- Criticism on the Money
A New Book on literary criticism that barely gets beyond F. R. Leavis? At first glance, a reader of Gary Day’s new history may be tempted to wonder if we have now gotten so far beyond theory that we can afford to largely ignore it. “Theory today (2008) is like a supermarket,” Day writes in conclusion. “There is so much to choose from.” So he mentions, for a final time, such items as Lacanian psychoanalysis and Derridean deconstruction, or eco-criticism and ethical criticism. But none of these theories gets much shelf space in the book, and the brand names remain pretty much the same trustworthy ones available before the late 1970s.
Thus Literary Criticism consists of six chapters, beginning with the Greeks and Romans, followed by Medieval, Renaissance, Enlightenment, and Romantic criticism, and concluding with modernism. Each of these is more or less a survey. And Day seems happiest, for example, while discussing Boccaccio on the difficulty of poetry, though we should be wary of his assumption of a—to us—unified culture. In any case we have the following similarity: “If the Bible brought the medieval world under a single system of signification, then capitalism does the same for the modern world. It doesn’t matter if we are talking about poetry or pornography; both must make a profit.”
What? Where does this sudden mention of capitalism come from? In this instance, as in so many others, it has the character of an aside; Day is content to switch on for a moment either a Marxist bit of illumination or else a theoretical flash of contemporary analogy: e.g., Edmund Burke on tragedy is comparable to Baudrillard on simulation or Derrida on the outside of the text. Finally, he is not merely plowing through the usual authors (Cicero, Spenser, Arnold) while telling a story about the historical progression of a standard subject. In fact, he is lamenting its decline, not so much as a result of “the theory wars of the 1980s” but because of capitalism, by which is meant everything from “managerialism” to the thoughtless deployment of monetary metaphors by Leavis.
In his “Polemical Introduction” (no mention of Northrop Frye!), Day states the matter bluntly: “[T]he language of criticism is implicated in capitalist economics which compromises its ability to articulate notions of human autonomy found in literature.” Of course it’s hard to sustain this implication before there was capitalism, human autonomy, or even criticism (as we understand it today). So Day doesn’t. His [End Page 517] early chapters are pretty straightforward, although always amenable to political remarks, such as the fact that the very term “poetry,” meaning “making,” was never entirely separate from the marketplace. The status of these remarks becomes, it seems to me, the most interesting thing about the whole history.
“It would need a separate book to explore the affinities between the rhetoric of criticism and market and management philosophies,” Day declares at the end. Well, yes and no. Yes, insofar as this separate book would systematically begin the exploration right from the outset at the expense of laying out what, say, Puttenham wrote about nature or what Chesterton opined about modern poetry. Such matters are all very well—and Day sets them out quite lucidly. But the activity is basically expository. This purpose of Literary Criticism sits rather uneasily with an overall argument it wants to make about how recent theory is not so radical as it seems to think, capitalism (or something very like it) has exercised a shaping force in criticism—if not literature itself— right from the start, and, well, criticism at least would at the present time be better off outside the academy.
Trouble is, the book that Day has written seems to me pretty much the only book he had it in him to write after all. The “affinities” he repeatedly strives to mention in Literary Criticism are just that. Others have taken up the more academic argument that could be made from them. (Day cites a couple of quarrels with...