The Problem of Evaluation

In one way or another, the concept of value–or valuation and evaluation–seems to be a recurring subject for me of late. Considering that I must grade student work, this is perhaps not earth-shattering news. However, there is another sense in which I find myself perennially returning to–and struggling with–this concept.

For instance: what do we value, personally? And does that object, person or ideal have value outside that which we have given it? Due probably to broken synapses somewhere in my brain, I don’t actually care much for things; that is, I like my stuff–my furniture, etc.–but if I don’t feel much nostalgic attachment. I practically got rid of everything I owned when I moved, and I can’t say I felt much affected by it at all. On the other hand, I value the intangible acquisition of knowledge to an almost obsessive degree (i.e. my feverish amassing of useless facts and obscure references in books no one  reads, concerning issues no one cares about). What has more value? The blue-book price on my Toyota, or the bizarre auction history of an 18th century birthing machine? (Somehow, I bet I’d lose that one).

But what about the intangible value of knowledge? I once published an article about the way education gains value through expenditure; thus, the more money you spend on it…or the more it “takes” from you in terms of time or health…the more “value” it has. This enters into the realm of economics and the concepts of risk and gain–the ephemeral rise and fall of stock on the market, or even our present US dollar which is backed more my promises than gold. My 211 class, writing for business communities, is learning about this even now (and some will likely claim they are not happier for it). But the idea of value and how we ascribe it has turned up in another course–this one at the graduate level. The question: how do we evaluate literature? Who decides what is good?

This, of course, brings us back to the “loose” literary canon. It also recalls the writings of Roland Barthes, Foucault, Wimsatt and Beardsley, Leavis… But also John Barrell, who writes that one problem with our current evaluative processes is that we “assume the universality of those judgments by assuming a notion of what it is to be ‘fully human'” (149). That is, we say Shakespeare is great because he spoke to the “universal human condition,” when in fact that “universal” condition was largely white, male and, frankly, British. It means that we often ignore context and history and politics–we say “this is great literature” because, somehow, we have determined that it speaks to some other, beyond-world standard of greatness.

On one hand, such an assumption seems the height of pride–and really rather silly. Of course we can’t assume there is a generic kind of value any more than we can assume there is one kind of reader. And, in more recent years, this has been openly challenged not only by feminists and gender-theorists, but by critics of literature from India or Australia or China, etc. It has been challenged by anthropologists and historians, and more recently by rhetoricians as well.

And yet.

We still do have this concept of great literature and great art–the idea that it transcends, that it strikes the raw nerve of the human soul. And this is where I begin to retrace my steps somewhat. While agreeing that we can have no universal as such, I am nonetheless very committed to the idea. I have to be, on some level, for I am not only a reader of literature…I also write. I write fiction, and I teach creative writing, and to be honest, I spend a great deal of my time attempting to reach that universal and teaching others to reach for it, too. I strive for this idea, in my best moments–the idea that there is something intrinsically valuable about the transmission of experience through the medium of words: Poetry, prose, and things in between. Some part of me deeply believes that there is a mystical and mysterious power in those transmissions. On one hand, I believe (like any good literary critic of the modern variety) that values must change over time and that the reception of a work will differ with each generation. But on the other, I cannot shake that sense of Jungian archetypal authority–nor will I cease to value those works which most nearly approach  “full humanity,” that clarify in dust-like impressions the thumb-print of God.

This is not, perhaps, great scholarship… This means of evaluation still smacks of the Western ideology of was born into. But I think this idea is dear to many of us, certainly to my students, and I would not utterly disabuse them. Rather, I think we might learn to be amorphous and flexible, hanging on to this idea, so critical to discovery, while reaching out to incorporate the new. The closest we can come, most likely, is a consciousness of our own bias–

But this is its own kind of progress, and–I think–valuable.

[John Barrell’s “Close Reading” was republished in the collection: Literature in the Modern World, edited by Dennis Walder]

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