Mormon Doctrine and the Path of the Law

Margaret Toscano’s recent remarks at UVSC have garnered a few bloggernacle links and generated an interesting discussion at DMI. I missed her remarks, but I did read her paper from a couple of issues ago in Sunstone, and was invited to respond to it here in a long ago comment. My response — not surprisingly — is disciplinary snobbery. I think that Toscano should go to law school.

In her Sunstone paper, Toscano argues that the way in which Mormons construct their theology of a Mother in Heaven, by finding goofy justifications for the lacuna about her, e.g., God didn’t reveal anything about Mother in Heaven in order to prevent her name from being taken in vain, reinforces bad male hierarchies, rendering women powerless, etc. etc. I actually thought that there was quite a bit of merit to her claim with regard to folk theologies of Mother in Heaven, although as I have posted elsewhere, I am skeptical that stories are as institutionally powerful as Toscano and other lit crit types frequently assume. She thinks that one should respond to these problems in at least two ways. First, we ought to historicize the scriptures, realizing that they are products (at least in part) of particular cultural contexts and hence contain the unfortunate relics of those contexts, things like sexism, patriarchy, etc. Second, we ought to creatively read into texts ideas that will serve the forces of progress and equality. As an example of a bad reading of a text, she offers a recent sermon by President Hinckley, in which he responds to a letter from a young woman asking him if the scriptures constant use of male pronouns to refer to those who receive the blessings of the gospel excludes women. President Hinckley said that they do not. These blessings are open to all, and the scriptures’ use of the male pronoun should be understood in a universal sense. Just as the Declaration of Independence speaks of “all men are created equal” but we understand it to refer to all human beings, we should read the scriptures as containing promises open to all. According to Toscano, the sermon illustrates the problem of women in Mormon theology. The young woman’s letter is taken as evidence of the powerful and damaging stories that Toscano means to criticize and President Hinckley’s sermon is held up as an example of the current inadequacy of the Mormon response.

There are any number of problems with Toscanos article’s (as well as some virtues, as I have pointed out above). Although issues of the authority of scriptures and prophets are clearly central to the issue that she discusses, there is no hint of a theory of authority in her paper. (Why should I care about the interpretation of scriptural texts? Is it a matter of historical accident — these happen to be the powerful texts in Mormon society — or is there some reason that these texts have a special claim on us beyond history?) I am more interested, however, in her methodology and her attitude toward interpretation. On the issue of methodology, I find her criticism of President Hinckley’s response extremely ironic, since he seems to be modeling precisely the methodology that she advocates. First he historicizes, at least implicitly, the language of scriptures by comparison to another archaic document — the Declaration of Independence — and then he reads into the text the egalitarian universalism of philosophical liberalism as a way of coping with an undesirable meaning that cuts against gender equality. It strikes me that it would have been much more rhetorically powerful to read President Hinckley’s sermon as a positive example of the methodology that she advocates.

Her critical stance is understandable of course. This is the normal stance of scholarship and intellectuals. I don’t mean this in a demeaning way. Criticism is an enormously powerful thing, and I don’t think that we can advance our understanding on most issues without it. The critical stance, however, is by no means the only one from which one can creatively read and interpret texts. And this, of course, is why Toscano should go to law school. The common law is one of the longest prolonged efforts at interpretation in our culture. Essentially, it is an exercise in change and continuity. Common law judges — good ones at least — care passionately about what the previous cases said and held. It matters a great deal to them. On the other hand, they realize that the precedents are not an iron cage. The law is always developing to meet new social problems and conditions. The skill and artistry of a great common law judge — Cardozo (especially during his time on the New York Court of Appeals) and Learned Hand in the United States and Mansfield and Denning in the UK come to mind — is to weave out of the old cases new law that neither breaks from the past nor remains chained to it. The legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin famously described the process as akin to writing a chain novel, in which the most recent chapter must make sense within the plot of the previous chapters and in which the endeavor is ultimately judged on the basis of the whole novel rather than the last chapter. In short, the common law is a medium in which creativity is always embedded in an imperative of continuity.

Most of modern intellectual discussion celebrates discontinuity. Our models are Galileo (the mythic rather than the historical one) and the French Revolution, and we expect progress to be heroic, critical, and discontinuitous. Mormonism has the capacity, of course, for rather dramatic discontinuities, and not surprisingly this is how Mormon change generally gets imagined (pessimistically for some — “When, oh, when will that revelation on same sex marriage come!?”). I would submit, however, that more frequently our doctrines and practices evolve along in a process that looks much more like the common law than the Code Napoleon. This is a process that the law, it seems to me, models rather well, and one for which legal training provides a useful set of mental habits and tools. What Toscano and her ilk need is a bit more in the way of legalistic thought. Legalistic not in the sense of rule obsessed or narrow minded — this is a vice that lawyers refer to as “formalism” and in theory it is supposed to be beaten out of you by the end of your first semester of law school — but in the sense of finely balancing continuity and creativity. Certainly, a gratuitous attack on the prophet for using more or less exactly the methodology that you advance is poor advocacy.

209 comments for “Mormon Doctrine and the Path of the Law

  1. Nate, with all due respect, and with the acknowledgment that I am not responding to the primary thrust of your post, it is you who do not understand the institutional power of discourse–nor, clearly, do you understand literary critical method. The mutually constitutive relationship of culture/ideology/superstructure/narrative to structure/institution/base/law (insert your analytical pair of choice here) is itself historically dynamic; in the present political moment the influence of the former on the latter is admittedly tenuous (as Michael Moore discovered to his dismay last November). But it is precisely in those contexts in which power is opaque, theatrical, unsystematized, embodied, highly concentrated, given to censorship, and personal (rather than transparent, legalistic, rationalized, dispersed, and institutional, as political power in the US is at present) that stories become crucial managers of power: in contexts such as Elizabethan and Jacobean England, cultural artifacts–Shakespeare’s Richard II, for example–exercised direct and immediate effect on institutions and policies. The church is not an emergent sixteenth-century state, of course, but the allocation of power through the institutional church resembles in certain aspects precisely those features that give power to stories.

    I don’t disagree with your assessment of Toscano’s method, but I’ll be damned if I let you paint me with the same brush you paint her!

  2. Rosalynde: You are no doubt correct as to my ignorance of literary criticism. (One of my points in this post was to provoke the English majors amongst us into saying interesting things in their outrage ;->) My objection is not to the notion that there is some interaction between narrative and and institution, but rather to the frequent implication that power always flows from narrative to institution. Likewise, there are many situations where understanding the dynamics of institutional power is going to proceed best using tools other than the analysis of discourse, for example an analysis of institutiona procedures or incentives. Furthermore, even if one thinks that discourse about stories does structure institutional power, then the critical stance toward those stories adopted by Toscano is unlikely to be effective. It seems to me that the common law — to the extent that it is a matter of forging narratives in addition to institutions — offers a better model.

    Finally, I could turn all Marxist on you and completely reverse the flow of power, arguing that narrative and discourse is nothing more than the ideological froth circling around the hard reality of material and institutional conditions. Indeed, thanks to the wonders of the modern legal academy, I can now be a Marxist without having to bother with all of the silly Marxist economics — the labor theory of value, class conflict etc. — and simply do law and econ.

  3. Nate, if certain literary critical methodologies do seem to privilege the vector of influence that flows from discourse to institution, that is only as a corrective to the centuries of criticism that assume only the opposite flow, from instituion to discourse. And if you think that our brand of Marxism need be as stodgy and inflexible as all that, I’ll just refer you to the magisterial Raymond Williams and we can talk when you get back.

    (It should gratify you–or horrify you, perhaps–to know that an entire section of my dissertation is devoted to a reading of law.)

  4. “Nate, if certain literary critical methodologies do seem to privilege the vector of influence that flows from discourse to institution, that is only as a corrective to the centuries of criticism that assume only the opposite flow, from instituion to discourse.”

    But that is all inside baseball. Fine. Correct the centuries of improper vectoring within literary criticism. Way to go! On the other hand, if one is interested in understanding institutional power rather than simply its relationship to narrative, then one should be allowed a bit of skepticism about the real power of discussion of hegmonic discourse.

    Can I give you a reading list on jurisprudence? (BTW, I would be interested in reading the stuff in your dissertation on the law.)

  5. Oh dear, does Toscano really use the worn-out “hegemonic discourse”? (I confess I didn’t read her article.) If she does, I may have to concede all your points and do all I can to separate myself from her disciplinarily.

    I’d love the reading list. Maybe we should do a joint post where we all list the essential texts in our disciplines.

  6. Actually, I don’t remember if Toscano actually uses “hegmonic discourse,” which means that she probably doesn’t. I am simply offering a lawyer’s skepticism about a certain literary brand of explaining instiitutions. All of this is really secondary to my main point, which actually assumes that how one tells stories DOES matter, and I just noted in passing my skepticism that every issue of institutional power is best thought of in terms of narrative and discourse. Sometimes you might want to look at…oh I don’t know…the actual structure of the institutions!

    I am curious if my ignorance of literary theory also extends to me claim that the discourse of the common law, with its emphasis on continuity within change, rather than the academic discourse of criticism is likely to be more powerful. Look, I am trying to play in your pond here, despite skepticism at times about the meta-issues.

  7. “I’m having a damnably hard time following this conversation in what is supposed to be my core competency.”

    This probably means that we are simply showing off and not really saying anything of actual value. I wouldn’t worry too much about it.

  8. Guy: For what amounts to crude Marxism in the study of the law (although they would hate to be called Marxists) check out A. Mitchell Polinsky, An Introduction to Law and Economics and Richard Posner, Economic Analysis of Law. For another essentially Marxist interpretation but one with more history, an icy distain for neoclassical economics, a more leftward tilt, and less anxiety about being called Marxist, see Lawrence Friedman, A History of American Law and Morton Horwitz, The Transformation of American Law, 1780-1870. Personally, I don’t ultimately agree with any of these guys but they emphasize the sort of skepticism that I am talking about. For something with a bit less of a hard edge of materialism and a more nuanced account of the role of legal doctrine and legal argument, see Melvin Eisenberg, The Nature of the Common Law. And then their are the hard-core philosophers of law: Hart, Dworkin, Raz, Coleman, etc.

  9. Steve: We’re not just showing off. There are actual ideas in here that people care about.

  10. Nate: “Sometimes you might want to look at…oh I don’t know…the actual structure of the institutions!”

    On this, my red-headed friend, we can agree. On the larger question of common law v. “academic discourse of criticism,” I’m too ill-versed in the former and too well-versed in the latter (what precise discourse?) to be helpful, I’m afraid. The “continuity within change” sounds intriguing, but in the end I’m not sure it would be any less threatening to the existing institution: do you really think Toscano’s ideas would have been better received if they came packaged with a coherent alternative theory of authority? It seems to me that that approach may actually be *more* disruptive than her critical dys-reading of the present structure. Help me understand in real terms what the common law approach could produce that the academic-critica approach cannot.

  11. Well, I thought Rosalynde’s initial comment was a joke until I got to the end. It was doing a fine job of self-parody.

    Once I took the time to actually read it, I realized she was actually saying something. I am reminded why I abandoned my English PhD program, however.

    However, come to think of it, most Perl code is just as hard to parse as the conversation here.

  12. Well, another reason I left English is that I can’t put two sentences together coherently. however. However…

  13. Dang it, showing off is what an English Lit degree is BEST at! And the fact that I can’t keep up fills me with inexpressable sadness…

    (But of course, the fact that I have said degree means that I will resolutely attempt to express it anyway.)

  14. Bryce,

    Perl code is a real pain, but the purpose of the pain is to take complex tasks and make them quickly do-able. The purpose of literary crtiicism is as yet unidentified, but probably revolves around getting tenure.

    Rosalynde, the purpose of over-emphasizing narrative is because it was formerly under-emphasized? This falls neatly into my must-get-tenure model. That which was previously underemphasized is the most likely to yield publishable work. The other stuff has already been mined and so it is too hard to be original.

    This leads to the conclusion that, under the current research/publishing model, there can never long be a static theory of interpretation taught in English lit, because new professors are constantly in need of new ground for publishing. Hard sciences escape this paper-trap by moving to empirical work. It would seem unlikely that the Humanities would follow that course.

  15. Nate: “there are actual ideas in here that people care about.”

    Sure, Nate, but as usual there’s nothing new to say here. Toscano and her ilk approach problems of mormon doctrine through storytelling, which is entirely natural for her background — you’ve said elsewhere that she needs to learn more about institutional dynamics and stare decisis. So where can that take us? I don’t see the forest for all these multisyllabic trees.

    But at least you’ve referred people to Posner and Dworkin. Good lad.

  16. Rosalynde writes:

    “But it is precisely in those contexts in which power is opaque, theatrical, unsystematized, embodied, highly concentrated, given to censorship, and personal (rather than transparent, legalistic, rationalized, dispersed, and institutional, as political power in the US is at present) that stories become crucial managers of power”

    Just to throw yet another Romanian example out there.

    If on were to use the common law approach to institutions and the exercise of power in Romania during the Ceaucescu reign, one would come to some conclusions that would (as I understand it — I’m no expert on this) be seriously out in left field. The stories on the other hand — the stories made all the difference. Of course, such narratives were highly coded so as to be able to pass the censor. For many, the ability to read critically (and read between the lines — to be deconstructionists or cryptologists or whatever you want to call it [I can’t be as precise in my terminology as Rosalynde is able to be]) was the only thing that kept hope alive.

    Nate writes:

    “Likewise, there are many situations where understanding the dynamics of institutional power is going to proceed best using tools other than the analysis of discourse, for example an analysis of institutiona procedures or incentives.”

    Like Rosalynde it’s not clear to me how you separate out an analysis of discourse from an analysis of procedures or incentives. I know it’s a matter of emphasis, but if an analysis of procedures completely ignores some sort of discourse analysis, I’m not sure how compelling it’s going to be. That said, I too think that too many who do lit crit ignore structures and the role they play in the production of the documents and narratives they turn their critical eye toward.

    Somewhat related to that: one of my favorite works of lit crit is an analysis of how market considerations and concerns over copywright influenced the development of aesthetic theory leading up to Kant.

  17. Nate tosses out the phrase “an imperative of continuity.” And then writes: “I would submit, however, that more frequently our doctrines and practices evolve along in a process that looks much more like the common law than the Code Napoleon.”

    This makes a lot of sense to me. And it’s exactly why Mormon activists such as Toscano are so frustrated by Mormon discourse [both fok and official discourses]. Inasmuch as the process of law is one of continuity of narrative, it would seem that it’s a narrative that requires patiences (to move us from the realm of academic analysis to that of devotion). Activism generally isn’t about patiences.

    That said, Mormonism isn’t quite the same as, say, Anglicanism or other established forms of Protestantism, where practices and doctrines are considered and instituted over time and are debated by a body of scholars and clergy. There are moments of discontinuity in Mormonism. The Priesthood Revelation being one example.

  18. Hmmm, Frank, you fall neatly into my must-justify-my-own-existence model of the social sciences: because social science product is neither solidly empirical nor thrillingly theoretical, social scientists must strenuously simplify the enterprises of both humanities and hard science in order to carve out a disciplinary space for themselves.

    If you’re really interested, what I said was that the causal influence of discourse on institution is currently emphasized as a corrective to a critical model that, incidentally, held sway for nearly a century.

  19. OK, Rosalynde and Steve, let me try cash out what I am saying (and then back to equitable estoppel by breach of contract).

    Suppose that I think that Mormon story telling about MIH is pretty bad, since it reinforces this idea of women as silent. So then I think, well I need some way of underming these stories. Toscano’s answer — cut down to a very, very, very crude simplification — is to say “Gee, aren’t all of these stories really rather sexis. The reason, for this, of course is that they arose in a really sexist context, I mean, just look at all of the sexist messages in President Hickley’s sermon.” The speaker here is placed in a critical position, rhetorically outside of the tradition that she is discussing.

    Now suppose that we wanted to make a similar point with regard to MIH stories using the common law as a model. I think that it would go something like this. “Gee, we have a bunch of MIH stories floating around. Are any of them any good? Well, actually President Hickley gave a sermon a while back that touched — at least peripherally — on these issues. He pointed out that even if the scriptures use the word ‘man’ they are generally referring to women as well. He said that it is kind of like the Declaration of Independence, you know old fashion language that excluded women but ought be read inclusively. Indeed, it seems to me that President Hickley’s sermon models a way for us to read the scriptures. He is sensitve to the fact that sometimes the language of the scriptures is not perfectly clear and that it can be written in language that migh carry assumptions inconsistent with the universal message of the gospel. This doesn’t mean that we reject the scriptures, but it does mean that we should probably interpret them in light of other gospel principles when we are treating them as normative. Judged by that standard, the stories about MIH don’t seem to hold up. They seem to imply a kind of inequality at odds with what President Hinckley was teaching, and with the way in which he was reading the scriptures.” The point here is that the discussion proceeds within the context of the tradition and its authority, even though it ultimately ends up in pretty much the same place.

  20. William Morris: Our whole church history is one big narrative of discontinuity. Apostasy, restoration, 1830 and all that.

    Rosalynde: When I first read “opaque, theatrical, unsystematized, embodied, highly concentrated, given to censorship, and personal,” I thought you were describing political power in the US at present.

    Frank: “MPU.” But of course hard scientists would never let the demands of tenure affect their publication schedule… Seriously, while literary theory is a good and useful thing, and innovation and refinement in theory is good, I’ve run across a good amount of theory that’s just New Criticism dressed up in new terminology, or worse. Fortunately, being a theoryhead is only one market niche in the humanities, and not one of mine. There are other avenues to tenure.

    Nate: Some have suggested that the golden age of literary theory is over. Rather than one theoretical school trying to supplant another, all theories end up as interpretive tools in the same toolbox, and there doesn’t seem to be any new theory about to dawn upon us. Also, the book whose review I should be writing right now is all about questioning the discourses of discontinuity and revolution that are found in many disciplines (for example, “The Scientific Revolution,” where all three of those words are problematic).

  21. Nate,

    You’re still refering people to Dworkin, despite Leiter’s recently published, well received article “Dworkin is a Poo-poo Head”?

  22. Nate’s point about the limitations of the search for discontinuity is a good one. Talk of ruptures and lacunas falls are highlighted in some critical theory while broader patterns of continuity often recede into silence. Meanwhile people live their lives not in the gaps but in the wholes. Critical theorists do not usually live out the theory they write from day to day. I am not decrying critical theory; I think it is important and useful, but I believe we ought to be careful not to tear down one tyranny only to replace it with another–in this case, the tyranny of discontinuity.

    As for institution v discourse, I do think critical theory sometimes underestimates the extent to which institutions inform speech acts. Obscurantism, for example, is as much a production of discourse as instutition. We can observe that on this very thread.

    I read Toscano’s article in Sunstone when it came out a few months ago, and i remember being struck by several things. My overall impression was how worn and thread-bare this discussion sounded, as though she was trying to transport me back to the early 90s when her work was read and tempers were hot. I felt her trying hard to drive in a wedge that wasn’t there. Does the militancy of second-wave feminism have any appeal to today’s young Mormon females? I just don’t see it, but perhaps Kristine or Rosalynde can speak to this.

    Second, I thought her attempt to historicize prophetic power discourse, while certainly not new, had some force. Mormons have’t done much by way of historicizing their discourse–we leave that to the anti-Mormons. Mormons don’t mind chalking up some of Paul’s views on women to 1st century patriarchy but are more hesitant to apply the same tools to Book of Mormon prophets. What of the cultural biases of an Alma or a Nephi? Are they a threat to the authority of scripture? I think they are fair questions.

    Toscano comes out of that grand moment in student idealism dating to the late 1960s which subscribed to theory that if you yelled loud enough against the evils of authoritarianism change was just around the corner. But those days are over. Most of the people yelling are now working for corporations just as Toscano is. If she wants staying power, I think she needs a new idea. I recommend reinventing herself in the spirit of Madonna or Jane Fonda.

  23. Kaimi: That articles goes along with Leiter’s entire cottage industry in law school rankings devoted to showing why the University of Texas — where he just happens to teach — really is the best damn law school in the world. Incidentally, even if Leiter is right that Dworkin offers a silly attack on positivism, an unpersuasive theory of law, and implausible claims about right answers, (in addition, of course to being a pooh pooh head who doesn’t teach at the University of Texas; the poor man settled for Oxford), it doesn’t follow that some of the basice outlines of Dworkin’s theory of adjudication are wrong.

  24. Most modern lit-crit is narrowly tailored rhetorical theory (mostly focusing on what I call “oppression studies”), but without the thousands of years of tradition to back it up.

    That’s why I study Rhetoric now. (That and Robert Scholes’ wonderful book The Rise and Fall of English)/

  25. Nate: She-who-must-be-obeyed says you start swearing when you are tired and sleep-deprived. Should we be worried???

  26. My brain exploded, too. This is way above me.

    I never think of a mother in heaven, anyway.

  27. Don’t worry annegb. When language ceases to illuminate, but instead takes the commonplace and makes it mystical, you can be sure that the shamans and witch doctors have taken over.

  28. …or the lawyers. How exactly do you make your living if not by the mastery of jargon and arcana, Mark.

  29. People always take special offense to professional discussions of words, in ways that they wouldn’t to professional discussions of, say, quantum mechanics. But simply being able to read does not enable one to understand professional discussions of texts any more than being able to add enables one to understand professional discussions of game theory. This is highly offensive to many, who then start slinging accusations of jargon and obfuscation.

    (Of course, this doesn’t excuse Steve or TOTALN… sorry guys.)

  30. I agree with Rosalynde. Although much of this is over my head as well, I recognize that this is a fine conversation to be having, and a fine place to be having it, for those capable of participating. It’s just possible that the substance of the conversation is meant, rather than offered simply as a means for self-aggrandization.

  31. Nate, now that I’ve read #29: I think Frank and Rosalynde actually point the way to an important issue, maybe the overriding issue. Institutions make people say certain things, or they eject people who do not conform. Frank says as much about literature professors on the path to tenure, and he would probably admit, in a lucid moment, that assistant professors in economics are forced by the institutions in which they have a part to do the same thing.

    I know nothing about Margaret Toscano. I don’t follow the world of Mormon activism. But–
    If MT earned a law degree and took the common-law approach to MIH stories you suggest, she would no longer be a Mormon activist. How much of MT’s approach is dependent on how much she knows, and how much arises from her role? If she took time out for a law degree, would she really make her case any differently? It may not be what or how much she knows, but who she is. Is your post a critique of MT’s argument, or a critique of Mormon activism? Neither of them, of course, are above critique. But is an activism–as we think of it–that also works from within the tradition of authority possible?

  32. Well, Steve’s later comments may be excused due to brainlessness, since he posted them after noting that his brain had exploded. And man without a brain can’t really be expected to comment sensibly, can he? (Though I must say, having read some of his posts on BCC, I’m wondering if his brain hadn’t exploded earlier, and he just didn’t bother to tell anyone).

    Anyway, if it’s alright with everyone, I’m going to change the template so that this page gives the T & S slogan as “quite possibly the most jargon-filled, yet obfuscatory, onymous Mormon group blog . . .”

  33. Mark B., the OED lists “privilege” used as a verb all the way back to the 12th century.
    Yes, this makes me more annoying than you. I win!

  34. As a mathematician, I can really appreciate the extraordinarily precise language used in this thread. However, as a mathematician, I would suggest that we adopt a new symbology so that these concepts – which are so obtuse in English – can be expressed more beautifully.

    Unfortunately, even the most beautiful equation ever (Euler’s Identity Equation):

    e^i*pi = -1

    just doesn’t have quite the same effect when rendered in ASCII.

  35. Come on Rosalynde… you know that big words are the hallmark of the poor writer. I have no beef with difficult ideas, or even difficult language, for that matter. It’s when these ideas are made unnecessarily difficult that I begin to rev up my snark-o-matic.

  36. That social science is not “thrillingly theoretical” is a point little open to criticism. What thrills one may not thrill another. However, the point about social science not being “solidly empirical” seems to imply that social scientists should strive for a more empirical discipline. Great. But if this is the case, wouldn’t that mean that Frank’s actual point is correct?

    Scientists are less likely to fall into a “re-interpretation” trap because they are required to constantly confront their hypotheses with data.

    Or am I misreading the point about “solidly empirical” social science?

  37. Big words are the hallmark of a poor writer? You didn’t learn that in Peggy Bird’s class, Steve!

    Maybe big words used poorly–or in the wrong context–are the hallmark of a poor writer, and I’ll grant you that poor writers had best stay away from big words. But in the proper context, and used properly, big words are simply da bomb.

  38. Someone explain to me how literary criticism theories, independent of some scientific grounding, ought be trusted as illustrating anything? Now bring in cognitive science, neuro-psychology or even formal rigorous linguistics and I might start to believe. But I’ve never quite understood how English theory ought be trusted to establish anything in the least. (Especially since the “fad” of the moment in English changes about every decade – not exactly inspiring in terms of confidence)

    Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy literary criticism a great deal. I have several large tomes on it on the shelf behind me. But I enjoy it as literature. Color me crazy, but I’ve long thought that the Freudian analysis of Kafka’s The Metamorphisis was at least as entertaining as the story itself. And I always get a lot out of both structuralist and good poststructuralist critiques of literature. (Although there is, to be fair, precious little of the latter) Still as soon as such authors start taking their interpretive schemes seriously I start to wonder just how serious they are. But hey, I’ve long been skeptical of “truth in literature” as well.

  39. Well, Jonathan, you would win if Mark B. had been arguing against the use of “to privilege” as a verb. But he clearly specified “to privelege.”

  40. Rosalynde, I don’t agree. Large thoughts simply don’t require large words. When we overly rely on complicated language, the tendency is to obscure thought, not to focus it. In my view, multisyllabic words are the spice of languge — a dash here or there makes the dish tasty, but too much makes your thoughts inedible.

    Peggy Bird did, in fact, warn us on this point. If you can’t remember this, maybe it’s from too many years of intervening study? You see, my mind has remained in a dormant sleep since that time… but I digress.

  41. Nate,

    The best legal writing (and thinking) shuns arcana and jargon–it’s straightforward, plain, clear–an ideal that we all too often fall well short of. If I’m to be of any use to my clients, I have to take what the courts or the legislature have written and make it plain to my audience, whether it’s a judge or an administrative officer or my client.


    I have no problem with people talking about words, and I’ll be the first to confess near total ignorance of modern literary criticism. But, difficult concepts and muddled writing are two different things altogether–one need not be unclear just because the concept is hard to explain.

    For example:

    “the institutional power of discourse” what is that? The power of speech to build or preserve institutions? Or the power of speech when it comes from institutions? Or is “institutional” used in some uncommon sense? Who knows–only the PhD students, or the generalist?

    Or “seem to privilege the vector of influence that flows from discourse to institution”. Vector is a good word, with a clear mathematical meaning (take a point, draw a line from that point, put an arrow on the end: voila, a vector). It’s just a buzzword here, and adds nothing to the thought, which by the way stumbles on that other buzzword “privelege” taken from its centuries-old safe haven as noun, and is wrenched into action as a verb. I know, the language isn’t static and we all “contact” people now where 100 years ago it was just a noun too, and “impact” has suffered, like Nehor, an ignominious death as to things pertaining to nounhood. But there’s no reason to stick it to “privelege” too–there are plenty of verbs that would get us where we want to go.

    So, don’t assume that my comments arise from any complaint with the substance of the discussion.

  42. Okay, this will be my last volley in the battle of the departments, since it’s detracting from Nate’s interesting questions. But Clark, when you say things like “literary criticism is faddish and mutable,” that merely shows how little you know about literary criticism! Listen, I’m no fan of the advancing armies of high theory myself (I’ll happily forego Yale deconstruction at any chance), but even a cursory survey of the last century of literary criticism reveals much greater continuity than faddish tumult. And if you’re going to require us to do something as inchoate and boring as “illustrating anything” or “establishing anything in the least,” then I’ll gladly shrug off the task.

  43. Bryce,

    Like Mark Twain, I don’t give a damn for a man who can only spell a word one way.

  44. There’s nothing wrong with big words. Rosalynde uses them to good effect, and they convey the message they are intended to get across with remarkable efficiency. And really, in some ways they’re unavoidable. Certain words have been acquired a weight of meaning over time through much careful and occasionally passionate debate, and to try to substitute another is simply unacceptable for someone who has spent the time to acquire those meanings and associations.

    Unfortunately, most of us at T&S haven’t spent that time and energy. Generally, we let it pass unremarked, but for some reason, we’ve picked this thread to say “Huh?”

    I blame Steve Evans.

  45. Mark, if you so readily confess to a near total ignorance of my field, then why do you assume that your failure to understand is the result of my muddled writing? I’d think the first place to look would be to the lacuna in your own knowledge. (By the way, I’ll concede a certain muddle-factor in the replies I’ve dashed off here, to the accompaniment of my children shrieking with laughter.)

  46. Blame away!

    Look, I thought Nate’s post was interesting, and the replies equally interesting, but once in awhile it’s worth shaking the vocabulary tree to dislodge some of the undesirable fruits of our education.

    Back to Margaret Toscano: what kind of law would she practice? I can’t see her as a corporate type.

  47. Rosalynde, would you like me to break open my book and list all the literary theories of the last century?

    Consistency? Come on. Maybe in the same way that Plato’s thoughts on physics is consistent with modern physics.

    Want real consistency? Look to physics since the discovery of general relativity and quantum mechanics.

    But your comments beg the question. What is the empirical basis for literary theory? Why should we believe it is anything other than literature? Why should we regard its criticisms as somehow more relevant than the rantings of Freud a century ago?

  48. Sorry, Steve — I didn’t notice that you were the person who was doing the complaining about big words. I just invoked your name in the general “when things go wrong at T&S, blame Steve Evans” sense.

  49. Hmm, Bryce — perhaps we should replace the “most maudlin, yet addlepated onymous group blog” slogan with “when things go wrong, blame Steve Evans.”

  50. Hey, about the adjectives that appear every day on the webpage – SOMEONE sets them up as if they are words with opposite meaning, but they aren’t!!!! Every day I look at this (well, not every day) and it drives me crazy. It gives a false sense of sobriety and balance to this discussion page which everyone acknowledges is neither. So, I’m tossing out this complaint like so much chaff on the wind with the hope that it will get stuck in someone’s eye.

  51. “Now bring in cognitive science, neuro-psychology or even formal rigorous linguistics and I might start to believe.”


    Are you talking about “belief” in the sense of a belief that literature — narratives — have an effect on physiology, on brain structures and other information structures (in people, in society)? That if it can be proved that literature has an empirical effect, that that somehow validates the narrative/poetic mode of organizing information?

    It’s not clear to me why literary criticism has to meet that claim in order to have explanatory relevance.

    Isn’t the whole point of language, of words, that meaning can’t be fixed and isn’t quite located in the text, in the speaker/writer, in the grammar, etc. In other words, words are only representations, only symbols.

    What happened to your semiotic bent, Clark? Or am I misunderstanding what you are saying?

    [Of course, we pretty much agree on the whole “truth in literature” thing — but that’s a different type of claim].

  52. Clark: I don’t see the need to question the legitimacy of lit crit. The question isn’t about whether a discourse has the right to exist. Even psychoanalysis has its own language, and if you don’t know the language you can’t participate. That has nothing to do with smoke and mirrors.

    What’s the problem with Rosalyde using the language of lit crit? I don’t see the problem. The burden is on the rest of us to learn the language.

  53. Carleh,

    They’re funniest when they’re completely different; unfortunately, setting up matched pairs is really beyond our limited technological capabilities. So they’re both just adjectives drawn from a list which is now around 400 words long, I believe.

    Sometimes the combinations are funny, sometimes they’re a little strange, and sometimes we get synonyms and it’s kind of bland. (I just got “talked-about, yet acclaimed”). The best combinations, in my opinion, are ones that either combine pompousness with derision (“most acclaimed, yet nonsensical”) or the ones that combine an academic-sounding term with a term that is completely off the wall like “deontological, yet seaworthy.”

  54. I think that it might make sense to use literary criticism if we are interpreting social institutions to understand their meaning. On the other hand, if we are talking about how social institutions operate or what their concrete effects are in the world, I am skeptical about how valuable the tools are. (One might add that the same thing is true for much of jurisprudence and legal doctrine, which is one of the reasons that legal doctrine keeps getting transformed by recalcitrant social changes.)

  55. Dang, I went away to teach a class and missed the fireworks.

    “you fall neatly into my must-justify-my-own-existence model of the social sciences: because social science product is neither solidly empirical nor thrillingly theoretical, social scientists must strenuously simplify the enterprises of both humanities and hard science in order to carve out a disciplinary space for themselves.”

    Of course, the class was theoretical in that we constructed a model of how nutrition affects unemployment. And next week we’ll see if empirically the model holds weight. So does that make us thrillingly empirical or solidly theoretical or the other way around? It matters little, for as you know Rosalynde, justification is by grace!

    “If you’re really interested, what I said was that the causal influence of discourse on institution is currently emphasized as a corrective to a critical model that, incidentally, held sway for nearly a century.”

    I’ll take you at your word, but hey, then that theory has given way to others right? This is fine, because I don’t think the heat to publish was nearly as strong 100 years ago. Certainly there were fewer professors and fewer journals and fewer already written commentaries. Thus the question really becomes how many theories or new literatures will we go through in the next hundred years? Either the present tenure system, based on original research, will have to give way, or theories will be forced to give way to new theories or new books to study.


    Absolutely, tenure is always a function of providing an original output, in pretty much any discipline. My point was that it becomes difficult to originally re-interpret Beowulf with the same theory again and again. Thus the search for 1. New literature to examine or 2. New theories with which to consider the old work. Thus there has been a revitalized interest in folk traditions because, among other reasons, they offer a new literature to critique.

    In economics, we still have new theory and new data coming every year. Ideally (very ideally) that theory rush will slow down as empirical evidence ejects the bad in favor of the good. At that point, one would predict that the discipline would move to ever more empirical work. Out of publishing desperation we may at some point end up estimating the elasticity of empowerment to gendered language. Empirical work is a harsh master.

    Perhaps in some of the hard sciences, a fair bit of basic theory is resolved and the disciplines have moved to more empirical work.

    There. I feel better.

    Now, I think Nate was saying something about Toscano. Toscano thinks there are gains to be had from telling stories differently and changing our narrative. Apparently the priesthood leaders think that those benefits are illusory or they do not outweigh the present costs. Does she have any evidence to convince us that she is right about the relative costs and benefits to the souls of mankind? What evidence could she possibly have that would tell us about these costs and benefits? Thus I agree with Clark and Rosalynde. Her method cannot “establish anything in the least.” Only God knows those costs and benefits, and so, as Nate notes, we come back to theories of authority. I know what mine is: we determine who is authroized to speak as God’s representative and pray for confirmation of their counsel. I do not know what Toscano’s is.

  56. Speaking of language and its pragmatic versus theoretical uses (toss in literary theory with that), has anyone ever read William James on pragmatism? He says basically that everything ought to have its influence in practical life in order to be valid. So, if all these big words and big ideas have practical application, whether in the way women participate in religion/life in general, or in the effectiveness with which we communicate, then they are valid and valuable.

  57. I favor replacing the “most pulchritudinous, yet poseur” slogan with “striking just the right pompous note since 2003”

  58. Those charging Rosalynde with using obfuscatory language are way off base.

    In mathematics, I think we all understand that you have more than just an arcane language with strange symbols: mathematical manipulations represent compressed logic. You could express the logic of any calculation completely (and necessarily with great verbosity) in everyday words, but the glory of a mathematical system is that much of the basic logic becomes semi-automated.

    What you’re witnessing in Rosalynde’s arguments bears some resemblance to a mathematical calculation. The “big words” represent analytic categorizations whose definitions and interrelationships have been painstakingly developed in order to gain traction in trying to understand complicated phenomena. It’s true that it may not mean much to the unitiated, but this also bears a resemblance to the layman’s (lack of) appreciation of a mathematical proof. Her arguments could be presented in “longhand”, but this would be even more lengthy and tedious than you think her big words are.

    In short, there’s a reason jargon exists. It’s more than big words one needs to look up in a dictionary. It represents shorthand logic, the deployment of a recognized theoretical apparatus.

  59. Christian, that’s a false analogy. Bigger words do not necessarily represent shorthand logic or compressed thought.

    Even if your comparison were accurate, you’re still wrong to assert that I and others are “way off base.” In the context of an open, public forum where one seeks to understand and be understood, it is far more important to have clear ideas than to use whatever “shorthand” one desires. Communication of the idea is all that matters, and if you ignore your audience by using big words, you’ve already lost.

  60. Christian: I remember in my logic class studying ever more compressed logical systems (fewer axioms, fewer rules of inference) until we finally came to the uber system, which was compressed down to a single, very long axiom expressed in logical notation and another, single, very long rule of inference expressed in logical notation. I remember looking at it and thinking, “In theory each of these statements could be expressed as a single, hideosly long and complicated sentence in regular English.” I used to wonder what the sentence would look like. I recently spent a couple of days going through the master distribution agreements of a large telecom company, and I think I have now encountered sentences as long and as convoluted as those that I imagined in my logic class. It makes one long for the clarity and concision of symbols and jargon.

  61. Nate:

    Have you read Herman Hesse’s _The Glass Bead Game_ (_Magister Ludi_)?

    In it, an elite group of scholars has developed that has integrated all systems of human thought, all displines (esp. music and mathematics) into a series of codes/themes/ideas (represented by beads). The game is actually the expression of some truth about the universe via the organizing of the beads. I’m not a huge fan of Hesse, but it’s an interesting novel. The narrative focuses on a young man who is a masterful player of the game, but then also tries to engage with the ‘real” world.

  62. William: I’ve never read the “Glass Bead Game” (I am a horrible Phillistine; I almost never read fiction or literature). It gets referenced by chess writers all the time, however, so I probably ought to read it.

  63. Ah, right. I forgot about the chess fetish. Then you’ll probably like it more than most readers. The narrative starts off with this whole explanation of the game and the system that developed to support it. I found it fascinating, but readers who are used to action!action!action! have a hard time getting in to it.

  64. William, I think semiotics is very informative, but limited in application. (Much like the relationship between say group theory and practical engineering) I don’t think that accepting semiotics entails accepting all literary theory. Although of course we can analyze literary theory in terms of semiotics.

    As I said, I’m not opposed to literary theory in the least. I enjoy it quite a bit. I just think it funny that people use it to criticize “reality” and think they are saying anything particularly meaningful.

    Christian, the issue isn’t terminology. That was someone else’s criticism. I don’t mind any field having its own particular jargon. You forget, I enjoy both poststructuralist and postmodern criticism (when done well – which is sadly far rarer than it should be since people pick up the jargon and not the meaning of the jargon). Freudianism has its own jargon too. The question is whether recent literary criticism is any more profound than say Freudianism or Jungianism. Thus the example of the Kafka critique.

    What bothers me isn’t literary criticism. It’s when literary criticism is judged to be more than about literature.

  65. Steve, (#75), I agree, not necessarily. As a physicist, I cannot help taking a measure of pleasure in the hoax physicist Alan Sokal pulled on the cultural studies journal Social Text—a hoax aimed at making your same point. I also think there’s wisdom in the idea that you don’t really understand your subject until you’re capable of making it accessible to laymen (Nate excels at this). But to say Sokal’s hoax is a proof that cultural studies (and the use of jargon in general) is all hogwash would be going way too far.

    Rosalynde agrees with you too (in #51—didn’t that last phrase give everyone goosebumps?). And your point about being attuned to your audience is very important, of course. But the fact that Rosalynde didn’t connect with the entire forum is not necessarily a basis for claiming she doesn’t have “clear ideas.” She wasn’t aiming at the least common denominator; her immediate audience was Nate. She was a pit bull, breathlessly attacking an intruder onto her territory.

  66. Hey –

    I’m a literary critic and I think Clark is right on. It’s faddish, mutable and far too much in love with radical left wing politics for its own good. Literary theory is great for interpreting literature and some other types of art,

    But when we get people writing “literary” dissertations on how Baseball is really a bunch of men symbollically mas*******ing for crowds, or post-modern critiques of 9-11, I start wondering where all the literature went.

    What’s happened (I mentioned earlier) is that literary theory is trying to do rhetoric and (basically) failing miserably.

    But I’m very cynical today. Perhaps I’ll be in a better mood tomorrow and be a staunch supporter of lit-crit again.

    Or, as they say in that great film The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra: Oh, well.

  67. Clark, I’m out of my depth, but I don’t think we physical scientists should be too quick to judge that literary criticism isn’t getting at anything significant just because it doesn’t make quantitative accounts of empirical phenomena. (And your juxtaposition of general relativity and quantum mechanics in support of “consistency” leads the cognoscenti to believe that your #62 must have been tongue-in-cheek!)

    On the significance of the subject matter: For example, Bushman points out that Joseph’s impact derives from the power of his narratives—an example of the fact that literature can be more than entertainment: it can end up moving real things in the real world. Hence I think it’s possible that literary criticism can be “more than about literature.”

    On the viability of the methodology: the fact that we can make quantitative statements may speak to the narrowness of our subject matter more than anything else. (Wolfram even critiques our entire current enterprise, based on partial differential equations, as woefully inadequate for accounting even for many physical phenomena.) Human enterprise and experience is sufficiently variegated and multifaceted that a single coherent theoretical structure may not be a reasonable expectation.

  68. Clark said “What bothers me isn’t literary criticism. It’s when literary criticism is judged to be more than about literature.”

    This may seem like a mildly cheesy thing to say, but isn’t literature more than just literature? It is not created in a vacuum and therefore corresponds to real life in some way. It therefore follows that literary criticism can indeed be about more than literature.

  69. It seems that literary criticism is useful in ways that go beyond literature as it piggy backs on great literature. It can unfold the literature so as to reveal greater depth thereby enabling the literature itself to become more meaningful in the real world.

  70. Nate (#11): …we are simply showing off and not really saying anything of actual value.

    In that case, I’ll egregiously transgress the boundaries of my academic stewardship and impishly kick both specialists in the shins.

    Nate: To say the law values continuity while intellectual discourse celebrates discontinuity is to characterize both incompletely, and separate them falsely. The evolution of any human enterprise tends to follow a widespread dynamical pattern, elucidated in the case of paleontology by Gould and in science by Kuhn: punctuated equilibrium, characterized by long periods of stasis with occasional interludes of rapid change. Law and governance have their celebrated discontinuities: the American Constitution, the 14th amendment, Brown v. Board of Education, elections in Iraq. And most of the time, intellectual discourse is an exercise in continuity, the fleshing out of the occasional seminal idea.

    Rosalynde: You started off strong, but caved in too soon with your allowance that a focus on the power of narrative may be a mere disciplinary overcorrection.

    When Nate cashed out his claim of the importance of understanding institutional mechanics into practical lessons for Margaret Toscano, its meager tactical importance was revealed. At most it can bring about changes that amount to window dressing; its impotence to fundamentally change the status quo is manifest.

    In contrast, narrative is of strategic importance: Power is born in the widespread acceptance of a narrative of mythic proportions. This is true of the establishment of America, the Restoration of the gospel, the Civil Rights movement, String Theory, Democracy in the Middle East, Group Blogging. Power is born as the new stories are generated by intrepid pioneers (Founding Fathers; Joseph Smith; Martin Luther King et al.; Ed Witten; George W. Bush; Nate, Kaimi et al.); power is consolidated as discontinuities are highlighted, exaggerated, and celebrated by following lesser lights who claim their mantle. Power is lost when an antiquated narrative gets hopelessly out of whack with the practical mechanics that sustain belief in it. This is true of Newton’s and now Einstein’s theories, Communism, Classics as the End-all and Be-all of Preparatory and Undergraduate Eduction.

    So I’ll argue that Toscano is on to something. Under the present mythos the parallel shadow government of womens’ auxiliaries cannot even rise to the level of ‘separate but equal’. A discontinuity on the order of Brown v. Board would be necessary. Priesthood’s power to govern the Church derives from its acceptance as the power of God. Truly shared governance would require a new narrative in which the Female Deity is revealed, and her power and authority acknowledged and conferred. Will she choose to reveal herself unilaterally? The lesson of Joseph Smith—and all other intrepid pioneers—is that apostasy reigns until seekers pierce the veil.

  71. I hate to help Christian Y. Cardall change the subject back to Nate’s post, but I don’t think that anyone has written a better theory of authority (though that is not all that it is) than Hans-Georg Gadamer: Truth and Method. And if he’s not already familiar with it, Nate would love it because he uses the common law as one of two exemplary cases of the continuity (and discontinuity) of interpretation. His second case is scriptural interpretation.

    But I will have to warn prospective readers: it contains big words and assumes that you are familiar with the history of Western philosophy, esepcially Kant.

  72. Rosalynd, I love love love you, too, but I have no clue what you’re talking about half the time.

  73. Christian, no irony in the appeal to QM and GR. All physical theory has been remarkably consistent. Yes GR and QM conflict, but only in a realm where physicists don’t yet claim to have answers. And the requirement for answers is to explain how any final theory reduces to the other in the realm of phenomena they purport to explain. (I know you know that, so I’m not trying to be patronizing, just to clarify why I think the problem of quantum gravity isn’t a problem of consistency)

    Also, I don’t mind qualitative explanations. I think one can be qualitative and have good grounds for ones beliefs tied to experience. I don’t think literary theory does.

    I do think there are disciplines attempting to be able to answer the kinds of questions in question. However they are, as I mentioned, cognitive science, psychology and social science, among others. I just don’t think literary criticism has much terribly profound to add.

    As for literature being more than just literature. I know that is what people in English departments like to think. That they are discovering or at least unveiling some sort of truth that other disciplines miss. I don’t buy it. Not for a moment. That’s not to deny in the least that other disciplines such as economics or physics miss a lot. They don’t have all truth. There is a lot more out there. I just don’t in the least think that social criticism or literary criticism offer the goods. They are a false sophistry, in my opinion.

  74. Clark,

    Are you suggesting that nothing original or valid comes out of literary explorations and criticism? I’m a bit amazed that you could actually think this! To dismiss as mere sophistry the work of extremely bright people who devote years of very serious study to literature is bordering on the absurd. I know that the existence of brilliant practitioners in a line of thought or study does not automatically give it credibility, but their existence does, I should think, preclude blanket proclamations of irrelevence.

  75. “At most it can bring about changes that amount to window dressing”

    Christian, if I’m reading you correctly I think I must disagree with you. What I gather from Nate (which isn’t very much–not because of Nate–but because I’m out of my element, worlds without end) is that we don’t comprehend what the “changes” really are if we don’t view them as emerging from some sort of root system that reaches into the past. To say that “Power is born in the widespread acceptance of a narrative of mythic proportions” without acknowledging the conditions which allow for such acceptance is like uprooting a plant from it’s soil.

    Also, you say “The lesson of Joseph Smith—and all other intrepid pioneers—is that apostasy reigns until seekers pierce the veil.”

    How does this apply to the individual? Are we all apostates until like Joseph Smith, the brother of Jared and Margaret Tascano, we each have pierced the veil?

  76. Drat. Dinner and bed always happen at the most inconvenient times!

    Nate, it seems to me that what you’ve put together in #29 is not a novel positive theory of authority (which is what I’d understood you to be advocating), but rather a method of reading authoritative language that operates under the (barely-modified) warrants of our current theory of authority. You perform a strenuous reading of prophetic utterance, using a variety of hermeneutic techniques to extract from the language the desired meaning; you’re thus able to make a critical point without dismissing authority outright. I’m highly sympathetic to this approach; in fact, it’s my own modus operandi on many occasions. (See, for example, my early post on the Proclamation, which, I think, did something very similar to what you’re advocating–though without explicit reference to common law!) But my objectives are very different from Toscano’s: I don’t aim to change the power structure–by temperament I’m not an activist–but rather work to reconcile for myself (and, in grandiose moments, to model for others a way to reconcile) an assymetrical power structure with a livable, faithful present. As Christian suggests, my method–your “common law” approach–is highly unlikely to result in the kind of change Toscano would like to see. Furthermore, if Frank’s general response to my method is any indicator of the orthodox priesthood authority-identified response, it’s likely to generate almost as much hostility.

  77. Frank, about tenure and theory, you may be right with respect to some fields. My first love, for example, was Indo-European historical linguistics. The flow of old words being discovered has not stopped, but it has slowed to a trickle. There are still some unresolved questions, but my sense is there’s not enough data to answer many of them to everyone’s satisfaction. I’d like to be wrong on this one, I’d like to believe there’s a source of revitalization out there, but I don’t see it.

    When it comes to Beowulf and literature in general, I think there are more than just the two options of 1) finding new books to analyze and 2) analyzing the same books according to new theories. A third option is to find something to do with books besides analyzing them. My sense is that all of the interesting developments in the study of literature today are coming from outside the text, from cultural studies and from interdisciplinary work. That is, instead of trying to figure out exactly how the text works and what it means, one might be concerned instead with why it exists in its current form, and its connections to a given context. If books were cars, it would be the difference between studying how internal combustion engines work, and studying how the highway system works. It might seem like just one more iteration of theory to you, but I think there could be a qualitative difference there. We’ll know in a decade or so.

    As for a turn to empirical work, the rise of rhetoric as a discipline might be the English department’s equivalent response. I’m not in English, but maybe Ivan would know.

  78. I like a lot of sophistry and think the sophists got too bad a rap by Plato. (And Nibley for that matter – the Sophists are often the arch villians in many of his writings) So saying “mere Sophistry” to me illustrates the problem. We don’t value sophistry so we try to raise literary musings to the level of science because we think that’s the only way they can have value.

    Yet I think they have a lot of value. I just don’t think they are “truth” the way many in English or related departments claim. Nor do I think literary criticism does. When it tries to take the role of a “science” then I simply think the people in question don’t know what they are talking about and one ought not listen too carefully. Just like someone who wrote a fictional book and then starts carrying on as if it was history and not fiction.

    As for originality, of course there is a great deal of originality. Same with any art. I think art is inherently valuable – possible the highest value. To make ones life a work of art. But if so, then “social criticism” of the sort done is simply hiding its real motivations. To treat society and relations as a work of art. People become the canvas. To not acknowledge what is going on is, in my mind, unfortunate. To treat it as science is for the speaker to declare its irrelevance. I think it could have great relevance, as could any art, if it would simply embrace what it is rather than pretending to be a science.

    The great flaw of sophistry wasn’t what sophistry was. Rather it was what some pretended that sophistry was. Sophistry as rhetoric was inherently valuable. Especially during its rebirth in the Renaissance. Sophistry as the counterfeit of philosophy was something else entirely. Which was why Plato (and Nibley) opposed it so much.

  79. Saying that literature is more than literature is not saying that it is science. Literature and lit crit are not science, no matter how much the formalists wanted them to be. That is not what I’m saying.

    I am curious: what is the nature of the value you assign to literature? Among the more valuable things about literature to me is its freedom to explore societal problems, etc., outside of the rigidity of social science (thinking specifically of Middlemarch here). I think glittering insights within literature can influence and more scientific inquiries, though I do not think, of course, that literature exists for this instrumental purpose.

    I think it must be quite late…yes, I’m right…1 a.m. Please forgive any incoherence. Or don’t.

  80. Clark, you say (#91) that all other disciplines provide access to some bit of truth, but “literary theory” doesn’t.

    First, what do you mean by “literary theory”? The term can cover the last 3000 years of philosophy, theology, classical scholarship, textual criticism, etc. Even today it refers to easily hundreds of different approaches to literature. I don’t know what you mean by the term, and I don’t accept your dismissal of every form of literary analysis as vacuous.

    If you want to know how literature functions, then you have to deal with literary theory. There’s no way around it. If you want to think about why literature exists, and why it’s called literature, and who makes that call, and why people ascribe particular significance to it, then you have to deal with cultural criticism. You can’t answer those questions without it, because answering them (and questions like them) is what cultural criticism consists of. If you don’t like the flavor of the day, fine; some varieties really are vacuous.

    If the theory you’ve read doesn’t excite you, I have no disagreement. But the folks who do theory aren’t just trying to impress their friends at the MLA. They take theory seriously because it is grounded in their experience. The theoretical work I enjoy is the stuff that gives me new ways to think about things, whether personal or professional.

  81. I second annegb and Rachel in expressing that I love love love Rosalynde to pieces also. But I, too, can’t keep up sometimes. I read comment #1 by Rosalynde and concluded that I must be a total dunce. Then again, I spent my entire undergraduate career feeling inferior to Rosalynde’s genius, so I obviously bring some baggage to this discussion. . .
    Then Brian told me that both Rosalynde and Steve misspelled our former teacher Penny Bird’s name later in this thread, so I was motivated to continue reading.

  82. Clark, if you’re going to raise the specter of people not knowing what they’re talking about, then I’ll join you: you don’t know what you’re talking about.

    Literature as science? Literature as higher truth? I’ve been known to hang out at academic conferences surrounded by lit geeks, and nobody I know talks like that. Yes, literature can serve as evidence of cultural and historical phenomena. Everybody likes to read good books, and sometimes people learn something nice in them. But ascribing special virtue to literature has all but disappeared from any serious literary study.

    As for cultural criticism, it has nothing to do with viewing life or society as a work of art. You’re tilting at straw men.

  83. I’m glad to see this thread is now more on course with the path originally charted for it.

    Nevertheless, I’m going to turn the clock back to about sixty comments ago when Steve Evans and Rosalynde Frandsen were debating over the use of big words. They both mentioned our English 252 instructor Penny Bird. Steve, Rosalynde, my wife Shannon, and myself were all in the same class taught by Penny. And can you imagine having to instruct a bunch of smart aleck, snot-nosed kids like us a thing or two about writing? I mean it’s not like we were any more humble back then.

    Well, Penny rocks and I think she’d be proud to know that one single semester of “The Fundamentals of Literary Criticism” spawned a literary critic like Rosalynde, a lawyer/blog wizard like Steve, and two people who actually make a living writing like Shannon and I do.

    So teaching matters, and that’s why when it comes down to the “big words” issue I just want to clarify a thing or two. Penny never said, as has been reported, that “big words are a hallmark of a poor writer,” nor did she say big words are simply “da bomb.” She did, as Steve eventually recalled, put emphasis on knowing your audience. So, if Rosalynde, who I would never say is a poor writer, chooses to write to the more limited audience of professional literary critics and other academics, such is her prerogative. I won’t be offended, but I will feel cheated ,because when it comes down to choosing between being excluded or being taught, I’d like to be taught every time.

    We all had to learn the Fundamentals of Literary Criticism somewhere now, didn’t we? Thanks, Penny.

  84. Minerva. I enjoy literature. It makes me think. Isn’t that enough? I don’t claim there to be “truth” in literature nor do I see literary criticism as establishing a “truth” about something real regarding the world. Speaking well is, I think, an inherently valuable and enjoyable art. I wish I had it better myself. But let’s not pretend it is something that its not. With regards to the “claim of science” I wasn’t saying that of you. I think literary criticism applied to institutions or other such things does. As I said, leave it to the sciences. They do a better job.

    Jonathan, I don’t claim “all other disciplines” provide access to truth. I claimed that applied to social organizations that cognitive science, social science and psychology do. (Although they are limited and some in those fields do more than others)

    The problem is that I don’t think literary criticism has established in the least how literature functions. Some think they have, of course. But I think such to be hopelessly deluded.

    Once again, I’m not criticizing literary theory. I love literary theory. I enjoy reading criticism of literature typically more than I enjoy the literature being written about. But let’s be honest about what it is. When it gets applied to stuff outside of literature then I really become skeptical…

  85. I have to go to bed, but, Clark, I just am quite disturbed here. I think it’s ridiculous to make a general statement that truth is not to be found in literature but a “limited truth” is to be found in cognitive science, social science, etc. Come on. What is this limited truth business? And why can’t lit have some of it?

    I’m afraid I’m getting belligerent in my sleepiness. Oh dear.

  86. [Jumping in after 103 comments …] Scientists are wonderful people, but somehow they define the natural world (the object of study for natural science) to exclude humans. Hey, I am built of the dust of the earth (well, it’s really star stuff) and am an integral part of my local ecosystem. How can scientists bracket out the entire human experience as somehow disconnected, another realm of episteme, from their “natural science”? I think that what humans (and human societies) see, build, write, sing, paint, argue about, vote for, and fight over are part of an integral “science of man,” except for the fact that such a category is far too broad for specialization and study. And, of course, the standard tools of empirical science won’t do much good for understanding anything particularly insightful about the things we write, sing, or paint. But instead of simply saying “These are important things that we as scientists don’t have the tools to investigate,” some scientists say “This stuff isn’t science so it’s not important; there’s no truth, nothing worth learning here.” That seems like a personal rather than an objective response to non-scientific disciplines.

    If it turns out that dolphins sing poetry to each other, is that irrelevant or “limited truth,” or is it just as much science and a relevant field of inquiry as any other aspect of dolphin lore? And ethology — the study of animal behavior — looks a lot like social science to me except for the fact practitioners are studying chimps or wolves instead of we higher primates. So demarcating science from non-science seems to be serving a practical purpose rather than reflecting a real distinction. In the broadest sense, it’s all science. Humans are just more complicated than electrons.

  87. I’ll stay out of the discipline wars, only noting for the record that I don’t think either Nate or Rosalynde was needlessly grandiloquent. (But Rosalynde, ‘fess up–how long did it take you to come up with the perfect parallel structure of this: “But it is precisely in those contexts in which power is opaque, theatrical, unsystematized, embodied, highly concentrated, given to censorship, and personal (rather than transparent, legalistic, rationalized, dispersed, and institutional, as political power in the US is at present)…” If that really just comes as extemporaneous speech to you, then I’m going to go stick a knife in the toaster right now! :))

    Back to the original question (one of them, anyway): I think Nate’s point about looking carefully at the relationship between institutional structure and discourse is interesting, *particularly* in the Mormon church. It seems to me that a potentially good way to get at these questions would be a comparative look at the Catholic church, where the relationship between discourse and structural power is much clearer–Catholics have both an official theology and a body of canon law. Since Mormons have neither, the relations between how we talk, how we interpret text (not to mention which texts we interpret), and what we *do* institutionally is much murkier. (There’s a reason, after all, that Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses *mattered* in Catholicism; I suspect it wouldn’t matter much at all for Mormonism). I think Nate’s right that if you don’t at least acknowledge the murkiness before diving headlong into discursive analysis, you’re going to end up saying some silly things.

  88. Kris,

    That’s a seven-term list compared to a five-term list. It may be pithy, but it isn’t parallel.

    (By the way, I’ve found that the best way to get a stuck piece of bread out of the toaster is with a knife. Unplug the thing first, of course. But how else do you get it out?)

  89. Kaimi–

    You soak the toaster in water first so the stuck bread gets nice and mushy.

  90. Jonathan: “When it comes to Beowulf and literature in general, I think there are more than just the two options of 1) finding new books to analyze and 2) analyzing the same books according to new theories. A third option is to find something to do with books besides analyzing them. My sense is that all of the interesting developments in the study of literature today are coming from outside the text, from cultural studies and from interdisciplinary work. That is, instead of trying to figure out exactly how the text works and what it means, one might be concerned instead with why it exists in its current form, and its connections to a given context. If books were cars, it would be the difference between studying how internal combustion engines work, and studying how the highway system works. It might seem like just one more iteration of theory to you, but I think there could be a qualitative difference there. We?ll know in a decade or so.”


    The process with Beowulf is certainly a plausible example, where one moves on to other subjects. In fact, it seems to be what Rosalynde was talking about with the move to look at the reverse causal chain. But this is a real problem. I want my literature critics to be trained in careful reading. THey aren’t historians or anthropologists and they certainly aren’t economists. When they wish to show how culture influences the work at hand, that’s probably doable with some historical training. To go the other way, and ask how the literature causally affected society, requires skills they simply don’t have and is in many cases impossible to do convincingly even with better social science skills.

    The most important thing literature critics contribute is to teach students to write and think carefully about well-written texts. If they leave that base to go meandering about in cultural criticism, a thing at which they have no particular expertise, then they become much less useful. The same is true for philosophy professors, by the way.

    It would be like the economics department deciding to abandon statistical and mathematical modelling of human behavior and instead start talking about how Beethoven influenced later composers. It is simply not a smart way to allocate research. An English professor unpacks the rhetorical meaning of Sinclair’s “The Jungle”, but it takes a economic skill to know whether labor and food regulation are effective tools for dealing with the problems Sinclair highlights. It takes the skills of a historian to determine if Sinclair was making it all up, or if the book caused the development of food regulation. To have lit professors doing that is to take them away from what we need them for– careful reading.

  91. Oh sorry, that first paragraph is just the part of Jonathon’s post that I am responding to.

  92. Jonathan Green wrote: “My sense is that all of the interesting developments in the study of literature today are coming from outside the text, from cultural studies and from interdisciplinary work.”

    Isn’t this simply fancy way of saying that the lit crits have simply become second class intellectual historians and philosophers? (Mind you, this is not confined to the study of literature. The prolifieration of “law and ___” moevements means that most legal scholarship these days is simply second rate history or economics, or — in its most awful guise — second rate literary criticism.)

  93. On change and the comon law: All you guys who say that there is no hope for change through the discourse of continuity in the common law are just wrong, wrong, wrong. The common law is constantly evolving and changing. The problem is that people can get their brains around something like Brown v. Board of Education very easily. Seeing the evolution in contract law cases is a more subtle and demanding business. (Note: I write about contract law rather than constitutional law, so their is quite a bit of self-congratulation going on in this post.) Frankly, one of the unfortunate things is that non-lawyers tend to use constitutional law as their model for law in general. This is a mistake both because constitutional law is often simpler than “real” law and frequenly more vacuous. Things like dropping the privity requirement in contract, which created negotiable paper and helped solve the liquidity crisis in early America, or Mansfield’s importing of the lex mercatoria in to the common law, or the common law’s original grab of commercial decisions away from the merchant courts, or the rise of contract over status and property, are all changes that occured by the accretion and reinterpretation of old authorities. Furthermore, even constitutional revolutions like Brown were paved by previous cases that made the break less discontinuitous. From Plessy to Brown you have subltle but very important shifts, perhaps the decisive one occuring in a single footnote to a case dealing with the interstate shipment of milk! Houston and Marshall were ultimately successful precisely because they mastered the language of continuity within the common law (of the constitution) and were able to understand how expands upon a footnote here or a tossed away phrase there and weave them into something that is new but also old. As Coke put it “Out of olde fields springs forth the new corn.” (Forgotten motto of my public law obsessed alma mater.)

    My point is not that we have a new idea of authority (although the common law’s attitude toward authorship and authority may create some wrinkles), but rather that the common law provides a model of change through reinterprretation that does not depend on opposition to authority. Toscano et al see interpretative change in terms of discontinuity and revolution. The common law sees change in terms of evolution and continuity. This will, by definition, not lead to revolutionary change. But then, neither will impotent calls to revolution. The difference is that the a process of evolutionary reinterpretation a la the common law actually does, over time, lead to significant changes. Where as over time the impotent revolutionaries remain impotent, and lose even the value of novelty contained in the original call to revolution.

  94. Nate,

    I’m not sure that the two systems are as disparate and independent as you think.

    I am confident that if Toscano went to law school, she would likely still be drawn towards academia and the quasi-revloutionary voice that would be offered her by publishing in law reviews. I think this because I believe that the evolution of common law, although certainly grounded in a beautiful weaving of precedent with the search for equitable solutions to problems facing the court, often looks to academic discourse for help in identifying those problems and in crafting solution. Granted, the current trend is away from the law review as a source of persuasive authority for court decisions, but the departure isn’t complete, nor, I believe, inevitable.

    One example here that I studied as a 1L is Skelly Wright’s line of decisions establishing much of modern landlord-tenant law (The class was taught by Terrance Anderson, who had been council for the tenants in a few of the decisions). It is generally accepted that Judge Wright’s decisions were influenced strongly by Bruce Ackerman’s article, Regulating Slum Housing Markets, 80 Yale LJ 1093 (1971).

    Thus, while the common law jurist’s vocation is to ground his decisions in the jurisprudence of the past, he can and does depend to some extent on voices like Toscano’s, when they are clothed in the trappings of legitimate legal academic discourse. Of course, what constitutes legitimate legal academic discourse is another question, and much of what is now published as legal commentary has become so cross-disciplinary and even non-legal as to be of less use to a jurist not wanting to depart so obviously from precedent. I imagine this problem might really be what is plaguing Toscano in her search for an ear within the hierarchy of the church. Just as one does not publish in a tier-4 journal if one wishes to see his comment cited in a future Supreme Court decision, there are avenues of discourse that are much more likely to receive approbation from church leadership. I recognize the circularity of the problem here, in that Toscano would certainly argue that it is the lack of any available avenue of criticism that renders her unable to complain about the lack of any availble avenue of criticism. I don’t personally believe, however, that her choices are as limited as she would portray them, and think that, to some extent at least, she has made her bed and should lie in it.

  95. Jack (#94) and Nate (#113): I don’t deny the underlying continuity in the “real world.” What I said was that “power is consolidated as discontinuities are highlighted, exaggerated, and celebrated.” The continuity is there, but is glossed over in the ascension of a narrative carrying normative power.

    The prelude to Brown that Nate describes is fascinating, and really there if one cares to look for it; but it is also evident from Nate’s description that the precedent details are extraordinarily banal—contingent placeholders, almost—and that it would be a grave error to say that Brown is simply derivative of a footnote on interstate shipment of milk. As you admiringly describe, Houston and Marshall truly created something new, and it is this new creation that carries weight in our social consciousness.

    (Incidentally, a description analogous to “Houston and Marshall were ultimately successful precisely because they mastered the language of continuity within the common law (of the constitution) and were able to understand how expands upon a footnote here or a tossed away phrase there and weave them into something that is new but also old” may also capture Joseph Smith’s genius (or the Lord’s genius inspiring Joseph, if you prefer). The environmentalist perspectives on Joseph infuriate the faithful, because they take away a notion of ‘Joseph is a product of his environment’ that sounds about as hollow as ‘Brown is merely derivative of a footnote on milk trafficking.’ But as Nate shows us in the example of Brown, elucidation of the details of continuity need not denigrate the magnitude of the new creation; on the contrary, it can be viewed as a richer context for appreciation.)

  96. Shannon and Brian’s chiding flattery sorely tempted me to re-enter the disciplinary smackdown, but it’s Frank’s unique pairing of contemptuous dismissal and peremptory demand that is irresistible. Frank, you clearly have no idea what was on my syllabi in grad school, and, frankly, I have not a clue what was on yours–but I’m beginning to think you must have taken an elective course on “Old, Tired and Instrumental Arguments against the Liberal Arts.” Laying aside the truly breathtaking disciplinary arrogance of statements like “what I want”, “what’s useful” and “what we need” from literary criticism, your suggestion that English departments are only good for teaching engineering and economics students to read and write could not articulate more clearly the historical attitude of the sciences toward the liberal arts tradition: that is, that these fields are primarily service-oriented nursery schools that should stick to installing a baseline literacy in students for the convenience of engineering and economics professors. You may have missed it, but it’s been years now since most college writing programs were housed in English departments (BYU, of course, is an anachronism in this as in most ways). Furthermore, you clearly have no idea what literature and cultural studies are actually trying to do (have you ever actually read any of the stuff?): if you’re lying awake at night stewing that cultural studies types are recklessly brandishing multivariate statistics and MATLAB, then rest easy. We use the stuff that you produce.

    I’m sorry if it inconveniences you to have to teach your own students to write, and I have no doubt that it would make your life much easier and more efficient to outsource that to me (particularly if I’m employed as an adjunct). But the fact is that I’m not particularly interested in what you think I’m good for.

  97. Rosalynde W.,
    I think you’ve missed what Frank M. was saying (I take no positions on the merits). He’s not saying that English Departments should just teach people to read and write. He’s saying that to the extent literary criticism is not about texts but about what effects those texts have on institutions, etc., it’s really just slap-dash, second-rate cultural history. Leave it to the cultural historians, he says.

    My only question for Frank M. (truly a question) is whether cultural historians have any real expertise either. They might, I just don’t know. I don’t know if historians actually have anything like a method or a methodology, but maybe they do, and maybe their greater familiarity with the body of historical research makes them more fit to do this sort of thing.

  98. Dave (#105) science most explicitly does not exclude humans from that natural world. Psychology, economic, social science, cognitive science and a lot of biology all are focused on human beings.

    The difference between lit. crit. and science isn’t a matter of topic but the matter of method and rigor. And it is that which makes literary criticism problematic. Throw in the scientific method rigorously applied and I’d have no problem with their attempts.

  99. No, Adam, I think I really did get what Frank was saying. He said, “The most important thing literature critics contribute is to teach students to write and think carefully about well-written texts.” This means that he sees English departments as teaching (that is, service) enterprises, not research enterprises. That inevitably ghettoizes us, even in a teaching oriented institution like BYU.

    Now, I have no doubt that Frank would be just as happy to write off the cultural historians, as well.

  100. Frank,

    You seem to be advocating for stronger barriers between disciplines. I find that a surprising argument from an economist — after all, ecoomics is a field which has been invigorated over the past two decades through some disciplinary cross-fertilization with behavioral psychology.

  101. Or in other words, how is saying

    “The most important thing literature critics contribute is to teach students to write and think carefully about well-written texts. If they leave that base to go meandering about in cultural criticism, a thing at which they have no particular expertise, then they become much less useful.”

    any different from saying

    “Daniel, Amos, stop mucking around with those coffee mugs and fruit stands and start doing some real economics.”

  102. “Frank’s unique pairing of contemptuous dismissal and peremptory demand that is irresistible.”


    Yes, my apprentice, now strike him down with all your hatred, and your journey to the Dark Side will be complete!!

  103. Kaimi:

    I am not finding Leiter’s Poo-poo Head article (post 31 above). Will you give me a link or citation, etc.? Thanks.

  104. Sorry, Ros., I think your dudgeon is understandably besmearing your spectacles. I bet you dimes to dollars that when Frank M. responds, we’ll find that my reading is right and yours ain’t.

    In context, the students he refers to aren’t Engineering majors or what not (which would support your reading), they’re English majors. He’s saying that the ‘skill’ that English majors are prepared to have by their major, their unique area of competence, is the ability to read literature carefully and carefully explicate the results of their reading. In his mind, therefore, this is what they ought to stick to.

    Whether Frank M. is right or not, well (shrugs).

  105. Wow, have I officially achieved “dudgeon”?

    And thanks for the snicker, Steve. All, please read more than a bit of playfulness into the exchange (which I’m sure Frank intends, too): there’s something uniquely pleasurable about the public performance of dudgeon, particularly when the stakes are so low.

  106. To finish responding to Nate, let me kick him in the shins once more before agreeing, at least partially.

    The contrast you draw between common law and constitutional law (something I dimly suspected, but had to ‘sing out loud’ to find out if I was getting my part right) demonstrates how irrelevant the common law model is to Toscano’s practical problems. The more continuous evolution of the common law occurs, and may be effectively exploited in the manner you suggest, when power is diffuse—open source development of Linux, or community development of Web markup languages come to mind.

    The Church, obviously, operates under something much more like constitutional law (perhaps more of an English version as you’ve pointed out in the past), complete with a hierarchy sustained by a consciously nurtured mythos.

    One path to change in such a context is to work up through the chain of command—in practice in the Church, not so much by discourse, though that may have some influence, but primarily through promotion and succession. But as a female, and especially now as an excommunicant, this path is and will remain closed by construction.

    The only other path to change—the only one available to Toscano—is to try and apply sufficient pressure from the outside to lead to voluntary revolution from within. This is the mode of change seen in both polygamy and the 1978 revelation on priesthood (and Brown, and Roe v. Wade?). And here is where I come to partial agreement: in this crisis, the leaders—not the rank-and-file priesthood, much less the female members, much less outsiders—engage in the strenuous hermeneutics excercise Rosalynde and Nate identified. This introspective exercise is identifiable in the statements of Wilford Woodruff accompanying OD1 in our scriptures (his reference to DC 124), and in the text proper of OD2 (reference to promises by previous Brethren).

    Should such a crisis ever lead to a change with regard to women and the priesthood, this process would be mythologized and hailed as an instance of Continuing Revelation; in spite of the precendents invoked to ease the transition, it would nevertheless constitute a revolutionary “new narrative in which the Female Deity is revealed, and her power and authority acknowledged and conferred.”

  107. Pete,

    Take a look at .

    Part of the intro reads:

    “Notwithstanding the majestic sweep and ambition of [Dworkin’s] jurisprudential corpus, my conclusion—which I’ve come to only gradually over the last decade of reading, writing, talking and teaching about problems in legal philosophy—is that in legal philosophy, Dworkin now deserves to go the way of Skinner in psychology or Derrida in literary theory, that is, the way of figures whose work, at one time, was a stimulus to new research, but who, in the end, led—or, in Dworkin’s case, tried to lead—their field down a deeply wrong-headed path. The only good news in the story about Dworkin’s impact on law and philosophy is that most of the field declined to follow the Dworkinian path—something, interestingly, that those not working in legal philosophy generally do not know.

    “Given the limited amount of time I have today—not to mention the amount of alcohol my audience has already consumed—I’m going to support this polemical thesis with just two kinds of considerations. First, in most of the areas that have made law and philosophy an intellectually vibrant area in recent decades, Dworkin’s work has been largely irrelevant. Second, in the areas where Dworkin has had an impact—namely, the development of his own theory of law and adjudication—his views are, I am afraid, implausible, badly argued for, and largely without philosophical merit. The first point shall be easier to establish this evening than the second, needless to say. I take them up in turn.”

  108. And just one more thing: doing what Frank wants me to do best (sticking to the text, and to hell with context), I submit that it doesn’t really matter what Frank’s intentions were. What matters is what his words disclose, regardless of intent.

  109. Nate asks, about the practical consequences of interdisciplinarity, “Isn’t this simply fancy way of saying that the lit crits have simply become second class intellectual historians and philosophers?”

    That’s an entirely possible outcome, and one that has been brought up before, and one I’ve seen come to pass enough times. The fact of the matter is that it can take a long time to acquire expertise in one field, so that one can spend a long time as a second-class scholar of anything. The usual solution is to collaborate or to get feedback from experts outside your field. People don’t just write dissertations involving law and economics and literature on a whim; any serious program insists that the dissertation committee include a law professor and an economist. In the dissertation defenses I’ve seen, the experts from other disciplines have been brutally honest and direct, and that is the way it should be. Jounals and publishers find experts in the relevant fields to review submissions; there’s just too small a market for uninformed pap to do otherwise.

    Also, departments in the humanities usually include a wide variety of scholarly approaches. Literary theorists can overlap a lot with philosophers, and you could probably find an intellectual historian in any department. Literature specialists too, of course, but plenty of other types as well.

  110. MDS (#114) makes interesting points. But even if Tosacano were still a member, it’s not clear to me that the Twelve invite amicus briefs, or allow Dialogue and Sunstone as much influence as prestigious law reviews. Any historical insight anyone can provide here (e.g. influence of work by Bush and Mauss pre-1978? Sought or acknowledged?) would be interesting.

  111. I’m certainly not going to get between Rosalynde and Frank–I’ll let them duke it out between themselves.

    I am interested, however, in her sources for “the historical attitude of the sciences toward the liberal arts tradition.” Now, I’m not certain how the “liberal arts tradition” differs from the “liberal arts”, but my sample (of one) scientist whom I know intimately suggests nothing of the disdain for the humanities that Rosalynde’s statement implies. And I suspect that it’s more likely that a scientist can appreciate and understand art and literature and history than that an artist or historian or writer can appreciate or understand advanced physics or chemistry–simply because the language is more accessible (so long as we leave Newspeak where it belongs). The well-educated generalist who is not trained in calculus will have difficulty understanding the physicist.

    I admit that my sample size is small, but what is the sample from which this sweeping generalization about “the historical attitude of the sciences” was drawn?

  112. Christian: You are sort of right but mostly wrong, wrong, wrong. (OK, not really, but I enjoy writing “wrong, wrong, wrong.”) As for the banality of my discussion of the antecedents of Brown, I apologize for not boring everyone with a history of desegregation litigation, or of the firestorm that Brown ignited and the many subsequent attempts to rewrite it to make it more continuous with the tradition from which it emerged. BTW, you should never underestimate the importance of the Corolene Products footnote (the interestate milk case). It provided the conceptual framework for post-New Deal judicial activism without which it would have been impossible for the Court to move in Brown. Furthermore, those who do not understand this history — including many lawyers — don’t really “get” what happened in Brown. You get one of two unsatisfactory stories. First, you get a “Marxist” story in which Brown is simply political ephemera. What was happening were the deep historical forces of change working their will on a passive law, and the doctrinal history and arguments in Brown were little more than judicial fig leafs covering up the changes forced upon them by shifting social attitudes. (A modified version of this is Rosenberg’s famous thesis in _The Hollow Hope_ that Brown — and MLK — was essentially irrelevent and that what desegregated the South was race riots and congressional legislation) The second unsatisfactory story is that Justices as heros story, in which the Court in its infinite courage, wisdom, and enlightenment chose to boldly step out and lead the nation into broad sun lit uplands of progress and equality. Lawyers are particularlly enamoured of this story, and then become disappointed and miserable when they discover that judges are not doing enough heroic leading into the sunlit uplands. Both of these stories, however, miss out on the fact that Brown was also, very intensely, about law. It was about how precedents build up and how the law uses those precedents to adapt. In part, one suspects that this story gets lost because Warren’s opinion in Brown is so badly written. Frankfurter would have done a much better job (one of the three of four geniuses to ever sit on the court), but it is unlikely that he could have held the votes together. Too much intellectual integrity and not enough political skill.

    I agree that with regard to administration and structure, you see quite a bit of discontinuity in the evolution of the Church, although even here there are attempts to work the system pure and create some sort of bridge over time, witness evolution of the office of seventy and the way that it eventually swallowed up such discontinuitous offices as Assistant to the Twelve and Regional Representatives. However, you will note that my post was directed at the question of Mormon doctrine and theology. (Hint: This is why the words “Mormon Doctrine” appear in the title.) Indeed, it seems to me that the claim with regard to the theology of the 1978 revelation is generally that it was not discontinuitous enough and didn’t explicitly repudiate pre-ban nonsense about the Hamitic myth, the mark of Cain, etc. etc.

    Finally, while I don’t think that the flow of interpretation from intellectuals to prophets is particularlly strong, it is there and those intellectual pieces that have been coopted to a greater and lesser extent or have been influential have generally been those that offered an interpretation that tried to maintain some sort of continuity with the past and displayed some concern with the ingerity of the Restoration as a whole. (I am thinking here of Lester Bush’s work on the history of the priesthood ban, Edward Leo Lyman on the polygamy ban, or FARMS scholars on the limited geography model.) In short, for someone who purports to study and care about narrative and theology, Toscano has an absolutely tin ear for how narrative and theology actually develop in the Church. No doubt, had she been to law school, she would have adopted the Clarence Darrow legal persona (it is the dominant myth of self-justification in the law schools anyway) rather than the older, no almost wholely submerged personas of Coke, Hale, Sheldon, Williston, or Corbin. Certainly, to the extent that legal training had any influence on her husband’s Mormon thinking it was entirely in the lawyer-as-lonely-iconoclast-against-injustice line, rather than jurist-as-keeper-of-the-organic-growth of the law line. This doesn’t mean, however, that I am wrong.

  113. By the way, I think it’s a great testament to Nate Oman’s and my own legal geekiness (and our interest overlap) that I can refer offhand to an article as “Brian Leiter — Dowrkin is a Poo-poo Head” and Nate immediately knows which article I’m talking about.

  114. Frank, just to pick on a few key sentences:

    “To go the other way, and ask how the literature causally affected society, requires skills they simply don’t have…”

    No, if I wanted to see how one text affected society, I would treat literature as a stand-in for society as a whole and look for influence of one text on later texts. It is a reductive mapping of society onto its documents, but for many things, texts are the best evidence we have. One genuflects before the unknowable and then goes to work with the evidence at hand.

    “An English professor unpacks the rhetorical meaning of Sinclair’s “The Jungle”, but it takes a economic skill to know whether labor and food regulation are effective tools for dealing with the problems Sinclair highlights. It takes the skills of a historian to determine if Sinclair was making it all up, or if the book caused the development of food regulation.”

    Actually, there was this great innovation in Western thought a few centuries ago: the footnote. Anthony Grafton has written a whole book about it. If I need historical or economic context for a paper on Sinclair, I’d check the relevant literature of those disciplines and cite them. I would need to know enough about economics to find what I need and understand it, which is what general education courses are for, and why many journal articles are targetted at an academic but nonspecialist audience. Footnotes done right let you enlist the skills and build on the work of many disciplines. I could, if you forced me at gunpoint, write a solid paper on the cultural context of The Jungle. If, on the other hand, there was no research available on the topic, then the options are 1) do it myself; if you don’t like the result, why don’t you just go and do it better? (and then I can footnote you); or 2) consult a colleague; isn’t that the main reason the university employs faculty outside of my field?

  115. “The well-educated generalist who is not trained in calculus will have difficulty understanding the physicist.”

    Aaaargh! Now I have to jump in. Yes, it is true that a generalist not trained in calculus will not understand technical discussions of some physical theories. It is, however, equally true that well educated natural scientists will not understand the nuances of a highly technical discussion of, say, semiotics or deconstruction. I understand my father the physicist at least as well as he understands me, when we are talking about our respective disciplines. This thread has amply demonstrated that *lots* of well-educated generalists don’t understand the rudiments of literary criticism, let alone the subtleties of current practice, and they sound as silly trying to talk about it as I would sound trying to condescendingly tell my dad that string theory is pish-posh and he should pay more attention to the discursive structure of physics textbooks.


  116. Actually, pd, I don’t. But I do have a conference this weekend, and a conference paper to prepare, and consequently lots of time to procrastinate at the computer.

  117. pd, we do have jobs, but maybe not much longer if we don’t overcome our addiction to this intellectual baseball diamond (see comment 84).

  118. “No, if I wanted to see how one text affected society, I would treat literature as a stand-in for society as a whole and look for influence of one text on later texts. It is a reductive mapping of society onto its documents, but for many things, texts are the best evidence we have. One genuflects before the unknowable and then goes to work with the evidence at hand.”

    There is a hammer and a nail problem here. Look, literary theorists are trained to think about texts. A strong corrolary of this is that they are likely to think that texts are the best source of information about society. This is not always true. Hence, trace influence through texts is not always the most reliable way of tracing influence through society. There is such a thing as looking at big loads of emperical data a la cliometrics and the like. Frankly, I think that tracing incfluences through texts sounds like more fun. On the other hand, the fact that I think it is fun does not mean that it is the best way of understanding the world. (Although certainly the fact that I think it is fun counts in its favor.)

  119. “And just one more thing: doing what Frank wants me to do best (sticking to the text, and to hell with context), I submit that it doesn’t really matter what Frank’s intentions were. What matters is what his words disclose, regardless of intent. ”

    But Rosalynde, since my only evidence of Frank’s intention is what he wrote (and, I suppose, my limited outside knowledge of him, which you also have) if my version of his intention is correct, isn’t that evidence that I read his comment better?

  120. So wait — you’re saying that authorial intention matters, Adam? Didn’t you know that us literary theorists got rid of that whole thing long ago?

    Sorry for the bad joke, but I rarely pass up the opportunity for a bad joke. I just feel sorry about it afterwards.

  121. The literary theorists gave up on intention by badly misreading Derrida and deconstruction (among other reasons). For his own comments on this, just this page I often put up. (Yeah tangent, but one of many things in lit. criticism. that bugs me)

  122. Well, everyone knows authorial intention doesn’t matter. I’m sure not disputing that. But Frank M. isn’t an author, he’s an economist. :)

  123. And the other shoe: Much as I love T&S, this discussion, in particular, makes me wonder if some – many – of you should blog less and write for publication more. In other words, even though this kind of exchange can be stimulatiing and useful, past a point you’re wasting your time – if your time could be better spent committing these ideas to a more permanent and reviewed form, such as a book. Hate to be old fashioned, but there are obviously many good minds and lots of energy here – too much just for a Mormon audience.

    Also, and again delaing specifically with this discussion, I would refer all of you to Ernst Bloch’s The Utopian Function of Art and Literature. He covered much of the same ground and could likely settle many of your disagreements.

  124. Thanks Nate and Kaimi:

    I had seen the article, but was silly enough to think you were referring to a real title of a Leiter article on Dworkin (he has a few). And, of course, I couldn’t find it. :-)

  125. Ah, pd, if only I could gather the fifteen five-minute crumbs of time I glean from my children during the day into a single lovely block…. The books I could produce!

  126. Nate replies, “There is a hammer and a nail problem here…[To] trace influence through texts is not always the most reliable way of tracing influence through society. There is such a thing as looking at big loads of emperical data a la cliometrics and the like.”

    For a lot of things, I’d agree. I still think analyzing texts–broadly understood, not just literary texts–can find interesting things, even if it’s not the single best approach to a problem. Due to my own disciplinary blinders, I’m approaching the question as a medievalist. We don’t have loads of empirical data. All we have are documents, and never enough of them. When you only have nails to work with, you grab a hammer.

  127. Jonathan, wouldn’t you agree, however, that historians utilizing texts are by their nature far more limited and tentative in their historic claims? Further, it seems such application to texts involve more cautionary claims. But I would agree that at times there is a blurring between psychology, history, and literary criticism. I’ll also admit that at that point I start to become nervous as well. It seems people are going well beyond what the texts can be used to establish with much confidence.

  128. Clark, about “historians utilizing texts [being] by their nature far more limited and tentative in their historic claims,” I don’t think so. The temptation to make wild claims based on insufficient evidence spans the disciplines. My experience tells me that the humanities have standards of evidence to check sensationalist claims. Are those standards as rigorous and effective as in other disciplines? Are the rewards for sensationalism in the humanities greater? For those questions, I have to plead lack of data. Anecdotally, I don’t see that the kind of people who make the headlines are more than a tiny segment in the humanities. Others may be better situated to comment on the question.

    As far as what literary analysis can do for history and psychology, let me grab an example about which my knowledge is limited: the American Civil War. If we knew nothing about it, it would be silly to start by reading “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and then advancing the claim that the book caused the Civil War. By all means, bring on the cliometricians. Work out the political maneuvering leading up to Fort Sumter, map out the military campaigns. There remains a historical question about slavery as a cause of the war, however, and it would be silly to ignore the contribution of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” to Northern attitudes towards Southern slavery. A small amount of the work involves a close reading and internal analysis of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” More important are text-external documentary evidence of widespread influence of the book on Northern society in general and its decision-makers. All of this, I believe, can fall well inside the disciplinary boundaries of an Americanist with a focus on the 19th century in an English department. (Although that scholar should be in regular contact with the colleagues in history, too.)

    That’s an example of how things might work out well. What’s an example of things working out badly?

  129. Jonathan, I’m fine with the footnoting. Are you trying to hide the fact that you are agreeing with me? It won’t work! As for the rest, I agree with Nate.


    I am not arguing for stronger barriers between disciplines, but rather for not using a toothpick to drive a nail. Toothpicks are for teeth and if you want to drive a nail, get a hammer.


    As I noted before, often the questions asked are simply impossible to answer. Thus it is no surprise if one is not overly committed to the research of cultural historians. But I’m sure they do a decent job of answering the question of what actually happened.

  130. Rosalynde,

    “This means that he sees English departments as teaching (that is, service) enterprises, not research enterprises.”

    You take the phrase “most important thing” and read it ‘only important thing’. That seems like sloppy reading, but maybe I just lack the nuance to understand my own comment. You’re the trained reader after all.

    As for tired instrumentalist arguments, is calling an argument old your idea of refuting it? I recall one old guy saying, we should not just be good, we should be good for something. He was, after all, the prophet. I agree with him, and so, I would guess, do you. And what is the single best thing English literature professors are good at; careful reading and writing. They, as someone put it above, are to unpack the meaning of the work, grapple carefully with the ideas and feelings of the text. But once those ideas are out, those feelings expressed, they have no special ability to know if the ideas are true. At that point, they are just another well-informed person, unless they have some extra training.

    So if context informs content, then sure one should provide context. But to go the other way, and show how institutions are caused by the text is vastly different. The conclusions are likely to be wildly unsupportable in any rigorous way, a point Clark has been emphasizing. Thus it is fine to do, as long as one recognizes that the confidence interval is massive, the conclusions subject to hefty caveats, scarcely more sure than mere opinion.

    Thus one can say what was happening, but literature critics are not very good at showing why something happened, or if it should happen. This is because pretty much everything has both costs and benefits. To know if something is good to do, one must be able to weigh the costs and benefits. This requires knowing signs and elasticities and imputing value to things. It is not something they are trained to do. You speak of using other’s work; if only that were the case. I mean, how many English professors have a clue what makes a regression causal as opposed to merely predictive? Certainly one introductory stats course will not do the trick.

    My Upton Sinclair example was not entirely random, I am told there was here at BYU a professor of English who was waxing on in class about the importance of government labor regulations based on the expertise he apparently acquired by reading The Jungle. His argument was based on assuming, though he did not know it, a certain demand elasticity. I could only wish that in their forays to saying how the world should be, lit professors referenced the relevant academic discipline, but alas I fear they do not do it well enough to make the endeavor worthwhile.

    Thus the social criticism that leaves me cold is when one simply talks about how this or that is bad or good, without any careful attempt to actually get in and weigh the costs and benefits. If we do not know that the costs of a change outweigh the benefits, then we don’t have the information we need to act. And English professors lack the tools to even make the attempt.

    Toscano is a great example. She is claiming that there all these important effects of how we speak on how people feel and so forth, but she can’t get to first base even, because she has no way to _measure_ the effect of the language on anyone. Thus her theory is a limp thing and without force. It may be true that narrative matters immensely, but can Toscano show me _how much_ it matters? Nope. It may, in fact, not really matter at all. She has no way of knowing how it affects salvation. She has no way of providing any useful guidance as to whether a change in language would be good or not. She doesn’t even know how to quantify the costs of such a change. So what can she offer me? As a friend put it, many things are intuitive, but only some of those are right. Careful, rigorous work is needed to develop plausible theory and testable implications. But that is not the training of an English professor. Their training is in careful reading and effective writing.

    On the other hand, I may think that particulate matter in the lungs kills people, and so I go out and test to see how higher levels of particulate matter affects death rates. In fact, this has been done. I can then decide if I wish to change pollution policy. This has also been done. This kind of research is far more effective than repeatedly claiming that particulate matter must hurt people and ignoring the cost of changing pollution policy. Without any testing of the theory, or calculation of the costs and benefits, the theory has little power to enlighten us. I spoke about this here. The key point is the one Clark made above, without empirical testing of verifiable claims, there is simply no way to trust the social critiques. They are free to offer those critiques, but they are nothing more than one person’s opinion, and so rely for their strength on their popularity, rather than their empirical validity.

  131. Frank, for an economist like yourself no doubt the entire world seems in horrible ignorance. But most people just don’t care about demand elasticity when they read The Jungle. Are such concerns important? No doubt — especially if you’re an economist. Your comment seems to me to smack of disciplinary arrogance more than anything.

    But I agree — toothpicks are for picking teeth. Or for holding saran wrap above the surface of an iced cake.

  132. Frank,

    I understand that you don’t use a toothpick to drive a nail.

    But if you’ve been given a set of disciplinary tools and you’re not sure whether they’re a toothpick or a hammer — and let’s face it, in interdisciplinary work it’s often impossible to tell ex ante how effective your tools are going to be — then the only way to find out is to try to drive a few nails. Perhaps they work, perhaps they don’t.

    Now if your argument is an empirical one, that lit crits are continuing to try to use toothpicks to drive nails long after the results are in across the board, that’s a different story, and may or may not be correct, depending on empirical results. (No disrespect meant to your anecdotal BYU story, but I’m not going to consider it as a rigorous empiral showing that lit crit is a toothpick in any general sense).

    Or perhaps your argument is that lit crits are just unable to realize that their toothpicks are not driving in the nails, and they continue to obstinately toothpick away at those nails until some friendly passing economist tells them that they’re doing things all wrong. If that’s your story, then you again have work to do, to explain why anyone should trust the passing economist’s impression any more than she trusts the lit crits’ impressions.

    There are directions your argument could lead. But simply setting up the toothpick/nail dichotomy doesn’t do all of the lifting.

  133. Steve, it’s not clear to me how demanding rigor and empiricism is disciplinary arrogance. I don’t think anyone one mind someone in any field speaking on the issues. Just that to speak on the issues in a meaningful way requires grappling with those issues. To the degree one doesn’t grapple with them, it seems lacking in significance.

    Put an other way, how do we separate uninformed speculation and opinion from more rigorous ways of knowing? Or, put an other way, how do we tell when a claim is justified?

  134. Steve: Disciplinary arrogance is, I think, part of the discipline of economics. This does not mean that Frank is wrong, just that you find his tone annoying. The fact of the matter is that reading Upton Sinclair novels is not a particularlly good way of thinking about labor policy. I recall reading a truely wonderful exchange one time between Eugene Volokh and a CLS-inspired feminist scholar (name escapes me, sorry) on the issue of gun control. The CLS scholar was all about deconstructing the narratives of gun ownership and showing their Freudian roots in a phallic facination with fire arms, etc. etc. Volokh was arguing a la John Lott about the effects of gun ownership on crime. Now obviously, John Lott’s research is open to any number of criticisms, but Volokh’s response to the CLS argument seemed right on to me: “It seems like an awfully silly way to formulate public policy.” (I did some google searches for the exchange but can’t find it. Sorry.)

  135. No, I’m not saying that Frank is wrong. Nate is correct that I object to his tone.

    However, I think we do ourselves a disservice whenever we present a certain discipline as the only permissible way of taking policy stances. We certainly don’t rely upon statistics to form our basic stances concerning abortion or gun control, although they are certainly helpful tools for defending our positions once we’ve chosen them. But in my view, they are tools, like toothpicks or hammers, and nothing more.

  136. Frank,

    I’m reminded of an apocryphal story that I heard third-hand about an incident at Columbia Law School. (Perhaps Steve Evans can fill in more detail).

    Columbia requires a basic law-and-ecomonics course call Reg State. A few years before I started attending, there was a student in Reg State who was a genuine cowboy.

    As the professor started talking about the tragedy of the commons, the cowboy’s hand went up. And his comment was along the lines of “that’s not how you raise sheep at all!”

    It was a story that was retold a lot, and got some laughs. But I thought at the time that that student’s concern was off base. We’re not in law school to learn about sheep raising. We’re there to learn about law. Whether or not Garrett Hardin actually had any clue about how sheep are raised in the real world, he crafted a metaphor that has been an important part of debates about environmental laws, telecommunications law, administrative law, property law, and many other areas. And given that importance, it is simply wrongheaded to focus on whether he got the sheep-grazing part right. It’s irrelevant. If Garrett Hardin had instead written about how unicorns graze, his economic analysis would not be any different. If Ronald Coase was completely wrong about how trains throw sparks, his Coase Theorem would still be an important discussion of how rights are allocated after initial entitlement.

    I wasn’t present at the class you mention. But it seems that mocking The Jungle for economic failures is like saying that Hardin shouldn’t mention the tragedy of the commons because he got some details wrong on the sheep-grazing part.

  137. Steve,

    I don’t think most people should care about demand elasticities. The point was one should not make arguments that rely upon an assumed demand elasticity when one doesn’t even know what a demand elasticity is.


    I had a longer comment to you originally, but jettisoned it because it was too long. Yes, I am saying that, for example, lit professors expounding on how the government should operate or set policy are driving nails with toothpicks. This is because they lack tools for weighing costs, benefits, and measuring people’s responses to policy. Are you arguing that it is unimportant to weigh and measure those things, or are you arguing that English professors know how to do that better than the average bright person? I am saying that in such cases, Lit crit is pretty much a toothpick. This is not a matter of “impression”, it is a matter of thinking through what the required information is and determining who is trained to get that information.

    If lit crit has developed some tool for showing causal links better than instrumental variables or random experiments, I’d be happy to hear what it is. If they have developed some way to measure costs and benefit so that they know what “should be” in society, I’d be fascinated to hear what it is.

  138. Frank, your comments make me think of someone who believes French is a silly language, refuses to learn it, and then goes and stands on a street corner in Paris for two hours and returns to gleefully report that French-speakers have nothing useful to say.

  139. Steve, I’m bad at tone.

    But more importantly, of course we use more than statistics to form our views. But do English professors have some advantage in forming views over other smart people? And are statistics irrelevant to the optimal policy? They are often very important.

  140. Kaimi,

    No No No. I am not mocking the Jungle for economic failures. I am mocking the professor who was teaching the students about his class for using the Jungle to talk about how government regulation makes lives better. The Jungle is a fine novel. It has many values, it is when one uses it for what it is not intended. Like if Hardin were to think that his anlalogy gave him expertise in raising sheep.


    I have been at pains to mention that Literature professors are good for something, careful reading and writing. I am saying that they fail miserably at telling us what we should do. Thus, the French are good at speaking French, but in English they are, as a group, lacking.

  141. Frank,

    You write:

    “Lit professors expounding on how the government should operate or set policy are driving nails with toothpicks. This is because they lack tools for weighing costs, benefits, and measuring people’s responses to policy. ”

    It sounds a lot like your concern is that lit crit rejects utilitarian arguments. I think that you’re correct in one sense — it is often the case that lit crit rejects utilitarianism. However, you’ve got an underlying assumption here that utilitarianism is the correct baseline against which to judge any approach. And as any number of our philosophers here can tell us, utilitarianism is certainly not the only valid way to approach the world.

    If someone reads Dostoyevsky and decides that prisoners are being unfairly treated and that the justice system needs reform, is that belief invalid because the reader hasn’t done a study of the costs and benefits of justice reform? If someone reads Zola and decides that unions need more protection, is that belief invalid without a study?

    There is something to be said for individualized justice, and for belief structures that are deontological rather than utilitarian, such as Kantian or Rawlsian approaches. I understand that you may believe that utilitarianism is the correct baseline, but it’s unlikely that all of your audience agrees with you — I’m much more of a deont myself than a utilitarian.

  142. Edit– ” I am mocking the professor who was teaching the students for using the Jungle to talk about how government regulation makes lives better.”

    That is an example of what I am saying, I constantly write bad sentences and write things in incomprehensible ways. It is not out of line for an English Professor to think that that means I am not as good a writer. Its just the facts. If we were to offer a course in writing, it would make more sense for the English professor to teach it than for me. That professor would do a better job.

  143. If one’s assumption is that an action has either no costs or no benefits, then yes, one need only establish that the other exists to know what to do. But no, one needn’t be a utilitarian to think that we should do things for reasons. One must weigh the relative virtues of those reasons. I call these “costs” and “benefits”, Kant’s categorical imperative or Rawls’ max-min approach are both insufficient if you can’t weigh how policy affects people.

    Suppose I read Dosteovsky and decide I favor prison reform. I am assuming that Dosteovsky has told me something about the actual state of prisons, right? And if he weren’t telling me about the actual state of prisons, I might not be so inclined to do prison refomr. And, to take an extreme example, what if reforming the prisons meant that many criminals went free and killed innocent people? What do Kant and Rawls tell me to do? No matter what they say, most people would consider that killing to be relevant information, no?

  144. Re: Kaimi’s #162. If the guy was really a sheepherder, he certainly couldn’t have been a cowboy. Sheeps is sheeps, and cows is cows, and ne’er the twain shall meet.

  145. “I am saying that they fail miserably at telling us what we should do.”

    I don’t think you’ve successfully made the case that any discipline is superior to another in terms of forming value judgments. Yes, statistics and economics can be useful in terms of subsequently informing our choices, but they are fairly useless without a predetermined flight path. What I think you should have said is that literature fails miserably at telling us how we ought to go about accomplishing what we want to do.

  146. Frank,

    I’m not sure that we need economics to critique your professor’s position that The Jungle tells us we need labor regulations. After all, the book does nothing of the sort.

    First, it’s not clear that The Jungle can even be applied to today’s society. It’s not meant as a prescription on capitalist reform, it’s a straight up socialist tract.

    Second, Sinclair himself pulls a rhetorical trick by spending 80% of the books showing the abuses of capitalism and then the last 20% saying “therefore, socialism must be better.” The conclusion doesn’t necessarily hold, which is why the last part of the book is as weak as it is.

    In short, the problem with the line “The Jungle shows us that we need labor regulations” isn’t that it’s bad economics, it’s that it’s bad lit crit.

  147. Frank, I’m not sure using The Jungle in the fashion you describe is what lit crit is all about nor is it what I find objectionable about lit crit applied to assertions outside of literature proper. So I think the criticisms some are making of your approach is apt. That’s not to say one doesn’t encounter those sorts of approaches amongst humanity professors and grad students.. I think one does far too often. But that seems to me to be a very different issue from lit crit proper. As Kaimi points out, that is simply incompetence. Now we can talk about how many people in humanity departments engage their own disciplines in an appropriate fashion. I’ll be honest and say that I’ve no idea how prevalent that is. My experience reading papers that attempt to deal with deconstruction doesn’t inspire confidence. But then I’ve encountered many who do good work. And to be fair, I’ve met plenty of economics majors who had a hard time with math and had “creative” approaches to things. So I don’t think English is somehow unique in these sorts of problems.

    Kaimi, it seems your example of sheep highlights the problem. If we are only saying lit crit and related disciplines provide incentive to think then I have no problem with it. Indeed, I think I made that point way back in #103. However if one was to say on the basis of this thought experiment that one was right, independent of empirical investigation, then I think we’d be quite right to discount it. It confuses the first step of knowing (forming a hypothesis) with the end of knowing.

    As I said, I’m not opposed to lit crit in the least. I love lit crit – more than “great literature” itself. I just get worried when I see it misapplied. Now Kristine and others can say its unfair to judge lit crit when misapplied. And I’d probably fully agree with her. However the fact is that this is done a lot.

  148. Steve, you are absolutely right. This is exactly what I meant. Another example of the importance of careful and clear writing.

    Kaimi, As long as we’re piling on our storied professor, the Jungle is a novel. Thus the abuses catalogued are not necessarily ones that actually occured. To know that those abuses do occur, we rely on other historical research.

    I, of course, am not going to stand in judgement of how good the lit crit is as lit crit. But I am arguing lit crit will never inform us on such policy issues, and so lit crit that tries to would presumably be bad lit crit.

  149. I don’t think Frank is saying that economics is the only way to look at the world. I think he’s saying, first, that outcomes matter. This shouldn’t be too controversial, even if you’re not a full-blown utilitarian.

    Secondly, he says that neither Toscano or anyone else besides God can possibly have any information that would allow us to form a useful opinion about this kind of question (i.e. the effect of stories.) Since nobody’s opinion is worth anything unless they’re inspired by God, Frank is inclined to agree with those who are, or at least might be, inspired (i.e. the priesthood leaders.)

    This is where I think he sets the bar unreasonably high. Maybe Upton Sinclair was wrong about the effects of his proposed reforms, but this is not to say his opionion was based on no evidence. In the real world, all the judgements we make are based on partial evidence and best guesses. Even economists are often forced to make decisisons with no formal model or statistical data at all! Sinclair’s opinions are certainly more valuable than those of someone living at another time and place who is not even acquanited with the situation.

    Similarly, Toscano would probably argue that her experiences give her insight into the situation that may be lacking in others. Frank’s position seems to be that since nobody has the slightest idea about anything, we should just trust the priesthood leaders. Might it not be true that the leader’s judgement could be improved by hearing diverse opinions (although perhaps offered in a different way than Toscano’s)?

  150. Frank,

    If the problem is at least in part just a tendency to step outside of one’s specialty, then it’s certainly not confined to English. I recall, for example, an economics class that I took where Bork’s political views and failure to be appointed were discussed, not at great length but more than just an aside.

    On a broader level, should an economist be allowed to discuss a legal topic (such as the antitrust laws) without the relevant legal training?

  151. Clark,

    I teach plenty of undergraduate economists who mess up their mathematics. And I dock them points for it! I also read papers in economics that make what I think are egregious errors. So if I think most economics work is faulty, how likely am I to be satisfied by those with no training?

    As for the Jungle example, I should emphasize that it is merely an illustrative, though purportedly true, example. I am just using it to illustrate the difference between reading a book and forming social policy. If what the professor did is bad lit crit, then apparently lit crit and I are in agreement. English professors have no expertise in these things and if lit crit teaches them to avoid making statements for which they have no support and no training, then I think that is what I was saying all along.

  152. I agree with you Frank, but then that highlights the problem I suspect Kristine, Jonathan, and others were getting at. It seems unfair to critique a discipline in terms of the bad practitioners of that discipline. (They never came out and said that, but I think that a charitable reading of the ultimate point they were making) Now I think there are problems with lit crit that go beyond mere incompetence. But then I have similar complaints with other disciplines at times. (Even economics and its conception of humanity that goes back to Adam Smith) However at least economics does impirical testing to see how well its models work. (And, as you know, they work pretty good even if one might not agree with the characterization of the individual on a philosophical level)

    But I think if we are to criticize lit crit and not just incompetent authors, we ought distinguish the two. Now if you are merely arguing that the majority of English majors you’ve encountered are incmpentent that is one thing. But then you are facing the problem of anecdotal evidence as argument. Which seems to undermine your whole empirical approach. grin

  153. Frank:

    I can agree with that.

    However, let me also add a little reminder that the way social policy (and other social phenomenon) has been created/decided upon/enacted hasn’t been solely a cost-benefit thing. Rhetoric, discourse and, yes, even fiction and other cultural narratives gets jumbled up in the mix.

    This is an area where literary criticism can be useful — especially taking into account what Jonathan has been saying about working with other discplinary tools.

    One of my favorite examples of this is Ellen Gurvey’s The Adman in the Parlor: Magazines and the Gendering of Consumer Culture, 1880s to 1910s.

    Oxford Univ. Press describes it so:

    “How did advertising come to seem natural and ordinary to magazine readers by the end of the nineteenth century? This book explores readers’ interactions with advertising during a period when not only consumption but advertising itself became established as a pleasure. Garvey argues that readers’ participation in advertising, rather than top-down dictation by advertisers, has made advertising such a central part of American culture. Her analyses interweaves such diverse texts and artifacts as scrapbooks, medical articles, paper dolls, chromolithographed trade cards, advertising trade journals, and even contest rules as she tracks new forms of fictional realism that contained brand name references, courtship stories, and other fictional forms. Accessibly written and illustrated with forty-four fascinating images of the period, The Adman in the Parlor unearths the lively conversations among writers and advertisers about the new prevalence of advertising for mass-produced, nationally distributed products.”

    An economist would, I assume, take a very different approach to how American women became “shoppers” — but it seems to me (taking a stereotypical view of economics) that, for instance, discussing the cost-benefits of shopping around and the overproduction of goods that led to the need for advertising is only part of the story. Each discipline has something to offer in the exploration of this phenomenon. And expertise in narrative analysis, semiotics and other forms of lit crit seem particularly applicable in this instance because of the way that the market interacted with consumers during this period.

  154. Clark:

    I’m having a difficult time seeing how empirical methods can be applied to literary studies. The articles that I’ve read that attempt to do so (esp. in the realm of reader response) seem like real bad social science.

    It’s easier for me to see how such things as neuropsychology and linguistics (which you mention above) can work in the field of composition studies. But as Rosalynde has forcefully pointed out — that’s a separate discipline.

    Can you say more about this and/or point me to reading that you think does what would like it to do?

  155. I agree most empirical methods applied to literary studies or philosophy for that matter are highly flawed. I think, however, that means we ought to be more cautious about those disciplines as establishing knowledge.

    I should add that I’d agree with your example of lit crit being useful. But the issue is what it can on its own establish. I’d also dispute your claim that economics can’t take this study into consideration.

  156. “But the issue is what it can on its own establish.”

    Of course. I’d never pretend that doing a semiotic analysis of ads in that appeared in the New Yorker 1980-85 can tell you all you need to know about how the economy worked in the ’80s. I think that cultural theorists should take the work of economists, historians, etc. into consideration. And indeed, other literary critics may disagree with this, but it seems to me that literary theorists should even be guided in some cases by the dominant narratives from disciplines that are better equipped to look at social movements and moments. My only point in bringing up this example is that because of the nature of the way in which producers of goods interacted with potential consumers, literary criticism was very useful in analyzing part of the phenomenon of the rise of the consumer culture in America.

    “I’d also dispute your claim that economics can’t take this study into consideration.”

    Huh? Where did I say that? And what do you mean by “can’t take this study into consideration”?

    I think it would very interesting to read an economist’s take on the study. And the study itself, if I recall correctly, draws on the social sciences for its understanding of the factors that led to the *need* to advertise and to help Americans become “shoppers.”

    However, it’s not clear to me that an economist would be equipped to judge the merits of the narrative analyses that Gurvey does — of why the courtship stories were put together in the way that they were and why they may have been effective. But this gets back to Kaimi’s point about utilitarian vs. deontological assumptions.

    There’s no way to empirically say that these forms of advertising “caused” women to go out and become consumers. But Gurvey thinks that they had an effect. Otherwise why were they so popular and so widely reproduced?

    I should also point out that although Gurvey uses lit crit tools, since this study fits into the “history of reading and publishing” mode of scholarship, I believe she also applies conventional social science methods. Things like studying the circulation of such magazines, counting the number of stories and ads that appear in such magazines, the amount of reader participation (in the form of contest entries, reader mail), etc.

    This is an area that interests me very much. I think that a qualitative study of the Mormon market would be fascinating (and doable because the limited number of titles produced and the small span that you really would need to work with [say 1965 – present]). Of course, it would be difficult obtaining the type of information needed to do such a study.

  157. “Mormon Scholarship?”

    Ha! That’s an oxymoron if I ever heard of one!

    There is no such thing as so called Mormon Scholarship.

    there is just so many holes in the whole mormon religion, I am not sure why you guys day after day try to defend it here.

    It appears like you conclusions are your premises, thus you argue in a vicious untenable circle.

    Now, if you want to call your religion a faith or myth like Karen Armstrong suggests all religious beliefs are, just that, Myths, then that is another thing, but please spare us secularists any suggestion that there is any thing called “Mormon Scholarship”

  158. for another thing, the very fact that you excommunicate and reprimend any LDS scholar that deviates from your churches teachings demonstrates there is no real thing as objective “Mormon Scholarship”

    You shoud use the term “dogma” to convey your postion, not scholarship. True scholars do not excommunicate and censure their own professors if they somehow deviate from some imaginary standard like you guys did to Grant Palmer.

  159. i would rather be a secularist than part of a religion that discriminates against women and is inherently racist as your barring African Americans from your priesthood until 1978. Also, it is a known fact that Joseph Smith and Brigham young were bigamists and had many different wives.

    I have done some research and there is conclusive proof that Joseph Smith married many different women, including a mother and her daughter as well as sisters, he also took other mormon men’s wives to be his wife…

    And you claim this to be a valid religion?…..

  160. *yawn*. Sara, what are you doing here?? This is a blog written by, and for, believing members of the Church. Your statements are off-topic and ill-suited to this forum.

  161. Sara,

    Most people on this blog know all of those things too, and yet are still believing, practicing Mormons. And in case you haven’t noticed, most of the people here are extremely bright.

    I am worried about the simplicity with which you and many secularists look at religion. It is not an aberration, a mere evidence of failure of scientific, historical understanding.

  162. Clark, I am saying that to do X is a bad idea. I leave it to others more informed to say whether or not many lit critics do X. That is, of course, an empirical question.

    Gurvey would appear to be moving the right direction. Having not read the study, I can’t say whether or not I would understand the parts of it that come from literary crticism.

    As for stepping outside one’s expertise, this is very common. But we should then treat the words as merely those of a reasonably smart person, rather than grant them some authority. I am noting an area where talent in literary criticism would not make one a useful expert.


    “Might it not be true that the leader’s judgement could be improved by hearing diverse opinions (although perhaps offered in a different way than Toscano’s)?”

    I am fine with Toscano writing a letter to the priesthood leaders about her life experiences and concerns. This might indeed be beneficial. Then the people most likely to make the right decision have information which they may or may not judge useful. I don’t see any gain in her unloading her ideas on others, since we certainly don’t have the info and the purpose is to try to persuade us that Toscano’s narrow view is “right”.

    Also, many things are far more knowable than the salvation of souls. In those areas, useful empirical work can be helpful. And knowing how to do such work makes it clear why in Toscano’s case, we are completely at a loss.

  163. “Also, it is a known fact that Joseph Smith and Brigham young were bigamists and had many different wives.”

    Ye gods! Brigham Young was a polygamist? I am shocked, just shocked to learn this. My world will never be the same again.

  164. Wow, Steve, good point. Both bigamists, and they had many wives. And in my book, that’s quite a bit worse than having many wives but not being a bigamist.

  165. Bigamists, smallamists, whatever. What I’m interested in is this — Does anyone wonder if we were supposed to actually be reincarnationists rather than bigamists? Perhaps God said to Joseph “righteous men will have many lives,” but Joseph had a bit of a head cold that day and heard wives instead. And the rest was history. Alas, now there’s a cat walking around who is the reincarnated Joseph Smith (who figured out his mistake shortly after he was reborn a cat), and is wondering how to convey to Mormons the important, real truth about reincarnation.

  166. That makes sense, Kaimi. Because Abraham, a polygamist, spent time in Egypt, where they worshipped cats, who have nine lives. Sure makes you think.

    It’s like the hymn the church “accidentally” took out of the old hymnbook

    “As I was going to St. Ives,
    I met a man who oppressed nine wives.
    Each wife oppressed nine cats.
    Each cat oppressed nine kits.
    Each kit had seven lives.
    How many were going to be reincarnated as a secularist?”

  167. Frank: it sounds like you’re primarily concerned that humanities professors not spend their time promoting changes in public policy on every topic under the sun, or at least not use the privileged soap box in the classroom to do so. On this, you and I and Stanley Fish are largely in agreement.

    That being said, there can be valid pedagogical reasons for making sweeping pronouncements in the classroom. When teaching students to read texts–what we get paid to do, right?–I occasionally find it useful to take some aspect of an author’s opinion and push it as far as it will go or farther so that the author’s subtly expressed assuptions become more vivid. Or I’ll take an idea and drive it to an almost-plausible extreme and keep driving it until one of the students notices and protests. If I had a serious economics major in one of my classes, and we were reading The Jungle, I would absolutely demand massive government labor regulation until I got a response. Sometimes the spectacle of a professor expounding on everything possible is what it takes to drive a student to the rash step of going to the library and, you know, reading books.

    Back to Toscano. You’re suspicious of the value of any analysis that relies on narrative, and you question whether the effects of narrative have ever been quantified. In fact, I agree that there is an implicit assumption in her argument and in many other places that narrative matters. I agree with that assumption based on my own experience, among other things. But I see that we’ve arrived back at Nate’s original post and his questions about the institutional force of narrative.

  168. Jonathan: Unrelated note. As a German medievalist, are you familiar with the work of Otto von Gierke (19th century German legal historian focused on the medieval period). If so, please email me at [email protected]. Thanks!

  169. Jonathan, it seems that’s a very different issue and is merely a way of communicating the author’s ideology which forms an important context to the text. I don’t think anyone has difficulty with that nor with texts as a catalyst to provoke thought. It’s when people start taking such texts as establishing truth that I get nervous.

    But perhaps we’re more in agreement than it appeared for a while. (And yes, I agree we’re back at the beginning) Of course I once was told in a literature class that the road to truth is a large circle where one returns to ones starting point over and over again but with deeper and deeper understanding. (grin)

    William, I may have misunderstood you. I read, “an economist would, I assume, take a very different approach to how American women became ‘shoppers'”, as implying you thought economists wouldn’t include such data in their calculations. But I think economists have done such calculations before. But it appears you agree, so I suppose we’re on the same page.

    I’d say that I fully agree with you that actual policy decisions aren’t always made based upon reason as such. Thus sophistry. And, as I said, I think sophistry gets a bad name that it doesn’t always deserve. So once again let me say that sophistry in any of its forms is worth studying, in my opinion. We just have to be aware of what its limits are and not treat it as a counterfeit.

  170. Hmmm. Shades of Ulysses in the cave with Polyphemus. Send that email to “No man” at

    I just tried “” It appears that it’s available. I’d take it if I were you.

  171. I’m just wondering what the wives were different from. I mean, it’s tough to be a bigamist with many the same wives.

  172. “it’s tough to be a bigamist with many the same wives”

    Yeah, a real Abrahamic trial. We don’t give those pioneers enough respect.

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