Literary Criticism, an Autopsy (review)
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Literary Criticism: An Autopsy, by Mark Bauerlein; xv & 156 pp. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997, $36.50.

This is not a book about literary criticism generally. It is not about what probably still goes on in most undergraduate classrooms (explication and appreciation). It is also not about what Johnson, Arnold, Eliot, Wilson, Jarrell, Tynan, and Pritchett did, and Kazin, Bayley, Kermode, Said, Eagleton, and Shattuck do when they write for the educated public. It is about the most fashionable form of literary history, left academic-literary sociology (LALS). It is also not an autopsy, but attempted murder.

Bauerlein’s critique of LALS is carried out by analysing twenty-three concepts, projects, and “argumentative habits” (p. 35); they are: construction, cultural poetics, cultural studies, decisive assertions, deconstruction, discipline, discourse, essentialize, gender, ideology, -ing, interdisciplinary, literary criticism, problematize, the question of, radical, rethink, sociology of literature, theory, voice, and what so-and-so calls. While there are a couple of weak entries, Bauerlein’s analyses are generally astute and informative. One bristles (if one [End Page 523] does) at the terminology, and Bauerlein builds a foundation beneath the gut response. One has also wondered at the success of what seems so wrong-headed, and Bauerlein offers plausible accounts of the rhetorical work these terms do. He also gets the underlying imperative right: to pursue left-moralism in a professional-sounding way.

What I have labeled left-moralism Bauerlein calls, less precisely, “representation.” He illustrates what this means with an introductory anecdote. A colleague had asserted, “that the world has changed drastically in the last twenty years and that we should think about how we as a department and as individual scholars and teachers are going to represent those changes” (p. ix). This means, Bauerlein says, that “the English department and its members should represent the world and that this goal [is] not so much an institutional definition as an ethical obligation.”

Bauerlein’s main criticism is that the moral imperative has undermined disciplinary practices and norms, and his usual and most effective method is to offer a definition or description from the perspective of those who use a concept or engage in a practice, to discuss its implications, and then to show why, despite its incoherence or emptiness, it has persuasive force. Thus, Bauerlein begins the analysis of “discourse” by giving its standard meaning: “For a long time, the word ‘discourse’ signified any more or less organized body of writings and utterances sharing a basic referent” (p. 51) or “common content” (p. 52). “Then came Michel Foucault,” who gave it a new meaning. Now, “it was a historically developed and institutionally enacted method of control geared to the production of putatively real and normal things like facts, rationality, and subjects” (p. 52). Bauerlein explains the result of this change: “the term loses its abstract linguistic neutrality” and thus “critics escape the academic seclusion of the formal, structural study of language and broach sociohistorical processes” (p. 53). What Bauerlein shows through quotation is that in the hands of literary critics (not, let it be said, in Foucault’s) “the term ‘discourse’ retains some vestige of linguistic meaning, but it has gathered enough political meaning . . . to render detailed linguistic analysis unnecessary” (p. 54). “Discourse” is a label that tells one what to deplore and why.

Bauerlein’s analysis of “discourse” also illustrates his two main themes. First, wielding the proper moral credentials and the right terms now passes for criticism, and this “makes represented content displace disciplinary method as a standard of value” (p. xii). What was once “difficult and laborious” (p. 19) is now just a matter of making “decisive assertions” which resonate with moral judgment and culturally revolutionary potential. Thus, Judith Butler claims that “the female impersonator Divine’s performance in a John Waters film . . . destabilizes the very distinctions between the natural and the artificial, depth and surface, inner and outer through which discourse about gender almost always operates” (p. 36). One can test the absurdity of this by noting that if Butler had written “re-inforces through denial” instead of “destabilizes,” [End Page 524] no-one, including Butler, would have cared about the difference, as her...