Writing in the LA Review of Books, Bruce Robbins reviews Joseph North, Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History (Harvard 2017). An interesting review of what sounds like an interesting book. Robbins reads the recent politics of lit crit as conservative rather than radical, which is how such criticism styles itself; and we get once more universals.
The broad strokes of his narrative are familiar enough, at least to literature professors. As everyone knows, the radicals of 1968, when they turned their attention to the university, insisted that academic attention be paid to race, gender, sexuality, colonialism, and other measures of historically inflicted injury. In literary criticism, these were contexts that had been missing from the everyday practice of interpretation. Moving into the ’70s and ’80s, it became obvious to much or most of the discipline that to read a work of past literature without asking what sort of society the work emerged from was as reprehensible, in its way, as ignoring those who were currently suffering injustice all around you. This is how close reading, little by little, went out of fashion — a momentous shift that, like so much else that later came to be associated with the ’60s, I was somehow living through but not really registering.Most of the academics who advocated for historicism thought of themselves as radicalizing an apolitical or even crypto-conservative discipline. In North’s view, though, this gets the story backward. The politicization of the discipline that seemed to follow the eclipse of close reading was actually its depoliticization. In the period that began in the late 1970s “and continues through to the present,” North writes, “the project of ‘criticism’ was rejected as necessarily elitist, dehistoricizing, depoliticizing, and so forth; the idea of the ‘aesthetic’ was rejected as necessarily Kantian, idealist, and universalizing.” Yetit was in fact quite wrong to reject the project of criticism as if its motivating concept, the aesthetic, could only ever be thought through in idealist terms. What was being elided here was the fact that modern disciplinary criticism had been founded on an aesthetics of just the opposite kind. In our own period, this historical amnesia has allowed a programmatic retreat from the critical project of intervening in the culture, back toward the project of analyzing the culture, without any mandate for intervention.The newer style of interpretation recognized context, oppression, and injustice, yes, but it also masked a movement away from “criticism” and toward what North calls “scholarship.” Criticism, as he sees it, aspires to intervene in social life. Scholarship, as he sees it, is knowledge-production that has no such aspiration. Scholarship gets off on interpreting the world but can’t be bothered to do anything non-scholarly to change it. Since close reading, as North sees it, was a way of changing the world, if only reader by reader, what looked like a lurch to the left was actually a subtle move to the right.For North, the production of analytic knowledge about the past, whatever its political motives, amounts to complacent non-interference. It’s a way of comfortably inhabiting a present that we ought to see, ethically speaking, as unfit for human habitation, hence requiring us to get up from our desks to do something about.
OK, so all the political critics have been hoisted on their own petards as it where. A call for revolution uttered from the comfort of one’s study is no call at all. Let’s just leave that alone.
Back to Robbins:
North’s book, then, is a defense of “criticism” and an attack on “scholarship,” but reading him it’s considerably easier to see what criticism is not than what it is. It is not, as one might have expected it would be, simply “the aesthetic.” North tells the story of how the rising historical/contextual school rejected the beautiful in the Kantian or idealist sense: disinterested, detached from messy human purposes and particularities, hence purportedly universal. But this is not the version of the aesthetic that North defends. He can see why idealism’s aesthetics came to look like a willful blindness to the experiences and circumstances of particular, often seriously disadvantaged social groups. He does not pretend that everyone should feel the same things, in the face of literature, as the so-called “normal” or universal reader does. Criticism-as-close-reading, for North, must be described on the contrary as materialist.I would like to be able to say that the word “materialist” is a magical solution to North’s problems, or ours. But I can’t. It’s not self-evident, for example, where he stands, finally, on the universality of aesthetic experience.
And so it goes.
The one clear thing materialism means to North is that literature is wonderful not because it is miraculously exempt from self-interested functionality but, on the contrary, because it is useful. As soon as putting a text into its historical context became a widely accepted test of disciplinary rigor, calls began to arise for a return to the aesthetic. Most often they were modeled on Kant. But why, North asks, must we be morally horrified, as Kant was, by any taint of the purposeful or self-interested or utilitarian? Why does the aesthetic need to be anti-instrumental in order to be valuable? Why not see it, on the contrary, as capable of helping us sort out our human values and purposes precisely because it is so decisively and inextricably entangled in those values and purposes?This view has had any number of champions; think of Stendhal on beauty as a promise of happiness, or Kenneth Burke on literature as equipment for living. But in North’s take on the history of criticism, it is most usefully represented by I. A. Richards — who, along with William Empson and F. R. Leavis, exemplifies the interventionist, materialist criticism North endorses.
I note in passing that “Burke on literature as equipment for living” is one of my touchstones on ethical criticism. Robbins pursues North on those other guys, starting with Richards.
He works his way to here:
For better or worse, the project of knowing ourselves, individually and collectively, is what North mostly means by politics. He does not spend much time on politics in a more conventional sense. This is a bit strange in a book that styles itself a political history, even a concise one, but perhaps it is better so. However you feel about activism, there is no imaginable dispensation under which literature departments would train students in leafleting or organizing demonstrations. Criticism in the time of I. A. Richards was not activist in the strikes-and-barricades sense, and a rousing up-and-at-’em is not what North finds in the two contemporary critics who, in his view, have come closest to breaking with the historical/contextual paradigm, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and D. A. Miller.Sedgwick’s “reparative” reading is both utilitarian and, from North’s viewpoint, historical or contextual in the proper sense. You can only set about repairing that which is broken, and that which is broken at any given moment is historically determined. […]Miller, who gets roughly as many pages as Richards himself, comes across in North’s virtuoso reading as a deeply personal reader of Jane Austen. He talks, that is, about what reading Austen has meant in his own life. […]
As for Robbins himself:
When I ask myself why I do what I do for a living, I tend to fall back on the kind of Kantian aesthetics that North sees as hopelessly old fashioned: the pointing out of something beautiful as an appeal for the agreement of others, yet an appeal that asks them to look at it in a disinterested way. According to this theory, what happens in a classroom, as students and instructor give a text their unusually close and more or less undivided attention, is an experiment in political community-building, a testing out of the terms on which we might or might not be able to agree with each other about how life is and how we ought to feel about it. The detour through the disinterested is, finally, socially useful.
Again, ethical criticism. Presumably North would regard what I call naturalist criticism as (mere?) scholarship. Whether or not he would reject it, or for that matter whether Robbins would reject it, I cannot say. I note only that the fruits of naturalist scholarship are available to all, including ethical critics. The naturalist study of form is likely to provoke aesthetic insights otherwise invisible the to earnest moralist.