Reading after the University

If you want to support readers, the best hope will always be helping do away with economic compulsion and the division of labor.

It’s no news that the university is in crisis. Foreign-language departments have perhaps been the most affected, but few humanities programs have gone unscathed. English departments form the subject of two new attempts to provide a backstory to our present disorder: Outside Literary Studies: Black Criticism and the University by Andy Hines and Professing Criticism: Essays on the Organization of Literary Studies by John Guillory. Both depict literary study within universities as something strange and recent. And both situate the university in longer stories of racial capitalism and class distinction. Taken together, they provide a sobering analysis of the limited political potential of today’s English departments.

At the same time, amid this morass of dysfunction, both books soothe themselves with the fact that the university has no monopoly on reading. Students are never confined to the official syllabus. Some part of literature and literary study has always been eccentric to the university curriculum, and accounts of the “outside” of university-based practices, like the one Hines finds in a Black radical tradition that emphasized literature’s political potentials, could proliferate in many directions. Disciplinary outsides and eccentricities have tended to negatively inform professional literature scholars’ assertions that study of “their” objects requires specialist training in unique methods, or that university-based study of literature is the most inherently humanizing or importantly political reading practice. Guillory and Hines flip the script. By treating the professional literary academic as only one kind of reader, they suggest that attention to the varieties of reading practice ongoing outside the university may be an optimism appropriate to our contemporary moment.

Both books part ways with what Abigail Boggs and Nick Mitchell describe as a liberal “crisis consensus” that envisions universities as inherently progressive institutions that need only be saved from the recent ravages of neoliberal privatization.1 Hines depicts the English department as having been an “institutionalized cultural space governed by whiteness and anticommunism.” In his telling, the postwar establishment of the new criticism, which foregrounded close reading of the text as a self-contained aesthetic object, helped ground the emerging postwar hegemony of US liberal capitalism, which imagined itself as an apolitical unity-amid-diversity in opposition to mandated Soviet conformity. None of this could have happened without demonizing left and communist Black intellectuals who treated culture as an engine of revolutionary transformation.

In turn, Guillory’s historical breadth—encompassing the rise and fall of rhetoric, belle lettres, philology, and more—supplements some of Hines’s archival work on the late 1940s and 1950s. Guillory understands the new criticism as just one piece of a massive sociological and methodological shift that made the literary object a “verbal work of art” and, built around it, the English department as a site of disciplinary expertise. By subordinating documentary or political aspects of the text to “an aesthetic ontology,” English professors granted themselves jurisdiction over literary inquiry, and thus a role within the university in servicing the expanding professional-managerial class.

In Hines’s account, the new criticism enabled the racialized exploitation and exclusion of some people to secure the freedom of others within the “state-academic apparatus.” “Black writers, Black leftists, and communist affiliates who sought to build institutions around the critical study of Black literature,” among them Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Melvin B. Tolson, fought the new criticism’s consolidation with US institutions, seeking instead an interracial coalition that would challenge American capitalism and “the ills of racial liberalism.” Their radical vision of future possibility was undermined by a “racist interpretation complex” that made “the imagining of such efforts, and the efforts themselves, appear improbable.” The causal claim is important here: it is the racist interpretation complex, backed by and embodied within the new criticism, that undermined the work of those committed to using the study of literature and culture in service of radical social transformation.

Hines’s interest lies in the political and economic circumstances that have shaped methodologies for literary study. His is a form of attention that has itself been denigrated by the new critical formalisms that interest him, which would insist that one “focus on the text” or “look at the literature itself.” You may object that these kinds of new critical approaches in their purest expression are not especially resonant anymore in the contemporary English department. You may even say that approaches indicting new critical work as apolitical formalism—a tradition of critique to which Hines adds—have been more characteristic of the discipline since the late 1960s.

This is where Guillory’s account comes in. His sociology of the institution explains why, long after new criticism’s fall from grace, the English department continues to be relatively homogenous. For despite Hines’s materialist interest in the political-economic backgrounds framing literary inquiry, he attributes more agency than does Guillory to the new criticism as an intellectual formation, describing it variously as a “crucial instrument,” an “integral part,” and as having “played an important role” in the establishment of English as a discipline of whiteness and anticommunism that rejects political approaches to literature as a betrayal of its true import. Unlike the revolutionary conceptions of culture that flourished in the people’s schools, in which writing could express and shape radical consciousness of the need for social transformation, “new Critical methods denied the possibility of criticism garnering any material force,” Hines argues. Does a critical tendency’s own self-conception undermine its material force, or do the material forces shaping study already relegate criticism to a particular role, at best a handmaiden or a message force multiplier?

Guillory explains the purportedly depoliticized approach to texts by zooming out from the new criticism per se to the general modus operandi of the postwar credentialing university. The whole college-educated professional profile, whatever the discipline, sought not radical political upheaval but rather social distinction on the way to a professional career. The English department was simply subservient to this larger process. The nature of the university as such has made even work that is the furthest possible thing from the new criticism—even the most avowedly communist literary critique—no more nor less actually politically effective than its apparent rival. Criticism is always mediated through the professional profile and the cultivating nature of the school, and literary criticism established itself in the university as access to a curriculum developed and delivered by experts, which would expose students to elite achievement in vernacular expression as they went about earning the degrees that would help them climb the social ladder.

Guillory and Hines suggest that attention to the varieties of reading practice ongoing outside the university may be an optimism appropriate to our contemporary moment.

Three decades ago, Guillory’s influential Cultural Capital attacked the whole premise of the canon wars. The combatants assumed that it mattered meaningfully for creation of an inclusive social world what people read in literature classrooms. They mistook or substituted the exclusionary classroom for a possibly inclusive social world. These arguments are revisited and deepened in Professing Criticism, which warns against examining “the school” in isolation from the total world. Just as the new criticism cannot be understood on its own terms but must be indexed to a broader historical development and social transformation of the function of the university—which had no space for the study of vernacular literature at all until the twentieth century—the university has to be understood in relation to its special social function within a society defined by inequality and labor market sorting. “Those who see only the school do not see the school,” he writes; “the institution and its organizational forms of discipline and profession filter and sometimes even transmogrify the messages that emanate from it.” The mediating function of the institution is to quiet and corral. Whatever the nature of the intervention, the contours of professional life mean that its primary value will be to someone’s list of publications or case for promotion. “Criticism of the text can also be the criticism of society,” Guillory writes, “with the proviso that arguments about the political implication of literary works are distinguishable from the politics of scholarship itself, from the estimation of its aims or effects.”

While Hines argues that the English department was deliberately structured in such a way as to exclude attention to racial capitalism and US empire, not least via deference to the new critical insistence that one focus on the text “itself,” Guillory’s account ramifies beyond the new criticism, fixing our gaze on the sociology of the university institution as a space of cultivating distinction and prestige for professional advance—social sorting processes that are always racialized, as Hines would remind us. A university’s institutional functioning as such guarantees a level of exclusiveness and training in apolitical managerial ways of being in the world. Put at its simplest: What is more antiblack and anti-communist, the new criticism, or the cost of tuition?

Though the breadth of Guillory’s history is wide, he is careful to indicate that the conditions for the study of English are increasingly bad just now, and he skewers other scholars—the Latourian post-critique people in particular—for somehow managing to think that it was “suspicious reading” and not student debt that drove people out of the English department. It seems like a strange shift, then, when he argues that the contemporary crisis is actually “not the one that usually goes by this name—the collapse of the job market for PhDs, funding reductions, or a decline in the number of majors—but rather the one that is internal to the development of the discipline, the question of its justification.” Why separate the material situation from the problem of justification, in this way? Again, is it any critical tendency’s self-conception that undermines its material force, or do the material forces shaping study already relegate criticism to a particular role?

For as we have seen, even if it still entails percolating amid the bourgeois sociolect and disposition of the college educated, today’s university is no longer taken for granted as a sufficient path to upward mobility and professional-managerial training, and this becomes truer the further one looks beyond the most elite institutions. Guillory makes the case, in fact, that the “appeal of the PhD is a consequence of the decline in the value of the BA,” as students no longer feel remotely certain that a BA is “enough” of a degree to give them a leg up. His response to these conditions is to point to the nature of the university itself as a reality that limits the possibilities for any other arrangement; in short, his sociology would counsel resignation about the possibility of a different kind of institution. In his argument, the education system “exists in part for the purpose of preparing aspirants to compete for places in a hierarchy of labor”; it is a social sorting mechanism, not a democratized open space where anyone can come to learn. Thus, for Guillory, people coming to graduate school expecting a secure place in the profession are only ever misunderstanding what it means to exist in an unequal social world where only some people can secure those accoutrements of the highest success, with others necessarily ranged somewhere below.

This resigned perspective helps to explain, I think, why Guillory understands the legitimation crisis in the way that he does: ultimately, as a matter of failed justifications. It also explains perhaps how muted his proposed solutions are, and how thoroughly in the realm of discourse: strengthen the discipline’s self-conception, develop its capacity to identify and explain its object, and figure out how on earth it “can serve the reading of literature” going forward. These solutions seem to fall back on the same kinds of cul-de-sac arguments that he is known for so disliking. One wants to ask how any of these vague aspirations might be mediated in such a way as to reach the kind of audience that would push for more funding and lead to growing numbers of enrollments and good jobs. The point is, of course, that these are the wrong questions. None of these saving gestures are ultimately tabled as practicable, given, one supposes, absent capacity and desire today—realities that are never formally taken up by Guillory, but that remain a necessary backstory to his fatalist disposition toward literary criticism’s absent future.

The walls falling down around us were almost never sturdy—maybe only for that brief moment that Guillory describes as the “postwar settlement,” the English department’s lightning-flash version of the “postwar compact,” through which the advanced capitalist democracies secured their dynamic economies, absorptive labor markets, and relatively expansive social spending in the first few decades after WWII. What was the new criticism if not a form of expression of the postwar compact within the department of English, providing an ostensibly accessible pedagogy that growing ranks of students could quickly learn and easily deploy in their own reading practice? Just as historians of the postwar compact have pointed to its pacifying, racializing, and gendering effects—the priority accorded to the nuclear household of the waged white male breadwinner and unwaged homebound housewife—Hines’s work thoroughly critiques the antiblackness and antiradicalism of the English department’s postwar settlement.2 It makes sense then that, like Guillory, he refuses to imagine that what he calls the “state-academic apparatus” can be replenished with lush funds and a sufficiently revolutionary impetus. Hines allies instead, finally, with something like a new instantiation of a people’s school: the “undercommons,” a term coined by Fred Moten and Stefano Harney to refer to the cultivation, both inter- and extracurricular, both within and outside the university, of communities with their sights already set on emerging futures of “fugitive” study—study that will continue even after the humanities university is finally behind us.3 Guillory is also thinking about something like this undercommons, I would argue, though his name for it is the “lay reader.”

Certainly, Hines’s take on the contemporary situation points to precisely what Guillory tends to sideline: the university’s role as a site of production of indebted life, or what Boggs and Mitchell label “accumulation-by-education,” indicting both the student-loan regime and the expanding campus of carparks, privately funded science labs, and sports stadiums.4 Hines and Guillory agree that the English department has never not been in the midst of an unfolding crisis: for Hines, this is a matter of the ordinary but deepening devastating crisis of racial capitalism; for Guillory, of the shaky foundations of the degree’s status as expert professional accreditation and elite distinction.

Neither book makes the familiar plea to save the university from the privatizing capitalists who have undermined its formerly ensconced public mission. In their respective ways, Hines and Guillory instead conclude that reading as such does not rise and fall with the fate of the university. All that a book historian like me can add is this: if you want to support readers and help them develop their practice, the best hope will always be helping to do away with economic compulsion and the division of labor, those main determinants of how we spend our time and develop our capacities and interests. Worthy work, perhaps, for the English department’s last instructors?


This article was commissioned by Leah Price. icon

  1. Abigail Boggs and Nick Mitchell, “Critical University Studies and the Crisis Consensus,” Feminist Studies, vol. 44, no. 2 (2018).
  2. See M. E. O’Brien, “To Abolish the Family: The Working-Class Family and Gender Liberation in Capitalist Development,” Endnotes, no. 5 (2019).
  3. Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (Minor Compositions, 2013).
  4. Boggs and Mitchell, “Critical University Studies,” 453.
Featured image: Photograph of three stacks of books (detail), Curtis Cronn / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)