Vol. 9 No. 12 · 25 June 1987

The Golden Age of Criticism: Seven Theses and a Commentary

W.J.T. Mitchell

4964 words

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.

2. The principal use of ‘academic’ in discussions of the present age of criticism and theory is as a term of derision: contemporary criticism, we are told, is ‘merely academic’, meaning it is self-enclosed, narcissistic, solipsistic, ahistorical and impractical. I wish to keep in play the more neutral senses of the word, which have to do with actual institutions of learning such as universities. This may help to reveal a certain irony in the fact that most uses of ‘academic’ as a term of invective come from professors. It may also help to keep our attention on the actual social context of contemporary criticism, especially its tendency to coalesce around collaborative networks, ‘isms’ and ‘schools’ of thought.

3. ‘Serious’/‘Experimental’/‘Encyclopedic’/‘Personal’: these adjectives should be understood as articulating the tension in contemporary criticism between its claim to be a scientific, methodical, rigorous discipline, and its desire to break away from discipline, science and method. Roland Barthes’s analysis of photography employs the ‘scientific’ discourse of semiology, the general science of signs, in order to demonstrate the way photography explodes that science and asserts its magic and madness. Gayatri Spivak experiments with what she calls a ‘forced’ reading of a venerable text like Jane Eyre, reading against the grain of its canonical status as a feminist classic to compel its imperialist and racist rhetoric to come into the open. Wayne Booth argues that the ‘understanding’ of an author’s intention may be an insufficient goal for interpretation, and posits a process of ‘overstanding’ as the goal of a more ambitious criticism. This ambition is most scandalous when it claims to free criticism from its traditional subordination to ‘primary literature’, and asserts that criticism is itself a mode of creative writing. Most interesting recent criticism is not just ‘commentary’ on or ‘interpretation’ of primary texts, but an attempt to clarify fundamental questions about the nature of literature, its relations to other arts, its place in the whole fabric of cultural, social and political reality – what one recently founded critical journal calls (by its own name) the ‘Social Text’. The ‘seriousness’ of contemporary criticism is thus a function of its cognitive claims to truth, discipline, method and professional rigour, and its desire for change, disruption and reformation by the destruction of false forms of discipline, method and rigour.

‘Experimentalism’ in recent criticism therefore has a double sense. On the one hand, it suggests a scientific method of reading, which involves the testing of new hypotheses on texts – for example, that the English novel is best understood as an articulation of imperialist conciousness, or the hypothesis that every text undermines its own authority in the play of its figurative language. This mode of experimentalism produces routines and repetitious readings – we keep finding the same results in all sorts of different texts – just as a scientific experiment must be repeatable in order to be regarded as valid. ‘Routinisation’ and repetition are often dismissed by foes of recent criticism as a sign that it has been ‘domesticated’ or has lost its revolutionary potential and become simply another academic field, or that the ‘human feeling’ of literature is being destroyed by science. One could as easily argue that these routines are a sign of success, that they are what make contemporary criticism a teachable discipline rather than an unrepeatable miracle of genius. On the other hand, experimentalism is associated with the search for the new, the untried, the bizarre or the perverse. Jarrell noted that ‘the best and most sensible criticism of any age is necessarily absurd.’ Why try, as Stanley Fish does, to imagine a community of readers who would take the loathsome Mr Collins as the hero of Pride and Prejudice? Because the mode of critical experimentation is committed to excess, to trial and error, to the exploration of the interesting, instructive failure. ‘You will not know what is enough,’ says Blake, ‘until you know what is too much.’ Stanley Fish is, as we say, ‘too much’.

Jarrell noted prophetically that ‘a great deal of this criticism might just as well have been written by a syndicate of encyclopedias for an audience of International Business Machines.’ We might say, retrospectively, that the IBM machines now do both the writing and the reading, depositing a trail of encyclopedic texts – indexes, bibliographies, monograph series, conference proceedings, compendia, concordances and annotated editions. As in the 18th century’s golden age of criticism, the central monuments are the new Encyclopédie, collaborative efforts by teams of critics to rewrite all the fundamental concepts of human knowledge – new literary histories, new anthropologies, new psychologies, new epistemologies – and to leave behind the shattered hulks of traditional disciplines. ‘Analytic philosophy,’ declares Leonard Linsky, one of its finest practitioners, ‘is dead. It died with the appearance of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations in the early Fifties. The only thing left is to write its history.’ We might trace the new critical encyclopedism to the euphoria of the Sixties, when books like The Whole Earth Catalogue and Marcuse’s Eros and Civilisation seemed to cover everything. And the ambitious 18th-century texts – The Social Contract, the Essay on Human Understanding, the Theory of Moral Sentiments – find their counterparts in The Archaeology of Knowledge, The Claim of Reason and Of Grammatology.

Like the encyclopedic movements of the 18th century, contemporary criticism combines a fair amount of chutzpah with a conviction that a new cognitive paradigm or ‘episteme’ is being formed, and that this means there is an enormous amount of intellectual work to be done – new readings of old texts, the recovery of the buried lives and literatures of oppressed, forgotten people. The most general form of this new paradigm or encyclopedic model is the notion that reality is a text, an elaborate system of codes for decipherment, all the way from the sub-microscopic level of genetic code to the massive flow of thermodynamic ‘information’ that rains on us from the entire universe. This ‘pantextualism’, as it is sometimes called, takes the place of earlier universal metaphors such as the machine – the paradigm that informed our last golden age of criticism in the 18th century. Actually, pantextualism is not such a radical departure as is sometimes thought: the Middle Ages also regarded reality as itself a text, or more precisely, as two texts – the Book of Nature and the Book of Divine Revelation – both written by the same author to convey his message in two different media. Contemporary pantextualism, similarly, has two books, one of science and one of culture, both written by the same author (the human race). We seem to have just as much trouble understanding these two books, written by ourselves, as our ancient predecessors did in understanding the mysterious ways of the divine author. I hope it is clear, however, that when a contemporary critic like Jacques Derrida says that ‘there is nothing outside of the text,’ he is not advocating the isolated, unhistorical reading of books, but precisely the opposite – a reading of books that sees them in the context of an infinite web of textual affiliations, an encyclopedic reading, quite literally, of ‘con-texts’.

The collaborative, comprehensive encyclopedism of contemporary criticism might seem to sit oddly with what I’ve called its ‘personal’ and autobiographical dimension, but the two tendencies are deeply entangled. Every contemporary critic longs to be what Gramsci called an ‘organic’ intellectual, connected by elective affinities with a cause, a social movement, a collective programme. This means that criticism cannot simply be an objective body of techniques, but must include an autobiographical moment of self-criticism, an examination and acknowledgment of one’s origins, position, commitments and antipathies. It means that the critic is no longer the single, masterful, independent figure of Lionel Trilling’s ‘liberal imagination’, but a collaborator in a collective project. Personal identity and social identity, ‘self-interest’ and class interest, individual talent and traditional professionalism, become terms of dialectical interplay rather than straightforward alternatives.

This, at any rate, is the Utopian fantasy of much recent criticism. Edward Said exemplifies the fulfilment and ambivalence of this fantasy most vividly, combining in his work the professional roles of formalist critic, professional historian, committed polemicist for the Palestinian movement, and autobiographical recorder of the experience of exile. Said combines the traditional role of ‘man of letters’ with the new figure of the academic superstar, writing a style which owes as much to Roland Barthes and Adorno as it does to Lionel Trilling and Antonio Gramsci. It is significant that Said is an ‘organic intellectual’ in a nation that no longer exists and may never have existed: ‘My goal,’ he has said, ‘is to bring the Palestinian nation into existence so that then I can attack it.’ Said embodies perfectly the ambiguous role of the contemporary critic as exiled intelligence, bonding with other exiles in a restless, volatile literary culture that is dispersed throughout the academic institutions of advanced capitalist economies. This culture coalesces mainly at academic occasions – to be dispersed into classrooms and disseminated by published ‘proceedings’ and special issues of journals. Like avant-garde cultural movements before it (Dadaism, Surrealism, Vorticism, Cubism), it rarely confronts ‘real’ political issues in any direct political way, trusting to the mysterious power of ideas and symbols to work transformations in the larger culture. This trust is no doubt naive, and is one of the occasions for contempt in the pejorative use of the term ‘academic’ as a synonym for ‘ineffectual’ and ‘unworldly’. But it is far from clear what the alternatives of ‘direct’ political action might be, or if clear, whether they would be desirable. If contemporary critics were to become ‘philosopher kings’, return from exile into a real organic relationship with a polis, one suspects that their first responsibility would be to abdicate, to go into a new exile, and, like Said, to attack the nation they had helped to form.

4. ‘Feminism’/‘Marxism’/‘Post-Structuralism’: I offer no definitions of these terms, and the highly complex, diverse movements that they designate. I only suggest that, beyond the obvious tensions and disagreements among them, they cohere as the fundamental triangle of contemporary criticism. Feminism shows us that the political is personal; Marxism shows us that the personal is political; post-structuralism shows us how the ‘is’ in these propositions is mediated by language and symbolic forms, how the public forms of discourse – literature, the arts, political rhetoric, mass media – penetrate and project the inner regions of subjectivity. All three mobilise ‘critique’, or ‘suspicious’, de-mystifying reading, what Booth calls ‘overstanding’, in the service of the serious, experimental, encyclopedic and personal understanding I have outlined. All three transform the traditional role of critical exile into a professional, collaborative, encyclopedic project – the mobilisation of reading and writing on behalf of the dispossessed, the marginal, the oppressed. There are ample opportunities in this project for sentimentality, easy moral posturing, and inauthenticity. There are also those rare occasions of genuine human sympathy, integrity and authenticity that make the project seem, at times, not brazen, but golden.

5. ‘The new journals’: what do Glyph, Diacritics, Poetics Today, Semiotica, Cultural Critique, Social Text, New Literary History, Signs, Boundary 2, Representations, Raritan and Critical Inquiry have in common? In one sense, almost nothing: they represent radically different critical approaches – feminism, deconstruction, Heideggerean phenomenology, Frankfurt School neo-Marxism, semiotics, New Historicism, pragmatism and pluralism. But they do have three features in common: none of them existed before 1968; all of them are published at universities, and their contributors and readers are mainly academics in the humanities and social sciences; all of them aspire to be something different from both the traditional literary magazine and the traditional scholarly journal.

This ‘something different’ is not easy to define, but it seems worth the risk to advance some generalisations. The new journals are clearly less ‘journalistic’ than their ancestors, the literary magazines, but more journalistic than the traditional scholarly journal. Reading PMLA or Modern Philology, one would scarcely guess that elections or wars or social movements had occurred. The new critical journal, by contrast, is filled with ‘journalistic’ matter – the Korean airline disaster, the reception of the Vietnam Veterans’ memorial, the rhetoric of Reaganomics, the opening of Al Capone’s vaults by Geraldo Rivera, the language of apartheid. But the journalistic matter is treated, not journalistically, but as the object of specialised critique and theoretical reflection. The result is often an incongruous blend of the popular and the professional, the esoteric and the everyday: ‘Gender and Semiosis in I love Lucy’ is an exemplary article title that recently drew a laugh in a speech by the President of University of Chicago.

The distribution, use and reception of the new critical journal reveals its ‘journalistic’ character in an even more important way. All the journals I have named aspire to appear on racks with traditional literary magazines in ‘better bookstores everywhere’. The traditional scholarly journal was a research tool, a place to keep articles in cold storage to be looked up later; the new journal is ‘news’, not just in its contemporaneous subject-matter but in its heralding of new methods, reading strategies and critical voices. All this indicates to me that the new journals are the principal medium for a new sort of literary culture. This culture is not, like the readership of traditional literary magazines, centred in the New York intelligentsia, but dispersed throughout the countryside in places like Charlottesville, Virginia, Ithaca, New York and Minneapolis, Minnesota. Its unit of sociability is not the Manhattan cocktail party, but the graduate student sherry hour, and the faculty bag-lunch. The site of its dissemination to the larger culture is not the New York Times Book Review or the ‘Art and Books’ section of the Chicago Tribune, but the college classroom.

Now all this may seem like pretty poor stuff compared to previous golden ages of critical journalism when, as Morris Dickstein puts it, ‘the educated generalist held forth not only about books but about life itself.’ The age of the traditional ‘man of letters’ does seem to be far behind us, upheld now mainly by cranky, reactionary voices who denounce the ‘new academicism’, mainly in the pages of traditional literary journals. The new journalism is ‘generalist’ in its critical ambitions, but ‘specialist’ in its jargon; it is written, not by the elder statesman as ‘man of letters’, but by the hustling young academic and, in increasing numbers, by women. If the traditional objection to ‘men of letters’ was, as Matthew Arnold put it, that ‘they did not know enough,’ the objection to the new professional critics is that they know too much, and that their knowledge can only be imparted to a trained, disciplined readership. Whether this readership amounts to a genuine ‘literary culture’ of the sort we nostalgically project on the 18th-century Paris salon, the 19th-century Boston drawing room, or the Manhattan loft of the 1930s, is a debatable question. What seems beyond dispute is that academic criticism is at the centre of whatever literary culture we do have at the present time. This is something to which all its opponents testify.

6. ‘A bad thing’: just how bad is academic criticism, and wherein does its badness reside? The striking thing about the attack on contemporary criticism is the incoherence and self-contradictory character of its objections. A recent special issue of TriQuarterly called ‘Criticism in the University’ provides a host of examples. TriQuarterly is a traditional literary magazine, devoted primarily to ‘imaginative literature’ but it regards academic criticism as important (or dangerous) enough to deserve 234 pages of analysis and polemical attack – 234 pages that could have been used for poetry and fiction. The attack is nothing if not single-minded: the villain is clearly and repeatedly identified as the university and the appropriation of criticism by academic culture. The fact that TriQuarterly is itself published by a university press, and that every one of the contributors is a professor never seems to disturb the phalanx of anti-academic rhetoric. Nor are the arguments themselves characterised by such consistency: contemporary criticism is pilloried by William Cain for its ‘disorder’ and lack of ‘system and coherence’ on one page, and denounced for abiding by ‘humdrum routines’ on the next. When Cain pauses to admit that his own ‘criticisms may seem untidy’, he calls the untidiness a ‘result of the muddled nature of [Richard] Ohmann’s writing ... its terminological slippage and begged questions.’ This may well be a first: the use of the mimetic fallacy to blame one’s own critical ‘untidiness’ on the writer one is trying to refute. E.D. Hirsch can’t seem to decide between fairly mild reservations about contemporary criticism (‘the truth of the Modernist theoretical position has been greatly overrated’) and his more severe judgment of one page earlier: ‘at the theoretical level the Moderns are simply wrong.’ Gerald Graff complains that ‘recent literary theory has become a private enclave’ on one page, then laments the assimilation of theory as a ‘“traditional” practice’ in the literary curriculum two pages later. When an academic critic is young, pure, revolutionary and marginal, she is denounced for failing to change things, or for working in a private enclave; when she has attained tenure and started a new journal and a women’s studies programme, she is denounced for having ‘sold out’. Graff calls this ‘the now-familiar paradox of the institutionalised revolutionary, whose rejection of the System was so uncompromising that there was no choice but to award him a tenured chair and make him head of his own program.’ This may be a paradox, but I would call it by a simpler name: it’s the old game called ‘damned if you do and damned if you don’t.’ The only thing worse than failure, according to Graff’s logic, is success. The idea 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, is quite unthinkable. Evidently the only moral alternative for the young radical critic is to renounce salary, tenure and library privileges and fall on her pen in honourable suicide.

When the contributors to ‘Criticism in the University’ aren’t contradicting themselves, or engaged in ritual academic-bashing, they are often just plain wrong. Wendell Berry laments the rise of critical specialisation, arguing that ‘the various disciplines have ceased to speak to each other,’ when the fact is that interdisciplinary criticism has never been stronger, and when more talk is going on among historians, literary critics, anthropologists, philosophers and psychologists than ever before. Morris Dickstein claims that ‘much of modern criticism’ is ‘veering towards either the explication of themes or the analysis of formal structures’, when, in fact, criticism is veering in just the opposite direction – away from formalism and explication de texte. Donald Davie declares that ‘criticism as an institution does not, and never did exist,’ thereby establishing his claim to being further out of touch with reality than anyone else in this volume. Davie means to say, of course, that criticism as an institution should not exist, and that critics should instead model themselves on ‘unpredictable and often irascible loners’ like his ‘beau idéal’, Yvor Winters. Davie’s final sentence may suggest why this alternative, so heroic and sentimental, seems less than attractive: ‘If Winters could hold to his own incorruptible standards in his lifetime, so can we in ours – with mournful acknowledgment that the strain of unremitting resistance which destroyed Winters’s judgment before the end, may be even more wearing for us.’

8. ‘Literature from the colonies: Criticism from the imperial centres’: perhaps the most interesting comment in the entire issue of TriQuarterly is by Gene Bell-Villada, an associate professor of Romance Languages at Williams College: ‘Nothing could differ more from our literary situation than that of the Latin Americans. Ours is an Age of Critics and Metacritics, theirs an Age of Literature.’ Bell-Villada regards this as an entirely deplorable situation, but it might be more useful to explore it as a hypothesis, asking if it is true, and if so, why. I think there is an element of truth to it, but I don’t have any proof beyond a general impression that a great deal of good new writing seems to be coming from the Third World, Australia, and the former colonies of the Western empires. As to the reasons, one explanation is simply that literary forms go through their golden ages in advance of criticism, that the emergence of a people to cultural consciousness is forged by great narrative, lyric and dramatic achievements, and not principally by criticism. There is something inescapably important about being ‘first’ in a literary tradition; a golden age of literature has to occur early; a golden age of criticism (such as the 18th century) comes ‘late’ in a cultural tradition, well after the great literary achievements. It is also tempting to think of the geopolitical relations between literature and criticism as a kind of repetition of the economics of empire, the ‘raw material’ of imaginative literature flowing from the colonies to the home country, there to be processed by the industrial centres of criticism. One would have to qualify this imperialist model by noting that the analogy of ‘raw material’ and ‘finished products’ seems quite inadequate to describe Borges, Julio Cortazar and Garcia Marquez, the ‘pioneering story-writers’ cited by Bell-Villada. Colonial literature does not seem ‘raw’ or ‘innocent’: on the contrary, it is likely to be sophisticated, self-reflexive, problematic, experimental – fully aware of the critical industry humming away at the imperial centre, and of many other things besides. Nor, despite the caricatures of self-obsession, does contemporary criticism seem content to focus its attention on the traditional values and canonical literary monuments of the imperial centre. On the contrary, the whole notion that the imperial canon is open to question, to alternatives, is one of the principal concerns of recent criticism. The relation between cultural achievements and colonialism is one that was nearly invisible to the traditional humanistic scholar, much less the ‘man of letters’. Both these venerable figures had a role to play in the theatre of imperialism: namely, to re-affirm the eternal values of Western civilisation and its masterpieces, while studiously ignoring the devastation that this civilisation was imposing on the rest of the planet in the name of ‘progress’ and ‘enlightenment’. If post-imperial criticism and post-colonial literature have a relationship, then we have grounds, perhaps, to hope that it is not simply a repetition of this sordid history, but a new intellectual collaboration that seeks to build a new, more equitable civilisation out of the ruins of empire. That would indeed be a golden age of criticism, and of literature, if that difference continued to be important. We’ve always known that literature is a criticism of life. The question is: what does that make criticism itself?

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Vol. 9 No. 15 · 3 September 1987

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.

Gerald Graff
Northwestern University, Illinois

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?

Elisabeth Underwood
New York

Vol. 9 No. 16 · 17 September 1987

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.

W.J.T. Mitchell
University of Canterbury, New Zealand

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