What is literary criticism for? Many literary thinkers at work within the English-speaking academy today assume that the task of the critic is literary and cultural analysis. After all, what else is there? But it was not always thus. In fact, for the bulk of the 20th century, many of those who styled themselves ‘literary critics’ felt they were engaged, not solely in cultural analysis, but also in cultural intervention; criticism being understood as a systematic effort to cultivate new modes of taste, sensibility and subjectivity in the culture at large, often in the service of broader political ends. Is it conceivable that a significant intellectual formation might take up a similar task today? Could those on the radical left, for instance, conceive of a programme of literary criticism that would aim itself squarely at changing the culture, to however limited a degree? Could a radical, egalitarian or emancipatory programme of that kind ever be institutionalized, and under what conditions? Where, if anywhere, might those conditions now be found?
It was in the hope of dragging other people into conversations about questions of this order that I wrote Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History. At the time, the hope was a distant one. Happily, since the book’s publication a number of voices have been raised in a debate that begins to resemble, at least to some degree, the one in which I had hoped to participate. Against that background, Francis Mulhern’s recent engagement with the book in these pages stands out as exemplary, both in its generosity and in the accuracy of its sense of the basic impulses that underlie the whole endeavour. He offers an incisive reading of the argument, kindly emphasizing its merits; he then proceeds to raise some serious doubts about the viability of the practical project I propose. Putting things bluntly, my view is that, for all its obvious limits, a strongly interventionist programme of radical literary criticism is both conceivable and worth working towards. Mulhern’s view is that I have conceived of the thing in the wrong terms, and that in any case it is probably doomed in practice. I would like to take a moment to respond to those doubts here.footnote1
I take Mulhern’s views on this seriously—indeed, I can think of very few figures whose thoughts on the matters under discussion I would respect as much. He needs no introduction to readers of nlr; but since his work has played such an important part in the debates to which Literary Criticism seeks to contribute, I will mention just four of the texts that have been significant to me. There is, first, The Moment of ‘Scrutiny’ (1979), Mulhern’s seminal early work on Leavis and the Scrutiny scene, which together with Perry Anderson’s comments in ‘Components of the National Culture’ did so much to set the agenda for the left’s reception of Leavis. Second, there is Mulhern’s role in producing Politics and Letters (1979), an exceptional book-length interview with Raymond Williams that bears closely on present concerns. Third, Culture/Metaculture (2000), which analysed a common impulse, shared by the two mutually antagonistic traditions of Kulturkritik and Cultural Studies, to resolve the tension between culture and politics by dissolving political reason itself. And most recently there is Figures of Catastrophe (2016), which brought this thinking to bear on the history of the novel, where he discerned the existence of a genre centred on ‘the condition of culture’ as a field of social conflict.
Inevitably, in what follows I will be focusing on the areas of apparent disagreement between us, so let me begin by noting where we agree. We both think that radical left politics requires a seriously thought conception of culture; that culture cannot be considered in isolation from more basic determinants; and that one ought to reject outright, as ideological in objective function, any attempt to transform the social order solely by cultural means. We both think that the university (such as it is) is one important site in which literature plays its political role (such as it is), though neither of us believes that the university is the sole or even the most significant site of this kind. I think, without being entirely confident, that we agree on the desirability, in principle, of something like a para-institutional programme of radical aesthetic education, though clearly much rests on the choice of terms here. In any case, we certainly agree that any programme of that kind could achieve little unless it were bound tightly to some more materially significant factor—say, a movement, constituency or class fraction. For me it is a real and rare pleasure to be able to agree on so much.
Let us now turn to our areas of disagreement. To explain these, let me first recall the view against which Mulhern’s critique is posed. Here, in the hope of welcoming new readers into the discussion, I will put my own argument in the baldest possible terms, even at the cost of oversimplifying it in a manner that will surely hand hostages to those who maintain that it is wrong. In Literary Criticism I argued that, since the 1980s, academic literary studies in much of the Anglophone world has become too solely focused on cultural analysis, and in the process has all but given up trying systematically to set that analysis to work as the basis for a coherent programme of cultural intervention. Yet literary studies in the English-speaking world once aspired to perform both these tasks. For in fact, from roughly the 1920s through to the 1970s, literary studies was split into two broad camps: on the one hand, literary ‘scholars’ chiefly concerned with literary and cultural analysis (emblematically in the form of philology); on the other, literary ‘critics’ concerned with a more actively interventionist task of aesthetic education, in a very broad sense of the phrase—for present purposes, we might parse it as a programmatic attempt to raise the level of the culture at large via a widespread training in taste and sensibility, carried out both within formal educational institutions and outside them, often via ‘higher journalism’ in the so-called public sphere.
All the major histories of Anglophone literary studies agree that a division of this kind was central to the work of the discipline during that period, though none of course pretends it was somehow watertight or impermeable. In response to this standard view, my contribution in Literary Criticism was to point out that, at some time around the late 1970s or early 80s, the ‘scholars’ began to dominate the field; and that since then, they have held virtually all the most prominent sites within the discipline’s imagination. During the same period, literary ‘criticism’ was assailed from the left as a necessarily conservative endeavour, and was then dismissed by the discipline as a whole, largely on that basis. As a result, for the last few decades ‘criticism’ has become a residual formation within the Anglo-American academy.
Having noticed this development, should we celebrate or mourn it? When the victory of the literary ‘scholars’ has been noticed at all, it has usually been understood as a victory for the left, and there is certainly something to be said for that view: the most prominent forms of literary criticism in the mid-century Anglosphere—emblematized by T. S. Eliot, F. R. Leavis and the New Critics—were conservative or liberal, and the radicalisms of the 1970s therefore railed against them. But the defeat of literary studies’ interventionist wing cannot finally be called an unmixed victory for the left, partly because the latter is programmatically committed to intervention, and partly because the consequent status quo within Anglophone literary studies—what I termed the ‘historicist/contextualist paradigm’—has proved so comfortable for the liberal centre, in its various forms.