In 1968, Perry Anderson drew attention to the bizarre role and status of literary criticism in the ‘national culture’; in a context in which the social sciences and historical disciplines were inhibited by a largely imported positivism, it seemed to offer itself as the only field in which a radical and synoptic cultural inquiry could take place. He rightly attributed this potential to the influence of Leavis and the way in which his work had been extended and transformed by Raymond Williams. In the last twelve years much has clearly changed. Not only has the overall picture altered, but especially the specific mode of literary analysis which Leavis made available as the basis of this cultural practice, the combination of the close reading of a defined canon with a global social and ethical awareness, has been questioned from within the field itself. Williams, for example, has more and more called attention to the limitations of literary criticism, and those who have opposed Williams have done so by trying to expose the culturalist ideology of the methodology he evolved from literary criticism. But the domination of a discourse which has its origins in Leavis and the impact of the journal with which his work is most closely associated, if it has been observed, resisted and even consigned to an alien past, has never been fully explained. The Moment of ‘Scrutiny’ footnote＊ does just that, and in doing so, not only does it bring the bizarre within the realm of rational historical explanation, but it also shows how the conditions of its existence have not been met and altered. In other words, Mulhern, by raising the question of the historic significance of literary criticism, raises also the question of its continuing role in the national culture at a radical level. I shall argue that he has made, by doing this, the most important intervention in this domain of socialist cultural theory since Culture and Society appeared in 1958.
In Mulhern’s analysis, the concept of the ‘moment’ carries two implications. On the one hand, it indicates a completed history, places Scrutiny in a conjuncture of many levels—personal, institutional, ideological—which determines its formation, development and decline, and explains the link between its dominant ideological discourse and the parameters of its various concerns and points of view. On the other hand, precisely by exposing the specific conditions of its existence, he is able to show that the moment in time is not, at another level, ended simply by revisionist assimilation or by ideological distantiation, because such postures fail to confront Scrutiny as a form of cultural practice whose commitment to a ‘discourse on community’, chosen intellectual field (literary criticism) and particular combative style are mutually interdependent. To be specific at the cost of vulgarizing a
The first major difference is in the project itself. Earlier accounts (I think of Williams, Anderson and Eagleton in particular) focus primarily on Leavis. Despite the shrewdness of these analyses, two related limitations arise from this. In the first place, Leavis appears with an enigmatic aura, given an attention, even a respect, his work fails to justify either in itself or, more importantly, in terms of its impact in the context in which it is discussed. He is dwarfed, for example, in the ideological traditions in which Williams and Eagleton place him. What did Leavis contribute to the debate about culture and society whose terms were worked out by Carlyle and Ruskin, transformed into terms directly relevant to education and the study of literature by Arnold, and given new urgency by Eliot and Lawrence? The answer, crudely, is that he injected the Arnoldian variant of the tradition with some of the greater critical rigour worked out by I. A. Richards, and he managed a precarious mediation between Eliot and Lawrence. If this can be more positively stated, Leavis can be said to have made literary criticism the dominant field in which this tradition could survive without congealing itself as an identifiable ideology, but this is not because of the effectivity of his critical practice. He offered no ways of accounting for the complex effects of literary language: in this respect it was Richards who made the major tactical advance by making ‘practical criticism’ (the empiricist/idealist sanctification of literature as commodity) the determinant basis of literary analysis, and it was Empson and his American followers who facilitated the repression of the ideological formation of the literary text by an exclusive attention to the connotative features of language (I should say that Empson’s later work shows this influence to have been a misappropriation). Neither the history of an ideological tradition nor an analysis of the presumptions of literary criticism will explain Leavis’s importance. This is not to imply that his importance has been exaggerated, but
It is not Leavis who is important, but Scrutiny, and Scrutiny as Mulhern shows is both text and event. This means many things. In the first place, although Leavis’s influence is at the centre of the text, the text cannot be reductively identified with his ideas. On the contrary, Mulhern shows again and again, how great was the variation of attitude and tendency among its contributors, between Knights and Traversi, Bantock and Ford, for example, on all the major issues discussed; literature, politics, education and so on. Leavis thought of Scrutiny as the embodiment of a consensus, but this is by no means the same as a doctrinal unity. The attention to the group, rather than to its central figure is not just a gain in empirical accuracy (though that in itself helps to explain why the influence of Scrutiny is much greater than any identifiable body of ideas); it also makes it possible to identify the real parameters of its ideology—that is, not a derivable system, but rather a set of boundaries within which thought is contained and activated, a kind of transformational grammar. Furthermore, since it is not merely a reprinted text, but an event, with determinate conditions of existence, Mulhern is able to give a material analysis of Scrutiny, to show in terms of its actual existence as a journal, why it was formed when it was, why it confronted Marxism as a political force, made gestures of accommodation and then retreated increasingly into literature as a self-contained discourse, and education as a primary domain of social action. In other words, the project itself makes it possible as well to see that ideology as a cultural practice functioning in relation to a given history. To put it in terms borrowed from Benjamin, this book is the first analysis of the meaning of literary criticism in the national culture which aims at sundering truth from falsehood by starting with ‘the object riddled with error’.
This leads to the second gain, and that is the strict historical method of the analysis. The detailed coverage of the journal’s contents, day-to-day problems of policy and management, its reception, its relationship to the changing intellectual climate of the thirties and forties—these form the substance of the book. But it would be wrong to see this simply as solidity of specification. Mulhern keeps as much as possible to a chronological narrative which constantly exposes four inescapable motifs that constitute its ideology in action, the contours of a cultural practice. First, there is a contradictory historiography commited on the one hand to a mechanical determinism and on the other to an idealist concept of tradition. Secondly, there is an epistemological commitment to varieties of irrationalism—intuition, experience, civilized sensibility and so on. These two at once identify the journal’s radicalism, and limit its engagement with any theoretical
The third gain derives from the precise historical materialism of the analysis; Mulhern escapes the need to explain the whole ratification of literary criticism deriving from Scrutiny’s project as a national eccentricity. On the contrary, by revealing the related commitments of the whole project to the irrational and the idea of tradition, he inserts it into a ‘discourse on community’ which is part of the so-called ‘revolt against positivism’ in early twentieth-century Europe. It implies an elitism also evident in Benda and Pareto, an epistemological aspiration to the identity of knower and known also evident in Dilthey and Croce, and an insistence on community evident in the cult of the Volksgeist and in classical sociology. This perspective radically alters the way in which literary criticism as a whole must be seen. The tendency to explain Leavis in terms of an English ‘culture and society’ tradition, as I have said, disguises the real nature of his importance. It also clearly fails to challenge the central claim of the practice of literary criticism that there is such a thing as ‘tradition’, and hence such a thing as
This argument has many implications and they clearly need to be worked out in many different ways. For example, Mulhern deals only very briefly with the socialist cultural theory which has grown up in the space left by the demise of Scrutiny in the last twenty years. He certainly indicates the degree to which it deceived itself about Leavis, but he also acknowledges that part of what it admired, his combative style of literary practice, is precisely what is necessary to challenge its effect. And certainly, the recent work of Williams himself offers its own verdict on the repressive tendencies of the discipline he met at Cambridge. The Moment of ‘Scrutiny’ needs to be discussed with Politics and Letters. It would be wrong, I think, to use Mulhern in the too easy dismissal of Williams which we have been seeing recently. The more because much of the alternative work on literature claiming to be Marxist has tended to confirm the entrenched specialization of the later years of Scrutiny, and certainly it is more likely to be able to co-exist in peaceful competition with what Mulhern sees rightly as the general, central activity of literary criticism in the academic structure, that of a discourse ‘whose foremost general cultural function is the repression of politics’. As long as we are all committed to ‘Literature’, we can have our own conferences, our own postgraduate programmes. We can even assist that repression precisely by becoming a permitted political percentage in the whole ecology of English studies.