By: Andrew Reyes
Some think that writing a paper on literature must be easy because there is not an insane amount of problem sets to do with a definitive standard of quality determined by a pre-established science. Well, that may be true in some sense. When I sit down to write about literature, I have a lot of freedom in what I write. But freedom, true freedom, is quite scary. Think of the last time you had to make a decision in life where you had no precedent for action. Maybe it was something to do with love, or perhaps moving to a new city (you’re probably young and as yet have little experience with that, but think about choosing a college—now multiply that by infinity, because there is no number that could possibly measure the qualitative difference between choosing between a set amount of predetermined choices and actually inventing an entirely new one, picking up everything, and transplanting yourself into an environment which, before the move, is simply a darkness in your mind; or simply admit to yourself that you have no idea where you are or where you’re going, despite all the on-campus programs that comfort you with choices and information).
That sinking feeling of not knowing? That’s kind of what literary criticism is like.
And it’s addicting.
When we write—and I mean seriously write—about literature, we’re swimming in deep, open waters. There are a lot of trends to latch onto, but those are more like life rafts than powerful naval forces (which maintain the illusion that they are protected from the elements as well as the enemy). In fact, mathematical thinking—that which gets posited as the opposite of literature—has a lot to do with power; learning to do math is training oneself to conform to the rules of a power that the subject has no say in (here in the realm of comparative literature, we can end a sentence with a preposition and then deny that ending by inserting a parenthetical explication which is more like a black hole than an extension of the sentence). Any individual experience is moot; it takes away from the human element of that fearfulness we face when we consider that of which we have no solid grasp.
Now, that kind of thinking is just as essential to humanity as the fear that drives us to conquer the world in terms of sciences, but if we want to retain an element of consciousness in our lives, we need ways of exploring the unrefined. We need to think in terms of constellating countless elements into new combinations of concepts. Literary criticism is not about producing a knowledge that has the power to effect practical changes; it is more about becoming very humanly aware of a present which often goes ignored because we, as a species, seem to have a tendency to fit things into existing categories and simply expand those categories into as many nuances as we can until the cracks in the foundation are so obvious at the scale of our work that we simply need to redefine it (the theoretical, axiomatic foundation).
In literary criticism, you don’t find scientific revolutions. But you might, if you’re lucky, catch a glimpse of their root as unimaginable (though we still try to outline them) forces build up and eventually climax in a grand explosion of change. Sometimes it’s ugly—in fact, it’s mostly ugly. But, as Theodor Adorno pointed out in his seminal text Aesthetic Theory (and if you stick with comparative literature long enough, you may know it more familiarly by its untranslated title, Ästhetische Theorie), the beautiful needs the ugly. As dialectical poles, they are only separable in reified thought—the kind of thinking that contradicts itself by stopping (the process of thought) and establishing concepts as if they are really existing things instead of expressions of the constant movement of reality. When you get into this territory of thinking, a reminder of how little you know is prudent. So you try to erase everything you think you’ve discovered and start fresh. But erasing what you’ve conceptualized doesn’t erase the insight, the trace of the real you’ve left in your memory. You’re simply left with nothing. And that’s what those outside of literary criticism can’t stand about the humanities: it’s not an explicit player in the productive forces of the economy. However—and I use that word because of its formality and definitive tone—, we who take comparative literature seriously are seeking nothing, and believe me when I say that it is not easy to find.
But there it is. A whole world of thought which reduces, quite simply, to nothing. Perfect if you’re on a diet or an existential crisis. Also perfect if you prefer imagination over strictly defined answers.