The Golden Age of Criticism: Seven Theses and a Commentary

W.J.T. Mitchell

1. We live in a golden age of criticism. The dominant mode of literary expression in the late 20th century is not poetry, fiction, drama, film, but criticism and theory. By ‘dominant’ I do not mean ‘most popular’ or ‘widely respected’ or ‘authoritative’, but ‘advanced’, ‘emergent’.

2. The golden age of criticism is mainly an academic phenomenon, centred in major research universities in the advanced industrial democracies.

3. Contemporary criticism is serious, experimental, encyclopedic and personal. By ‘serious’ I mean that it is professional, institutional, politically engaged and cognitively ambitious (i.e. it aims at new forms of knowledge). By ‘experimental’ I mean that it is risky, playful, perverse, and sceptical of received forms of knowledge. By ‘encyclopedic’ I mean that it excludes nothing – nature, man, history, sex, politics, religion – from its attention, and refuses to confine itself to ‘literature’ in any traditional sense. By ‘personal’ I mean that it is autobiographical, self-critical and self-indulgent.

4. The most important movements in contemporary criticism are feminism, Marxism and post-structuralism. By ‘post-structuralism’ I do not mean simply deconstruction, But a diverse and highly unstable set of interpretative practices that incorporates all the techniques supposedly ‘left behind’ by deconstruction, including structuralism, formalism, phenomenology, speech-act theory, reception theory and semiotics. Feminism and Marxism are ways of making the experimental and encyclopedic techniques of post-structuralism into tools for the serious and personal goals of criticism: the fulfilment of commitments, ethical and political; the discovery of new knowledge; the transformation of professional duties like reading, writing and teaching into acts of personal fulfilment.

5. The golden age of criticism has its basis in a new form of publication, the journal of criticism and theory. This kind of journal did not exist before the Sixties (New Literary History is usually credited with being the first). The new kind of critical journal has several features that distinguish it from predecessors such as the literary magazine and the scholarly journal. The new critical journal blends many of the features of its two predecessors: it often publishes both literature and philosophy, history and theory, poetry and scholarship, ‘essays’ and ‘articles’. It is interdisciplinary, extra-disciplinary, contemporaneous, committed to an agenda, and dependent on an academic base. It is found in bookstores alongside the little magazines, and traditional critical journals such as Partisan Review and the American Scholar. It is not published in New York.

6. The golden age of criticism is widely regarded by sober, intelligent people as a bad thing. It is seen as anarchistic, esoteric, obscure, élitist and academic. It is regarded by persons of traditional common sense as professionally disreputable, politically ineffectual, morally nihilistic, cognitively inconsequential, stylistically hideous, and intellectually dangerous. It is perceived as a foreign invention (mainly French), a passing fashion, a too-easily domesticated bag of tricks, and an inexplicable temptation for the young.

7. Contemporary criticism is mainly a product of universities at the metropolitan centres of empire in Europe and the United States. It is the dominant form of ‘advanced’ literary culture at the centre of empire. By contrast, literary culture at the peripheries of empire – South Africa, the Middle East, South America, Australia – is dominated by ‘imaginative’ literature in the form of novels, poems, plays and films. The most exciting new literature comes from the colonies; the most exciting new criticism comes from the imperial centres.

Commentary

1. ‘Golden Age’: the original, utopian state of mankind, according to Hesiod; the neolithic period of primitive agriculture, according to modern anthropology. Thus, one person’s golden age may well be another’s stone age. The last golden age of criticism was probably in 18th-century Europe, and was called the ‘age of reason’ and ‘the Enlightenment’ by its enthusiasts, the ‘age of brass’ by its contemporary detractors, and the ‘age of prose’ by its 19th-century chroniclers. A good model for the contradictory naming of this sort of historical period is Carlyle’s description of the 18th century: ‘Shall we call it, what all men thought it, the new Age of Gold? Call it at least [the age] of Paper; which in many ways is the succedaneum of Gold. Bank-paper, wherewith you can still buy when there is no gold left; Book-paper, splendent with Theories, Philosophies, Sensibilities.’ In the 21st century, if we are lucky enough to reach it, perhaps we shall call our golden age of criticism and theory the ‘age of the micro-chip’ and the printed circuit, the age of instantaneous communication, instant credit and perfect electronic simulation in sound and sight (laser disks, holograms); an age of ‘escape velocity’, as Jean Baudrillard describes it, when the earth, history, mankind are left behind like the debris of an exploding planet. Carlyle’s golden age of criticism, ‘splendent with theories’, was the calm before the storm of the French Revolution, an event that none of the ‘wisest philosophes’ – Rousseau, Voltaire, Diderot, Gibbon, Hume – could have predicted. Our golden age of criticism exists in the uneasy calm before a storm that our dullest philosophers dismiss as too overwhelmingly obvious to discuss, much less predict. One strategy is offered by the journal Diacritics: nuclear criticism. Our golden age is an age of plutonium. It has been announced (and denounced) many times in the last thirty years, the era of the ‘post-modern’, most famously in a 1955 essay by Randall Jarrell called ‘The Age of Criticism’. Jarrell noticed that the typical literary quarterly in the Fifties had ‘two and a half pages of poems, 11 of a story and 134 of criticism’. He also traced the three generations that gave rise to this phenomenon, placing himself in the middle or second generation: ‘the first generation wrote indistinguishably well; the second writes indistinguishably ill; who knows how the third will write?’ We are now finding out.

‘Dominant’/‘Emergent’: ordinarily these are treated as Raymond Williams has defined them – as antithetical terms to distinguish social, cultural and technological forces that are ‘on top’ from those that are ‘on the bottom’ but moving up. But in an age of ‘Future Fall’ and ‘Future Shock’, the emergent dominates the dominant, in the way anxiety about the future dominates the present, or the unconscious dominates the conscious. In literary culture, the avant-garde (despite its tiny numbers, its social and political marginality, its esoteric, coterie jargon) dominates the rearguard, the traditional, the mainstream, by becoming its most feared and despised Other (see Thesis No 6, and Jarrell, op. cit.). Film and television are clearly our dominant media and forms of art in the traditional sense of ‘dominance’: but they have not yet achieved what Stanley Cavell calls the ‘modernist’ condition, in which the medium has to be reinvented with each new achievement. We may hear people leaving the movies saying, ‘That was weird’ (or ‘different’, or ‘original’), but we don’t hear them asking: ‘Was that a movie?’ That is precisely the question we do hear repeated with modern criticism: ‘is that really criticism?’ What is criticism coming to? This is the same sort of question that arose with painting in the Modern period with the ‘emergent’ and avant-garde experiments in abstraction.

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