- Interpretation and Social Criticism, and: The Company of Critics: Social Criticism and Political Commitment in the Twentieth Century (review)
- Philosophy and Literature
- Johns Hopkins University Press
- Volume 14, Number 1, April 1990
- pp. 142-156
- View Citation
- Additional Information
Interpretation and Social Criticism, by Michael Walzer ; viii and 96 pp. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987, $12.50. The Company of Critics: Social Criticism and Political Commitment in the Twentieth Century, by Michael Walzer; xii and 260 pp. New York: Basic Books, 1988, $19.95. Discussed by Philippe Desan Although these two books do not specifically address the issue of literary criticism, they nonetheless raise important questions about the practice of interpretation in general, particularly about the place ofthe critic in the social structure and the system ofinterpretation. Criticism, whatever its bearing (literature or revolution), is inevitably bound to its social and political context. From Socrates to Breytenbach, the critic has never been able to escape the implications of his or her own intellectual activity. These are, of course, extreme cases; in the world of literary criticism, such critical consequences are obviously less serious, but they are nevertheless important. Literary criticism is not a harmless occupation: it can shape, redefine, or perpetuate ideology, and usually does so unconsciously. In the late 1920s Julien Benda addressed the problem of what he called the treason of the intellectuals. At that time the question was to determine to what extent (if at all) intellectuals should become involved in or even reflect upon contemporary political events. Although it was certainly not a new issue, such questions continued to produce a large 142 Philippe Desan143 literature through the mid-1970s. The Algerian war and then the Vietnam quagmire gave new vigor to the partisans of both sides, and the involvement of intellectuals has remained until recendy a controversial and much-debated topic. However, perhaps because the 1980s were a time of relative social stability both in Europe and in the United States few intellectuals ask themselves the same question today. But the ideological position of the critic within society continues to be more problematic than ever. Walzer's books take a new look at understanding the relation between the critic and society. Walzer's basic postulate, that all critical activity is always undertaken within the ideological framework of a moral philosophy, is still frequendy ignored by contemporary literary critics. Whatever the place occupied by the critic on the social and political scene, he or she will always speak from a place of value. This place of value can be carefully chosen or totally arbitrary, but it is always loaded with political values. It is also important to add that all thought L· ideological thought. Critical objectivity is a myth and interpretation either produces new moralvalues or reinforces old ones, all values themselves being the result of political choice (not choosing is also a choice, the same way as not voting is voting for the majority). Moral values, however, or even the consciousness of their existence, are rarely taken into consideration by those doing literary criticism. Too often critics tend to hide behind the aesthetic aura of the object they have in front of them. Poetics seem to have replaced politics, and critics withdraw into their own jargon. Form has replaced content: the way we say things counts more than what we have to say. Consequently, today there is an urgent necessity to place the critical act within a sociology of knowledge that will enable us to bring to the surface the ideological connections among the practitioner (the critic), his historically determined activity (criticism), and the object to be interpreted (society or the text). It goes without saying that such a dialectic reasserts the importance of the context of interpretation. What do we mean when we assert that all critical practice presupposes a sociology of knowledge? First, we assume that the critic has a certain level of political awareness, that he knows from where and to whom he speaks. There exists a determinate relationship between knowledge (including interpretation) and the social structure in which knowledge is sought, construed, and diffused. A displacement from the text (society ) to the critic is essential when one considers the critical moment. Attributing too much importance to the text and forgetting this critical 144Philosophy and Literature moment are clear symptoms of the false consciousness that has crept relendessly into what has slowly become the "institution of modern criticism." Walzer is right...