Thoughts on Value as a (Contingent) Social Construct

Currently reading Barbara Hernstein Smith’s Contingencies of Value (1988, Harvard UP) and thinking a lot about how value (literary, aesthetic, moral, or otherwise) could operate as a contingent yet rigorous system of interrelated evaluative decisions. Echoing Chaim Perelman’s notion that ‘knowledge’ is determined via a network of socially agreed-upon standards and rules (cf. Wittgenstein’s “language games”), Smith argues that, contrary to the conventional wisdom of the post-New Criticism era, literary value is not some arbitrary morass of personal prejudices and proclivities but rather a dynamic field in which critical judgments are set against one another in order to arrive at a general estimation of a work’s value within a given context or milieu. And as Hernstein states in Chapter 1 of COV, investigations of this dynamic field are most certainly within the purview of the literary/cultural critic:

“If we recognize that literary value is ‘relative’ in the sense of contingent (that is, a changing function of multiple variables) rather than subjective (that is, personally whimsical, locked into the consciousness of individual subjects and/or without interest or value for other people), then we may begin to investigate the dynamics of that relativity. Such an investigation would, I believe, reveal that the variables in question are limited and regular—that is, that they occur within ranges and that they exhibit patterns and principles—and that in that sense, but only in that sense, we may speak of ‘constancies’ of literary value.” (11-12)

I’m still not sure what to make of this—I am, after all, only thirty pages into her book—but as someone whose research interests in avant-garde poetry/poetics practically demand conversations about the construction (and deconstruction) of socio-literary value in various regions and time periods, I find Hernstein’s discussion a refreshing change from the field’s predominant focus (obsession?) with hermeneutics and historicization.*

Ignoring questions of value won’t make them go away; as anyone who has ever set foot in a classroom, a public library, or the local Borders Barnes & Noble can attest, people want to know which books are the “best” almost as much as they want to know which ones are “hot” or “popular” (or “on sale”). The way we choose to address these concerns will go a long way toward deciding what social role literary and cultural criticism will be allowed to play in the coming years, and, at least at the outset, I think Smith has something valuable to offer us in this regard.

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*This is not to suggest that I don’t enjoy questions of interpretation and/or history. As a matter of practice, I write about these issues constantly and think they represent vital components of a vibrant critical culture within the academy. But in any scholarly endeavor, there comes a point at which the devotion to one method/lens results in a glaring myopia regarding others. Smith’s book counters this misstep by opening up new avenues of inquiry for literary scholarship, and for this I am grateful.

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