What is literary criticism for?’ This is the inviting and perhaps exasperated question with which Joseph North began his essay, ‘Two Paragraphs in Raymond Williams’, which recently appeared in the pages of this journal. The essay was a response to Francis Mulhern’s review of North’s book, Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History (2017), which could be described as an extended diagnosis of the contemporary state of Anglophone academic literary criticism arguing that it has lost its capacity to answer his essay’s opening question.footnote1 ‘Lost’, because this is a capacity, North insists, the discipline once had. Previously, literary critics had ‘detailed and intellectually rigorous methods both for analysing the culture and for taking action to change it’, but since what North calls ‘the turn to scholarship’ in the 1970s and 80s, and the ensuing ascendancy of the ‘historicist/contextualist paradigm’, cultural analysis—producing ‘politically inert forms of professionalized knowledge’ about culture—has superseded the earlier accompanying emphasis on intervening in culture.footnote2
Today’s scholars have not only surrendered the cultural relevance and political agency literary criticism once sought to have—and so forgotten what it is for—the discipline has also lost sight of whom it is for. One of the refrains of North’s book is that the methods of close reading and practical criticism pioneered by I. A. Richards were originally a means of cultivating our ‘aesthetic capabilities’, while texts were prized according to their ‘value to readers’, as ‘instruments of aesthetic education’; but that—thanks largely to the influence of the New Critics and their deforming translation of Richards’s techniques—this initial pedagogical preoccupation with ‘better ordering our minds’ was displaced by an unhealthy fixation on ranking texts into final hierarchies. These losses of what North regards as criticism’s founding and signature emphases—on cultural intervention and individual enrichment—are related, since the two worked in concert, the one via the other: criticism was once ‘a programmatic commitment to using works of literature for the cultivation of aesthetic sensibility, with the goal of more general cultural and political change’.footnote3
Roughly the first half of Literary Criticism is taken up with telling the history of this double loss; in the second half of the book (which consists of a single chapter, ‘The Critical Unconscious’, plus a conclusion, which canvasses alternative 21st-century outcomes), North turns his attention to questions of recovery. He surveys various movements and developments in contemporary or near-contemporary criticism, in particular Queer and Affect Theory, and the works of Lauren Berlant and D. A. Miller, in search of signs of discontent with the prevailing scholarly mode—signs which he reads as the inchoate stirrings of an alternative paradigm that will revive criticism’s original objectives.
In his recent essay for nlr, North acknowledges that he ‘didn’t say very much’ in his book about what this alternative paradigm would look like in practice. Taking up a suggestion in Mulhern’s review that Raymond Williams might ‘serve as a fitting emblem’ for it, North endeavours to ‘sketch’ its details by turning to ‘two paragraphs’ in Williams’s work—one from Politics and Letters (1979), the book-length interview with Williams conducted by nlr editors, and another from The Country and the City (1973), raised by the interviewers in the course of a discussion about evaluation, Williams’s rejection of ‘the aesthetic’, and the question of how to make authoritative critical judgements without resorting to the idealist subject-position of the ‘trained’, ‘informed’, ‘cultivated’ reader. For Williams, one way of avoiding this was by what he called a ‘movement towards declaration of situation’, through ‘tracing back our own social and historical conditions of response’. This was ‘necessarily personal, a declaration of interest, and therefore completely variable since everyone is initially in a different situation’—yet it ‘does not have to lead to relativism’ because the valuations that emerged from the process ‘would not be connected with those elements of one’s own situation which are really just biographical idiosyncrasies that issue into personal preferences’:
They would instead be related to those which associated one with others in certain more general acts of valuation. In other words, one should be able to distinguish kinds of valuation which are crucial to communicate to others, and preferences of style which one expresses all the time but are not of real importance to anyone else.footnote4