Creative versus critical: a disorder of discourse

The current University Affairs has a thought-provoking article about the adoption of creative writing modes in Humanities scholarship, the possibilities they afford research, and the different perceptions and receptions of this practice.

A piece of lyric scholarship might juxtapose excerpts from other scholarly works without accompanying exhaustive analysis. It might borrow elements of poetry, such as rhythm, image and metaphor – the very elements scholarship usually studies rather than employs.

I’m all for experimenting with methodology, and I think this development of “lyric scholarship” is intriguing and has productive potential. But I also take issue with the notion that is implied in the article, which is that traditional scholarship is not, itself, a mode of creative writing.

I’m not suggesting that research publications necessarily deserve attention for prose style – tropes, rhythm, rhyme, allusions, etc. – although there are certainly stellar stylists doing scholarly work (as the article showcases; and an earlier precedent would be Marshall McLuhan’s work, representative of “lyric scholarship” in its reliance on aphorism and allusion). Then again, there are as many if not more examples of the contrary, too: the irremediably dull, sloppily written, and barely proofread pieces, like those criticized in Orwell’s “Politics and the English language” – the kind of stuff that feeds popular anti-intellectualism. What I’m suggesting is that well-written scholarship embodies attentive use of language, extensive research, and thoughtful argument, and that this intellectual labour is worth considering in terms of creativity.

To suggest this is also to deliberately try to blur the distinctions institutionalized between creative work, traditionally conceived as a “primary” literature, and critical work as as a “secondary” literature. Michael Foucault identifies this hierarchical distinction as one important “order of discourse” in the organization of modern western knowledge and culture.

Writing instruments

There are worthwhile reasons for challenging this distinction. Left unproblematized, the distinction denies creative work any critical agency, which it wields in force, of course. Consider the credit given Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin for catalyzing the Civil War. Or – on the topic of this very post – consider this passage from Ronald Wright’s novel A Scientific Romance – it’s one of the finest (and funniest) critical assessments of Theory that I’ve yet read:

The French themselves realize that Parisian theory is an art form; the Americans, poor lambs, take it seriously. (9)

Conversely, the distinction denies criticism is creative labour and positions it as a kind of parasite discourse, thus perpetuating the illusion that “creative” work is generated ex nihilo, an illusion that mostly serves the increasingly oppressive copyright regime that relies on ideologies of originality and creativity to protect its interests.

And there are other reasons to critique this order of discourse that relate to copyright. While it is more standard for literary journals to leave copyright with creative authors, it is fairly standard for academic journals to request scholarly authors to surrender copyright. Admittedly, there are very different labour economies in which these different standards are involved. Creative writers who aren’t also teachers or scholars depend more materially on copyright revenues. Copyright-brokering intermediaries like Access Copyright have not hesitated to exploit these ideological and economic differences, pitting “creators” against “educators” to advance their own bottom-line interests.

Another copyright-related question concerns the extent to which secondary literature can or should quote from primary works under fair dealing “purposes of criticism or research,” or without otherwise infringing copyright. The norms and standards for quoting from other works in scholarship can vary, but tend on the whole to be very conservative, with guidelines for word limits and reliably outrageous fees for licensing poem lines or song lyrics. An interesting development on this front, this week, arose amidst the Supreme Court’s deliberations over five copyright cases now before it. On the question of whether derivative or remix works – not critical works specifically, but secondary works composed of other extant works – can be considered creative in their own right, Michael Geist reports:

One of the most interesting exchanges occurred late in the day, as Chief Justice McLachlin discussed the creative process and noted that works often involve bringing together several other works into a new whole. When counsel responded that this was a compilation, the Chief Justice replied that it might actually be an entirely new work, bringing the issue of remix and transformative works to the Supreme Court of Canada.

The decisions that could come of such discussion may well have substantial implications for how we conceive of the creative, the critical, and the powers served by their hierarchical division.

Works Cited

Foucault, Michel. “The Order of Discourse” (1970). Rpt. in Untying the Text: A Post-Structuralist Reader. Ed. Robert Young. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981. 48-78.

Geist, Michael. “The Supreme Court copyright hearings, day two: The fight to rollback fair dealing.” MichaelGeist blog, 8 Dec. 2011.

Lahey, Anita. “Academic Papers Get Poetic.” University Affairs 5 Dec. 2011.

Wright, Ronald. A Scientific Romance. Toronto: Vintage, 1998.

(I’d also like to acknowledge the mentorship of several professors at the University of Guelph for informing my thinking on the critical-creative distinction during my doctoral studies.)

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One response to “Creative versus critical: a disorder of discourse

  1. Glad you brought up that fuzzy & misleading word ‘creative’ — as the thrust of lyric scholarship is not about ‘creative vs. ‘critical’ — after all, a good paper, like a good poem, can of course, yes, be at once both critical & creative. Nor do I think this issue is about a creative/primary vs. critical/secondary distinction– in fact at the Congress lyric-scholarship forum, all the lyric works were the secondary (responsive) texts.

    The distinction I think is the choice to practice modes of engagement and response: systematic analysis vs. an integrated lyric mode that can still *include* systematic analysis as one possible axis.

    ‘lyric’ used here in Zwicky’s sense of a fully integrated, resonant speech, “something that for an instant joins the ear, nose, skin, tongue, and heart with the eye and the mind.” I’d direct anyone interested in what the heck she means to the good folk at Gaspereau Press who are about to re-release Lyric Philosophy (formerly U of T 1992, out of print) Any Day Now, so rumour has it….

    Glad to see the conversation continue & open up!

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