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This fear led to philosophy and the quest for an intellectual framework that could “hold reality and justice in a single vision” (the phrase is W.B. Yeats’s). Eventually Rorty gave up. It was important, he concluded, “to abjure the temptation to tie in one’s moral responsibilities to other people with one’s relation to whatever idiosyncratic things or persons one loves with all one’s heart and soul and mind.” It is no mark against wild orchids or Marcel Proust, Rorty argues, that they are finally irrelevant to the struggle against injustice.
Bruce Robbins feels otherwise. In his pugnacious new book, Criticism and Politics: A Polemical Introduction, the English professor expresses dismay at what he deems a reactionary backlash within his discipline — a desire to surrender the critic’s “permanent opposition” to the culture of the present. “What’s at stake,” he writes simply, “is democracy.”
His antagonists are those scholars who want to keep Trotsky away from their wild orchids. Over the past two decades, academic literary studies generated a rash of manifestos that reject the politicized “critique” of literature in favor of aesthetics, affect, and the ordinary pleasures of reading — identifying with characters in a novel, say, or falling in love with an author. “Post-critique” offers a course correction; the discipline has invested too much in discovering power and domination lurking behind every literary device. What’s lost, post-critics like Rita Felski and Toril Moi ask, when the protocols of reading in English departments ignore the companionable pleasures of literature in favor of ferreting out forms of political complicity?
It can be hard to recognize in these complaints the everyday practices of writing about or teaching literature in the academy. The undergraduate literature classroom rarely features the scenes of ideological vivisection imagined by post-critical polemicists. As David Kurnick observes in these pages, the so-called method wars of literary studies have really been “melodramas” starring “the professional critic as a cartoonish neurotic.” By treating the enchantment of literature as a sinister ploy disguising the workings of power, this mustache-twirling Malvolio burnishes his own self-image (and career prospects) as a professional truth-teller.
Impatience with this picture is understandable. But if post-critique seems to argue with caricatures, so does its critic. For all its rangy familiarity with the history of cultural critique, Robbins’s noble-minded polemic against the depoliticization of English trades in reductive formulations of its own. What emerges is a meandering and tendentious account of our current disciplinary troubles and the paths forward we might take.
At least since Arnold, Robbins argues, criticism has been defined by its adversarial relationship to the dominant culture. This stance shaped not only the humanistic tradition of literary study in its conservative form (represented at the midcentury by figures like Trilling), but also the left-wing political formations that found purchase in English departments in the 1960s and ‘70s. (For all their apparent antagonism, this shared commitment to opposition was precisely why conservative humanists and radical activists found a common home.) A synergistic hybrid emerged: The prevailing Arnoldian ethos of self-scrutiny and disinterestedness was complemented by an investment in the politics of difference and exclusion.
The ‘60s left also furnished English departments with a diversity of critical perspectives as the attitudes and knowledge of the marginalized were finally factored into the methods and canons of literary study. As both an interpretive practice and an intellectual ecology, then, criticism could serve democracy. Robbins rightly celebrates this achievement. The intellectual ferment he describes broadened the imagination of the discipline, pluralizing both the ranks of the academy and the objects we study. English departments became somewhat more democratic and equitable. This is one of the things Robbins means by “politics.”
After this reasonable history lesson, things get shakier. Robbins presents a series of case studies in which the political force of critique comes into focus, ranging from the role of aesthetics in governance to the uses and abuses of historicism to the ideal form of a global cultural criticism. Along the way, readers will encounter various axioms wielded like defensive charms against depoliticization: Critique is not reducible to fault-finding (though fault-finding has its virtues, too). Critique has neither produced the crisis of the humanities nor can its political claims be treated as a symptom thereof. Critique is crucial to the demonstrable expertise of the discipline. Critique is “part of the work of governing,” a counterforce to the power exercised by the state and other actors.
Academics in literary and cultural studies often invoke “politics” in ways bound to baffle lay readers. While “politics,” as Robbins himself notes, “has the positive appeal of connecting what academics do with matters of pressing interest to people outside academia, … it is rarely mentioned without provoking confusion.” Absent training in the habitus of the contemporary humanities, it may not be immediately evident, for instance, why reading a sonnet or studying a painting should be called “political.” Robbins’s own claims for the political urgency of criticism occur at a remove from the messy particulars of literary interpretation. Scholars who rush to call their work “political” often borrow urgency on credit. Someone has given Robbins a very long line.
For all that he demands in terms of political commitment and engagement, Robbins offers an oddly vacuum-sealed version of the critic, in touch with ideas of political progress but little else. Who writes criticism and where? Who reads it? How do interpretations of Victorian novels “nudge” the culture forward? What are the vectors of this change? It’s particularly strange that teaching plays effectively no role in this argument. The classroom may not be the subject of this book, but some estimation of its worth relative to the activity of criticism might help secure any claims to its political value.
Literature mostly disappears from the conversation as well, and Robbins is especially unconcerned on this front. “For the variety of criticism that came out of the 1960s, literature continues to matter, but demonstrations also matter. … If mattering is a pie, literature gets a smaller slice.” Fair enough, though most professors of English are specialists in particular cultural forms and media: Elizabethan drama, Romantic poetry, graphic novels, African cinema. Our methods are fitted to our objects of study, and it makes little sense to defend these methods apart from the objects they strive to know and present. If Robbins wants to promote the expertise of English professors, the divorce of criticism from any specific object is troubling.
In fact, we have excellent reasons to defend the teaching of literature as in itself a social (and, yes, political) good. We provide access to literacy, to habits of thought useful to future citizens and professionals, to bodies of knowledge both germane and esoteric to everyday life, and to diverse worlds of human experience and expression. But what sort of political efficacy, finally, inheres in producing interpretations of novels or poems, no matter how pointed on matters of political grievance? Robbins himself wrote a brilliant book on the representation of servants in the 19th-century English novel. One wonders how many cleaning staff at Columbia University have benefited from its existence.
This state of affairs is unacceptable to Robbins, who has ardently defended the political power of criticism for nearly four decades — in debates with Catherine Gallagher in Diacritics in the 1980s, in his book Secular Vocations: Intellectuals, Professionalism, Culture (1993), and, most recently, in the “pugilistic roundtables” of the method wars. In 1985, Gallagher suggested that “Robbins claims for professionalism just what Said claims for worldly criticism: an automatic political content. But once again, this content tends to become featureless.” Indeed, one way to understand the contortions of his argument is to see it as part of an ongoing defense of the political agency of the academic professional.
Robbins launches this defense in response to Guillory specifically, in particular to Guillory’s account of the literary critic’s “lost centrality.” Here’s Guillory, in a passage quoted by Robbins, on the critic’s desire for the cultural reach of an older journalistic mode: “The practices of journalism and of literary criticism … continue to confront each other as mirrors in which they see … an idealized image of their former Enlightenment identity (their identity with each other), an image of their former function as autonomous critics of politics and culture.” Robbins thinks he’s made short work of this claim: “There was no earlier autonomy. The critic/journalists depended on the market; they were never truly autonomous.” Since critics never possessed any such autonomy, the argument goes, our status now as academic professionals, too, can be no real bar to our political aspirations. What disappears with a wave of Robbins’s hand are the structural changes in both the profession and the public sphere.
In fact, Robbins has simply misread. At no point does Guillory argue that critics once enjoyed a moment of real autonomy (whatever that would mean) from the market. What freedom they enjoyed was from professionalization of the sort that currently organizes the discourse and labor of both journalists and critics in their separate spheres. If the critic today intervenes in worlds beyond the academy, Guillory explains, it is only by entering the world of mass publicity and leaving the restricted sphere of academic discourse behind. More importantly, Robbins fails to see the emphasis on representation in Guillory’s description. The image of the autonomous journalist-critic is a fantasy projected by critics and journalists onto one another. It is also the very image that has dazzled Robbins into writing this book.
This confusion about the difference between real things and representations persists. Here is Robbins in the these pages, writing on Guillory’s latest book:
[Guillory] warns against too much thinking about “the depredations of colonialism or the anti-colonial struggle,” preferring “the use to which writers on the global scene have put the English language.” Think about this. It’s as if the uses to which writers on the global scene have put the English language didn’t include wrestling with “the depredations of colonialism or the anti-colonial struggle,” or as if this wrestling could not possibly have resulted in the sophisticated, refined uses of the English language that he is clearly looking for.
Peer around the edges of these quotations, and you’ll discover the rest of Guillory’s sentence performing a rather different sort of work: “For contemporary works, it is again, in my view, a question less of who best represents the depredations of colonialism or the anticolonial struggle than of the use to which writers on the global scene have put the English language, as an agent of global interconnection.” The question on Guillory’s mind is how best to add works to a global literary curriculum without reducing them to tokens of experience. This doesn’t preclude talking about the “depredations of colonialism” as part of those “conditions of production” (the language is Guillory’s) that “enter into the fabric of a literary work.” It merely respects the fact that, as English professors, the literary is our primary category of knowledge.
Greenblatt’s criticism, in this book and elsewhere, of course respects the particularity of the dead he chooses to discuss, but his general statement does not. Why does he want to speak with the dead? Simply because they are dead. To him that seems reason enough. It’s not a particular dead person or persons with whom he wants to make contact; it’s not because there is some special connection between the unresolved present of this particular critic and the unresolved past of these particular lost lives — for example, a shared collective injustice or aspiration. The principle would be the same, the desire to speak would be the same, for anyone and everyone, simply because they are no longer there. Some of the dead are dead merely because their lives ended centuries ago. But some of the dead are presumably dead because they were killed. Despite the time that has gone by and the fact that by now they would be dead anyway, indignation at the manner and motives of their killing would not be inappropriate. Nor would it be inappropriate to draw political conclusions from that indignation. Greenblatt flattens out all these deaths, leaving no place for selective and creative compassion, selective and creative fellowfeeling, selective and creative indignation. Reverence like this, which creates an all-inclusive category of “the dead” while eliminating, for example, specifically political motives for speech between certain members of the dead and certain members of the living, seems doomed to end in irreverence.
Robbins’ interpretation here is, well, selective and creative. Greenblatt’s desire isn’t to speak with just any dead person but with William Shakespeare, presumably for the usual reasons scholars, readers, and theatergoers have pursued the poet through his work for 400 years. It’s a failure of critical tact and generosity to single out an individual sentence in this way, to strip it of intention and rhetorical context in the service of a self-interested polemic. That sounds a lot like the kind of reading Robbins accuses his antagonists of performing.
Robbins’s claims for the political urgency of criticism occur at a remove from the messy particulars of literary interpretation.
In any case, Robbins apparently finds it impossible to imagine motives for literary history except either blind reverence for the dead, a trite conservative nostalgia, or politically radical presentism. It did not used to be so difficult for writers on the left to see cultural preservation as a fundamental. In the 1970s and ‘80s, though, Robbins writes approvingly, “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 suffering injustice around you.”
How is reading John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” without attention to British Regency-era politics as morally blameworthy as ignoring, say, the victims of poverty or police brutality? Then again, the more important question might be not the relative degree of moral culpability, but rather why politics ought to furnish us with our language of responsibility and failure when we read literature. Robbins is surely right in at least one respect. Something is lost when we divorce the act of writing from the world in which writing is done, but this is first and foremost an intellectual failure — that is, a failure of understanding, of knowing. That knowledge may be one precondition for a progressive politics, but it ought not be reduced to it.
How so? Some ideas are — and must be — silenced, he argues. Likewise, not all students’ views in the classroom (this is one of the rare moments that teaching appears in the book) will get a hearing:
The instructor applies pressure — pressure in some directions and not in others. This is what movement toward genuine democracy requires. It is what happens in literature itself. We do not cry authoritarianism when a novel pushes its reader toward a particular resolution of the perspectives it has raised. We do not cry authoritarianism when an academic discipline curtails the freedom of racists, homophobes, and flat earthers to speak their minds and set agendas of debate for others.
This passage works by moving quickly away from an actual subject of debate to a place where no one would dare to disagree. Of course, the bad people must be silenced. Finding themselves nodding along to this premise, readers might forget to ask: Is the kind of agreement solicited either by professors or novels an exercise of power, in the sense Robbins means? Has one, in truth, been governed by Mrs. Dalloway — or even by Bruce Robbins?
Yet governance is finally the role to which Robbins relegates aesthetics: “The place of politics in the practice of criticism cannot be understood unless one understands … that in aesthetic judgment pressure is and must be applied.” This travesties Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgment. As Sianne Ngai and Stanley Cavell have both argued, the embarrassment of our aesthetic judgments is that we cannot guarantee their confirmation by others. Like our compliments and apologies, our declarations of beauty and value may be accepted — or not. This is why so many scholars, from Hannah Arendt to Elaine Scarry, have turned to beauty in search of justice. Reducing education to social adjustment, Robbins would reclaim aesthetics as a style of coercion.
In this respect, what Robbins describes as the politics of criticism has become what David A. Bell recently called “antipolitics.” Antipolitics involves a “fear of the weakness and failure of politics.” It suggests that persuasion is an unfeasible solution to the problems of the present, and so works to remove matters of import from debate or deliberation. Some people (maybe all people) are unreachable.
Coming to this distressing conclusion, it’s some relief to turn back to a review Robbins wrote several years ago of Joseph North’s Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History. He’s sharply critical of North, who argues that literature should return to a project of aesthetic education. Against North’s position, Robbins offers this rather touching and humble description of the (politically) therapeutic value of the literature classroom.
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. I’m not sure this belief marks any progress whatsoever beyond what I learned in those formative months when I was first exposed to close reading. It’s not a revolutionary creed. Most ways of earning a paycheck aren’t. But when it works, it’s a thing of beauty.
This paragraph eloquently evades the self-caricature of the political English professor in Criticism and Politics and reveals the humane and generous teacher of literature who wrote it. Literature does not govern, nor does criticism. People do, and sometimes they achieve that goal together. It remains unclear to me, finally, why one cannot have both Trotsky and the wild orchids, and perhaps even find them mutually illuminating devotions — if only we didn’t demand so much of one in the presence of the other.