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During the decades following the 1960s one widespread reaction against the New Criticism that had dominated American academic literary studies in the 1940s and 1950s was a recovery of critical allegiance to sociohistorical and political modes of inquiry, which were widely discredited in the immediate postwar years for nonliterary preoccupations. The environment from which a literary text emerged, including its anthropological, socioeconomic, political, and cultural determinants, received renewed scrutiny, as did the historical milieu of the text's reception by readers. Among those critics advocating a return to such inquiries were certain hermeneuticists, feminists, ethnic critics, reader-response theorists, Marxists, and poststructuralists. Of course, some New York intellectuals, myth critics, biographers, and literary historians had practiced sociohistorical and political criticism during the postwar period of relative eclipse. Although it is sometimes forgotten, the New Critics generally favored poetry over fiction, so that the attacks in the Sixties and thereafter against the New Critics entailed a self-conscious renewal of critical interest not simply in sociology, politics, and history but in fiction. However, such fiction was often "noncanonical," consisting both of popular genres by such disenfranchised groups of writers as women and blacks and of avant-garde texts by experimental scriptors. To generalize, forms of "cultural criticism" practiced in the wake of New Criticism revived interest in sociology, history, politics, fiction, and popular culture.
Not surprisingly, some practitioners of cultural criticism in the Space Age turned suspicious eyes on the institution of the university literature department for its proclivity to foster conformity, elitism, sexism, and racism. Propounded by cultural critics of varying stripes, attacks on the regnant institution and the reigning ideology of literary studies exhibited a more or less counter-cultural orientation as well as a penchant for institutional and ideological inquiry. It should come as no surprise that the broad critique of New Criticism implied a hostility to modernism frequently in favor of an emergent liberating postmodernism. After all, New Criticism was created by partisans of high modernism. Some enemies of New Criticism made their hostility to modernism explicit whereas others did not. Whatever the case, tensions simmered in literature departments into the immediate post-Vietnam era.
Among the critics associated with the emergence of new modes of postmodern cultural criticism in the 1970s and 1980s were the members of the boundary 2 group, particularly Jonathan Arac, Paul Bové, Daniel O'Hara, and William Spanos, all of whom served in editorial capacities for the journal during these decades. Whereas the work of the group in the 1970s depended fundamentally on lessons adapted from Martin Heidegger's phenomenological hermeneutics, its undertaking in the 1980s rested upon insights gleaned from Michel Foucault's genealogy of culture. The shift from Heidegger to Foucault as tutelary figure signaled a turn to interest in institutional and ideological analyses as part of a widened project, a project [End Page 319] of cultural criticism. In essence, a sociopolitical analytics was joined to a historicist hermeneutics, forming a mode of literary criticism having much in common with related contemporaneous leftist kinds of criticism, including neo-Marxism. As the leading members of the boundary 2 group moved progressively into practicing cultural critique, the enmity toward modernism, especially its critical offspring—New Criticism—displayed both an unrelenting hostile tone and a modulated historical understanding. These interests and directions of the group can be discerned in Jonathan Arac's Critical Genealogies: Historical Situations for Postmodern Literary Studies and Joseph Buttigieg's collection of essays from the group titled Criticism without Boundaries: Directions and Crosscurrents in Postmodern Critical Theory. In his Acknowledgments, Arac notes: "My greatest professional debt and pleasure is spread among the editorial group of boundary 2. . . ." In his Preface, Joseph Buttigieg explains that the essays in his volume were first delivered by nine intellectuals at a symposium in 1984 at which the "majority of...