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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Crisis in Criticism?

Mark Bauerlein writes:

As striving junior scholars and established seniors staged one reading after another, as advanced theories were applied and hot topics attached, the performances stacked up year by year —and seemed to matter less and less. Look at the sales figures for monographs. Back in 1995, the director of the Pennsylvania State University Press, Sanford G. Thatcher, asked who reads those books and revealed in The Chronicle, "Our sales figures for works of literary criticism suggest that the answer is, fewer people than ever before." Sixty-five percent of Penn State's recent offerings at that point sold fewer than 500 copies. A few years later, also in The Chronicle, Lindsay Waters, an executive editor at Harvard University Press, said his humanities monographs "usually sell between 275 and 600 copies." In 2002 the Modern Language Association issued a report on scholarly publishing that cited editors estimating purchases of as low as 200 to 300 units. Remember, too, that standing library orders account for around 250 copies. (That's my guess—also, a few librarians have told me that the odds that such books will never be checked out are pretty good.)

Why the disjuncture? Because performance ran its course, and now it's over. The audience got bored.

For decades the performative model obscured a situation that should have been recognized at the time: Vast areas of the humanities had reached a saturation point. Hundreds of literary works have undergone introduction, summation, and analysis many times over. Hamlet alone received 1,824 items of attention from 1950 to 1985, and then 2,406 from 1986 to 2008. What else was to be said? Defenders of the endeavor may claim that innovations in literary studies like ecocriticism and trauma theory have compelled reinterpretations of works, but while the advent of, say, queer theory opened the works to new insights, such developments don't come close to justifying the degree of productivity that followed. Also, the rapid succession of theories, the Next Big Thing, and the Next … evoked the weary impression that it was all a professional game, a means of finding something more to say.

At what point does common sense step in and cry, "Whoa! Slow down! Hamlet can't give you anything more." The system has reached absurd proportions. Better to admit that books by M.H. Abrams, Hartman, and a few others covered Wordsworth's poems for most practical purposes several decades ago, or that Joseph N. Riddel (my adviser) unveiled the enigmatic lyrics of Wallace Stevens well enough in 1965. Hundreds of excellent books and articles on Henry James have seen print and amply render the meaning of his oeuvre. Further additions to the 6,000-plus items that have been published since 1950 are, to be blunt, in nearly every case unnecessary.

extensive essay at the link: Diminishing Returns in Humanities Research - The Chronicle Review - The Chronicle of Higher Education


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