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Literary Criticism

The New Criticism, Deconstruction And Beyond, Bibliography

When the definitive account of post-1960s intellectual technologies is written, the history of literary movements will constitute a key chapter. Perhaps paradigmatic of the closing decades of the twentieth century in its dramatic shifts and realignments, literary criticism at the opening of the twenty-first century shows all the earmarks of specialized knowledge, professionalization, and market maneuvering that have successfully permeated the precincts of human activity in advanced industrial society since the end of World War II. Virginia Woolf's "common reader," for all intents and purposes, has disappeared, replaced by professional practitioners trained in the efficacies of "close reading" and highly conscious of a critical landscape represented by "schools" of criticism, from mythic to Marxist, from structuralist to feminist, from psychoanalytic to poststructuralist. Deconstruction and postcolonial critiques have joined a range of cultural studies that encompass race, gender, and sexual orientation. With allied movements in linguistic, rhetorical, narrative, and semi-otic theory, criticism at the turn of the twenty-first century accommodates the study of ethics regarding nonhuman species as well as conduct toward the environment. English and American literature at the university level cut across interdisciplinary formations; thus, the English department, situated in the humanities, could as easily play host to the analysis of legal documents, congressional legislation, aspects of the medical archives, and the fashion modes of hairdressers, as to the recurrence of images of senescence in William Shakespeare's sonnets, or the irreality of closure in Toni Morrison's novels, or the rhythm of repetition in William Faulkner's fiction. The field of literary criticism is a growth industry, its latest paradigm shift related to global transformations brought on by the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. Regarding its susceptibility to change, then, the critical field offers a good example of centrifugal movement.

Literary criticism had rather complicated beginnings, apparently unrelated to the project of literary study. Richard Ohmann argues in English in America: A Radical View of the Profession that the "technology of the Industrial Revolution gave knowledge a new and central place in the business of making a living" (p. 264; emphasis added). The modern American university is dynamically linked to the centrality of knowledge, "the regularizing of technical innovation, and the bending of knowledge to profit" (p. 266). An older technological model, with industries localized in the domestic sphere and skills transmitted from generation to generation, through hands-on experience, was displaced onto the site of the factory, which brought the worker together with the organizational talent of the manager and the stochastic innovations of the entrepreneur. As Ohmann explains, this new model required "a high concentration of special and theoretical knowledge, of the capacity to create more knowledge as needed, and of the managerial skill to bring this about." If these changes necessitated the systematization of knowledge, as well as its spread across "a large and diverse corps of people whose main work is generating, communicating, and developing ideas" (p. 271), then the modern university of the late nineteenth century would become fully complicit with the new social order and its growing market demands. The university would answer both the will and the imperative to knowledge and the demand for skills in an increasingly national population.

According to Ohmann, then, the humanistic project and its situation in the modern university springs from material grounds. Ohmann's work is subtitled "a radical view," playfully reinforced by the book's original cover collage, which superimposes the facial images of Edgar Allan Poe and Karl Marx. The graphic conveys the interarticulations of the aesthetic and materialist realms, and poses the conditions by which it is possible to understand not only the role of the university and the ascent of ideas in a market economy, but also the specific performances of criticism and theory. Not at all an oppositional movement to a "business civilization," the view usually taken by humanists, the "business" of the English department, for Ohmann, is compatible with the rationalizations of the "technostructure" and owes its prosperity to that structure's interventions.

Terry Eagleton pursues the provenance of literary criticism and theory back to the "rise of English" and the modern sense of literature that emerged with the English Romantics of the nineteenth century. A counterweight to the alienation of workers bred by the ravages of the industrial revolution, the literature of the Romantics "appears as one of the enclaves in which the creative values expunged from the face of English society by industrial capitalism can be celebrated and affirmed" (p. 19). The Romantics' "creative imagination" was enlisted on the side of the "intuitive, transcendental scope of the poetic mind" (p. 19) and marshaled in the interest of a "living criticism of those rationalist or empiricist ideologies enslaved to 'fact'"(p. 19). The literary work as a "mysterious organic unity" was opposed "to the fragmented individualism of the capitalist marketplace," and whereas the latter yields rational calculation, the former offers spontaneity. In time, the literary artifact would emerge "as an ideal model of human society itself" (p. 22).

Under the impact of scientific development and the related decline of religious sentiment, literature became in this context a decisive moral and aesthetic regimen: according to one of Eagleton's sources, English literature would in time be solicited "'to save our souls and heal the State'" (p. 23). From Matthew Arnold on, "English," in a period of religious decline, "is constructed as a subject to carry the ideological freight of social cohesion" (p. 24). The "poor man's Classics," English literature marked the route to a liberal, humanizing education, first institutionalized as an academic course of study in unexpected venues—not in England's great universities, Eagleton contends, but in the "Mechanics' Institutes, working men's colleges and extension lecturing circuits" (p. 27). Installed in the British curriculum during the final quarter of the nineteenth century, English literary studies commenced as a "subject fit for women, workers, [and, given England's colonial project] those wishing to impress the natives" (p. 29).

Though Eagleton's and Ohmann's respective accounts of the development of English critical studies are contrastive, what they have in common is the attempt to put in perspective the relationship between manifestations of the creative and imaginative impulses as curricular objects and the material and political bases on which the former are predicated. Not some glorious abstraction, English, which will become the place of habitation of literary criticism and theory, belongs, one way or another, to the industrial phase of capital. Either as a preserve of creative values or as an elaboration of a radically transformed scene of labor, English in the twentieth century would supersede the old, time-honored trivium of the curricula of the Middle Ages—grammar, logic, and rhetoric.

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