chapter  9
11 Pages

Aesthetics

ByCHARLES F. LTIERI

Forgive me for beginning on a personal note. But feeling old in this profession seems to impose the personal, especially when making general remarks. The problem is how not to rest in lament or nostalgia when reflecting on the state of literary studies. Therefore my first thought was to do what I could to combat the various forms of “materialist” studies now dominant. But if I could say something new about that topic, a big “if,” the odds are good that it would go unheard. I need a different path. I must propose some model for future work that is compatible with the prevailing ideologies but divergent from them. The not so young will realize the magnitude of this task. The only way to do that is to milk the personal for what it’s worth, then attempt

a self-correction that can point to a path for future work. Recalling what first excited me as possibilities for professional study when I was leaving graduate school in the late 1960s, I argue that the excitement younger critics find in the cultural criticism now dominating modernist studies is substantially the same, with one major difference. Ambitious critical work shaped by innovations in the late 1960s tried to show that writers produced imaginings necessary for the culture. Today’s theories minimize authorial agency, showing how texts read historically illuminate their cultural contexts. This is not a small difference. But stressing it tempts us to overlook the elements common to the two models. Negatively, both insist that close reading could not suffice because criticism has to contextualize its materials and show how it addresses pressing cultural problems. Positively, this ambition leads to what I will call allegorical projects: to elucidate the text’s cultural role, critics must provide a larger story into which the details fit. The links among details are quite differentespecially insofar as they stressed or minimized the achievements of authors as thinkers and makers. Yet we should not ignore the shared model of satisfaction in developing the larger stories and in feeling that criticism directly addresses profound cultural needs. This shared model of satisfaction is one important reason critics could readily switch allegiances, e.g. from deconstruction to materialism.