Is literary criticism political?

The Politics of Literary Criticism Now

A Panel on Joseph North’s Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History

April 5 | 6-8 pm | 315 Wheeler Hall, UC Berkeley

With Stephen Best, Catherine Gallagher, David Marno, Joseph North, and Namwali Serpell

People in today’s literature departments often assume that their work is politically progressive, especially when compared with the work of early- and mid-twentieth-century critics. In Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History, Joseph North argues that when understood in relation to the longer arc of the discipline, the current historicist and contextualist mode in literary studies represents a step lo the Right. Since the global turn to neoliberalism in the late 1970s, all the major movements within literary studies have been diagnostic rather than interventionist in character; scholars have developed sophisticated techniques for analyzing culture, but they have retreated from systematic attempts to transform it. In this respect, the political potential of current literary scholarship compares poorly with that of earlier critical modes, which, for all their faults, at least had a programmatic commitment to cultural change. Yet neoliberalism is now in crisis – a crisis that presents opportunities as well as dangers. The creation of a genuinely interventionist criticism is one of the central tasks facing those on the Left of the discipline today.

Chronicle of Higher Ed on “Surface Reading”

“The New Modesty in Literary Criticism”

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Jeffrey J. Williams’s recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, in identifying a shift toward a new, more empirical, method of literary study, focuses significantly on “surface reading,” the subject of an influential special issue of Representations: “The Way We Read Now” (Fall 2009), edited by Sharon Marcus and Stephen Best.

According to Williams, “a good deal of contemporary criticism has performed ‘symptomatic reading,’ a term that conveys looking for the hidden meaning of a text, using, for example, Marxian, Freudian, or deconstructive interpretation…. Surface reading instead focuses on ‘what is evident, perceptible, apprehensible in texts,’ as Best and Marcus put it. Thus the critic is no longer like a detective who doesn’t trust the suspect but more the social scientist who describes the manifest statements of a text.”

Indeed, as Marcus and Best point out in their introduction to “The Way We Read Now,” “The essays [included in the issue] remind us that as much as our objects of study may conceal the structures that give rise to them, they also wear them on their sleeves.”

Find “The Way We Read Now” online, or read pieces by other authors working in this vein (such as Margaret Cohen, Elaine Freedgood, Cannon Schmitt, Eric Bulson, and others) in more recent numbers of Representations, especially the special issue “Denotatively, Technically, Literally” (Winter 2014), edited by Freedgood and Schmitt.