The History of Literary Criticism

I recently read Joseph North’s Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History (Harvard, 2017). North is very good at characterizing what the field settled into since the beginning of the 2000s, once the glory days of postmodernism were over. The main result of the latter was to play down concern with the aesthetic dimension of literature in favor of teaching students to think about literature from a “historicist” and “contextualist” – code for “political” and often crudely ideological – perspective.

That much is clear, but the question is, how did it happen?

According to North, the Baby Boom generation that accomplished the turn from aesthetics to politics relied on a misrepresentation of the so-called “practical criticism” of I.A. Richards, which they encountered in the form of the American school of New Criticism. This, the younger generation believed, was an essentially conservative enterprise that encouraged political passivity by isolating literary value from the wider world. The rebellion against it culminated in the New Historicism, which paved the way for post-colonialism, queer theory, disability studies, and the rest.

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The Case Against Democracy

In his book Against Democracy (2017), Jason Brennan presents a formidable amount of empirical evidence to the effect that the more someone is involved in politics, the worse he or she becomes as a person.

  • The more you are involved in political debate (especially as the representative of a group or ideology), the less likely you are to reach reasonable conclusions. Participation increases people’s tendency to ignore facts that don’t support their position, to argue in manipulative and deceptive ways, to adopt extreme views, and in general it makes people more biased and less reasonable.
  • The more active you are in politics, the less likely you are to talk with people whose views run contrary to your own. In fact, you may reach the point where you are unable even to imagine a point of view other than your own. As a result, the more active you are in politics, the less good you will be at doing what politicians are supposed to do: see enough sides of an issue to craft and sell a compromise.

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On Richard Rorty

In 2020, some previously unseen papers by Richard Rorty (1931-2007) were brought out by the University of Chicago Press as Philosophy and Philosophers: Unpublished Papers 1960-2000. In 2021, Harvard published Pragmatism as Anti-Authoritarianism, with an introduction by Robert Brandom arguing that the lectures it contains represent Rorty’s “final statement.” So far as I know, nothing else has come out since Rorty’s death, but there does exist a set of lectures that I hope is made public one day. In the early 1980s, we grad students sat in the back of the room where Rorty taught his undergraduate course on the history of philosophy. Not only did we get to hear his brilliant, learned, witty, and sometimes hilariously funny lectures, we also came into the possession of the mimeographed notes he distributed, as he explained, so that students wouldn’t have to waste time taking notes of their own. They were passed around, discussed, and affectionately referred to as the Rort Report. I won’t try to reconstruct them here, but if someone wants to make them accessible I’d happily take on the task of preparing them for publication.

Rorty worried that representationalist epistemology had replaced God with Reality. To conceive of knowledge as representation is to proclaim that our supreme cognitive interest is in the correctness of our representations, in effect subordinating ourselves to what is represented – or to put it differently, deferring to the authority of a non-human entity.

To be fully free, Rorty thought, we must reject the idea that something “out there” has more authority over us than our fellow human beings. The only authority we should recognize consists in persuasiveness, broadly construed: the quality of the reasons offered to justify beliefs and practices, certainly, but also the ways in which we inspire one another and the new visions and values we create by re-describing current states of affairs and imagining different ones. Continue reading