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  • Readers with Bodies: Modernist Criticism’s Bridge across the Cultural Divide
  • Allison Pease (bio)

Modernist literary and cultural criticism has dominated the study of English literature throughout the greater part of the twentieth century. Only in the last ten or fifteen years have literary critics developed an alternative set of tools to probe the ideological underpinnings of modernist criticism itself. With these tools, a number of scholars have suggested that modernist criticism defined itself and the art it championed in opposition to mass culture. 1 In the wake of such proclamations, a few scholars have attempted to show that critics such as T. S. Eliot were in fact profoundly influenced by mass-cultural forms like jazz or the music hall. 2 Clearly the relationship between mass culture and modernist criticism was more fluid and more complicated than we have yet to recognize. As I will show, modernist critics I. A. Richards, F. R. Leavis, and T. S. Eliot appropriated the very techniques attributed to mass-cultural consumption—shock and sensation—into their lexicon of high-cultural, aesthetic values while simultaneously decrying the effects of the “sensational” media. In doing so, their modernist critique reversed the central project of Kantian aesthetics, the dominant aesthetic practice of the late nineteenth century, to validate as fine arts only those arts that invoke disinterested contemplation rather than a sensuous interest on the part of the reader. Interestingly, however, modernist criticism furthered one aspect of the Kantian project—to bring the body and its senses more overtly into the ethical and social realm, what the early-twentieth-century critics called “cultural health.” The modernist criticism of Richards, Leavis, and Eliot [End Page 77] advocates an aesthetic practice that made way for the representation of bodies in art in addition to a mode of aesthetic reception that included the body as integral to forming aesthetic judgments. While making room for the body, modernist critics continued to promote the Kantian aesthetic’s effort to objectify, rationalize, and make intelligible the body and its irrational sensuousness. Ironically, they did so by appropriating the very consumption strategies that they accused mass culture of creating.

Modernist criticism emerged in the early decades of the twentieth century as the first practical criticism of English literature produced from its new institutionalized status in the university. 3 The individual aims of Leavis, Richards, and Eliot, the three critics I will focus on in this essay, were part of a larger project not only of making English literature a subject of serious study at university but also of making it the moral focus of a public debate about individual sensibility and the “health” of culture at large. The “problem” or “decline” of culture, as they saw it, was imputed not just to the abundance of poor-quality, mass-media entertainment that purportedly numbed its audiences into automatic response but more importantly to the subsequent inability detected in the majority of the population to respond to the “real” works of culture. 4 If mass culture was an encroaching illness that fostered “cheap mechanical responses” 5 and transformed its participants into senseless automatons, then “real” or “elite” or “minority” culture, as it was variously labeled by its champions, was mass culture’s antidote. Through the “direct shock of poetic intensity,” in T. S. Eliot’s words, “real” culture would revitalize not only the individual but eventually the entire culture. 6 Eliot’s language here is an important clue to the nature of the modernist critical agenda with regard to the mass-culture debate. It reveals a rhetorical sleight of hand that makes possible the incorporation of certain mass-cultural forms into high art. By championing the “shock” to “sensibility” that could only be experienced by “true” or “high” culture, modernist critics appropriated the very labels that had been reserved previously for mass-cultural practices. Modernist criticism not only made a place for the body of the reader of cultural works in its notion of sensibility, by which it meant the connection between sensations, emotions, and cognitions, but, in its use of the “invigorating shock” of real culture, it made a place for the very kind of aesthetic reception that had previously been attributed to readers of...

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pp. 77-97
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