Joseph North – Still Hoping: A Response to Dermot Ryan


by Joseph North

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. This essay is North’s response to Ryan’s review. b2o also published Ryan’s reply to this response. 

I am not a big believer in the wisdom of responding to negative reviews – what is to be gained?  perhaps very little – but Dermot Ryan’s recent account of my book Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History is based on a number of misreadings that seem to me worth trying to clear up (Ryan 2018, North 2017).

Ryan’s primary claim is that I am a kind of throwback to the bad old days of mid-century humanism – a revenant of the “old-school model of criticism,” as he puts it.  Accordingly, he goes on to charge me with anti-feminism, dismissiveness towards both queer theory and postcolonial studies, and even a kind of antipathy or indifference to union drives.  But this is odd.  To mention just one reason: a reader who judged Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History by Ryan’s review would get little sense of the fact that majority of the living figures celebrated by the book are feminists and/or queer theorists.[1]  In my wilder utopian moments, I had thought that no-one who really read the book (still less anyone who knows my politics!) could have mistaken it for anything except an attempt to radicalize – specifically, to radicalize by mobilizing – the discipline’s existing commitments to feminism, queer theory, and the critique of empire (just to stick with Ryan’s chosen examples; in the book I am concerned also with others, anti-capitalism being perhaps the central case).  At any rate, it seems to me that I am an odd target at which to level these kinds of charges.

But I ought to check my starry-eyed optimism here, for really the charges Ryan levels at me are not so surprising – in fact, I addressed them in the first few pages of the book itself, a fact to which I shall return at the end of this piece.  For now, let me simply note that in order to make the book resemble a proper target for this kind of critique, Ryan has to twist it into some very odd shapes.  Take, for instance, the charge that Ryan offers as a “stand in” for many of the other charges: the charge that the book is somehow anti-feminist.  I take this charge to heart, not least because I was a feminist before I was any other sort of radical.  It is a serious charge (at least among leftists), and one that ought not to be made lightly.  Ryan makes it as follows:

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.

Let me begin by wholeheartedly endorsing Ryan’s general position here: he is encountering what he takes to be an instance of haughty dismissiveness toward the achievements of feminist criticism – in effect, an instance of misogyny – and he is resolved to call it out and critique it.  This seems to me a good thing.  He winces especially at that “particularly unwelcome” term “hand-maiden,” which he reads as a snide attack on the work of my “feminist colleagues.”  All this goes to show my deeper conservatism, or at least the implicit conservatism of my argument: thus, for Ryan, my “swipe at feminism” “stands in for a long list” of swipes at other progressive forces within the discipline.  Having read me in this way, he quite naturally concludes that I am “wrong in ways that are damaging to the discipline and give ammunition to reactionary forces within and beyond it.”  Excellent.  It’s no fun to be the target, of course, but Ryan is firing his big guns for all the right reasons here, and I can certainly cheer for that.

But let us go back and read the line that Ryan identifies as my “swipe at feminism”:

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?  

There are two differences between Ryan’s version of the line and the line I wrote.  First, the original version includes a footnote that Ryan does not seem to have noticed.  That footnote – as some readers surely have guessed already – is to the work of the prominent Marxist/Feminist Nancy Fraser, and specifically to her book Fortunes of Feminism, in which she articulates the most well-known version of the argument to which my line refers (Fraser 2013a).  Now, I hasten to add that my single-sentence summary of her work here is not as precise as it could be, and indeed I would re-write this sentence today.  But even taking this into account, I had thought the reference to Fraser unmistakable, most obviously because of the footnote, but also because I had thought that the argument itself, with that key term “politics of recognition,” was well-known to anyone familiar with contemporary debates within left and marxist feminism.

The second difference: in the original text there are scare quotes around the phrase “hand-maidens of neoliberalism,” whereas in Ryan’s version, the phrase is simply run into the text.    Now, I do not think that Ryan has omitted the scare quotes on purpose – that would be a serious charge.  It is surely an innocent oversight.  But, after all, the omission is not ideal, especially since this is the very phrase that Ryan calls out as “particularly unfortunate,” and reads as an act of misogynistic aggression on my part.  Once one has noticed the quotation marks, one perhaps begins to wonder why they are there.  Why did I place the offending phrase in scare quotes?  Is the term “hand-maidens” really my “particularly unfortunate” way of taking a tone-deaf “swipe” at the work of my “feminist colleagues?”  Is it even mine?  At this point I hope that at least a couple of readers are nodding with recognition, as it were, since the phrase is in fact a reference to Nancy Fraser’s 2013 article “How Feminism Became Capitalism’s Handmaiden – And How to Reclaim It,” which I had thought fairly well-known, at least among those who follow debates within feminism on the left, precisely because of the provocativeness of the term “handmaiden” (Fraser 2013b).  Admittedly, this reference might be thought obscure, and perhaps I was wrong in assuming that readers would catch it (though again, I would have thought the scare quotes would cause a reviewer at least to pause before calling out this particular phrase).  But surely even a reviewer who had missed the reference, and had failed to recognize the argument itself, and had also overlooked the fact that many of the most important feminist arguments in recent history have been critiques of the “second wave,” would nevertheless think to read the footnote to Fraser before rushing to the conclusion that this line represents a “swipe at feminism” on my part?  In any event, the argument that Ryan calls out, in a peer-reviewed article, as a telling example of my supposed “anti-feminism” is in fact a feminist argument, and a rather famous one.  It’s at times like this that I find myself oddly pleased that Ryan thinks my work is “exactly wrong,” since he is reading it exactly backwards.  We could find ourselves in a kind of broad agreement if only he would stop reading me upside-down.

This would seem to me a fairly egregious example of misreading by anyone’s lights.  Is it an isolated case?  Of course I am uniquely placed to be oversensitive here, but it seems to me that it is not an isolated case.  In fact, Ryan does this often.  Despite my fairly loud (I had thought perhaps even obnoxiously loud) declarations of radical intent, his conviction that I am a closet reactionary is so strong that he repeatedly misreads my summaries of others’ views as if they were my views, and then objects to them.  Take, for example, his main objection to my tone:

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.

Again, I can endorse Ryan’s general position here: I, too, would want to argue against anyone who claimed 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.”  Inconveniently, though, I was in fact arguing against that claim in the very line Ryan quotes.  The line is drawn from my account of some of the problematic assumptions that seem to me to underpin Greenblatt and Gallagher’s Practicing New Historicism – assumptions that I subject to a fairly blunt critique.  In passing, I’ll note that I keep being confronted by scholars who want to defend Greenblatt and Gallagher on this score (or else defend New Historicism more generally, minus those two): many people in the discipline (particularly of a certain generation) seem to think that I was too critical of them here, or else simply too blunt.  But to my knowledge Ryan is the first to misread me as endorsing the very view that I critique so bluntly, and he is certainly the first to critique me for “complacently opining” it.

The specific examples Ryan cites here are all, I believe, based on demonstrable misreadings.  Another case: when summarizing my account of the discipline’s history, Ryan writes that North “labels his own version rather grandly as ‘the new periodization.’” As it happened, I didn’t label my own work “the new periodization,” and I believe that this is fairly obvious on the page (the whole discussion is on pp12-14, for those who want to check).  Where it originally appears, the phrase refers not to some great innovation on my part, but to a view now held by many scholars across many disciplines, the view being that the 20th century ought to be considered a three-period century, rather than a two-period century, as was once widely assumed.  I cite Piketty as an example of a prominent scholar who takes roughly this view, but I am really talking about a view held much more widely.  In any event, on this point my own contribution, such as it is, is simply to show how the history of Anglo-American literary studies fits into a larger puzzle put together by others; there is certainly no question of my labeling my own work “the new periodization” in this “grand” manner.

Ryan also has an odd tendency to critique me (and in such strident terms!) for neglecting to say things that in fact I say quite clearly.  His language suggests that he places quite a lot of confidence in the following observation:

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. […] 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. […] No matter. Let’s return to North’s convenient morality play.

If this claim truly “stands synecdochically” for many of my “unpersuasive historical claims and moves,” then I think I am in pretty good shape, for Ryan’s historical observations here easily could have been lifted directly from the first chapter of my book.  For of course the “disciplinary commitment to professionalism and the scientific model of knowledge production in literary studies predates neoliberalism.”  Who would deny it?  Not me.  Literary scholarship has involved a “commitment to professionalism and the scientific model of knowledge production” at least since the fin de siècle.  I began the first chapter of the book by pointing out precisely this, and I even made the point by referring to two of the scholars Ryan mentions, Graff and Baldick (though I set them alongside Guillory, rather than Menand or Readings).  Moreover, the rest of my argument simply assumes the truth of this, because, well, it’s so obvious: thus, throughout the book, my claim is certainly not that the neoliberal period saw the birth of literary scholarship –  that would be a very silly claim indeed.  Rather my claim, in part, is that the neoliberal period saw the death of literary criticism, for a certain important meaning of that phrase. That is quite a different thing.

I could go on, but let me instead draw to a close by making a single more general point.  Before making it, I would like to emphasize once again that, in my optimism, I still think that Ryan and I could be in sympathy with one another here – pretty much all of his critiques of my work seem to me decent in principle.  Nevertheless, those critiques seem to me quite misplaced; he is engaging with something, I am certain, but it is not me.  At this point I am going to risk going a step further by observing that all the claims we have seen Ryan making so far are not just false, but trivially false, by which I mean that they are false in such a way that they could easily be dispelled by, say, reading a footnote, or noticing some quotation marks, or reading a line in relation to its immediate context, or reading the first few pages of the first chapter – not even familiarity with recent debates within feminism would be required.  Why is a professional reader who is intelligent, principled, and well-informed, as Ryan clearly is, nevertheless lapsing repeatedly into trivial misreadings when confronted by what is, after all, a fairly simple argument?  The answer, I think, is that he has begun with such a strong set of assumptions about what I must have written, that it has often prevented him from reading what I actually wrote.

What is this troubling set of assumptions, and where does it come from?  People who quote themselves quickly become tiresome, but I’ll risk doing so just once to close.  In the introduction to the book, I wrote:

Over the last three decades, the discipline has tended to assume that any attack on the historicist/contextualist paradigm must originate in cultural conservatism, particularly if the offending party makes use of such terms as “criticism,” “aesthetic,” “sensibility,” and similar.  This assumption has allowed much to pass for progressivism, even for radicalism, that under other circumstances would have been seen much more clearly for what it was.  (4)

Ryan’s argument strikes me as a good example of just this kind: hearing that I have doubts about the usual historicist/contextualist priorities, he has assumed that my argument must be such as to “give ammunition to reactionary forces,” and he has thus proceeded to condemn it on that basis.  Now, in a way it is pleasing to see someone coming out with precisely the critique I had expected, since it gives me an opportunity to show how much in the book has to be misread, or simply elided, in order to make that critique sound plausible.  But what one really hopes for are critiques that manage to get past those old assumptions – critiques that engage with the arguments I actually make – critiques that then offer, in response to those arguments, a rigorous and principled defense of the existing paradigm.  I’m still hoping.

Joseph North is an assistant professor of English at Yale University.  He is the author of Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History (2018).


Fraser, Nancy. 2013a.  Fortunes of Feminism: From State-Managed Capitalism to Neoliberal Crisis.  London: Verso.

Fraser, Nancy. 2013b. “How Feminism Became Capitalism’s Handmaiden – And How to Reclaim It.”  The Guardian, October 14.

North, Joseph. 2017. Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History. Cambridge: Harvard

Roth, Marco. 2017. “Tokens of Ruined Method: Does Literary Studies Have a Future?” n+1, no. 29: 179-189.

Ryan, Dermot. 2018. “Review of Joseph North’s Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History. boundary 2 online, January 29.

[1] In passing, I’ll note that readers don’t have to take my word for this: in lieu of reading the book itself, they can simply consult other reviews of it, many of which have pointed out precisely this.  Thus Marco Roth at n+1: “The catalog of critics covered in [the final, most positive chapter, is] almost exclusively female or queer: the late Eve Sedgwick, Isobel Armstrong […], Lauren Berlant, and D. A. Miller” (Roth 2017).


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here