Dermot Ryan – In Defense of Principles: A Response to Joseph North


by Dermot Ryan

This essay is part of a dossier on Joseph North’s Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History. Dermot Ryan reviewed North’s volume in January 2018. North responded here. This essay is Ryan’s reply to North’s response. 

I am grateful to b2o: An Online Journal for providing a venue where Joseph North and I can discuss Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History (2017), North’s account of the history and future of literary studies. Like North, I consider disciplinary histories invaluable: not only to account for where we stand as a discipline and how we got here, but also to discern and propose new directions for our field. I share with him an interest in how we relate institutional and disciplinary histories to other historical narratives. For instance, I too am exercised by the question of how we might relate recent changes in universities generally (and in literature departments particularly) to the latest phase of capitalism analyzed by commentators under the moniker of neoliberalism. That said, I reviewed Literary Criticism because I think that its history of our discipline is flawed: it offers an inaccurate account that relies on a reductive historiographical model. Moreover, I am concerned that North’s account and the historical assumptions that undergird it do not serve the kind of left politics that North and I would appear to share.

North’s response to my review reminded me that schoolboy errors (whether in the form of inadequate citation, vague attribution, or sloppy quotations) should be avoided as avidly in book reviews as in the books they are reviewing. North concludes his response by stating that he hopes for “critiques that engage with the arguments [he] actually make[s] – critiques that then offer, in response to those arguments, a rigorous and principled defense of the existing paradigm.” While I suspect that North was more concerned with discrediting me as a reader than engaging me as an interlocutor, I will take him at his word. Rather than get into the weeds (or in this case, the footnotes) with North, I will use this response to reengage with his book’s arguments. But I will disappoint North in one respect. I will not defend the “existing paradigm” because the paradigm as it is described by North is one hardly worth defending. Who would champion a straw man? Instead, I will take this opportunity to highlight my disagreements with him about how literary texts work, what literary scholars do, and how we tell the history of our discipline.

Conscious of North’s claim that I have misunderstood and misrepresented his main argument, let me briefly restate it here. Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History is “an introduction to the lost ‘critical’ paradigm in literary studies, as well as an overview of the historicist/contextualist paradigm that has replaced it” (3). Since the discipline’s inception, North argues, the field’s central axis of dispute has been between critics and scholars, the key distinction being that the former treated the study of literature as an opportunity to intervene in culture, while the latter treated it as a means by which to analyze it (1-2). At some point in the late 1970s or early 1980s, North argues, the literary scholarship became the dominant mode (2). Since this “scholarly turn,” the majority of practitioners in the field have tended to “treat literary texts chiefly as opportunities for cultural and historical analysis,” replacing critical approaches, which tended to “treat literary texts as a means of cultivating readers’ aesthetic sensibilities” (2). While criticism developed close reading as “a tool with which to cultivate readers’ aesthetic sensibilities in something approaching a materialist sense” with the goal of more general cultural and political change, close reading under the historicist/contextualist paradigm entails a “focus on small units of text for the purposes of understanding what the text has to teach us about histories and cultures” (105-6).

I want to pause here to note that in North’s schema, both paradigms and their attendant reading methods deploy the literary text as an instrument: the critic uses it as a means of fostering “new ranges of sensibility, new modes of subjectivity, new capacities for experience” (6); the scholar uses it as a means of analyzing history and culture. Neither approaches literary texts as ends in themselves. North never entertains the idea that the role of literary criticism and scholarship might be to figure out the way a text works—not as an instrument to facilitate the development of a reader’s aesthetic sensibility, not as evidence of the culture within which they were written and read (7)—but as a material event in its own right, whose constitutive powers we need to analyze. North thinks that the work of critics and scholars has been to figure out how to make a literary text work, not to figure out how it is working.

For the sake of brevity, I will focus on his characterization of the ways scholars historicize. According to North, the majority of today’s scholars treat literary texts chiefly “as opportunities for producing knowledge about the cultural contexts in which they were written and read” (7). “In contrast to the nonspecialist reader,” North claims, “the majority of today’s literary scholarship is most interested in Woolf for what she can teach us about her time and place” (7). I genuinely don’t recognize these as descriptions of what literary scholars do. Rather than treat literary texts as records of a historical moment, historically-informed scholarship of any value makes visible the ways texts produce new values and meanings, new affects, new uses of language, new worlds, new practices, new ways of seeing, and new subjectivities. Scholars historicize in order to better see the complex and historically variable way a text, a genre, or a mode works. For instance, Kurt Heinzelman and Raymond Williams don’t analyze country house poetry as a more or less accurate record of the rural worlds they purport to represent. Rather, their work shows the manner in which the genre and its conventions make the notion of the country count by using the country to articulate new values or ratify existing ones, to produce actions, to foster and reproduce social relationships.

Now obviously texts don’t read themselves. Texts get cooked up in and react with the bodies and minds of readers. Readers encounter texts in historically and geographically variable ways. Texts remain culturally active by being connected with other texts and mobilized in different ways, and these types of renewals will often involve educational institutions and disciplinary formations. So, literary historians also consider the history of a text’s reception: the concrete and historically variable ways it has been received and produced as a culturally active text. Indeed, we could think of North’s book as contributing to this work. Far from being in any tension with the kind of aesthetic education North is advocating, this kind of historically informed scholarship is a prerequisite to a robust and sensitive encounter with a text’s full complexity. When North characterizes the purpose of historical scholarship of the last thirsty years, he fails to acknowledge the necessary and multifaceted ways scholars historicize literary texts for the purpose of reading them better.

Having noted the manner in which North characterizes the majority of today’s literary scholarship, I want to turn to his historical account of the demise of criticism and the rise to dominance of scholarship. As I describe at some length in my review, North proposes an alternative tripartite historical narrative to the “pre- and post-Theory” narrative that he believes characterizes most accounts of literary studies. In his model, three periods in the history of literary criticism—I.A. Richards and his incipiently materialist account of the aesthetic; the New Critical project which replaced the materialist with an idealist aesthetic; and the current historicist/contextualist paradigm—map onto three moments in the history of capitalism (a crisis in capitalism between the wars; a Keynesian period of relative stability; and our moment in which the establishment of a neoliberal order followed the crisis of Keynesianism). North summarizes this insight in the following manner:

When we track these three lines of thinking as they develop through the century, treating them as central to the discipline, something rather surprising emerges: it begins to look as though the history of literary studies since the 1920s falls roughly into three periods—three periods that match rather closely those of what I have called the “new periodization.” (14)

In my review, I had some fun at North’s expense for his coining of the phrase the “new periodization.” North correctly points out that his coinage designates the division of the twentieth century into three periods, a division proposed by scholars across many disciplines, and not his own proposal for periodizing literary studies. Fair enough. As his response indicates, his book does propose a new way of periodizing the history of literary studies, one that maps his three periods in literary studies onto the aforementioned moments in the history of global capitalism. And North is silent on my critique of his model, which I think I am right in concluding posits that shifts in the social order determine shifts in the discipline. I read evidence of this “base/superstructure” historiographical model in his book’s claim that the “two paradigms of ‘criticism’ and ‘scholarship’ both serv[ed] real superstructural functions within Keynesianism” (17). Or again when he asks “what would one expect to find except that the history of the disciplines marches more or less in step with the underlying transformations of the social order?” (17). And finally, I see proof of a base/superstructure model in this formulation: “on a larger scale the discipline has stepped out its fundamental movement from paradigm to paradigm in close synchronization with the broader advance of the social order itself from phase to phase. This has always of course been the historical materialist line in theory, but to my mind it has not often been taken seriously enough on the ground” (196).

Those of us on the ground might respond that the “historical materialist line” has itself a history, and North’s model of a set of cultural practices shifting from paradigm to paradigm in synchronization with the broader advance of the social order is just one version of Marxist historiography, one that has been subjected to a robust critique by Williams and many others. When North quarantines literary studies outside “the social order” and then claims that this field is determined by “the broader advance of [that] social order,” the constellation of social and material practices that actually constitute the field become epiphenomenal and cannot be investigated as active elements in a larger material social process. Nor can we recognize that these practices possess their own dynamics; dynamics that extend far beyond the ability to speed up, slow down, resist, or accommodate the “underlying transformations in the social order” (17). Let me be clear here that I am not proposing anything like “the relative autonomy” of universities understood as part of the social order’s superstructure with respect to the base. Universities are not only integral parts of the knowledge economy; they are also central to the reproduction of capital’s value-producing commodity: skilled and disciplined labor power. Rather, I am suggesting that all models of determination that identify and prioritize a reified “social order” and then confine whole bodies of social and material practice to a superstructure will always account for changes in those social and material practices by reference to dynamics in another realm (the economy; the social order).

There are real hegemonic struggles taking place over a wide range of social and material practices in universities: we might consider the manner in which the extension of “learning outcomes” disciplines not only students but also faculty; or the increasing role of assessment in driving educational priorities; or the role student debt plays in producing a submissive labor force; or the ways in which the outsourcing of literacy instruction to graduate and adjunct labor is restructuring the political economy of the humanities; or the impact true cost accounting and data-driven decision making is having on the curricula of majors within the humanities. Each item in this list can be investigated as an instance of neoliberalism, defined as the shifting of the state and public institutions from sites of social provision to sites of monetization, surveillance, and control. At a disciplinary level, we could discuss the manner in which big data, digital humanities, the cognitive turn, the science/humanities partnerships undertaken by the environmental humanities, the discourse of the anthropocene, and big history might become sites of neoliberal revenue generation or cost sharing. But you wouldn’t gain insight into any of these practices and their potential to be recoded according to the logic of neoliberalism by prioritizing the transformation of a social order outside the political economy of the university. On the contrary, North’s approach leads to abstract “bird’s eye” formulations like the following:

Williams’ sweeping critique of the project of “criticism” and of the associated categories of “literature” and the “aesthetic,” which at least in its early stages had been directed at a genuine target to the right, was turned to quite different ends when it was taken up in the very different environment of the United States in the 1980s and 1990s, at a moment when neoliberal forces within the university were systematically favoring the scholarly over the critical model of literary studies. In this newly professionalized and scientized context, the scholarly model of intellectual inquiry—intellectual work as knowledge-production, now usually conceived of within the discipline as the production of historical knowledge—was simply assumed to constitute the central task of literary study (99/100).

I am not persuaded by North’s suggestion that neoliberalism favors scholarship because it treats “intellectual work as knowledge production” and that “in this newly professionalized and scientized context,” scholarship as knowledge production “was simply assumed to constitute the central task of literary study.”

In my review, I objected to this claim by North on the grounds that critics and scholars alike have held that the production of knowledge is the central task of literary study since the discipline’s foundation. In his response, North takes exception to this part of my argument, pointing out that his opening chapter acknowledges as much. North adds that his “claim is certainly not that the neoliberal period saw the birth of literary scholarship” (a claim I never suggested he was making), but “that the neoliberal period saw the death of literary criticism.” Rather than clarify his argument, North uses his response as an opportunity to suggest I didn’t read the “first few pages of the first chapter” of his book. He spurns the opportunity to explain why neoliberal forces would favor the knowledge produced by scholars when we both agree that the commitment to professionalism and the scientific model of knowledge stretches back to the origin of the discipline and when we both accept that critics successfully argued that close reading was a method that produced new knowledge. This being the case, how did the demise of literary criticism impact neoliberalism’s elevation of scholarship? Was criticism somehow holding the disciplinary commitment to intellectual work as knowledge production in check (even as it claimed it was itself a kind of knowledge production)? If both scholars and critics framed the mission of literary studies as the production of knowledge, what was new about the knowledge production of the “historicist/contextualist” paradigm? Because he has chosen to impugn my abilities as a reader rather than clarify his own position, I will offer my own interpretation. I would suggest that the “historical materialist line,” as North understands it, requires that scholarship is dominant because it performs some kind of superstructural function. After all, the historicist/contextualist paradigm has been “pushed into position by more general political, economic, and institutional forces of a much harsher kind” (20). Why was this paradigm pushed into this dominant position? The only explanation I can find in North’s book is that the scholarship produced under the auspices of the historicist/contextualist paradigm “fits hand in glove with the model of specialized knowledge production that the thoroughly scientized neoliberal university assumes as the default” (188). In short, the “scientized neoliberal university” privileges “specialized knowledge production.” If North has a more persuasive reason for why neoliberal forces favor scholarship, he did not use his response to enlighten me.

North claims that I have fundamentally misunderstood what he describes as “a fairly simple argument.” As I draw my own response to a close—having restated North’s position and my concern with it—I have a sinking feeling that North will remain unpersuaded of the fact that I understand his account and, as a result, won’t consider my objections to it. At this stage, if North and I disagree so fundamentally about the argument his book actually makes, I can only invite interested parties to read his book and decide for themselves.



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