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"Our criticism has failed because it has no hold on what is important in our lives today," declares Tobin Siebers in Cold War Criticism and the Politics of Skepticism. "It is antiliterature. It is antipolitical and antiethical as well. It has no present. It therefore has no future. It belongs in the past, and to the past we should abandon it." Siebers' book is a true polemic, alternately passionate and grumpy, incisive and querulous.
Siebers' argument is that modern criticism is dogged by a skepticism that "oppos[es] thought to itself" and is "parasitic" upon belief. The root cause of this skepticism has been the prevalence of the "cold war effect," that is, a distrust of "endings, intentions, interpretations . . . and claims to truth or falsehood": the "state requires skepticism," and "skepticism in turn preserves the state." The "post" in postmodernism and poststructuralism, Siebers claims, is fundamentally "post"-war.
Siebers weaves a number of prominent modern critics and critical movements into his argument. The New Criticism of Wimsatt and Beardsley, the deconstruction of Geoffrey Hartman, and the New Historicism of Stephen Greenblatt are read as exemplifications of different phases of the "cold war effect," ranging from the age of "strong leaders" to that of "propaganda" to that of "superpowers." Paul de Man's "pure rhetoric" is seen as "the ultimate creation of philosophical skepticism because it conceives of the meanings with which human beings must live as alien to those same human beings." Recent theoretical approaches that stress "the politics of the politics of interpretation"—such as Jane Tompkins' argument that canon is a function of power—are castigated for their interpretive barrenness and consequent vitiation of pedagogy. Only Hannah Arendt's insistence upon narrating the particular story of Adolph Eichmann, and her refusal to collapse his tale into a generalized—that is, "theoretical"—condemnation of Nazism, is held up as a critical move that is genuinely interpretive, and hence genuinely moral and political. Without interpretation, authentic engagement with literature is impossible; but interpretation is what cold war-induced skepticism disallows.
At his best Siebers is very good indeed. His reading of Wimsatt's and Beardsley's famous "The Affective Fallacy" brilliantly demonstrates the [End Page 446] essay to be grounded in a highly militarized rhetoric revealing deep-seated fear of the persuasive powers of charismatic leaders: the New Critical enshrinement of ambiguity and paradox is richly historicized. Similarly, Siebers' comments on the similarities between Greenblatt's theater and Reaganomics—both "attempt[ing] to take government off the backs of the people" and "deregulat[ing] the system as it has existed"—effectively expose conservative ideological underpinnings of the New Historicism that often go unnoticed.
Like many broadside polemicists, however, Siebers leaves his flank exposed. His argument about the cold-war origins of modern critical skepticism is, for one thing, overstretched. While valid as a means to understanding certain critics and critical schools, it does little to illuminate a figure like de Man, upon the rock of whose pro-Nazi wartime writings Siebers's thesis founders. It does even less to account for a critic like Tompkins, whose skepticism about the politics of literary value surely has more complex historical and political sources than the cold war. Siebers correctly points out the narcissism, sterility and irrelevance of much that has recently paraded itself as "theory." But he ignores the grounding of at least some contemporary critical approaches in the social movements of the sixties and early seventies, which produced a justified skepticism regarding not only the claims of business and government but also the supposed neutrality of the value systems—not least among these aesthetic value systems—by which business and government sustain themselves. To lump Tompkins's feminism with Wimsatt and Beardsley's flight into paradox is a serious distortion in cultural history.
Moreover, Siebers evinces a somewhat disturbing lack of self-consciousness regarding his own politics and falls prey to certain logical contradictions. The term "totalitarianism"—always counterposed, it should be noted, with "capitalism," as if the two are unrelated...