“…to see the object as in itself it really is.”

I read a lot of monographs over the last year for my Ph.D. exams, and there were a number of times where I wanted to find the author and shout, “But what are you saying about Thomas Hardy!? You’re just saying Tess of the D’Urbervilles is kinda like this other thing. I’d give my students a C if they gave me this!”  Here in Freshman English, I hear a lot of different permutations of this idea (we just had a teaching development seminar yesterday about “creating new knowledge”), but when I was reading for my exams, I was really struck by Matthew Arnold’s “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time” (1864) and what it said about academic writing, specifically why we create that new knowledge (or try to).

I don't really get the joke in the caption, but the picture is hilarious on its own merits, I think. (From Punch, by way of Wikipedia.)
I don’t really get the joke in the caption, but the picture is hilarious on its own merits, I think. (From Punch, by way of Wikipedia.)

Now, some of what Arnold writes here is a little odd– I don’t think that I believe that culture goes through some periods where it’s better at producing good creative work, and others where it’s better at producing criticism– but I really liked when he described criticism as disinterested.  What does “disinterested” mean? Criticism can be disinterested by

keeping aloof from what is called “the practical view of things”; by resolutely following the law of its own nature, which is to be a free play of the mind on all subjects which it touches. […] Its business is, as I have said, simply to know the best that is known and thought in the world, and by in its turn making this known, to create a current of true and fresh ideas. Its business is to do this with inflexible honesty, with due ability; but its business is to do no more, and to leave alone all questions of practical consequences and applications, questions which will never fail to have due prominence given to them. (emphasis mine)

It’s that idea of free play of the mind that I love, that idea that we’re just here to think about things that are interesting, and that there’s not necessarily a practical outcome to all of this. That if all we have done is reconsidered the way in which superhero stories promote violence in service of social reform, that we have still done something worthwhile. There’s actually a kind of scientific ethos in this; a lot of proponents of scientific thinking point towards the way that scientists just explore what they want to explore, practical exigencies be damned. (Of course, how true is this when every good scientist needs a good NSF grant?) The practicalities of studying violence in superhero fiction can be left to someone else.

But it can become practical, and this is where I get excited.  Arnold says, “whoever sets himself to see things as they are will find himself one of a very small circle; but it is only by this small circle resolutely doing its own work that adequate ideas will ever get current at all.” Those ideas, discovered via free play of the mind, can then be used to say something useful about the world. (Again, there’s a parallel to scientific thinking– many scientists justify their free play of the mind by claiming some engineer will undoubtedly come along and use their esoteric physics discoveries to build an awesome machine.) So you get to have your cake and eat it too. As Arnold says, “Ideas cannot be too much prized in and for themselves, cannot be too much lived with…” Maybe we’ve only said something about violence in the Superman stories, but maybe we’ve said something about the way we as a society view the role of violence in social reform, which can have very immediate and practical consequences (i.e., the current discussion of intervention in Syria).

Of course, when you reduce this down to a paper assignment, I think it’s easy to lose sight of that, and how much do you actually want that to come in anyway when you’re emphasizing “free play of the mind” above all? After all, the line of Arnold I just quoted ends with “…to transport them [ideas] abruptly into the world of politics and practice, violently to revolutionize this world to their bidding,—that is quite another thing.” These ideas do benefit from playing out in these allegedly abstract arenas. But this idea of stepping outside the boundaries of a debate and asking where this debate even comes from, avoiding taking a “side,” reconsidering what it was we thought we already knew– that’s at the heart of the Freshman English course, I believe, and I try to (but often struggle with) keeping these ideals in play in my course even as we also talk about how you go doing all this. It’s important to talk about how a text can serve as a “lens,” but we do that for a reason, to enable that free play of the mind, and so perhaps we should return to that more often.

“A polemical practical criticism makes men blind even to the ideal imperfection of their practice, makes them willingly assert its ideal perfection, in order the better to secure it against attack: and clearly this is narrowing and baneful for them.” At its best, this is what criticism (a.k.a. academic writing) will do, either in Freshman English, or when you’re locked in your library carrell trying to get your dissertation written.  But even if there was no practical outcome, Arnold lets us feel that even if we’ve just uncovered something new to say about 1930s Superman comics, we’ve done something worthwhile.

But stop, some one will say; all this talk is of no practical use to us whatever; this criticism of yours is not what we have in our minds when we speak of criticism […] I am sorry for it, for I am afraid I must disappoint these expectations. I am bound by my own definition of criticism; a disinterested endeavor to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world. (emphasis in original)

Of course, when I assigned this essay to my students, all full of excitement over how it was going to make them rethink what papers did and could do, I think they stumbled over its difficulty and failed to read it… and then I failed to work through it with them as much as I should have. C’est la vie, or as the French say, “oh well.”


Works Cited

Arnold, Matthew. “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time.” 1864. Selections from the Prose Works of Matthew Arnold. Ed. William Savage Johnson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1913. Project Gutenberg. 28 Dec. 2008. Web. 12 Sept. 2013. <http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/12628>.

Sambourne, Edward Linley. “Mr. Matthew Arnold.” 1881. Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 28 June 2008. Web. 12 Sept. 2013. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Matthew_arnold_cartoon.png>.