Criticism in the Age of Discourse

By Goodheart, Eugene | CLIO, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Criticism in the Age of Discourse


Goodheart, Eugene, CLIO


There was a time in the recent past when a literary education required the cultivation of the critical faculty. Criticism, the interpretation and evaluation of works of literature, occupied a prominent place next to literary history and textual criticism. The practice of criticism continues in literary journalism, but it has lost its prestige in the academy. What has replaced criticism in prestige is discourse, that is, the transformation of works into texts and their placement in a rhetorical system based on ideology: Marxist, feminist, post-colonialist. Discourse does not interpret the work as a whole, but rather appropriates elements of it to the discourse. Whether a work is good or bad, distinguished or mediocre, is usually irrelevant to the discourse. Judgments are dictated by political or ideological interests and biases. How does the text, formerly the work, illuminate or fail to illuminate the class struggle in nineteenth-century France or the plight of women in eighteenth-century England or the situation of Indians under the Raj? Interesting questions for scholarship, but not to be confused with criticism.

The reasons for this transformation lie not only in the internal history of the discipline, but also in the political and cultural history of the past four decades. I have no desire to repeat a story that has already been told and retold. I want for the moment rather to focus on one reason, or perhaps more accurately rationalization, given for the change: the erosion of belief in the possibility of objective and disinterested knowledge. Given the vagaries of interpretation and judgment, how is it possible to establish the truth of an interpretation or the validity of an aesthetic judgment? Why waste time, so the argument goes, on an activity riddled with the caprices of subjective judgment? Discourse at least has the advantage of declaring its ideological interests; in its appropriation of texts to those interests it does not pretend to a nonexistent objectivity. Or so it rationalizes its practice. Actually, in making antiobjectivist arguments, it adopts the objectivist manner and tone.

The history of criticism provides some support for this skeptical, indeed radically skeptical, view. Quarrels among critics have rarely, if ever, been adjudicated. Interpretations and evaluations abound and are often different from or in conflict with one another. The reputations of writers, determined by criticism, fluctuate, sometimes as wildly as the stock market in crisis. Matthew Arnold said that Shakespeare does not "abide our question," while other writers do not remain exempt from the vicissitudes of reputation. But even Shakespeare was subject to those vagaries before the nineteenth century. T. S. Eliot preferred the metaphysicals to Milton and had serious doubts about his greatness, only to change his mind. (Eliot's views were hardly disinterested; they were determined by his own creative interests.) F. R. Leavis disparaged Dickens as an entertainer, only to alter his view and acknowledge his greatness as a novelist without, I might add, ever accounting for the change of view. Melville's great reputation is of comparatively recent vintage. Instances of the vagaries of critical judgment abound. And one might argue that the vitality of literature depends upon the capacity of writers and critics to change their minds about the tradition in light of changing interests and life experiences.

The radically skeptical view, however, tends to ignore the common ground that exists among critics in the matter of interpretation and in the endurance of reputations. For all the volatility that exists, Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, and Milton (a very partial list) have endured and helped form the culture in which we live. And even if one accepts the main force of the radically skeptical view of objectivity (which I do not), one need not accept its consequences for literary study. Criticism is not about the quest for a singular truth or a consensus view of its object.

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