June 22, 2007

Criticism as 'Coduction'

I have remarked a couple of times that Wayne Booth's idea of 'coduction' seems to me to capture something important about the way thoughtful literary criticism unfolds. I was reminded of this yet again reading Dan Green's lastest posting on the ethics of book reviewing, in which he proposes that any review that aspires to the status of criticism must take into account what other reviewers have said. As discussed in my previous post, one distinction between reviewing and criticism is that the critic may be aiming at explication rather than evaluation, while the main expectation most of us have of a review is that it will culminate in and justify a judgment. I think Booth would argue that criticism is always at least implicitly judgmental. In any case, here's some of what he says about the process by which "we arrive at our sense of value in narratives":
Even in my first intuition of 'this new one,' whether a story or a person, I see it against a backdrop of my long personal history of untraceably complex experiences of other stories and persons. Thus my initial acquaintance is comparative even when I do not think of comparisons. If I then converse with others about their impressions--if, that is, I move toward a public 'criticism'--the primary intuition (with its implicit acknowledgment of value) can be altered in at least three ways: it can become conscious and more consciously comparative...; it can become less dependent on my private experience...; and it can be related to principles and norms.... Every appraisal of a narrative is implicitly a comparison between the always complex experience we have had in its presence and what we have known before. (The Company We Keep, pp. 70-71)
It's not that the 'primary intuition' (especially of a reader with an already rich 'personal history' of literature and criticism) is invalid; it's that putting that intuition into dialogue with other ideas enriches it and complicates it, and makes it better--more "serious," to use Green's word.

Just as a bit of an aside, this idea that criticism is not finite or absolute but always in process, part of an ongoing conversation, is what makes a medium such as a blog seem appropriate for it. Conventional academic publishing inhibits any real exchange of views, first because its pace is so unbelievably slow that by the time anything you write appears in print you can barely remember what you said or why you said it, and second because you have to at least sound as if you think what you've said is definitive. Hardly anybody reads most academic criticism, either, even within the academy (half the time it seems the real audience is the person who reads only the title, on your cv...).

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