Day 83: Because literary criticism is good for nothing, it is not yet obsolete. (Shh!)

At Joshua’s birthday party I met a lovely couple of philosophers, by which I mean both that they were two philosophers, each lovely, and also that they were a lovely couple. [1]

At some point I was telling them excitedly about Jayne’s upcoming MLA roundtable on “Uselessness” and apropos of that subject one of them mentioned this passage by Adorno (you know, as you do). [2] Since they couldn’t remember it verbatim (I know, what are academic cocktail party standards coming to?), afterwards I hunted them down on facebook to verify the actual quote and its source, which they obligingly provided. It turned out not to be about uselessness, exactly, but about the “good for nothing,” which is certainly related to, if not synonymous with, uselessness. Here’s the quotation:

“Anything that has a function is already spellbound within a functional world. Only a thinking that has no mental sanctuary, no illusion of an inner realm, and that acknowledges its lack of function and power can perhaps catch a glimpse of an order of the possible and nonexistent, where human beings and things each would be in their rightful place. Because philosophy is good for nothing, it is not yet obsolete; philosophy should not even invoke this point, lest it blindly repeat its wrong: self-justification by self-positing.” Theodor W. Adorno, “Why Still Philosophy?” in Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords, translated by Henry W. Pickford (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998),  pp. 5-17. p. 15.

The only part of this essay I have read is this one paragraph, which comes two pages from the end. So I’m not at all sure that what I’m getting out of this paragraph has anything to do with the general gist of the essay, or with what Adorno was hoping I’d get out of it. I just really like this paragraph. In particular, I like the two statements, “anything that has a function is already spellbound within a functional world,” and “because philosophy is good for nothing, it is not yet obsolete,” each of which has a pleasingly epigrammatic quality.

I would argue that us littératrices and littérateurs should adapt this last sentence in order to make the case that because literary criticism is good for nothing, it is not yet obsolete. But if Adorno is saying what I think he’s saying in the final part of the final sentence, then I quite deliberately won’t argue that, because to do so would be to counter-productively justify literary criticism, to argue for the instrumentality of literary criticism’s non-instrumentality, which would leave us back where we started. You can only break the spell by giving up the claim to functionality.

Because it’s a justification that turns upon the counter-productiveness of self-justification, it’s tricky to see how it might be adopted as a save-the-humanities rallying cry. On the other hand, it’s an appealing rallying cry for people, like the duck-rabbit, who are not really into rallying cries. Just imagine it on a poster or a T-shirt:

Because literary criticism is good for nothing, it is not yet obsolete.

(TELL NO-ONE)

Because literary criticism is good for nothing, it is not yet obsolete.

(DO NOT INVOKE THIS POINT. YOU’LL BE SORRY.)

Because literary criticism is good for nothing, it is not yet obsolete.

(IS WHAT I WOULD SAY IF I DIDN’T KNOW BETTER)

Because literary criticism is good for nothing, it is not yet obsolete.

Thinking up ridiculous posters is helping my June gloom, which is all inside my head, and has nothing to do with the weather, which is bloody-fucking-sunny, just to spite me. Bastard.

Notes

[1] By the way, I don’t recall if we’ve discussed this before, but it annoys me that there is no noun in English to describe a literature professor. (No, smartarse, “smartarse” does not suffice). I mean there is no equivalent, in English, of “philosopher,” “historian,” etc. to designate “one who studies letters.” I like the French littératrice or littérateur. I think we should adopt it.

[2] Are you non-academics laughing at the kinds of conversations I have at parties? Well, the joke’s on you because … just because, OK? Ha!

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2 thoughts on “Day 83: Because literary criticism is good for nothing, it is not yet obsolete. (Shh!)

  1. marissaklopez says:

    In Spanish we have “letrado” which is really more of a politician/writer, historically speaking, but it is a noun. I’d rather adopt a Spanish noun than a smartarse French-y one.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Paul K. Anonymous says:

    OK. Adorn your T-shirt with Adorno if it cheers you. But as one who still misses the delightful irritation stimulated by “Arnold for Governator” T-shirts of happy memory (and if I wore a large enough T-shirt), I’d dispel June gloom (if there were any) with a rallying cry taken from Vladimir:

    “A work of art has no importance whatever to society. It is only important to the individual, and only the individual reader is important to me. I don’t give a damn for the group, the community, the masses, and so forth. Although I do not care for the slogan ‘art for art’s sake’—because unfortunately such promoters of it as, for instance, Oscar Wilde and various dainty poets, were in reality rank moralists and didacticists–there can be no question that what makes a work of fiction safe from larvae and rust is not its social importance but its art, only its art.”
    Vladimir Nabokov, STRONG OPINIONS

    OK, OK–slightly off point. But only slightly, and how often do I have any pretext to quote this ?? Nobody can read it too often . . .

    Liked by 1 person

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