Monday, September 12, 2016

Is academic literary criticism uniquely self-critical among academic disciplines?

Is the Pope Jewish?

When I first encountered literary criticism as an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins in the late 1960s the discipline was reflecting on the nature of its own procedures. The same was true when I was a graduate student at SUNY Buffalo in the mid-1970s. Somewhere along the line the discipline seems to have conceived of itself as particularly self-critical among disciplines, or at any rate, in contrast to the sciences, which just keep rolling along.

But is it true? Is literary criticism more self-aware than, say, physics or biology? I doubt it. Oh, critics are aware of their own “subject position” and how it influences their work. Or are they? Is such awareness real or a formulaic rhetorical gesture? Maybe it was real at one time, maybe, but now?

I remember when critics first started acknowledging that, of course, the fact that they’re employed by a university that is supported by capitalism, or that they’re white writing about African-American texts, etc. Those always struck me as intrusive gestures with little or now epistemological value. And that’s pretty much what I think of the professions claim to self-awareness. It’s narcissism grounded in anxiety and signals rigidity and complacency.

And yet, there are signs of change.

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