Monday, January 19, 2009

Politics or the English Language

"Why Teach Literature, Anyway?"

Marjorie Perloff took on the question at the MLA conference in San Francisco a few weeks ago. Her answer, which follows a close reading of Barack Obama's memoir, Dreams From My Father: because "literary study is the only discipline that teaches difference." While academics in the field of literature tend to focus on commonality and classification, it is that which escapes definition that makes literature (and life) so interesting, Perloff argues, and that is why close reading - by which she means "reading attentively and bringing to the text in question as much knowledge and practice as possible" - is so important. It should be taught.

She suggests the media's failure and the Clintons' failure to read Obama is what led so many to expect Clinton to win the Democratic nomination. This failure to read also likely contributed to Clinton's losing. Which is partly why Obama's victory is so great. It's a victory over the tendency to gloss over a text, reduce it to something familiar, or simply not pay attention - tendencies that become norms in an age of infotainment overload (I'm thinking right now of this new option to "read full article" or "collapse article" in Yahoo news stories).

Perloff's argument makes perfect sense to me. If asked the question, I probably wouldn't have said "difference," but I may have said "the unknown" or "the particularities of human experience." Those answers are similar to Perloff's, not the same. Her lecture, which is called "The Centrality of Literary Study," also points out the tendency to ignore the difference between discourse intended to convey information (such as a scientific paper or stock market report) and the discourse we call literature. Teachers often ask students to say what a poem or novel says, for example, without paying attention to the "defining elements" of literature (such as diction, metaphor, repetition, irony, syntax, etc). Perloff quotes Wittgenstein to explain the difference between literary and nonliterary language:

"We speak of understanding a sentence in the sense in which it can be replaced by another which says the same; but also in the sense in which it cannot be replaced by any other. (Any more than one musical theme can be replaced by another.)

In the one case the thought in the sentence is something common to different sentences; in the other, something that is expressed only by these words in these positions. (Understanding a poem.)"

This problem comes up when I teach creative writing classes - the show vs. tell lesson, the lesson about sense and sound. Actually, those are more than single lessons. That's the whole course. What I teach is how to read (in composition and creative writing courses), and teaching how to read is not simply a matter of conveying information - which is why both reading and teaching can be so challenging. It's a matter of communication, or tuning, to use David Antin's word. It takes two, which takes time, and many students don't expect it to.

That said, I believe much of literature is interested in conveying information; it's just usually not the main point, as communication does not depend solely (often at all) on a conveyance of information. Sometimes information gives you nothing. Thus I cringe when I hear "Information Age."

Here's to a new age. The difference is spreading.