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.