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  • A Defense of the Artist-CriticPart Two of Two
  • Patrick Thomas Henry (bio)


The artist-critic's habits can influence academic methods only if we do away with the critical fictions latent in our approaches—that our politics are purer or nobler than the public intellectual's, that our critiques are somehow more objective or authoritative by dint of our scholarly credentials. In doing so, it is also fair to turn our tendency to historical critique on ourselves. As Benjamin and Chakrabarty demonstrate, the danger of historicism is its production of false histories, particularly those that adapt the language of natural, deep, geological time to describe the rise of "modernity." Chakrabarty notes that such a presumed "basic code of history" allows "for a particular formation of the modern subject," one that casts "pre-modern" beliefs—faith in mysticism, the supernatural, and pantheons—as anachronisms incompatible with a modern, Western world order (74, q.v. 72–75). This tendency undercuts the obvious fact that these competing cultural norms coexist. Similarly, literature departments have manufactured, to modify Chakrabarty's line, a particular formation of the modern critic, in which professionalism distinguishes scholars from creative writers who dabble in editing, who experiment with critique, and who engage in life writing.

Dismissals of artist-critics often neglect the relatively short history of literature departments—let alone "professional" academic criticism. Terry Eagleton offers Matthew Arnold as the origin of professional criticism, discounting the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century "man of letters" as a wishy-washy writer afraid of political engagement (65). Robert Scholes in The Rise and Fall of English (1998) situates the birth of the English department at the close of the First World War; the rise of English as a discipline owes its success to a rather parasitic—if not Oedipal—relationship to programs in classics, rhetoric, and composition. Likewise, Louis Menand [End Page 145] in The Marketplace of Ideas (2010) attributes the exponential growth of and ideological shifts in the humanities to the increased enrollments—especially of minority students—made possible by a post–Second World War environment defined by economic prosperity, the Baby Boom, and the GI. Bill. As the demographics of student bodies transformed, Menand argues, so too did the faculty, the university's teaching mission, and the canon of texts. Roderick Ferguson provides a more nuanced depiction of these years in the American context: the Equal Pay Act of 1963, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and Executive Order 11246 of 1965 inaugurated a language of civil rights and social justice, which in turn transformed individuals' self-identification in the academy and in public discourse (q.v. 30–35).

The rapid development of literary studies precipitates one of the curiosities of our industry: the hurtling speed with which new methodologies become established traditions. From the vantage of symptomatic reading, this breakneck pace comes with an inherent peril, which insinuates itself throughout Ferguson's generally optimistic book The Re-Order of Things: The University and Its Pedagogies of Minority Difference (2012). Any innovative critical practices can easily be retooled to meet the desires and agendas of institutions like the university. Ferguson notes the following in his analysis of academe's recent interdisciplinary turn: "As both agent and effect of institutionalization, interdisciplinarity represents not only an obstacle for and a challenge to dominance but the expansion and multiplication of power's relays" (36). Ferguson's remark encourages scholars to recognize the inherent contradictions and instabilities at the conceptual core of the humanities, that critique both resists and complies with power—which resonates with my earlier detection of the faults in Esty and Lye's dismissal of Morrison and Rushdie.

Our accepted methods are always on the brink of precarity—which is clear enough, with surface reading's recent challenge to symptomatic reading and the hermeneutics of suspicion. Further destabilizing is the realization that our methods and theories are relatively juvenile. The Formalism of Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks dominated during the 1940s and '50s; Jameson's The Political Unconscious established symptomatic reading and suspicion as a critical lingua franca in 1983; and Sharon Marcus's take on surface reading is scarcely a decade old (and this gloss doesn...


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pp. 145-161
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