This book is not meant as a survey of criticism over the last fifty years. It is not a guide to better living, like A. O. Scott's, even as an ironic one. It is not a how-to book for would-be critics trying to master the craft. It is meant as a brief introduction to how and why conceptions of what criticism is and does have changed, with commentary added about how we should feel about those changes from a political point of view. In trying to combine a slender but hopefully clarifying outline with a vigorous polemic that does not spill over into a rant, it defends certain aspects of the profession as it was formed in the last half century—defending it because it has been attacked (in particular, for what it has taken from the legacy of the 1960s) but also because it seems worth defending.
Chapter 1 discusses the heritage of Matthew Arnold as I encountered it when the author entered graduate school at Harvard in the early 1970s, and the dramatic collision between the Arnoldian model of humanistic criticism and the demands of the 1960s emancipation movements, which were little by little working their way into the humanities in the 70s and 80s and introducing a fundamental concern with race, gender, sexuality, imperialism, and other highly political topics. A collision of sorts did happen, with much of the resistance to the 60s influence framed in Arnoldian terms. And yet (so the chapter argues) there were also deep continuities between Arnold's notion of criticism as a sort of permanent opposition and the new style of opposition encouraged by the 60s movements.
Chapter 2 begins with a discussion of the word "criticism" as it appears in Raymond Williams's book Keywords, with attention to the difference between criticism there and in the earlier Culture and Society, the book that established Arnold as a central figure in a left-wing oppositional tradition. Williams and Judith Butler, though of different generations, are discussed as themselves central figures in the new left-wing oppositional tradition that came out of the 1960s. Butler's thinking on "critique" (in dialogue with Talal Asad) is put together with Williams's on "criticism," relating both to the charge that criticism is political in the sense of being merely negative, a form of faultfinding. Is faultfinding the decisive element in the legacy that the 60s movements left to criticism? The chapter argues that it is not.
The figure who is most central to the self-conception of criticism in the decades after 1970 is Michel Foucault. Chapter 3 takes Foucault as the successor to Arnold. It reads several recent critical enterprises as attempted resolutions of the paradox of "commentary" in Foucault's "The Order of Discourse." The chapter then takes up John Guillory's argument that it is the marginalization of the humanities that has generated their political claims, which should be understood as a collective cry of disciplinary pain. Against this argument, the chapter brings forward Guillory's own account of the discipline's lost centrality: the socially significant role played by critic/journalists of the eighteenth century in codifying the norms by which the emergent middle class could identify itself as a class with common interests and a common destiny—the destiny of ruling. There is a striking parallel with the criticism of the 60s.
Chapter 4 returns to Foucault, who describes critique as "the art of not being governed like that." This refusal to state a principle in the name of which he is objecting can be understood as a refusal not merely to be governed, but also to govern. It helps explain Foucault's attraction to aesthetics, seen as a refuge from normativity. Must we refuse aesthetics? The central argument here is that the "disinterestedness" of the Kantian aesthetic, which serves as a procedure for self-problematization, is also an essential part of the politics of the 60s liberation movements and their inheritors. Given the divergent identities and interests that had to be considered and reconciled if the movements, plural, were to come together and function as a single collective political force, self-abstraction was a necessity. The aim of aesthetics, like intersectionality, is to learn to govern better.
Chapter 5 focuses on the political movements that helped women's studies and ethnic studies programs win acceptance from the academy. Beginning with the history of Native American studies, this chapter argues that the academy welcomed these programs on the basis of principles of importance both to disciplines and to the project of democracy. Examples include African American literature and Jewish American literature. At the same time, the example of Edward W. Said demonstrates that democracy as it exists, on a national scale, is insufficient to legitimize new intellectual work or for that matter to dictate the responsibilities of the intellectual. Reading Said in relation to Chomsky's "The Responsibility of Intellectuals" and against Said's own theory of the intellectual, the chapter presents him as "organic" to Vietnam-era antimilitarism, a strain of 60s thinking that requires a geographical stretching of democracy as well as a rethinking of elitism and expertise.
Chapter 6 argues that Benjamin's influential "angel of history" is not a useful political paradigm because it abandons the concept of progress that inspired the entry of ethnic and women's studies programs into the academy. Ethnic studies and queer studies have made an uneasy peace with the discipline's dominant temporality and dominant affect, which is melancholy. Rather than a theological reverence for the dead as the dead, this chapter argues for a sense of history that is political because it focuses on meaningful links between past and present. This contrasts with the common sense that "X is a construct," which assumes, without warrant, a chaos of meaningless particulars on which meaningful narratives can be freely imposed. Properly conceived, transhistorical sameness is as historical as difference is. As Fredric Jameson proclaimed, the cultural past can only be retrieved if it can be seen as a "single great collective story."
The premise of Chapter 7 is that criticism's new global scale has been accompanied by an expansion of temporal scale. Deep time relativizes European colonialism and the core-periphery model. It thereby makes room for the subdiscipline of world literature, which emerges after 2000 as a candidate to replace postcolonial studies. But it also makes room for a new interest in the culture of Indigenous peoples, many of whom consider themselves as having been colonized by non-Europeans.
The Conclusion pursues the argument that the goal of criticism is moral progress by returning to the career of Stuart Hall and to modern criticism's eighteenth-century roots, with help from Jonathan Kramnick.