"literature has merged ..." (A. Liu)
Aus der Einleitung zu Alan Liu: The Law of Cool. Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information. Chicago 2004 S. 1 ff
This book is a study of the cultural life of information or, more broadly, of contemporary "knowledge work." The specific question I prepare for -- but that I can turn to only speculatively here and in my concluding chapter -- concerns the role of literature in that cultural life. What is the future of literature and literary study when all culture is increasingly the culture of information and when even literary scholars subordinate literature to an apparent clone of information -- cultural context? And a related question: what is the future in general of the humanities and arts when the former seems destined only for what information industries call "content" and the latter for "multimedia entertainment"?
To be honest, my concern is not really with works of literature as such, which from the viewpoint of general society have effectively lost their category distinction on the gradient that blurs textuality and information, imagination and entertainment, authors and celebrities, and publishers and conglomerates. My concern, more crucially, is with the underlying sense of the literary, which is even now searching for a new idiom and role. After all, whether we should elegize or celebrate "the death of literature" (as in Harold Bloom's Western Canon or John Beverley's Against Literature) is now beside the point. Literature as traditionally understood no longer survives as an autonomous force or, put in the cultural-critical terms of the current academy, as a force positioned by larger forces in the guise of autonomy. Since the high point of its avowed self-possession (roughly from the eighteenth through the nineteenth century), literature has merged with mass-market, media, educational, political, and other institutions that reallocate, repackage, and otherwise "repurpose" its assets. Such churning of literary capital has only accelerated in the information age as major institutions compete to appropriate that capital under the spotlight of media coverage (e.g., in the canon wars, which pitted political pundits against academics).
But all that is done, and we need harbor no false romanticism about the literature that was. Whatever one thinks of cultural criticism, it has been brutally effective in demonstrating that the churning of literary capital has always characterized literature. Literature could not have been part of the life of culture otherwise. What is of interest now is the distinctive form of that churning in relation to the general economic and social churning that Joseph A. Schumpeter, in his classic phrase about capitalism, called "creative destruction." A "perennial gale of creative destruction," Schumpeter wrote in 1942, "incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one."' The real competition, Schumpeter said, is not the normal furor over prices, quality, and sales effort, but "competition from the new commodity, the new technology, the new source of supply, the new type of organization ... [competition] which strikes not at the margins of the profits and the outputs of the existing firms but at their foundations and their very lives." Recent scholars of business and economic history take such furious creativity to be simply postindustrial business as usual. In "post-capitalist society," Peter F. Drucker says, "creative destruction" is "innovation," compelling the "systematic abandonment of the established, the customary, the familiar, the comfortable." The "spirit of informationalism," Manuel Castells adds, "is the culture of `creative destruction' accelerated to the speed of the optoelectronic circuits that process its signals." Meanwhile, in the thriving print and television journalism of business, Schumpeter's dictum has become cliche (his other work and especially his prediction of the eventual demise of capitalism conveniently forgotten). A special double issue of Business Week on "The 21st Century Corporation" in 2000 takes it for granted that "knowledge-based products and networks can quickly disappear in a burst of Schumpeterian creative destruction. So corporations must innovate rapidly and continuously."
The vital task for both literature and literary study in the age of advanced creative destruction, I believe, is to inquire into the aesthetic value -- let us simply call it the literary -- once managed by "creative" literature but now busily seeking new management amid the ceaseless creation and re-creation of the forms, styles, media, and institutions of postindustrial knowledgework. In the regime of systematic innovation, is the very notion of the literary doomed to extinction even if -- or, rather, especially if -- it begins to venture "creatively" into the province of knowledge work, if it dares to imagine a literature of the database, spreadsheet, report, and Web page? After all, next to the great institutional documents of our times heralding "innovation" in their very logos -- the legions of "dot com" company prospectuses, Web sites, advertisements, and so on -- what could literature be but a minor act of creativity, like a screensaver? This is one way to read the powerful, repeated dirge that John Guillory, Alvin Kernan, J. Hillis Miller, and others have sounded over (in Guillory's words, in Cultural Capital) the "perceived decline in the cultural significance of literature itself, the perceived marginality of literary culture to the modern social order." In such wakes, there is a note of mourning that seems excessive until we realize that what is being mourned is not so much literature as the "literary culture" that is the very possibility of literature. Or if literariness is to rise from the dead -- to entertain Guillory's concluding prophetic elegy, his surprising surmise of a redemptive "aestheticism unbound" -- where could it go and what does it yet have to do? What is the future of the literary when the true aestheticism unbound of knowledge work -- as seen on innumerable Web pages -- is "cool". "Cool is the techno-informatic vanishing point of contemporary aesthetics, psychology, morality, politics, spirituality, and everything. No more beauty, sublimity, tragedy, grace, or evil: only cool or not cool.
Or rather, since the fate of the literary is an abstraction unless we also address the fate of literary people, the operative question becomes: what is the relation between the now predominantly academic and other knowledge workers (even "creative writers") who manage literary value in "cultural context" and the broader realm of professional, managerial, and technical knowledge workers who manage information value in "systems"? What do the well-read who once held power in the name of the aesthetic still have to teach the well-informed who now hold power under the cover of cool?`
As may be discerned in the conflicted way I have so far invoked cultural criticism, these questions are interwoven for me with questions about what role that method, and the contemporary humanities education it represents, might play in the emergence of the future literary. I was one of the academic intellectuals in the 1980s and 1990s who staked their careers on joining literary studies at the hip to cultural studies. But now it is time to reflect on the legitimacy of cultural criticism in ways that shift earlier controversies about cultural materialism, the New Historicism, multiculturalisn4, and so on to new ground.
It might be said, with Kafkaesque irony: I went to sleep one day a cultural critic and woke the next metamorphosed into a data processor. It is not just that cultural context and information have come to approximate each other in their gross anatomy (each requiring the same kind of gathering, collating, and filtering work); it is that now even the fine structure seems to mate. We can extend to informationalism Arif Dirlik's general point about postindustrialism in his Postcolonial Aura (especially the chapter "The Postmodernization of Production and Its Organization"). In a convergence so massive as to be all but indiscernible in normal academic practice, advanced literary study has since the 1970s evolved from structuralism through deconstruction to cultural/multicultural criticism, so as to swing into conjunction with an information society that meanwhile evolved in parallel from logocentric corporations and broadcast empires to the postindustrial equivalents of cultural diversity -- flexible-team corporations and distributed information net-works. To put it rudely, in other words, perhaps the academic controversies of the past two decades were not really about supplanting the author or canon with the deconstructive intertext or cultural context. Perhaps such controversies were really about recruiting professional interpreters for an impending mental merger with the software-telecom-cable-Hollywood conglomerates now promising that ultimate intertext or context, high-bandwidth information.
After all, any cultural critic who today uses a personal computer to write "files" about literature is from the first incorporated within an information culture closest to hand in the operating system itself. One might say that the well-known epilogue to Stephen Greenblatt's paradigm of New Historicist criticism, Renaissance Self-Fashioning, needs to be updated. To reshoot for the 2000s the scene in which Greenblatt reads Clifford Geertz's Interpretation of Cultures while sitting on a plane with a man whose son is grievously ill would require that our camera pull back to reveal the device that all the corporate intelligentsia up and down the aisle have open instead of a book -- a laptop or handheld computer. Greenblatt romancing Geertz (and, it must be said, myself romancing Wordsworth's "sense of history" in the 1980s) is as expert at opening archives of cultural memory as the managerial/professional/technical intelligentsia are at neuromancing databases and spreadsheets. Cultural-critical experts, in other words, read in a manner originally schooled by the technical rigor of formalism At the same time the corporate intelligentsia processes with an equal technical ritual schooled in the burgeoning corporate learning industry -- Dana U., Disney U., Motorola U., Solectron U., and so. Even the technical jargon seems congruent. Such "politically correct" academic antifoundationalisms are matched by the mytho-Japanese antifoundationalisms of the new corporate correctness: "continuous improvement (kaizen), just-in-time delivery, total quality, statistical process control, and 'design for' manufacture and assembly.
The one consistent difference is that cultural criticism is fundamentally historical. I mean by this more than the obvious fact that most humanities fields are now ipso facto historical (in the noncontroversial sense in which "literature department" is synonymous with "literary history department"). I mean also that even as cultural criticism has rejected older modes of literary or intellectual history, it has not repudiated the necessity of historical consciousness. It has instead proposed rude ways to examine the seeming obviousness of such necessity. Cultural criticism wants to know why historical consciousness became the core of humanities education from the Enlightenment on. What was such consciousness for, and whom did it serve?
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