.

Current approaches to theory take this political view of literature a step further and this is where I have a problem. My view is that some texts are literary in nature and it does them, and the author, a disservice to deconstruct them and to read into them something that was never intended. Literature deals with aesthetic, moral and spiritual values and while such texts arise out of a particular social context, the priority should be to value what they tell us about human nature. As stated by the late S.L.Goldberg:

“people are more likely than not to go on being interested in people – as much as they are in abstract theories and ideologies, or impersonal forces, or structural systems, or historical information, or even the play of signifiers. So it is more likely than not, I’d say, that people will go on valuing those writings that they judge best help them to realize what the world is and what people are, and to live with both as realistically and as fully as they can”

James Farrell
James Farrell
2022 years ago

Brian, your comment about the impact on learning of the certification imperative is interseting. I made a related point on the other thread about how students’ approach to literature and the humanities is corrupted by the ambition to score high in exams. Students and parent neurosis has given rise to a whole industry that markets tecniques, shortcuts and model answers, and I think this has contributed to the evolution of a bureaucratised curriculm, replete with conceptual mappings, flow charts, bullet points and jargon. But you’ve made me think the problem is more fundamental than just the effect of exams.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Kevin, I appreciate your clarification of your position.

James, it’s long been a truism in the sociology of education that learning and assessment (in the sense of numerical ranking for certification) are two very different things – often with only a tendentious relation to each other.