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This positioning is complicated for me by the admiration I have for both Weber and Durkheim. I need both of them to understand the forms of association treated in my book: discipline, profession, and bureaucracy. I am more ambivalent than Robbins about professionalized literary criticism, but my ambivalence is an entailment of my book’s hypothesis, that all professional formation is also deformation. This hypothesis combines some aspects of both Weber and Durkheim.
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?
Literary Studies Now
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.
“Professing criticism” is a professional deformation, a confusion of discourses that are both historically and conceptually distinct, even when they happen to be practiced by the same person. My argument for this distinction is based on a sociology of professions — not so much Bourdieu as a body of scholarship produced during the progressive era of the early 20th century. My version of this social theory is closest to that of Kenneth Burke, a figure who is decidedly on the left. Supplementing this sociological account is the historical observation (I owe this point to Nietzsche rather than to American social theory) that scholars, especially in the humanities, tend to overestimate their significance and impact in the greater world. This observation is not an expression of animus against specialization or professionalization as forms of association, as Robbins suspects. Both are necessary to the progress of knowledge. The literary profession has its work to do, quite a lot of work. An academic discipline, however, is not a social movement, not a political party, certainly not a collectivity of the sort that can replace the failed political collectivities that doom our country and possibly even our planet.
The criticism of society is expressed by literary critics as though it were a direct communication to the public — if only it would listen! Obviously, this is an imaginary scenario. Absent from this scenario is a recognition of the way in which our social forms of association — discipline, profession, bureaucracy — shape and channel our teaching and scholarship. Nothing in these social forms, however, prohibits our engagement as citizens with the political domain, or the expression of our interest in the political in the topics of our teaching and scholarship. This point touches on the question of “autonomy” remarked by Robbins. I note here that, despite Robbins’s desire for certain academics to assume the role of Gramsci’s “organic intellectuals” (Robbins makes this argument in his Criticism and Politics), they are in fact the textbook example of Gramsci’s “traditional intellectuals.” As intellectuals of this sort, scholars trade an “organic” relation to social struggles for the autonomy guaranteed by the institutional structure of the university, with its ability to hold at bay the political forces that seek to govern it from without. This arrangement (which is always fragile and sometimes fails) favors the advance of knowledge, even the use of that knowledge by organic intellectuals, whoever they might be. Sometimes these are academics, who step out of their classrooms and conference halls to participate in social struggles directly. These possibilities define the complex and paradoxical relation of academics to the political sphere, a relation they are compelled to accept by virtue of their institutional placement, their identity as professionals.
Proposition 1: The criticism of society is, as I have said, a legitimate, self-authorized practice. As such, it should not be restricted to the members of a single profession, much less to any particular university discipline. The criticism of society can and should be practiced by anyone so moved, in whatever venue possible. The situation of criticism is a consequence of the relative democratization of political discourse in modernity, a legacy of the “age of criticism” that extends from the 17th century to the present. Of course, the public sphere is vulnerable to corruptions that I would not want to deny, and which threaten to reduce intellectual discourse to profit-driven forms of entertainment — even when those who participate in it believe that they have entered a genuine intellectual public sphere. It is also undergoing a media fracturing at present that has created multitudinous niche public spheres, many of them with no connection to academe. However, the complexity of these conditions does not negate the general point I want to make: The criticism of society should not be professionalized. It is anyone’s right to produce critique, despite the difficulty of acquiring an audience for one’s opinion, the task I describe as “self-authorization.”
The criticism of society, though self-authorized, is best undertaken on the basis of sound information and demonstrable knowledge. Often these will come from university disciplines, though not always. Expertise — credentialed knowledge — is a desirable foundation for the criticism of society, provided it is relevant to the topic under debate. In any case, there is no support for the notion that the criticism of society is best grounded in the study of literature. That might once have been true, when “literature” meant all forms of writing. But this privilege has long since been abrogated by the diversification of discourses of knowledge, and by the specialization of literary study in the university. Many other disciplines, including the sciences, law, medicine, engineering — all of them, really — provide evidentiary bases for position-taking in the public sphere. Sometimes (not often enough!) academics enter the public sphere as position-takers possessed of information relevant to matters of public debate. Unfortunately, literary critics are only rarely able to enter this sphere. Why is that? And no, invoking the name of Edward Said won’t get us out of this problem. There are reasons why we cannot all be Edward Said.
The questions raised by this line of argument are difficult: What kind of knowledge does the study of literature provide position-takers in the public sphere? To what issues does this knowledge relate? And in what ways is this knowledge unique to the study of literature? These are hard questions to answer without calling into question the claim of literary critics to be professional commentators on any and every subject of political interest. A professor of something cannot claim to be a professional critic of just anything.
Proposition 2: If the criticism of society depends on self-authorization, this condition obtains even for experts in specialized knowledge fields. They too must make arguments that persuade in the public sphere. Their expertise might only gain them an audition for the role of critic of society (or more likely, a critic of some particular policy). Most literary critics will not get even this far; but does this mean that literary scholarship itself can have no relation at all to the domain of the political? I do not say this anywhere in my book. Many, most, even all literary works have a relation to the political, which is of perennial interest to literary scholarship. As I put it in the book, “political thematization is never illegitimate as a way of constructing projects for research or as the subject matter of courses; scholarship must remain open to all domains of interest, without foreclosure, including the political. Moreover, the political implication of literary works is a fact of their social relations. The problem is not with the politics of literature but with the politics of the profession — that is, with the collective understanding of political thematics by the professoriate, or what I am calling ‘justification.’”
The targets of the culture war today are the “liberal elites,” the real focus of the right in our second Civil War.
The question, then, is how we justify what we do. Does this justification necessarily entail a claim to political efficacy? In this context, Robbins mentions parenthetically Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade,” a poem I have taught many times in my department’s historical-survey course, and would like to take up here as an example of what I mean by justification. When I teach the poem, I talk about the Crimean War, of course; also about British imperialism over its long history, and in relation to the internecine conflict between European imperial powers, the trail of blood that leads all the way to the current war in Ukraine. And yet I would not say that the purpose of this contextualization is the criticism of society. I am trying to give my students the knowledge they need in order to read the poem intelligently. In the absence of an express critical motive, Robbins believes that we would be forced to fall back on “praising the well-turned patriotic sentiments” of Tennyson’s poem. Any serious reading of Tennyson’s poem, however (and Robbins hints at this himself), will recognize that if it is intended as imperial propaganda, it is remarkably self-subverting: “Someone had blundered.” Tennyson rhymes the word “blundered” with “hundred,” pronounced in his Lincolnshire accent (preserved in the famous wax-cylinder recording of Tennyson reciting his poem) as “hunderd.” The rhyme “turns” the patriotic sentiments of the poem, but perhaps not in the direction that Tennyson intended or Robbins implies.
Here we might make a useful distinction between canons and cannons. What justifies our interest in teaching this poem, or producing scholarship about it? Is it just the fact of its being canonical, of its being “well-turned”? Or is it the representation in the poem of imperial violence? If the latter, what about all those Tennyson poems in which there are no cannons? What justifies our reading them? Of course, we might say that Tennyson was and always will be for us an apologist for British imperialism. Or for some other opinion obnoxious to our current beliefs. But this seems to me a weak justification for reading his works. In order to justify our teaching and scholarship in this way, we would have to append a declaration of political motive to our reading of every literary work, to advertise the criticism of society as our reason for reading at all. To do that convincingly, we really do need the cannons. Is there another motive for teaching and research? Is there any other justification? It is not well for the discipline if we have to pause in answering this question.
My response to these questions is implicit in the conclusion to Professing Criticism’s second chapter, where I offer a deliberately invidious comparison between, on the one hand, the political work of creating habitual and skillful readers, and on the other, the political work of a critical essay that, however radical its critique, will circulate at best among a handful of period scholars. There is no competition for me between the relative weight of these political tasks.
Proposition 3: The conflation of professional literary study with the criticism of society has aggravated to an insupportable degree the tendency of scholars to overestimate their social impact, and to assert the political efficacy of their work where it is perhaps least to be found. Although I didn’t explore this problem at length in my book, I think it’s indisputable that the public reputation of literary study has fallen steadily over the past several decades. Contrary to what Robbins might suppose, however, I do not believe this decline is the fault mainly of the discipline. The decline of the literary disciplines is a condition shared by all the humanities, and it is largely because of defunding by the state and relentless attack from the right. Perversely, we have congratulated ourselves for this attack. We must be having quite an effect to have aroused such a response. The truth is much more ominous. The Republican right, in fact, has no interest in the actual content of our criticism. They have not read it and never will. Nor do those citizens who resonate to their rhetoric have any real knowledge of what we do. The culture wars have moved far beyond hysteria about whether we are teaching Shakespeare. No one on the right really cares about that. Culture war on the right today is rather a convenient way of identifying certain useful targets on the left, the so-called “liberal elites.” These targets make very good proxies for the real targets in this, our second Civil War.
If one were to ask: what should we do about this situation, I would respond, do you mean: as citizens? Or as professors of literature? I will defer to others more adept in political organization than I in response to the first part of this question, which is immensely complicated at this moment in our history. As to the second part, our possible responses are limited, but they are not nonexistent. This is perhaps disappointing, but what I am saying implies no concession to the fatalism or cynicism imputed to supposed disciples of Bourdieu. At the least, we professors might come up with a better way of talking about the profession of studying literature, and a better way to promote intelligent reading as an indispensable practice of an educated citizenry. Is the cultivation of the craft of reading not something we know how to do, if only we could acknowledge it as our vocation? Is there not a political task here to which we can point, without undue self-congratulation?