Aesthetico-Constructivism: Farther Adventures in Criticism

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For at least a generation, most critics of the eighteenth-century novel have argued or assumed that canonical texts do not passively reflect a pre-existent reality but help to shape or construct what readers perceive as reality. Although "construct" is susceptible to various qualifications and inflections, a consensus definition might read something like this: we study the complex negotiations among competing idioms, expectations, and poetic and discursive strategies that characterize literary texts while (in theory) remaining alert to our own epistemological investments, analytical methods, and socioeconomic, gendered, national, and ethnic positions. Critics of the novel, such as Michael McKeon and Helen Thompson, have adapted broadly constructivist principles in order to modify or challenge the metanarrative of "the Enlightenment" that describes the "rise" of the novel, the advent of the Habermasian public sphere, the rise of the nation-state, the "rise" of the modern bourgeois subject, and the rise of modern science in mutually constitutive and mutually reinforcing terms. (1) If the novel has become the pre-eminent form that shapes and reflects these mutually constitutive narratives of eighteenth-century culture, the constructivism that scholars find or read into the period remains an impure art, tinged by principles of formalist literary analysis. (2) Put simply, the works that critics argue or assume help to construct notions of individual and cultural identity almost invariably are canonical texts--works such as Robinson Crusoe, Pamela, and Emma--that previous generations of critics already have determined are aesthetically superior to Adventures of a Banknote, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, and Lady Audley's Secret.

In this regard, the constructivist consensus among critics of the eighteenth-century novel masks crucial problems--often displaced or ignored--that result from the institutionalization of what I will call heuristically aesthetico-constructivism. I use this term to describe the formalist values and assumptions that underlie the tendency to bend historicist, feminist, and materialist approaches to the task of reasserting the stability of a literary canon that, even though it now includes women writers and writers of color, still seemingly represents what Matthew Arnold called "the best that was thought or said." (3) In this essay, I want to focus on unpacking the circular logic of aesthetico-constructivism by examining an intriguing case study in the history of the novel: the disappearance from the canon, after World War I, of Daniel Defoe's Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. This example is hardly chosen at random; it forces us to explore the problems that underlie formalism as both an interpretive practice and a disciplinary metaphysic. By disregarding the publishing history of the Crusoe trilogy, many neo-formalist approaches have treated Robinson Crusoe as a coherent, stand-alone novel, elevating ahistorical notions of aesthetic value over Defoe's own comments on the work, the practice of fiction-writing, and a two-hundred year history of publishing The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe and The Farther Adventures together? To unpack the values and assumptions that have allowed critics to severe Crusoe's two-part Adventures, though, requires examining briefly the principles of formalist analysis that downplay more historically oriented approaches.

My purpose in offering a critique of some aspects of new formalism is to make three points. First, I want to counter the argument that new historicism, feminism, and cultural studies depend on the aesthetic principles that these approaches, according to some formalists, either unthinkingly or disingenuously reject. (5) This "unmasking" of the formalist bases of "ideological criticism," I suggest, assumes a simplistic model of cause and effect that makes it difficult to develop a sophisticated understanding of the complex activities that underlie literary interpretation. …


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