The Limits of Critique
by Rita Felski
University of Chicago Press
Published October, 2015
Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty and Truth
by A. O. Scott
Published March, 2016
The Art of Reading
by Damon Young
Melbourne University Press
Published March, 2016
Many years ago, back when I was a fresh-faced postgraduate student, I was invited to lunch at the home of my aunt and uncle. It was, I seem to recall, a pleasant spring afternoon. Warm yellow sunlight was falling through the dining-room window across a well-furnished table, where I was seated beside my aunt, who spent much of the meal quizzing me about the thesis I was in the middle of writing on the work of James Joyce.
Everything was proceeding quite amiably, until I happened to declare my admiration for Molly Bloom’s celebrated soliloquy in Ulysses. Expressing myself no doubt with a certain callow enthusiasm, I began to describe the extraordinary labour that went into its composition, mentioning in passing that it was written entirely without punctuation – motivated as I was at that time by the belief that this remarkable fact was not widely known, or at any rate was not as widely known as it should be. It was at this point that another of our dining companions, an acquaintance of my uncle’s, a flushed and corpulent fellow with a pronounced squint, who had apparently made vast sums building shopping centres or something, and who signalled his good fortune by driving around in an expensive sports car, the prestigious make of which now escapes me, but which I can report was indeed red – anyway, it was at this point that my uncle’s rather well-lubricated guest leaned slowly into the sunlight, granting everyone a distinct view of the minor Pollock of exploded capillaries that bloomed across his empurpled proboscis, scanned the table with a single bleary bloodshot eye, and said in a loud and scornful voice:
What’s … the use … of that …?
Suffice to say, the afternoon began to go downhill. A frank exchange of views ensued, during which it transpired that our dining companion held eminently practical opinions on all manner of topics. These included a general disdain for the various academic disciplines that fall under the rubric ‘humanities’, an unshakeable belief in the virtues of trickle-down economics, and a strong disinclination to educate poor people.
If we can place to one side what I think it is fair to describe as the boorish manners of my interlocutor, and overlook for the time being his wretched politics and incorrigible philistinism, it is worth acknowledging the validity of his question. Assuming (as I do) that he was not simply voicing his newly discovered contempt for the avant-garde aesthetics of high modernism, but that his intention was to cast doubt upon the entire literary-critical enterprise, it must be conceded that the problem of ‘use’ is one that critics have long struggled to address.
In Uses of Literature (2008), Rita Felski suggests four possible answers: recognition, enchantment, knowledge and shock. A. O. Scott weds an ironically utilitarian title, Better Living Through Criticism, to a subtitle that evokes the traditional justifications of art, pleasure, beauty and truth. In The Art of Reading, philosopher Damon Young finds an explanation in the cultivation of virtues, devoting chapters to curiosity, patience, courage, pride, temperance and justice. All of these answers might seem worthy enough, but they can also be taken as illustrative of the problem. We are in a realm of abstract nouns and subjective responses, dubious moralising and epistemological uncertainty, affect rather than effect.
The problem becomes particularly acute in an academic context. To the extent that there is currently a ‘legitimation crisis’ in literary studies, as Felski contends at the beginning of The Limits of Critique, this is merely the latest manifestation of a perpetual legitimation crisis that has been part of the discipline from the beginning. When the study of modern literature was granted an institutional foothold in the late-nineteenth century, it was met with widespread scepticism about its validity. Even Matthew Arnold – that famous champion of literary education and the godfather of the so-called ‘social mission of English criticism’ – expressed concern that it may not prove substantial enough to be viable as an independent discipline.
There is a sense in which the subsequent history of academic literary criticism (or ‘theory’, if you prefer) is one of self-justification. Each new movement or school of thought is advancing an implicit – and very often explicit – rationale for its existence; each makes its own claim to methodological, empirical or philosophical rigour. Although in practice there has always been a significant overlap between academic and public criticism, literary theorists within the academy are frequently at pains to differentiate their work, intellectually and formally, from the supposedly impressionistic and belletristic writing that is associated with criticism in the public sphere. And if there is one thing that the past century of theorising can be said to have demonstrated with some conclusiveness, it is that there are many ways to approach literature that render irrelevant the question of whether or not one finds it aesthetically pleasing. You can systematise it like Northrop Frye, interpret it as a locus of ideology and power like Michel Foucault, deconstruct it to expose the metaphysical foundations of Western thought like Jacques Derrida, or run it through a computer like Franco Moretti.
The obvious but far from straightforward counter-argument to such dispassionate approaches is to insist that literary works are aesthetic objects, that they exist to be read and appreciated, and that the experience of reading an individual work is therefore an intrinsic part of its meaning. This is, broadly speaking, the idea that Felski pursues in Uses of Literature and The Limits of Critique. She argues that an allegiance to what she calls ‘critique’ is the defining feature of much contemporary literary theory, in that the assumption of its intellectual virtue is held in common across competing schools of thought. The term, as Felski defines it, denotes something more specific than mere criticism or interpretation. Taking her cue from Paul Ricoeur’s phrase ‘the hermeneutics of suspicion’, she proposes that critique can be understood as a pervasive mode of suspicious thinking, in which the text is assumed to be concealing deeper meanings and therefore needs to have its illusions, unconscious biases and politically nefarious implications exposed and demystified. ‘Contemporary critics,’ she observes in Uses of Literature, ‘pride themselves on their power to disenchant, to mercilessly direct laser-sharp beams of critique at every imaginable object.’
Critique is thus a display of intellectual mastery – one that can seem to be synonymous with thinking itself, since a choice between being critical and being uncritical is clearly no choice at all. But it also generates a kind of paradoxical metadiscourse, what Felski calls ‘an antinormative normativity: skepticism as dogma’. It leads to a compulsive focus on ‘second-level observation, in which we reflect on the frameworks that form and inform our understanding’. Most significantly, critique manifests itself in the pervasive tendency to interpret texts as products of their historical, sociological and linguistic contexts. The singularity and the affective properties of individual works are, as a consequence, either ignored or marginalised or treated as symptomatic. Near the end of Uses of Literature, Felski defines the issue in this way:
Thanks to the institutional entrenchment of negative aesthetics, a spectrum of reader responses has been ruled out of court in literary theory, deemed shamefully naive at best, and rationalist, reactionary, or totalizing at worst. Shifting the grounds of debate requires a single-minded clarification of the caliber and qualities of such responses, as they play themselves out in the relations between individual acts of reading and a broader social field.
The Limits of Critique, which Felski acknowledges is part of a wider renewal of interest in some age-old problems of aesthetics, is an attempt to put this ground-shifting project into action. It sets out to
de-essentialize the practice of suspicious reading by disinvesting it of presumptions of inherent rigor or intrinsic radicalism – thereby freeing up literary studies to embrace a wider range of affective styles and modes of argument.
Felski’s position is delicately balanced, and perhaps a little precarious. She is a Professor of English at the University of Virginia and a respected feminist literary theorist, a product of the academic culture of critique she is calling into question. ‘As a critic schooled in suspicious reading,’ she observes near the end of The Limits of Critique, ‘I am hardly immune to its charms.’ Her stance does not involve a wholesale rejection of fin de siècle literary theory, though she does emerge as a firm opponent of the Foucauldian and New Historicist strands of contemporary thought which favour ‘diagnosis rather than dialogue’. Nor is she attempting to critique ‘critique’, even though a good deal of her argument is organised around her shrewd analysis of the way in which suspicious reading can itself be understood as a distinct rhetorical mode that relies on its own set of defining tropes and metaphors. What she does suggest is that literary studies
sorely needs alternatives to what I’ve dubbed elsewhere ‘ideological’ and ‘theological’ styles of criticism: a reduction of texts into political tools or instruments, on the one hand, and a cult of reverence for their sheer ineffability, on the other.
Anyone who has spent some time in a library hanging around in the vicinity of the low 800s will know that, for all their variety and intricacy, methodological arguments about the interpretation of literature invariably organise themselves around a small number of seemingly unavoidable conflicts, which are constantly being reinvented and given different weight by different schools of thought. Critics, observes Felski, are caught between
dichotomies of text versus context, word versus world, internalist versus externalist explanations of works of art. Literary studies seem destined to swing between these two ends of the pendulum, with opposing sides rehashing the same arguments.
This inevitability, I think, explains the odd sense of déjà vu that is generated by many of the ideas and expressed concerns in The Limits of Critique and Better Living Through Criticism. It would also seem to explain the curious intersection of their arguments, even though these two books address completely different audiences and start from more or less antithetical positions.
Felski assumes she is speaking to her academic peers. This defines the parameters of her book, which does not stray outside the milieu of late-twentieth- and early-twenty-first-century literary theory. That’s fair enough, but it does mean that The Limits of Critique is likely to seem rather insular to anyone who is not part of that milieu. Felski proceeds, for the purposes of her argument, as if it can be taken for granted that no critic outside the theoretical bubble of the past few decades had anything of importance to say on the subject of aesthetics, as if pretty much everything prior to the rise of what she describes at one point as ‘Theory with a capital T’ can be safely assumed to be intellectually beyond the pale. The ‘postcritical reading’ that Felski advocates (she is suitably apologetic about proposing yet another technical term with the prefix ‘post-’) is in this sense a thoroughly institutional concept – a post-theoretical concept, if not exactly an anti-theoretical one. She defines it in opposition to the ossified clichés of recent theory, which she sets out in a droll list. Postcritical reading, she states, embraces
pragmatic and experimental modes of engagement that are not prefortified by general theories. The role of the term ‘postcritical’, then, is neither to prescribe the forms that reading should take nor dictate the attitudes critics must adopt; it is to steer us away from the kinds of arguments we know how to conduct in our sleep. These are some of the things postcritical reading will decline to do: subject a text to interrogation; diagnose hidden anxieties; demote recognition to yet another form of misrecognition; lament our incarceration in the prison-house of language; demonstrate that resistance is just another form of containment; read a text as a metacommentary on the undecidability of meaning; score points by showing that its categories are socially constructed; brood over the gap that separates word from world.
One of the noteworthy features of this attempt to reorient contemporary literary theory is that, viewed from the outside, Felski seems to be proposing something entirely unremarkable. She battles her way to the affirmation of an idea that many if not all non-academic readers would take for granted. This is thrown into particular relief when The Limits of Critique is read alongside Better Living Through Criticism. As a practising public critic, A. O. Scott occupies a very different cultural space. He is chief film reviewer for the New York Times and a former book reviewer for Slate and the New York Review of Books. In Better Living Through Criticism, he offers the essay in defence of his craft that every professional critic is probably destined to write at some stage. Where Felski offers a cautious and carefully qualified argument for re-admitting subjective responses into academic discourse, Scott assumes that the fundamental problem he faces as a critic is how to defend his judgements against the charge that they are no more than personal opinions. When he defines criticism as ‘the transformation of awe into understanding’, he takes the essential subjectivity of the critic’s impressions as his inevitable starting point.
Scott’s argument is thus grounded in aesthetics. His frame of reference is at once broader and looser than Felski’s. He draws on the ideas of Immanuel Kant, Walter Pater and Susan Sontag, among many others, to propose not only that criticism should be understood as ‘the defence of art’, but that criticism is itself an art. This is not an original idea, as he acknowledges. One of his epigraphs is from Oscar Wilde’s essay ‘The Critic as Artist’, the dialogue form of which Scott replicates in a series of short staged conversations with himself (he claims at one point that these dialogues, which are the book’s weakest feature, are actually a homage to David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, but this would appear to be a feeble attempt at a self-deprecating joke). These dialogues alternate with more substantial chapters, in which he argues that criticism is ‘not parasitic, but primary’. Criticism can be understood as an art, he proposes, because art is itself a form of criticism: these two creative activities both spring from the same fundamental impulse, the same instinctive responsiveness to beauty (which can be taken to mean anything that one finds appealing or stimulating or fascinating), and the corresponding desires to dissect, comprehend and express. ‘The fundamental critical process,’ he states ‘– the hinge that conjoins the twin activities of creation and analysis – may reside in the basic activity of loving demystification.’
Two significant points follow from Scott’s understanding of criticism. The first is that once we accept the seemingly uncontroversial proposition that art can make us think and feel things, then it acquires a transformative potential. He moves smoothly from a discussion of ‘The Artist is Present’, a work by the performance artist Marina Abramović that regularly moved its audience to tears, to a ten-page reflection on Rilke’s sonnet ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo’ – a work of art that also happens to be a work of art criticism – which concludes with an imperative: ‘You must change your life’. In this sense, Scott’s title is not entirely facetious: he suggests that art (and by extension criticism) can and does change the world because it demonstrably affects and influences people, in a way that can be both profound and intimate. ‘To say that something changed your life,’ he observes, ‘is also to say that it exceeded your available categories of experience.’
The second point is that criticism is a social act. It is not necessarily a metadiscourse, even if the major part of its function is analysis; its demystifications are a way of bringing inchoate responses and contextual implications to a degree of explicitness, thus making them transmissible. The element of pragmatism that Felski tentatively advocates is in fact axiomatic, since the job of the critic, as Scott understands it, is to resist the idea ‘that thought is the enemy of experience’. Criticism is not the same as ‘critique’, in that Scott does not understand his critical practice as requiring either personal or cultural detachment. Criticism involves a direct negotiation with the concrete reality of the work, the observer’s inevitably subjective responses, and an immediate cultural environment. It is an intervention, the aim of which is to establish an understanding of the art within the context of that specific environment and, in a sense, against its potentially distorting pressures.
These points have moralising implications and thus need to be approached with an appropriate degree of caution. This explains one of the oddities of Felski’s rhetoric. She shares with Scott a fondness for the common tactic of setting out opposed extremes and then positioning herself somewhere on the sensible middle ground. She argues that we must move beyond the ‘schematic opposition of critical detachment and amateur enthusiasm’. Yet on several occasions she also expresses an anxiety that opening the door to affirming subjective responses to literary works, even a tiny crack, will lead to the return of ‘the bogeyman in the closet’. She worries that the slightest concession to aestheticism will lead to the rise of a ‘retrograde religion of art’ akin to that advocated by Harold Bloom – that it will ‘allow a thousand Blooms to flower’ (as she wittily phrases it). ‘Once we start talking about the power of art to make us think and feel differently,’ she frets, ‘can the language of eternal transcendence and the timeless canon be far behind?’
The question is rhetorical, of course, but the answer is ‘no’ – that does not follow at all, at least not inevitably. As Scott’s measured and lucid arguments demonstrate, this is pretty clearly a false dichotomy. That art makes us think and feel things makes it immediate and worldly, not transcendent and timeless. Though the arguments in Better Living Through Criticism are for the most part quite conventional, and none of them will come as a surprise to anyone who keeps an eye on the perpetually simmering debates about the state of the critical culture, the book is nevertheless a welcome demonstration of the point that the value of art is not to be found in some timeless essence, but in the act of engaging with it – that is, it is an ongoing and interactive process, a function of the nature and quality of the critical discourse. There is, certainly, an important distinction to be made between critical detachment and amateur enthusiasm, but to see the opposition as schematic or absolute is to confuse rhetoric with reality.
This is the crucial point that both Felski and Scott seek to negotiate in their different ways. The pragmatic element of critical practice means that it inevitably has a performative dimension. That is how individual acts of criticism distinguish themselves, how they stake their claims to authority, how they define their sense of purpose. ‘One difference between criticism and critique is, surely, rhetorical or performative,’ notes Felski, drawing a provisional line in the sand between academic and non-academic discourse – ‘that is to say, the distinction is realized and enforced in the speaker’s choice of words.’ As a consequence, a critic’s language is always strategic, a matter of adapting to contexts and audiences, as much language-oriented literary theory would insist, but is it never merely strategic. It is also fundamental: a direct reflection of principles and attitudes. The issue of what is at stake when we talk about art and literature cannot be separated from the issue of how we choose to talk about them – the mode of argument, the critical lexicon, the implicit assumptions that are made about the audience’s knowledge, intelligence and receptiveness.
And this is where Felski’s wariness is justified, if somewhat misdirected. Her desire to swing the pendulum away from the determining implications of ‘context’ and toward an open-ended engagement with ‘text’ (one of her chapter titles is ‘Context Stinks!’) is tempered by her awareness that, in fact, context matters a great deal and can never be ignored or dismissed. Assumptions and received meanings will always attach themselves to particular artifacts and modes of address. There is always a danger when writing ingenuously about art and culture for an author simply to replicate those assumptions, to become deferential to a work’s symbolic capital rather than its substantive meaning, to lose sight of the imperative to demonstrate its meaningfulness and its wider cultural significance. The real and far more destructive bogeyman, who is not only out of the closet but rampaging unchecked across the cultural landscape, is ‘criticism’ that resorts to weightless expressions of personal preference and treats books as accessories whose sole purpose is to enhance the first-person singular. This is a point that would appear to be lost on Young, whose book nevertheless bears it out in an unhappy way. I say ‘unhappy’ partly because I think The Art of Reading is a poor book, in the sense that it is meretricious and ill-written, but also because its meretricious qualities are the result of its adopting a stance toward culture that explicitly combines the utilitarian, the instructional and the confessional.
Despite its title, The Art of Reading contains very little in the way of actual reading. In his introduction, Young declares that literary criticism is ‘fundamental’ – but then he doesn’t bother doing any. Though he does claim that careful attention to the subtleties of the written word can deepen a reader’s appreciation and generate insight, he makes no effort to demonstrate this fact. He undertakes no formal analysis. There is no close or sustained engagement with the works of the many famous novelists and poets whose names are scattered throughout. Young does not propose an aesthetics of poetry or prose that might begin to account for the ways in which texts are structured and patterned, nor does he try to explain how or why we might find them affecting.
This is partly because The Art of Reading, unlike The Limits of Critique and Better Living Through Criticism, is the work of a philosopher rather than a literary critic. And it is not really intended as a work of criticism, as such; it is, rather, a pop-philosophy-meets-self-help book, in which the author styles himself as a combined bibliophile, bibliomemoirist and bibliotherapist. This most contemporary of marketing niches (I hesitate to elevate it to the status of a ‘genre’) is generally assumed to have been pioneered by Alain de Botton, whose whimsical How Proust Can Change Your Life (1997) established the formula and spawned a host of imitators. The basic idea, which seems benign enough, is to offer some elementary life advice and unchallenging moral lessons – patience is a virtue, moderation in all things, try to get a decent walk in occasionally – but dress them up in quotes from Great Authors and Important Thinkers to give them a veneer of intellectual respectability.
Scott parodies this utilitarian co-option of culture in the title of Better Living Through Criticism. Young embraces it wholeheartedly. The Art of Reading tries to balance intellection and accessibility, playfulness and profundity, reflection and instruction. It is organised around a select group of ‘virtues’ taken from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, which are examined in a series of short essays. Each chapter applies a categorical virtue to the act of reading; each develops an ethical argument about how we should read (with curiosity, patience, justice, and so on), but also reflects on the ambiguities and subtleties of those virtues. For the latter task, Young leans primarily on the work of canonical philosophers – Sartre, Pascal, Schopenhauer, Heidegger, Nietzsche – whose views are taken up in a magpie-like fashion and sketched in the book’s most cogent passages, often interleaved with anecdotes about their lives and personal foibles (if that’s not too coy a word to describe Heidegger’s Nazism). He all but ignores the highly relevant history of literary theorising that concerns Felski – there are ‘nods’ to Foucault, Derrida, Barthes and Bakhtin, but no serious consideration of their ideas – and he displays little interest in the wider history of public criticism and aesthetics that exercises Scott. He does, however, make a show of illustrating his arguments by citing the work of a number of prominent modern writers.
The experiences reading affords are in this way treated as opportunities for self-reflection and, by extension, personal growth or enhancement. This improving dimension is underscored by the author’s accounts of his formative experiences with books. The chapter on ‘Temperance’, for example, is framed by the story of Young binge-reading trashy Star Trek fiction, only to be pulled out of his intellectual death-spiral by a bracing dose of A. J. Ayer’s logical positivism. Similarly, the chapter on ‘Courage’ includes a three-page discussion of T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, in which Young makes little attempt to say anything of substance about the poem itself, but instead gives us an autobiographical morality tale about encountering Eliot’s work for the first time as a high-school student and arrogantly dismissing it. This was because he was a rebellious teenager, who secretly had a ‘fear of commitment’ and was hiding his weakness and vulnerability behind a mask of bravado and bluster. Only later, when he arrived at university, was he ‘brave’ enough to admit that, deep down, he was himself a timid Prufrock; only then was he able to read the poem and (courageously) ‘observe myself in the light of its glow’.
Some readers may find the idea of Young as an example of the hesitant lacking-in-confidence Prufrockian archetype a little hard to square, but of greater significance is his characteristic mode of argument. The Art of Reading, particularly when Young moves away from his favoured philosophers and begins to speak of the work of creative writers, skates on a thin ice of personal testimony, casual assertion and glib summation. The shortness of the chapters means that their ideas are often underdeveloped, but they are also maddeningly unfocussed. Young skips blithely from one example to the next, plucking names from the air in such a cavalier fashion that one suspects the book may have been composed with undue haste. He seems to have a particular weakness for argumentum ad verecundiam. Pithy observations from notable authors are quoted, but a good proportion of the book’s many fleeting references serve no purpose other than to add a sprinkle of sciolistic glitter to otherwise unremarkable observations. ‘We are born in what the poet Horace called in media res,’ Young writes: ‘in the middle of things.’ I’m pretty sure everyone else calls it that too.
But it is the terms in which authors are discussed that are most telling. Even those writers who are granted a few pages of attention tend to be glossed in superficial and cloying ways: Borges, who serves as Young’s model of curious reader, is a ‘bibliophile extraordinaire’; Henry James, whose notoriously turgid prose is presented as a opportunity to reap the rewards of patient reading, is ‘arguably the king of circumlocution’. And when Young does venture to say something about the work of the authors whose names he is fond of dropping, his language frequently devolves into undergraduate waffle. Alexander Pope’s poetry is described as ‘charismatic in its rhythm, rhyme and humour’. Virginia Woolf’s essays are ‘elegant in imagery and rhythmic in composition’ and she is said to have been ‘driven by an abiding desire for excellence in prose, composition, acuity’. Ulysses is celebrated as a challenging work that has spurred the author to read with justice, patience, curiosity and bravery, only to be summed up with these hollow and graceless lines:
Joyce refuses to identify with any one mode of prose, and constantly displays his craft. Ulysses, despite its unity of ideas, themes and structure, is a fragmented work, confronting the reader with varying impressions in varied languages. What makes Ulysses particularly impressive is that he achieves this while also offering a very human story.
These moments of vague hand-waving, which as critical assessments hover somewhere between the commonplace and the vacuous, might be excused if Young went on to explain what he means by imprecise terms like ‘charismatic’, ‘excellence’, ‘rhythmic in composition’ and ‘very human story’ (to say nothing of the concepts of ‘charismatic rhythm’ and ‘excellence in acuity’). But with few exceptions that is about as deep as he is prepared to go. Among the scores of authors mentioned in The Art of Reading, few are granted more than a line or a short paragraph. As such, the appearance of their names amounts to little more than a ritual genuflection before the altar of literary greatness.
This gestural language, essentially a pseudo-critical shorthand that affects to be qualitative and deferential without being in any way precise or substantive, is endemic in much writing about literature in the public sphere. It is, at least in part, a symptom of a culture of reviewing that has become subservient to the demands of the marketplace and is to some degree mandated by the narrow constraints of that form. But the frequency with which Young has recourse to this kind of empty incidental praise exposes its profoundly problematic quality. In his introduction, he quotes with approval reviewer Geordie Williamson describing the critic standing in a relation of ‘eloquent obeisance’ before the greater literary talent. This oleaginous phrase goes to the very heart of the conceptual difficulty with The Art of Reading. Approaching a writer’s work in a spirit of ‘obeisance’, however great the writer and however eloquent the critic, is a recipe for fatuity. If criticism – a category into which we can place all attempts to articulate the meaning and purpose of art – is to be of any value it must be democratic, a discourse of equals. This can only occur when neither superiority nor deference are assumed. And in fact no deference to artistic greatness or condescension toward an uninformed audience is ever either justified or required. Art, however one defines that term, is something human-created, something held in common, and is always comprehensible as such. Its value is never self-evident or fixed. Whatever form it takes, it is always discussable.
On this point, it is significant that the familiar pejorative characterisations of critics, which Young alludes to in passing and Scott examines at some length – parasite, snob, scold, killjoy, and so forth – portray them as interlopers or disturbers of a supposedly natural cultural order: they are either placing themselves between artist and audience, or attaching their disreputable selves to artists in order to appropriate a portion of their aristocratic glory, or elevating themselves above both artist and audience by acting as arbiters of taste.
That critics stumble into these caricatures, and sometimes even embrace them, does not necessarily make them accurate or inevitable. And this, I think, is the most valuable aspect of Scott’s argument in Better Living Through Criticism. His insistence that criticism is an art does not simply affirm the idea that criticism is fundamental and embrace its element of pragmatism; it also acknowledges the commonality and accessibility of culture and cultural discussion. And it recognises that this democratic understanding is betrayed most comprehensively when we do not criticise, when we act as if value and status are established or fixed. The problem is not with qualitative judgements or the notion of a hierarchy of cultural value per se; it is with the presumption of hierarchy. Scott tells the story of incurring the wrath of Samuel L. Jackson after he wrote a negative review of the blockbuster action film The Avengers (2012). He points out that the terms in which the actor denounced him for his presumptuous intellectualising evoked a double standard: Jackson was attempting to place the film ‘simultaneously beneath criticism (“a piece of bullshit pop culture”) and beyond it (“a fucking great movie”)’. But in fact it was Jackson’s attempt to deny the legitimacy of a critical response that was the true act of presumption, the true expression of cultural snobbery, because it consigned the audience – of which Scott is a representative member – to the role of unthinking, voiceless, passive consumers.
Anyone who discusses art in public walks a difficult line. No one needs to be told how to read a book or watch a film or admire a painting by some egghead who (to quote James Joyce) ‘has to get his hat on with a shoehorn’. Scott argues, with reference to the work of film critic Robert Warshaw, that the critic is ‘not a high priest of high culture, nor yet a sociologist parsing, at arm’s length, the pleasures of the lower orders, but rather an entirely typical, even generic citizen’. He goes on to observe:
The idea of critical authority and the ideal of common knowledge are not in competition, but are rather the antithetical expressions of a single impulse toward comprehensive judgement, toward an integral aesthetic experience, the achievement of which would eliminate the need for critics altogether.
Since there is no such thing as a typical or generic citizen, and since the ideals of comprehensive judgement and integral aesthetic experience are practical impossibilities, it follows that the tension between critical authority and common knowledge can never be resolved, even if they are, in principle, not in competition. It also follows that the need for intelligent critical discussion will never be eliminated. Anyone who writes about art must therefore navigate a treacherous and shifting cultural terrain, and this is a question of practice rather than theory.
We all know that art is a means of self-fashioning and that it functions as a marker of social status. The practical difficulty critics face is how to forge a plain-spoken critical language that will not sacrifice complexity in the name of accessibility, a language that talks neither up nor down, a language that can entice and generate interest without replicating regressive cultural assumptions. Because of the inevitable element of subjectivity, the line between argument and assertion in such instances is never as clear as one might hope, which means it is an occupational hazard for critics that, as values shift, they can find themselves on the wrong side of that line. Wilde’s aestheticism, Scott points out, has at its core a democratic insight into the universal availability of aesthetic experiences, yet it also lends itself to unpalatable expressions of elitism. A similar point might be made about Matthew Arnold, whose name has become synonymous with literary snobbery (and who was certainly a snob by contemporary standards), even though the explicitly stated social objective of his idea of ‘culture’ was to dissolve class distinctions through a process of cultural enfranchisement. This is an abiding danger for critics when they venture to make a positive case for certain kinds of cultural value – a danger that may well be manageable only by degrees. If they misjudge their tone or vocabulary or the intelligence of their audience, they can start speaking as if they are members of a priestly caste, as if they are in some sense dispensers of cultural knowledge, promoters of objective standards of excellence, guardians of literary reputations, peddlers of status and pretence.
This is the trap into which Young falls again and again, largely because he embraces the moralism and the instructional dimension that are implicit in the book’s subject, presenting his ethical approach to the act of reading as a way of ministering to our secular souls. If there were any doubt that, on some level, he is conceiving of his readers as innocents in dire need of his learned wisdom, this is banished in the final section of The Art of Reading, in which he provides a list of references, but takes the opportunity to say a few words about each book and give a few personal recommendations. The condescension that radiates from these pages is quite breathtaking. They are, predictably, full of ‘eloquent obeisance’: Nabokov is lauded for his ‘masterful prose’; an Alan Bennett novella is ‘quietly brilliant’; Edith Wharton writes ‘paragraphs I can drink without becoming full’. (Scott devotes a few amusing pages in Better Living Through Criticism to mocking this sort of language.) But the more revealing aspect is the frequency with which Young’s assessments move beyond mere superficiality to arrive at a kind of comprehensive pointlessness. Moby-Dick, he informs us, is ‘one of the most extraordinary novels in English’. Isaiah Berlin was ‘one of the most clear and charismatic voices of modern liberalism’. Proust’s On Reading is ‘typically Proustian’. (Who knew?) Young also includes helpful information, such as the fact that editions of Dickens and Austen are plentiful, and that many libraries have back-issues of the Paris Review.
At this point, one is compelled to ask in all seriousness: who is this book for? The imagined audience would seem to be eager yet bizarrely ignorant readers, who are perhaps interested in the ideas of Sartre and Heidegger, yet who somehow might not know about either Moby-Dick or Isaiah Berlin, and who are presumed to be unfamiliar with the purpose of a library.
There is a two-handed gesture taking place at such moments. They are a way of talking-up and talking-down simultaneously. The overt show of deference to Great Writers is presented as a transmission of cultural knowledge to lesser-read mortals. Describing Proust as Proustian and pointing out that Woolf did not, as a rule, strive to write badly – these are merely the moments when the presumption of the exercise short-circuits itself. They are the logical endpoint of co-opting cultural prestige to lay claim to authority. It’s like wearing an ‘I’ve read Proust’ badge and it is every bit as gauche. (Describing Isaiah Berlin as ‘charismatic’ is merely weird.) In Better Living Through Criticism, Scott remarks at one point that when someone describes something as ‘pretentious’ it often means they have not understood it and are unwilling to try. But some things really are pretentious, and in the case of The Art of Reading, which cannot be accused of being difficult to understand, this can be taken as a literal description: the book is trading on a form of cultural pretence.
This is not to suggest that Young’s essays do not have their moments of insight, or that his professed admiration for Borges and Nabokov is insincere, or that he is some kind of unreconstructed Leavisite with an allegiance to high culture and a disdain for low or populist cultural forms. Quite the contrary. He makes a point of discussing the children’s books and graphic novels that have meant something to him. But this, too, gives the game away:
By waving aside the curtains between high and low culture, Heidegger and superheroes, I display my rejection of academic stuffiness. I reveal youthfulness and mainstream relevance, and invest in the symbolic capital of the hip intellectual. A casual geek among university staff, and highfaluting philosopher among lay nerds, I seek singularity in each subculture. Alongside this Zizek move, I reveal the universal aspirations of philosophy; the confidence to cross the borders of genres, disciplines, epochs, without concern for my academic passport.
Simply to observe that these lines are self-regarding would be to underestimate their significance. Clearly, there is irony here. The author is displaying his self-awareness, acknowledging that his motives are impure, confessing to his ‘need for recognition’ in a way that seeks to disarm criticism by pre-empting it. But the most telling feature of this self-characterisation, in a book that begins and ends with the author surveying his own bookshelves with evident satisfaction, is its knowing appropriation of symbolic capital in the service of that recognition.
Readers can make their own judgements about the extent to which a middle-aged man’s interest in superheroes makes him seem hip, youthful and mainstream. It cannot pass unnoticed, however, that at this stage of human history the complete list of people who might be rankled by the idea of someone reading comic books alongside canonical philosophers consists of Harold Bloom and Cynthia Ozick, both of whom are in their late eighties, and maybe a few of Rupert Murdoch’s more insane columnists. For everyone else the interaction between high and low culture has become entirely commonplace: if anything, it is the prevailing orthodoxy. Yet in presenting his disregard for cultural hierarchies as it were somehow radical and singular, Young also presents us with a succinct example of what happens when cultural forms are treated as markers of identity and status, when their potential meaning is subjugated to the enhancing demands of the rapacious ‘I’. We are left with the spectacle of culture drained of its substantive content, stripped of its intellectual value, such that its only remaining social function to project an image. Heidegger and superheroes alike are reduced to hollow signifiers. It doesn’t matter what they have to say; what matters is how they make the author appear. What we encounter in these lines is the antithesis of criticism, the antithesis of reading; what we encounter is culture being used.
Young, Scott and Felski all seek to address the difficult problem of how to articulate a positive case for art and literature, how to talk about these things as if they actually matter. That they do so with varying degrees of success is perhaps less significant than the fact that the issues they raise all circle back to the fundamental and immediate question of the interaction between critical practice and cultural context. As a professional critic, Scott is particularly conscious of the environment into which he is arguing and the tensions this creates, and one of the most valuable aspects of Better Living Through Criticism is the clarity with which he addresses these issues. We live, he observes, in a ‘modern, flattened-out, notionally egalitarian world’. As a result, culture ‘lives almost entirely under the rubric of consumption’. The collapse of the old hierarchy between high and low culture, which has been driven in no small part by the inexorable rise of consumerism, is a reflection of this notional egalitarianism:
The world is no longer divided into aristocrats and peasants, priests and laymen, or even into distinct traditions. We are all consumers. A miracle cure for aesthetic headaches has been found. You can do what you want. You can take it or leave it.
The idea that the world is no longer divided into aristocrats and peasants in a material sense is, of course, ridiculous (but also beyond the scope of this essay). Yet Scott is right to recognise that we are now, theoretically at least, culturally enfranchised, enjoying largely unfettered access to the best and worst of human creativity. This is all for the good, but it creates its own special set of problems for professional criticism and the kind of language we use when we talk about art. Among the most inexorable features of our one-eyed, materialistic, consumerist culture are its powers of co-option and trivialisation. The difficulty for contemporary critics is not only, as Scott remarks at one point, to avoid becoming caught in the grinding gears of promotion, but how to speak substantially about the works before them without retreating into an undesirable and self-defeating aestheticism, without simply banking the symbolic capital of those works, and without succumbing to the assumptions of a cultural environment in which the persistent question is ‘what’s the use of that?’
In his final chapter, Scott turns to the example of the hack Jasper Milvain from George Gissing’s novel New Grub Street (1891), who is ‘a careerist and a fool’ and who ‘thinks first and foremost of the markets’. He then makes the countering point:
Metrics can be applied to circulation – copies sold, advertising rates, page views – but everyone who actually reads knows that the essence of written discourse is qualitative. The nature of the content can hardly be, to the writer or a reader, an incidental detail; it’s the whole point of the enterprise. The reason Jasper Milvain strikes us as comically callow – and also a little creepy – is that he is so completely and vocally indifferent to this basic fact.
The Gradgrindism if our consumerist culture is as much of a problem within the walls of the academy as it is outside them. Felski argues that ‘at a certain point, the practice of skeptical regress becomes intellectually uninteresting as well as counterproductive, especially in the light of the current erosion of public support for the humanities’. She states that she is ‘motivated by a desire to articulate a positive vision for humanistic thought in the face of growing skepticism about its value’. That is a worthy and very large ambition, not least because we are well beyond mere skepticism about its value and now face a pervasive ideology that is openly hostile to the idea that anything without an immediate personal benefit could possibly be worthwhile. The kind of criticism that might begin to realise Felski’s ambition would certainly require the pragmatism that she advocates; it is not something to be predetermined – though it is perhaps of some relevance on this point that Odysseus defeats the Cyclops by becoming ‘nobody’. Whatever form it takes, it can’t be all about enhancing the dreaded ‘I’.
Rita Felski, Uses of Literature (Blackwell, 2008).