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The Death of Literature

Alvin Kernan
Yale University Press, 1990; 230 pp.
Paul Trout
Montana State Univesity
Despite the apocalyptic, end-of-the-millennium title, The Death of Literature is
not a dyspeptic jeremiad, not even much of a lament, but a sardonic, sometimes
even clinical, diagnosis of why the romantic and modernist literature of Wordswo
rth and Goethe, Valery and Joyce is just about stone dead.
When Kernan posits the death of literature, he is not predicting the End of the
Printed Word or the extinction of imaginative writing. In the interview, Kernan
explained, with the delicate sarcasm that lends so much lethal charm to The Deat
h of Literature, "I don't see how Shakespeare and Homer and Joyce can die. They'
ll be read by sensible people. There may even be some in the university who'll w
ant to do it." What has "died" are those high claims once made for the value of
literature, and indeed other arts--claims of transcendent beauty, immutable mean
ing, and the precious creative potential of the individual. What has "died" is t
he view of literature that has prevailed from the high age of print in the eight
eenth century through most of the twentieth century: the belief that the creativ
e intelligence of an author is the source of literature, that there are such thi
ngs as "works of art" and that these works of art convey aesthetic cultural inhe
ritance which is beneficent. Within the space of just thirty years, these once u
nquestioned and ostensibly permanent beliefs have been dispatched to the dustbin
of preposterous notions, where they now rest with such discarded concepts as th
e earth being flat and kings having a divine right to rule.
To many who came to intellectual maturity, like Kernan, during the 1940s and '50
s, the macabre spectacle of the old literature's evisceration is a tragic event,
perhaps portending the imminent expiration of Western civilization itself. To K
ernan, however, it provides an opportunity to examine with Rasselasian imperturb
ability the ways in which the very concept of "literature" is inextricably inter
twined with other social endeavors and institutions, and is ultimately dependent
upon society itself for meaning and social reality.
According to Kernan's autopsy, the old literature died partly by suicide and par
tly by felonious assault from an academic profession, as he puts it, "intent upo
n self-destruction." As his book also makes very clear, however, the death of li
terature was also something of an accident. The old literature simply got crushe
d within that enormous shift of social "plates" that occurred in America during
the 1960s and 1970s. During this time of intellectual, political, technological,
and social change, it was inevitable that such a fragile institution as literat
ure would change, too.
Kernan charts this change in a series of deft and revealing sketches that examin
e various ways in which literature and the other arts are woven into the cultura
l web. Each chapter explores a particular event or issue that exposes literature
's peculiar vulnerability as a social institution. In what seems like a very sho
rt book, Kernan manages to account for literature's plight by examining an obsce
nity trial, the institutionalization of literature as a course of academic study
at Oxford, new views of copyright and plagiarism, legal claims about the moral
rights of artists, the politicization of literary study since the 1960s, the imp
act of television on book culture, and changing views about dictionaries and the
nature of language.
What all these chapters demonstrate is that the fate of literature is inextricab
ly intertwined with other cultural institutions and socially "real" ways of thin
king about important things, from politics, law, technology, language, and educa
tion to literacy, property, plagiarism, individual creativity, and other such ma
tters. Although we talk about literature as if "it" has an objective, just about
anything has been called "literature." This concept, like all others, is define
d within and by the larger culture; literature is what people agree it is.
Literature as a socially constructed category has always been peculiarly fragile
and vulnerable. It has failed to get as deeply inscribed within society as othe
r institutions for two reasons. First, since the early eighteenth century, and c
ertainly since the Romantic age, the self-proclaimed mission of literature has b
een to ridicule and oppose the scientific, philosophical, social, political, and
moral values of the surrounding society. High literature, especially, has resis
ted doing what it is the primary job of social institutions to do: legitimizing
social values, making a factitious social reality appear natural.
Even today, literary people at all levels continue to express hostility toward t
he main line of modern society, as if criticism of the social order, of politici
ans and business people, were sufficient justification of the arts. The Mappleth
orpe-Helms affair is merely the most recent repetition of the now conventional v
iew that the chief end of art is to épater la bourgeoisie, and that art is of such
crucial (but unspecified) importance to the world that it should be supported b
y the very society that it offends and mocks. Although Western societies have be
en wealthy, confident, and tolerant enough to support an institution like litera
ture whose raison d'etre has been to bite the hand that feeds it, more and more
literature and the other arts are viewed as marginal to the main purpose of soci
The second reason for the peculiar fragility of literature as a society institut
ion has been its inability to provide itself with a cognitively rigorous justifi
cation. Literature, as even those who live off it will confess, is impossible to
define. No two people agree precisely or altogether on what it is, no two peopl
e think about it without murkiness and contradiction. As a result, literature la
cks a theoretical basis, a systematic organization of its parts that would make
it real and meaningful to others in the larger social world. According to Kernan
, this absence was painfully and embarrassingly revealed by the 1962 obscenity t
rial of Penguin Books for publishing Lady Chatterley's Lover. The literary criti
cs and scholars testifying for the publisher could not agree on even rudimentary
definitions of art and literature and obscenity, and contradicted one another a
s to the social functions and benefits of literature.
Troubled by inexact, murky terms and a general lack of theoretical rigor, the in
stitution of literature was ill prepared to withstand the attacks directed at it
by the social activists and skeptical theorists of the 1960s, '70s, and '80s. T
his assault has been so effective, according to Kernan, that it is entirely poss
ible that in the not-too-distant future literature's claim to being a body of tr
uth and a way of knowing truth will appear as ridiculous as that of phrenology's
This violent assault on the "old those who earn their living tea
ching and writing about it" is what most intrigues Kernan. For centuries the soc
ial function of criticism has been to legitimize literature as an important acti
vity and social enterprise. But since the 1960s, the general effect of structura
l and post-structural critical theories has been to expose literature as meaning
less, purposeless, and evil. Rallied by cries of "no more literature" and "the d
eath of literature", and carrying politically radical banners, intellectuals, st
udents, and teachers stormed the Bastilles of the old literature to liberate rea
der and even the writer from gender, class, and racial oppression. Even though t
he old literature is (according to Kernan) "stone dead," the "strange ferocity"
against it continues in endless demonstrations that literature is meaningless, w
icked, or for those with more explicit political programs, merely a weapon in po
litical and social struggles. Literature as a branch of knowledge on the academi
c knowledge tree may wither, or be lopped off entirely.
Kernan puts this assault on the old literature and the triumph of theory into a
rich social context. To some extent, of course, it was inevitable that literatur
e's hollow claims to being a privileged form of language use and knowledge would
be deconstructed by a skeptical inquiry. It was also inevitable that literature
would be attacked as an oppressive force of bourgeois society by critics with a
political ax to grind. After all, the adversarial stance of the old literature
revealed just how political high literature itself actually was. But these motiv
es can't account for the intense "hatred" of literature that Kernan finds in so
many of these attacks. Kernan suggests an economic and psychological motive.
During the 1970s, he argues, social and economic forces turned younger academics
into a "proletariat of disappointed literary academics." During the job crunch,
university administrators marginalized the appointments in literature and other
humanities by making more and more of them temporary, part-time, on the hourly
pay scale, off the tenure track, and bare of benefits.
The literacy crisis exacerbated the situation by turning huge numbers of intelli
gent, ambitious, and highly educated young people who had expected to become sch
olars and professors of literature at distinguished universities into compositio
n teachers at lowly ranked colleges. Many must have felt betrayed by the establi
shment and discipline that had recruited and trained them. "Rejected and ignored
by the old literary establishment," Kernan explains, "they naturally applauded
and delighted in the critical iconoclasm that ripped the guts out of the old lit
erature, and eagerly welcomed the new professional democracy that leveled all cr
itics and made all interpretations equal."
The advent of these new theories was welcomed for other reasons too. The critica
l revolution has given academics almost total control of literature, "the goal t
hey have long sought." Moreover, in the old literary system of romanticism and m
odernism, authority and prestige went to great authors and literary masterworks,
with the critic, at best, playing the role of humble servant. But in the new li
terary order the academic critic is now in charge. And, since the new theories (
hermeneutics, reader-receptions, etc.) authorize an infinity of interpretations,
they provide "an endless protected marketplace for the critics who trade in int
erpretation." Although the old literature may be dying or dead, the new criticis
m and academic careers flourish.
Another reason why the new theories were so eagerly embraced by the profession i
s that they have helped the discipline deal with one of the crucial pedagogical
issues of the time: the declining reading and thinking skills of students. What
these theories did was to champion subjective interpretation over intensive anal
ysis and understanding. In other words, instead of battling the literacy crisis,
these theories embraced it as inevitable. "Books are hard to read and often bor
ing," advanced criticism tells students, "and you'll have trouble reading them.
But the problem lies in the nature of language and writing, and therefore no one
, least of all your teachers, is to blame for the difficulties you have reading,
since that is the normal situation." "Having cleared the ground, tacitly accept
ing the fact that from now on reading literature, or anything else, is going to
be a much less rigorous business, producing much looser understandings, the adva
nced criticism proceeded to make the difficulty of reading into a virtue rather
than a defect, proposing that a loose and relativistic understanding of what it
means to read can be really quite advantageous, offering opportunities for freed
om, individuality, and creativity for everyone, all highly prized qualities in m
odern democratic society."
This "poetic of illiteracy," coming as it does at the end of the Gutenberg age,
is not a harbinger of a new, more free and open literature, for Kernan, but "the
last apocalyptic phase of an old literary order collapsing in on itself in a ti
me of radical change."
Much of Kernan's book explores this radical change. "The death of the old litera
ture has itself been only one part, and a relatively small one, of an extensive
social disorientation that has in the past thirty years broken up a large number
of our traditional institutions and value systems. There is as yet no satisfact
ory name for this extensive social shift,...but that a big change has come, whet
her by evolution or revolution, I think few would dispute."
Foremost is the shift from a print to an electronic culture. For good or for bad
, television and other forms of electronic communication have replaced the print
ed book, especially its idealized form, literature, as more enticing, efficient,
and authoritative sources of knowledge. This change has necessarily affected li
terature, which could be as dependent on print culture as bardic poetry and hero
ic epic were on tribal oral society. In the electronic age, literature may simpl
y disappear or dwindle to a merely ceremonial role, like Peking opera.
With the same "despairing shrug" that Lionel Trilling used to greet the early ph
ase of this crisis back in the 1960s, Kernan reminds us that the assembly and in
stitutionalization of the texts, beliefs, and practices constituting old literat
ure was, after all, an historical event, and so there is no reason why "it shoul
d not join the many other cultural institutions in history's dream-dump."
At this moment, it is unclear what, if anything, may take its place. Kernan remi
nds us that literature cannot exist as anything but a "social reality," and that
if literature is to have a future, scholars and critics will need to accept and
work with this fact. Kernan's problem with the new approaches is not their accu
racy or fairness, but with their usefulness in maintaining and preserving the wo
rks of literature on which the entire literary enterprise depends. "Whatever els
e literature has been and may become in the future, its own prosperity and its s
ocial usefulness rely on a group of poems, plays, novels that are by general agr
eement not only its principal stock in trade but its accumulated capital as well
. Give away, lose, or discredit these texts...and literature is out of business.
Whether or not current skeptical theories, which have acted on literature like a
strong solvent, are here to stay or fashions of the moment, the interest of lit
erature can hardly be served by insisting that it has no meaning, or has any mea
ning the reader cares to give it. Such skeptical ideas, along with the view that
literature is nothing more than an ideological instrument of various coercive p
owers seeking to repress freedom and fairness in the interest of power, wear awa
y the positive authority and even the reality of the subject. Under these condit
ions, how can university faculties, administrators, and students, let alone truc
k drivers, accountants, carpenters, waitpersons, etc., believe that literature c
ontains useful knowledge and truth, and that it should be studied and taught?
Although he has no advice as to how this is to be done, or where it might lead,
Kernan believes that if literature is to play some meaningful part in social lif
e in years to come, its relationship to the established order needs to be though
t through again and redefined. Art is, after all, not some definite object like
shovels, nor some given reality like mountains, it is whatever a society says is
art at any given time, and it does what people agree that art should do. It can
be a bad joke, or it can be a concept and an activity that serves human needs a
nd enlists the honest respect of the society in which it must exist.
The beginnings of a new literature will appear, if at all, "only when some new w
ay, plausible and positive, is voiced to claim for the traditional literary work
s a place of some importance and usefulness in individual life and for society a
s a whole."
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