Why Literary Criticism is like Virtue

Stanley Fish

There is a great difference between trying to figure out what a poem means and trying to figure out which interpretation of a poem will contribute to the toppling of patriarchy or to the war effort. Until recently the assertion of this difference would have been superfluous, but in many circles it has come to be an article of faith that the idea of a distinctively literary system of facts and values is at best an illusion and at worst an imposition by the powers that be of an orthodoxy designed to suppress dissent. It is thought to be an illusion for the reason that both the form and the content of a discourse are not self-generated, but have the shape they do by virtue of relationships (of similarity and difference) with other discourses that are themselves relationally, not essentially, constituted. If literature, under some definitions, occupies (has title to) the realm of the ‘imagination’ it is because other enterprises – law, sociology, chemistry and engineering would be interestingly different candidates – find their self-definition (and their methodologies) in a renunciation (not a negative, but an enabling gesture) of that realm; and each of these enterprises will in turn gain a franchise by pushing away as beside its point responsibilities and concerns that ‘belong’ elsewhere.

‘Elsewhere’, what they do over there, defines ‘here’, what we do in our shop; the identity of an activity, that which enables you to know it when you see it, is radically dependent on everything from which it would be distinguished. Nothing stands alone; no discipline is an island; no fact – be it legal, literary, historical, physical, psychological – rests on its own bottom or on the bottom of a self-sustaining practice; all facts are pickoutable only against a background of the entire array of practices no one of which has a substantial (self-authorising) existence. It follows that when one experiences immediacy or perspicuousness – when the intelligibility of something seems transparent and indisputable – the true cause of the experience is always hidden; what appears is a function of what does not appear. One ‘sees’ a poem or a tort but the perceptual effect ultimately is produced by a stage setting which, by escaping our attention, determines the content of our attention, determines what will be for us the category of the obvious.

Those who make this argument are usually careful to say that they do not intend by it to reaffirm the old distinction between the literary object and its historical or sociological context, the distinction between the inside and the outside of the ‘poem proper’. Indeed, it is that very distinction or the possibility of making it that is usually being challenged when the constitutive essence of the literary object is found not on its surface but in the cultural forces that bring surfaces to visibility. Given this analysis of what is productive of the object and its details, the last place you will look if you want deeply to comprehend the object is to its local, limited site of production; the last place you will look is to the narrowly conceived intentions of the author or to the machinery (vocabularies, categories, value terms) routinely employed by unreflective practitioners. In short, if you want to know what is really going on in literature, look elsewhere.

Just this advice is given over and over again, and given in the casual manner that signals a commonplace too well established to require elaboration, in almost every piece of ‘high’ theory published in the past few years. Terry Eagleton insists that ‘the literary text bears the impress of its historical mode of production as surely as any product secretes in its form and materials the fashion of its making’. Tony Bennett draws the moral (without endorsing it): ‘Rescued from the status of a contingent context or backdrop, what was defined as outside literature has been imported to the very centre of its inside; what seemed circumstantial has been redefined as constitutive.’ As Robert Scholes put it, we must ‘make the object of study the whole intertextual system of relations that connects one text to others ... the matrix or master code that the literary text both depends upon and modifies’. That is, he continues, ‘in order to teach the interpretation of a literary text, we must be prepared to teach the cultural text as well.’

Teaching the cultural text is the role of cultural studies, whose promise is well presented in Patrick Brantlinger’s Crusoe Footprints. Cultural studies, he explains, ‘aims to overcome the disabling fragmentation of knowledge within the disciplinary structure of the university, and ... also to overcome the fragmentation and alienation in the larger society which that structure mirrors’. As a practice it is ‘counterdisciplinary’, resisting ‘the disciplinary narrowings and specialisings’ which stand in the way of constructing ‘a unified map of knowledge’. It refuses the move by which academic critics keep literature separate from all other forms of discourse, insisting that literature is not a ‘system,’ but an ‘ensemble,’ a ‘leaky category’ that includes ‘all other forms of discourse that are supposedly nonliterary’; it has no properties of its own; ‘its properties are the properties of discourse in general.’

The logic of this is clear and seems to be compelling: if it is the case that the literary text emerges in a space and with an effectivity provided by the larger culture, focusing on the larger culture is the way to focus on it. But the logic is flawed in two related directions. First of all, you cannot focus on the background array of social practices, on the ‘whole intertextual system of relations’ within which everything is interdependent (‘heteroglot’) and nothing free-standing, without turning it into an object that is itself in need of the kind of explanation it supposedly provides. If you try to make what is hidden and constituitive appear, it will disappear (recede further) in its supposed appearance; the potency of a cultural ensemble of differential forces cannot be reduced to an item in its own field; and when it is so reduced, all potency has fled away.

Yet even if cultural studies must necessarily fail of its aspiration to reveal the true causal structure of things, it can produce a new object, another text. But that text – call it the cultural text – has no epistemological superiority over the texts (of literature, history, law etc) it displaces. That is, it is not a larger text or a more inclusive text; it is just a different text, with its own emphases, details and meanings which ‘naturally’ crowd out the emphases, details and meanings of other texts. The cultural text, if it comes into view, will not provide a deeper apprehension of the literary text or the legal text; rather it will erase them even in the act of referring to them, for the references will always be produced from its angle of interest, not theirs. Cultural studies tell us to look elsewhere to find the meaning of the literary text; I say that if you look elsewhere, you will see something else.

A practice only acquires identity by not being other practices, by representing itself not as doing everything but as doing one thing in such a way as to have society look to it for specific performance. When the hard outline of a practice is blurred by a map that brings into relief its affiliations (borrowings, lendings, overlappings) with other practices, those affiliations, rather than anything specific to the practice, are what become visible. It is like what happens when a map produced by an automobile association displays the distance between cities; the cities themselves become mere nodes, junctures in a relay, while all the attention is focused on what goes on between them. Looking at such a map one has no sense of the shape, extent or geography of the cities, for they are points marking the beginning or end of a journey. In the same way an interdisciplinary map, a map of the routes going in and out of disciplines, will be incapable of indicating just why any particular discipline is there, what it does, why anyone takes it seriously: it slights the immanent intelligibility of disciplines.

Although the interdisciplinary map is general, surveying many disciplines rather than focusing on one, its generality is itself particular, for the shapes it makes available gain their prominence at the expense of the other shapes it renders visible. The fact that the cultural text has no place in it for the routines and imperatives of specific practices is not a sign of its completeness or deeper perspicuity, but of its partiality. Of course not all partialities are the same except in the sense that they are similarly partial. One could always argue, and argue persuasively, that for a particular purpose at a particular time the partiality of the cultural text will be more helpful than recourse to the partiality called literary criticism or philosophy or art history. To say that the cultural text is partial is not to criticise it or to deny its usefulness in certain circumstances; it is merely to deny its claim to be representationally superior to other partial texts doing other jobs.

Were it not partial, were the cultural text or interdisciplinary map wholly adequate to every detail in the universe as seen from every possible angle, no one could read it. A text that was adequate to every detail as seen from every possible angle would be unsituated; it would not proceed from a perspective – a ‘here not there’ – but from everywhere and therefore from nowhere. Human beings, however, cannot be in such a condition of dispersion. Human beings are always in a particular place; that’s what it means to be human; to be limited by what a specific coordinate of space and time permits us to see until we move on to another coordinate with its equally (if differently) limited permission.

Not only can human beings not be everywhere; they cannot be in more than one place, at least not at the same time; and that is why (to circle back to the beginning of this discussion) there is a great difference between trying to figure out what a poem means and trying to figure out which interpretation of a poem will best contribute to the war effort. Each effort only makes sense in relation to the traditions, goals, obligatory routines and normative procedures that comprise its history and are the content of its distinctiveness; as tasks geared to different purposes, they call on entirely different skills and set in motion different orders of attention. If I am interested in the moral structure of Paradise Lost, I will look at Satan’s speeches to see whether or not they display contradiction, evasions, self-deceptions and hollow posturings; if I am interested in rousing my troops or rousing a nation I will accept those same speeches (no longer the same) at face value and quarry from them shamelessly so long as they lend themselves to my cause. I cannot, however, do both – perform as a literary critic and perform as political or military leader – simultaneously; for while the two performances will at some level share Paradise Lost, the Paradise Lost that emerges at the conclusion of one project will have very little resemblance to the Paradise Lost that emerges at the end of the other.

The moral I would draw is general: whenever there is an apparent rapprochement or relationship of co-operation between projects, it is the case that one has devoured the other; and this is true not only in relationships between academic projects and ‘real world’ projects, but in relationships between projects housed in the academy, often in the same building. Many years ago Douglas Bush and Cleanth Brooks engaged in a celebrated debate, with Bush representing the historical method and Brooks representing what was then, in fact, New Criticism. At one point Brooks made what appeared to be a conciliatory statement: ‘I say again that the literary historian and the critic need to work together and that the ideal case is that in which both functions are united in one and the same man.’ Now this could be read either as an assertion of the complementarity of the two functions – each supplements the contribution of the other to a single unified task – or as an assertion of the usefulness of historical information to the critic as he goes about his business. If Brooks means the first he is an early prophet of interdisciplinary studies, which have always been impelled by a desire for ‘a unified science, general knowledge, synthesis and the integration of knowledge’; in the interdisciplinary vision there is only one job to which the various disciplines contribute, each filling in the part of the puzzle assigned to it. But in the alternative reading of Brooks’s statement each discipline has its own job, a job that is literally inconceivable apart from its vocabulary, and when one discipline borrows from another the borrowed material is instantaneously transformed into grist for the appropriator’s mill. This, as it turns out, is Brooks’s view of the matter. ‘The question of a poem’s organisation,’ he says, ‘addresses itself properly to the critic. The historical scholars have not answered it, for it is a question which cannot be answered in terms of historical evidence.’ Or even more strongly: a ‘poem has to be read as a poem ... what it “says” is a question for the critic to answer, and ... no amount of historical evidence as such can finally determine what the poem says.’ ‘This is not to say,’ he adds, ‘that the same man may not be both historical scholar and critic,’ but such a man would be exercising two talents at discrete times rather than combining them in ways that respected the integrity of each.

The conclusion (unhappy for many) is that the effects of one’s actions will always be confined to their disciplinary settings even when those settings receive some grandiose new name like Cultural Studies. Even as I draw this conclusion I can think of at least three forms of academic study which would seem to constitute a challenge to it: Feminism, Black Studies, and Gay and Lesbian Studies. Surely the effects of feminism extend far beyond the academy’s precincts and surely feminists who actively work in the public sphere make use of arguments and slogans developed and elaborated in the classroom and in learned articles. Just as surely the recovery by Black Studies proponents of forgotten or marginalised African-American writers, with the attendant construction of a ‘suppressed cultural tradition’, has led to, among other things, the arguments of Afrocentrism and the altering of course content and curricula on every level of education; and, finally, one sees every day the effects of the coalition between gay and lesbian academics and the activist members (often academics themselves) of groups like Queer Nation and Act Up, whose activities have placed considerable and effective pressure on legislatures, school boards, corporations and government departments.

No one could deny this evidence, but one can ask: ‘what is it evidence of?’ It is not, I would contend, evidence that academic work can ripple out to effect changes in the larger society, but that, rather, when changes in the larger society are already occurring, academic work can be linked up to them by agents who find the formulations of that work politically useful. It is a question of the direction of force. Unlike the New Historicism and Cultural Studies, feminism, gay rights activism and the civil rights movement did not originate in the academy, and academic versions of them acquire whatever extra academic influence they may have by virtue of something already in place in public life; academic feminism, academic Gay Studies and academic Black Studies do not cause something but piggyback on its prior existence. In saying this, I would seem to be making a significant concession by allowing that at least some academics can do their work with a view toward its political effects, but the arguments I’ve made earlier will return to block even this small gesture. For while a feminist or a Gay Studies scholar may hope that what she has to say will contribute to the reform efforts of feminists and gays in the larger society, this hope will not be the basis of what she writes about a text. Rather she will believe that the feminist or gay perspective on that text is the right one – gets to the heart of what is going on – and if its entry into the world does additional work, so much the better. This is of course merely one more version of my insistence that there is a difference between trying to figure out what a poem means and trying to figure out which interpretation of it will contribute to the toppling of patriarchy; and that difference remains even when the same person is invested in both projects. I stand by my conclusion that disciplinary actions have disciplinary origins and can only reasonably aim for disciplinary effects.

This conclusion will be distressing to many because it is subversive of the wish that lives in the heart of literary academics, to be consequential in ways larger than those made available by the discipline as it is practised every day, in classrooms before young men and young women likely to be indifferent, or in journals whose audience is limited to the other three hundred people in the world who care whether or not Satan is the real hero of Paradise Lost. To some extent this unhappiness at having a less than major role in public affairs can be traced to the general assumption on the part of academics that they are a superior breed. As Brian McCrea recently put it (with no little irony), ‘Who among us does not know that he or she is a smarter and better person than any Washington insider ...?’ With considerably less irony, indeed with no irony at all, two well known historians, Richard Neustadt and Ernest May, coauthored an entire book, Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers, premised on that rhetorical question and its obvious answer. Their method is to reconsider policy crises of the past and to analyse the thinking of those responsible for major decisions. Inevitably, the fatal flaw in that thinking turns out to be a failure to analogise the present situation to its appropriate historical predecessor. Instead of seeing his alternatives, as he should have, in the light of what Grant did in the battle of X, the confused President or Prime Minister or Secretary of State saw himself as another Bismark or Napoleon or Alexander. Naturally, the result was disaster, and of course the disaster could have been averted and turned into a triumph if the hapless statesman had been a better historian, or, more to the point, if he had been either Neustadt or May.

The megalomania of this extraordinary thesis – it approaches insanity – should not obscure the fact that it is only an extreme version to the quite ordinary tendency to believe that the skills attending one’s own practice are indispensable for any and all practices. Each discipline wants to label itself ‘Good For All Ills’ in the manner of the elixirs sold at country fairs by sell-ordained preachers. At least one discipline has at times nearly pulled it off. Philosophy has often managed to convince workers in other fields that whatever abilities may apparently be required to excel at a particular task, the true ability, underlying all others, is philosophical. Basically the assertion is that philosophy is not a discipline – a particular angled project – but a natural kind, that it is another name for clear thinking and as such no less relevant to the task, say, of shoemaking than to the task of explicating Kant.

In recent years this self-description has persuaded fewer in the academy than it once did, but philosophers (quite sensibly) have found themselves an alternative market and now offer themselves under the name of ‘ethicists’ to hospitals and other institutions faced with difficult decisions involving matters of life and death. There is an apparent logic to this new employment: surely those who spend their days and nights reflecting on moral dilemmas are the best persons to advise those who are confronted with them. But consider the form such reflection usually takes. You are the engineer of a train and at a certain point the track forks into two branches: if you take the branch to the left you will hit a stalled bus full of schoolchildren; if you take the branch to the right you will hit a stalled car. The car has only one occupant, but it is Saul Bellow, or Madonna, or Michael Jordan, or Margaret Thatcher. What do you do? I submit that if you are seeking counsel at a crucial moment of decision the last person you want to turn to is someone who spends his time thinking up hypotheticals like this one so that he can amaze students with his subtlety. It is not that subtlety is unwanted when medical or legal issues hang in the balance; it is just that subtlety itself is situation-specific and its various forms do not travel well when they are transported from their (institutionally) natural habitat. When the pinch comes you want to entrust yourself to someone who knows the territory – whether it be the hospital room or the boardroom or the locker room – to someone whose ways of processing information have emerged in the course of long hands-on experience rather than from the brains of self-anointed philosopher-kings.

The argument is even more self-evident when the claimants to universal competence are literary critics. One knows the source of the claim: it follows from the traditional exaltation of literature and especially of poetry as a discourse transcending local contexts. If literature, as Arnold famously declared, is a repository of the best that has been thought and said, it is the best for all times and not merely for its time; and if literature is infused with so general a wisdom, does it not follow that those who are responsible for conveying the literary treasure to the rest of us (the sacramental metaphor is intended) are similarly wise? The answer is no, and for the same reasons that deny the crown to philosophers. Literary critics do not traffic in wisdom, but in metrics, narrative structures, double, triple and quadruple meanings, recondite allusions, unity in the midst of apparent fragmentation, fragmentation despite surface unity, reversals, convergences, mirror images, hidden arguments, climaxes, dénouements, stylistic registers, personae. This list goes on and on, but it does not include arms control or city management or bridge-building or judicial expertise or a thousand other things, even though many of those things find their way into the texts critics study as ‘topics’ or ‘themes’. While it is true that a critic can exercise his bag of tricks on any material whatsoever – on politics, war, science, religion – this does not make him an expert in the fields from which those materials are quarried.

Nor is it the case that the skills in which he is expert can be effectively applied to contexts other than the literary. The rhetorical analysis of diplomatic communiqués, political statements, legal documents, presidential addresses, advertising, popular culture, television news, billboards, restaurant menus, movie marquees and almost anything else one can think of has been an industry for a long time, but in almost no case have State Department officials or the members of the judiciary or the publishers of romances changed their way of doing things us a result of having read – if any of them ever did read – a brilliantly intricate deconstruction of their practices. Think about it. You’re about to open a new business or introduce a bill in congress or initiate an advertising campaign, but you pause to ask yourself, ‘what would the readers of Diacritics say?’ While Terry Eagleton is surely right to observe that ‘discourses, sign systems and signifying practices of all kinds, from film and television to fiction and the languages of natural science, produce effects, shape forms of consciousness ... which are closely related to the maintenance or transformation of our existing systems of power,’ those systems will not be altered simply because the signifying practices underlying them have been described in detail by someone whose audience is made up of those who value that kind of work because they do it too.

McCrae pokes some gentle fun at an issue of Diacritics in which Derrida and others discuss the threat of nuclear war. He concedes that literary theorists have every right ‘to worry about nuclear war’ but admonishes them to realise that ‘their worries will not reach any larger public because their theories, indeed their vocabularies, are private and subversive rather than common and normative.’ This is not quite right: the vocabularies of literary theorists are no more private than any others; it is just that the public for whom they are intelligible is small and limited to academic circles within academic circles. In those circles these vocabularies are perfectly normative – their use is a requirement for entry – and constitute a common and immediately fungible currency; but these norms and currencies do not authorise or buy anything in other circles, where equally public vocabularies are the officially recognised mediums of exchange. In relation to a strongly enforced territoriality, the language of literary theory is not subversive, but irrelevant; it cannot be heard, except as the alien murmurings of a galaxy far away; it makes no contact with those who operate the levers of government and commerce because there are no bridges in place across which inhabitants of culturally distant communities can regularly come and go.

Again one must note the exception that proves the rule. In the years of the Reagan and Bush administration a number of government officials had links to a network of Straussians, students and followers of the late Leo Strauss, a political philosopher who strongly attacked what he saw as the corrosive relativism of modern thought and urged a return to the normative thinking of the ancients. Strauss’s views or versions of them were alive and well in the persons of William Bennett, Lynne Cheney, Chester Finn, Dianne Ravitch and Quayle chief of staff William Kristol, and it is at least arguable that these and others close to the Administration were able to influence its policies, especially in matters of education, the arts and civil rights. It would seem, then, that this was an instance in which intellectuals had a direct impact on the political life of the nation. But if these men and women were influential it was not because of their teachings and writings but because they managed to secure positions that gave their teachings and writings a force they would not have had if they had remained in the academy, where they would have had to wait for some accidental meeting between their ‘great thoughts’ and the powers that be. Absent such an accident or an appointment to public office only contingently related to those thoughts (government officials don’t say, ‘he wrote a great book on the English novel; let’s make him Secretary of Education’) there are no regular routes by which the accomplishments of academics in general and literals academics in particular can be transformed into the currency of politics.

This is not an inevitable condition: there is nothing in theory to prevent such routes from being established, but literary theorists will not be the people to establish them; the initiative has to come from the other direction, from those who are so situated as to have the power (although they do not yet have the reasons) to introduce into their councils news from the world of cultural studies, or feminist theory or reader-response criticism. As things stand now such a development is literally unimaginable, for it would require alterations in the existing spheres of influence and routes of communication so great that the culture of which we are all members would be unrecognisable. Until that happens, or until some unlikely political event surprises us – such as, for instance, the election to the presidency of a literary critic; and in order for it to count he or she would have to be elected as a literary critic, and not as someone otherwise qualified who also laid claim to this curious little talent – literary critics will have to be content with the ‘trickle-down’ consequences that may or may not flow from the fact that generations of young adults pass through their classrooms. It goes without saying that such consequences – associated in earlier pedagogical fantasies with Mr Chips – will not be sufficient for those who want to participate in ‘the revolutionary transformation of social relations all at one go’ (Bennett). All one can offer such would-be shakers and movers is an unhappy choice: they must either content themselves with the successes achieved in the context of specifically literary goals, or they must look forward to a life of continual frustration as the desire to extend the effects of such successes into precincts incapable of recognising them (never mind responding to them) goes forever unrealised.

The unhappiness of this choice has not been lost on those it confronts. Critics who begin with ‘revolutionary’ aspirations regularly lament the fact that their efforts have been appropriated – and, to add insult to injury, rewarded – by the very institution they thought to transcend. Immediately after claiming to be re-forming his own culture by re-forming the received picture of the culture of Spenser and Shakespeare, Louis Montrose ruefully acknowledges ‘that my professional practice as a teacher-scholar is also a vehicle for my partly unconscious and partly calculating negotiation of disciplinary, institutional and societal demands and expectations’. ‘I have,’ he admits, ‘a complex and substantial stake in sustaining and reproducing the very institutions whose operations I wish to call into question.’ Indeed! How else could he act or even contemplate acting, except within the range of actions made available by that institution? Supposedly ‘critical scholarship’, scholarship driven by the determination to read ‘against the grain’ is, as Michael Bristol sadly notes, ‘likely to result in legitimation rather than in practically effective critique’ – likely, in other words, to extend rather than challenge the discipline that finds room for it.

The fear that this has already happened haunts a huge anthology entitled Cultural Studies, the record of a conference held at the University of Illinois in 1990. The papers at that conference were many and varied in their focus, but they shared a desire to link the practice of Cultural Studies in the classroom to the project of restructuring society. In every question period, however, someone would raise the obvious point that this very meeting, with all of its talk about interventions, radical questionings and transgressions, was taking place at a large publicly-funded university and bore all the marks of the hierarchies, factional rivalries and personal agendas that were so often the objects of scathing criticism. Where at a different kind of conference a speaker might have been challenged because he cited an outdated edition or failed to take account of newly discovered facts, a speaker at this conference was challenged became ‘a certain Eurocentrism’ had been detected in his argument. He replied in kind, finding the comments of his questioner ‘problematic’ because ‘you seek to give them moral force by situating yourself as a representative of a number of marginalised or repressed constituencies’. The game here is not ‘my scholarship is better than yours,’ but ‘my marginaliastion is greater and more authentic than yours,’ but the difference is, as Chomsky might say, a notational variant, and at bottom the games are pretty much the same.

The basic point has been made with devastating authority by Evan Watkins. Academic work, he says,

occupies a marginal production and circulation within the dominant formation. And studying TV commercials or films or rock music or political speeches rather than a ‘traditional’ literary canon does little in and to itself to effect any social change. That sort of ‘territory shift’ doesn’t mean we’re now playing for bug stakes ... It just means we’re playing for the same marginal stakes with new material ... that the one-way street remains a dead end, unable to convey the work involved anywhere else.

After such things have been said, it is hard to imagine saying anything else. But the dream that the profession of literary criticism seems to allow – the dream of intervening in the world more effectively – dies hard. Within a few paragraphs Watkins is urging his readers/his colleagues to ‘forge connections to popular culture ... and to use the connections to educate a support structure for the next step, the next shift in territory in a prolonged war of position’, and in the penultimate sentence of his book he is calling on his fellow critics ‘to change the conditions of all our work’. It could be that in time all or almost all of the conditions of our work might be changed (as they have in fact changed since the days of Sidney, Jonson and Milton), but the change will not come about because literary critics have willed it. It would seem from much of his book that Watkins knows this, but the knowledge weighs heavily on him and when the lure of political hope captures him, he forgets it.

Sometimes the forgetting is instantaneous. Montrose asserts strongly (and correctly) that the ‘possibility of political and institutional agency cannot be based upon the illusion of an escape from ideology’, of an escape, that is, from the presuppositions within which one thinks to act. However, the very next sentence begins with ‘however’: ‘However, the very process of subjectively living the confrontations or contradictions within or among ideologies makes it possible to experience facets of our own subjection ... to read, as in refracted light, one fragment of our ideological inscription by means of another.’ Montrose underlines ‘living’, but what he really means by it is ‘thinking about’ or ‘being self-consciously aware of’. The idea is not simply to live subjection, but to have a perspective on subjection – a perspective provided by the sidelong glance at one set of ideological constraints from the vantage point of another set of ideological constraints; so that, for example, when we are operating as literary critics we can cast a critical and distanced eye on the assumptions that seize us when we are operating as members of the school board and when we are operating as members of the school board we can cast a critical and distanced eye on the assumptions that seize us when we are operating as literary critics. By thus shifting back and forth between these different ‘facets of our subjection’, we create a space, if only in the mind, free, if only for a moment, of subjection.

Of course, one needn’t move between ideologies in order to bring contradictions to the surface. We can stay at home and do effectively subversive work by becoming aware of the fissures and contradictions in our own practices: armed with the tools of immanent critique we can begin to liberate ourselves from the inside. The first part of this thesis seems to me unexceptionable: when the apparent unity of an ideological system is strongly interrogated one will always discover the embarrassing exceptions, concessions and barely disguised duplicities that tell the ‘real story’ of an agenda cobbled together out of the most disparate elements. An easy, and to me familiar, example is the body of American contract law, which ceaselessly presents a master narrative in which autonomous agents freely enter into bargained-for exchanges that courts inspect only for procedural flaws while refusing on principle to import into their rulings any political considerations. But only a cursory knowledge of the case law reveals that this master narrative is kept afloat by invoking at every opportunity just those considerations that have been most loudly banished by the rhetoric of the enterprise. In its every operation contract law is telling two stories while pretending that the second one has been ruled out of court. But should we conclude then (as proponents of the Critical Legal Studies Movement tend to) that this news should be broadcast from the rooftops and that if it were a shamefaced profession would give up its shabby ways and face the basic contradictions of its inauthentic existence? I’m afraid not, it only because this is news that everyone already knows, and not only knows but utilises in the course of getting through the mercantile and juridical day. As I have pointed out elsewhere, it is by virtue of the contradictions it harbours that contract law is able to exhibit the flexibility required by the double obligation to adhere to an official morality of contractual autonomy while adjusting its rulings to the reality of a world in which such autonomy has always and has already been compromised. It is an amazing accomplishment, worthy of wonder and celebration, and such celebration would not be cynical (there is not an ounce of cynicism in me) but would rather be a tribute to the resourcefulness of human beings who wish at the same time to be aspirational and to get things done. An analysis of contract law that foregrounded its contradictions would be embarrassing to its project only if the goal of that project were to be philosophically consistent. But that is not the goal of any project except for the project of philosophy itself. Other projects have the less abstract goal (which philosophy also shares) of wanting to flourish. I would have thought that the last word on the relationship between the foregrounding of contradiction and the impulse to reform was said by Joe E. Brown in Billy Wilder’s classic movie Some Like It Hot. Brown, you will remember, has been courting Jack Lemmon in drag and is about to propose to him on a boat. Thinking to end this farce once and for all by revealing a fatal contradiction in the structure of Brown’s desire, Lemmon cries, ‘I can’t marry you; I’m a man’; to which Brown sublimely replies: ‘nobody’s perfect.’

The moral here is that the awareness of contradiction doesn’t make any necessary difference and certainly will not make the difference (claimed by Montrose) of allowing us at once to experience constraint (or as he calls it ‘subjection’) and to stand apart from it. This is the hope and the dream of critical sell-consciousness, the thesis that ye shall know that what passes for the truth is socially and historically constructed and that knowledge shall set you free. The critically self-conscious agent, the argument goes, is just as embedded as anyone else, but he is aware of it and that makes all the difference, or at least the difference that keeps the hope of boundary-breaking behaviour alive. This will only work, however, if the knowledge that we are embedded is stored in a part of the mind that floats free of the embeddedness we experience at any one time; but that would mean that at least a part of our mind was not somewhere but everywhere and that would mean that we were not human beings but gods. In a frankly religious tradition the internalisation of deity is not only possible, it is obligatory; but in the militantly secular tradition of the New Historicism and Cultural Studies, what is internalised are the routines and deep assumptions of human practices which resemble deity only in that they are jealous of rivals.

Critical self-consciousness, conceived of as a mental action independent of the setting in which it occurs, is the last infirmity of the mind that would deny its own limits by positioning itself in two places at the same time, in the place to its local embodiment and in the disembodied place (really no place) of reflection. Reflection, however, is not a higher and relatively detached level of a particular practice; it is a practice and when one is engaged in it, one is obeying its constitutive rules rather than relaxing the constitutive rules of another practice. When I am engaged in literary criticism – e.g. explicating Paradise Lost – I am not reflecting on it, I’m doing it; and when I stop to reflect on the practice of literary criticism – mine or yours – I am no longer doing it, but doing something else, asking other questions and giving other answers. Moreover, the questions asked and answered will not belong to a realm of reflection as such, but to reflection about a specific practice, for even reflection on practice is practice-specific, as much tied to the local as the most mundane of physical gestures. What this means is that there is no such thing as critical self-consciousness, no separate ‘muscle of the mind’ that can be flexed in any situation, no capacity either innate or socially nurtured for abstracting oneself from everyday routines in the very act of performing them, no buffer zone that allows us critically to assess what we are doing, no strategy for loosening the constraints that bind us whenever we set ourselves a particular task. That means that any rewards or pleasures we might look for will come from particular tasks and not from their transcendence.

What are those rewards and pleasures? This is again the question of justification, now given new urgency because, at least by my argument, the usual justifications are unpersuasive. The old justification made literary critics the custodians of a human treasure, a repository of wisdom good for all problems and all times. The new justification, fashioned by deconstructionists, New Historicists, cultural materialists, Post-Modernists etc, gives literary critics, now called discourse analysts, a role in the forming of new subjectivities capable of forming a counterdisciplinary practice as port of the construction of an ‘oppositional public sphere’ (Brantlinger). The old justification won’t work because the strong historicism to which many of us have been persuaded rules out a set of texts that float above all historical conditions dispensing wisdom to those fit to receive it. The new justification won’t work because the same strong historicism leaves no room for the special and ahistorical brand of reflective consciousness that discourse analysis supposedly engenders.

If literary interpretation will neither preserve the old order or create a new one, what can it do and why should anyone practise it? I can’t tell you in so many words – a general answer to the question is precisely what my argument will not allow – but perhaps I can show you. My vehicle will be a single line from Paradise Lost. It occurs midway in the book, just as Milton’s narrator is about to call the roll of fallen angels, who, he says, will in future times pass themselves off as Gods to credulous mortals. They manage to so corrupt ‘the greatest part of Mankind’ that men and women ‘forsake God / their creator’ and fall to worshipping brutes. The contempt the narrator feels for those who are thus deceived is bitingly expressed in the line that interests me:

And Devils to adore for Deities.

That is, how stupid can you be? Of all the mistakes to make, the mistaking of a devil for a deity seems the most reprehensible and the most inexplicable. How could you fail to tell the difference between the creator and the most base of his creatures, hardly a creature at all in his rebellious infidelity? That is surely the sense of the line, at least in paraphrase which, if it is a heresy, is one that we all necessarily and endlessly practise.

But, even as that sense unfolds the medium of its expression begins to undo it; for while the line insists on the great difference between devils and deities and registers incredulity at anyone’s inability to tell them apart, the sound pattern of the line – what would have been called in Milton’s age its ‘schematic figures’ – is blurring the difference and making it hard to tell them apart. Not only are the two main nouns linked by alliteration and assonance, but their acoustic similarity is quite literally mirrored in the words – ‘to adore for’ – that separate them, but do not really separate them since the effect of mirroring is to bring them ever closer together. What then is the line finally saying, that there is a huge difference between devils and deities or that there is practically (a word precisely intended) no difference between devils and deities? The answer – inevitable given the underlying assumptions of literary interpretation as I described them earlier – is that the line is saying both: the difference is huge; the difference is very small. And there is no paradox because the largeness and smallness exist on different levels. The difference is small if we think to discern it with the carnal eye or ear. Devils can make themselves up to look or sound like deities any time; appearance, after all, is the diabolical realm, is what they worship, is what they are. True discernment requires an inner eye capable of penetrating to essences, an eye that does not rest on surfaces, but quite literally sees through them, the eye, in short, of faith, famously defined in Hebrews 11 as the ‘evidence of things not seen.’ The inner eye has only God as its object; and the difference between God and anything else looms large and immediately; if the gaze wanders, if the eye is distracted by some glittering simulacrum, the difference is blurred and becomes difficult to ‘tell’. Those who mistake devils for deities do not experience an empirical failure; they experience the failure, that is empiricism, the failure to distinguish between the things that are made and the maker, who is, of course, invisible.

The master text for all of this is the Areopagitica:

Good and evill ... in the field of the World grow up together almost inseparably; and the knowledge of good is so involved and interwoven with the knowledge of evill, and in so many cunning resemblances hardly to be discerned, that those confused seeds which were imposed an Psyche as on incessant labour to cull out, and sort asunder, were not more intermixed.

Both the difficulty and necessity of discerning are Milton’s great subject and he presents it by repeatedly displaying ‘cunning resemblances’ and them asking his readers to sort them asunder. The result is ‘incessant labour’, and interpretive labour, whose yield is not the calculation of the right answer but the experience of how difficult it is, ‘in the field of this World’, to determine what the right answer is, to tell the difference between devils and deities.

For me the reward and pleasure of literary interpretation lie inbeing able to perform analyses like this. Literary interpretation, like virtue, is its own reward. I do it because I like the way I feel when I’m doing it. I like being brought up short by an effect I have experienced but do not yet understand analytically. I like trying to describe in flatly prosaic words the achievement of words that are anything but flat and prosaic. I like savouring the physical ‘taste’ of language at the same time that I work to lay bare its physics. I like uncovering the incredibly dense pyrotechnics of a master artificer, not least because in praising the artifice I can claim a share in it. And when those pleasures have been (temporarily) exhausted, I like linking one moment in a poem to others and then to moments in other works, works by the same author or by his predecessors or contemporaries or successors. It doesn’t finally matter which so long as I can keep going, reaping the cognitive and tactile harvest of an activity as self-reflexive as I become when I engage in it.

When I run out of sources and analogues, similarities and differences, I go to the history of the criticism which not only allows me to continue the game, but to secure my place in it by linking my own efforts to those of past giants. In the case of ‘And Devils to adore for Deities’ I would head straight back to F.R. Leavis and his famously infamous attack on Milton’s style, which, he says, ‘compels an attitude toward itself that is incompatible with sharp concrete realisation’. That is, rather than pointing the reader to something beyond itself, Milton’s language, Leavis complains, calls attention to itself, to the relationships between its components. Milton ‘exhibits a feeling for words rather than a capacity for feeling through words.’ For Leavis, this refusal of the lived complexities of sensuous experience in favour of a verbal universe that traps us in its own intricacies is a fault both of style and character. The character is ‘disastrously singly minded’ and its narcissistic obsessiveness is reflected in a ‘tyrannical stylisation’ that in its ‘remoteness’ from English speech totally ignores the needs of the reader: Milton, Leavis concludes, ‘often produces passages that have to be read through several times before one can see how they go’.

To all of this I would say ‘precisely so’, but where Leavis sees perversity and a ‘defect of imagination’, I see an intention brilliantly realised. The intention is to make the verse of the poem into a set of exercises in which the reader is forced to confront the difficulty of interpretive choices that must nevertheless be made. In relation to this intention the last thing Milton wants us to do is feel through his words to something else, rather he wants to arrest our attention, to slow down the reading experience to the extent that its problems become its content. It is just as Leavis says: the words of the poem do ‘value themselves ... highly’, occupying our attention to the exclusion of any referent beyond them; but that is because the field of reference Milton is interested in is abstract, is a philosophical field populated by the great moral and theological problems with which the age was obsessed. It is, to borrow a phrase from Francis Bacon, ‘a country in the mind’ and if Milton wants us to remain in it and undergo its salutary trials, he must prevent us from escaping into the rich particulars of Leavis’s ‘concretely realised’ world. If ‘pas sages have to be read through several times before one can see how they go’, it is because the cognitive acts such readings and re-readings involve are the acts Milton wants us to perform.

I see that in the course of presenting an example of literary criticism I have fallen under the sway of its imperatives and am now pursuing my analysis seriously rather than as a mere illustration. That’s the way it is for me. I can’t stay away from the stuff. It’s what I do; and that, finally, is the only justification I can offer for its practice. It is usually said that justification, in order to be valid, must not borrow its terms from the activity being justified. ‘I like it’ or ‘that’s just what I do’ are explanations after the fact. Such statements do not demonstrate value, they trade on its assumption. In tact, however, that is the only way a justification gets off the ground. Justificatory arguments are only intelligible if the value they claim either to uncover or defend is presupposed and is (surreptitiously) guiding the process at the end of which it is triumphantly revealed. Justification never starts from scratch, but can only ever begin if everything it seeks to demonstrate is already taken for granted. The demand for justification ab ovo has within it the assumption that entering a profession is a matter of deliberate choice, as in, ‘after considering all the options I decided to become a literary critic or an engineer or a chimney sweep.’ But choice of that kind is never the route by which one enters into a vocation; rather one day, after many false starts, or in the wake of ‘starts’ one doesn’t recall attempting, one finds oneself in the middle of doing something, enmeshed in its routines, extending in every action its assumptions. And when the request for justification comes, one responds from the middle, responds with the phrases and platitudes of disciplinary self-congratulation, responds with a rehearsal of canonical achievements and ancient claims to universal benefit, responds, as Weinrib says, by ploughing over the same grounds in ever deeper furrows. Justification is not a chain of inferences but a circle and it proceeds, if that is the word, by telling a story in which every detail is an instantiation of an informing spirit that is known only in the details but always exceeds them.

Moreover, it is hard, if not impossible, to tell that story to those who do not already know it, or, rather, are not already living it. If you ask me why is it a good thing to explicate Paradise Lost, I can do nothing better or more persuasive than do it, spinning it out in directions at once familiar and surprising, ringing the changes, sounding the notes in the hope that the song is one you know or that it will be infectious enough to start you singing. Literary interpretation, someone has recently said, has no purpose external to the arena of its practice; it is the ‘constant unfolding’ to ourselves ‘of who we are’ as practitioners. The only ‘value of the conversation is the conversation itself’. That’s all there is, even when we try to enlarge it by finding in it large-scale political and cultural implications. I say again, that’s all there is, but it’s enough for those who long ago ceased to be able to imagine themselves living any other life. Last year, an old friend whom I hadn’t seen for a while called me to catch up. ‘What are you doing this summer,’ he asked. ‘Writing on Paradise Lost,’ I answered. ‘But that’s what you said thirty years ago,’ he responded. ‘Right,’ I replied, ‘yet once more’; and if I had thought of it I would have borrowed a line from my friend David Lodge, who borrowed it from George and Ira Gershwin: ‘Nice work if you can get it.’