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The Function of Agon at the Present Time

From: The Comparatist
Volume 37, May 2013
pp. 5-20 | 10.1353/com.2013.0024

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

The Function of Agon at the Present Time

Our antagonist is our helper.

Edmund Burke

In this essay I want to take up the important principle of agon in relation to how we conceptualize world literature and articulate a literary criticism adequate to it.

I am particularly concerned to reconfigure the appropriateness of scale to such endeavor in part because scale can reveal the parameters of world literature at its most agonistic. Yet I also want to frame such discussion with a reconsideration of the function of criticism itself whose own logics of engagement are clearly at stake in world literature's reemergence. This is not in the service of reinventing a nineteenth- century argument for a twenty- first century practice but as a way to measure the forms of crisis that give to criticism its urgency and possibilities. When Matthew Arnold uses the above quote from Burke as an epigraph to Essays in Criticism (of which "The Function of Criticism at the Present Time" is a part) he marks the value of disputation to criticism's renewal (a familiar strategy to be sure, but not one without implications for our present). If we can accept this as a matter of course in contemporary critique the nature of antagonism itself has changed dramatically. Indeed, literary criticism is often hamstrung by the scale of antagonism it perceives so that, for instance, even when the "world" is invoked, it appears substantially smaller or meager in contrast to its generic correlatives. Perhaps this is always the case but the logic of disjunction redraws the field of agon in which both the literary and its criticism carve out the specificity of their difference. If agon is criticism's charge then scale is a useful heuristic in its activity especially, but not solely, when something as seemingly capacious as world literature is at stake.

Why scale is important to figure as agon addresses one of the constant challenges facing literary criticism: the question of its relevance. It is not that critics of various persuasions are unable to produce a vibrant knowledge of the literary within cultural discourses, but that the social insists critique must engage with more than itself in its procedures or risk a marginal status as somehow hermetic or narcissistic. The call for relevance is not consistent but refracts historically specific crises that cannot but help interpellate intellectual endeavors in their sway. There is no space here to recount all of the ways in which literary criticism is currently subject to crisis but they obviously include: a deepening institutional instability in [End Page 5] the status of the humanities as a pivot in learning; changes in the technology and logic of the publishing industry; the relationship of the literary to other modes of cultural expression; the status of theory for cultural interpretation; and the inevitable impress of commodification within the intense contemporary dynamics of globalization (all of which can be used as a rationale for world literature). If, for Matthew Arnold in the essay from which I have adapted my title, disinterestedness was the answer to those who desired a certain embeddedness and relevance in literary criticism, especially regarding politics and society, today any whiff of disinterestedness would itself constitute a crisis for a specialization chasing the tail of professionalism and institutional credibility. Clearly, the logic of this challenge cannot be averted, but it can be embraced as part of criticism's potential not just to explain crisis but, by working on its constitutive contradictions, to make it, to participate in the challenge it represents. We think of characters within a narrative as being classically caught within a structure of agon, but this can be read as a provocative trope for criticism's relationship to the literary and its broader relevance (keeping in mind that relevance here is not an accusation but a material substance of socialization). Such "relevance" is particularly prominent in the re- emergence of world literature, whose scale forms the fulcrum in my comments below. Agon is not a substitute for Arnold's sense of criticism but is coeval with its social charge. It is not a function of critical intent as such, but draws attention to the...