December 7, 2007

Wanted: The Death of the Critic

The "Books of the Week" listing at ReadySteadyBook reminds me that I want to get my hands on Ronan McDonald's The Death of the Critic. (The Bedside, Bathtub, and Armchair Companion to Virginia Woolf looks good too!). (Just by the by, my first experience ordering from the Book Depository went so well that I am likely to become a regular customer: great selection, including books that are hard to get in Canada, good prices, and no minimum order for free shipping. Excellent!) Anyway, here's the blurb provided on McDonald's book:
In an age of book clubs, celebrity endorsements and internet bloggers, what role is there now for the professional critic as an arbiter of artistic value? Are literature and the arts only a question of personal taste? Is one opinion ‘as good as another’? Rónán McDonald’s The Death of the Critic seeks to defend the role of the public critic. McDonald argues against recent claims that all artistic value is simply relative and subjective. This forceful, accessible and eloquent book considers why high-profile, public critics, such as William Empson, F.R.Leavis or Lionel Trilling, become much rarer in the later twentieth century. A key reason for the ‘death of the critic’, he believes, is the turn away from value judgements and the very notion of artistic quality amongst academics and scholars.
Peering around for further information or reviews of the book, I found this preview from McDonald in the Guardian and this post by Todd Swift at Eyewear, to which McDonald graciously replies. This exchange focuses on the debate about the status of blogs as criticism, which also surfaced again in this review of Gail Pool's Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America (further discussion can be found at This Space). It is endlessly mysterious to me why the perfectly obvious and predictable truth that there are both good (thoughtful, well-informed, articulate) and bad (careless, knee-jerk, incoherent, ignorant) blogs about books (or anything else) needs such incessant re-stating. This Space puts the case well:
[B]ook blogging is a new form of criticism under restraint. It has good, bad and indifferent practitioners. As a reader, I make the same decisions online as I make in the bookshop and the library. I don't dismiss fiction because of Tom Clancy anymore than I dismiss online criticism because of Amazon customer reviews.
(Blogging skeptics out there could do worse than check out the recommendations in Scott McLemee's recent Inside Higher Ed piece "Around the Web.")


NigelBeale said...

Hi Rohan,

I'm writing a piece for the Guardian on why academic literary criticism is so abstruse...Do you have an answer? My sense is that it's because there is no imperative to be interesting...or concise...or to respect the 'intent' of the author...or to present an aesthetic value judgement, because there isn't a wide audience...just a select number of similarly jargon bound counterparts. In short they don't have to appeal to a the average intelligent reader, just a captive audience of students.

This isn't to say that what straying from the text isn't valuable. Quite the's just an inquiry into why the conversation has so often to be so opaque.



Rohan Maitzen said...

I suppose the first thing to be said, as neutrally as possible, is that every area of specialized inquiry develops and requires specialized language (or jargon) that can seem opaque or abstruse from outside that specialization. In that respect, academic literary criticism is like other kinds of writing aimed primarily at other specialists. (The audience for academic criticism is not, generally, students, but other academic critics.) And of course literary criticism has become intensely specialized, in its academic versions, because of the demands of professionalization. There's a great deal of pressure to publish (in academic, peer-refereed journals), which means finding things to say that have not been said before, which of course can and does push forward the frontiers of knowledge, put new ideas and texts and theories into circulation, etc., but which also means micro-specialization or niche scholarship, and increasing levels of self-conscious commentary or metacriticism. Whether these developments are good, bad, or simply inevitable, is of course much debated (including in some other posts on this blog), but within this context, it's clear that as an academic, the audience you are trying to be 'interesting' to is not usually the broader public or the 'average intelligent reader.'

I think you are right, in general, that aesthetic judgment is not currently seen as a central (maybe even an appropriate) aim of academic criticism. We are too aware of the shifting nature of such judgments, for one thing, and of the many reasons besides aesthetic ones for finding a text worth studying. If asked whether a book is good, an academic is likely to reply 'good at what?' or 'good in relation to what?' or 'good for what?' It may be that this insistence on refining the question, or examining its implicit assumptions, is part of what makes academic criticism less appealing to the 'average intelligent reader,' if what they are after is actually a recommendation (if so, there are lots of Top 10 lists around they can go to for that). But many non-academic readers would in fact like to think in more careful ways about their reading. Here's where academic expertise presented in an accessible manner comes in, or could or should...but it's not clear how such work would be rewarded professionally, and so we come back around to my first point.

I hope these remarks are helpful.


NigelBeale said...

Thanks for the rapid response Rohan. I'll keep you posted on when the piece is posted.


Stephen Crowe said...

"...every area of specialized inquiry develops and requires specialized language (or jargon) that can seem opaque or abstruse from outside that specialization. In that respect, academic literary criticism is like other kinds of writing aimed primarily at other specialists."

I would argue that there is a qualitative difference between the jargon of "critical theory" and that of botany, engineering or any other "specialised language." Jargon terms in these fields refer to a single, commonly understood concept. "Force," "plant cell," "phoneme," &c.: these words represent concrete concepts. They are designed to simplify discourse.

In contrast, the jargon terms used by critical "theorists" tend to fall somewhere between foggy and utterly meaningless. Spivak's "subaltern," for example: what is it? Is it cultural? Psychological? Something else? She seems to change her mind from one moment to the next. Terms like these defy definition, in my opinion, because they are sophistic devices designed to allow the author to give even the maddest argument the appearance of sound scholarship. I tried to demonstrate this with Derrida's arguments on my blog.

These terms are designed not to simplify discourse, but to obfuscate it. Whereas real, logical theories find order in apparently chaotic data, critical "theories" take simple ideas and render them incomprehensible.

Rohan Maitzen said...

Ah, Derrida. Walter Bagehot perhaps said it best (showing surprising prescience, since he said it around 1860): "Incoherency is not less a defect because an imperfect foreign writer once made use of it."

Literary criticism is not identical with capital-T Theory. Some of the less productive features of discussions on this topic result, I think, from conflating the two. I offer no excuses for Derrida or Spivak (though I'm sure there are people out there who will). Derrida's a philosopher, anyway (or so some would say, though here too I know some who would disagree!).

Stephen Crowe said...

In that case I'm a little confused. In your response to Nigel you defended the "specialised language" of academic literary criticism. If you weren't referring to critical theory, what specialised language did you have in mind?

Rohan Maitzen said...

Well, there are all kinds of terms used for literary analysis that refer to specific figures of speech, rhetorical devices, literary forms and traditions, and so forth that (depending on the reader's own preparation) could be quite unfamiliar: prolepsis, synecdoche, elision, stichomythia, consonance, catharsis, trope, prosody, limited omniscient narration, dactyllic octameter, mimesism, dramatic irony, tenor and get the idea. Then there are terms which would have more particular meanings to literary specialists than to many 'ordinary' readers, such as tragedy, romance, gothic, symbolism, modernism, plot vs. story ....Different critical approaches also develop pointed shorthand (a.k.a. 'jargon') for key concepts which can be defined fairly concretely if needed (gynocriticism, for instance, or heteroglossia). There seems to me no reason in principle why any of these terms or ideas could not be explained to (or looked up by) an inquiring reader with good results, though in practice, pages filled with unfamiliar language are likely to be off-putting at first.

Some would probably argue that the language of deconstruction is no different, but others (myself included) have spent fruitless hours asking committed Derrideans to explain themselves and found they are no further ahead--at which point I at least have felt justified in turning away and devoting my time to other things. There was an interesting experiment reported at (perhaps carried out by?) the folks at the Language Log blog in which passages of Derrida were tampered with by, for instance, inserting or removing worlds like "not"--which ought to alter the claim dramatically, of course. Derrida enthusiasts were then invited to identify which claim was actually Derrida's. Apparently the success rate was not great, meaning that devoted students of Derrida can't tell whether one claim or its opposite is coherent and consistent with his theories overall. Hmmm. But the claim of poststructuralist sympathizers that I know is usually that the stuff does make sense if you just read enough of it, or read it carefully enough. My skepticism arises in part from this persistent shifting of the burden. It's always my fault; if I'd only read this piece as well as that, I'd finally get it, apparently, but in the meantime the theory (or its explicators) take no responsibility for my failures.

Some theorists have in fact promoted opacity as a form of linguistic resistance. Here too I'm not in much sympathy, but this is an argument I have largely stayed away from, just because the direction of my own research has been different.

BTW, I looked up 'subaltern' in M. H. Abrams's Glossary of Literary Terms. Here's his definition: "The subaltern has become a standard way to designate the colonial subject that has been constructed by European discourse and internalized by colonial peoples who employ this discourse..." I got muddled at the second part of this definition, which seemed at first to be helpfully clear. Is it the 'colonial subject' that is 'internalized'? How can a 'subject' be internalized? Hmmm again.

Rohan Maitzen said...

That should be "mimesis", not "mimesism"...there are other typos, I notice too; I wish we could get back in and edit comments!

Rohan Maitzen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rohan Maitzen said...

Here (if I can get the link to work this time) is the Language Log post I was recalling:
Can Derrida Be Wrong?

Stephen Crowe said...

"prolepsis, synecdoche, elision, stichomythia, consonance, catharsis, trope, prosody, limited omniscient narration, dactyllic octameter, mimesis, dramatic irony, tenor and vehicle... tragedy, romance, gothic, symbolism, modernism, plot vs. story"

I don't think that's a very representative sample. I'd say that anyone who is likely to read a work of criticism at all would be expected to have at least a passing familiarity with many of these words: "tragedy", "catharsis", "symbolism", these aren't difficult concepts. Besides, this the language of aesthetic criticism, which you agreed was not in vogue in academic writing.

When one thinks of jargon that is specific to academic literary criticism, I think it's fair to say that old Greek names for rhetorical devices are not the first things to spring to mind.

Stephen Crowe said...

This is a more realistic example: the Postmodern Essay Generator!

Rohan Maitzen said...

Hi, Stephen,

Actually, it was aesthetic judgment (i.e. "is this a good or a bad book?") that I said was not really a typical feature of academic criticism at this point. There's plenty of aesthetic, formal, narratological, and rhetorical criticism, among other kinds. I like to make fun of po-mo bafflegab too (that essay generator, or versions of it, has been around a long time). But it's important to consider that poststructuralism is not nearly the force today that it was in the 1980s and early 1990s. The kind of prose mocked by that essay generator is simply not representative of current critical practice--I'm not sure there is, really, anything that could stand as representative. For instance, here are some paragraphs plucked from recent critical works on my own shelves. I tried to find spots where the critic explains his or her theory or critical approach:

"This is a book about the realist novel, but it is not a history of the realist novel. Instead, it deals, first with a set of general theoretical issues, and then with the work of three British novelists. In the first part, my aim is both negative and positive: I wish to suggest that certain objections to the project of realism are misguided, and to offer a more useful conception of realism. In the second part, as I confront works by three major novelists, the focus is more specific and the criticism more practical. I shall be much concerned with realism as a narrative phenomenon, exploring issues that include general questions about the intersections of history, ideology, knowledge, and narrative form, but also more specific narratological concerns, such as the use and significance of free indirect discourse."

"One of the claims of this book is that the assumptions that affective expression forms the basis for political action and itself constitutes a political act derive from a nineteenth-century discourse that made affect meaningful. Central to the construction of middle-class hegemony in the nineteenth century was the gendered division between the private and public spheres and the assignment of women to the affect tasks of the household. A discourse about affect represented marriage and the family as the product of natural affective bonds and individual self-expression. The construction of affect as natural, however, also meant that it might be uncontrollable; the discourse of affect thus includes the apparently contradictory construction of affect as the source of both social stability and social instability. This contradiction is embodied in the figure of the middle-class woman, whose capacity for emotional expression at once exemplifies the domestic ideal and represents the threat of transgression."

"Middlemarch is a fruitful example both of what we can never know and of how we can augment our reading experience by imagining the initial conditions of reading when the work first appeared. We shall always be tracking, dramatizing, and uncovering features that lay latent for earlier readers. We shall also be missing much that would have been manifest to them. Middlemarch is a revealing text in which to explore such issues because of the author’s abundant and extraordinarily wide-ranging knowledge, and equally because of the shared knowledge that she does not share with us but takes for granted with her first readers. Here the para-texts can help. These early readers, lost to us, were the wes, the yous of this declarative text. They easily know things we don’t and took part in a dialogic exchange from which we are excluded."

"Middlemarch, in deconstructing the characters’ possibilities of verifiable knowledge, implicitly deconstructs also both its own power to make an orderly narrative and the reader’s power to comprehend the novel integrally. Middlemarch may therefore be called a ‘parable of unreadability.’ … The characters’ stories parabolically dramatize the narrator’s problems and those of the reader. If this is the case, the novel is, paradoxically, readable. It invites the reader to master it as the story of the impossibility of cognitive mastery, though the invitation takes away with one hand what it offers with the other. Insofar as the reader understands what the text is saying, masters it, he or she understands any reader’s powerlessness to understand either this particular text or his or her own actions on the stage of history. The reader is overmastered or deprived of mastery."

"Elegies generate their tremors in two main ways: by creating the tremulous ripple effect of a verbal ambiguity or two-way meaning, and by transgressing a cod, as Tzetvan Todorov suggests in his essay ‘The Origin of Genres.’ Let me consider the verbal and rhythmic nuances first. To generate a tremor an elegist may use late-breaking caesuras that signal closure or the skipping of a heartbeat….Tennyson often creates similar tremors of feeling by using two-way syntax or phrases that hover ambiguously between contrasting emphases…."

"Approaches to Bleak House utilizing Foucault’s ideas have produced powerful readings of the text as implicated in—even complicit with—the discursive elaboration of the disciplinary modes of regulation and surveillance that establish and maintain a bourgeois social order. D. A. Miller, for example, discusses the novel as part of the project which, by idealizing the private rectitude of the domestic sphere, ensures that the family must persistently police itself.1 For Foucault, the construction of the private sphere is simply the means of a more efficient dispersal of systems of control. Paradoxically, it is the power of Foucault-influenced readings of texts that causes unease. They tend to construct a totalizing account of the narrative in which all aspects are understood as elements of a carceral order. Thus Miller, in his reading of Bleak House, associates the Court of Chancery with a labyrinthine modern policing and surveillance regime, even though the text is at pains to associate it with the ancien régime of the Dedlocks and foreground its “hoary” antiquity; the ruling class and Chancery are “things of precedent and usage; oversleeping Rip Van Winkles.”2 As Kathleen Blake has recently pointed out, current interest in Benthamism within Victorian cultural studies is frequently mediated through Foucault; it is Foucault’s panopticon, not Bentham’s, that is so often invoked."

Are these examples "abstruse" (Nigel's word)? The answer depends in large part on the reader, though in this sample I certainly find some more transparent or accessible (or sensible) than others. There are lots of ways to engage with these examples, to disagree with or disapprove of the kinds of work they are trying to do, etc., but only one of them bears much resemblance to what you propose (tongue in cheek, I'm sure) as a "realistic" source of examples.

Stephen Crowe said...

Perhaps you're right. I suppose I'm just going by my own experience: Theory's still pretty popular where I am. Every quarter I'm introduced to a new theory I'd never even heard of. So far, this year, I've chalked up "post-human studies", "afro-futurism", "inter-media studies" and my personal favourite: "possible world semantics." I'm not sure what any of it means, but from the course descriptions they appear mostly to be thinly-veiled excuses for reading sci-fi in class time.

NigelBeale said...

Hi Stephen and Rohan,

Thanks for the interesting discussion. I'd say that, irrespective of the reader, all these examples are pretty abstruse. Most could use a good shearing. The first quote wins for clarity, followed by the piece on Tennyson: straight forward enough...though what might be debatable is the effectiveness of the technique described.

I'm guessing that:

First Middlemarch quote means: putting yourself in the position of contemporary readers and researching the times will yield greater understanding...

The second: it's a book about the impossibility of cognitive mastery...and that given that our goal is to understand the novel, there is a paradox at play.

Bleak House: Foucault's larger definition of Panopticon influences how Bleak House is read, more so than Bentham's.

And the paragraph on affective expression, I assume it may have something to do with Fish's theory, is completely ridiculous.

The point is that this writing is so equivocal that you need to waste hours just to assertain its meaning (opposite the intention of jargon...which works ideally to speed things up.) Time that is much better spent with the original texts.

Not that there aren't any interesting ideas here. Just that they are being expressed really poorly. The writers are on a power trip.

Science Fiction, Stephen?

Stephen Crowe said...

"Elegies generate their tremors in two main ways: by creating the tremulous ripple effect of a verbal ambiguity or two-way meaning, and by transgressing a cod, as Tzetvan Todorov suggests in his essay ‘The Origin of Genres.’"

Is that the Fish theory you were thinking of, Nigel?

"Science Fiction, Stephen?"

Uh... yes? Wait, no! I give up. What are you asking me?

NigelBeale said...

Nope. He came up with something called Affective reader response theory: that meaning is found in the interpretive decisions that the text elicits from the reader...what the sequence of words does to the reader...

He later gave up on it...because of course, each one of us brings differing experience to the text...

as for Sc Fi...I was being abstruse...

this stuff can be seen as so much Science Fiction...or, are you really reading Sci Fi in class...

Rohan Maitzen said...

That's 'transgressing a code,' of course--not a cod. Nice Fish pun, though.

NigelBeale said...

Actually, I think cod makes more sense :)

Stephen Crowe said...

Nigel: I did literally mean that they read sci-fi, as in Philip K. Dick and so on, although I agree that a lot of theory reads like science fiction.

I'd also like to make it clear that I personally do not take that kind of class!