In a previous post inspired by the work of Language Poetry and Poetics as espoused by Barrett Watten and Ron Silliman and Charles Bernstein, I addressed the issue of how criticism could occupy a place of privilege equivalent to original creative writing (or literature). Critical literary theory, or aesthetics, has a long and dignified history, dating all the way back to the Greeks (Aristotle). Propositions about the most effective forms of art have been the preoccupation of poets, playwrights, philosophers, journalists, and critics for two thousand years.
Prose--whether of exposition or narrative fiction--may attain the level of art, but is it possible for critical prose--that is, non-fictional prose, which surveys or estimates the meaning and value of another art form, such as poetry or music or art--itself to be on a par with the creative significance we normally reserve for original artifacts? Can criticism be art? Or is it destined always to be a parasitic attachment to original creative acts?
Great critics, like Edmund Wilson or George Steiner, may lay the groundwork for a fuller appreciation of works we either don't understand, or haven't figured out how to interpret, or to place within a context that makes their appreciation possible, or clearer.
But there may be another kind of criticism, which belongs to another tradition, or which has come to define its own tradition, in the latter half of the 20th century. The so-called "cultural criticism" movement, which began largely in Europe after the war, gathered steam and migrated to America. Though ostensibly devoted to the progress and purpose of art, cultural criticism's deeper function may be purely self-generating, or self-directed. It may begin as consideration of a work or works, but move beyond these to a philosophical meditation or analysis of a whole civilization; as if the pretext, the work in question, is merely a starting-point or prompt.
In America, the career and work of Hugh Kenner presents an interesting case of a critic whose insights and interests may be said to outstrip the boundaries of mere literary criticism, and to expand outward in widening circles of iteration and implication, far beyond the limits inherent in the pretext. Kenner's area of interest, as an academic and serious critic, was Modernism, and he wrote important books on the work of Pound, Eliot, Joyce, Wyndham Lewis, Beckett, Yeats and Williams, among others.
In the disintegration of European culture which culminated in the events of World War I and after, he saw the Modernist movement as a reaction to that disintegration and a reformation of sensibility, made new.
Reading is a creative act. That may be the most crucial innovation of the post-structural era. The idea that the principles or tropes contained within a given work are not fixed, but can mean quite different things to different people in differing circumstances. The undermining of the cultural power centres which took place in the American academy in the last third of the 20th Century is largely attributed to this idea.
But if reading is a kind of collaboration between audience and artist, criticism may take on an autonomy which does not merely mediate between work and reception, but which actively revisions a work, building systematic adjunctive buttresses. Criticism may attain a separate integrity, independent from its model, standing alone.
Any artist or writer desires great readers, or should. Artists or writers who are content to condescend to lesser minds or sensibilities, by pandering to reduced expectations or a standard of mere entertainment, can expect to be treated less seriously. The higher an artist or writer aspires, in terms of the ambitions and demands of a reading context, the higher the stakes.
But if the terms of a work of art's apprehension become too hermetic or complex, the artist risks sealing himself off from his audience. Who can say what the membrane is between understanding and appreciation, accessibility and effect?
In Kenner's great work, The Pound Era, we are treated to the deepest and subtlest probing of The Cantos imaginable. We are shown connections and correspondences which are either so obscure, or concealed, that we hardly guessed they were there.
The Cantos is a confusing mass to most readers. Formally, it isn't organized in such a way as to render the ordinary reader's comprehension probable. That would suggest that a failure of structure, or of sense, might signal a deliberate distortion of intention. The Cantos imagines a reader so polymathic or ambitiously curious as to defy expectation. Though individual lines or references or stanzas may bulge out to recognition, the overall effect of the poem is of a chaotic mass, stretching and distorting into grotesque rhetorics and untenable notions.
Yet Kenner is inspired by it to construct a rich tapestry of speculations and echoes and correspondences, weaving reference and antecedent and incident together to make a body of animadversion which is temptingly more fascinating and organized and interesting than its model. If texts are equivalent to sources, than all traditional forms are arbitrary expedients--media for the transmission of data.