Dermot Ryan – Review of Joseph North’s “Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History”

Low Library at Columbia University. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017)

Reviewed by Dermot Ryan

This essay has been peer-reviewed by the boundary 2 editorial collective. 

“That is not said right,” said the Caterpillar.

“Not quite right, I’m afraid,” said Alice, timidly; “some of the words have got altered.”

“It is wrong from beginning to end,” said the Caterpillar decidedly, and there was silence for some minutes.

                                                —Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

As a graduate student at Columbia in the early noughties, I attended Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s seminar on Poststructuralism. It was an often tense seminar, where once a week my classmates and I would flounder and generally fail to say anything illuminating about the assigned text for that session. One fraught morning, I attempted to answer a question of textual detail in Derrida to which Spivak responded, “Exactly wrong!” Lost in the rabbit hole of French theory and crazed for any crumb of comfort, I vacillated between hope and despair in my reading of Spivak’s “exactly.” Could an interpretation that was “exactly wrong” provide, through the looking glass as it were, a clue to the right reading? Was my answer so wrong that it was partially right? Or did my wrong answer, like a donut hole, merely identify where the good stuff would not be found. I found myself returning to these questions as I read Joseph North’s Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History (2017). North purports to offer a new history of literary studies, a diagnosis of its current malaise, and a prescription for where it should go from here. The book raises a number of important questions: What would a political history of literary criticism look like? What is the relationship (if any) between literary studies and politics? How is neoliberalism reshaping universities generally and literary studies in particular? North’s answers to these questions are wrong. And wrong in ways that are damaging to the discipline and give ammunition to reactionary forces within and beyond it. But my wager is that they are exactly wrong. North’s history of literary criticism—an account that is wrong from beginning to end, to quote the Caterpillar—can point us in the direction of its true history. Even, if it does so, like that donut hole, by identifying the places we need not look.

North frames his history as an overview rather than an exhaustive survey. His stated goal is to “step back from individual figures and movements in order to bring into focus the basic paradigms that have determined the development of Anglo-American literary studies throughout its history, and that therefore seem likely at least to condition its possible lines of development in the future” (2017, ix). In North’s account, two paradigms have dominated the field: the “critical” and the “scholarly.” In one of North’s many formulations, scholars are those who treat the study of literature “as a means by which to analyze culture” while critics treat the study of literature “as an opportunity to intervene in culture” (2). While scholars treat literary texts “chiefly as opportunities for producing knowledge about the cultural contexts in which they were written and read,” critics use literature as a means of enriching culture by “cultivating new ranges of sensibility, new modes of subjectivity” and “new capacities for experience” (6-7). According to North, the changing fortunes of these two paradigms have shaped the broad history of the field.

Hoping to bring the revolutionary potential of criticism into sharper focus and to explain its current institutional occlusion by the most recent scholarly turn he labels “the historicist/contextualist paradigm,” North proposes an alternative history to the “pre- and post-Theory” narrative, which he believes characterizes most accounts of literary studies. Labeling his own version rather grandly as “the new periodization,” North offers an alternative tripartite historical narrative. In the first period, I. A. Richards puts criticism on a disciplinary footing by developing an “incipiently materialist account of the aesthetic” (x). Richards’s characteristic methods of close reading and practical criticism helped readers, “each from their own specific material situations, to use the aesthetic instruments of literature to cultivate their most useful practical capabilities” (15). In the second period, the project of criticism was taken up by Leavisites and the New Critics, who transformed a materialist aesthetic into an idealist one. That is to say, they shifted the function of close reading and practical criticism from the cultivation of a reader’s aesthetic capabilities to the cultivation of aesthetic judgment. In the third period, which began in the late seventies and continues to our present, the project of criticism was rejected for historicism, reducing close reading and practical criticism to a means of producing historical and cultural knowledge about the contexts in which specific literary texts were written and received. According to North, these three periods of literary criticism map onto three moments in the history of capitalism in the twentieth century: an earlier period between the wars, where a crisis in capitalism raised the possibility of a radical break with the liberal consensus; a period of relative stability, where criticism and scholarship served “real superstructural functions within Keynesianism” (17); and lastly our own present, in which the establishment of a neoliberal order following the crisis of Keynesianism, has resulted in the “complete dominance of the ‘scholar’ model in the form of the historicist/contextualist paradigm” (17).

Perhaps the quickest way to trouble the neat binary between the critical and scholarly paradigm which this historical schema presupposes is to think about the role of close reading in so-called historicist/contextualist scholarship. North claims that historicists treat “literary texts chiefly as opportunities for producing knowledge about the cultural contexts in which they were written and read” (7). Under this paradigm, close reading entails “a focus on small units of the text for the purposes of understanding what the text has to teach us about histories and cultures” (105). In other words, historicists use literary texts as “diagnostic tools for the analysis of historical and cultural phenomena” (106). But is this actually the case? As a British Romanticist whose period interest dictates a deep engagement with historicist scholarship, I have found historically-oriented scholars do not tend to instrumentalize literary texts in order to produce knowledge about the cultural contexts in which texts were written and read. Rather, most historicist research is in the service of close reading: scholars restore the cultural archive that the work assumes, activates, challenges, and subverts. They do this out of necessity and as a matter of course. Imagine a study of American television comedy two hundred years from now. What kind of historical research would be required before future scholars could offer a “close reading” of an episode of The Simpsons or Seinfeld worthy of that name? Without reconstructing this cultural archive (always, in part, an act of imagination), we miss a text’s rich intertextuality. Historical scholarship here is not using a literary text as a diagnostic instrument to understand a historical and cultural moment; rather, it is using historical knowledge in an endeavor to make the full complexity of the text available to be read. Of course, North knows this because his entire argument is built on the premise that unless we understand the real history of literary studies, we are unable to read it correctly: “to understand the character of the neoliberal order that established within literary studies,” he notes, “we need to reconsider the history from the ground up” (14). In other words, we need to put an object of analysis in its historical context to understand it properly. North laments that the “literary disciplines’ sense of their own history is still stuck in the older two-period mode, and as a result fails to capture the quality of our present moment” (13). In short, bad historical research leads to poor reading. North’s historical corrective is a classic example of the “historicist/contextualist” paradigm in action.

And there is nothing wrong with that. Unfortunately, the revisionary history he proceeds to tell is wrong. It is wrong in its facts and in its method. One example can stand synecdochically for a series of unpersuasive historical claims and moves. According to North, during the eighties and nineties, neoliberal forces within the university systematically favored the scholarly over the critical model of literary studies. In this “professionalized and scientized context, the scholarly model of intellectual inquiry—intellectual work as knowledge production” became the central task of literary study (100). It’s a compelling story. And it’s completely inaccurate. Literary Studies has benefited enormously from the disciplinary histories of Gerald Graff, Louis Menand, Chris Baldick, Bill Readings and many others. Indeed, it is a sobering fact that the accretive crisis in literary studies has stimulated brilliant scholarship in this area. North references many of these scholars. But, having read them, he should know that the disciplinary commitment to professionalism and the scientific model of knowledge production in literary studies predates neoliberalism. It stretches back to the origin of English as a discipline. At the turn of the twentieth century, the first English Departments were composed of scholars—philologists and literary historians—who emphasized the utilitarian and scientific value of their research and pedagogy. Indeed, in the fifties, the new critics successfully lobbied the MLA to add the category of criticism to the association’s mission statement arguing that close reading was a method that produced new knowledge. No matter. Let’s return to North’s convenient morality play. In the late seventies or early eighties, according to North, literary studies opted for a form of professional scholarship, one predicated on “technological expertise, much along the lines of the social sciences” (11). Here the problems with North’s historical methodology kick in. Bracketing for a moment the inaccuracy of such claims, this account begs some questions. Who enacted this shift? Was it a voluntary choice within the discipline, one that occurred outside of broader institutional concerns? Or was it a result of institutional pressure? Did it come from university administrators as a vanguard of neoliberalism? Why would the mandarins of neoliberalism within the academy view disciplinary work as valid only to the degree that it resembled the scientific production of new knowledge? North is silent on these questions of historical agency and motivation; or rather, he resurrects a reductive version of the “base/superstructure” model to account for these paradigmatic institutional changes. That is to say, in North’s mind, the discipline has moved from paradigm to paradigm in lockstep with phase shifts in the capitalist economic order. When the mythical economic base shifted to neoliberalism, the disciplines were bound to follow suit. According to this logic, which North describes, in another fit of intellectual nostalgia, as “the historical materialist line,” the future course of the discipline will depend on the nature of the subsequent phase of capital to emerge out of our current crisis (196). To paraphrase the political quietism of Karl Kautsky, we cannot prepare the coming revolution, we can merely prepare ourselves for it.

Such economic determinism, long jettisoned by Marxist cultural theory, can only lead to a very imprecise account of the current political economy of the academy. Whatever we label the new economic model that is transforming third-level education in the United States and beyond—the continued abuse of “neoliberalism” as a buzzword renders its use increasingly problematic—it has shown itself perfectly happy to accommodate both literary criticism and scholarship. As long as these pursuits generate or do not interrupt the flow of revenue, neoliberalism is content neutral. Without fear of censure, North is free to deploy close reading as a means of training the sensibilities of his students. Many of his students, on the other hand, now find themselves in a far more precarious position. While scholars ranging from David Harvey and Wendy Brown to Philip Mirowski and Angus Bergin have debated the defining characteristics of neoliberalism, all share a sense that neoliberalism involves the curtailment of the state as an instrument of social provision (even as the state’s power grows in the areas of surveillance, incarceration, and the maintenance and extension of free markets and private property rights). Accordingly, at the level of third-level education, neoliberalism manifests itself at the level of funding: funding for programs, for students, and for academic labor. As state and federal funding for third-level education have dried up, the focus of university administrations has shifted to cutting costs and generating revenues, favoring those schools and disciplines that can maximize tuition and endowments. Faculty who run programs feel neoliberalism’s effects in the institution of “true cost accounting” as the metric that decides the survival of individual classes and entire programs. For students, federal grants have been replaced by student loans. As a result, future initiates into the sensibility-expanding capacities of close reading will be increasingly burdened by massive student debt. They will already know capitalism isn’t working for them; they won’t need a close analysis of Wordsworth to tell them that. In those programs that are not generating tuition and whose alumni do not contribute to university endowments, neoliberalism is felt in the shrinking of tenure lines and the massive expansion of graduate and adjunct labor. I couldn’t help reflecting that North, like me, was a graduate student at Columbia and that while he was working on Literary Criticism, Columbia’s graduate students (as was the case while I was there) were fighting to gain recognition for their union and collectively bargain with the university. I wondered why this latest union drive had so little impact on North’s thinking about neoliberalism, literary criticism, and the political economy of universities.

North’s decision to make his history a “concise” one results in some serious and troubling exclusions. North states that his history makes “no programmatic attempt to recover the work of thinkers who have been ignored or marginalized because of their subject position” (viii). Viewing this acknowledgement as adequate restitution, North proceeds to ignore these thinkers throughout Literary Criticism, participating in their continued institutional marginalization. This omission seems particularly perverse when scholars of color historically and institutionally, have pioneered, often at considerable risk to their careers, the practice of literary criticism as political intervention. The scholarship of Edward Said, bell hooks, Spivak, Fred Moten, and Hortense Spillers (among many others) is invested in making literary studies and questions of aesthetics count politically in the very manner North demands. The failure to discuss these scholars in any depth seems all the more egregious when North is happy to indulge in a kind of victim blaming when assessing their broader impact on the field. The following swipe at feminism must stand in for a long list of North’s leading questions directed at the legacy of feminist, queer, and postcolonial criticism: “To what extent were second-wave feminist critiques of the welfare state likely to secure basic structural changes, and to what extent were they working to replace a material politics with a mere politics of recognition, thereby serving, albeit often inadvertently, as the hand-maidens of neoliberalism?” (58). In a historical narrative that repeatedly understands literary studies as being reshaped by economic forces outside the academy, feminist scholars are accorded a striking degree of agency here as midwives of the new neoliberal order. North’s choice of hand-maiden to characterize the work of his feminist colleagues is particularly unwelcome. At the same time, North claims their entry into the academy in the sixties and seventies had no institutional or disciplinary effects. We can only assume he believes they were too busy helping deliver neoliberalism. North complacently opines that “actual political struggle—the kind that involve a group, or class ‘forcing’ its way into something—does not take place within the world of scholarship” (88). Here as elsewhere, North’s discussion of the efforts by marginalized groups to challenge the academy’s exclusionary culture is not aided by his clubby tone, which comes off as privileged, tweedy, and smug. North goes on to suggest that “people from marginalized groups who entered the academy and became scholars were, in time, no less ‘trained specialists’ than the gentile white men who had tried to keep them out” (91). Perhaps. But in pursuing careers as ‘trained specialists’ these scholars radically transformed university cultures, helped overhaul admission policies, reshaped disciplinary scholarship, opened up the canon, and diversified campuses. As a matter of fact, their entrance into the academy corresponds with the flight of many of those “gentile white men” from the humanities, which is surely one of the factors in literary studies’ increasing institutional marginalization, the nominal focus of North’s work.

North’s ultimate goal is to recover the lost project of literary criticism and his most original and provocative claim is that the “incipient materialist aesthetic” at the root of Richards’s understanding of close reading can be harnessed as an instrument of radical politics. North sees a lot at stake politically in this project of recovery: “The incipiently materialist account of the aesthetic that lies at the root of the discipline and continues to mark its central practice of ‘close reading,’ is properly understood as part of a longer history of resistance to the economic, political, and cultural systems that prevent us from cultivating deeper modes of life” (x). Accordingly, North identifies one of his book’s desired audiences as the radical left: “the collective, or incipient collective, of those who have found themselves in the difficult and vexed position of trying to articulate and even to live a critique, not merely of the excesses of capitalism in its current form, but of capitalism itself” (ix). This is a curious formulation of the radical left, which smacks more of the romantic anti-capitalism of bohemia than the collective and organized political activism of the historical left. Be that as it may, North cites the proper goal of criticism as “a programmatic commitment to using works of literature for the cultivation of aesthetic sensibility, with the goal of more general cultural and political change” (3). In the wake of Richards, according to North, literary criticism was “an institutional program of aesthetic education—an attempt to enrich the culture directly by cultivating new ranges of sensibility, new modes of subjectivity, new capacities for experience—using works of literature as a means” (6). Once cultivated, this aesthetic sensibility demands ways of being far richer than those that can be offered by capitalism.

Here then is an attempt to articulate a political program for literary studies. Unfortunately, at the precise point where North’s argument needs to get into the details, unsupported pronouncements proliferate. The task of “higher students of literature,” writes North, is the “development of new methods for cultivating subjectivities and collectivities” (20). North never explains why and how literature is a good instrument for such work. Why would it be an effective instrument as opposed to say critical theory, cultural studies, political science, sociology, mindfulness, or yoga? He also struggles to delimit the category of literature. Conceding the sustained difficulty literary scholars have had securing a stable category of “literature,” North can still complacently ask, “Is it too naive, given our investigation of Williams’s cunning critique of the category of the literary, to object that the justification for literary studies surely has to rest, at some stage, on the concept of literature?” (108). The simple, if inconvenient, answer to this question is “yes, it is too naive.” Wanting a stable concept of literature doesn’t make one exist. The discipline has a rich body of work over the course of the twentieth century dedicated to establishing the quality of  “literariness” that might distinguish literary and non-literary texts. These various projects were fascinating, but ultimately unsuccessful. Doubling down, however, North declares that “a discipline needs to justify its object of study, not just its method for studying it” (108). If that is the case, literary studies is in trouble. Even North cannot be consistent here and a supplement immediately and necessarily appears in this anxious declaration: “For of course literary and other aesthetic texts are particularly rich training grounds for all sorts of capabilities and sensibilities” (my emphasis, 109). Of course they are. And of course, we won’t ask what these “other aesthetic texts” might be. Finally, it is never made entirely clear in what manner Richards’ aesthetic is “incipiently materialist” (x). If I follow North’s argument, Richards’ aesthetic is materialist because it refuses to set up the aesthetic as “a self-sufficient category insulated from the rest of life” (30). Richards asks us to shift our focus from artworks in themselves to the relationship between artworks and their audience. The experience of art elicits a set of complex cognitive and affective processes deeply imbricated in the reader’s life world. And yet I can imagine an aesthetic theory that provides a rich account of the mental and affective nature of our encounter with art that is not materialist. I found myself wishing that North had more carefully delineated the materialism of Richards’s approach as well as explain what is at stake politically in designating it materialist in the first place.

For those of us working within the discipline who had registered a certain fatigue with the constant hand-wringing, the countless articles and conference panels diagnosing “the crisis in the humanities,” and the elegies on the demise of literary studies, the alacrity with which the London Review of Books, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and n+1 have championed Literary Criticism is reason enough to take notice of North’s book. For the most part, reviewers have joined North in piling on the discipline and its practitioners, endorsing the book’s conclusion that literary studies is truly in a parlous state. Perhaps we literary scholars can take comfort from the fact that if we are worth kicking (even when we’re down), then we still matter. Apart from offering these dubious consolations, however, the book’s critical reception serves as an important barometer: it confirms that recent efforts to revamp the discipline (distance reading, the cognitive turn, digital and public humanities, the ecological turn) have failed to win over a skeptical public, a public that includes state legislators, university administrators, prospective students and their parents. In other words, those stakeholders who will decide whether the discipline has a future. The broad embrace of North’s old-school model of criticism suggests that many outside the discipline remain unconvinced of the value of these latest developments in literary studies. But the need for an engagement with North’s book goes beyond the fact that its reception highlights the discipline’s ongoing public relations problem. If North’s book failed to answer any of the important questions it raises, it did persuade me that our discipline could benefit from a genuine history of materialist aesthetics that might include Richards, but would stretch further back to William Hazlitt and Edmund Burke and would include figures ranging from Herbert Marcuse and Spivak to Paul de Man and Sianne Ngai. One of the goals of such a history would be to bring into sharp focus the political implications of the kinds of aesthetic education we offer our students. Now that is a hole worth filling.

Dermot Ryan is professor of English at Loyola Marymount University. He is the author of Technologies of Empire: Writing, Imagination and the Making of Imperial Networks, 1750-1820 (2013).


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