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Literary Studies Now
This argument (minus the Cervantes and Flaubert) is the damning linchpin of John Guillory’s new state-of-the-field collection of essays, Professing Criticism. Over the last few decades, Guillory, an English professor at New York University, observes, “the discipline and its institutional structures, especially the curriculum,” have been reimagined as something they’re not — “as surrogates for the social totality.” Battle a book, the thinking goes, and you battle the truth the book reflects; “the curriculum becomes the site of a proxy war.” Since literature professors constitute their own best audience, the echo chambers roar with system-dismantling interventions that dismantle nothing so definitely as the discipline itself. We “must settle for the declaration rather than the realization” of our “critical motives,” Guillory observes. These motives are “a kind of imaginary fiat, imputing to even the most recondite scholarship the capacity to function as a criticism of society, an Archimedean lever.” Archimedes without a place to stand is a freak with a monstrous prop wobbling high above his head. That, in fact, is what we look like on campus.
To those in the field — and to those who read The Chronicle — this argument will be familiar. The novelty is that Guillory is a senior scholar and major figure in the field with impeccable left-wing bona fides — and that he offers a historically profound account of the straits. Guillory surveys trends going back to the Greeks and does so with a particular focus on the last four centuries. Reading Professing Criticism is like taking a familiar hike with an 18-foot-tall friend who sees not only the hills but also the hills beyond them, and the ones beyond those.
Just as you wouldn’t spend a few hours teaching a guy off the street a theory of ballet before sending him onstage in a leotard, you can’t give people a semester of writing instruction and consider them proficient.
Guillory describes our delusions in language borrowed not from literature but from social theory. (This accords with his established practice of handling the profession sociologically; his Cultural Capital, from 1993, helped direct a generation of graduate students to the work of Pierre Bourdieu.) To master something, Nietzsche argued, is to deform yourself in its direction. In modern academe, groups of people tighten the rules by which they deform themselves, which makes it even worse. Thorstein Veblen called the phenomenon “trained incapacity,” and John Dewey, “occupational psychosis.” “Professional deformation,” Guillory writes, “is an unavoidable byproduct of the assertion of that autonomy enabling the cultivation of professional expertise to begin with and that insulates such expertise to some extent from the tyranny of the market and from the draconian intervention of the political system.” Professors achieve power internal to the university by cutting themselves off from the external world.
The problem for literary studies is that throughout its institutionalization it has never ceded its dreams of external sway. Before there was a discipline, there was a reading public, and that public remains the ghost clientele of today’s professors. The 17th century gave birth to the influential man (and occasional woman) who made a living by commenting in fine prose on everything under the sun. The 18th century refined the type, and the 19th century vaunted it. What began in the courts of Louis the XIV as highbrow gossip got written down by John Dryden as serious literary criticism, broadened into taste-cultivating generalizing by Addison and Steele, heaved to the summits of philosophy by Coleridge and Carlyle, and resolved into politics by Matthew Arnold. It still dazzles the ambition of lots of graduate students and professors. We cherish the notion that our literary opinions could carry the force of fact.
Unfortunately, literary opinions carry such force only for people who believe in literature. The old lineage, of course, did believe, and so did its original audience. Twentieth-century scions like T.S. Eliot and the New Critics were believers too, and they helped conceive modern English departments. But these forebears of the discipline were largely conservative. And the graduate students and professors dazzled by them today are not conservative. They are reading Pierre Bourdieu.
The past, for Guillory, is not simply a maelstrom of benighted terror (though it is that, too) but the place where the best practices of people who love language thrived. Since the rise of industrialism, language use has narrowed cripplingly, and scholars can’t regain literary power without regaining intellectual breadth.
Professing Criticism is hardly the first book to describe the epochal contraction of what gets called literature. Over the centuries, and especially since the Civil War, the subject of human engagement with deft language has shrunk from the sestina and oration and epic and epistle to the creative-writing assignment. Augustine was literature, and Christine de Pizan was literature, and John Locke was literature, and Adam Smith was. Now, as far as the curriculum goes, they are theology, feminism, political science, and economics, while literature devolves to little more than the lyrical utterances, in verse or prose, of people talking about themselves.
The lost breadth — and this is Guillory’s most original and maybe most important claim — is not simply a symptom of modern specialization. Instead, it reveals the destruction of rhetoric as an organizing practice of cognition. Rhetoric, for Guillory, means embodied knowledge. That is, knowledge learned as an art, a techne, a thing inseparable from the learner and impossible to teach except face to face. It lives in the topics it conveys and the people who convey it.
The opposite of rhetoric is information — anything a computer can know or an online course can transmit. Information belongs to experts. The last century or so has marked the age of them — including, increasingly, in literary studies. Experts, according to Guillory, understand “less well than ever the process of learning, the relation between art and information. Nowhere is this perplexity more evident or consequential than in the knowledge worker’s relation to the arts of language, so often marked by inarticulate speech and an alienated relation to writing.” Ever tactful, Guillory declines to observe that on campuses in 2023 the people in charge of “writing” or “communication” are often no better — and not infrequently much worse — at communicating than their colleague with a Ph.D. in Milton. Guillory writes:
These ancient arts stretch beneath and across all the fields of knowledge as their common cognitive foundation. Every other cognitive art is built on these foundations, and yet no other social group in history has exhibited a less knowing relation to the arts by which it communicates its knowledge than our contemporary knowledge workers.
People today hear “rhetoric” and think of that ritual course that first-year college students endure. They hear “writing” and think rules, rubrics, and themes separable from grammar. They hear “grammar” and think subject verb object. But, in Guillory’s account, you could not possibly learn rhetoric or writing in a semester, and grammar comprehends the whole of thought, as it did until the 19th century. Embodied knowledge is slow knowledge. Embodied practices require long training. Just as you wouldn’t spend a few hours teaching a guy off the street a theory of ballet before sending him onstage in a leotard, you can’t give people a semester of writing instruction and consider them proficient. Only years immersed in reading, writing, and speaking will impart the fundamentals in a way that realizes their power. Rhetoric, from Athens through the 19th century, was a comprehensive way to structure thought, inculcated over the course of a lifetime.
Guillory never suggests that we don togas and pace the agora, or that we tweet like Lincoln. He masterfully avoids cheap nostalgia. But, trying to invoke what’s changed, he observes that literary scholars used to spend lots more time treating language as what it is — a sophisticated medium capable of achieving astonishing feats of meaning and value. He thinks it’s unfortunate that we voluntarily ceded the single best justification for our existence: that we keep track of these verbal triumphs.
Half lost, or entirely lost, those triumphs need perennial explanation and performance to achieve their full expression once more. The good news is that many undergraduates love to take courses where this happens. Wonder is wonder. That transcendent revivification, rather than ideological topicality, offers a sustainable justification — and maybe even a business plan — for the discipline.
But monuments aren’t monuments without documents, and this is where scholarship earns its keep. Panofsky’s example centers on an imaginary German altarpiece from 1471 and the contract for it. We care about the altarpiece. But it’s the contract that informs our understanding. Without the altar, the contract means nothing. Without the contract, the altar means a lot less. For an example closer to home, consider John Milton’s early lyric poem “Lycidas,” which first appeared in a volume of poems by 17th-century college kids. The other poems are documents. You read them to appreciate Milton’s monument, which sits among them like a Fabergé egg among softballs.
Panofsky’s theory allows for a broad definition of monuments. The Kennedy assassination is a monument, as is the attack on Pearl Harbor. Fewer people would study Lee Harvey Oswald (a document) or the Japanese military in December 1941 (a document), were this not the case. Scholars can weaponize documents to change our understanding of reality. “As fragile as they are,” Guillory writes, “documents store up power; they hold in reserve the power to alter the order of the monuments themselves.” It doesn’t take much philosophizing to realize that no object is essentially monumental or essentially documentary. One scholar’s text is another scholar’s context. And the battles of scholarship have everything to do with hashing out priorities. Are William Faulkner’s works monuments? Or are they just documents that illuminate Toni Morrison’s monuments? The answer depends on the scholar.
Guillory’s upshot is that literary scholars should remember — and that real remembering involves the endless work of going to bat for this document or that monument. Scholars should stay in the business of transforming documents into monuments and monuments into documents and holding both dear. They are stewards and curators of texts and contexts. They have 3,000 years of material to work with, and more each year.
We all know that the same idea, put in different language, is anathema to a left-of-center profession: “great works,” “stood the test of time,” and “the best that has been thought and said” are not phrases to include in your tenure dossier. Guillory throws his bombs softly. Cup your ear and you can almost hear the bow tie rustle:
Every decision we make about what to remember, what to save, has very real social effects. But these effects may also require the long term to become apparent. They are unlike the more immediate social benefits claimed for humanities study, but they are equally important. Just as the humanities find their objects in long time, their effects may be disclosed in long time as well.
Asked what they do, literature professors could answer: “I critique the hegemonic order of neoliberal capitalism as it appears in what’s left of best-selling literary fiction, which isn’t very much.” Or they could answer: “I keep track of the stuff worth saving. Nobody else is going to do it.”
I suspect that Guillory dampers his bombs knowing that his contemporaries have a deeply impoverished sense of the varieties of conservatism. The project of remembering by no means must be the stuff of systemic racism and white supremacy. In fact, campaigns against those things are more empowered by historical consciousness than by anything else. One thing you can remember about American history, sure, is that aristocratic republicans heroically fought for liberty against a king. Told that way, you’re leaving a lot out, and William Bennett will cheer you on. But you can also remember that enslaved Black people were used as collateral in Southern banking until the Civil War (as the historian Sharon Ann Murphy shows in her new book, Banking on Slavery). “Critical race theory” might have made a less easy target for a demagogic right if the humanities, including literary studies, had not yielded so much to the pressure of a fickle present. For citizens to grasp what four centuries of racial apartheid means, they must be able to grasp what four centuries means.
Arendt argues the point with greater bravery and less hesitation than Guillory does. To be fair, the left-wing press in her day welcomed such arguments. That great site of the total annihilation of memory, Auschwitz, was on everybody’s mind. But, adjusting for peer pressure, Arendt and Guillory are on the same page.
Guillory cites Arendt in his discussion of professional deformation, and she lives in his text. Arendt famously apologized for her former teacher and lover, the Nazi philosopher Martin Heidegger, a man professionally deformed with the worst of them. Arendt argued that Heidegger overestimated philosophy, and she placed him in a tradition that begins with Plato’s Republic. “Arendt’s struggle with her own professional formation under Heidegger’s tutelage,” Guillory observes, “compelled her after a fashion to quarantine philosophy in her work — it would seem, just in order to avoid deformation,” which she did successfully.
For citizens to grasp what four centuries of racial apartheid means, they must be able to grasp what four centuries means.
Does Guillory, then, find in Arendt a model for literary scholars trying to speak to a wider world? Strangely, no: “This is not a generalizable solution to the problem of professional deformation, which finally has to be redressed by a better estimation of the aim of philosophy, as of any scholarly discipline.” I cannot for the life of me understand what Guillory means by this. He holds Arendt in higher esteem than almost anybody else he discusses. But he dismisses her as an anomaly.
Arendt, to use his language, quarantined philosophy. She did not expel it. It remains there, informing her writing, which hardly can be considered unphilosophical. Yet her writing is freer from distortion by philosophy than virtually any other 20th-century theorist’s writing, and surer of its moral purpose. If literary scholars could transcend their training in the same way, they might seem less indoctrinated and obtusely self-destructive.
As befits a rhetor, Guillory’s ultimate concern in Professing Criticism is audience. In the final pages, he argues that by waxing ideological, literary scholars are failing to consider their clientele. People all over the world love books. And they love books differently from how professors do. Meeting those readers on the ground of common affection strikes Guillory as crucial to the enterprise. Starting from there, a professor might inculcate even smarter readers. A person who starts with Ottessa Moshfegh can make it to Virginia Woolf. Moshfegh doesn’t need professorial representation in the academy (though she gets it), but Woolf does.
And here you can hear the rustling bow tie even without cupping your ear: “Our discipline is, or should be, committed to developing the capacity to judge among readers of literature.” Guillory, I’ll point out, buries this rare and crucial “should” midparagraph in the bleary late pages of a long, dense book. But at least he’s willing to go there. Who’s next?