Friday, June 10, 2022

Marking time: The SOTA in academic literary criticism

John Guillory and Jessica Swoboda, Legitimation Crisis: A conversation with John Guillory, The Point, May 31, 2022.

The opening:

Jessica Swoboda: How do critics create their own public?

John Guillory: The only way to understand the “public sphere” today is by doing some historical reconstruction. Because what we’re really talking about with the history of literary criticism is an enormous shift between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries away from a media world at the center of which were the genres of periodical publication. The critics who wrote in that media sphere wrote about literature, but they were not professionalized in the way academics in the twentieth century became. This meant that they could write about pretty much anything, and they did. They won their audiences by the quality and force of their writing rather than by virtue of professional credentials. At the same time, these periodicals also published works of literature, serialized novels and other forms of literary writing, so people got a lot of exposure to literature through these periodicals, which had very large audiences. The connection between literature and public-sphere criticism was very close.

Starting in the twentieth century, with a system of disciplines and highly specialized professionals, there is no longer a media system that can give literary scholars access to a wide audience, not even among readers of literature. There are only a few figures, like David Bromwich, who have successfully crossed over from literature to political commentary, thanks to the few “reviews” surviving in today’s print ecosystem. And so, even though we have access to the infinite virtual space of the internet, we continue to write for other scholars, for our students in graduate seminars and for some undergraduates who might be reading literary criticism, but we’re writing within a professional culture of communication. And the norms of that professional culture are determined in most respects by its institutional locus, the university. These venues limit the scope of communication in a way that the big journals and quarterlies of the nineteenth century did not.

Now what has happened in consequence of this fact, paradoxically, is that, as literary scholars have become more restricted to professional modes of communication, the measure of their autonomy has actually increased. The trade-off between autonomy and access to the public sphere is a subject that demands much more analysis than I can offer in this interview. I’m talking here about structural features of academic discourse. When scholars adhere to these limits, communicate in their own non-public language, the content of their writing is correspondingly less restricted.

The closing:

JS: How would you describe the current state of literary criticism?

JG: That’s actually my concern in the greater part of Professing Criticism. But let me give an abbreviated account. I think that what we have at the moment is a kind of “normal science” version of literary criticism—very little that is really paradigm-changing or transformative. And yet the scholarly standard is high, probably higher than when I was in graduate school. We have a significant number of really good books every year in literary criticism. But the problem for me is that there’s tremendous redundancy in argument. The quality of work isn’t really the issue. Neither is the quality of the minds at work. The issue is that the same argument is basically being applied to many different literary artifacts.

So there seems to be to be something slowing down in the discipline, resisting real innovation, despite the proliferation of new fields and subfields. I would even say that this proliferation is itself evidence of exhaustion, a fecundity that is topical but leaves the underlying structure of literary argument the same. When we look more closely at these new fields, at the arguments about individual works, the logic, the rhetorical strategies, seem identical.

In my book, I make a case for seeing 21st-century literary criticism as confronted with a “legitimation crisis.” But this crisis has more to do with our sense of the ultimate aims of criticism, which have been conceived so universally as political, than with the actual methods by which we approach works of literature. These methods are much less different from each other than we think they are. This is why, for me, it’s rather what scholars have to say about a moment in a novel or a poem that still has the capacity to surprise; at that scale, interesting things can still happen.

My sense is that the discipline is waiting for some theoretical or conceptual revolution that would open up new possibilities, that would make literary criticism look very different at a macro scale. I don’t know for sure what that would be, but I suspect that it would have to entail a resituating of literature both in the discipline and in the media system, a task that is almost too large to contemplate.

There is much of interest in-between.

On the question of what "would open up new possibilities," computational criticism is already doing that for collections of texts over long periods of time, decades and even centuries. Greater attention to form and description, as I've been arguing, would open up new possibilities at the level of individual texts and relationships among them.

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