Literary Studies Are Dying. How Should The Field Cope?


WITHIN LITERARY STUDIES, disillusionment is on the rise. Once-ardent proponents of a literary education are in retreat: writing about other topics, hiding out in other programs, opting out of conferences, checking out of departmental politics, and even ceasing to offer courses aimed at graduate students and majors. While some fantasize about an early retirement, a deeper loss of faith seems to be leading many simply to withdraw, to direct their energies elsewhere.

This mood of disenchantment is not surprising. One might link it to the “Great Resignation” within the postpandemic workforce. But especially cruel realities face a struggling field like literary studies, with its disappearing majors, budgetary pressures, abysmal job market, fears about academic freedom, and more. Literary critics have good reasons to be downcast. Downcast and, at times, spiteful.

While it is unquestionably painful to feel like one is watching something dying, that despair has too often been directed at fellow travelers, exorcised at the expense of other literary critics. I am not the first to observe the bare hostility on display in many internal feuds, or that their most visible and recurring targets happen to be women, or how a growing number of field-specific brawls descend into snark or mean-spiritedness or patronizing belittlement. Review essays are circulated with glee on social media because of their gladiatorial flourish, or the swagger and bravado with which one critic unmasks another in analysis motivated not by the goal of sincere intellectual debate but instead by the takedown.

Everyone surely has their own story about why literary studies devolved into blood sport, including where it started. No doubt, some may disagree over whether there is even a problem to begin with. But it’s hard to escape the sense that this unbridled public shaming is doing a lot more than causing morale to plummet, or breeding enmities likely to linger. The free-floating malice begs to be explained as both a symptom and a contributing factor of a much deeper professional deformation, a larger maladaptation afflicting the discipline.

In such a context, more than the “tone” or “mood” of intellectual dialogue will suffer. The experience of watching one’s peers get mercilessly hung out to dry will clearly have policing effects, as many will seek to avoid such a fate at any price. Undue caution and restraint will lead some (and not only graduate students in search of jobs) to mute or curtail the boldness or breadth or targets of their arguments, cabining their scholarship’s significance out of fear of stepping on angry toes. Others will shift course entirely, steering clear of contentious topics in favor of safer ones. Growing intellectual conformity (if not homogeneity) will set in, and debate will get sidetracked onto collateral, secondary issues—given the exorbitant costs of dissent from the orthodoxies of the profession. And while that race to the bottom will prompt some to become disciplinary refugees, others will double down, defensively guarding their existing practices with vehemence and rigidity. These dynamics risk having a snowballing effect, rendering the discipline ever more conservative and ever meaner.

Jonathan Kramnick’s Criticism and Truth: On Method in Literary Studies (2023) is one book written amid this atmosphere of combined infighting and malaise. Criticism and Truth is an elegantly written and, in many ways, inspiring book, devoted to doing justice to the enormous dynamism, value, and variety of literary criticism today. Kramnick offers a powerful statement of the need to celebrate and preserve our existing critical practices, disputing the notion that the profession is ailing or broken. He thus presumes to stay out of the fray of what Rita Felski in 2014 called the field’s “method wars” (and even farther away from the backlash elicited by Felski and others’ challenges to “critique”). Kramnick’s affirmative picture of the profession aims to shed light on the distinctiveness of literary criticism as an enterprise based, above all, in close reading, although the book sets out to venture its own unique description of what exactly that entails.

Few practices are more foundational to literary studies than close reading, with its sustained attention to the individual words on the page, to their rhythms and tonalities, to the intricate interactions of syntax in a sentence, and to the ways those formal properties of a text allow meaning to unfold. Close reading descends from an unusually long lineage, traceable to modes of scriptural hermeneutics and exegesis. Yet for Kramnick, close reading (and by extension, literary studies as a discipline) is by no means a monastic or cloistered practice cut off from the world, and its most important facets are neither cerebral nor purely speculative. Rather, Kramnick defends the real-world bearings of literary criticism, and he therefore foregrounds specific features of close reading—features, importantly, that would not show up on every literary critic’s list.

One of Kramnick’s unexpected theses is that close reading affords actual, concrete knowledge about the world, rendering it an empirical enterprise that the book repeatedly characterizes as a “science.” Much as this premise contests the view that literary studies lacks real-world relevance or implications, it complicates the corresponding perception that the discipline is rarefied or self-referential. Kramnick’s insistence on criticism’s worldly stakes further leads him to describe it as materially grounded and even tactile: as something one “does or makes with one’s hands” in immersive interaction with the physical environment, weaving one’s own words with those of the text under interpretation. This understanding of literary criticism’s “on-the-ground” rootedness in the everyday also shapes Kramnick’s vision of the profession as allied around a shared “tradition” involving continuity, “stability,” and the existence of communal “consensus.”

As should be clear, many worthy impulses sustain Kramnick’s appeal to return to and safeguard the basics. Amid rising precarity, what could be more reassuring than to take stock of those skills most enduring and fundamental to literary criticism? Rather than look outside the profession for validation, Kramnick suggests, it is time for literary studies to find a stronger internal sense of gravity and purpose. Beyond how Kramnick imagines critical expertise to inhere within certain rudimentary (and frequently overlooked) skills (thus devoting a full chapter to “citation”), such modesty stems from awareness of how literary criticism operates in interactive deference to its textual objects. In a discipline overly beholden to a star system, Kramnick similarly accentuates the invariably collective fabric of any critical practice, something beautifully illustrated by his ecumenical range of examples.

But Criticism and Truth nevertheless raises questions about what it means to be content with the present state of affairs. What enables such satisfaction with the current circumstances of literary criticism and, even more, the impulse to advocate for a rediscovery and conservation of the field’s habituated (if underappreciated) practices? And to do so now, at this sociohistorical juncture and at a moment when the profession has been dominated by exceptionally rancorous disagreement? And from within a discipline perennially haunted by charges of elitism, old and new? Insofar as Kramnick’s book is representative of a much wider mode of response to disciplinary turbulence, of what exactly is it indicative?

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To begin, one might wonder whether such satisfaction with “what we already do” can only come from a position of relative self-assurance. Criticism and Truth’s short length is attributed by Kramnick to “the urgency of the moment.” Yet it is a luxury to be able to publish a manifesto-like tract that brackets a divisive scholarly milieu while still venturing global claims about the future of literary study. Kramnick’s celebration of community can appear similarly one-sided. While he applauds the collectivist spirit of criticism, doing so elides the frustrations of a meaningful bloc of Kramnick’s interlocutors. (Not to mention that praising communal goodwill and consensus at this moment feels a bit off-key.) Such license to bypass the trench warfare that has embroiled other like-minded scholars can itself work, albeit subtly, to deride their discontent as symptomatic of some pathology or delusion. Everything is fine and well, Kramnick consoles; why all the bother?

Kramnick’s contentment with the prevailing course of things is all the more telling given the book’s self-appointed urgency relative to what it characterizes as an existential crisis. He devotes a good amount of space to that crisis, allowing it to occupy his preface and coda; however, there is a notable disconnect between the centrality that emergency assumes and his solution. Notwithstanding Kramnick’s purport to recount what happens “on the ground,” he answers looming catastrophe with a call for return to ordinary business. Rhetoric replete with apocalyptic buzzwords of the environmental humanities (literary study faces an “extinction event” and “radical habitat destruction”) simultaneously inflates that crisis, although in service of an agenda strangely out of touch with the graduate students, adjunct faculty, and many others on the front lines.

That remoteness stems in part from the ways Kramnick’s argument is itself informed by an element of withdrawal—although of a different type than above. It is a truism that conservatism is congenitally reactionary: parasitic on—and counterrevolutionary to—the changes it protests. Something analogous drives Kramnick’s account of the discipline. That the book’s tribute to the status quo is prompted by disciplinary upheaval surely betrays a reactionary posture. Even though Kramnick claims to rise above the method wars, they contextualize his argument and excuse its complacency. And in many ways, his image of criticism (cleansed of the disabling politics otherwise plaguing literary study) only makes sense against the backdrop of a hyperpoliticization of the field, thus being both dependent on and a symptom of those conditions.

It goes without saying that Kramnick’s idea of criticism (as the restoration of a disavowed yet common grounding tradition) is one than many would hotly contest, despite the book’s premise that it merely describes the pleasant things we’re all already doing. So, although Kramnick’s avoidance of the nastiness widely on display is praiseworthy, that veneer of detachment is more than disingenuous. More accurately, such feigned modesty and restraint actively cloaks the book’s reactionary sentiment, sanctioning what is ultimately a highly conservative vision of the profession. Yet precisely for these reasons is Criticism and Truth representative of a larger moment of retrenchment underway across literary study.

Recall Kramnick’s basic response to the coming storm of crisis: batten down the hatches, take refuge within the discipline’s most resilient strongholds like close reading. In Criticism and Truth, such isolationism resides on multiple levels, beyond feigned aloofness from the skirmishes wrongly preoccupying other factions of the field. Elsewhere, Kramnick has been a vocal critic of “the interdisciplinary fallacy,” or the assumptions underlying academic work that seeks to bridge disciplinary boundaries to facilitate cross-pollination and collaboration across fields. In line with those complaints, a retreat into territory endogenous to literary study oversees Criticism and Truth. Despite the book’s salutary goal of affirming an undervalued critical skill set, those skills are simultaneously presented as innocent of sociohistorical conflict, unimplicated in the turmoil jeopardizing the profession. No doubt, many New Critics would have appreciated Kramnick’s impulse to autonomize and thereby hermetically seal literary criticism against the capricious tides of history, politics, and fashion.

This sort of wishful thinking naturally produces contradictions. In striving to capture what is special about literary criticism’s expertise, Kramnick is at pains to establish its truth status, to show how criticism “tell[s] truths about the world itself.” Throughout, a vocabulary drawn from science is enlisted to substantiate literary criticism’s role as “knowledge about the world.” But Criticism and Truth exhibits a perplexing unwillingness to distill those truths into terms that might permit objective analysis, authentication, or anything resembling a scientific method. To the contrary, Kramnick insists on the unintellectualizable and “tacit know-how” that operationalizes criticism, inveighing that “thinking and doing are not two separate things.” Although the profession’s collective judgments concern what is “apt” and “right,” any “verification” of those judgments is purely “intuitive.” Statements like the above eschew the onus to define criticism as an analytic procedure or practice generating findings that carry any kind of measurable, normative, or scientific payoff, reproducibility, or precision. So, for all Kramnick’s desire to lay bare the ordinary workings of criticism, the book exhibits a striking refusal to anatomize or evaluate those ingredients.

A parallel ambivalence informs the book’s relationship to interdisciplinarity. Despite Kramnick’s complaints, Criticism and Truth is hard-pressed to explain what criticism entails without looking to other disciplines. Along with hard science, anthropology provides the book’s central metaphor for the skills involved in literary criticism—and their real-world bearings. Kramnick’s first chapter opens with a passage that analogizes the techniques of Indigenous bag-weavers in Papua New Guinea to various undernoted dimensions of literary criticism: its “hands-on” tactile engagement with material reality, its tacit quality, its simultaneously ordinary and skilled nature, its status as a productive making, its “immersive” interaction with the world. Sustained throughout, this analogy allows Kramnick to deem literary criticism a “craft,” “craftwork,” and “handiwork,” and verbs like “fastening,” “stitching,” “spinning,” and “weaving” (which recur with striking frequency) extend that comparison throughout. This apparent inability to enumerate the properties of criticism without recourse to the social sciences can seem to fall victim to the very disciplinary envy Kramnick elsewhere disdains.

But more importantly, is literary criticism really like bag-weaving? And do critics in the academy in fact approach their “craft” in the same manner as Indigenous artisans on an island in the southwestern Pacific? Moreover, what does this choice of analogies tell us about Kramnick’s hopes for the profession?

Beyond whatever colonialist fantasies haunt such a comparison (fantasies that anthropology largely got out of its system some decades ago), it is where the book’s reactionary stance most fully emerges. That image of literary critics as bag-weavers marshals a strikingly organicist if not vitalist understanding of art and criticism together. Resistant to rational intellectualization, both are imagined as transpiring through quasi-physical absorption, synthesis, and harmony, much as Kramnick later describes critic and text to coexist in an unbroken and unending “hermeneutic circle.” Rather than being predicated on rupture or loss or distance or division, criticism actualizes an unmediated bond merging critic with textual object. In many ways, Kramnick’s picture of the community fostered through such lived practices of criticism is similarly idealized. It is not surprising that a rediscovery of criticism’s rootedness in holistic tradition is what Kramnick holds out as capable of reconciling a fractured profession, reunifying it around a shared if unspoken “consensus.”

A palpable nostalgia infuses this organicist vision of critical embeddedness. As a metaphor, Indigenous bag-weaving gratifies multiple layers of Romantic longing: for simpler times, for unalienated critical labor, for unabstracted, undivided, homogeneous community, for a precapitalist conception of the artwork, and more. (Kramnick is a scholar of 18th-century literature.) It is far from accidental that the book is steeped in a crypto-Heideggerian language of “building” and “dwelling” and “thisness” (although only Gadamer numbers among Kramnick’s citations). Kramnick’s examples of actual criticism—of the pastoral, of passages about building homes and family origins—further recall not just a Romanticist nostalgia but also the sort of anti-modern regionalist nativism one might associate with 1930s Southern Agrarianism as it flowered into New Criticism.

Some of Kramnick’s key philosophical references are more than conservative but fully theological. He enlists the Catholic moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (1981) to theorize the responsiveness of critical practice: how we as critics “submit,” “accept […] authority,” and “subordinat[e] ourselves within the practice to other practitioners.” Beyond the not-so-subtle authoritarianism lurking within such a vindication of passive acceptance, MacIntyre seems to guide Kramnick in other ways; After Virtue is foremost a defense of how local traditions might resuscitate an Aristotelian virtue ethics capable of counteracting the blight of capitalism and fractures of modern society. With MacIntyre in mind, accounts of aesthetic experience resembling Kramnick’s are far from foreign to literary theory. Rather, they are quite familiar. However, those appeals to immanence and almost mystical unity are typically found in descriptions of premodern, Greek, or, for MacIntyre, “homeric” cultures—where they operate as foils to ideas about modernity. Similarly, for Georg Lukács, the Greek world was a “rounded,” “integrated,” “homogeneous world” with “ever-present” meaning. For Mikhail Bakhtin, ancient Greek creativity “set into motion a process of active, mutual cause-and-effect and interillumination,” much as the epic—in contrast to the heteroglossic novel—contains a “single and unified world view.” And so on.

But we all know that premodernity (like precolonial innocence) never existed, and that the instinct to romanticize such states of harmony and wholeness will always tell us more about ourselves than anything. So in an ailing profession, what should we make of this nostalgia—this yearning for authenticity, for an organically bonded community, for undivided, unbroken access to the artwork? Such reactionary sentiment is everywhere in the air today—significantly more prevalent beyond the walls of the academy. However, even popular right-wing elegists like J. D. Vance have learned to shade their feigned populism with realism about the violence and hardship invariably whitewashed through such mythmaking.

How does one confront what can appear to be the devastation of a profession without internalizing or externalizing despair, without succumbing to either self-recrimination or resentment vying for an outlet? Is the way to save literary studies to refrain from internecine battles, whether through wholesale surrender or the sanctuary of first principles? Or should one fight to the death in method warfare at all costs? In contrast, is there a third way that would allow for action without unwitting endorsement of rules of combat grown ever more suicidal?

It may be true of any profession that, when the terms of engagement either become misshapen or are everywhere disobeyed, the ensuing struggle will take a toll on thought, ideas, and the content of what one stands for. Some of us will be cornered into defensive attempts at retrenchment, whereas others will stake out overly adversarial grounds. Rampant infighting will also make it tricky to intervene without running afoul of certain formerly visible and meaningful lines. But surely the future of literary studies cannot lie with the artisanal “craftwork of spinning sentences from sentences already in the world,” or an anthropological awareness reminiscent of the Belle Epoque, or another purified fantasy of a Romantic past in which meaning was imminent and decorum reigned. So one can only wonder whether the most visible sign of the profession’s brokenness is that even smart, well-intentioned, careful scholars would advocate for such an option.



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