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Literary Criticism - The New Criticism

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The New Criticism

In 1930 Harper and Brothers published I'll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition, by Twelve Southerners, which might be considered the central doctrinal statement of the Fugitives literary circle and advanced the names of some of the founding personalities of what became the New Criticism in the United States. John Crowe Ransom, whose New Criticism (1941) named the movement, the poet Allen Tate, the fiction writer Andrew Nelson Lytle, and the critic and fiction writer Robert Penn Warren, among others, contributed essays to this collection, and there is a good deal of justification to support the view that the New Criticism, running conceptually parallel to Russian formalism, did not exhaust itself for decades to come; if one concludes that "close reading," or concentration on the text of a literary work, constitutes a minimal condition for the performance or practice of literary criticism, then its strategies would be adaptable to all the "schools" of criticism. In other words what began as a value peculiar to a certain social formulation was transformed into standard operating procedure: the practitioner is no longer focused on "close reading," but does it automatically. Close reading is considered so "natural" a posture to the work of the critic that whatever else he or she might do with a conceptual object or "hermeneutic demand" is predicated on its facilities. Terry Eagleton argues that close reading involves both a "limiting" and a "focusing of concern"—both because it excises superfluities—considerations such as the length of Tennyson's beard, for example—and because it enforces, among other things, "the illusion that any piece of language … can be adequately studied or even understood in isolation" (p. 44). In any case, for some critics, close reading is an act of reification, or the treatment of the literary work "as an object in itself" (p. 44).

M. H. Abrams describes the autonomous object as a "heterocosm," or "second nature": it is "an end in itself, without reference to its possible effects on the thought, feeling, or conduct of its readers" (pp. 35, 327). If, as Eagleton suggests, the poetic object for the New Critics "became a spatial figure rather than a temporal process" (p. 48), then the texts that one associates with the heterocosm, "chartered" by the Coleridgean imagination, makes the critical process itself as demanding as the thing it is interpreting: irony, ambiguity, paradox, and ambivalence are highly valued poetic practices for the New Critics and will yield, in turn, an appreciation for textual "density" and "complexity" as the watchword of value. The idea is that the poem, in rendering disparate things to harmony, in Shelley's formulation, achieves a dynamic stillness among competing linguistic and imagistic elements.

That a poem could be imagined to body forth such a beautifully orchestrated outcome makes it the model of a perfected world, well out of reach then and now. But I'll Take My Stand sketches the social and political presuppositions against which some of the early New Critics were operating and how poetic perfection might have provided them with a strategy of retreat from the realm of realpolitik in an era of global depression. These southern intellectuals were on the cultural defensive, given the South's defeat in the Civil War; General Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox had occurred in 1865, only sixty-five years before the appearance of the manifesto. It is not difficult to imagine that the "political unconscious" of the "twelve southerners" could engage with, up close and personal, their own historical memory: Robert Penn Warren's contribution to the volume, "The Briar Patch," bristles with all the energy of revelation, illuminating Penn Warren's great anxiety—the industrial/technological transformations homing in on the South: "The chief problem for all alike [the Negro and the white] is the restoration of society at large to a balance and security which the industrial regime is far from promising to achieve" (p. 264). Although what appears to be nostalgia for the full range of social relations imagined as complementary to the "agrarian tradition" runs through the entire volume, the unsigned "statement of principles" (the introduction) could easily be read in concert with "The Briar Patch," or even anticipatory of it. Written in opposition to the "American industrial ideal," I'll Take My Stand argues boldly in its introduction that the "capitalization of the applied sciences has now become extravagant and uncritical; it has enslaved our human energies to a degree now clearly felt to be burdensome" (p. xi). Labor relations in this new order also fall under the microscope, as do the new means of production: "The act of labor as one of the happy functions of human life has been in effect abandoned, and is practiced solely for its rewards" (p. xiii). Just so, the apologists for industrialism "have been obliged to admit that some economic evils follow in the wake of the machines," yet the remedies that they propose "are always homeopathic," insofar as they "expect the evils to disappear when we have bigger and better machines, and more of them" (p. xiii).

A series of consequences follow from the new relations, and a crucial number of them point toward the cultural indices: "We receive the illusion of having power over nature, and lose the sense of nature as something mysterious and contingent" (p. xiv). If the delicate balance between humans and nature has been upset by the "machine in the garden," then it follows that for the Fugitives, art, as well as religion, is dependent on "a right attitude to nature" (p. xv). "Neither the creation nor the understanding of works of art is possible in an industrial age except by some local and unlikely suspension of the industrial drive" (p. xv). "Under the curse of a strictly-business or industrial civilization," life's amenities "suffer." Furthermore, a community must find a way to extricate itself from the toils of industrialism, the "evil dispensation," as the failure to do so is not only the mark of pusillanimity, but the loss of political genius and the embrace of impotence (p. xx). Despite themselves, context insistently bore down on the New Critics, although, surprisingly, some of them would be keenly attuned to it: "We cannot recover our native humanism by adopting some standard of taste that is critical enough to question the contemporary arts but not critical enough to question the social and economic life which is their ground" (p. xvi).

Bill Readings argues that F. R. Leavis in England and the New Critics in the United States would have "an enormous impact on the educational system" transatlantically (p. 84). According to Readings, the radical claim "for the benefits of literary scholarship was accompanied by a massive attention to the training of secondary school teachers who went out from the University entrusted with a sense of their mission to uphold literary culture" (p. 84). The impact of the new literary scholarship was hardly limited to teacher training, but profoundly altered the exercise of reading by removing the tasks of evaluation and canon-making from the precincts of common sense; in other words, pronouncements on the modern text—the poetry of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, the fiction of James Joyce, for example—would become the vocation of the professional critic, who would read literary passages not only against the context of the text in which it was embedded, but with attention to the "total context provided by the [author's] work" (Brooks and Warren, p. 1616). Because criticism would become the province of the professionally trained, canonicity and how to determine the canonical would take on capital significance for American criticism. Readings contends that the New Criticism generated disagreement about the canon precisely because the latter was, in fact, "the surreptitious smuggling of historical continuity into the study of supposedly discrete and autonomous artworks" (p. 84; emphasis added). The New Criticism brought to fruition a development that quite probably began with the proliferation of "little magazines"—Harriet Monroe's Poetry, which Venture launched in 1912, became a promoter of modern poetry—and the culture of literary salons on both sides of the Atlantic, flourishing as early as the 1910s. The artistic entrepreneurial spirit of Bloomsbury, the London intellectual circle dominated by Leonard and Virginia Woolf, as well as the intense collaborative energy central to some literary masterworks, such as Eliot's Waste Land (1922), strongly shaped by Pound, prepared the basis of reception for the very notion of the art work as autonomous. In fact, the stirrings across the range of the "seven arts"—in literature, painting, music, modern dance, drama and the stage, photography, and the new kid on the block, cinema, all heralded the heady transformation and new persuasions at work. For poetry and literary criticism, the New Critics would give the impulse a name: modernism.

Formalism and Beyond.

It might come as a matter of surprise for some readers that according to Lee Lemon and Marion J. Reis, "During the 1920s a group of Russian critics urged the separation of literature and politics [which] challenges our popular clichés about Soviet control of literary theory" (p. ix). In their succinct account of Russian formalist criticism, Lemon and Reis go on to observe that the early work of the Russian formalists and the America New Critics demonstrated certain concepts and strategies in common, among them: (1) "an attack against traditional academic scholarship"; (2) a critical theory that drives a corridor between literature and other disciplines of the human sciences, such as history, philosophy, and sociology; and (3) a strategy of literary investigation that would advance the "analysis of structure" in the place of discourse about "background, social usefulness, or intellectual content" (p. x). Literary critical performance would later annul the breach with related disciplines, not so much by "going over" to them, but by "translating" their content, in effect, into literary values and analogues, as is the case with poststructuralism, which gained ground from the 1970s on. But the isolation of structure, beginning with the formalists and the New Critics, enables the emergence of a conceptual object that gains a precision of focus comparable to the scientific object.

The wedding of formalism and the New Criticism, never officially pronounced as such, provided a merger called "formalism" that dominated literary study on both sides of the Atlantic from the 1930s through the late 1960s. The aims of this prolific period of theorization are perhaps most poignantly captured in the titles of certain works that attempt to configure literary study as a "system"—René Wellek and Austin Warren's Theory of Literature (1942) and Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism (1957), for example. More pointed investigations in genre theory—the meaning of poetry, the development of the novel and short story, studies in allegorical, symbolic, and mythic modes, as well as inquiries into the "grammar of motives," the "rhetoric of motives," and the "philosophy" of literary form—all mark this period as one of the most distinct and distinguished chapters in the history of the modern humanities, but they also help to establish the foundations of what was referred to earlier as a centrifugal movement in literary study. In other words, formalism brings about the institutionalization of the study of literature and language, both in the academy and in the marketplace of ideas. But it also opens onto the possibilities of a broader application of literary method across the universe of signs. The not entirely playful or lighthearted complaint from scholars outside the field that personnel in English believe that they can "read" anything is not exactly misplaced; there is an ascendant logic operative here that grants primacy to the word/words. If the Russian formalists, as early as the period of the Russian Revolution, had been influenced by the enormous impact of the science of modern linguistics—primarily by way of Roman Jakobson—then the "structuralist turn," via Parisian intellectual circles, would integrate linguistic method and ideas into new systems of thought.

It would appear to the graduate student in English in 1968 that something quite astonishing was happening on the ground. Change was in the air and coming from a number of different directions, not the least of them political. The ramifications of those changes—the presence of larger numbers of minorities and women, on faculties and in student bodies, at American colleges and universities, as well as the commencement of "multiculturalism" as a mode of scholarly study and address—would reverberate right through the contemporary period. The year 1968 might be regarded as a time of rupture, on the one hand, brought on by the transatlantic youth movement (in the United States, the Vietnam War protest movement ran parallel to the black nationalist movement and the continuation of the civil rights struggle, while in Europe, particularly in the big cities, students, demanding transformation in the educational system and allied with Labor, especially in the French instance, threatened political order). On the other hand, the literary object, destabilized by a reinvigorated debate on the canon, would seem to displace continuity with formalist and neoformalist persuasions onto questions that had not been asked before, such as How does one read as a woman, or a black person, or a post-colonial subject? Though it appears from the vantage of the early twenty-first century that these transformations occurred all at once, it is fair to say that they systematically unfolded over the last three decades of the twentieth century, falling out in a kind of domino pattern. As new legislation had been required to reinforce equal protection for minorities in public accommodations and at the ballot box, rights initially secured by the "citizenship" amendments (the Fourteenth, Fifteenth, and Sixteenth Amendments) to the U.S. Constitution, gender equality in access to higher education followed by legislative mandate. The entire panoply of multicultural occasions swam in its wake. While it would be appropriate to regard the 1960s protest movements in light of global development subsequent to the end of World War II, the isolation of intellectual currents in this sea of change is instructive.

Just as John Crowe Ransom's New Criticism in 1941 heralded a paradigm shift that had been well under way for at least two decades, Richard Macksey and Eugenio Donato's The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man: The Structuralist Controversy (1971), which introduced to an English-speaking scholarly audience many of the themes that would come to dominate critical inquiry for the next few decades, pointed to a radical shift in the humanities repertoire. Macksey and Donato's table of contents contains the names of many of the major continental thinkers whose projects would model the new scholarship, from René Girard, Georges Poulet, and Lucien Goldmann to Roland Barthes, Tzvetan Todorov, Jacques Lacan, and Jacques Derrida. Though the volume was not published, originally, until 1971, the event that engendered it had taken place during the fall of 1966 at the Humanities Center of the Johns Hopkins University. Supported by a grant from the Ford Foundation, this international symposium brought together more than one hundred humanists and social scientists from the United States and eight other nations. According to Macksey and Donato, the symposium initiated "a two-year program of seminars and colloquia which sought to explore the impact of contemporary 'structuralist' thought on critical methods in humanistic and social studies" (p. xv). The purpose of the symposium was not to consolidate an orthodox view on structuralist method and thinking, but, rather, "to bring into an active and not uncritical contact leading European proponents of structural studies in a variety of disciplines with a wide spectrum of American scholars" (p. xv). The 1966 convocation marked a turning point in the way that literary studies would be configured, and it also enabled the interdisciplinary extension of the latter in the direction of "cultural studies."

Perhaps the single most radical mark of the "structuralist turn" is the "death" of the subject, which opened the way to critical practices, deconstruction prominent among them, in the contemporary era. But the fate of the subject might be thought of as the consequences, or end results, of a series of premises that begin with the concept of "system," which Culler describes as "behind the event, the constitutive conventions behind any individual act" (1975, p. 30). If the prestige and success of the science of linguistics had had an enormous impact on literary study, then it would find application to other cultural and material phenomena on two fundamental grounds: First, cultural phenomena are constituted of objects and events that are riddled with meaning. Such events are, therefore, signs, and signs, as Ferdinand de Saussure (one of the preeminent founders of modern linguistics) contended, are made up of signifiers (auditory images that match a concept) and signifieds (strings of signifiers that yield meaning). Because cultural phenomena behave like language in yielding meaning, one can, then, in Culler's words, "investigate the system of relations that enables meaning to be produced" (p. 4). The science of signs, or semiology, was therefore enabled by the insights of linguistics. Second, the event in question is not only rule bound, but its rules cohere in an entire ensemble of relations: According to Culler, "Rules … do not regulate behavior so much as create the possibility of particular forms of behavior" (p. 5). The best example, interestingly enough, comes out of lived experience: the English speaker has unconsciously mastered a host of complex operations called language competence; but the utterances that she will speak over a lifetime do not exhaust the possibilities of sentence formation in the English language (or any other), nor do such utterances even use up the potential formations that this individual speaker could generate. Following on the distinction between la langue ("a system, an institution, a set of interpersonal rules and norms") and la parole ("the actual manifestations of the system in speech and writing"), structuralism was able to posit systematicity across the universe of signs, from fashion modes and food consumption to the conduct of poems, novels, and films (Culler, 1975, p. 8). By investigating the rules behind material manifestations and events and what ensemble of relations they were configured in, the structuralist, at least in theory, could reconstruct how things come to mean.

When the French theorist Michel Foucault argued the "death" of "Man," or his "end," he was not talking about a nuclear holocaust, but, rather, the displacement of an anthropomorphic centrality onto theories of the constructed character of human and social events; in other words, the human subject, though events pass through him and have meaning for him by way of institutional and conventional practices, is not the autonomous being that Hegelian metaphysics had posited; he is instead the outcome of cultural forces and processes not only beyond his control, but beyond his knowledge. The radical nature of this proposition is perhaps most poignantly demonstrable in language itself: As Culler attests, "Individuals choose when to speak and what to say … but these acts are made possible by a series of systems which the subject does not control" (1975, p. 29). Therefore, "I" do not speak so much as "I" am "spoken," or enter into a system of human and social relations on which the individual "I" is entirely dependent. When these influences are juxtaposed with the innovations of Sigmund Freud and psychoanalytic practice and theorization in the wake of Freud's Interpretation of Dreams (1900) and its revelation of the symptom in dreams and the neurosis, then we reach the Lacanian synthesis of psychoanalysis, heavily influenced by structuralist thought. In the Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-analysis, Jacques Lacan would assert that the unconscious (the privileged site of the Freudian mental theater) is "structured like a language" (p. 20). Moreover, even "before strictly human relations are established, certain relations have already been determined" (p. 20). Lacan calls these preestablished or prior relations "supports," offered by nature and "arranged in themes of opposition."

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