Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History 
by Joseph North.
Harvard, 272 pp., £31.95, May 2017, 978 0 674 96773 1
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Scanning​ recent academic literary studies for examples of what he calls ‘a genuinely critical impulse’, Joseph North picks out D.A. Miller’s subtle analysis of Jane Austen’s prose. ‘The critical voice speaking here is quite remarkable for the finesse with which it mimics the rhetorical effect it is describing,’ North writes, referring to a passage in which Miller dilates on the apparent impersonality of Austen’s writing. ‘The finesse lies in an odd place, in that Miller here reproduces Austen’s effect in an exaggerated manner, thereby training us to experience it in its more subtle original form.’ Miller’s argument is that the impersonality of Austen’s voice ‘turns out to be a cover for the shame of her person’. North comments: ‘Crucially, the critical voice that tells us this – Miller’s voice – also seems to be trying to speak impersonally, but is making such a fuss of it that it keeps failing.’

The persuasiveness or otherwise of Miller’s claim isn’t my concern here.* What interests me is North’s voice as he discusses Miller’s voice discussing Austen’s voice. It possesses a confident impersonality all of its own. North’s interpretation isn’t offered as a subjective reaction or a tentative possibility, nor does it anticipate incomprehension or resistance. He doesn’t speak in a technical or purely professional language, but uses the vocabulary of everyday human assessments, albeit of a discerning kind, finding the writing ‘quite remarkable’ or commending its ‘finesse’. In saying that the finesse of Miller’s achievement lies in an ‘odd’ place, North is acknowledging, casually but convincingly, some community of normal expectation that is initially jolted by finding it there. And in suggesting that Miller’s prose reproduces Austen’s effect in an ‘exaggerated’ manner, North takes for granted, justifiably, that an alert reader will see why this adjective is right and revealing. Finally, North’s prose gains extra force by its assured use of a more demotic register as in his remark that Miller’s effort to speak impersonally makes ‘such a fuss of it that it keeps failing’.

The stylish economy of North’s own writing here assumes that readers will recognise the truth of his analysis without the need for any laboured setting-out of methodological or intellectual premises. His passing reference to ‘us’ doesn’t serve to identify a specific group in sociological or other terms: critical writing is always implicitly addressed to readers, to ‘us’. The passage is an excellent illustration of the power and appeal of a certain style of literary criticism – assured, conversable and genuinely illuminating. Nothing, it seems to me, would be gained by describing it as, say, ‘conservative’ or, alternatively, ‘counter-hegemonic’, or as representative of ‘the neoliberal rather than the Keynesian phase of capitalism’. Of course, like any act of communication it presumes certain conditions of possibility, including some substantive assumptions, but those political or economic labels do not come close to identifying what is distinctive or valuable about this small act of criticism. And the fact that such a passage (and others like it) occur in a newly published academic monograph should make us wary of generalisations to the effect that the currently dominant ‘paradigm’ in literary studies has suppressed criticism and replaced it with historical and cultural analysis.

Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History is not a history of literary criticism. It confines itself to certain strains within Anglo-American academic literary studies since the 1920s and is a polemic about the actual and possible political roles of university teachers of English literature. North argues that ‘the profession’ currently misconstrues the political import of the kind of historical or cultural diagnosis characteristic of the most fashionable work in the field over the past three decades or more, and that it does so because it neglects or misunderstands the discipline’s past. The argument seems to me interesting, clever, unusual and wrong. (I should mention that he says various flattering things about my own work, albeit hinting in the politest possible terms that I may be a touch benighted.)

In North’s view, ‘the origins of the discipline’ are to be found in the 1920s: he repeatedly asserts that it was I.A. Richards who ‘founded the discipline’. But Richards, according to North, did not develop practical criticism for the purposes of identifying the aesthetic quality of a work of literature and then ranking such works, as some later critics who claimed descent from him did. Instead, Richards had a more pragmatic aim: the cultivation of readers’ capacities to integrate their responses to literature at a psychological (ultimately, perhaps even neurological) level. It was, North asserts, the New Critics in the US and Leavis and his followers in Britain who deployed what they claimed was a form of Ricardian ‘close reading’ for the purpose of upholding an idealist conception of the aesthetic, which in turn became an essential element in their largely reactionary critique of contemporary society.

Understood in this way, close reading became the dominant paradigm of the profession, but by the end of the 1960s it was coming to seem intolerably conservative. Allegedly, it presumed false universals; it focused on a restricted canon; it expressed a clubby maleness; and it was in general unaware of its own preconditions. Above all, it rested on an idealist view of ‘the aesthetic’, which encouraged an obsession with grading literary works in terms of their putative aesthetic quality. As new social groups were admitted to ‘the academy’, they rebelled against these various restrictions, opening the discipline up to new approaches. These are often grouped under the label ‘Theory’, but North prefers to emphasise that the style of work that became dominant from the late 1970s onwards was actually a form of historical or cultural analysis. In terms of the old conflict between ‘critics’ and ‘scholars’, he sees the establishment of a new professional paradigm in the 1980s and 1990s as the triumph of the latter. The nub of his case here is that the new guard who took control at this time threw the baby of rigorous close criticism out with the bathwater of various associated forms of idealism and conservatism; even Fredric Jameson, though discussed respectfully, is found wanting. But so successful was this paradigm shift, in North’s view, that historical-cultural analysis is now the only game in town, and any graduate student hoping to embark on a successful career has had to conform to its protocols.

Or, at least, there is no fully elaborated rival paradigm. But in an interesting twist North claims to detect forms of discontent with the historical-cultural approach which are, with only limited success, giving ‘criticism’ its due. In his longest and most impressive chapter, ‘The Critical Unconscious’, North addresses the ‘New Aestheticism’ or ‘New Formalism’, ideas of ‘World literature’, claims for the ethical or therapeutic mission of literature, and concern about the public role of academic literary scholars, picking out in each case the ways in which they hint at, but do not consummate, a more thoroughgoing repudiation of the historical-cultural approach. Here North plays to his strengths. He does not really do historical research. Instead, he selects influential works by major figures and subjects their presuppositions to close analysis. There are bravura readings of work by such figures as Eve Sedgwick and D.A. Miller, and North is acute about the longing for criticism that he detects in these writers, even when it is explicitly denied. The fact that the insights of critics such as Sedgwick and Miller remain at the level of the purely personal ‘speaks to the lack of any prospect of a true paradigm for criticism – the lack of any hope of putting together a paradigmatic way to use the literary directly to intervene in the social order’. I’ve stared at this comment for quite a long time. I’m loth to dismiss it as unintelligible: there are moments when I think I get glimpses of what it might mean ‘to use the literary directly to intervene in the social order’. But if we did have such a paradigm, and if literary scholars were all intervening away like anything, how would that differ from the present? And if North’s emphatic use of ‘directly’ is intended to point to the likely difference, then the image it conjures up is positively scary.

Whatever this interventionist paradigm turns out to be, it would not involve a return to bad old ‘criticism’, with its idealist aesthetics and reactionary implications. (At one point he speaks approvingly of ‘the critical project of forming new subjectivities and collectivities by way of the systematic cultivation of capacities for value’, though he doesn’t appear to notice that this could be seen as a fashionable gloss on a traditional, even Leavisian, ambition.) Indeed, had ‘we’ not misread ‘our’ history, we would be able to see that these contemporary impulses are hankering after something quite like Richards’s original, more radical and ‘incipiently materialist’ form of criticism. This would be a ‘criticism that would truly meet the demands of our moment’. One might reasonably expect North’s conclusion, entitled ‘The Future of Criticism’ (this is a very ambitious book), to reveal something of what this criticism might look like. But here disappointment, or at least bafflement, awaits.

North’s premise here is ‘the discipline has stepped out its fundamental movement from paradigm to paradigm in close synchronisation with the broader advance of the social order itself from phase to phase.’ On this basis, he argues that we can only hope to understand where the discipline might be going if we understand where capitalism is going. ‘What is the new period of capital likely to demand of literary study?’ he asks. Not much, I’d be tempted to answer, less because I think literary study has such a bleak future than because I don’t see ‘capital’ bothering itself overmuch with new literary-critical paradigms. But North works with more determinist assumptions, and believes that criticism and capitalism march in step.

One of the curiosities of such determinist schemes is the way they manage to make room for what looks like voluntarist activism in the present. Having briskly surveyed some likely futures for capitalism, North concludes that ‘the task of those on the left of the discipline is clear,’ and supplies the following remarkable wish list:

Intellectually, it would necessitate the creation of a new paradigm for radical criticism proper. Such a paradigm would need a clear and coherent research programme together with a rigorous new pedagogy, both of which, I think, would need to be founded on an intellectual synthesis that addressed the various concerns of the major countercurrents in a systematic and unitary way. Institutionally, it would require the creation, or redirection, of a range of disciplinary sites and resources – a fraught endeavour … The broader aim would be to secure a viable site within the social order from which to work at criticism in the genuinely oppositional sense. This would necessitate making broader alliances with the left outside the discipline, for it is on the broader success or failure of a more general forward movement that a movement for criticism within literary studies would ultimately depend.

No sweat, then. Where the earlier passage discussing Miller suggested a critic who may have profited from reading Empson, here North sounds like a mechanical imitator of Raymond Williams on a bad day. ‘Coherent’, ‘rigorous’, ‘systematic’, ‘unitary’ and so on function as burly enforcers, ensuring that errant inclinations fall in line or else. It is desperately hard to see what ‘a viable site in the social order’ as a base for criticism would look like. Given North’s claim a few sentences earlier that ‘literary studies remains one of the relatively few places in the English-speaking world today where the left proper has something like an institutional foothold,’ it’s difficult not to think that the ‘viable site’ will turn out to be well-disposed English departments. And the repeated use of ‘broader’ in the last two sentences seems to block any political or sociological specificity, making room instead for an almost millenarian combination of assured salvation and deferred hope. Certainly, if the writing of good criticism is to depend on the success of ‘a more general forward movement’, then we may have a bit of a wait.

All this​ unquestionably makes for a rousing polemic. Whether it makes for good history is more debatable. In starting his argument with the claim that I.A. Richards ‘founded’ the ‘discipline’, North raises his edifice on very unsound foundations. A case can of course be made that what is sometimes called the ‘critical revolution’ of the 1920s, in which Richards played a leading part, brought about a substantial change in academic literary studies. But putting it that way emphasises rather than denies that English literature had been widely taught in universities in both Britain and the US for well over fifty years before 1920, and in some form for longer than that.

The styles of work characteristic of English scholars during this earlier phase did not suddenly disappear: they remained, in one guise or another, central to the discipline for decades after 1920. An account that makes free with the notion of dominant paradigms has to acknowledge the related Kuhnian concept of ‘normal science’: what practitioners do from day to day in the long periods when their discipline is not undergoing sudden transformation. ‘Normal criticism’, in this sense, remained historical without being rigorously historicist; it accorded high esteem to textual editing; it gave detailed attention to minor writers and the wider literary culture, not just to accepted masterpieces; and it prized a blend of learning and cultivation. To judge by what was published in the middle decades of the 20th century, scholars of English literature in British universities carried on doing this sort of work far more than they attempted to implement any of Richards’s ambitious quasi-scientific theories about the psychology of reading.

Leavis was another matter: he left a much more legible mark on actual scholarly practice. Commentators on the left have focused on him, both because he seemed to stand for a definite programme, even an ‘ism’, and because he treated literary criticism as a form of cultural critique. But they have exaggerated his place in the story. For the most part, even between the 1930s and the 1960s, the Leavisian writ did not run in Oxford, London, the Scottish universities or in many of the redbricks. Whole swathes of literary studies did not take the form of ‘criticism’, and not all criticism was inspired by Leavis. In effect, North is following the lead of the more theoretically driven approaches of the 1970s and 1980s, in which the name ‘Leavis’ was used as a metonym for the dominant practices of literary studies in the previous two generations, just as in the US the insurgent trends took the New Criticism, perhaps with rather more justification, to stand for the scholarly and pedagogical practice of the previous three or four decades. But in Britain, at least, Leavisian criticism, though extremely influential, was always recognised as sectarian, not monopolistic. Scrutiny folded; the Review of English Studies marched, and marches, on.

It isn’t really clear why North’s plea for a form of criticism in the present needs his somewhat gestural history in the first place. He seems to want to insist on Richards’s radical credentials (such as they were) in order to establish that literary criticism does not have to be reactionary. But it’s difficult to know who needs to be persuaded of this, while if there are ultras who see any form of close engagement with literary texts as self-evidently a part of capitalism’s smokescreen, they aren’t likely to be persuaded otherwise by being made to read a few admiring paragraphs about the author of Practical Criticism. It is quite true that Richards’s ‘experiments in applied psychology’, as he described that book, are both interesting in themselves and represent something of a path not taken as far as later advocacy of ‘close reading’ was concerned (though Richards did have some impact on American pedagogy through his educational writings, and specifically through his leading role in drawing up the 1945 report General Education in a Free Society, often known as the ‘Harvard Redbook’, which shaped much curricular discussion in American colleges over the next decade or more). Even so, Richards’s curious blend of quasi-behaviourist psychology with aspects of the philosophy of G.E. Moore hardly seems likely to recommend itself as a model for younger members of the MLA chafing against the limitations of the alleged ‘historicist paradigm’.

In taking ‘the discipline’ as his focus North excludes all non-academic criticism, so despite his title we hear nothing of such critics as Virginia Woolf and Cyril Connolly in Britain or Edmund Wilson and Malcolm Cowley in the US. ‘There is much to be said … about the history of the idea of “criticism” before its entry into the university,’ he concedes in a footnote. ‘Naturally I cannot say it here.’ Here as elsewhere in the book, saying ‘there is much to be said’ functions as a way of avoiding saying any of it. But is it natural to leave all this out? For Richards, the significant predecessors were such figures as Matthew Arnold and Walter Pater or A.C. Bradley and Edmund Gosse. Moreover, it isn’t easy to say when criticism ‘entered the university’: Pater was an Oxford don and Bradley held chairs of English at more than one British university, so they cannot be entirely disregarded as part of an older non-academic culture of belles-lettres.

North also makes it more difficult to do anything like justice to the heterogeneity of critical practice in the past by his strong insistence on treating ‘the discipline’ in Britain and the US as a single formation. ‘At this level of analysis,’ he claims, ‘the Anglo-American intellectual tradition moves as a unit.’ Needless to say, there were, and are, significant interactions and mutual influences, but there are also local preoccupations, and major differences of institutional setting and wider literary culture. It is noticeable that when North gets to the period from about 1990 to the present, which is the real focus of his book, his examples are almost exclusively drawn from the US. Moreover, in his general comments on ‘the profession’, he clearly has the graduate schools of the major US research universities in mind, a highly professionalised world which is very alert to shifts in methodologies and field definitions, as well as almost entirely insulated from the wider literary culture. The combination of this in-house range of reference with an analytical focus on the logic of leading theoretical or methodological ‘approaches’ gives North’s book a somewhat bare, skeletal character. First we have one paradigm, then we have another paradigm, then we are keeping our eyes peeled to spot what is going to be ‘the next big thing’. At one point he does concede that there is ‘a lot to be said for going back to reflect on the richness and heterogeneity of actual practice, which the demand for methodological rigour so often conceals’. Indeed, but again, saying there’s ‘a lot to be said’ seems just to be a way of avoiding saying any of it, and North mostly does not observe the spirit of this remark in his own practice.

If I had to pick out a single term whose use encapsulates much that is problematic about his book, it would be ‘liberal’. North uses the term with striking frequency, though it’s hard not to feel that in recent years it has become almost unusable unless prefaced by elaborate definitional preliminaries. In so far as I can chart any consistency in his usage, ‘liberal’ does not refer to any of the traditional understandings of political liberalism, but neither does it follow current US politics in denoting anything to the left of the dominant right-wing orthodoxy. Instead, the nearest synonym I can supply would be ‘not Marxist’. North frequently condemns figures who were ‘liberals rather than leftists’, and when he refers to ‘the left-liberal mainstream’ of English studies, the implied contrast appears to be with ‘leftism’. At one point he speaks of ‘the left proper’ as ‘those whose commitment to equality runs beyond the boundaries set by the liberal consensus’; at another he refers to ‘liberalism’s failure to admit the determination of the superstructure by the base’. It is hard to make important discriminations while relying on this vocabulary: such prodigal use of ‘liberal’ becomes a night in which all (non-Marxist) cows are black.

Yet some of North’s most interesting perceptions seem rather at odds with his determinist premises. For example, he claims that ‘the present historicist/contextualist paradigm is best seen as the discipline’s way of riding out our own neoliberal period’. This suggests such work is a kind of shelter in which radical impulses are kept warm until it becomes safe to venture out into the world again, which is rather different from being ‘determined by the base’. Similarly, it isn’t immediately clear how to square the fact that ‘the left’ has gained an institutional foothold in academic literary studies with his claim that the current dominance of neoliberal capitalism has produced a form of literary study in its own image. North is right, I think, that the broadly historical literary scholarship which is currently the dominant mode suits what he calls ‘the neoliberal university’. But that surely has less to do with the demise of Keynesianism, as he alleges, still less with the rise of credit default swaps, and more with current assessment regimes and their insistence on measurable contributions to ‘research’. ‘Cultivation’ is shunned in contemporary universities as smacking too much of a privileged, aristocratic era, but some such notion may be essential to any worthwhile practice of criticism. We are given to understand that the defects of ‘liberal’ approaches would be remedied if we undertook a properly ‘materialist’ criticism. But we never learn what exactly this would look like in practice: those who claim to possess this key to the universe are always in the position of implying that, for the moment, they’ve left it in their other jacket.

This book, it seems to me, expresses two familiar, even admirable, impulses: the desire to write good literary criticism, and the desire to advance progressive political causes. North seems to feel he cannot do the first unless he can generate some general methodology which will ensure he is at the same time doing the second. But perhaps our intellectual and political commitments don’t always marry up as neatly as this. Perhaps there is some value in being able to comment acutely on literature, and perhaps this ability can crop up in surprising or ideologically unsympathetic places. Perhaps the practice of criticism sometimes turns out to be richer and subtler than any of the abstract templates we claim should govern that practice. Perhaps, to adapt what he says of Miller, the critical voice that tells us this – North’s voice – also seems to be trying to speak politically, but is making such a fuss of it that it keeps failing.

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