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If I read him correctly, Guillory himself remains committed, with some qualification, to the idea that the critic can and should be independent — his preferred word is “self-authorizing.” I tend to agree with Gramsci that claims to independence are false. But I owe to Guillory, as well as to Gramsci, the insight that an alternative exists to this false claim. In his 1994 essay “Literary Critics as Intellectuals” Guillory suggests that as-yet unprofessionalized critics might indeed be seen not as traditional but as what Gramsci called organic. The writings of the journalist-critics of the 18th century, he argued, helped the emergent middle class “to identify itself as a class with common interests.” That is, critics like Addison and Steele functioned as organic intellectuals in Gramsci’s sense, teaching the middle class to overcome its incoherent diversity of interests and values and join together to contest the hegemony of the landowners. That’s not all these journalist-critics did, nor is it all they wanted to do. But work in service to a rising class explains the force of their writing better than any putative autonomy does.
My hypothesis in Criticism and Politics: A Polemical Introduction is that there is a fruitful analogy here with the relation between recent academic critics and the so-called “new social movements” of the 1960s and after. Yes, these critics are professionalized, whereas Addison and Steele were not. Still, that relation would explain, for better or worse, why movements on behalf of race, gender, sexuality, and so on have loomed so large in the humanities scholarship of the past decades. In this case too, I suggest, there has been and continues to be an effort to overcome a pre-existing diversity of interests — a more formidable diversity, actually, in that for many of those involved in the movements on behalf of race, gender, and sexuality, diversity, or the inviolability of particular identities, has itself been asserted or assumed as a positive value, something to be fiercely protected. A great deal of intellectual labor, both creative and self-scrutinizing, has therefore had to go into the project of composing for these diverse constituencies something like a coherent and roughly shared worldview, a set of “common interests,” a way of speaking, an Arnoldian poise or tact adequate to a period in which Foucault has replaced Arnold as the key cross-disciplinary voice of humanities scholarship.
At any rate, that was the hypothesis my book extracts from Guillory’s account of 18th-century criticism. The hypothesis takes liberties with Gramsci. What Gramsci had in mind when he talked of organic intellectuals was of course the relation of intellectuals to a class, not a jumble of identities. But how much of a stretch is it to imagine that the same dynamic might also work for a historical moment in which class has not been at the top of the agenda (I think Guillory and I are both regretful about this) and in which political energy has largely come instead from race, gender, and sexuality? How much of a stretch is it to suppose that this dynamic overrides the fact that academic critics today (who are of course not the only critics out there!) are professionalized, whereas Addison and Steele were not?
It doesn’t follow from this hypothesis that I admire all the sorts of political criticism out there, or that I think (as Guillory suggests) that an academic discipline can be a social movement (that’s not the same as being influenced by social movements). Guillory and I agree about the urgent existential or citizenly need for criticism of society. We also agree that no single discipline or profession could possibly have (or want) a monopoly on such criticism. Certainly not a department of English.
To the best of my knowledge, there are no daily text exchanges between English department chairs and organizers of the Black Lives Matter movement concerning the tactics of the day. The sorts of messages that academics might receive from the streets would necessarily be much more diffuse and indirect. What I have in mind is a pattern or structure that would only be visible from a considerable height, and across various disciplines. And I certainly don’t mean to imply that it pertains to any discipline as a whole, as if I thought, for example, that there was no criticism of literature that is not intended to be, or does not function as, criticism of society. When Edward Said wrote so brilliantly on Jonathan Swift or on Gerard Manley Hopkins or (over and over) on Joseph Conrad, he was not “Edward Said” in what seems to be Guillory’s sense: someone who devoted all his talents to taking positions in the public sphere. One thing Said tried to teach his admirers, not always successfully, was how to cultivate the craft of reading. But that’s no reason for us not to seek to emulate the other things he did so well, among them his ability to trade on his academic authority (like his friend Noam Chomsky) in order to speak out from a cosmopolitan and anti-militarist perspective. Like Chomsky’s, Said’s public presence has been an inspiration to people far removed from academe.
Membership in academic institutions does not grant anyone autonomy. We, like our institutions, are dependent.
“The criticism of society is expressed by literary critics,” Guillory writes, “as though it were a direct communication to the public — if only it would listen! Obviously, this is an imaginary scenario.” Well, yes and no. On the one hand, of course the scenario is imaginary. How could academic humanists address “the public” directly? There is no such thing as “the” public, and that includes Said’s newspaper and TV audiences. On the other hand, instructors address a significant slice of public opinion every time they teach a course in expository writing. Mediated though it may be through our institutional belongings, teaching remains a form of public address. And public address is not optional.
At the center of Guillory’s response to my review is the premise that criticism is “self-authorizing.” In a short response, there was perhaps no room for Guillory to elaborate on what he thinks happens to self-authorizing critics under conditions of professionalization. “The criticism of society should not be professionalized,” he writes, but he does not seem to think that professionalism makes the criticism of society impossible or illegitimate. I argued that the two are not mutually exclusive in Secular Vocations: Intellectuals, Professionalism, Culture (Verso). Perhaps this will be the matter for a future exchange.
In any case, it worries me that I can see little if any daylight between “self-authorizing” and the words that Gramsci associated with the traditional intellectual: independent and autonomous. Gramsci was right about that: Membership in academic institutions does not grant anyone autonomy. We, like our institutions, are dependent. Academic critics depend for their survival on the institution of the university, and the survival of the university depends on public opinion and public funding. It seems plausible that, as far as criticism and politics are concerned, the battle lines today are drawn between those (perhaps including Guillory) who think that humanists making political noises merely flatter themselves while endangering public support for the humanities, and those (like me) who hold that, as attacks on critical race theory and the LGBTQ infiltration of textbooks get louder, rising from primary to tertiary education, it’s better to take possession of what we (many of us, much of the time) have been doing anyway, perhaps in the process learning to do it better, and push the case that what we’ve been doing is a small but not insignificant contribution to making our democracy more genuinely democratic.