A New Literary Criticism?

Literary Criticism: A Political Perspective (2017) by Joseph North

Today, I got one of the more interesting emails I’ve ever received from my good friend Eric McLuhan up in Toronto. (And, there’s been a lot of interesting emails from Eric over the years!) Eric was passing on an email sent to him by his son Andrew McLuhan. The link was to a brilliant review titled “Tokens of Ruined Method: Does Literary Studies Have A Future?” by Marco Roth, Editor of the journal N+1, a New York–based American literary magazine. The article reviews a new book published by Harvard University Press titled Literary Criticism: A Political Perspective (2017) by Yale professor Joseph North.

As noted on the Harvard University Press site, North notes since the turn to neoliberalism in the late 1970s, all the major movements within literary studies have been diagnostic rather than interventionist in character. For example, scholars have developed sophisticated techniques for analyzing culture, but they have retreated from systematic attempts to transform it. In this sense, current literary scholarship compares poorly with that of earlier critical modes. For all their faults, earlier literary criticism at least had a programmatic commitment to cultural change. North argues that neoliberalism is now in crisis and the creation of a genuinely interventionist (rather than analytical) criticism is one of the central tasks facing those on the Left of the discipline today.

Jonathan Culler at Cornell University observes that North shows “criticism’s best hope of bringing cultural change lies not with the historicist-contextualist critics who seek knowledge of cultures, but with the critics who seek the enhancement of the imaginative faculties of readers.” How did literary studies come to turn away from an “institutional program of aesthetic education” and embrace what he terms the “historicist/contextualist paradigm”?

Marco Roth in his N+1 review provides a brief version of the historicist/contextualist paradigm. “The vagaries of genre, style, and narrative make literature,” notes Roth, “a special record of resistant, oppressed, and marginal subjectivities. This is literature’s value. Sometimes the literary text excludes or hides these voices; sometimes, inadvertently or programmatically, it amplifies them. Research into the text’s period can disclose its latent or overt political meaning. The work of scholarship, or criticism (the conflation of the two is part of the problem North diagnoses), is therefore to show the encoding of specifically and exclusively political desires within and through literature.” Roth notes that North shows  most modern literary criticism links literature’s formal qualities to an analysis of power structures. “In effect,” Roth notes, “literary study is meant to produce a specific kind of knowledge about, or dialogue between, art and politics. Under the reign of historico-contextualism, literary study has merely become another means to learn about political or economic history.

IA Richards As A Young Literary Rebel

In Literary Criticism: A Political Perspective, North argues one of the ways out of the current problem in literary studies, to move forward to a literary criticism that seeks an enhancement of the imaginative facilities of readers, is a reconsideration of one of literary criticism’s foundational figures, I.A. Richards, the Cambridge-based proponent of “practical criticism.” The critic had a great influence on another literary critic, my friend Eric McLuhan’s father, Marshall McLuhan.

















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