Five long years have past; five summers, with the length/ Of five long winters . . .’ So begins one of the more famous autobiographical compositions in the language, before describing a familiar landscape to which the speaker has returned after such an interval. The place hasn’t perceptibly changed in half a decade; at issue is whether, and how far, he himself is altered. This means among other things that—in terms that will govern much of the discussion below—the poem is mainly about personal sensibility, not public history. Readers of this journal may not need too much reminding that the poem at hand is Wordsworth’s ‘Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey’. More open to doubt is whether, to the bulk of university graduates in the present and future, even if they hold degrees in English or comp. lit or something similar, this basic bibliographical information will constitute a reminder at all, rather than an indifferent piece of news.
It was five long years ago, in 2017, that Joseph North published his short polemical book Literary Criticism, which advocates the replacement of a deadening ‘historicist/contextualist’ academic literary scholarship with ‘a fresh critical paradigm’ taking up ‘the problem of how build an institution that would cultivate new, deeper forms of subjectivity and collectivity in a rigorous and repeatable way’.footnote1 North’s programmatic call to arms, vague but stirring, is open to any number of queries and objections, as previous responses to North’s book in nlr have testified and this reply will also do. What is beyond doubt is that Literary Criticism—with its audaciously generic title, as if everything about the discipline or practice or field, or whatever literary criticism is, needed to be considered anew—both captured and catalyzed a mood of crisis among professors of literature (and perhaps afflicting the general reader too). Uniting all five—now six—contributions to the discussion is the assessment that academic literary studies is in trouble. The general features of the crisis are shrinking enrollments in undergraduate literature programmes and a corresponding reduction in job openings, let alone tenure-track positions, in university literature departments.footnote2 Less easily measured but perhaps equally demoralizing are the loss of the time and concentration necessary for serious reading among those who do enroll in lit courses; the erosion of methodological self-confidence among those who teach them; and, finally, beyond the campus, what appears to be a steep and ongoing decline in the cultural salience of literature across the first decades of this century, even as compared to the experience of an earlier generation born since 1968, when (to borrow Régis Debray’s terms and periodization) a graphosphere in which the printed word dominated consciousness gave way to a videosphere in which moving images usurped that role. (The digitosphere, if you like, of the internet age has restored some prominence to text as opposed to audiovisual imagery—but posts are not poems or novels.) Who, anymore, is the study of literature for, and what is it supposed to do? For one thing, it hardly requires a Marxist professor of literature these days to point out the final submission of cultural production to the dictates of capital accumulation: the impotence, collusion, and dependency of culture with respect to capital is today no longer so often a confession to be extracted from a given artifact as it is a matter-of-fact acknowledgement of the way of the world, if not a giddy boast, offered up by the artifact itself.
Joseph North describes the crisis in academic literary studies in terms of the discipline’s abandonment of ‘a lost “critical” paradigm’, aiming to enrich and alter ‘the culture directly by cultivating new ranges of sensibility’, in favour of a ‘scholarly turn’ which ‘tended to treat literary texts chiefly as opportunities for cultural and historical analysis’. In North’s periodizing schema, the prewar practical criticism of I. A. Richards had adumbrated, if not really achieved, a practice of the close reading of texts (capable of extension, presumably, to other articles of culture) that would entail ‘a programmatic commitment to using works of literature for the cultivation of aesthetic sensibility, with the goal of more general cultural and political change’. After the Second World War, however, the practice of close reading forfeited this incipient radicalism and became a scholastic and conservative—New Critical—method for stripping texts of their social context in an ‘attempt to secure the autonomy and self-sufficiency of the aesthetic object’. In reaction to this depoliticizing method, the ‘historicist-contextualist’ literary scholarship ascendant since the 1970s and early 80s had attacked such illusions of splendid isolation, as Marxist scholars among others restored the supposedly immaculate realm of ‘the aesthetic’ to its proper place, in their view, as a mere filtering organ inside the bloody and thrashing body of class society. Today, in the early decades of the twenty-first century, the sociologizing and historicizing approach to literature of the former radicals has congealed into a new academic orthodoxy.footnote3
The main outlines of North’s triptych might have corresponded well enough to the picture of literary studies in the minds of most practitioners of the ‘historicism/contextualism’ he inveighed against—with one major difference. For North, historicism (as I’ll call it from now on for the sake of ease) in literary studies was no radical practice, in spite of left political affiliations; instead, its scholarly procedures treat culture as something inert and dead, to be dissected and autopsied rather than animated and redirected. In Literary Criticism, the figure of Fredric Jameson represents today’s (politically passive) regime of scholarship, much as that of I. A. Richards stands for a missed chance at practical criticism as an (activist) cultivation of radical sensibility:
Jameson proceeds as most of those in literary studies do today: by assuming his task as a scholar is the analysis of culture, by which is meant—putting things now in bluntly positivistic terms—the production of accurate knowledge about our cultural history and present cultural situation, together with the development of methods to aid in the production of that knowledge . . . [T]he role of the Marxist theorist of culture is, for him, a diagnostic one, and the actual treatment, if or when it comes, must take the form of political praxis guided by, but not itself a part of, the more strictly academic endeavour.footnote4
North further complains, in the same passage, that in Jameson’s work—and, by implication, that of critics following his example—the notion of a work of literature’s ‘value’ loses its aesthetic valence, to be ‘effectively reduced to . . . evidentiary value—value f0r the production of accurate analysis’. The charges are, then, that historicist examinations of literature seek to produce mere knowledge, rather than nurture sensibility; that the method involved is in effect, if not intent, politically quietist as opposed to committed; and, perhaps most seriously, that such accounts of literary texts possess no theory of the artistic merit that presumably invited their contemplation in the first place.
At this point I may as well admit to being the author of what may be the warmest appreciation of Jameson to have appeared in a general-interest periodical, in an essay in the lrb from 2010: I particularly praised his work for keeping Marxism alive in the refuge of literature departments at a time, prior to the 2000s, when at least in the Anglosphere it had largely been banished from other academic disciplines.footnote5 Nevertheless, North’s critique of Jameson prompted me to recall my own unconfessed dissatisfaction with the latter’s work and the mode of criticism it represents. Reading Jameson on Conrad in The Political Unconscious (1981), it’s possible to accept that the abstracted quality of Conrad’s seascapes derives from the historical situation of high imperialism, when the process of capital accumulation is no longer so localized a phenomenon as in an earlier age of entrepreneurial capital, during which the site of ownership and that of managerial oversight often overlapped on the same workplace grounds: for imperialism, the office might be in Brussels or London, and the shop in the mines or fields of Asia or Africa. For the novelist, this meant, among other things, that the seeing eye behind his or her visual descriptions could no longer begin to take in the social scene inside which he or she lived, stretching as it did across the globe.