“I must hold in balance the sense of the futility of effort and the sense of the necessity to struggle; the conviction of the inevitability of failure and still the determination to 'succeed'-and, more than these, the contradiction between the dead hand of the past and the high intentions of the future. If I could do this through the common ills-domestic, professional and personal-then the ego would continue as an arrow shot from nothingness to nothingness with such force that only gravity would bring it to earth at last.” -- F. Scott Fitzgerald, THE CRACK-UP.
I've recently read Walter Cerf's essay "Speculative Philosophy and Intellectual Intuition," which I understand originally appeared in a collection of Hegel essays entitled FAITH AND KNOWLEDGE. Though the essay doesn't address the subject of literature, concerning itself only with modern developments in philosophy since Hegel's time, Cerf's arguments strike a chord with regard to the problematic status of criticism, both in general and with specific emphasis on criticism of the comics-medium.
After Cerf explains that the notion of "speculation" in the eras of Kant and Hegel was closely tied to the idea of "intuition"-- also a specialized term in philosophical discourse-- he goes on to align his idea of "speculative philosophy" with that of Schelling's "Philosophy of Identity."
It was Schelling who tried to articulate this vision of the true nature of the relation of God, nature, and self-consciousness in his Philosophy of Identity-- so called because the relation was to be one of identity...The vision was of course not a sensuous intuition, but an intellectual intuition.
The idea of a grand design to tie together all aspects of the human topocosm-- which certain German philosophers divided into "the Naturwissenschaften and the Geisteswissenschaften"-- was overthrown, Cerf says, by the rapid advancement of the natural sciences.
The triumphant march of the natural sciences throughout the 19th century turned speculation qua intellectual intuition into speculation qua unwarranted by any acceptable evidences.
The rise of scientific empiricism was tied to-- though not totally responsible for-- the rise of what Hegel called "reflective philosophy." Cerf says:
It is typical of reflective philosophy... that it relies on arguments, proofs, and the whole apparatus of logic... that it tries to solve intellectual puzzles rather than give the true conceptual vision of the whole; that it sticks to the natural sciences as the source of the only reliable knowledge of nature, thus committing itself... to a concept of experience reduced to sense perception, and to a concept of sense perception reduced to some causal chain...
Cerf add that with very few exceptions most of "our own contemporary analytic philosophy" would be judged as "reflective" by Hegel. I'm not enough of a philosophy-nerd to affirm or deny this judgment. However, Cerf's extension of Hegel's logic certainly applies to much of what passes for literary criticism, as Northrop Frye indicated in his introduction to ANATOMY OF CRITICISM.
It is clear that criticism cannot be a systematic study unless there is a quality in literature which enables it to be so. We have to adopt the hypothesis, then, that just as there is an order of nature behind the natural sciences, so literature is not a piled aggregate of "works," but an order of words. A belief in an order of nature, however, is an inference from the intelligibility of the natural sciences; and if the natural sciences ever completely demonstrated the order of nature they would presumably exhaust their subject. Similarly, criticism, if a science, must be totally intelligible, but literature, as the order of words which makes the science possible, is, so far as we know, an inexhaustible source of new critical discoveries, and would be even if new works of literature ceased to be written. If so, then the search for a limiting principle in literature in order to discourage the development of criticism is mistaken. The absurd quantum formula of criticism, the assertion that the critic should confine himself to "getting out" of a poem exactly what the poet may vaguely be assumed to have been aware of "putting in," is one of the many slovenly illiteracies that the absence of systematic criticism has allowed to grow up. This quantum theory is the literary form of what may be called the fallacy of premature teleology. It corresponds, in the natural sciences, to the assertion that a phenomenon is as it is because Providence in its inscrutable wisdom made it so. That is, the critic is assumed to have no conceptual framework: it is simply his job to take a poem into which a poet has diligently stuffed a specific number of beauties or effects, and complacently extract them one by one, like his prototype Little Jack Homer.
One may note that Frye is one of the few critics-- if not the only one-- to speak of literature as "an order of words," which assertion firmly aligns him with Cerf's interpretation of speculative philosophy: that one can discover that order not through the solution of puzzles or through a "concept of sense perception," but through an intuition that is not confined to the intellect though it must be filtered through the intellect for the fullest communication.
In the past decade I haven't read as much academic criticism as I did in previous decades. However, I suspect that not much has changed; that most literary theorists still stick close to what I've called "those well-traveled titans of tedium, Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx." It's not surprising, then, that most comic-book critics follow the lead of reflective philosophy, given that Freud and Marx offer reductive paradigms which boast the rock-solid integrity of the physical sciences. Some critics, like Noah Berlatsky, pursue the theories of the Dismal Duo overtly, as I've demonstrated in this critique. The majority of them, however, are probably closer to the model of Julian Darius, who toss out penny-ante Freudian (or Adlerian) judgments like this one:
True, men might say that a woman (or a representation thereof) is “hot,” or even that they’d “do her.” But that’s an evaluation of a body, or a statement of what one would be willing to do to it, not a statement about the internal experience of the male in question. Despite these words’ aggression, they are a defensive way of speaking about a primal experience so strong that it alters even the way our brains process information. “I’d fuck her” usually really means “I want to fuck her but know I can’t.”
I suppose this sort of uncritical channeling of Freud and Marx gives the critics some sort of validation, particularly when they're attempting to reduce a given subject-- let us say, "genre-comics"-- to a series of dependable formulas. I've written against such reductive (or "reflective") criticism here again and again, even while fully aware of the "inevitability of failure" in so doing. I certainly didn't need Hegel-- who doesn't even make the "top five" of my favorite philosophers-- to throw any light upon this depressing situation. For me both Freud and Marx represent "the dead hand of the past," but their continuing influence shows them to be "the living dead," less after the manner of Marx's "haunting spectre" than of a pair of rotting zombies.
Yet somehow other critics look at them and see great liberators who can release them and others from the spell of whatever evils they find in "colonial fantasies" or "sexy pictures" or whatever. For those critics, those evils can be dispelled by the shamans Freud and Marx (and sometimes Adler). All these critics have to do is insert Character A into Complex B, and solve, as Cerf says above, the "intellectual puzzles." Then they can therefore dismiss any and all visions of "the whole" as "logocentrism" or the like.
Because many comics-critics have unquestioningly accepted the Frankfurt-School parrotings of Gary Groth and his followers-- also a "dead-alive past" in their own right-- current critics have no means, reflective or speculative, by which to way to connect with the whole range of art as it manifests in comic books. Their theories are therefore increasingly directed to downgrade the pulpish fantasies of past generations and extol the supposedly more sophisticated works of current times. In Part 2 I'll demonstrate a significant example of this attempt to forget the past in order to champion "the high intentions of the future"-- though I suspect that forgetting the past will merely lead to reliving it, as Santayana warned us.