Joseph North (One)

One of the oddities of Joseph North’s Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History (Harvard UP, 2017) is that it practices what it preaches against.  North believes that the historicist turn of the 1980s was a mistake, yet his own “history” is very precisely historicist: he aims to tie that “turn” in literary criticism to a larger narrative about neo-liberalism.

In fact, North subscribes to a fairly “vulgar,” fairly simplistic version of social determinism.  His periodization of literary criticism offers us “an early period between the wars in which the possibility of something like a break with liberalism, and a genuine move to radicalism, is mooted and then disarmed,” followed by “a period of relative continuity through the mid-century, with the two paradigms of ‘criticism’ and ‘scholarship’ both serving real superstructural functions within Keynesianism.”  And, finally, when the “Keynesian period enters into a crisis in the 1970s . . . we see the establishment of a new era: the unprecedentedly complete dominance of the ‘scholar’ model in the form of the historicist/contextualist paradigm.”  North concludes this quick survey of the “base” determinants of literary critical practice with a rhetorical question:  “If this congruence comes as something of a surprise, it is also quite unsurprising: what would one expect to find except that the history of the discipline marches more or less in step with the underlying transformations of the social order?” (17).

Perhaps I missed something, but I really didn’t catch where North made his assertions about the two periods past the 1930s stick.  How do both the “critical” and “scholarly” paradigms serve Keynesianism?  I can see where the growth of state-funded higher education after World War II is a feature of Keynesianism.  But surely the emerging model (in the 50s and 60s) of the “research university,” has as much, if not more, to do with the Cold War than with Keynesian economic policy.

But when it gets down to specifics about different paradigms of practice within literary criticism, I fail to see the connection.  Yes, literary criticism got dragged into a “production” model (publish or perish) that fits it rather poorly, but why or how did different types of production, so long as they found their way into print, “count” until the more intense professionalization of the 1970s, when “peer-reviewed” became the only coin of the realm?  The new emphasis on “scholarship” (about which North is absolutely right) was central to that professionalization—and does seem directly connected to the end of the post-war economic expansion.  But that doesn’t explain why “professionalization” should take an historicist form, just as I am still puzzled as to how both forms—critical and scholarly—“serve” Keynesian needs prior to 1970.

However, my main goal in this post is not to try to parse out the base/superstructure relationship that North appears committed to.  I have another object in view: why does he avoid the fairly obvious question of how his own position (one he sees as foreshadowed, seen in a glass darkly, by Isobel Armstrong among others) reflects (is determined by?) our own historical moment?  What has changed in the base to make this questioning of the historicist paradigm possible now?  North goes idealistic at this point, discussing “intimations” that appear driven by dissatisfactions felt by particular practitioners.  The social order drops out of the picture.

Let’s go back to fundamentals.  I am tempted to paraphrase Ruskin: for every hundred people who talk of capitalism, one actually understands it.  I am guided by the sociologist Alvin Gouldner, in this case his short 1979 book The Rise of the New Class and the Future of the Intellectuals (Oxford UP), a book that has been a touchstone for me ever since I read it in the early 1980s.  Gouldner offers this definition of capital: anything that can command an income in the mixed market/state economy in which we in the West (at least) live.  Deceptively simple, but incredibly useful as a heuristic.  Money that you spend to buy food you then eat is not capital; that money does not bring a financial return.  It does bring a material return, but not a financial one.  Money that you (as a food distributer) spend to buy food that you will then sell to supermarkets is capital.  And the food you sell becomes a commodity—while the food you eat is not a commodity.  Capital often passes through the commodity form in order to garner its financial return.

But keep your eye on “what commands an income.”  For Marx, of course, the wage earner only has her “labor power” to secure an income.  And labor power is cheap because there is so much of it available.  So there is a big incentive for those who only have their labor power to discover a way to make it more scarce.  Enter the professions.  The professional relies on selling the fact that she possesses an expertise that others lack.  That expertise is her “value added.”  It justifies the larger income that she secures for herself.

Literary critics became English professors in the post-war expansion of the research university.  We can take William Empson and Kenneth Burke as examples of the pre-1950s literary critic, living by their wits, and writing in a dizzying array of modes (poetry, commissioned “reports,” reviews, books, polemics).  But the research university gave critics “a local habitat [the university] and a name” [English professors] and, “like the dyer’s hand, their nature was subdued.”  The steady progress toward professionalization was begun, with a huge leap forward when the “job market” tightened in the 1970s.

So what’s new in the 2010s?  The “discipline” itself is under fire.  “English,” as Gerald Graff and Peter Elbow both marveled years ago, was long the most required school subject, from kindergarten through the second year of college.  Its place in our educational institutions appeared secure, unassailable.  There would always be a need to English teachers.  That assumed truth no longer holds.  Internally, interdisciplinarity, writing across the curriculum, and other innovations threatened the hegemony of the discipline.  Externally, the right wing’s concerted attack on an ideologically suspect set of “tenured radicals” along with a more general discounting (even elimination) of value assigned to being “cultured” meant the “requirement” of English was questioned.

North describes this shift in these terms:  “if the last three decades have taught literary studies anything about its relationship to the capitalist state, it is that the capitalist state does not want us around.  Under a Keynesian funding regime, it was possible to think that literary study was being supported because it served an important legitimating role in the maintenance of liberal capitalist institutions. . . . the dominant forms of legitimation are now elsewhere” (85).  True enough, although I would still like to see how that “legitimating role” worked prior to 1970; I would think institutional inertia rather than some effective or needed legitimating role was the most important factor.

In that context, the upsurge in the past five years (as the effects of 2008 on the landscape of higher education registered) of defenses of “the” discipline makes sense.  North—with his constant refrain of “rigor” and “method”—is working overtime to claim a distinctive identity for the discipline (accept no pale or inferior imitations!).  This man has a used discipline to sell you. (It is unclear, to say the least, how a return to “criticism,” only this time with rigor, improves our standing in the eyes of the contemporary “capitalist state.”  Why should they want North’s re-formed discipline  around anymore than the current version?)

North appears  blind to the fact that a discipline is a commodity within the institution that is higher education.  The commodity he has to sell has lost significant amounts of value over the past ten years within the institution, for reasons both external and internal.  A market correction?  Perhaps—but only perhaps because (as with all stock markets) we have no place to stand if we are trying to discover the “true” value of the commodity in question.

So what is North’s case that we should value the discipline of literary criticism more highly? He doesn’t address the external factors at all, but resets the internal case by basing the distinctiveness of literary criticism on fairly traditional grounds: it has a distinct method (“Close reading”) and a distinct object (“rich” literary and aesthetic texts).  To wit:  “what [do] we really mean by ‘close reading’ beyond paying attention to small units of any kind of text.  Our questions must then be of the order: what range of capabilities and sensitivities is the reading practice being used to cultivate?  What kinds of texts are most suited to cultivating those ranges? Putting the issue naively, it seems to me that the method of close reading cannot serve as a justification for disciplinary literary study until the discipline is able to show that there is something about literary texts that make them especially rewarding training grounds for the kinds of aptitudes the discipline is claiming to train.  Here again the rejected category of the aesthetic proves indispensable, for of course literary and other aesthetic texts are particularly rich training grounds for all sorts of capabilities and sensitivities: aesthetic capabilities”( 108-9; italics in original).

I will have more to say about “the method of close reading” in my next post.  For now, I just want to point out that it is absurd to think “close reading” is confined to literary studies–and North shows himself aware of that fact as he retreats fairly quickly from the “method” to the “objects” (texts).  Just about any practitioner in any field to whom the details matter is a close reader.  When my son became an archaeology major, my first thought was: “that will come to an end when he encounters pottery shards.” Sure enough, he had a brilliant professor who lived and breathed pottery shards—and who, even better yet, could make them talk.  My son realized he wasn’t enthralled enough with pottery shards to give them that kind of attention—and decided not to go to grad school.  Instead, my son realized that where he cared about details to that extent, where no fine point was too trivial to be ignored, was the theater—and thus he became an actor and a director.  To someone who finds a particular field meaningful, all the details speak.  Ask any lawyer, lab scientist, or gardener.  They are all close readers.

This argument I have just made suggests, as a corollary, that all phenomenon are “rich” to those inspired by them.  Great teachers are, among other things, those who can transmit that enthusiasm, that deep attentive interest, to others.  If training in attention to detail is what literary studies does, it has no corner on that market.  Immersion in just about any discipline will have similar effects.  And there is no reason to believe the literary critics’ objects are “richer” than the archaeologists’ pottery shards.

In short, if we go the “competencies” route, then it will be difficult to make the case that literary studies is a privileged route to close attention to detail—or even to that other chestnut, “critical thinking.” (To North’s credit, he doesn’t play the critical thinking card.)  Most disciplines are self-reflective; they engage in their own version of what John Rawls called “reflective equilibrium,” moving back and forth between received paradigms of analysis and their encounter with the objects of their study.

North is not, in fact, very invested in “saving” literary studies by arguing they belong in the university because they impart a certain set of skills or competencies that can’t be transmitted otherwise.  Instead, he places almost all his chips on the “aesthetic.”  What literary studies does, unlike all the rest, is initiate the student into “all sorts of capabilities and sensitivities” that can be categorized as “aesthetic capabilities.”

Now we are down to brass tacks.  What we need to know is what distinguishes “aesthetic capabilities” from other kinds of capabilities?  And we need to know why we should value those aesthetic capabilities?   On the first score, North has shockingly little to say—and he apologizes for this failure.  “I ought perhaps to read into the record, at points like this, how very merely gestural these gestures [toward the nature of the aesthetic] have been; the real task of developing claims of this sort is of course philosophical and methodological rather than historical, and thus has seemed to me to belong to a different book” (109; italics in original).

Which leaves us with his claims about what the aesthetic is good for.  Why should we value an aesthetic sensibility?  The short answer is that this sensibility gives us a place to stand in opposition to commercial culture.  He wants to place literary criticism at the service of radical politics—and heaps scorn throughout on liberals, neo-liberals, and misguided soi-disant radicals (i.e. the historicist critics who thought they were striking a blow against the empire).  I want to dive into this whole vein in his book in subsequent posts.  Readers of this blog will know I am deeply sympathetic to the focus on “sensibility” and North helps me think again about what appeals to (and the training of) sensibilities could entail.

But for now I will end with registering a certain amazement, or maybe it is just a perplexity.  How will it serve the discipline’s tenuous place in the contemporary university to announce that its value lies in the fact that it comes to bury you?  Usually rebels prefer to work in a more clandestine manner.  Which is to ask (more pointedly): how does assuming rebellious stances, in an endless game in which each player tries to position himself to the left of all the other players, bring palpable rewards within the discipline even as it endangers the position of the discipline in the larger struggle for resources, students, and respect within the contemporary university? That’s a contradiction whose relation to the dominant neo-liberal order is beyond my abilities to parse.

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