Tuesday 9 February 2016

On Jürgen Habermas

I yield to no man in my admiration for Jürgen Habermas and his Erkenntnis und Interesse (Knowledge and Human Interests, 1968). But in one of his more lucid passages he defines Critical Theory as "a form of hermeneutics, that is the acquisition of knowledge via interpretation that leads to an understanding of the meaning of human texts and symbolic expressions, including the interpretation of texts which themselves interpret other texts", an elucidation that leaves this reader feeling like Molly Bloom (O rocks!). With its sanctions, prescriptions and hierarchies, a lot of Critical Theory seems to me to  resemble Catholicism. A lot of it is sinister bollocks.

That so much academic writing about literature should be so aggressively unliterary (the prose equivalent of a musicologist being tone deaf) is enough to put you off reading, or at least reading academic writing. That a reader such as myself feels repelled and dismayed by academic writing about literature (and, come to that, about architecture, and theatre, and history, and photography - especially photography) is not something that troubles me much any longer. If academic writing has any content worth sharing it will appear, mediated into reasonably plain English on the internet, sooner or later. But - and this is a very bad thing - literary criticism no longer forms part of mainstream public discourse as it did (albeit within a small circle) back in the modernist heyday of the 1920s. 

I did a degree in English in - well, in the last century. The syllabus was staid, but robust also, with plenty of close reading and textual analysis, with an emphasis on the past. 'From Beowulf to Virginia Woolf' said the department's prospectus, and there was certainly plenty of Anglo-Saxon and a lot of phonetics and phonology. My special interest was Joyce and the modern movement, which was something of a reaction against The Battle of Maldon and Layamon's Brut. But Joyce had long been my favourite writer, despite my repeated failure to complete Ulysses until after I'd graduated and had the time to do so. One thing university taught me is that invention almost always has a long tradition behind it - a tradition on which it can build, or which it seeks to challenge and overturn. Eliot is essential to any understanding of literature as The Waste Land did for poetry what Ulysses did for the novel. 

Since university I've worked mostly in education (some teaching, mostly managing, nothing fancy or influential) and had a parallel and low-key career as a writer and reviewer and all-round literary hack. I read a lot, and re-read even more. I grew up without a television and still don't own one - not an affectation and not as unusual as you might think for us fifty-somethings. When we unwind we tend not to do so in front of the telly because met of us didn't have one in our childhood. Can you imagine that?

Of course, I used to see telly programmes when I was growing up, and because they were few in number they tend to stick in my memory. What I liked most were documentaries about science and wildlife - the BBC's Horizon series was an education in itself and (here's my point) these documentaries were brilliantly scripted in a simple language that a large popular audience could understand, back in the days when public service broadcasting still had a mission to explain. Here's an example, about language acquisition. It's a 1983 broadcast in the aforementioned Horizon series - A Child's Guide to Languages. It's brilliantly paced, richly informative, consistently entertaining and endlessly re-watchable. The script  is a model of elucidation, serenely navigating a complex subject. It's delivered by an off-screen commentator, not some babbling chump with a haircut flapping his arms around.

What we need today, and urgently, is the contemporary equivalent of this kind of television. And this might just counterbalance the tendency for critics to write like Jürgen Habermas. Fat chance.

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