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Joseph North, Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2017), 272 pp.:

Joseph North, Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2017), 272 pp.

“Hitherto,” Joseph North concludes the introduction to his history of literary criticism, “literary scholars on the left have tried merely to interpret the world. We are now entering a new situation. Might there not be a case for a systematic attempt to change it?” (20). The specter of Marx’s 11th thesis on Feuerbach haunts, we might say, North’s book. He has dubbed it a “concise political history of literary criticism,” and we need to take the “political” to have a double-meaning here at least: it is a history of the discipline with an eye to its politics, ever informed by the social situation in which it was continually reproduced over nearly a century now; but it is also a book that is itself deeply political, invested in—if at times curiously reticent about the contours of—a “programmatic commitment, not just to analyzing and describing the culture, but to taking action to change it” (18). Between the two aims of a distanced if certainly not disinterested history of the development of literary criticism (a term with a very concrete definition and history in North’s book) as the major activity in what disciplinarily is literary studies in the Anglophone university and a fundamental call for change, Literary Criticism is frustrating, utterly absorbing, revelatory, and inspiring in equal measures.

As a matter of writing history, North traces a trajectory of literary criticism which he believes brings “into focus the basic paradigms that have determined the development of Anglo-American literary studies throughout its history,” taking as his stations scholars and critics who serve best to exemplify those paradigms—“convenient emblems,” as he says (ix). North offers a tripartite schematic for the last century of literary criticism: the first, from about 1920 to about 1950, introduces what he calls the “critical revolution”—I. A. Richards’s “practical criticism”—and its cooptation by the right—the Southern agrarian New Critics and British conservatives such as F. R. Leavis. The second, in the middle of the twentieth century, he dubs the “scholarly turn,” for which he reads Raymond Williams as emblematic. And the third, the “historicist/contextualist paradigm”—for which names such Fredric Jameson, Stephen Greenblatt, and Franco Moretti must stand—with origins in the 1970s and which continues to dominate the discipline today. Each of these epochs of criticism fill a chapter; a fourth and the conclusion are devoted to what North understands as “critically unconscious” efforts to go beyond the h/c (North’s convenient, and hereby adopted, shorthand) paradigm as well as his own argument for where the discipline of literary studies is at, and what it can do in the future.

North’s history is already a challenge to received wisdom. It recovers the distinction between the methodologically similar but philosophically profoundly different efforts of Richards and the New Critics, thus offering an alternative heritage to the discipline. It also offers a fundamental reappraisal of the historical moment of the current critical paradigm. Rather than understanding the h/c paradigm—or, as the current debate has it, critique—not just as fundamentally misunderstanding both its own roots and as failing in its ostensible political task (a criticism which would be powerful enough in its own right), North suggests its rootedness in a defensive response to the neoliberal encroachment and then takeover of the university system, not to mention the world at large: a move, in other words, symptomatic of, and barely in meaningful resistance to, the socioeconomic conditions of its time. The move from criticism, which North, from Richards, takes to be both diagnostic and activist, an act of aesthetic education in service of making better people, to historicizing scholarship then becomes a history of the abdication of any capacity to act in the world. Instead of reading, in other words, literature departments’ general leftist slant as a small victory against neoliberalism, North suggests that they have, in many ways, become coopted. While the “making of political claims for our own work” has become a “necessary requirement for advancement,” “radical political praxis” has become eliminated (93).

This, we might say, is the book’s historical strand: an exploration of the political investments of a discipline and a reading of its stages against the background of their times, a historicization, in other words. The other, North’s own political strand, is woven into this historical narrative through North’s insistence on the importance of the aesthetic, and his quest to recuperate, if within limits, literary criticism and its earliest commitments. It is this aspect of North’s book that is the most inspiring and most frustrating. North’s narrative about the shifting valences of the aesthetic in literary criticism—or more properly, the shifting importance of literary criticism in the paradigms of the discipline of literary studies, given North’s insistence that literary criticism is necessarily an aesthetic practice—becomes something of a narrative of misunderstanding.

In North’s telling, I. A. Richards founded literary criticism on the basis of an instrumental, indeed a materialist aesthetics; he cites Richards approvingly as suggesting that it is “less important to like ‘good’ poetry and dislike ‘bad,’ than to be able to use them both as a means of ordering our minds” (qtd. on 29). Rather than subscribing—indeed, vociferously critical of—a Kantian notion of the aesthetic realm as somehow separate from the everyday, Richards held that the experience of art was continuous with everyday experiences. What art offers, according to Richards, is a reduction of these experiences to those that “seem [to the artist] most worth having;” and he averred that the artist was for various psychological reasons “most likely to have experiences of value to record.”1 For Richards, aesthetic education was—besides cultural diagnosis—the chief aim of literary criticism: its purpose was to provide what, complicatedly, he held to be the production and recognition of “value,” of access to the best possible life—nothing less.

Richards remains a repeated touchstone throughout. Not, as North insists, because he wants us to return to Richards precisely, but because—I’m adopting Francis Mulhern’s phrasing here—Richards is the “moral heart of North’s argument.”2 After Richards, North argues, critics first abandoned the notion that there exists no separate realm for aesthetics, and returned, in the New Critics, to the Kantian idealism Richards renounced, and then, subsequently, understood aesthetic questions as themselves reactionary, reflective of the New Critics conservative politics. Where Richards’s literary criticism had stood for both cultural diagnosis and aesthetic education, today’s literary criticism retains only the cultural diagnosis, having lost any interest in the aesthetic in response to the New Criticism, and any pretense to educating the public in the deep entrenchment of literary studies in the university in the wake of neoliberalism. The final chapter of North’s study is concerned with the various attempts at striving for a new paradigm against the severe limitations which the discipline thus faces—a striving for which North sees Isobel Armstrong, D. A. Miller, Lauren Berlant, and Wai-Chee Dimock as “emblematic,” in various ways. Such a new paradigm is as yet unavailable. “What we are looking at,” he says, “is a richly preparadigmatic scene of local innovations, each frustrated by specific elements of the dominant paradigm, but as yet unable to achieve a synthesis that would give expression to all their frustrations in a unitary and thus determinative way” (126).

On a superficial level, North is quite clear about what these efforts should lead to: “what we want, in a word, is criticism” (194); but the shape of that criticism remains somewhat obscure. It is not Richards’s criticism as such: rather, it is to “recover some of the promise of the early critical paradigm” (48), the useful combination of aesthetic education and cultural diagnosis that he sees at work in Richards. But after readers have found themselves nodding along, as I have, to the general tenor of the argument (Resist mere diagnosis! Act on the world!), things become more problematical. North does not offer an answer, at least not categorically, to what the relationship is precisely between whatever new paradigm will resuscitate literary studies, a “criticism still to come” (179) as he has it at one point, and the older literary criticism he champions. North’s enumeration of attempts to sketch a way out of the h/c paradigm has programmatic titles for the three subsets he identifies—“pendulums,” “intimations,” “expansions,” which name moves “back” to form and aesthetics, moves into affect and a positive sense of hermeneutics, moves to the transnational and the long durée. He suggests that what these efforts share is that “the real investment has been in the breakout itself, rather than in any specific proposal about what we would do if we were free” of the h/c paradigm (185). Lingering behind this bird’s-eye view of the discipline is, however, the notion that something key—the aesthetic dimension of literary criticism—has gone lost over the decades. “As we have seen, the narrowness of our existing framing is a consequence of the turn to scholarship” (188)—rather than criticism, with its in-built attention to the aesthetic education of people: “an active attempt to use literature as a tool of aesthetic education in the service of broader cultural change” (35), as North notes.3

And here is where the book is at its most frustrating. It is not so much that North does not offer up a ready-make paradigm to pick up and use, of course; rather, what is frustrating is that North’s own thoughts remain within unclarified categories with no immediate purchase: or, in simple terms, having read North’s book, one remains unsure what “a genuinely radical form of the critical paradigm” (211) would actually look like in practice, what it would do, and what one would do it with. Key to this criticism is the way in which the study grounds literary criticism historically in materialist aesthetics, bemoans the loss of the critical aspect of literary studies in the increasingly contextualizing paradigms of later years, and in no uncertain terms desires a return to a public mission founded on the aesthetic education for literary studies—but finally does not give a good answer on what that elusive “aesthetic” should be, and perhaps more importantly, why it should be confined practically to literary studies. As North opens the book, the aesthetic is “understood in a range of widely different senses” (2), but even an enumeration of these senses would have helped. North certainly realizes this: at several points in the text, the idea of “aesthetic education” as the central issue for literary criticism comes in for quasi-explanation, such as when he parses it as “an attempt to enrich culture directly by cultivating new ranges of sensibility, new modes of subjectivity, new capacities for experience-using works of literature as a means.” These “terms cry out for elaboration” (6), as he rightly notes, but readers hoping to obtain such elaboration in his book are in for a disappointment.

What is at stake here, I think, is well within the ambit of a “political history”: it is nothing less than the objects—rather than the aims—of literary studies, the things we actually read and discuss. I. A. Richards, of course, made Practical Criticism a study of responses to poetry—a great variety of poetry, not all of which makes the cut of being “high literary” to be sure, but nonetheless poetry: a form which appears far more amenable to be read in whatever your conception of an aesthetic education is than, say, Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code. The “common experiential resources of the culture at large” (177) that North implicates in aesthetic subject formation of the kind Richards proposed (and which North sees at work, too, in recent affect theory work from Berlant to Ngai), however, are more likely to be Dan Brown than Claudia Rankine, and even more likely not literary at all (as Ngai’s Our Aesthetic Categories indicates, or any reasonably open-minded look at culture at large).4 But even if we hold that literature occupies a privileged place in the cultural space: what kinds of literature are we reading, then, and how? North defends Richards at one point against charges of elitism with the quote about good and bad poetry I have offered above; but his reading of Richards notwithstanding, he shortchanges Richards’s very real insistence on the critic’s role in judging value: “to set up as a critic is to set up as a judge of values.”5 Likewise, we should not miss that the examples which North uses in the later part of the book as potential “countercurrents” (211) on the way to a new paradigm for literary studies are themselves heavily invested in canonic literature: D. A. Miller’s Jane Austen, which North reads as grappling with the question of the critic’s affective relation with the text, is about Jane Austen—not Dan Brown. If we recall Richards’s insistence that the artist has privileged access to the best of experiences, it appears clear that Richards, at least, holds the critic to be a gatekeeper still: someone who, while she will prefer reading bad poetry and profiting morally from it, would nonetheless also not refuse the distinction between good and bad poetry, but would simply shift the emphasis: good poetry is not good in an autonomous sense, but poetry that most lends itself to improvement; but it would still be, elusively, art. What’s entailed in this is nothing less than the question of what the canon of a new literary criticism should be, or if there will be one: what we will “cultivate new subjectivities and collectivities, in the service of wider cultural, political, or more deeply social change” with (209). The poetry which I. A. Richards favored? The recognized “classics” of the traditional literary canon? Any kind of text, as long as it can, in any way, be made to cultivate new, better subjectivities? North does not answer, or even ask, those questions, and yet, given where he is coming from, they seem if not crucial at least somewhat willfully omitted. The absence of a discussion of the literary works which literary criticism, revivified, would discuss—or, more precisely, a discussion of the political stakes raised by the development of a canon for such a new literary criticism, a canon which appears a necessary by-product of North’s often-casual invocation of “the literary” (194) as the object of literary studies—is not crippling, of course: but it is, as I have noted, frustrating. Again, the point here is not so much to bemoan that North does not offer us a concrete version of the future of literary studies, which would be asking way too much and clearly exceed the scope of his book’s purpose anyway, as it is to regret the fact that crucial terms in his reflections remain cyphers.

At one point, North calls his history “ruthless” (213), in another echo of Marx, and it is a surprisingly apt term. Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History holds no punches, and takes no one by the hand to walk them slowly through its argument. If this is, as I have just noted, at times frustrating, it is also bracing, invigorating, and timely. If the specter of a radical disciplinary change haunts North’s book, then like Marx and Engel’s specter of communism, it’s just not going to come to pass, or at least it cannot be willed into being: as North realizes—this being, after all, an account vested in historical materialism—the future of the discipline is also the “question of the character of the coming social order” (197). And so, North ends on the realization that whatever will happen to literary studies will, in considerable part, be tied to what happens in the world at large. North’s version of literary studies’ history reorients us: away from sitting on the sidelines in the post-neoliberal interregnum and towards the realization that it really is not enough to interpret the world, by touching base with the discipline’s origins as potential source of practice. North’s charge on us for the coming social order, that the “broader aim would be to secure a viable site within the social order from which to work at criticism in the genuinely oppositional sense” (211), leaves the particulars of this opposition, of the work of producing a site for it, and most importantly the outlines of what criticism would be in the twenty-first century in abeyance. Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History offers an exhilarating, sweeping, and hopeful narrative of literary studies’ pasts and possible futures. Anyone who wants to do literary studies in the coming years must read it.

Tim Lanzendörfer (Mainz)


[1] I. A. Richards, Principles of Literary Criticism (1924; London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970) 46.

[2]  Francis Mulhern, “Critical Revolutions.” New Left Review 110 (2018): 39-54; 41.

[3] And here I am reminded of the protagonist of Julie Schumacher’s two recent campus novels, English professor Jason Fliegler, who, at fifty-something, should be very much of the generation bread into the historicist-contextualist paradigm. Fliegler is, however, an unabashed humanist, writing at one point that “the pursuit of the ineffable via aesthetics in various forms has saved as many foundering souls as a belief in god” (Dear, 143). Fliegler’s quote encapsulates the Richardsian ethos that North would like to see resuscitated; but that he can plausibly do so is because he is, foremost, a creative writer, rather than a professor of English; and that he is the protagonist of Schumacher’s novel, rather than, say, an avatar of Fredric Jameson, may have to do with the stereotype of the English Department as still embodying a donnish high cultural. It is certainly funnier than the actual work of English Departments. Schumacher, in other words, registers a disjoint in what we take English Departments to be like and what they are like, and thus makes her protagonist a plausible version of a humanist in an English Department. See Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members (New York: Harper, 2014), and The Shakespeare Requirement (New York: Doubleday, 2018).

[4]  Sianne Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2012).

[5]  Richards 46.

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