Edition 5. impr.
- - September 23, 2021 Subject:
The Shrinking Critic : Writing in the Public Sphere
..."...The role of the contemporary critic, then, is a traditional one. The point of the present essay is to recall criticism to its traditional role, not to invent some fashionable new function for it. For a new generation of critics in Western society, 'English Literature' is now an inherited label for a field within which many diverse preoccupations congregate: semiotics, psychoanalysis, film studies, cultural theory, the representation of gender, popular writing, and of course the conventionally valued writings of the past " (124)
" Critics who find such pursuits modish and distastefully new-fangled are, as a matter of cultural history, mistaken. They represent a contemporary version of the most venerable topics of criticism, before it was narrowed and impoverished to the so-called 'literary canon'. Moreover, it is possible to argue that such an enquiry might contribute in a modest way to our very survival. For it is surely becoming apparent that without a more profound understanding of such symbolic processes, through which political power is deployed, reinforced, resisted, at times subverted, we shall be incapable of unlocking the most lethal power-struggles now confronting us. Modem criticism was born of a struggle against the absolutist state; unless its future is now defined as a struggle against the bourgeois state, it might have no future at all." (ibid)
...." The drawing together of writer and reader, critic and citizen, multiple literary modes and dispersed realms of enquiry, all folded into a language at once mannerly and pellucid, is the mark of a non-specialism which is perhaps only in part intelligible to us today, predating as it does that intellectual division of labour to which our own amateurisms are inevitably reactive...
...The critic, anyway, as functionary, mediator, chairperson, locus of languages he receives rather than invents; the Spectator, as T.H. Green remarked, as a kind of literature which 'consists in talking to the public about itself' and the critic as the mirror in which this fascinated self-imaging takes shape. "
" Regulator and dispensor of a general humanism, guardian and instructor of public taste, the critic must fulfil these tasks from within a more fundamental responsibility as reporter and informer, a mere mechanism or occasion by which the public may enter into deeper imaginary unity with itself. The Tatter and Spectator are consciously educating a socially heterogeneous public into the universal forms of reason, taste and morality, but their judgements are not to be ..."
"We are still not at a point where we can speak of literary criticism' as an isolable technology, though with Johnson we are evolving towards just that rift between literary intellectual and social formation out of which a fully specialist criticism will finally emerge. In the trek from the cultural politics of Addison to the 'words on the page', the philosophical moment of Samuel Johnson - a mind still laying 'amateur' claim to evaluate all social experience, but now isolated and abstracted in contrast to the busily empirical Addison — is a significant milestone." (34)
"If criticism had to some degree slipped the economic yoke of its earlier years, when it was often no more than a thinly concealed puff for booksellers' wares, it had done so only to exchange such enthralment [sic] for a political one. Criticism was now explicitly, unabashedly political: the journals tended to select for review only those works on which they could loosely peg lengthy ideological pieces, and their literary judgements, buttressed by the authority of anonymity, were rigorously subordinated to their politics." (40)
" The man of letters was, so to speak, an academic without a university, an 'extra-mural' scholar responsive to the demands of the public world. The academicization of criticism provided it with an institutional basis and professional structure; but by the same token it signalled its final sequestration from the public realm. Criticism achieved security by committing political suicide; its moment of academic institutionalization is also the moment of its effective demise as a socially active force." (67)
"The twentieth century was to see the replacement of the Victorian periodical with the 'little magazine', which as with Eliot s Criterion was often enough self-consciously the organ of an elite. It is, ironically, in the modem age that criticism is able to rediscover one of its traditional roles; for the difficulty of the modernist writing associated with such reviews as the Criterion and the Egoist demands a labour of mediation and interpretation, the shaping of a readerly sensibility to receive such works, as the writing of a Dickens or Trollope did not...
...That mediation, however, is no longer to a broad middle-class readership, through journals which might exert influence on a majority of the ruling class; it remains more a transaction within academia than one between academy and society."
A miniature history of reading, all the richer for its brevity (165pp) as the reader's knowledge (such as it is) is recruited to fill in the gaps, shading in what he knows of what was a glorious period for reading and discourse in the public sphere, a daily democratic experiment centered on the coffee shops at a time when, ever so briefly, status and material wealth were displaced by reason and the desire to learn.
Fanfare for the Common Man.
It is also partly the story of how someone like Leonard Bast (Forster's Howard's End) came to be, before the advent of the echo chamber, the professionalisation of literary criticism. It is difficult to read this wonderful account and not lament how literary criticism has moved or been driven indoors, how the segregation of literary studies locks out so many readers who on account of all the static of modern life miss out on the wonders that literary criticism has to offer, supplying the tools which are so necessary to an informed understanding of society.
Any critic mustering adjectives to praise the writing of Terry Eagleton is indulging in a form of self flattery as his books speak for themselves. What is important is that consistently he keeps faith with the ordinary person, his habit of addressing himself to the lay reader. His books resemble the lectures (without lecturing) that were once common in working men's clubs, meetings where people from all walks of life came together to improve themselves. Academics have a duty to inform the public if for no other reason than to catch the attention of readers who can contribute something to the profession, now largely privatised whose largely (indirectly) public funded products are locked behind paywalls or sequestered in literary journals and books whose costs are determined not by a free market but one that is rigged in favour of libraries and university presses, making the job of Leonard Bast all the more difficult.
The good news or the hope is that by locking people out, by disenfranchising readers, there will always remain that stubborn group of self directed readers who will manage to find a way to keep 'anonymous culture' alive particularly as democracy depends upon such individuals if it hopes to remain democratic for very long.
What happens in the mind of the ordinary citizen who is exposed to ideas through good writing is rarely commented upon and yet it is this relationship, that of common reader to text that is so crucial to the health of society, what WH Auden referred to as 'the symbolic contract'. Classical civilisation he tells us broke down when the philosophers could no longer mediate (as interlocutors) between 'the gods' and the ordinary man on the Athenian street, or on the Clapham omnibus. The power Wagner harnessed (Auden tells us) was precisely because he knew how to appeal to the suffering ('amfortas') of the man in the street. For academics to take over or to assume the function of interlocutors but NOT attend to the responsibilities which come with that role is to abandon the public sphere by essentially privatising it in the manner 18th and 19th Century absentee landlords drew rents from sequestered lands without either improving their holdings or rewarding tenants given to improvement. That the prevailing situation in universities goes relatively unnoticed seems remarkable. In their attempts to mimic the academic rigor of the sciences, academics in the humanities often embrace both a format and a linguistic style which while they meet their own in-house requirements, their professional standards, sets them apart as often unreadable, a problem compounded by the extremely abstract nature of the English language where abstract terms are used in terms understood by the clerisy, words whose dictionary meanings tell quite a different story.
It is also important to state that the segregation of literary criticism, finding itself behind university walls or confined to the barracks of specialised journals is less the result of a series of conscious deliberate ideological decisions than it is a reaction to a host of external forces, in other words its confinement is or was structural, - "'When the general public is considered to have an inadequate aesthetic sense,' writes Peter Hohendahl, and only the minority is viewed as a deserving partner for discourse, the general validity of literary criticism can no longer be legitimated by the literary public sphere. This, in brief, was the dilemma of Scrutiny, which wished contradictorily to recreate a public sphere in the conviction that only a minority was capable of true discrimination. At times the minority is seen as the vanguard of a broader public sphere which it will bring into being; at other times minority and public sphere are effectively coterminous. The 'powerlessness' of the classical public sphere, where reason and not force is the norm, is crossed with the powerlessness of the disinherited sect." (81)
So, it seems inevitable, despite the fact that everyone who speaks English and who has an interest in common literacy and democracy will imagine themselves somewhat au courant with literary criticism, as it became more specialised, like dentistry or animal husbandry, it would invariably disappear behind closed doors, like any other specialism, and yet the period of the Tatler and The Spectator walks the corridors of memory, beckoning a time when people who could read and write met as equals in the pages of periodical literature, a democracy of literacy whose price of admission was a cup of coffee.
"The very material conditions which bring modern criticism into existence, in short, are the conditions which, in developed form, will spell its demise. Once the 'public' has become the 'masses , subject to the manipulations of a commercialized culture, and 'public opinion' has degenerated into 'public relations', the classical public sphere must disintegrate,... (82)
"History may indeed from time to time be the direct object of such study; but it may also act as the 'raw material' for such theoretical enquiry, which then becomes a reflection upon, rather than of, history itself. Unless such theoretical enquiry leads to practical consequences of some kind, then it is of course from a materialist viewpoint fruitless; but this relation of theory and practice is considerably more mediated than those who, in the case of literary theory, seek to relegate theory to the humble handmaiden of the text would imagine.
>>>It is not always so easy, or so necessary, to decide whether the theory is illuminating the text or the text is developing the theory.<<<
This policing of literary theory is in any case an illusion, as such theory is never merely 'literary' in the first place, never inherently restrictable to the elusive ontological object known as literature. To claim that 'literary theory' does not necessarily derive its raison d'etre from the literary text is not to fall into theoreticism; it is to recognize that what practical effects it might have will be diffused over a much broader field of signifying practice." (97)
" The claim that theory is admissible only in so far as it directly illuminates the literary text is a blatantly policing gesture. The disparate preoccupations now somewhat randomly grouped under the aegis of 'theory' are rich enough in their own right to warrant 'independent' intellectual status." (94)
"It is hard to believe that, in a nuclear age, the publication of yet another study of Robert Herrick is justifiable." (110)
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