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Anis Shivani
What Should Be the Function of Criticism Today?

The premise of this essay is that criticism needs to play a central role in the revival of literature. At present, criticism, in the form of academic “theory,” is in the curious position of simultaneous self-exaltation and self-marginalization, being a highly esoteric affair that makes no effort to reach the mass of readers. For much of the history of literary criticism, writer-critics, especially poet-critics, have been the most important figures—Dryden, Sidney, Shelley, Coleridge, Eliot, Tate, Jarrell, to name just a few. Two things have happened since the beginning of the second half of the twentieth century to make this breed all but extinct.
First, “creative writing” has swallowed up poets and fiction writers into a new formulation of writing, which thrives on narrow specialization (thus, poets can’t be fiction writers or playwrights, let alone critics) and frowns on traditional literary criticism. In America, this process is the farthest advanced, but other Anglo-Saxon countries are following suit. As a result, instead of criticism what we are seeing from practicing creative writers is a narrow form of appreciation of mentors or workshop-masters in journals and online forums, a form of empty praise that doesn’t deserve the name criticism.
Second, theory has gone through various phases of resistance and counter-assault, but it is far from being disestablished in any way, despite the claim of some that we are already in a “post-theory” era. The problem with theory is also that it is not criticism in any form that we have known it; the theorist is interested not in evaluating literature qua literature, but in imposing a set of familiar operations on any text, arriving at familiar results. Derridean deconstruction, which ought to have been a temporary fad when it arrived on the American scene in the mid-1960s, has instead monopolized departments of literature—and many of the other humanities. This form of “criticism,” like its creative writing counterpart, is not interested in reaching a broad audience, but only in speaking to like-minded theorists. It is best seen as a deflection of frustrated political instincts, in the only realm permitted free play to academics—the domain of language and text, rather than practice and application.
What is missing, then, is a vital criticism that is neither theory—a mundane exercise in proving, over and over, that all texts are unstable because of inherently contradictory meanings—nor the renewed form of aesthetic criticism emanating from workshop writers, which recalls the state of criticism before the establishment of “scientific” principles of objectivity by New Criticism in the 1930s. My proposed criticism is a form of humanist criticism, though the term unfortunately recalls the conservative and anti-democratic criticism of the 1920s, under the rubric of the New Humanists associated with Irving Babbitt.
With the proliferation of “creative writing,” there is currently a mass pool of potential critics, trained in close reading of a diluted New-Criticism kind, graduates of MFA programs (estimated at 75,000 about fifteen years ago, and by now presumably phenomenally larger) who survive in various forms of under- or unemployment, or are unable to realize the literary goals to which they aspired when they enlisted in such programs. There are many informed readers in America who could turn to criticism as a vital act, using the internet as an unprecedented platform; they already do, to some extent, but criticism unfortunately tends to follow established patterns and it is a matter of habituating oneself and the reader to new expectations.
The internet is the most important new public sphere. Jürgen Habermas has explained that eighteenth-century English coffee houses and other public spaces allowed the formation of middle-class taste in opposition to aristocratic and feudal values, constituting a revolution in ideals that still fuels whatever is left of political and social liberalism. Although the internet, as it currently stands, is only in a rudimentary form as far as the potential for humanist criticism is concerned, nonetheless our hopes must rest on it. Whereas eighteenth-century taste was genteel and bourgeois, and that proposed by the nineteenth-century version of the “man of letters” was perhaps even tamer, until the concept petered out altogether in the academic critic of the second and third decades of the twentieth century, the new public sphere will be neither genteel nor mildly reformist. Radical, chaotic, uncontrollable energies are on the loose, and the critic must equip himself to contest on this hot terrain with all the rhetorical means at his disposal.
The literary product—by which I mean assembly-line writing, in tune with sales results and committee-thinking, rather than the idiosyncratic creation of the individual genius— today is manipulated, propagandized, and hyped, and, as a result, unattractive to mass audiences, indifferent to fundamental issues of class and politics, and pretty much in its death throes. This holds true above all in America, where conglomerate publishing has reached its most advanced state, and different genres of writing are the brainchildren of marketing geniuses and corporate analysts, creating a worthless product as far as literary values are concerned. Why is this phenomenon not being scrutinized to the degree it needs to be? Why is the lack of quality not more transparent?
The theorists don’t care. They hardly pay attention to contemporary literature, and besides, they are not in the business of evaluation and judgment; their interest is only in exploding the contradictions of the classic text in question, showing how it reveals Western biases toward logic and rationality and patriarchy and empire and leaving it at that. The successful creative writers can’t afford to offend anyone in authority who may withhold rewards and opportunity in the future—a necessary consequence of nearly all of America’s literary writers having become, in essence, state employees, upholding a collective aesthetic of bourgeois realism and individualized confessionalism, leaving the state’s politics and policies well enough alone for the sake of job security. Somehow, separate from these two black holes of critical nothingness, a new criticism needs to arise to take on the honest evaluation of the literary merchandise.
Without such blunt assessment, we cannot know who is doing worthwhile writing and who is not, amidst the flood of hyped authors being published. We cannot separate the fads and fashions from the durable and classical. Without outspoken criticism reaching the vast potential audience, writing itself cannot be returned to a central position in culture, since the output is immense in volume and drowns out any thought process about its relevance or importance or meaning. Without discerning humanist critics beholden neither to “theory” nor to “creative writing,” intelligent readers cannot come into being. Without a criticism following new principles—not going back to the condition before post-structuralism, structuralism, or New Criticism, since this is neither desirable nor possible— we shall remain in a vacuum of analysis, readers continuing to remain in a hazy state of mind about the true state of writing: there is much worthwhile writing being produced, even if it is not on the radar screen of the publicity mavens, and moreover, such writing would increase in quantity and quality if there were a new critical force propagating its value to large numbers of potential readers.
Criticism should be conceived as the absolute fulcrum of a revived literary culture, because only it can advance good writing and create new readers, while relegating boilerplate writing to the trash-heap where it belongs.
We face a situation at the beginning of the second decade of the twenty-first century where the critical landscape is almost completely vacant. Such a crisis in criticism is undoubtedly a reflection of the crisis of political legitimacy; yet this very crisis holds the promise of a new beginning. The economic landscape is fundamentally changing, and there is no going back to the verities of the New Deal, the minimal decencies provided by a reactive welfare state fending off the more generous welfare states of Western Europe or addressing Communist orthodoxy.
What will the writer of the future look like, how will he fit into new social institutions and collective expectations, what will be his status as an entrepreneur or employee or a mix of the two? We don’t yet know, but it is against this vast empty panorama that the drama of criticism will play out in the near future. Randall Jarrell wrote of the 1950s that it was an age of criticism; in some ways, as far as highbrow minority culture (of the Partisan Review kind) was concerned, that was true. We are currently in an age that gives the false appearance of being also an age of criticism, indeed hyper-criticism, but the principles animating post-structuralism (very much rooted in the quaint objectivities of formalism, New Criticism, and structuralism) are drained of passion and vitality. Literature and criticism have stopped speaking to each other, driving both to irrelevance and bankruptcy.
The literary critic of the future must be a giant. He cannot think of himself as providing gloss or commentary against vast bureaucratic forces beyond his ken—a mere commentator or assimilationist or sometimes wily antagonist to a machine that discounts his very essence. The writer of the future should think of criticism as his first and only real training ground, regardless of his branch of literary specialization. Indeed, conditions are such that without breathing the air of the kind of criticism I am expounding, the writer’s effort will remain marginal and irrelevant, his fame stillborn, his aspirations to greatness so much illusion.
The writer’s very survival is at stake. Criticism, far from an additional onerous task he must take on as pro bono service to the literary field, is the very soil in which his most individualized dreams and ambitions must be rooted. Both the peril and the promise are at their peak. Present institutions are rapidly crumbling, or at least their legitimacy is in unprecedented doubt. The alleged transition from a print to a post-print culture is in fact a red herring. The real potential of transformation is from a post-critical to a critical culture.
Into the breach, then! Here are some speculations about what a revived humanist criticism for the twenty-first century would look like, the pitfalls it would have to avoid and the faint grooves it would have to follow to the very ends, if we are to save literature itself from extinction.

1. Provide deep context.

How deep? Deeper than any form of literary criticism known today. Deep enough to include investigations of the author’s relationship to his specialty, the connections between her and others like her and unlike her, the evolution of her thought process both in an individual and collective manner, and every available insight from philosophy, psychology, sociology, economics, art, and science to shed light on the work in question. Readers today have quite discounted newspaper reviews, which are almost without exception worthless as criticism; editors generally impose a silence over rigorous critical standards, and reviewers know they must accede to the demands of the editors or find themselves out of an assignment. The general tendency of shallowness pervades all review forums, including those online, even among avant-garde publications from which one would expect different.
The problem is that the review has gelled into a predictable form, a genre with its own conventions and formulas, offered to the public for ready consumption. Each and every one of this genre’s conventions must be smashed and reconstructed if reviewing is to become relevant again. The review, instead of being a closed form with summary assessments, must become speculative, generalized, a mere tip of the iceberg for the knowledge contained within it. It must be so erudite as to destabilize the veracity of the work under consideration. It must set itself up as an equal and opposing force against the work of imagination.
If this sounds like theory’s claims to superiority over creative work, it is only superficially so. Theory is invested in specific niches—psychoanalysis, feminism, New Historicism, queer studies, etc.—closeted within their individual parameters and following the rules of their sub-disciplines. I have nothing like this in mind. A creative work, if it is to be worth anything in the twenty-first century, must compel consideration of the vast edifices of knowledge underlying the author’s worldview. It is these constructions that need to be brought into the open, the critic’s most valuable function. Every piece of criticism in this vein becomes an open-ended, demanding, ferocious, relentless investigation of morality at a structural level. If I read Orhan Pamuk’s My Name Is Red, I ought to be intrigued, as a critic, about any number of fundamental questions of art as a reflection of national culture and phases of enlightenment. A work like that begs the critic to pull himself out of the immediate needs of the book and the author, and revert to formative discipline.
If criticism performs in this suggested manner, anti-intellectual authors—who unfortunately dominate American letters today—would receive second-class treatment, as they deserve. Criticism should explore the depth of underlying ideas, and authors found wanting should be devalued. Shallowness quickly reveals itself. The tendency of writing in the twenty-first century, with the barrage of new information technologies, is to drive the reader toward a metaphysical receptivity where everything indeed does become apparently illuminated; but this effect, because of present social conditions, can in reality only be achieved by entering the darkest of labyrinths, the deep marrow of ideas in their origins and complexities. Authors who spurn their own narrow intellectual origins—every author starts with a narrow base, but the successful ones exceed it—deserve heavyweight consideration.
Deep context means tackling the work of art at a level of complexity greater than its own, rather than retreating in the face of apparent self-containment. The critic must pry open books in a radically new manner, because such openness is both technologically more possible than ever and because readers don’t need to hear mere readerly opinions or even technocratic lectures about what makes a work of art click. In short, expose shallowness, rather than back off in the face of marketing hype about an author’s credentials. Readers need this clarity from the strong critic.

2. Merge disciplines.

Again, there is superficial resemblance between this principle and a reigning shibboleth of the academy: interdisciplinarity. I don’t mean anything like the debased academic notion of, say, putting economics and literature together. I mean the fluid merger of every known discipline that the critic can bring to bear on the analysis of individual works or groups of works. There should be no boundaries between forms of inquiry. If theory is in disrepute outside the academy, then so are the social sciences, particularly economics and political science, but also anthropology, sociology, psychology, and, on the humanist side, history. There are a number of reasons for this decline in legitimacy, which the critic should take advantage of.
The social sciences, in their modern form, began with the positivism of the mid-nineteenth century, reached their heyday in the generally progressive political climate of the early twentieth century, then faced a crisis of articulation when confronted with worldwide economic, political, and social upheaval in the 1930s and thereafter. Fascism and global depression, not to mention genocide, total war, and atomic annihilation, were not exactly subjects amenable to social science verities. The disciplines became after-the-fact justifications of much human irrationality manifested in mass global actions, predicted already by Sigmund Freud, Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, George Sorel, Vilfredo Pareto, Gaetano Mosca, and other perspicacious thinkers of the early twentieth century. Nineteenth-century Comtean positivism became an irreconcilable historical anomaly in the midst of the vast technological and social transformations of the twentieth century.
All of the social science and humanities disciplines are in need of reconstitution, or reimagination, in the twenty-first century. As with literary studies, they have followed a path of ironic reflexivity in an attempt to make themselves more lucid and relevant, but have only succeeded in making themselves more obscure and irrelevant.
Economics, for instance, began as a science of human happiness in the midst of industrialization in the late eighteenth century, but by the middle of the twentieth century had become a branch of mathematics, whose inner deliberations only the higher mathematicians could pursue. It needs to become a science of human fulfillment again. At the end of World War II, as American power assumed worldwide hegemony, all of the social sciences and humanities got corrupted as the post-war zeal for empire infected whatever remained of the myth of objectivity. Psychology rests on foundations that have tottered so precipitously in the wake of mass irrationalism that today it is without a base altogether. Anthropology flourished early in the twentieth century when optimism about the human race and honest belief in moral relativism were enough to provide the motivation for comparative studies; but later the discipline, beset by its own contradictions, devolved into a web of self-consciousness, turned on itself, became a commentary on its own previous commentaries, as have other specialties. History has simply failed, like other disciplines, to explain, let alone anticipate, the ongoing cataclysms. As for the hard sciences, they long ago reached a stage of mysticism—the only form in which higher scientific findings can be presented to the public.
Is it putting too heavy a burden on critics to expect them to undertake the reimagination of all the academic disciplines? But what is the alternative and who else is going to do it? Novelists are the best historians, and this is more true today than ever; no historian shows the comprehensive, big-picture, total understanding of, say, a Salman Rushdie or J. M. Coetzee or V. S. Naipaul—or a Doris Lessing, when it comes to understanding the history of women’s awareness. Poets reveal human nature better than any psychologist practicing in a narrow niche.
If the critic shuns disciplinary boundaries—acts as economist, psychologist, historian, even physicist if he has the mind and capability for it—then he will train himself as an imaginative writer whose work will have durable value for the reader of the twenty-first century; remember, I am postulating the critic as the quintessential writer of the future, his foundational training occurring in expansive criticism over an extended duration of self-apprenticeship. Literature can only be immeasurably enriched by taking up the very mantle of responsible, generalizable, accessible, resonant criticism that the rest of the disciplines have vacated under the auspices of hyper-professionalism.

3. Overcome specialization.

One of the main reasons for the cultural irrelevance of literary writing today—possibly the greatest reason—is that writers are too specialized and as a result their output seems insular and self-contained, unable to explode out of its bounds.
Once a cultural enterprise enters the academy, it inevitably results in overspecialization. Whereas in the past there used to be poets who were also writers of prose narrative as well as critics and reviewers—and this was true for all branches of literary endeavor— nowadays not only do we have poets who do nothing but poetry, but poets who specialize only in a very narrow range of poetics: a Bengali poet may only write about her personal experiences of assimilation/emigration from a strictly domestic angle in a very specific mentor-derived style, and that is all she will do for the entirety of her academic career; she will not write criticism of other poets, South Asian literature, Bengali literature not in translation, South Asian politics, American politics, American foreign policy, the aesthetics of confessionalism, or her situation in the academy, let alone foray into different styles of writing. If she writes short lyrical poems, that is the only style she will ever pursue. The same self-imposed parameters apply to fiction writers, such as Junot Díaz or Amy Tan, who have never done anything but exploit their allocated multicultural niches.
The result is immense impoverishment of broad cultural appeal; when a writer restricts herself in such a manner, the subtext becomes thinner, the poem or short story or novel becomes only about itself. In a sense, all creative writing today is living out New Criticism’s attitude toward writing, focusing on itself as sealed-off workmanship, but it is New Criticism without its sophisticated and occasionally formidable analytical strategies, since self-expression always intervenes as the ultimate criterion of authenticity and reality. There always seems to be a ghostly I. A. Richards or John Crowe Ransom peering over the shoulder of the workshop participant as she formulates a self-contained artifact, hoping to be able to withstand close textual scrutiny, hoping to arrive at a unity despite tension. I am arguing for a contemporary equalization among current workshop writing, the new self-enclosed realism, and what were thought to be extinct New Criticism standards.
What is the role of the critic in breaking down this constricting specialization? First, my assumption is that the critic-in-training is the quintessential writer of the future. He should take advantage of the new online public sphere opening up to potential infinitude by refusing to focus on a particular genre or region, or to ally himself with a particular writing clique. Critics today are generally offshoots of niches within writing, a situation that must change.
The critic of the future should address all forms of literature—and really, all forms of culture—by seeking out venues high and low, speaking in language sophisticated and vulgar, addressing the common reader and the specialized scholar, sometimes both at once. Practicing in this manner, the critic not only educates himself to be eclectic, transcendent, and visionary, but helps educate his reader to contextualize texts outside their explicit impulses and to see the author as something other than a performer within celebrity culture. In a sense, the author’s unity of self, his individuality, is being challenged.
Again, this bears superficial resemblance to post-structuralism’s idea of the author being a reflection of his times, but my idea is radically different. The reputation of specific authors may suffer, but the authority of authors as a whole should only grow. This is a deeply humanistic impulse, attacking New Criticism’s ultimate bugaboos—W. K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley’s barring of the Intentional Fallacy (probing the author’s intentions) and the Affective Fallacy (investigating readers’ emotional reactions)—and restoring them to their position of centrality. Wimsatt and Beardsley’s so-called fallacies built on Cleanth Brooks’s “heresy of paraphrase” (which meant excluding the social context from criticism) and T. S. Eliot’s “impersonal theory of poetry” (another claim for the irrelevance of the author’s biography). Specialization is a cover that allows both alleged fallacies to persist; the critic must blow off this cover.

4. Connect to other cultural fields.

Reading is impoverished today—book culture is impoverished—because it is created and imagined as an activity isolated from other cultural fields like painting, sculpture, film, music, architecture, and so on. How is it possible to evaluate any novel without referring to major developments in the visual and fine arts in a given decade or era? Does Robbe-Grillet make sense without the French New Wave? Or vice versa, actually. What about Donald Barthelme and the New York art scene of the 1960s? Consider the immense flux in twentieth-century art movements, filmmaking, popular music, and modernist and postmodernist architecture, and ask yourself what kind of critic refuses to make obvious and necessary connections.
Again, the post-structuralists have undertaken some of this crucial cultural work of encouraging connectivity, but their problem is obscurity, indifference toward appealing to a general readership, narrow specialization, and a political interest in scoring scholastic points rather than shedding light on particular works of art. The ideal critic I am proposing will make it a habit not to explore connections between fields of culture for their own sake, but to radically expand the range of what it is possible for the critic to understand and convey. (I consciously avoid the term literary critic in this articulation.) Again, a radically open-ended and welcoming invitation to the reader to make sense of the issues at stake should be the central goal.
Reading can move forward only to the extent that other art forms move forward; to the extent that different art forms are segregated and ghettoized, all of them suffer, all of them eventually become sterile and decadent and unable to influence utopian ideals, seceding power to whatever institutional forces embody anti-art. Reading cannot be imagined as an activity in competition with other artistic activity, and the same is true of all other art forms.
It is surprising that with the rise of new media—the possibilities for collaboration, interaction, and open-endedness they present—existing cultural boundaries have not dissolved to a larger and more noticeable extent. One reason is the blindness of media conglomerates whose interest it is to maintain the divisions within the arts, and to take advantage of ever narrower niches. The publishing conglomerates’ stated economic rationale for niche marketing is probably oveshadowed by the ideological succor provided by spinning off the arts into narrow, nonconversant niches. We should also consider the elitism of artists of various kinds, including writers, in arguing the superiority of their chosen art form over all others. The critic should ideally mediate among the arts and, in so doing, bring excitement to all of them; yet this does not entail giving up the critic’s essential function of evaluating and judging within a broad frame of reference.

5. Be global.

National literary divisions and classifications are the least fertile territory for the critic of the future. It is my contention that reading will be revived everywhere in general, or nowhere at all; at the present moment, immense vital energies can be felt emanating from places like India and China, and these should only gather force to an exponential degree in the foreseeable future as a broad global middle class comes into being.
Today American criticism is globally worthless because it is so deeply parochial. The power of coordinated institutional taste mechanisms such as the leading review organs, the distribution of awards and grants and teaching positions, and the endless hype of the publicity machines of the media conglomerates, offer critics a choice between liking or disliking a handful of “major” authors. Needless to say, the class dimension in such ideals of taste formation is evident, and this class solidarity persists across the global landscape. In effect, there does exist a global club which endorses the literary—and cultural—product at an elite level, but which excludes the bulk of the real vitality of the human endeavor, particularly in an age of momentous social transformation. American writing will not ascend to its full potential unless American critics—and it should be clear by now that by this I really mean writers—adopt a cosmopolitan, anti-nationalist, globalizing, universal posture.
How can such a change come about, given the exigencies of class and education and locality? I suggest that such a transformation is easier today than ever, not only because of the pervasiveness of new media influences (all the world really is closer to being one than ever before) but because of the writer’s interest in her own survival. The critic, if she thinks of herself as American or British or Indian, is doomed; she will be unable to say much of use, since reality today is global (and becoming increasingly so, despite the efforts of American reactionaries in the last decade to stop its progress) and therefore criticism and writing must also be global.
In practical terms, this means that the critic writes not for an ideal reader in a Texas or Pennsylvania town, or even for a broad national audience, but rather for a potentially global audience of one or zero or everyone. Whom one writes for changes everything; critics today need to ask the question “For whom do we write?” with great urgency, as do the creators of every kind of art. Who is the audience, and what can we say to it to break down formal and abstract divisions? At present, critics write to the narrowest possible audiences, and targeted reach is a measure of success. The ideal critic must aspire to precisely the opposite motivation.
There is no such thing as strictly national culture anymore; there is no such thing as uniquely national writing or criticism; the writer is either a global person or he is, so far as posterity is concerned, a non-person. And if the critic feels the case is otherwise, he should make a compelling argument why he does. But he cannot avoid confronting this issue.

6. Adopt a sharp point of view.

The barriers between the journalistic and scholarly enterprises are particularly onerous when it comes to criticism. Criticism needs a new style, recognizably polemic, argumentative, even crass and vulgar when it needs to be; it needs to not only respond to the aggressiveness of much of popular culture, but to adopt and co-opt that style and transcend it. At stake is more than just reaching out to an audience for criticism—and for readership—that doesn’t yet exist; at stake is the very matter of criticism's function, of why the critic is doing his job in the first place.
I would go so far as to claim that arguing from a strong point of view, proving and disproving premises, hammering away at opponents, abusing one’s enemies when necessary, overpraising and indulging and hitting hard and delving into personalities—all of it should be on the table if criticism is to be revived as a vital cultural enterprise. The cult of objectivity infects the newspaper business, but scholarship suffers from it too, to its great detriment. The very basis of New Criticism was objectivity, and this has been true of all the critical movements that have followed in reaction to it.
The cult of objectivity puts the critic in a bind right from the start of the project. True impartiality is an impossible ideal, as all critics know well, and this hypocrisy should be laid to rest. The critic must be willing to explore and expose his own biases, his prejudices, his subjective disabilities and strengths, his irrationalities, and his passions and hatreds, so that the reader is challenged to respond or retreat, as the case may be. The reader cannot be engaged if the critic maintains his faux Olympian stance. One result of letting go of false objectivity is that the critic becomes more human; he admits his weaknesses; he cannot be in equal control of all the cultural fields, or even particular branches of literature, and where he is weak, his passion allows him to be honest. Honesty and integrity are integrally linked with passion, not objectivity—a paradox, but a little reflection shows it to be true.
The critic of the future has the chance to be a central cultural figure, because all fields of discourse have been imperialized by polite objectivists. Therefore it is difficult to find truthful commentary on any subject. Something as rudimentary as the blossoming of multicultural literature in all its forms, a mission that has been well underway for almost forty years in the Anglo-Saxon countries, has yet to receive honest critical treatment in accessible forums. Political correctness is part of the problem, but the polite mannerliness of criticism, quite aside from political correctness, is also to blame. How should we evaluate a memoir of addiction or grief? Here again, the critic would have to speak from a strong point of view, otherwise the cloak of authenticity (the raison d’être for much of today’s literary writing) cannot be penetrated.
There is much dishonesty in the literary venture today; the critic must rise to the challenge of exposing it and arguing for a more utopian literature by shedding his impartial, pragmatist, fair-minded, genteel persona, and opting for a style of writing that lets his character shine through. Then only can the debate about the merits of forms of literary creation truly commence. Examples from the last century are rare, but would have to include H. L. Mencken, Cyril Connolly, and George Orwell. As the culture becomes higher-decibeled, the critic’s voice must also become loud enough to be heard above all the noise and distraction. This doesn’t mean shouting or screaming one’s positions, but letting the force of one’s convictions emerge unfettered. Of course, this also means having convictions in the first place, but if the writer has (re)positioned herself as a critic first and foremost, then there should be plenty of convictions to elaborate.

7. Argue from personality.

Theory has lately taken a turn toward the confessional. It is most amusing to read the convolutions of graceless prose writers, utterly in thrall to their own self-importance as arbiters of goodness and benevolence, as they strive to inject their bland personas into the usual machinations of theory, so that instead of any sense of the author’s autobiography coming through, what the disenchanted reader encounters is the ugly spectacle of theorists posturing as latter-day confessionalists, desperately striving to bring some warmth to their abstract conjectures but managing only to generate autobiographical sketches tacked on to the usual ramblings of theory. The theorist Marjorie Garber exemplifies this leisurely, hands-off approach. Though she speaks in the first person, she fails totally to invest the first-person point of view with any humor, passion, or dynamism. The sense of disconnect between the academician and the work of art remains palpable; irony penetrates the whole enterprise so that blame or responsibility ultimately cannot be assigned to any party; in the end all we have is a holier-than-thou attitude, the academic deigning to share some private experiences in order to make herself more marketable to peers and adjudicators. Leave it to theorists to create a yearning for standard confessionalism, even if all they fess up to is the predictable repertoire of personal dysfunction.
What I am calling for is a radical subjectivisation of criticism, so that the critic’s personality can be front and center; it doesn’t always have to be, but there should be more than plenty of room for it. What this will require is the expansion of the reduced boundaries of confessionalism from the present arena of private dysfunction to the critic’s relationship with society, including his relationships with publishers, editors, and fellow writers, his relationship to work and to literary status or lack thereof, his education and class, his politics as they affect his personal life, his quirks and idiosyncrasies, his acts of violation, solicitude, trespassing, and intrusion, whatever makes him respond personally to the work or author or genre in question.
He can do all this while maintaining his sense of privacy, a paradox which is going to become increasingly central for writing of all types in an age of confessionalist new media. He can do all this and remain an unknown entity, should he choose to. Autobiography can be entirely or partially fictionalized, but that should be of no concern to the reader. What is important is the intersection of the character of the critic, with its irrationalities and foibles, and a work of art that assumes closure, wholeness, perfection. In other words, the writer-critic’s life becomes an ongoing, perpetually unfinished, tentative work of fiction encountering equally delusional works of fiction.
That is the nature of the future struggle between critic and writing, and it is also the nature of the struggle between critic and reader, because the reader’s interpretation of works of art is crucially bound up with certain verities about the stability of his own personality and that of the author in question. To the extent that authorship is problematized— not from the “death of the author” perspective, as with Barthes and Foucault, but from the point of view of his material relationships within the institutional textures of publishing—the autobiographical mode of narration can have much benefit.

8. Dispute the possibility of art.

I believe that this is one of the most important functions of the critic of the future—not to proselytize on behalf of particular works of art, but to quarrel with the very possibility that any art is possible in the age of new media, whose early stages suggest much more radical changes to come. Continuing to try to prove the existence and importance of art, high or low or in-between, is a losing proposition. It creates the opposite of the intended effect. The only way that art can become central again is if it is attacked repeatedly and from every front, from every angle possible, by critics agnostic about its existence, or even militantly atheist toward it. Instead of advocating for art, the critic of the future should passionately foretell its demise, marshal every resource at his disposal to bring it down, to bring the whole miserable enterprise to an end. This confrontational posture is the only service a critic can provide to art at this late juncture; everything else is mere dishonesty that doesn’t compel strong artists into being.
How can there be art when hierarchies are flattened as never before, when democracy is stripped of idealism, when the canon has been brought into disrepute, when there is no time for leisure and reflection, when war has long been elevated to the highest aesthetic, when there is no ideology, no utopia, no conflict, no desire worth speaking of? What function can poetry possibly serve when all the poetic dreams have been appropriated by the media, converted into debased forms of visual manipulation and aggressive denial? What role can fiction possibly have in a mass society whose rules and conventions have, for at least a century, been subjected to thorough humiliation, from the modernism of Joyce and Woolf to the postmodernism of Borges and Calvino, so that only a shell is left, trappings and rituals, not the spiritual core?
What role can any of the literary arts have when the elite itself frowns on the possibility of literature, when so many great works of the past have already been shown to be corrupt from the many politically fashionable angles of today’s orthodoxy? Did deconstructionists manage to destroy literature? Aside from the fact that this was very much their goal—at least literature conceived naively as the product of great minds resonating with great cultures—this is only a small part of the answer. Twentieth-century mass society militated against art, even as artistic effort reached a pitch of feverish desperation, as it tried to grasp political nightmares and collective self-suicides in its almighty vision.
The critic must absolutely accept and bend to the political nightmares of the twenty-first century (which are on a different order than what has gone on before, since ideology is not a part of the clash, only personal demons extrapolated to the global scale), and accept that there is no possibility of any art, making this his first and last assumption. And from there, he should determine what’s left, what’s worth exploring for its failures, in a landscape where empty materialisms are fighting it out. The critic must understand that henceforth all successful art will be premised on its own failures. That’s the only territory worth rooting around in. Art will conquer all when it has been completely conquered.

9. Make the tradition new.

Theorists dismiss the canon as the reflection of specific cultural prejudices that can make no claim to universality. They propound an alternative canon—why is that not subject to the same criticism of local prejudice?—written by women, minorities, the enslaved and oppressed, regardless of comparative literary worth. The creative writers do not understand the canon and don’t care about it because all their time is devoted to imitating models of contemporary writing in the pursuit of immediate publication and job security; the very premise of “creative writing” is to divorce it from its contextualization in the canon, and instead to encourage the apprentice to write from personal experience. The mainstream reviewers don’t have the intellectual aptitude to grasp the canon.
Which leaves a big hole for the critic to fill, and he must take advantage of this moment where the genres of writing have dissolved to a point where the canon can be made anew. What this means is that there is far greater potential for writing to be revived by means of the existing and the ancient—even the musty—rather than through alleged avant-garde work, experimental breakthroughs churned out at the speed of blogs and multimedia. The baroque and grotesque and impenetrable medieval or ancient work of literature has suddenly become profoundly modern, ahead of our times—and this should be obvious to any critic able to see the current moment of dissolution for what it is.
What about the tradition of the picaresque novel from the sixteenth and seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, for example? It is avant-garde to the hilt, utterly in tune with contemporary disorientation and disillusionment, which is always cloaked in the mantle of firm belief. What about Middle English poetry? Renaissance drama? Greek prose narrative? Roman satire? Japanese epic? German high romanticism? All of it can be seen, suddenly, as utterly new and charming and fresh; and it is because we have come to the end of the cycle of many genres as they have evolved over the centuries. It is time to replenish them.
This is not a conservative agenda of arguing that a particular canon is somehow supernatural in origin or superior to other canons; Harold Bloom’s exercise in The Western Canon was one of the more wasteful examples of the genre. The canon is always in flux; nonetheless there is a canon; it needs to be fought with, cut down to size, treated with disrespect most of the time, but it is a curiosity that yields infinite new insights—otherwise the canon wouldn’t be the canon. The canon, for the true critic, is transnational, history-breaking, non-obligatory, but despite all this it can be the greatest force for the revitalization of art.
Defoe, for instance, was operating under very different presumptions about the role of the author in society, had a very different attitude toward “realism” than the one we now take for granted, and treated his readers in a very different manner than current faux-democratic premises allow. The critic is always in search of new models of professionalization of the writing venture—or we might say anti-professionalization. Each era yields its secrets in that direction. Probably the most fruitful activity that any critic can undertake is to dig into the canon in this disassociated manner and come up with new treasure. It turns the very idea of relativism on its head, since in the end the critic discovers that things somehow always remain the same and yet assume different shapes. This is a key way in which the crisis of literature—which is at bottom a crisis of political confidence—can be displaced to different territory.

10. Downplay politicization.

In some ways this will sound like the most unexpected proposition of all, the most radical, given the tenor of all that has preceded it. But think about it and it makes sense. How is it possible for the critic to play up any political angle when there is no political ideology worth speaking of? Politics is at a similarly exhausted stage as literature, and in both instances a consumerist cornucopia disguises the ultimate lack of choice, the lack of quality in either realm. To advocate a particular politics at this juncture would be the greatest dereliction of the critic’s duty.
The aim should be to put politics aside, to return literature and art to the center, the exact opposite of what the theorists have done, and of what the creative writers have done. In the case of the former, what has all the subtextual Marxism, the watered-down radicalism, actually accomplished? The net result of theory has actually been a depoliticization of the academy, to the extent that language has been fetishized and politically correct discourse prevails everywhere. The academy would have had a far greater political impact had it not fallen into the trap of taking its own trendy political ideas so seriously and instead concentrated on the work of hardcore education.
And that is exactly what the critic should aim for. The greatest act of politicization for these times is to refuse participation in any of the debased political ideologies, all of which are various forms of cover for consumerist capitalism of the most vulgar kind. In my own case, I fervently believe in a cosmopolitan politics of transnational civil liberties, anti-religious and anti-nationalist, almost anarchic at times, based on absolutely open movement of people and ideas, and yet I want to reconcile this politics somehow with fair distribution of income and collective responsibility for welfare. But I don’t see how criticism can become the vehicle for advancing my politics.
Is it natural for me to select books and authors for discussion who accord with my views rather than those who don’t? Perhaps, although if I have certain problems with, say, Salman Rushdie’s growing American neoconservative bent, compared to his earlier straightforward British socialism, I don’t see how that in any way should affect my estimation of his later novels. The work of art, in other words, needs to be freed again from the political shackles that have bound it over the last forty years in particular. The world needs to be politicized, not art; the corollary of aestheticizing politics (fascism) is politicizing aesthetics (deconstruction). This is not a quietist posture, actually, but the most radical one for contemporary times. This is also certainly not New Criticism’s posture of aestheticism, divorcing the work of art from political and social reality, as the preceding propositions should have made amply clear.
A related trap is creative writing’s conservative, realism-oriented, personalized, confessionalist aesthetic, which on the surface bears the trappings of the anti-political attitude I am advocating; but there is actually no similarity. The creative writer refuses to accept his brand of politics as such; he thinks of himself as apolitical, enamored of objectivity— which in the case of writing masquerades as realism.
Literary artists like to think of themselves as liberal; yet mass taste demands conformity to the status quo. As a result, there is a perpetual schizophrenic split between the writer’s needs and the reader’s needs, and blandness and mediocrity come to pervade writing and criticism because it is impossible to reconcile the two conflicting urges. If the critic can address the problem of politics with the subtlety I propose, he can end up redefining the problem of authenticity for our times—just as in directly interjecting his personality into criticism, he can help redefine the problem of confession and privacy.

The redefinition of the critic’s function in society is a redefinition of writing’s function in society. To rethink criticism is to rethink writing. The agenda presented above is no doubt too idealistic—and some would say imposes too heavy a burden of erudition and responsibility on the critic—but since when were manifestos written without a healthy dose of utopianism? I would actually argue that the scale of the notions presented here is rather modest.
The critic cannot emerge into her full-blown mature shape after a short period of study or brief apprenticeship; rather, she will have to yoke herself to a lifelong project of increasingly deeper and broader investigations of the whole cultural field. I am propounding, for one thing, the extinction of the entity known as the literary critic, for she will not limit herself to literature alone. She will range in speculation across all branches of knowledge, from the sciences to the humanities, making books and their authors and her own authority question marks for readers, signposts illuminating the enormous scale of knowledge that all of us will miss in our lifetimes because there simply isn’t time enough.
The critic as I conceive her militates against mortality—all writing should have this ultimate goal in mind, or it isn’t true writing—by setting up impossible standards for readers to uphold. Modern reader-reception theory is rather a tame affair, leaving the reader the option of responding to the text at her given level of understanding; this is valid to a point, but readers are forever changing into their ideal selves, just as writers are, and only the critic can mediate in this interaction to the benefit of both.
The present moment is truly a crossroads, as not only literature but all art lies in ruins, annihilated by the seductive temptations of mass media, rejected by elites and ordinary readers alike, at odds with the various styles of faux democracy being propagated from the bully pulpits of the media masterminds. At the same time, it is precisely at the moment of absolute devastation that the greatest rejuvenations can occur, and the unprecedentedly global nature of emerging political developments holds the greatest hope for a truly cosmopolitan, metanationalist art of the future, one that will fundamentally alter the selfperceptions of cultural agents.
Theory in the academy, just like creative writing in its institutionalized form, will persist for the foreseeable future; but criticism should have nothing to do with either of them. It should be an independent activity, rooted in the firmest of beliefs—or disbeliefs—toward the author-critic, whose only allegiance should be to his own sense of reality. Reality itself will be replenished if anything close to the model I am advocating takes hold in the new knowledge-ideas-socialization public sphere, bending it in the direction current authorities in academia and media fear.
In my vision for criticism, imaginative writing is no longer exploited to score political or sociological points, and the work of art is judged above all else for its artistic qualities. My assumption of an encyclopedic, expansive, egalitarian criticism raises these questions with great urgency: What are the new descriptive norms? What is the new public sphere? If liberalism’s shared mores no longer prevail, what constitutes “humanism?” The critic’s very definition of these questions—as was true in a different context in the constitution of the public sphere in England, France, and Germany in the early eighteenth century— should help bring about a new subjectivity. The extension of the global public sphere is a fundamental prerequisite for the kind of criticism I am proposing. I would like to see culture elevated over politics as the indispensable arena of playful risk-taking; my feelings on the embrace of risk in the new global arena are more akin to Ulrich Beck’s openness than Habermas’s caution. I fully accept the emergence of the post-industrial subject in the West, and would like to see criticism push toward universal tolerance based on the extension of that identity in the rest of the world. Eliot’s Tory New Criticism was founded on the conservative values of hierarchy, order, and maturity, and it accorded very well with the inception of creative-writing workshop orthodoxy in the 1930s; post-structuralism went on to fight New Criticism values that were misplaced to begin with. In other words, there was a titanic clash between the two leading forces in criticism, unfortunately taking place on the wrong foundations. The ground looks clearer now.


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