- The Romance of ExpertiseThe Research University and the Methodological Turn
Since the global economic crisis of 2008, the steady if uneven exsiccation of academic humanities programs has become a point of intensified concern within literary studies. As professors and their precariously positioned colleagues have weathered institutional uncertainties from dried-up funding to shuttered departments, many of the former have felt the need to justify the continued legitimacy of literary scholarship as a university discipline. Such a task underwrites many of the approaches and arguments lately clustered under the term "postcritique." According to Rita Felski and Elizabeth Anker, postcritique is motivated in part by the belief that critique—understood as a genre of interpretive argument defined by its oppositional stance toward traditional belief, organized knowledge, and ideological common sense—"lacks a vocabulary and set of established rationales for mounting such defenses" (Felski and Anker 19). Postcritique thus names the effort to discover "more powerful and persuasive justifications for our commitments and endeavors" by sustaining "a broad interest in exploring new models and practices of reading that are less beholden to suspicion and skepticism" (20).
The new models to be explored tend to be data-friendly practices of description drawn from the social sciences.1 Fresh to many literary critics, if hardly novel in the academy, such approaches are meant to stand as corrections to the numerous disciplinary liabilities imparted by critique.2 Therefore, where critique produces an overreliance on the personality of the charismatic individual, they advocate a systematized method with a more widely dispersed division of labor; where critique wields enormous interpretative power, they propose a broad hermeneutic reticence keeping "closer to the facts," that is, empirical data, and where critique often foregrounded politics, even of a [End Page 72] mediated, sometimes recusant sort, postcritique foregrounds methodology—along with everything it implies: "scientific authority, generality, knowledge and legitimacy"—in the hopes that the promotion of work that appears enthusiastic and inoffensive will spark reinvestment in the humanities.3 Thus, the logic goes, alongside data-driven work carrying the stamp of Silicon Valley, critique can only appear insufficiently rigorous, mired in Romantic backwardness.
And yet, the turn to method can itself be considered a somewhat enchanted enterprise. This is especially the case if we recognize that this latest attempt to legitimize literary studies coincides with an older and deeper desire, a conviction that the field need establish itself more firmly on scientific principles of knowledge. Overshadowed by histories of criticism that foreground the romance of interpretation, the discipline's psychospiritual investment in expressive theory, and English departments' disposal toward the intellectual and aesthetic avant-garde, a persistent and somewhat unassuming passion for systematic methods has defined literary studies for close to a century. We might call it, not without some irony, the romance of expertise: the belief that technical skillsets and theoretical modesty might render literary scholarship legible as an authoritative discipline, something closer to the "core" of the research university. As this essay suggests, this seemingly modest desire is one dimension of a complex drama, the site of which is the American model of the university itself. For as ordinary as it may seem that an academic field seeks to refine and systematize its methods, even to the point of seeking proprietary ownership over a particular domain of knowledge, literary studies' efforts have remained somewhat adolescent: amorous, anxious, and unsatisfied.
In this view, postcritique names only the latest wave of an enduring effort by scholars—whose approach runs the gamut from formalism to historicism—to push the field closer to legitimized standards of knowledge production. While all academic fields are compelled to certify and recertify their qualification as domains of specialized research, literary studies' desire for uncontested expertise remains "romantic" partially because it is beset by a certain antithesis, that is, even as most reading practices tend to be opposed to the value-free, apolitical procedures of modern science, they must play the part of quasiscientific practices that can be replicated, standardized, and improved. The development of literary studies, like that of the humanities disciplines [End Page 73] generally, is marked by evidence of internal pressure to become more like a science and, in equal measure...