Literary Criticism, an Autopsy

Literary Criticism, an Autopsy

Literary Criticism, an Autopsy

Literary Criticism, an Autopsy


As the study of literature has extended to cultural contexts, critics have developed a language all their own. Yet, argues Mark Bauerlein, scholars of literature today are so unskilled in pertinent sociohistorical methods that they compensate by adopting cliches and catchphrases that serve as substitutes for information and logic. Thus by labeling a set of ideas an "ideology" they avoid specifying those ideas, or by saying that someone "essentializes" a concept they convey the air of decisive refutation. As long as a paper is generously sprinkled with the right words, clarification is deemed superfluous.

Bauerlein contends that such usages only serve to signal political commitments, prove membership in subgroups, or appeal to editors and tenure committees, and that current textual practices are inadequate to the study of culture and politics they presume to undertake. His book discusses 23 commonly encountered terms—from "deconstruction" and "gender" to "problematize" and "rethink"—and offers a diagnosis of contemporary criticism through their analysis. He examines the motives behind their usage and the circumstances under which they arose and tells why they continue to flourish.

A self-styled "handbook of counterdisciplinary usage," Literary Criticism: An Autopsy shows how the use of illogical, unsound, or inconsistent terms has brought about a breakdown in disciplinary focus. It is an insightful and entertaining work that challenges scholars to reconsider their choice of words—and to eliminate many from critical inquiry altogether.

Mark Bauerlein is Professor of English at Emory University.


To many professors of literature and language, overstepping the traditional boundaries of literary criticism seems like a good idea. It is good to expand criticism beyond the limits a purely aesthetic approach to literature entails. A commitment to literature as and only as literary art, to writings only in terms of their literary features, forces narrow, provincial, and elitist constraints upon our research and teaching. Clearly, when critics abstract literature from its historical, social, political, and institutional contexts, they falsify literature’s reality. When academics divorce art from the world from which it originates, when formalists and theorists objectify a poem or prose work into an isolated piece of language, when humanists distinguish literature as an ethical whole transcending the material aspects of culture and society, they impoverish literature’s significance and value. Even when they claim for literature a special ontological status such as universality, critics anaesthetize literature’s political causes and social import. To counteract such spurious isolations and return literature to the truth of its actual existence, we must widen our inquiries, bring more historical variables and cultural contexts to bear upon our professorial work. By broadening our focus, we situate literature in a comprehensive sociohistorical matrix, our scholarly field now being culture at large.

So goes the prevailing wisdom in criticism today. Its call is simple, but pervasive: put literature back into its cultural context and convert textual analysis into cultural criticism. Influential books like Raymond Williams’s The Country and the City, Edward Said’s The World, the Text, the Critic, Frank Lentricchia’s Criticism and Social Change, Jim Merod’s The Political Responsibility of the Critic, Robert Scholes’s Textual Power, John Brenkman’s Culture and Domination . . .

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