It is difficult to see criticism as anything but an innocent discipline. Its origins seem spontaneous, its existence natural: there is literature, and so—because we wish to understand and appreciate it—there is also criticism. Criticism as a handmaiden to literature—as a shadowing of literature, a ghostly accomplice which, to adopt a phrase from Four Quartets, prevents it everywhere. Yet ‘prevents’ bears upon us here in its common as well as its classical meaning. If the task of criticism is to smooth the troubled passage between text and reader, to elaborate the text so that it may be more easily consumed, how is it to avoid interposing its own ungainly bulk between product and consumer, overshadowing its object in the act of obediently ‘ghosting’ it? It seems that criticism is caught here in an insoluble contradiction. For if its task is to yield us the spontaneous reality of the text, it must permit no particle of its own mass to mingle with what it mediates; such mingling would signal the unspeakable crime of ‘appropriation’. Yet how is it to do this without consigning itself to that mode of natural existence which is the life of a parasite? How is it to avoid
The radical self-doubt of criticism is such that it is not even able to say whether it is an ‘amateur’ or ‘professional’ pursuit. It cannot, surely, be professional, for nothing is more natural than reading. It is simply a matter of turning the pages until you get to the end—turning them, naturally, with a peculiar attentiveness, but an attentiveness which, though it can be nurtured and informed, cannot ultimately be taught. Yet it cannot be amateur either, for it is unthinkable that the labour-intensive industry of literary enquiry—schools, university faculties, publishing houses, literary bodies—turns on a mode of cognition more akin to wine-tasting than chemical experiment. When English literary studies were first academically institutionalized in Britain, this dilemma was ‘resolved’ by a judicious blending of the two modes. English literature was a non-subject in a palpable sense: the English gentlemen who occupied the early professorships at the ‘ancient’ universities no more needed a course of specialized training in how to read their own literature than they needed a course of training in how to give orders to their domestic servants. Yet they were, after all, professors of English, and the cavalier frivolity they displayed towards their calling could not go wholly undisguised. The simple solution available to them was to study English literature but to pretend that it was something else—to systematically mistake it for the ‘classics’. No more professionally reputable cloak could have been discovered. One had, naturally, one’s personal opinions about Crabbe as one had about Catullus, but the study of English letters could not conceivably consist in vulgarly airing one’s private predilections in public. Such public airing, as Yeats remarked, belonged to shopkeepers—as it happened, historically, to the son of a shopkeeper, F. R. Leavis. ‘Amateur’ predilections were preserved, but preserved in isolation from the professional business of knowing about literature—a traditional combination of positivism and subjectivism still potent in contemporary criticism.
Such a posture inevitably provoked its reaction. Academically powerful but historically superannuated, the aristocratic and haut-bourgeois ‘pioneers’ of a discipline they palpably disbelieved in were ripe for dislodgement by the ideologies of a social class entering the ancient universities for the first time, able to accomplish the objective tasks set for criticism by contemporary history as their ideologically bankrupt predecessors could not. A petty-bourgeois liberal humanism, academically dispossessed and subordinated yet in intellectual terms increasingly hegemonic, occupied the bastions of reactionary criticism from within as a dissentient bloc. Vehemently radical in its onslaughts on the ‘academic establishment’, the unity of whose aesthetic and ideological assumptions they trenchantly exposed, this petty-bourgeois nonconformist humanism installed itself as the champion of precisely those literary mutations which the ideological moment demanded, and undauntedly rewrote the whole of English literary history in its image. No more militant, courageous and consistent project is to be found in the history of English criticism.
Yet we are not dealing here with a simple clash of ‘class-ideologies’. What is in question, rather, is the contradictory mode of insertion of the Scrutiny ideology into the dominant aesthetic and ideological formations. To designate the movement ‘petty-bourgeois’ is not in the first place to refer to its social origins, for they (though they have a certain relevance) were inevitably diverse; it is rather to denote the contradictions of its ideological universe. Radical and occasionally populist in its formulations, feared and mocked by the ruling academic caste, Scrutiny’s historic function was nevertheless plain: it was to bring about that drastic reconstruction of forms, values, discourses and lineages within the aesthetic region of ideology which, at a point of serious historical crisis, would play its part in revitalizing and reproducing the dominant ideology as a whole. Indeed, it was much more than a question of merely refashioning the aesthetic region of ideology: it was a matter of effectively substituting that region for ideology as such. The ideological vacuum occasioned in English society by the partial collapse of certain traditional sub-formations (notably religion), and the historically determined absence of others (notably a fully-fledged sociology), demanded filling; and it was this task which, in the tradition of Matthew Arnold, Scrutiny attempted. Like Arnold, then, it was at once progressive and reactionary—vigorously alert to the moment of the modern and its new ideological demands, but able to meet them only with pathetically obsolescent and idealist solutions: the ‘organic society’ of eighteenth-century England, the university English school as the spiritual essence of the social formation. It is here, precisely, that one index of the essentially petty-bourgeois character of Scrutiny is evident. For if that puritan, nonconformist tradition was (in the determinate absence of a revolutionary heritage) the only possible force which in its moral combativeness, intellectual seriousness and social realism could ‘progressively’ refashion the structures of a stagnant, socially irrelevant academicism, it was by the same token a subordinate, historically disinherited lineage, driven back onto nostalgic, artisanal images of a pre-capitalist past, embracing the modern
The historical marginality and ‘spiritual’ centrality of Scrutiny resolve themselves in a single category: élitism. Here, once more, the petty-bourgeois character of the movement is revealed. For élitism, as Nicos Poulantzas has argued, is a structural trait of the petty bourgeoisie. footnote1 Committed by its nuclear social and economic conditions to a framework of overarching authority, to ‘standards’ and ‘leadership’, the petty bourgeoisie rejects at once the democratic anarchy it discerns below it and the ineffectualness of the actual authority posed above it. This was precisely Scrutiny’s situation. Though empirically decentred, largely excluded from the ruling academic caste, it nevertheless laid claim to be, spiritually, the real élite. On the one hand, Scrutiny was a progressive vanguard thrown into militant conflict with the academic establishment—a conflict for which it mobilized elements of the radical and liberal ideologies of subordinate groups and classes. It effected what Raymond Williams has called, in another context, a ‘negative identification’ with such social forces, footnote2 to the point where at an early stage it even entertained (in speculative, academic fashion, naturally enough) the desirability of ‘some form of economic communism’. footnote3 But the vanguard was also, notionally, the élite, already disseminating standards from its spiritual power-positions within the literary establishment. That confusion of vanguard and élite was the precise effect of Scrutiny’s inherent contradiction, as an ideological force locked in complicity with the very society it spiritually castigated.