Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History
by Joseph North
Harvard University Press
Published May, 2017
Joseph North’s Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History begins with the premise that ‘very few people … start reading a novel by Virginia Woolf with the primary aim of learning more about British cultural life in the 1920s’. And yet, to judge by the preponderance of academic books, the overriding concern of literary scholarship is to see the text as a document of cultural history. Literature, it would seem, is to be consulted for knowledge about a certain time and place—not sought out for beauty, practical wisdom, or spiritual exaltation, as the genteel belletrists who passed for critics used to think. ‘Always historicise!’ is the mantra of the literary scholar whose training allows her to unmask any claim to universal truth or transcendent value as merely the symptom of efficient ideologies about class, race, gender, and sexuality. Anything less vigilant would be a form of complicity. Justified in these terms, reading becomes synonymous with what teachers in the humanities like to call ‘critical thinking’.
This is the kind of whiggish story that allows English academics to sleep comfortably at night, safe in the knowledge that their politics vindicates their vocation and their vocation their politics. But what if this gets the picture completely wrong? What if the turn towards ideology critique unwittingly depoliticised literary studies? What if the institutionalisation of ‘critical’ reading has obscured an older and more radical program of criticism that not only looked to the literary text as a means of diagnosing the health of a culture, but also used it to intervene in culture ‘by cultivating new ranges of sensibility, new modes of subjectivity, new capacities for experience’? What if the progressive political character of the discipline depends on re-igniting a belief in literature as something that can actually help us live more fulfilling lives?
These are some of the questions posed by North in Literary Criticism, an immensely readable, provocative, and timely account of how the academic study of literature has arrived at its current impasse. The sense of having reached a disciplinary dead-end has been articulated a number of ways, most eloquently perhaps by Eve Sedgwick in her work on ‘paranoid’ habits of reading. More recently, Bruno Latour’s suggestion that critique ‘has run out of steam’ has made inroads into literary studies, where the ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ was itself put under suspicion in Rita Felski’s The Limits of Critique (2015).
One thing that Felski and North share is a faith in the explanatory power of sociology, especially the branch devoted to science and technology studies. For Felski, Latour’s actor-network theory (ANT) provides a way out of the present predicament. North brings Thomas Kuhn’s model of the institutional legitimisation of scientific knowledge to bear on the history of literary criticism, which he sees as structured through competing paradigms: the ‘critical’ and the ‘historicist / contextualist’. But the resemblance stops there; while Felski’s book does not rate a mention in Literary Criticism, it does provide an example of the trap that North thinks the discipline has fallen into. In a chapter called ‘Context Stinks!’, Felski insists:
Politics, in the sense developed by actor-network theory, is no longer a matter of gesturing toward the hidden forces that explain everything; it is the process of tracing the interconnections, attachments, and conflicts among actors and mediators, as they come into view.
Once we embrace ANT, the political work that the scholar performs in contextualising a piece of literature changes; it moves away from exposing the text’s implication in forms of covert domination towards situating it within webs of everyday interactivity. Felski may be right to suggest that there has always been something mystifying about grand gestures of demystification, but what a critic like North wants readers to notice is the curious inertness of the verbs that govern the new procedure: ‘Politics … is no longer a matter of gesturing toward … it is the process of tracing.’ No doubt ‘tracing’ is intended as an advance on ‘gesturing toward’, but why should these modes of descriptive agency — modes, after all, of acting out rather than acting on—be the most we can hope for? A complacency about the ‘politics’ of interpretation has set in. Felski may have changed the way we think about context, but the assumption that contextualisation is tantamount to political mobilisation remains undisturbed.
What Felski and others have been calling critique is a practice licensed by what North calls the historicist/contextualist paradigm. It is the triumph of this paradigm that accounts for what he sees as the underlying homogeneity of contemporary literary scholarship. The paradigm operates on the basis of a ‘fairly firm’ yet ‘generally unremarked’ consensus that ‘works of literature are chiefly of interest as diagnostic instruments for determining the state of the cultures in which they were written or read’. That this assumption has assumed institutional status is apparent enough to any graduate student or early career academic. English departments in England and North America (perhaps less so in Australia, where full curricular coverage from medieval to modern is becoming less of an institutional priority) will typically hire applicants on the basis of a specialism defined along temporal and geographic coordinates (‘early modern England’, ‘colonial America’, ‘post-apartheid South Africa’). In such a climate, a book bearing a title such as Seven Types of Ambiguity is more likely to have its provenance outside the university than within it. For within the academy, it is the specialist scholar rather than the generalist critic who thrives. To those who want to get ahead, the message is quite clear: close thy Empson; open thy Greenblatt.
An Assistant Professor of English at Yale with a Columbia PhD, North is as intimate with these professional conventions as anyone and yet he describes himself on his staff page as ‘something of a generalist’—a light touch which nevertheless contains a challenge to the current disciplinary doxa. The quiet contentiousness of this self-characterisation tallies with the tone and ethos of Literary Criticism. Few books throw down the gauntlet to an entire discipline with such decorum.
North’s poise as a close reader, combing through the key doctrinal statements made by critics ranging from I. A. Richards to Lauren Berlant (parting to the left here, parting to the right there), is put into the service of a bracingly revisionist history, in which Richards is the hero, Raymond Williams the villain, and the debate over Theory a mere footnote to more important paradigmatic shifts. Where previous accounts have tended to see the history of the discipline unfolding in two parts (before and after Theory), North tells his story in three:
a first period stretching from somewhere around 1914 or 1917 through to the Great Depression of the 1930s—a period continually haunted by the spectre of an end to liberalism … a second, more stable period most easily discernible from 1945 to the early 1970s … in which the forces of labor and those of capital reached a Keynesian or welfare-statist compromise not unrelated to the ideological pressures of the Cold War; then a decade of crisis in the 1970s leading into a third or neoliberal period, clearest in its outlines from the late 1970s/early 1980s through to somewhere in or around 2008.
The first period roughly coincides with the birth of the critical paradigm out of Richards’ pedagogy and its conservative hijacking by the Scrutiny movement on one side of the Atlantic and the New Critics on the other. The second period witnesses the decline and fall of criticism from its cultural eminence in the mid-century. The ‘scholarly turn’ precipitated by Williams, whose ‘local critique of the Leavisite and New Critical models of criticism, and of the associated Kantian or neo-Kantian model of the aesthetic’ escalated into ‘a rejection of “criticism” and “aesthetics” tout court’. Out with critical theory and in with theories of cultural production and social practices. In the third period, Williams’ eschewal of criticism and aesthetics becomes institutionalised, largely through the work of academics on the left (Terry Eagleton, the New Historicists, Fredric Jameson, and Franco Moretti). As a result, a single paradigm now occupies the entire field.
The ascendancy of the historicist/contextualist paradigm has usually been thought of as an unequivocal victory for the left. It sanctioned a mode of scholarship tailored for Marxists by Marxists. But at what cost was this victory purchased? And to what extent was this scholarly consensus merely a bad settlement with a neoliberal order that it was free to castigate from within the walls of the academy, but powerless to engage without? North’s way of dealing with these questions is likely to rankle those in the academy who are more sanguine about the political efficaciousness and radical credentials of the theoretical turn of the sixties and seventies. In a deft side-step, North leaves the last word to history: ‘in order to perceive the true contours of any historical crisis, it is necessary to examine not only the features of the crisis itself, but also the character of whatever new order establishes itself in its wake’.
Those decades are best assessed by what followed: the neoliberalism of the eighties. The argument borders on the post hoc ergo propter hoc logical fallacy: how can you have consequence without causation? Rather predictably, North’s suspicions about the identitarian politics sponsored by Theory (‘a mere politics of recognition’) have been criticised for evincing ‘intellectual nostalgia’ for an Old-Leftist brand of economic determinism. But the real interest of Literary Criticism lies in its argument that the academic left gave up too much ground when it left the generalist critical program behind. To read North’s book in its best light is to read it as largely a rehabilitation of the ‘unfinished project’ of Richards’ practical criticism.
In the potted history of the discipline that gets handed down to undergraduates, Richards and his protégé Empson are lumped together with T. S. Eliot, the Leavises, and the American New Critics under the banner of the New Criticism. While North is not the first to extricate Richards and Empson from this reactionary company, he traces with considerable skill the subtle changes in emphasis that allowed the project of practical criticism to change hands in such mercurial fashion. At its heart was a method of close reading, which Richards was largely responsible for developing into an experimental pedagogy. His students were given a text (usually a short passage of verse) without any contextual cues (title, authorship, date of composition). The feat of concentration that this kind of reading called for (without the comforts of factual recitation and received ideas about canonical authors and historical periods) is well documented in the student responses that Richards collected and corrected in Practical Criticism (1929).
What interests North more than Richards’ empirical findings is the theoretical rationale supplied in the latter’s Principles of Literary Criticism (1924). In a chapter on ‘the phantom aesthetic state,’ Richards questions the validity of the ‘Aesthetic Hypothesis’, according to which art could only be evaluated on the basis of ‘a pure art value … different in kind and cut off from the other values of ordinary experience’. For Richards, this dogma about the sui generis nature of aesthetic experience was derived from the merely formal correspondences in Kant’s philosophical scheme between the capacities for knowledge, pleasure and volition on the one hand, and the faculties of understanding, judgment and reason on the other. That Kant places his discussion of aesthetics in the Critique of Judgment led to the assumption that aesthetic judgment must be insulated from understanding and reason; the question of beauty quarantined from considerations of truth and goodness. ‘The effect,’ according to Richards, ‘was virtually to annex aesthetics to Idealism’. The irony is that Richards’ own program wilfully suspended the social and historical, ethical and epistemological factors that might have given rise to a more materialist aesthetics. Because of this suspension, the practice of close reading became aligned with the idealist and isolationist stance of aesthetes such as Vernon Lee and Clive Bell as well as of the American New Critics who expressly returned to Kant. Practical criticism thus ended up being repurposed to institutionalise the very cult of aesthetic autonomy Richards had designed it to overcome.
One of the peculiarities of North’s argument here is the prominence given to biographical facts. We are made to understand the political pedigree of critical projects from the political character of their proponents. How, for instance, did we ever think that a program devised by a ‘Cambridge League-of-Nations liberal, [who was] internationalist, cosmopolitan, and secularist’ could be continuous with the program proposed by ‘Southern US Christian political and cultural conservatives seeking a return to … an agrarian way of life’? Duh. Yet what initially serves as an efficient means of disambiguating Richards’ practical criticism from the New Criticism licenses a conflation of the latter’s traditionalism with the more radical cultural conservatism of the Leavises. North accuses F. R. Leavis (there’s no mention of Queenie, who was supervised by Richards) of displacing the emphasis from ‘aesthetic education’ to ‘facile questions of rank’ (Wordsworth or Shelley? George Eliot or Hardy?). This merely reiterates North’s argument against the New Critics, who are accused of deploying practical criticism ‘not to educate the reader, but to adulate the text’.
This is a false dichotomy. A reader has to learn to discriminate between the texts that are deserving of adulation and those that are not. This may not be the kind of education Richards originally had in mind; he insisted (in a sentence North is fond of quoting) that ‘it is less important to like “good” poetry and dislike “bad,” than to be able to use them both as a means of ordering our minds’. But what if we did take our ability to like ‘good’ poems and dislike ‘bad’ ones to be the most precise and effective way of bringing our minds to order? North understates the degree to which Richards’ critical project was directed towards the creation of more ‘discriminating’ persons, even if the object of scrutiny could just as well have been an experience or a person as a poem. (For Richards, one of the questions raised by the ‘low capacity in construing’ displayed by some of his students is: ‘How far can we expect such readers to show themselves intelligent, imaginative and discriminating in their intimate relations with other human beings?’) North also overlooks the fact that Leavis’ discriminations of the good from the bad were ‘not just a matter of analytic technique and brilliant exercises’, but (to use North’s own description of the critical paradigm) meant to bring about ‘some larger change in the culture as a whole’. While trained on poems and novels, Leavis’ judgments were guided, as he once put it, by ‘the preoccupation with the critical function as it was performed, or not performed, for our civilisation, our time, and us’ (emphasis added). Where only the mental hygiene of the reader was immediately at stake in Richards’ practical criticism, Leavis always had both eyes on the fate of civilisation.
The difference between Richards and Leavis was not so much a difference in kind (as North has it, a difference between an ‘aesthetics of means’ and an ‘aesthetics of ends’) as a difference in degree — of piety and commitment. As their Cambridge colleague E. M. Tillyard observed, Richards’ enthusiasm for the critical project cooled soon after the publication of Practical Criticism, as he turned his attention to other shores (China, America) and other projects (Basic English). It was left to the Leavises to take up practical criticism and transform it into a pedagogy that would constitute some sort of resistance against the incursions of mass civilisation. Richards may have begun Principles with the assertion that ‘a book is a machine to think with’, but it was Leavis who produced a book you could teach with: Culture and Environment: The Training of Critical Awareness (1933), co-written with Denys Thompson, comes complete with classroom exercises and a booklist — with prices. Criticism doesn’t get more practical (or materialist) than that.
The idea, then, that Leavis somehow gave up the pedagogical imperative of practical criticism for pious canon-making simply doesn’t hold up; the piety gave nourishment and purpose to the pedagogy. The irony of this mischaracterisation is that it repeats the very intellectualist error that North accuses most literary academics today of committing ⎯ namely, it overlooks more direct interventions in favour of parsing the political stakes of assuming a particular philosophical or aesthetic stance. The error is especially glaring because, firstly, North himself goes out of his way to talk up ‘Leavis’ work … as fuller of possibilities today than ever before’ and, secondly, he goes on to quote a passage from Williams, who explicitly states that part of Leavis’ appeal was the latter’s ‘great stress on education’ (though North is quick to identify this as an ‘inheritance from Richards’).
Richards’ ‘placing of literary criticism on a disciplinary footing’ within ‘the newly professionalising world’ of academia was no small achievement and it is justly celebrated by North. Yet what goes unremarked is the paradoxical nature of such a feat. Prior to Richards, criticism had always been something of an extramural activity; the critic was typically involved in some sort of educative endeavor, though it was never confined exclusively to the university. North notes that perhaps the greatest measure of ‘the difference between the older discourse of criticism and anything that goes on within the upper reaches of the literary disciplines today’ is the disappearance of any significant ties between the academic discipline of literary study and ‘education at the primary and secondary levels’. By ‘the older discourse of criticism’, North means the writings of someone like Matthew Arnold, the son of a headmaster of Rugby, a school inspector, and the critic who first began to articulate what Chris Baldick has called in an influential study, ‘the social mission of English criticism’. The story of the generalist critic, as North seems on the verge of acknowledging at a number of points, really begins with the Victorian moralists, that motley crew of reactionaries, reformers, and revolutionaries which includes not just Arnold, but Thomas Carlyle, J. S. Mill, John Ruskin, William Morris, and Walter Pater.
Criticism was necessarily generalist for these writers, who produced an eclectic corpus, the ‘constitutive principle’ of which, as Stefan Collini has observed, ‘was the repudiation of specialism’. As critics, they defended a many-sided and humanistic cultural ideal, which could only flourish in the absence of political partisanship, intellectual parochialism, and moral rigorism. The emblematic statement of this generalist tendency was made by Arnold in Culture and Anarchy (1869) where ‘the great men of culture’ are identified as those ‘who have laboured to divest knowledge of all that was harsh, uncouth, difficult, abstract, professional, exclusive’ (emphasis added)—of all that was merely technical, venal, or prone to stir up sectarian sentiment. Arnold may have been speaking about culture at large rather than literary study specifically, but the statement brings the paradox of Richards’ institutional accomplishment into sharper relief. For in creating an academic foothold for literary criticism at a time of disciplinary specialisation, Richards had found a way of adapting to ‘the newly professionalising world’ a discourse that had proven its worth as a bulwark against the encroachments of that very world.
To begin a story about literary criticism with Richards is thus to begin rather late in the game—perhaps, even, to begin in criticism’s endgame. The institutional security of English as an academic discipline seems ultimately to have come at the cost of its cultural mission. Defences of literary study as ‘a distinctive discipline of thought’ (Leavis’ phrase) in the service of general culture are harder to come by now and if we are to believe North’s book, much of this has to do with the withdrawal of the critical paradigm and its potentially radical social agenda. What do we have instead? The accommodation of the liberal arts curriculum to the demands of global capital, in which it is still possible to recognize the importance of critical thinking, if only as a part of ‘a healthy business culture’. This is Martha Nussbaum’s rather telling phrase in Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (2010). As North remarks rather cuttingly, the book might just as well have been called ‘Not for Democracy: Why Profit Needs the Humanities’. But this may be one way in which Richards’ legacy remains alive, for advocates of ‘critical thinking’ are likely to agree with him that criticism is not ‘a luxury trade’—but rather a propaedeutic to trade, pure and simple.
I think it would be a mistake to read Literary Criticism as simply another history of twentieth-century criticism. The tendentious and programmatic shaving down of local complexities allows North to sharpen his polemic into manifesto-like poignancy. One of the peculiarities of the manifesto is that it presumes the existence of something it is actually engaged in creating. This, I think, accounts for the odd yet telling choice to name a book after a practice that in its own account has been off the disciplinary map for at least the last few decades. What the book desires to bring about is not just the revival of the generalist critical paradigm, but also a new kind of readership—a literary-political constituency consisting of the ‘overlap’ between ‘readers within and around academic literary studies’ and ‘readers on the radical left’. To his leftist friends of the present and future North addresses these words:
[F]or all the problems of the history of the discipline throughout the twentieth and now the twenty-first centuries … there is much at stake here for the left. For the struggle is being fought, must be fought, on the terrain of sensibility. Not on the terrain of sensibility alone … but never entirely outside it. If we continue to surrender our ability to fight on that ground, we cannot win.
The urgency of this address lends intelligibility to the whole enterprise: what Literary Criticism aims to provide is not an accurate chronicle, so much as a workable road map into and around ‘the terrain of sensibility’. And more than any other book on the state of the discipline right now, it gives the reader, as Richards might say, something to think with.
Matthew Arnold, Culture and Anarchy, and other writings, ed. Stefan Collini (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).
Chris Baldick, The Social Mission of English Criticism, 1848-1932 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983).
Stefan Collini, ‘On Highest Authority: The Literary Critic and Other Aviators in Early Twentieth-Century Britain’, in Modernist Impulses in the Human Sciences, 1870-1930 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994), 152-170.
Stefan Collini, ‘From “Non-Fiction Prose” to “Cultural Criticism”: Genre and DIsciplinarity in Victorian Studies’, in Rethinking Victorian Culture, eds. Juliet John and Alice Jenkins (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2000), 13-28.
Rita Felski, The Limits of Critique (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).
Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1981).
Bruno Latour, ‘Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern’, Critical Inquiry 30, no.2 (Winter 2004).
R. Leavis and Denys Thompson, Culture and Environment: The Training of Critical Awareness (London: Chatto & Windus, 1933).
R. Leavis, ‘Scrutiny: A Retrospect’, Scrutiny xx (1963).
R. Leavis, The Living Principle: ‘English’ as a Discipline of Thought (London: Chatto & Windus, 1975).
Martha Nussbaum, Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010).
A. Richards, Principles of Literary Criticism, (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 1938 ).
A. Richards, Practical Criticism: A Study of Literary Judgement (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1956 ).
Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, ‘Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading; or, You’re so Paranoid, You Probably Think This Introduction is About You’, in Novel Gazing: Queer Readings in Fiction, ed. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997), 1-40.
M. Tillyard, The Muse Unchained: An Intimate Account of the Revolution in English Studies at Cambridge (London: Bowes and Bowes, 1958).