On Feminist Literary Criticism as a Rhetoric

By Ruthven, K. K. | Hecate, November 3, 1986 | Go to article overview

On Feminist Literary Criticism as a Rhetoric


Ruthven, K. K., Hecate


One of the orthodoxies appropriated by feminists from left-wing criticism is that the best way of reading something is to read it against the grain, as otherwise you'll be reduced to a mere function of the text, a puppet pulled by the strings of its rhetoric. If so, then men are well placed to read feminist criticism against the grain, and to be (in Judith Fetterley's sense) `resisting' readers. Not that K. K. Ruthven puts up very much resistance in Feminist Literary Studies: An Introduction (C.U.P., 1984). Once he has cleared a discursive space in which to operate, he writes sympathetically of the feminist project in literary studies, although he is more impressed by the intricacies of feminist theory than by some of the critical practices it has engendered.

The central issue is whether or not Ruthven is right in assuming that his text is able to situate itself so far outside the discourses it describes as to be untouched by critiques mounted from inside feminism against tactics such as his. There are two aspects to this issue. The first, which originates outside of feminism, is the question of whether it is possible to engage non-polemically in the criticism of criticism. The second, endemic to feminist discourse, is that Ruthven, as a man, cannot possibly be neutral vis-à-vis feminism; and furthermore, that as a highly placed academic in a profession which historically has preferred to employ men rather than women, he cannot avoid political bias in his account of a discursive style which is highly critical of the system whose privileges he enjoys. In both respects Ruthven aspires to that position of neutrality which the politicised discourses of our time have rendered unfashionable. Nobody, it is assumed, can claim any longer to be neutral, objective and fair-minded, although we are expected to display precisely those qualities by the students whose work we assess and the tax-payers who underwrite our salaries. Nevertheless, in the most influential circles nowadays the `disinterested' reader, whom Matthew Arnold imagined to be free of vested interests, has gone the way of other new critical fictions, and may soon be imaginable only with the assistance of the OED now that the very word `disinterested' looks like becoming a mere synonym for `uninterested'. Clearly, Ruthven's stance is unfashionable, but is it therefore indefensible?

What Ruthven claims to have written is not feminist criticism but criticism of such criticism, which he calls `metacriticism', no doubt to the annoyance of those who see in this manoeuvre the infiltration of liberal humanist practices from the domain of literary criticism -- where being interested in different things for different reasons is encouraged -- to the domain of critical theory, which liberal humanists are supposed to be ignorant about. To judge from Ruthven's own practice, metacriticism involves taking as given the basic premises of any type of critical analysis, and then inspecting the kind of criticism which results. It looks not only for internal inconsistencies in critical procedures, but also for evidence of mismatches between programmes and performances. In tolerating a variety of sometimes mutually incompatible basic premises, metacriticism differs markedly from critical theory. For critical theory concerns itself in a much more prescriptive manner with the ontological basis of criticism: in comparison with metacriticism, which is descriptive and eclectic, critical theory is prescriptive and progressive in its search for new and better grounds on which to base critical practice. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that radical critics should attempt to discredit metacriticism as an obstructionist activity which impedes the progressivist drive to establish a supersessional model of critical theory by which some theories can be described as better than others. The metacritic's `interest' in radical criticism might serve therefore as a striking instance inside the domain of literary studies of what Herbert Marcuse used to call `repressive tolerance'. …

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