“Understanding Knowledge Work”

Citation: “Understanding Knowledge Work.” Criticism 47 (2005): 249-60. Essay written as invited response to Johanna Drucker’s and N. Katherine Hayles’s reviews in the same issue of Criticism of The Laws of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information

  • Full text — HTML | .pdf (Project Muse)
  • Full text of the reviews of The Laws of Cool to which this essay responds (Project Muse):
    • N. Katherine Hayles, “Attacking the Borg of Corporate Knowledge Work: The Achievement of Alan Liu’s The Laws of Cool” — HTML | .pdf
    • Johanna Drucker, “Humanities Games and the Market in Digital Futures” — HTML | .pdf

Excerpt from near end of essay (pages 255-57 )

I only ever shook [Cleanth] Brooks’s hand once, a few years before his death. He was the respondent at the 1989 MLA convention in Washington, D.C., to a session on “Reassessing the New Criticism: Continuities with Contemporary Literary Theory.” There must have been three hundred or more people in the audience. While the billed speakers in the session were excellent, their papers were in a sense moot. It was clear that the majority were there for a final audience with Brooks, whose response (as I recall) explicitly cited the “history without footnotes” subtitle of his chapter on Keats in The Well Wrought Urn, but reinterpreted it to mean that although his work had discounted footnotes (symbolic of a previous era’s emphasis on social, philosophical, religious, and historical context), nevertheless it had always taken note of history. No one who has read the full scope of Brooks’s work, or that of other New Critics, would doubt his whole-soul engagement with historical, social, economic, and other broadly cultural issues, even if not all these concerns were visible in the same book or essay as his literary criticism except in the generalized name of “experience.” If Brooks’s response was in any way disappointing (and perhaps only to me), it was because it acknowledged the massive reaction against formalism at that time but did not engage with the cultural-critical methods of that reaction. (How, for example, did the New Criticism compare with New Historicism in understanding the relation between text and context?) I had the sense that Brooks and cultural criticism were two ships passing in the night: same ocean of human experience, oblivious to each other.

The really eye-opening event at this MLA session, however, came at its close, when a long line of well-wishers (mostly a generation older than myself) greeted Brooks. I joined that line, and what I overheard as others shook his hand or asked for his autograph stays with me now as the acme of humanistic achievement. People said to him things of a sort that almost no literary critic, or any other academic, ever hears from strangers–for example (a direct quote), “You changed my life.”

[referring to Drucker’s and Hayles’s reviews of The Laws of Cool:] To all of which Drucker answers (after summarizing in her own terms), “Huh?” Hayles is less pointed, but she also suspects there is a fundamental disconnect both in my essential diagnosis, which she thinks overstates the influence of corporate knowledge work, and in my prescription, which she believes focuses too much on aesthetic “critical destruction” at the expense of the historical awareness for which I call.

You changed my life. This is different from “you changed my approach,” “you changed my theory or method,” or even “you changed how I read literature” (though the latter comes closest). It is the exact opposite of huh?

How did Brooks change the lives of these people who were students in the 1940s—1960s during his time of greatest impact (and who later became educators passing on that impact in their own research and teaching)? He and others in the formalist moment did so by arguing that literature–and, by extension, the humanities and arts in general–could inflect the accelerating process of modernization. Southern agrarianism, from which the New Criticism emerged, had called such modernization industrial “Northernism”; and John Crowe Ransom, who bridged between agrarianism and New Criticism, had equated Northernism with “scientific” and “prose” discourse (mixed up with journalistic or mass-consumerist discourse). For the New Critics, in other words, modernization meant essentially what the Frankfurt School called “technological rationality,” the “culture industry,” or the mass industrialization of sensibility. Correlatively, it also meant the analogue, broadcast new media of the time. (Explaining what modern poetry responded to in his 1949 “Irony as a Principle of Structure,” Brooks wrote: “there is the depletion and corruption of the very language itself, by advertising and by the mass-produced arts of radio, the moving picture, and pulp fiction. . . . Those critics who attribute the use of ironic techniques to the poet’s own bloodless sophistication and tired skepticism would be better advised to refer these vices to his potential readers, a public corrupted by Hollywood and the Book of the Month Club.”)

In sum, when the New Critics so passionately argued that understanding poetry is different from understanding rational prose–nowhere more influentially than in Brooks and Robert Penn Warren’s textbook Understanding Poetry (first edition, 1938)–they were protesting the colonization of sensibility by what we today call the information age. (From near the beginning of the 1938 introduction to Understanding Poetry: “As practical people going about our affairs, we ask directions, read road signs, order a dinner from a menu, study football scores or stock market reports. It is altogether natural, therefore, that we should tend to think the important and central matter in all discourse to be information.”) Modernization said, “Here are your instructions: do steps A,B, then C,” or again, “This prose means A,B, then C.” The New Criticism protested that life was fuller than that; and poetry said so. Ransom spoke of poetry’s ability to render the total “ontology of being”; and Brooks and others in the second generation of New Criticism (the generation that came into prominence in the post—World War II years) spoke of poetry’s expression of the full “experience” of life. (Brooks from the “Heresy of Paraphrase” chapter in The Well Wrought Urn: “It is not enough for the poet to analyze his experience as the scientist does, breaking it up into parts. . . . His task is finally to unify experience. He must return to us the unity of the experience itself as man knows it in his own experience. The poem, if it be a true poem is a simulacrum of reality . . . by being an experience rather than any mere statement about experience.”) Or in terms of new media, the argument was: read closely, don’t just be a passive consumer of mediated, mass-consumer experience.

All of this came out as what might appear an exaggerated argument against Northern industrialism–comparable to what Hayles says is my exaggerated brief against postindustrial corporatism. And the solution that the New Critics offered–which they named “ambiguity,” “paradox,” “irony,” or, most basically, “poetry”–certainly provoked the huh? response, even from other literary critics of the time who found it too “theoretical.” (My own argument about the historicity of cool and the coolness of history, or creative destruction versus destructive creation, is phrased paradoxically in this tradition.) To ventriloquize the mainstream: we want to know what the poem means, but you only say it is ambiguous or ironical. Huh? The wonder is that Brooks and the New Criticism converted huh? into you changed my life.

The secret is that Brooks did not take the mainstream huh? at face value. Rather, he believed in its fundamental educability. The means of education that “close reading” offered, with all its paradoxes and ironies, may have seemed counterintuitive. But the lesson of close reading, however unparaphraseable from the point of view of rational knowledge, was deeply felt human “experience.” Such experience was a precursor to Drucker’s “experience,” Hayles’s “embodiment,” and my own “ethos of the unknown.” Stripped to its barest, in sum, Brooks’s lesson was: don’t believe huh? Don’t believe that its apparent superficiality (today’s “cool”) cannot be educated in ways that bring out its inner depth–its smartness and humaneness–in ways that exceed explicit knowledge. Properly educated, Huh?–the epithet of the paradoxical, ambiguous, ironic, and unknown–might be the title of a very fine poem.