The Material Life of Criticism

Three new histories of literary study draw attention to the critic’s material life. Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History, by Joseph North, Paraliterary ...

Three new histories of literary study draw attention to the critic’s material life. Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History, by Joseph North, Paraliterary: The Making of Bad Readers in Postwar America, by Merve Emre, and Poet-Critics and the Administration of Culture, by Evan Kindley, all portray critics and readers subject to global capital flows, geopolitical shifts, and institutional administration. Each widens the range of sites where we can see criticism taking place: a grant-making foundation office (Kindley), an American Express storefront (Emre), and a web page like the one you’re reading right now (North).

Methodologically, too, each departs from what Jeffrey Williams three years ago dubbed “the new modesty in literary criticism.” In the wake of Sharon Marcus and Stephen Best’s 2009 essay “Surface Reading,” critics increasingly feel compelled to describe rather than diagnose. These books, instead, do both. Take a sentence from North’s book: “It is then merely to state the obvious to observe that the discipline’s future shape will depend most of all on the character of whatever new period of capital [emerges] in the wake of the current crisis.” North diagnoses capital (in the old style) as the germ of criticism’s form, but also (in the new style) acknowledges his insight as “obvious.”

Perhaps it is obvious on my part to see a dialectic turning here, yielding not a method, but an account of a method. Academic criticism has long been linked to liberalism, and today’s disciplinary ambivalence reflects the fracturing of liberalism’s hold on the West. This new mode says, “we’ve always known this,” because critics have always experienced these forces. But only now are literary critics willing to admit that we have been pushed around all along.

The election of Donald Trump revealed the 1960s to have been a temporary respite from a longer rightward turn. North points out that literary critics who divide their own predecessors into Before Theory and After Theory break with historians’ near-universal practice of dividing the 20th century into three periods: from World War I to around the Great Depression (the threat of liberalism’s demise); from World War II to the 1970s (Keynesian retrenchment); and from the 1970s to the present (neoliberalism).

Indeed, North claims that the most significant shift in academic literary studies in the 20th century was the defeat of aesthetic criticism, which focused on literary effects, by the “historicist/contextualist paradigm,” which made literature a “diagnostic instrument” for cultural and historical inquiry. Such an instrument denies any political relevance to aesthetic approaches to literature, in part because in the 1970s’s Raymond Williams deemphasized politically informed aesthetic approaches in order to make a clear enemy of the aesthetic criticism of the conservative New Critics. Williams’s strategic representation of this history was subsequently accepted by Fredric Jameson, Terry Eagleton, and the New Historicists. The acceptance of Williams’s account suggests that the embrace of historicism was as much about politics as about methodological rigor and sophistication.

Literary critics from Williams forward took aim at aesthetic criticism. The American New Critics and the Leavisites in the 1940s and 1950s turned I. A. Richards’s “practical criticism,” which North reads as an “aesthetics of means,” into “an aesthetics of ends.” That is, due to New Critical intervention, aesthetic criticism went from analyzing the process by which a poem made meaning to making judgments about a poetic object’s inherent, autonomous value.


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Decades later, because of this conservative co-option, Williams, North’s emblem for left-minded critics, overcorrected to a “thoroughgoing historicism.” The continued acceptance of Williams’s history of aesthetic criticism buttresses the assumptions that critics make about the political possibilities of certain modes of criticism. To be specific, aesthetic criticism appears to be inherently conservative, while diagnostic criticism presents as progressive. North calls this set of assumptions the “critical unconscious,” which, even after Marcus and Best’s 2009 intervention, still shapes work in just about any subfield of literary studies. North himself is susceptible to this shaping; his genealogy of the “critical unconscious” supplies a diagnosis of our ongoing diagnostic tendency. His disciplinary history maps cleanly on to the tripartite periodization of the 20th century: the left-leaning aestheticism of the first part, the mid-century liberal consensus, then the neoliberal investment in the political polarity of any number of concepts.

North’s history yields two lessons. First, tracing the discipline back to Richards’s “aesthetics of means” reveals the materialism long hidden in the aesthetic for the left-leaning literary criticism that had abandoned it. Second, even if what we want is aesthetic criticism (as opposed to diagnostic criticism) and when we want it is now, the structural position of literary studies means that we’re just going to have to wait until history dictates whatever happens next.

If Joseph North left critics vulnerable to the world-historical forces of political economy, Merve Emre and Evan Kindley respond with accounts of what critics attempted to do either to manipulate those forces for their own gain or to counteract their momentum.

Across the 20th century, Emre identifies several modes of reading practiced by those whom the academy came to consider “bad readers,” to draw attention to the fact that academic literary studies has long relied on the production of an external other to marshal cultural authority. For his part, Kindley recovers the dynamics of how that cultural authority was acquired, tracing the transformation of the poet’s role from “village explainer” to cultural bureaucrat across the first half of the 20th century. Where North registers English professors’ failure to alter the broad historical forces that shape our present, Emre and Kindley reconstruct the modest attempts of critics and readers to embrace or change that world anyway.

Poet-Critics and the Administration of Culture traces the history that led to the New Critical embrace of the “aesthetics of ends” over an alternative arrangement. Focusing on the tentative alliance between literary study and national cultural stewardship, Kindley shows that mid-century bureaucratic regimes required rational criteria for their well-funded expansion efforts. Criticism of the literary object—an evaluation of how well-formed the object is, rather than an assessment of how the object was made—was readily drawn on to fulfill that need, even if that method had a vexed relationship to rationality. In Kindley’s account of the “justification business,” Archibald MacLeish stars: in addition to cementing the primacy of poetic ends over means in his “Ars Poetica,” MacLeish served as Librarian of Congress under Roosevelt.

Only now are literary critics willing to admit that we have been pushed around all along.

In contrast to MacLeish’s comfortable position as a cultural steward, critics who were not white and male faced discrimination in the increasingly bureaucratic world of professional criticism, starting with the fact that they were frequently perceived as embodied objects themselves. Marianne Moore exemplifies the challenge of being both embodied and a critic. Kindley shows early critics of Moore faulting her poetry for being too objective and masculine and her critical efforts as too poetic and feminine. Moore develops her distinctive, disarming editorial philosophy through her poetry, not outside of it. In Kindley’s reading, Moore’s lines become a public statement of critical and editorial practice, like these from “When I Buy Pictures”: “Too stern an intellectual emphasis upon this quality or that, / detracts from one’s enjoyment.”

The bureaucratic administration of culture that forces Moore’s critical declarations into poetry, putting aside all concerns of enjoyment, also pushed black writers—like Sterling A. Brown, Ulysses Lee, and Roscoe Lewis—to abandon authorial privilege at the same time as they offered their racial expertise to the American Guide series produced by the Federal Writers’ Project. For instance, the FWP refused to carry Lewis’s byline on The Negro in Virginia, despite the fact that Lewis had penned the guide. In what Kindley calls a “complex web of affiliations, hierarchies, and conflicting loyalties,” one glimpses a long-standing racial formation that accepts black cultural labor as an anonymous contribution to national success.

Emre, meanwhile, shows academic criticism emerging in contradistinction to spheres of reading deemed “bad” by association with gendered and racialized activity. The “paraliterary” is her term for the outside against which the literary is defined. Taking the form of “a genre, a reading practice, and an institutional domain,” the paraliterary includes everything from book-loving US tourists abroad to Henry James’s speeches to “ladies’ culture clubs” in the first decade of the 20th century to Meadow Soprano’s invocation of James in the first decade of the 21st.

Emre’s range, in short, is chronologically as well as methodologically expansive: because the paraliterary seems to operate by means of institutional forces, it floats outside of strong historical periodizations. What unites Paraliterary’s diverse case studies is her insight that academic criticism justifies its methods by the type of subjects that it produces. The previous century’s struggles over the definition of the subject, and of the citizen, become immediately relevant to the history of academic literary studies.


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This means that academic literary study has not been in the business of providing students with Burkean “equipment for living” for quite some time; rather, literary studies’ ties to the definition of the subject suggest that it operates as an institutional instrument available for the perpetuation of racism, sexism, and the like. Readers are bad not because they make bad interpretations, but, like Marianne Moore, readers are subject to negative scrutiny because they do not fit the mold of good readers.

We have been blinded to this reality of late, perhaps because of what Lisa Duggan sees as neoliberalism’s deftness at substituting universal terms for the identity markers actually employed to describe the material organization of society. Literary studies reinforces this material world when it denies that it is part of that world and that it is shaped by it. When we discover that what we talk about when we talk about method are critics and readers, we identify a necessary attention to the institutional and material life of criticism within and beyond the academy. icon

Featured image: Southbank Centre, London, United Kingdom (2017). Photograph by Abi Ismail / Unsplash