The Golden Age of Criticism: Seven Theses and a Commentary
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.
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.
Vol. 9 No. 15 · 3 September 1987
From Gerald Graff
SIR: In ‘The Golden Age of Criticism’ (LRB, 25 June) W.J.T. Mitchell misrepresents my views on current academic literary criticism, expressed in Criticism in the University, edited by Reginald Gibbons and myself (1985). Mitchell takes a position which is actually sympathetic to his own defence of current theory and criticism and makes it sound as if it is antagonistic.
Mitchell confuses me with the more conservative contributors to Criticism in the University (i.e. Donald Davie and Wendell Berry), a diverse collection of essays from opposing ideological standpoints which Mitchell misrepresents as ‘nothing if not single-minded’. In order to make this conflation, Mitchell twists my statements out of recognition: ‘Gerald Graff complains that “recent literary theory has become a private enclave” on one page, then laments the assimilation of my theory as “traditional” practice in the literary curriculum two pages later.’ What I actually said was that since all the academic literary fields are more or less ‘private enclaves’ from a lay point of view, it is unfair to single out theorists for blame in this respect. What I lamented was not the assimilation of literary theory into the curriculum, but the assimilation of theory as one more field to be ‘covered’, so that ‘the rest of the faculty is free to ignore the issues theorists raise.’
In other words, my point was that it is not the much-abused self-enclosure of academic theory and criticism which has created problems for literary education, but the failure of the university to foreground relations between courses, specialisations and critical positions so that students and laymen would be able to make sense of them. I was objecting not to the academic institutionalisation of literary theory, as Mitchell supposes, but to a particular mode of institutionalisation which masks ideological conflicts and deprives theory of much of its educational potential. As I put it, ‘the university is like a family in which the parents hide their conflicts from the children.’ I presented theory as a means of bringing these repressed conflicts out in the open, and concluded by praising the model of cultural studies, as conceived by Raymond Williams and others, as a promising trend.
In other words, my essay made the very point Mitchell makes, that we should value contemporary theory for its generalising power. Yet Mitchell presents it as if it were an outright dismissal of such theory: to me, he says, the idea is ‘quite unthinkable’ that ‘the success of theoretical criticism, feminism or Marxism in the academy could have anything to do with the intellectual excitement they generate, the cognitive results they produce, or the cultural needs they fulfil’. To propound this amazing falsification, Mitchell had to ignore, not only my general commendations of theoretical criticism and my endorsement of Williams’s cultural studies model, but also my praise of structuralism, ‘semiotics, popular cultural studies, the new social history inspired by Continental thought’, and of ‘speech-act theory, pragmatics, and various forms of current reader-response criticism’. He had, too, to ignore my inclusion in the book, as co-editor, of essays from Marxist, feminist and Post-Structuralist viewpoints. It’s true that I did express strong disagreements with particular versions of current theory, but to dissent from certain theories is hardly to oppose the theory-movement as such.
Northwestern University, Illinois
From Elisabeth Underwood
SIR: Until I realised that Edward Said and Stanley Fish write literary criticism, I was convinced that W.J.T.Mitchell was a teenage music fan writing about his rock idols. Edward Said, as ‘academic superstar’, ‘exemplifies the fulfilment of … fantasy’. Stanley Fish, writing about Pride and Prejudice, ‘is, as we say, “too much” ’. (I can see him now, at the climax of a seminar, biting through the neck of his guitar.) These heart-throbs are at the centre of a ‘new sort of … culture’,which the old regard as ‘an inexplicable temptation for the young’.
I was struck by the fact that Mr Mitchell’s idols, unlike the idols of rock music, are exclusively male. Have the literary theorists no Madonna to worship?
Vol. 9 No. 16 · 17 September 1987
From W.J.T. Mitchell
SIR: I’m pleased to learn that Gerald Graff (Letters, 3 September) regards his position as sympathetic to the view of critical theory I expressed in ‘The Golden Age of Criticism’ (LRB, 25 June), but chagrined at the possibility that I may have misrepresented his views as more antagonistic to theory than they actually are. If I have been guilty of a misrepresentation, I hereby apologise. Certainly Graff is the best judge of his own intentions, and I accept his present expression of them. I hope he will also accept my assurances that no distortion of his views was intended: I was simply trying to identify some recurrent features in the negative view of critical theory expressed in Criticism in the University, and I picked out those moments in his essay that seemed to fit that pattern, no doubt with insufficient regard for the particular differences among many of the contributors. On at least one point, however, I think Graff misunderstands me. When I characterised Criticism in the University as ‘single-minded’, I did not claim that all the contributors shared a single ideology: I did mean to say that many of them (despite other differences) agreed in regarding ‘the university and the appropriation of criticism by academic culture’ as the ‘villain’. The title of Graff’s article (‘The University and the Prevention of Culture’) and many of his statements (‘the university’ is charged with ‘blocking or muffling’ real critical communication and conflict) do make it seem that Graff shares Donald Davie’s sense that academic institutions are the real problem. Graff does, unlike him, have some proposals for reformation of the university to remedy what he sees as the university’s ‘failure to bring specialisations into relation with one another in any planned way’. We could argue about exactly what shape this master-plan is to take, and who might be qualified to impose it. I’m sceptical about the feasibility and desirability of institutional solutions to intellectual problems, but I’m willing to listen.
With regard to Graff’s claim that I misrepresent his view of theory as a private enclave as something unique to theory: it is true that Graff makes the (contestable) claim that ‘all academic fields’ are esoteric enclaves to the ‘lay public’, but he also goes on to qualify this point by suggesting that the more traditional fields still have a ‘sentimental pretence’ that they have an ‘audience outside the field’, in contrast to critical theory, which has ‘simply abandoned this pretence’, and delights in ‘flaunting its difficulty and esotericism’. I took this to mean that some enclaves (particularly critical theory’s) are more enclave-ish than others. Graff does seem to agree with my claim that he ‘laments’ the ‘assimiliation’ of criticism as a field among others. What I’m wrong about, evidently, is the source of the lamentation: Graff seems to want theory to provide the overall structure for reformation of the university, so that real communication and conflict may be brought about in a ‘planned way’. Perhaps some theory, somewhere, some day may accomplish this feat; again, I’m sceptical. But I fail to see how theory can leap to the task of overall reformation of academic institutions without first taking the modest step of establishing itself as a field or specialty, with all the hazards that entails. I don’t agree with Graff’s certainty that ‘the assimilation of theory as a field’ leaves the ‘rest of the faculty free to ignore the issues’ it raises. Would a refusal to treat theory as a ‘field’ force colleagues to confront it? Or would it simply make theory a nonexistent category in the practical affairs of literary study?
I plead guilty, then, to an oversimplification of Graff’s position, and to a possible misunderstanding of his ideological position vis-à-vis the ‘conservatives’ he wants to distance himself from. But I do hope it is clear how Graffs all-or-nothing rhetoric can invite such misunderstandings (not to mention his earlier, much less qualified attacks on theory in Literature against Itself). I’m delighted to see the leopard can change his spots.
University of Canterbury, New Zealand