Interpret or Judge?: John Guillory on the Future of Literary Criticism

“‘Professing criticism’ is a contradiction and maybe even an impossibility. I’d like to hope that it’s not, that it’s just an innovation, historically.”

John Guillory is an award-winning teacher and scholar. His varied and influential work includes  Poetic Authority: Spenser, Milton, and Literary History (Columbia University Press, 1983) and the field-transforming Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation (University of Chicago Press, 1993). His brilliant new book, Professing Criticism: Essays on the Organization of Literary Study, argues that modern literary study remains anxious about the century-old professionalism that betrays the discipline’s relation to its amateur precursor, criticism. He discusses it here with John Plotz of Brandeis and Public Book’s coeditor in chief, Nicholas Dames. Dames is author of such prize-winning books as Amnesiac Selves (Oxford University Press, 2001) and The Physiology of the Novel (Oxford University Press, 2007), and most recently The Chapter: A Segmented History from Antiquity to the Twenty-First Century (Princeton University Press, 2023).

A longer version of this interview aired recently on Recall This Book, a podcast partnered with Public Books. You can listen to the interview here or by subscribing to Recall This Book on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

John Plotz (JP): John, Recall This Book usually kicks off with the author laying out key questions or key claims of the book.


John Guillory (JG): The basic idea of the book is implied in the title, Professing Criticism. I wanted to show ultimately that there was something odd, something anomalous about this discipline of literary criticism, and that the idea of professing criticism is in some ways a contradiction. If we look at the longer history of the study of literature—going back to antiquity, where the study of literature meant actually the study of all forms of writing that had any value whatsoever in the perception of readers in antiquity—it’s only at the very end of the 20th century that we got something that is professional, that can be called criticism, that has to do specifically with the judgment of literary works.

I was interested in exploring the ultimate and very difficult and maybe even intractable consequences of this dual history in which we have forms of literary study that are not disciplinarized, not professionalized, and in which we have a form of engagement with literature. Namely, something called criticism. It emerged in the 17th century and had mainly to do with judging works of literature. But only in the period between the World Wars was it taken up in the university and submitted to all of the procedures and rituals of professionalization. In consequence of that, it became a discipline.

“Professing criticism” is a contradiction and maybe even an impossibility. I’d like to hope that it’s not, that it’s just an innovation, historically. But the book is really an attempt to engage repeatedly and from different angles and in relation to different areas of the discipline with that tension, contradiction, with the seeming impossibility of professing criticism.


Nicholas Dames (ND): I’d love to pick up a dyad in the last chapter of the book: between interpretation and judgment. Regarding the professional prestige or importance of interpretation, you say “we [scholars] do not like to acknowledge…that literary artifacts do not need to be interpreted.” Can you say more about that distinction between interpretation and judgment? Or interpretation and understanding?


JG: Interpretation is a relation to texts that we can consider to be very old. In fact, aboriginal. We’re always engaged with texts and particularly complex texts with an effort to understand them. That often requires a complicated procedure. It comes to be known as interpretation.

Interpretation has its own history, but criticism in its origins was not a procedure of interpretation. It was, from its beginnings in the 17th century, all about judgment. And it was only in the 20th century that judgment and interpretation came to converge in a practice, which was the practice of “New Criticism” in the US and “Practical Criticism” in England.


ND: That discarding of judgment, though, John, it feels to me—this is coming out of your analysis, but also just my sense of having been in the profession a while—never quite complete. So judgment becomes the shadow activity or the secret of the discipline. I’m wondering if … You do think, I assume, that there are costs to this, to the severance from judgment?


JG: Yes. I do think that there are costs. There have been costs for us. One of the costs—a number of people are pointing this out now, because we’re in a renaissance of judgment in the discipline. It’s becoming an activity, again, that people are trying to perform and also to make sophisticated.

But the cost of it, we’ve come to realize, is that interpretation is something that isn’t obviously necessary for most readers of literature, as also for consumers of the other arts. It isn’t the case that people encounter novels and plays and poems and feel the need, after those encounters, after those engagements, to say what they think they mean. Literary critics, who started out as principally the ones who showed you how to judge, have gone off in this other direction and become interpreters. They’ve been cut off as a result from the mass readership of literature.

JP: This might be a distinction without a difference. Is your understanding that scholars are still implicitly practicing judgment, but only with this super-added layer of interpretation upon it? Or that they’ve literally discarded the judgment?


JG: What I wanted to show was that by the later 1960s, judgment was returning in the mode of, not the criticism of the literary work, but the criticism of society—interpreting literary works in order to arrive at a judgment of society.

What happened was what I call the “reassertion of criticism,” but the reassertion of criticism with this different end, with this different purpose. Some of that judgment redounded back on literary works, so that it was possible for a number of scholars to judge the literary works themselves as morally and politically objectionable. That’s presented us with this perennial problem of, when we do talk about literary works in the context of the criticism of society, what do we want to say about the value of literary works themselves in that context?

Is the value of the literary work its capacity to disclose aspects of society that need to be judged adversely? Or is the value of the literary work its transcendence of those conditions in society that need to be pointed out, condemned, and ultimately be averted?


ND: The way you present it in your book, it’s as if this question of judgment and its place becomes also tied into a social psychology of what a literature professor is. Is it that we repress judgment?


JG: Reviewers have never lost this capacity to make judgments of contemporary work. Of course, that’s what criticism was originally. In the 18th century, when people were writing criticism, they were writing criticism about contemporary work. The assumption always was that if it was ancient, it was good. The problem that we have is that it’s very difficult for us to distinguish between what we do when we judge that, because it’s something that we’re wanting to do more and more of.

And it’s behind that lateral movement of those who were trained in literary study in the academy out into the internet, where the activity mixes some aspects of scholarship with aspects of reviewing.

I don’t think that a paradigm has especially gelled yet, but I do think that’s an interesting new phenomenon. Because prior to this, these two things have just pulled apart. Reviewing is where judgment takes place, and it’s with reference to contemporary work. Scholarship is where interpretation takes place, and it can be contemporary and also historical, but it doesn’t necessarily involve judgment of the work itself. Rather, it involves judgment in the transferred sense of judgment of society, the critique of society. That’s where we went.

But at the present time we’re trying to recover a capacity to straddle the scholarly and the critical within reviewing. And to bring that practice back into scholarship in some way.


Stop Reading like a Critic

By Matthew Rubery

ND: The chapter on “monuments and documents” is something we both find really helpful to think about. I bring it up because even within the scholarly realm, we are confronting a situation where we’re not sure what the value of the historical purview is anymore. That’s constantly being called into question. Perhaps you were trying to offer a way of thinking about the value of history that would be usable for us now and not embarrass us with its naiveté or make us feel more conservative than we want to feel.

Your book offered a set of tools. I can use the distinction between monument and document to think about what I want, how I would defend the value of history in what I do.


JP: Nick’s given a positive spin on the power of that chapter for helping us think about the recoverability of history. But I also appreciate, John, that you want to say that there’s a rift here between monumentality and documentality, which is not going to be easily resolved.


JG: When I first came upon this distinction in [Erwin] Panofsky, I thought it was a brilliant insight and explained a lot of things to me. But I also guessed that when I would work this up into a contemporary presentation of the humanities and an attempt to shift the emphasis of humanities discourse from assertions of the value of the humanities, that it was going to be problematic to have this double concept. Because everything that is studied in the humanities is both monument and document. Or potentially both monument and document.

I wondered (and of course, my worries were confirmed as my worries always are) if this was just going to be difficult to assimilate. Particularly, the language: monument has become a disgraced concept. Or a concept in which the disgrace of figures from the past is literally embodied. I worry that great works of literature, art, music, might become associated or even identified with monuments like the monument of Cecil Rhodes, which was in South Africa, which was the target of the “Rhodes Must Fall” movement. That is a movement we can see echoed in the US, for example in the toppling of Confederate monuments all over the South and elsewhere, monuments that should never have been put up in the first place.

But the word “monument,” the concept of monuments, has another history altogether, in which this narrow use of monuments for nefarious political purposes that you see in the South in the period of Jim Crow … that’s an anomaly. If you think about the other context, like the context of the “Monuments Men,” who saved all of that wonderful art from the Nazis during World War II. That’s the concept of monument that Panofsky was working with. This is the concept of Yeats, “monuments of unageing intellect.” There was for Panofsky a way of taking these two data. You’re working always as a humanities scholar with objects that you value in some way. Not because they’re intrinsically good but because they’re intrinsically memorable, because they constitute our history.

And then, you have all of the documents that we bring around those monuments, those objects of memorialization, and use in order to gain insight into those monuments. You need both. Panofsky saw brilliantly that the objects of humanities scholars shifted around constantly. Such that the same object that in one context was a document functioning as a document could function as a monument in another context. I thought that was extremely useful.

There is the problem with the monuments concept, but the theoretical problem that lies behind that is the one that you were pointing to. When we look at these objects over the long term, what are we looking at really? History seems very central, and yet not exclusively history in the sense of past time.

This is Michael Bérubé’s objection in his review of Professing Criticism with this particular chapter: he saw this as the reduction of humanities to history. You can see that in Panofsky, maybe. But a better conception, at least I hope, was the one that I came up with of long time, in which you have past, present, and future. And all objects within that scope of long time are the objects of humanities research, of humanities enterprises.

So any object you study in the present may not have historical documentation that you could bring to the study of it, but you are studying it because it’s situated in long time. Because at some future point, this object will become the monument that you want to invest in and say, “This is a valuable thing to invest our time and our research into, because it belongs to this sequence of long time.”

JP: If this conversation could be a series of loops, this would actually be a wonderful time to return back to judgment and to think about the concept of judgment in the terms that you’re describing, John, which is always about the general or the universal concept intersecting with a particular.

I’m really remembering this from Arendt’s account of judgment in her response to Kant. But that notion that, when we say judgment, we’re not really talking about an empyrean view from above for all time. We’re talking about, “How does this particular instance usefully relate? What general categories do we need to bring to bear on this one object?” The account you’re offering here of the aesthetic is helping us think about the one-by-oneness of our act of judgment.


JG: Exactly. Every instance is different. This is one of the reasons I wanted to use the example of the Holocaust at the end of the humanities essay, because this is something that no one would have the slightest defense of who was a credible human being.

But it’s a monument. It is something that needs to be remembered and addressed and understood. How do you distinguish that monument from the kind like the Mona Lisa, to take the most iconically monumental of monuments? Or anything like that, that has a seemingly ineradicable substantiality?

Judgment can occupy this spectrum from the strongest possible affirmation of the value of a monument, of preserving it, to the strongest possible deprivation, which at the same time posits the necessity of memorialization. We cannot forget the Holocaust, but our not forgetting the Holocaust is different from our not forgetting a monument like the Mona Lisa or King Lear or Joyce’s Ulysses.


ND: What you’re referring to with the case of the monument is something that has to be alive for us. You have a great term to describe the passage of monuments into documents. At one point, you call it “stonification.” It’s where the thing ossifies, it literally turns into a statue. That’s the moment where it ceases to live. There’s a Pygmalion aspect to this distinction.


JG: It becomes forgettable.

JP: This is probably a great moment to turn to Recallable Books, where I invite you both to name an older book that those who enjoyed this conversation might also enjoy reading.


ND: I don’t know if this counts as one that really needs recalling or not, but the one that comes to mind for me is Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House, still the best treatment of what it means to be in the career of teaching something like literature. And one that, contrary to a lot of other books that take this up, is not comic. Nor is it suffused with self-pity.


JP: That’s great. I was going to recommend Pictures from an Institution, which is …


ND: It is comic.


JP: It’s comic. In fact, it’s subtitled A Comedy. But it’s also an attempt to think about what it means to be on a campus and to be teaching literature, trying to make literature. And it is suffused with gentleness. I completely agree with you, Nick, The Professor’s House is a greater work if it comes to judgment. And yet, there’s something so delightful about the tone of Pictures from an Institution. Over to you, John.


JG: The book that I’m always trying to point people toward is Alvin Gouldner’s work The Future of Intellectuals and the Rise of the New Class. That’s where I originally started to think about the issue of the professional managerial class and the possibility of thinking about literary study in the context of the sociology of professions. Particularly, the professions as constituting a central form of the organization of labor in modernity. It was where I began thinking about where to go with this deliberate disenchanting—this disenchantment of the profession. The attempt to disabuse literary scholars, literary professionals, from the idealizations that we cling to so strongly and don’t want to give up. icon

This article was commissioned by John Plotz.

Featured-image photograph by Debby Hudson / Unsplash (CC0 1.0)