Wednesday, February 15, 2023

A brief note on the history of academic literary criticism

John Guillory writes about his recent book, Professing Criticism, in The Chronical of Higher Education (Feb. 13, 2023), ‘We Cannot All Be Edward Said.’ He is responding to a review by Bruce Robbins. He positions his response thus:

The source of our disagreement is the place of “criticism” (or “critique”) in professional literary study. Let me begin with two premises I think we both accept:

1. The criticism of society is a legitimate practice. (This is stated frequently in the book.)

2. The professional study of literature is a legitimate practice. (This too is stated frequently, and reiterated emphatically in the last section of the conclusion.)

My argument puts these two premises into relation by rejecting the identity of literary study with the criticism of society. However, if the relation between literary study and the criticism of society is not one of identity, neither is it one of mutual exclusion. A misunderstanding on this point will reduce my argument to the notion that I want politics to be wrung out of literary study, like dirty water from a sponge. Some readers will probably insist on this misunderstanding, no matter how often it’s contradicted in the pages of my book. Is it possible to assert a distinction between literary criticism and the criticism of society without implying their mutual exclusion?

If that’s what interests you, then this post is not for you, as that argument, however interesting it may or may not be, is not what got my attention.

What got my attention are some brief remarks about the history of academic literary criticism. Continuing on from the previous paragraph:

My strategy is to approach this question historically. I point out that literary study and criticism have two different histories. Literary study takes many forms dating from antiquity (rhetoric, philology, belles-lettres), culminating in the early 20th century as a professionalized university discipline: the study of the history of literature. This discipline employed the same archival research methods found in the adjacent discipline of history. Criticism, on the other hand, is a genre of writing that began in the early modern period as a new mode of self-authorized judgment. Criticism was first addressed to literary works, but it later developed into the judgment or “critique” of society itself. Criticism was institutionalized in the new organs of journalism that established the public sphere of early modernity; importantly, it required no academic credentials.

As a self-authorized discourse of the periodical domain, criticism continues into the present day, though as a smaller enterprise relative to the size and complexity of our mass-mediated public sphere. In the interwar period of the 20th century, the two histories I describe converged. Criticism became “professionalized” as a practice in the university, at first opposed to literary study in its scholarly form. Only then did it develop its own disciplinary practice, which we know today as a version of “interpretation.” The unstable coexistence of literary history and literary criticism in departments of literature was stabilized when these two discourses were fused in what I call the “postwar settlement,” the form of our discipline that unites period specialization (scholarship) with the interpretive essay (criticism).

The postwar settlement unraveled in the 1960s (not that it was ever really secure), resulting in the reassertion of criticism. The New Critics, we recall, succeeded in professionalizing criticism ultimately by sacrificing the criticism of society to techniques of interpretation that competed successfully with the research protocols of the scholars. Their early (largely reactionary) attempt to equate literary criticism with the criticism of society disappeared with the postwar settlement. The Newer Critics after the 1960s achieved what the old New Critics could not: the professionalization of the criticism of society. Criticism in this sense was henceforth to be the charge of professional literary critics; they, after all, could claim “criticism” as the name of their discipline.

That’s where things stood when I entered Johns Hopkins as a freshman in 1965. The profession had not quite reached the point of thinking about itself as a professionalized criticism of society, but it was inching its way in that direction. On the one hand, deconstruction would jettison any pretensions that the disciplines had to science-like objectivity; that’s what sunk Guillory’s “postwar settlement.” On the other hand, the cumulative effect of the Civil Rights Movement, the anti-war movement, feminism and others, created a climate in wide ranging criticism of society was/seemed called for and an audience interested in it.

However much those things may have interested me – they did, and still do – my interest in literature was of another kind. And so I gravitated toward cognitive science and computational linguistics.

And so forth.

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