The Death of Literature

Alvin Kernan
Yale University Press, 1990; 230 pp.

Paul Trout
Montana State Univesity

Despite the apocalyptic, end-of-the-millennium title, The Death of Literature is not a dyspeptic jeremiad, not even much of a lament, but a sardonic, sometimes even clinical, diagnosis of why the romantic and modernist literature of Wordsworth and Goethe, Valery and Joyce is just about stone dead.

When Kernan posits the death of literature, he is not predicting the End of the Printed Word or the extinction of imaginative writing. In the interview, Kernan explained, with the delicate sarcasm that lends so much lethal charm to The Death of Literature, "I don't see how Shakespeare and Homer and Joyce can die. They'll be read by sensible people. There may even be some in the university who'll want to do it." What has "died" are those high claims once made for the value of literature, and indeed other arts--claims of transcendent beauty, immutable meaning, and the precious creative potential of the individual. What has "died" is the view of literature that has prevailed from the high age of print in the eighteenth century through most of the twentieth century: the belief that the creative intelligence of an author is the source of literature, that there are such things as "works of art" and that these works of art convey aesthetic cultural inheritance which is beneficent. Within the space of just thirty years, these once unquestioned and ostensibly permanent beliefs have been dispatched to the dustbin of preposterous notions, where they now rest with such discarded concepts as the earth being flat and kings having a divine right to rule.

To many who came to intellectual maturity, like Kernan, during the 1940s and '50s, the macabre spectacle of the old literature's evisceration is a tragic event, perhaps portending the imminent expiration of Western civilization itself. To Kernan, however, it provides an opportunity to examine with Rasselasian imperturbability the ways in which the very concept of "literature" is inextricably intertwined with other social endeavors and institutions, and is ultimately dependent upon society itself for meaning and social reality.

According to Kernan's autopsy, the old literature died partly by suicide and partly by felonious assault from an academic profession, as he puts it, "intent upon self-destruction." As his book also makes very clear, however, the death of literature was also something of an accident. The old literature simply got crushed within that enormous shift of social "plates" that occurred in America during the 1960s and 1970s. During this time of intellectual, political, technological, and social change, it was inevitable that such a fragile institution as literature would change, too.

Kernan charts this change in a series of deft and revealing sketches that examine various ways in which literature and the other arts are woven into the cultural web. Each chapter explores a particular event or issue that exposes literature's peculiar vulnerability as a social institution. In what seems like a very short book, Kernan manages to account for literature's plight by examining an obscenity trial, the institutionalization of literature as a course of academic study at Oxford, new views of copyright and plagiarism, legal claims about the moral rights of artists, the politicization of literary study since the 1960s, the impact of television on book culture, and changing views about dictionaries and the nature of language.

What all these chapters demonstrate is that the fate of literature is inextricably intertwined with other cultural institutions and socially "real" ways of thinking about important things, from politics, law, technology, language, and education to literacy, property, plagiarism, individual creativity, and other such matters. Although we talk about literature as if "it" has an objective, just about anything has been called "literature." This concept, like all others, is defined within and by the larger culture; literature is what people agree it is.

Literature as a socially constructed category has always been peculiarly fragile and vulnerable. It has failed to get as deeply inscribed within society as other institutions for two reasons. First, since the early eighteenth century, and certainly since the Romantic age, the self-proclaimed mission of literature has been to ridicule and oppose the scientific, philosophical, social, political, and moral values of the surrounding society. High literature, especially, has resisted doing what it is the primary job of social institutions to do: legitimizing social values, making a factitious social reality appear natural.

Even today, literary people at all levels continue to express hostility toward the main line of modern society, as if criticism of the social order, of politicians and business people, were sufficient justification of the arts. The Mapplethorpe-Helms affair is merely the most recent repetition of the now conventional view that the chief end of art is to épater la bourgeoisie, and that art is of such crucial (but unspecified) importance to the world that it should be supported by the very society that it offends and mocks. Although Western societies have been wealthy, confident, and tolerant enough to support an institution like literature whose raison d'etre has been to bite the hand that feeds it, more and more literature and the other arts are viewed as marginal to the main purpose of society.

The second reason for the peculiar fragility of literature as a society institution has been its inability to provide itself with a cognitively rigorous justification. Literature, as even those who live off it will confess, is impossible to define. No two people agree precisely or altogether on what it is, no two people think about it without murkiness and contradiction. As a result, literature lacks a theoretical basis, a systematic organization of its parts that would make it real and meaningful to others in the larger social world. According to Kernan, this absence was painfully and embarrassingly revealed by the 1962 obscenity trial of Penguin Books for publishing Lady Chatterley's Lover. The literary critics and scholars testifying for the publisher could not agree on even rudimentary definitions of art and literature and obscenity, and contradicted one another as to the social functions and benefits of literature.

Troubled by inexact, murky terms and a general lack of theoretical rigor, the institution of literature was ill prepared to withstand the attacks directed at it by the social activists and skeptical theorists of the 1960s, '70s, and '80s. This assault has been so effective, according to Kernan, that it is entirely possible that in the not-too-distant future literature's claim to being a body of truth and a way of knowing truth will appear as ridiculous as that of phrenology's.

This violent assault on the "old those who earn their living teaching and writing about it" is what most intrigues Kernan. For centuries the social function of criticism has been to legitimize literature as an important activity and social enterprise. But since the 1960s, the general effect of structural and post-structural critical theories has been to expose literature as meaningless, purposeless, and evil. Rallied by cries of "no more literature" and "the death of literature", and carrying politically radical banners, intellectuals, students, and teachers stormed the Bastilles of the old literature to liberate reader and even the writer from gender, class, and racial oppression. Even though the old literature is (according to Kernan) "stone dead," the "strange ferocity" against it continues in endless demonstrations that literature is meaningless, wicked, or for those with more explicit political programs, merely a weapon in political and social struggles. Literature as a branch of knowledge on the academic knowledge tree may wither, or be lopped off entirely.

Kernan puts this assault on the old literature and the triumph of theory into a rich social context. To some extent, of course, it was inevitable that literature's hollow claims to being a privileged form of language use and knowledge would be deconstructed by a skeptical inquiry. It was also inevitable that literature would be attacked as an oppressive force of bourgeois society by critics with a political ax to grind. After all, the adversarial stance of the old literature revealed just how political high literature itself actually was. But these motives can't account for the intense "hatred" of literature that Kernan finds in so many of these attacks. Kernan suggests an economic and psychological motive.

During the 1970s, he argues, social and economic forces turned younger academics into a "proletariat of disappointed literary academics." During the job crunch, university administrators marginalized the appointments in literature and other humanities by making more and more of them temporary, part-time, on the hourly pay scale, off the tenure track, and bare of benefits.

The literacy crisis exacerbated the situation by turning huge numbers of intelligent, ambitious, and highly educated young people who had expected to become scholars and professors of literature at distinguished universities into composition teachers at lowly ranked colleges. Many must have felt betrayed by the establishment and discipline that had recruited and trained them. "Rejected and ignored by the old literary establishment," Kernan explains, "they naturally applauded and delighted in the critical iconoclasm that ripped the guts out of the old literature, and eagerly welcomed the new professional democracy that leveled all critics and made all interpretations equal."

The advent of these new theories was welcomed for other reasons too. The critical revolution has given academics almost total control of literature, "the goal they have long sought." Moreover, in the old literary system of romanticism and modernism, authority and prestige went to great authors and literary masterworks, with the critic, at best, playing the role of humble servant. But in the new literary order the academic critic is now in charge. And, since the new theories (hermeneutics, reader-receptions, etc.) authorize an infinity of interpretations, they provide "an endless protected marketplace for the critics who trade in interpretation." Although the old literature may be dying or dead, the new criticism and academic careers flourish.

Another reason why the new theories were so eagerly embraced by the profession is that they have helped the discipline deal with one of the crucial pedagogical issues of the time: the declining reading and thinking skills of students. What these theories did was to champion subjective interpretation over intensive analysis and understanding. In other words, instead of battling the literacy crisis, these theories embraced it as inevitable. "Books are hard to read and often boring," advanced criticism tells students, "and you'll have trouble reading them. But the problem lies in the nature of language and writing, and therefore no one, least of all your teachers, is to blame for the difficulties you have reading, since that is the normal situation." "Having cleared the ground, tacitly accepting the fact that from now on reading literature, or anything else, is going to be a much less rigorous business, producing much looser understandings, the advanced criticism proceeded to make the difficulty of reading into a virtue rather than a defect, proposing that a loose and relativistic understanding of what it means to read can be really quite advantageous, offering opportunities for freedom, individuality, and creativity for everyone, all highly prized qualities in modern democratic society."

This "poetic of illiteracy," coming as it does at the end of the Gutenberg age, is not a harbinger of a new, more free and open literature, for Kernan, but "the last apocalyptic phase of an old literary order collapsing in on itself in a time of radical change."

Much of Kernan's book explores this radical change. "The death of the old literature has itself been only one part, and a relatively small one, of an extensive social disorientation that has in the past thirty years broken up a large number of our traditional institutions and value systems. There is as yet no satisfactory name for this extensive social shift,...but that a big change has come, whether by evolution or revolution, I think few would dispute."

Foremost is the shift from a print to an electronic culture. For good or for bad, television and other forms of electronic communication have replaced the printed book, especially its idealized form, literature, as more enticing, efficient, and authoritative sources of knowledge. This change has necessarily affected literature, which could be as dependent on print culture as bardic poetry and heroic epic were on tribal oral society. In the electronic age, literature may simply disappear or dwindle to a merely ceremonial role, like Peking opera.

With the same "despairing shrug" that Lionel Trilling used to greet the early phase of this crisis back in the 1960s, Kernan reminds us that the assembly and institutionalization of the texts, beliefs, and practices constituting old literature was, after all, an historical event, and so there is no reason why "it should not join the many other cultural institutions in history's dream-dump."

At this moment, it is unclear what, if anything, may take its place. Kernan reminds us that literature cannot exist as anything but a "social reality," and that if literature is to have a future, scholars and critics will need to accept and work with this fact. Kernan's problem with the new approaches is not their accuracy or fairness, but with their usefulness in maintaining and preserving the works of literature on which the entire literary enterprise depends. "Whatever else literature has been and may become in the future, its own prosperity and its social usefulness rely on a group of poems, plays, novels that are by general agreement not only its principal stock in trade but its accumulated capital as well. Give away, lose, or discredit these texts...and literature is out of business."

Whether or not current skeptical theories, which have acted on literature like a strong solvent, are here to stay or fashions of the moment, the interest of literature can hardly be served by insisting that it has no meaning, or has any meaning the reader cares to give it. Such skeptical ideas, along with the view that literature is nothing more than an ideological instrument of various coercive powers seeking to repress freedom and fairness in the interest of power, wear away the positive authority and even the reality of the subject. Under these conditions, how can university faculties, administrators, and students, let alone truck drivers, accountants, carpenters, waitpersons, etc., believe that literature contains useful knowledge and truth, and that it should be studied and taught?

Although he has no advice as to how this is to be done, or where it might lead, Kernan believes that if literature is to play some meaningful part in social life in years to come, its relationship to the established order needs to be thought through again and redefined. Art is, after all, not some definite object like shovels, nor some given reality like mountains, it is whatever a society says is art at any given time, and it does what people agree that art should do. It can be a bad joke, or it can be a concept and an activity that serves human needs and enlists the honest respect of the society in which it must exist.

The beginnings of a new literature will appear, if at all, "only when some new way, plausible and positive, is voiced to claim for the traditional literary works a place of some importance and usefulness in individual life and for society as a whole."

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