AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone


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JAMES WOOD ON HOW CRITICISM WORKS

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Photo credit: Claire Messud

What follows is an interview of writer and literary critic James Wood, who is Professor of Literary Practice at Harvard. He is interviewed by Becca Rothfeld, a PhD candidate in philosophy at Harvard, and an essayist, literary critic, and contributor to The New Yorker, the New York Times Book ReviewThe Atlantic, and more. 

James Wood is Professor of Literary Practice at Harvard, a staff writer at The New Yorker, the author of two novels and six books of criticism, and the most exhilarating literary critic alive. He made his name writing long, ambitious, and often searingly negative essays, among them his famed takedown of so-called “hysterical realists”  and his evisceration of Paul Auster’s hypermasculine posturing. But I know Wood primarily as a lover of literature, and in recent years, he has done much to champion contemporary novelists, among them Ben Lerner and Teju Cole. Wood is a voracious quoter, and in his pieces he allows the works he loves to speak in their own voices. I love Wood for many reasons, some of which I fleshed out in my review of his latest essay collection, Serious Noticing. By way of summary, I love his beautiful prose, his appreciation for well-wrought sentences, and his argumentative and philosophical acumen. My favorite essay of his—perhaps my favorite piece of literary criticism in the world!—is his ravenous take on Moby-Dick and God. (The son of a minister, Wood’s vexed atheism rears its head in many of his essays.) In this interview, I spoke to him via email, initially about why he prefers to do interviews via email, ultimately about both his broader aesthetic commitments and what he thinks criticism amounts to.

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GETTING PAST FORM: ON THE VALUE OF LITERARY IDEAS

 

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What follows is a guest post by Patrick Fessenbecker.

In a recent column in The New York Times, Ross Douthat contends that English professors aren’t having the right kind of arguments. Reflecting on the analysis of the decline of the humanities in a series of essays in the Chronicle of Higher Education over the last year, Douthat makes a familiar diagnosis: the problem is that we literature professors no longer believe in the real value of the objects we study. Engaging Simon During’s account of the decline of the humanities as a “second secularization” in particular, Douthat argues that secular attempts to defend the humanities will fail just as surely as secular attempts to defend religious ethics and norms did: it doesn’t work unless you really believe in the thing. Correspondingly, the debates literary scholars are having about how to expand the range of texts and subjects we teach are premised on a basic mistake about what such an expansion involves. As he puts it:

This should, by rights, be a moment of exciting curricular debates, over which global and rediscovered and post-colonial works belong on the syllabus with Shakespeare, over whether it’s possible to teach an American canon and a global canon all at once. Instead, humanists have often trapped themselves in a false choice between “dead white males” and “we don’t transmit value.”

In other words, we ought to be in the business of considering how our conceptions of value and their application should change as scholars recognize the incredible cultural wealth inherent in the diversity of the world. But instead we’re caught between reactionary conservatism and nihilistic critique. Continue reading


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READING PROJECTS: HISTORICAL SCHEMES AS LITERARY ARTIFACTS

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What follows is a guest post by David Alff.

Last year I finished writing a book about projects. Not art projects or housing projects or chemistry projects, but the idea of projects itself. I wanted to learn how humans came to organize their lives and worlds through discrete endeavor. I wanted to understand how enterprise became such a widespread vehicle for ambition that we seldom notice its existence. What are projects anyway? Why are we always doing them? How else could we spend our time? These questions drove me to see the project as a distinct form with a traceable past rather than as a daunting abstraction or the container of something more salient. Studying projects on their own terms, I thought, would give me fresh vantage on the history of ideas. My book set out to reveal nothing less than the basic unit by which anything has ever been done. Continue reading