:: Article

Practivist Criticism

By Brendan Gillott.

Joseph North, Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History (Harvard University Press, 2017)

Some way towards the end of Practical Criticism, that much-traduced though little-read study of poetic response as observed in 1920s undergraduates, I.A. Richards breaks from his rather dry enumerations into something curiously like reverie:

‘Making up our minds about a poem’ is the most delicate of all possible undertakings. We have to gather millions of fleeting semi-independent impulses into a momentary structure of fabulous complexity, whose core or germ only is given to us in the words. What we ‘make up’, that momentary trembling order in our minds, is exposed to countless irrelevant influences. Health, wakefulness, distractions, hunger and other instinctive tensions, the very quality of the air we breathe, the light, all affect us. No one at all sensitive to rhythm, for example, will doubt that the new pervasive, almost ceaseless, mutter or roar of modern transport, replacing the rhythm of the footsteps or of horses’ hoofs, is capable of interfering in many ways with our reading of verse. Thus it is no matter for surprise if we find ourselves often unable to respond in any relevant and coherent fashion.

When I initially read this passage – several years, as it happens, after being first subjected to a discipline called ‘practical criticism’ – I was a bit surprised. My impression of Richards and his method had been that of a patrician, pernickety, ungenerous man promulgating an abstruse technique, fundamentally little more than a silly game to play with lyric poems. Certainly Richards’ seeming disdain for those amongst his test-subjects who couldn’t spot a piece of Donne at a hundred yards in a hailstorm struck me as rather unfair. But this passage contains something else, something more engaging: a sensitivity to the conditions of reading and of readers, to the vagaries of attention, the physical resources poetry demands. Some of these are recognisably political issues – hunger, air quality (urban planning?) – which Richards is clear can produce the failures of reading he decries throughout. Reading this passage back through the book which precedes it, it became clear that this was Richards’ point all along. Practical Criticism is about pedagogy, public education, politics, not the production of an elite hermeneutic cadre or an exquisite academic in-group. Contrary to commonly-held belief, the ‘close reading’ method Practical Criticism pioneered was not intended as a donnish amusement – it had a broader social purpose.

It is this purpose which Joseph North’s Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History hopes to reclaim, or at least to remodel. North, an assistant professor of English at Yale, sees in the work of Richards, and in that of Richards’ famous student William Empson, what he terms ‘an incipiently materialist practice of close-reading’. Declaredly radical in its commitments, North’s book addresses itself simultaneously to two audiences: literary critics of the academy, and activists of the political left, aiming to demonstrate how the projects of each are tied into the projects of the other. The core of his argument is that literary studies has become hidebound in a scholarly mode which, while fecund with assertions of political consciousness, has had little if any useful political effect. The narrative presented here will surprise few who possess prior interest in such things, tracking as it does the development of the discipline through a list of well-known figures – Richards, Empson, F.R. Leavis, Cleanth Brooks, Raymond Williams, Terry Eagleton, Stephen Greenblatt, Eve Sedgwick, Fredric Jameson, Isobel Armstrong and Franco Moretti take the principal roles – and North forthrightly admits that his account is selective, partial and local, focusing on Anglo-American critics of the twentieth century; but it is the familiar interpretation of this narrative which this book looks to challenge.

Beginning with the long-recognised feud between literary scholars and literary critics, North argues that the primarily ‘critical’ orientation of early-century literary studies was progressively replaced by a ‘scholarly’ paradigm suspicious of (what it construed as) conservative tendencies in the critics, tendencies exemplified in a certain attitude to ‘close reading’ in which those scholarly inheritors saw a suspect and hierarchical form of aestheticism. In North’s telling, this replacement of the critical by the scholarly is today complete and absolute. The consequences have been deeply ambivalent: while we should celebrate the final death of gentlemanly belletrism and the iron rule of the Canon, valuable babies have been thrown out with this tepid bathwater. In our current climate, under what North terms the ‘historicist/contextualist paradigm’, close reading as a method for elucidating the aesthetic dimension of the literary text has become vaguely taboo, as the distribution of scholarly labour allots individuals ever smaller and more specialist ‘fields’ which they are exhorted to farm with increasingly myopic intensity. Literary studies has taken as its mandated task the diagnosis of social and political malaise via the reading of texts framed as primarily cultural documents. The upshot of this has been the virtual evacuation from the academy of questions of quality in reading, and the creation of a discipline increasingly unable to articulate what it is about its particular object of study that might distinguish it from history, anthropology, sociology, or a number of other cognate areas. In response to this historical diminution North prescribes a ‘return to criticism’, one which might rehabilitate the aesthetic and rediscover its radical potential.

The primary organ of this rehabilitation is to be close reading itself, which in North’s account is the method most characteristic of literary studies as a distinct practice. (Here it might be said that a more appropriate title would be Close Reading: A Concise Political History, so tightly does North identify it with the critical paradigm, and indeed with literary criticism as such.) The backbone of the book is a history told via

three main types of close reading: the initial form, posited though never fully developed as a tool with which to cultivate readers’ aesthetic sensibilities in something approaching a materialist sense; the second form, in which the emphasis passed onto the making of critical judgments about universal or final aesthetic value of the thing being read; and a third form, where the goal has been to use small units of text as diagnostic tools for the analysis of historical and cultural phenomena, in the absence of any aesthetic considerations whatsoever – or indeed, more often, in implicit opposition to aesthetic considerations.

This first form, represented here by the work of Richards and Empson, established literary criticism as we know it with a method subtly attuned to progressive, secular and on occasion radical uses and pedagogies. In its second form, this method ‘turned right’ under the hands of the New Critics in the USA and F.R. Leavis in Britain, individuals committed to a conservative, spiritually-oriented and thoroughgoingly idealist approach to the reading and teaching of literary texts. The third paradigm, our own, rightly rejected close-reading and its implications in this second form, but in doing so confused close reading as practiced by New Criticism with close reading tout court, leading to damaging mix-ups in terms of the discipline’s sense of its own history and its proper purpose both. North argues convincingly that the common inclusion of Richards among the New Critics is seriously mistaken, and that in eliding these first and second forms the historicist/contextualist paradigm lost the ability to construe either close reading or aesthetics as anything other than idealist and reactionary, along with a proper appreciation of its own heritage.

Chief among these confusions is what North describes as ‘the misreading of the turn to the current paradigm as a turn to theory’. Contrary to the somewhat-nebulous but nonetheless tenacious idea that modern literary criticism has been defined by the invasion of the post-68 ‘French theory’ logos-snatchers (Derrida, Lacan, Foucault et al), North insists that the real change occurred with the advent of the Anglophone ‘New Left’, most notably in the work of Raymond Williams (Marxism and Literature and Politics and Letters are the key texts here). The significant turn with Williams came in the instigation of Cultural Studies, which produced unexpected effects in the study of literature as traditionally understood: ‘as a student of literature [Williams was] trying, first and foremost, to produce knowledge about culture. This itself represents a proposal for a fundamental shift in the orientation of the discipline.’ The turn from criticism to scholarship, whilst certainly a professionalising and in some degree liberating one, was predicated on making literary studies more context-aware, not necessarily more theoretically hip – whilst much of the work in the historicist/contextualist vein takes its theoretical cue from Foucault, North shows how the ground for contemporary scholarship’s Foucauldian ‘architectures’ and ‘archaeologies’ of knowledge was initially cleared by an older, and more politically committed, mode of investigation into culture. Though characteristically generous towards and deeply appreciative of Williams’ work, then, North nonetheless contends that the Welshman’s attempt to scour literary studies of its old reliance on (implicitly classed, gendered, racialised) hierarchies of free-floating value was in some ways too successful in overthrowing the old orders of criticism and aesthetics, leaving behind a gap that scholarship has latterly failed to fill: ‘the New Left, and after it the discipline [of literary criticism] as a whole, learned how to assault idealism in the field of aesthetics, but did so without learning how to occupy the territory so cleared’. One immediately deleterious result of this was the effective cession of aesthetic thinking to the right, to the doughy Roger Scrutons of the world who so often seem the only ones willing to talk about beauty. On the other hand, what aesthetic concerns institutional literary criticism still professes function as vestigial justifications within the matrix of the neoliberal university. North is keen to highlight the way in which self-declared ‘oppositional’ scholarly activities are often reclaimed by capital as a form of what he calls ‘loyal opposition’, allowing the powers-that-be to pretend that the system they preside over abides meaningful dissent. North’s point here is not so much that self-consciously radical scholars are the willing dupes of larger forces, but more that the best of intentions have been stymied by a lack of adequate tools.

The recommendation of this book is, resultantly, for a return to aesthetics via the reclamation of close reading in something like Richards’ ‘incipiently materialist’ mode. Crucially, this is not to be understood as a ‘back to the future’ gesture but rather as a gathering together of everything good about close reading by way of a proper appreciation of its history. In solidarity with the historicist/contextualist present, North sets his face firmly against aesthetic idealism, which in his account is always a more-or-less explicit commitment to Kant and the varieties of neo-Kantianism. Rather than conceive of it as a transcendent end-in-itself, North posits the aesthetic as precisely a utility, in a sense he tracks back to William Morris, but which he also aligns with the John Dewey of Art as Experience. He argues forcefully and convincingly for the rehabilitation of the aesthetic as an object of literary study, in part simply because, as he notes, without accounting for aesthetics it is near impossible to articulate the specificity of ‘literary texts’ as opposed to ‘texts in general’. North’s book is undergirded with a belief that ‘contrary to the common assumption that “criticism” and “aesthetics” are necessarily creatures of the right – an assumption bred into the discipline throughout the middle part of the twentieth century – another kind of criticism, based on another kind of aesthetics, is possible.’ This criticism would have as its purpose that of ‘cultivating new collectivities […] built on pursuing modes of life deeper than any that the existing order is willing to allow’. The formula ‘deeper modes of life’ appears several times throughout the book, as a name for the final objective of North’s prospective critical paradigm. It could be protested that this gesture towards profundity is an incongruously airy one in the context of such an intently materialist programme; but equally it seems correct to think that any more concrete formulation would overdetermine the direction of a project the conclusion of which is very much ‘to come’.

Certainly there are aspects of what North proposes which seem hard to square with a return to criticism, most notably his oddly insistent denigration of critical evaluation. Whilst rightly allergic to what he calls Leavis’ ‘obsession with hierarchy and canonicity’, which at the worst of times and in the worst of hands can degrade the scene of judgment into a scene from High Fidelity (Top five Augustan elegies! Go!), North is never quite clear as to how any form of evaluation whatsoever can be purged from the critical mindset. As he himself notes, even Leavis’ fixation with ‘greatness’ and canonicity was never quite as crude as some of his modern detractors suggest, and I struggle to see how a critical return to quality as qualia could ever fully disentangle itself from quality as … well … the question of whether a given text is actually worth its reader’s time. The often-forgotten subtitle to Richard’s Practical Criticism (‘A Study of Literary Judgment’) attests to how deeply-engrained criticism’s evaluative habit is. This is only a small part of North’s critique of preceding criticisms, and his aversion to judgment may have more to do with the centrality of that category to Kant’s aesthetic thought than it does with the actual practice of reading, studying and enjoying literature – North writes interestingly, for example, about how difficult the current critical paradigm makes it to discuss something so simple and everyday as having a favourite book – but it points nevertheless to the arduous nature of building a literary criticism for the future.

It would of course be unreasonable to demand a complete theory and set of instructions for North’s (new) criticism, and there are certain lacunae which Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History does not fill in. Yet when North does attempt to sketch an outline of what such a critical practice would look like, the result is still compelling:

the method being called for would be deeply concerned with the aesthetic and the formal; sensitive to feelings and affect both as forms of cognition and in their own right as crucial determinants of individual, collective and historical changes; able to move broadly, in something like a generalist fashion, across times, places, and cultures; willing to use the literary as a means of ethical (or political?) education; have its emphasis on therapeutic rather than merely diagnostic uses of the literary; and would be committed in a deep and rigorous but still fairly direct way to a public role. What we want, in other words, is criticism.

In some degree the response to this book will be indexed against the personal proclivities of its respondees. Those content with the current state of the discipline may find its analyses too lacking in nuance or particularity, too much the work of an avowed ‘generalist’, to bother them unduly. For those who find the current paradigm staid and insufficiently attentive to the qualities of actual literary texts, it will contain much to cheer and aid. Either group has a great deal to learn from this highly informed, articulate, bold and quietly passionate book.

Brendan Gillott was born in Wakefield, West Yorkshire. Alongside more properly academic writings, he has reviewed extensively for the Cambridge Humanities Review, and his poetry has appeared in several fugitive venues.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, June 5th, 2017.