There have been of late not a few high-profile attempts to make sense of the state of literary criticism.footnote1 Some of these are credible, others less so, but what most have in common is a declinist model. The argument that criticism used to be one way (better), and now it is another (worse), provides the stimulus for their assorted proposals for revitalization. These discussions usually focus on criticism’s life within the university, where it is housed in departments with names like ‘English’ or ‘Comparative Literature’.

Literary critics know their profession, along with the humanities in general, is in trouble. What they seem less willing to admit is that their work within the university is, as Nick Mitchell puts it, ‘bound in significant degree to a crisis-management function.’footnote2 Until recently, the modern university system enjoyed a clearly defined, relatively well-protected social role: to disburse cultural capital and sanction class mobility. Other things, of course, always happened in school: lives have been changed, social movements incubated, great poetry written and occasionally understood. Yet if these and other collateral adventures in humanism have been made possible by the university, they have not determined its function as an institution and certainly not as a business. In both capacities, the university has been hard hit by the rigidification of hierarchies over the past thirty years. Where it once helped people enter the middle class, it now finds itself in the tricky position of trying to contain an increasingly insubordinate student population while touting itself as a place where progressive values can be turned into marketable skills.

For Mitchell, the class-mobility question is key to understanding the contradiction that gives shape to the university’s present crisis. To the extent that higher education promises to loft individuals into the middle class or, more generally, to regulate access to ‘prestige, privilege and power’, it offers itself as a quick fix for inequality—even as it needs inequality to persist as the condition of its own market appeal.footnote3 This is especially true of the humanities, which are famously supposed to be good for nothing outside the cultivation of sensibility and the fine-tuning of social distinction. Since the 1990s, as opportunities for socioeconomic upgrading have narrowed, it has become harder for the university to present itself as a remedial let alone progressive enterprise. At the same time, staring down budget cuts, privatization and other existential threats, it has had to rachet up its claims to deliver phantom benefits and so to cast about for new arguments for why it should exist at all.

In this light, the competition over who shall save criticism may appear as little more than a struggle over who can make the best apology for the broken promise of a university degree. In the last decade or so, we have heard that everything would have been just fine if literature professors had not lost sight of the pleasures of the text, if they had not jammed the Jamesonian motto ‘always historicize!’ down the throats of graduate students apparently eager to do as they’re told.footnote4 We have also heard that big data—the mining of which relies heavily on the labour of ghost workers like those of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service—is a welcome democratic counterweight to the elitism of the canon.footnote5

Whether they look sunnily toward a technocratic future or with nostalgia toward the analogue past, these calls for a transformed critical practice rarely grapple with the problem at hand, which arguably has less to do with the content or style of literary criticism than with the fraying of its social purpose. That social purpose was to provide access to class power and acculturate individuals to it. Again: this does not mean that criticism has not gratified other human needs, or provided insight into an array of problems—whether aesthetic, political, personal, or any combination thereof. Indeed, it has done these things, earning the right to operate as an outpost of anti-instrumentalist thought and research within the university precisely because there was, for a time, no conflict between an education in the principles of literary criticism and the going concern of class advancement. This equilibrium obtained for a good while. It was arguably first reached in the 1760s, when the world’s first literature department was founded at the University of Edinburgh, and it still held in the 1950s, when so-called close reading was pitched as a way to educate the mostly white veterans flooding into American universities on the high tide of the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, better known as the gi Bill. Today, however, the friction between a discipline which, at its best, cultivates the instinct for collective flourishing and the historical function of the university has become impossible to ignore. Not a few critics have tried to whittle their work into a shape that conforms to the university’s fantasies of entrepreneurial rejuvenation. In such cases, what is actually being articulated is a dream of escape from the current crisis, when the things that made a degree necessary or desirable in the first place are rapidly becoming extinct.

To be clear, a lot about literary criticism is better than it used to be; this is partly what it means to say that criticism has discomfited the capitalist institution, if not capital itself, from within its own comfortable institutional home. The rise of queer theory and anti-racist thought has done much to tip the balance of the average English department away from the liberal quietism or, in a few cases, outright conservatism of previous decades. The decolonization of the curriculum is a good in itself, as well as a meaningful form of resistance to white supremacy. Not one of these developments could have been predicted or, at least, none of them was. When I was in graduate school, for example, any talk of politics in the seminar room was openly derided; topics related to gender, race or class were thought worth pursuing only if they were subordinated to questions of ‘form’; postcolonial studies were considered passé. We may yet see a version of that moment again. But such eras in the life of criticism tend to come and go without much regard to actual critics planting flags in the ground and saying ‘from now on it must be so’. Criticism runs to catch up with history, not the other way around.

Given this track record, it’s hard to believe that any single intellectual agenda, mode of analysis or discursive framework might be the key to turning the university—against its own material interests—into an emancipatory project. Joseph North’s Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History, the subject of an extended debate in this journal, is at least admirably conscious of the social conditions in which bids to establish a sustainable critical practice are made. As he writes in a long footnote, universities in ‘their neoliberal phase’ often claim ‘that the market demands austerity from everyone, meaning students, staff, and faculty (humanities faculty in particular), while in fact resources are being shifted to upper university management’.footnote6 Calls for new paradigms need to be evaluated with these facts in mind, for however sincere and intellectually serious, in an institutional context they are also inevitably self-interested; by which I mean they are attempts to encourage hiring and promotion in some fields and not others and to make a play for shrinking resources, particularly in the form of grant money. North however wants to argue that the proper response to this situation is to embrace a model of literary study that is highly specific, tightly constrained and, most importantly, openly adversarial towards other critical methods and styles. The stakes of his model are high. Its purpose is not simply to read texts better but to advance the ‘goal of more general cultural and political change.’footnote7