Macroanalysis and New Criticism

At first glance, “macroanalysis” as defined by Matthew L. Jockers would seem to be at direct odds with New Criticism.  Macroanalysis focuses on the widest possible breadth of reading using computer technology to amass large amounts of data, while New Criticism focuses on the close reading of an individual text in an isolated vacuum where one is to ignore the outside presence of literary history/biography.  However, where they intersect is in their search for “the facts.”  In the case of macroanalysis, these facts can only be discovered through a thorough search and compilation of all available data; in the case of New Criticism, the facts are what is present on the page with no permissible deviation into speculation as to what the author “meant.” These are not such dissimilar approaches– what is dissimilar, perhaps, is “the tools that make them possible” (31).  In other words, the New Critics hadn’t yet conceived of a technology that makes macroanalysis possible, and so  it makes perfect sense that their focus was microanalysis.  Faced with the problem of not ever really being able to answer the question, “What was the author trying to say?”, New Critics wisely decided that this question is irrelevant and unimportant.  With the addition of the digital humanities into literary studies, we can now broaden our scope of understanding in ways that the New Critics couldn’t yet imagine.  That said, we are still not trying to answer the “What did the author mean?” questions, but rather “How does this text fit into the larger social, historical, artistic framework?”  This is definitely outside the New Critic wheelhouse, but, to me anyway, a truly important aspect of literary study.

Yes, computers can help us count up how many times Jane Austen used the word “the”, but why on earth would we want to do that?  The series of bullet points on p. 28 highlight why such a trend has such groundbreaking possibilities. To be able to draw the lens back from the tiniest word in a 19th century English drawing room all the way to global implications like “whether literary trends correlate with historical events” and “whether factors such as gender, ethnicity, and nationality directly influence style and content in literature” is really exciting stuff.  In my first blog post I wrote that I was back in school to brush up on the latest in literary studies– this essay has me very excited for the kinds of projects we will be looking at/participating in during this last unit.

New Isn’t Necessarily Better

When we hear the word “new” many of our minds unfortunately interpret that word as better. In 2016 “new” is considered an upgrade, a modernized and more updated version of the former. But with the idea of New Criticism, leaving the old ideas behind may not be for the best. As students aren’t we supposed to question either the understood OR misunderstood happenings in the world surrounding us? (Or in this case, the writings that we are read and taught in a classroom). Instead, New Criticism wants us to define the overall answer, the actual meaning of the work. But without our own interpretation ofisunderstood happenings in the world surrounding us? (Or in this case, the writings that we are read and taught in a classroom). Instead, New Criticism wants us to define the overall answer, the actual mean the words, we may not truly be digesting what the author intended to express anyway. To limit poetry (a text) to one finite answer should be considered a crime.

“Placing little emphasis on the author, the social context, or a text’s historical situation as a source for discovering a poem’s meaning, the New Critics assert that a reader’s emotional response to a text is neither important nor equivalent to its interpretation.” Even though a text such as poetry is meant to be read, the poem itself should be looked at as a whole. The reader’s interpretation truly means nothing. But by having our own ideas and opinions on the words, we actually learn more by expanding our learning. It seems the argument of either close reading or interpretation is in a never ending loop.

Shannen Coleman

Some questions on New Criticism

For next class, please answer each of these questions on the New Criticism reading, writing 2–3 sentences for each one. Print out and bring to class! We’ll do a quick 30 minutes on New Criticism before turning to Saussure.

  1. If it’s unpopular, why is New Criticism considered to be so important today?
  2. What does it mean to think of a poem as a “concrete entity”?
  3. What is the difference between aesthetic truth and scientific truth?
  4. What in the world is Eliot talking about when he compares criticism to chemistry?
  5. How can New Critics simultaneously prize “organic unity” and paradox, irony, and ambiguity?
  6. What distinguishes good critics from bad critics?
  7. What is the strongest argument against New Criticism?
  8. What would Barthes say about New Criticism? Foucault?