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boundary 2 28.3 (2001) 1-18

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A Defense of Criticism

Colin MacCabe

In memory of Gareth Roberts and Tony Tanner

An inaugural lecture provides an occasion to summarize the state of one’s subject from the peculiarly personal perspective of one’s own intellectual history and to address that summary to colleagues across the range of the disciplines.1

To undertake this task for English has some peculiar difficulties. One could argue polemically that English, despite its huge success as an undergraduate degree in this century, has never reached agreement on either subject matter or method in a way that is the very definition of a natural science. And the problems from which English suffers are not so acute in the other humanities—classics has a relatively stable set of texts that constitute its objects; history, more of an agreed method.

In its beginnings, English was rent by the division between those who [End Page 1] wished to teach the great texts of English literature as a kind of moral education and those who felt that such a moral education had no part within a university curriculum. This second position argued that if the texts of English literature were to be studied at university, then they should be studied in relation to the history of the language—from a fundamentally philological perspective. When I began to study English in the very late sixties at Cambridge University, one of the great centers of the first position, the victory over philology was more or less complete, but the idea of English as a moral education was already under attack in a new war. How could one contemplate a moral education from texts that were so limited in their relation to the historical record? It was not simply that the texts themselves were produced from a narrow class range, largely by men, overwhelmingly Protestant, and entirely white. More seriously, the very structure of literature, its formation as the conscious cultural arm of a new imperial nation state (one could think emblematically of the Elizabethan stage and the Elizabethan court, or of Milton’s role in Cromwell’s government), made it, in both its audience and its assumptions, a class-based literature. The charge here is not that these texts represented class positions—a traditional Marxist argument—but that these texts played an important part in forming class positions. It was literature that divided the nation into those with sufficient access to the classical traditions who could read Milton and Pope and those who couldn’t. Even more poisonously, it was the grammar and the elocution manuals that condemned perhaps as much as 90 percent of the population to the belief that they could not speak their own language. If hypercorrection and a lack of confidence in their own speech is still perhaps the most striking feature of English speakers, it shows how long linguistic habits linger when, over the past twenty-five years, a series of government reports have authoritatively demolished any notions of a class standard.

These ideas go back a long way and surface within literature itself long before they make their appearance in criticism. I would argue—and here at least I think I would find many in agreement with me—that they find their most compelling exposition in the work of the Irish writer James Joyce, who was the subject of my doctoral dissertation.

I want to start with the discussion dramatized in the ninth chapter of Ulysses, as Stephen is sitting in the National Library discussing with a variety of scholars and critics the current interpretations of Shakespeare’s plays. In 1904, the biographical method, subsequently banished from the new university departments of English, had attained a baroque sophistication. And Stephen, as is customary of someone attempting to make a mark [End Page 2] in a literary world, is determined to produce an interpretation so sophisticated that it will leave everyone from Wilde to Brandes toiling in his wake. He argues that Shakespeare’s life is centered in his moment of seduction by Ann Hathaway, an older woman. For Stephen, the imaginative formation...


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