This is the eleventh installment of Criticism in Public, a series of interviews with academics about public writing, academic scholarship and literary criticism. Read previous interviews here.
John Guillory’s forthcoming book Professing Criticism asks literary scholars to rethink graduate education and confront the paradoxes inherent to the discipline. Why, for instance, do dissertation directors pressure their students into writing “marketable” dissertations in a field with a nearly extinct job market? Why do literary scholars exaggerate the transformative impact of their work? A historical tour de force, Professing Criticism reveals why Guillory is one of the most lauded and respected literary scholars of his generation: he answers no question without considering its historical lineage and implications; he dismisses no viewpoint without thoughtfully engaging it; and he tackles no topic without first peeling back its many layers. This interview is no exception.
Guillory is the Silver Professor of English at New York University. We talked over Zoom in April about the potential for crossover between literary scholarship and the public sphere as well as the relationship between literary dissemination and new media.
Jessica Swoboda: How do critics create their own public?
John Guillory: The only way to understand the “public sphere” today is by doing some historical reconstruction. Because what we’re really talking about with the history of literary criticism is an enormous shift between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries away from a media world at the center of which were the genres of periodical publication. The critics who wrote in that media sphere wrote about literature, but they were not professionalized in the way academics in the twentieth century became. This meant that they could write about pretty much anything, and they did. They won their audiences by the quality and force of their writing rather than by virtue of professional credentials. At the same time, these periodicals also published works of literature, serialized novels and other forms of literary writing, so people got a lot of exposure to literature through these periodicals, which had very large audiences. The connection between literature and public-sphere criticism was very close.
Starting in the twentieth century, with a system of disciplines and highly specialized professionals, there is no longer a media system that can give literary scholars access to a wide audience, not even among readers of literature. There are only a few figures, like David Bromwich, who have successfully crossed over from literature to political commentary, thanks to the few “reviews” surviving in today’s print ecosystem. And so, even though we have access to the infinite virtual space of the internet, we continue to write for other scholars, for our students in graduate seminars and for some undergraduates who might be reading literary criticism, but we’re writing within a professional culture of communication. And the norms of that professional culture are determined in most respects by its institutional locus, the university. These venues limit the scope of communication in a way that the big journals and quarterlies of the nineteenth century did not.
Now what has happened in consequence of this fact, paradoxically, is that, as literary scholars have become more restricted to professional modes of communication, the measure of their autonomy has actually increased. The trade-off between autonomy and access to the public sphere is a subject that demands much more analysis than I can offer in this interview. I’m talking here about structural features of academic discourse. When scholars adhere to these limits, communicate in their own non-public language, the content of their writing is correspondingly less restricted.
JS: In the 1990s you wrote an essay where you considered the political identity of the “intellectual,” to whom you grant a more public status than an “academic.” At one point, you write, “If the expression of political engagement by the intellectuals is really so dependent upon the form of publicity—of fame—then it will only ever be possible for a few figures to enter that arena.” How has your view of the public intellectual changed since then?
JG: I would say, to begin, that it is still the case that only a few humanities scholars ever cross over into the public sphere in the way that Edward Said was able to do. An example today would be Judith Butler. But it’s true that in the 1990s, there was considerable hope for achieving such visibility more widely. As I argued in that essay, the culture wars—in particular the front in that conflict aimed at literary canon revision—brought the literary disciplines into the public sphere under the aspect of notoriety. Unfortunately, this form of public scrutiny didn’t result in further access for individual scholars.
Yet critics were poised and eager to take advantage of the moment by virtue of possessing a theoretical framework, they believed, with widespread application. This was the notion of “social constructivism,” which was allied to the feminist critique of the male-dominated canon. Canon critique, we should recall, was strongly oriented in its early years to the issue of gender. Behind gender was a concept of “nature” that needed to be called into question.
For various reasons, the canon wars lapsed into dormancy in the first years of the 21st century, only to reemerge more recently, this time oriented more urgently to race than to gender. This new version of canon revision is backed up not by constructivism, which ambitiously targeted the natural sciences, but by a critique of racism and colonialism. It’s related directly to contemporary antiracist movements such as Black Lives Matter. Once again, the desire to enter the public sphere has been felt urgently by the literary professoriate, but again literary scholars have encountered a glass ceiling in their effort to rise into visibility and achieve impact.
There’s a second reason, I believe, for a new sense of urgency about access to the public sphere. This urgency is the result not only of a new critical agenda, explicitly political, but also a transformed media situation. There are now hundreds, even thousands, of venues for the expression of opinion on the internet, constantly expanding even as print venues decline. At the top of the media pyramid, though, there are still the big televisual venues of public expression that continue to exclude literary critics almost entirely.
And even as it has led to the increased autonomy I described earlier, this blocked access has also had the effect, unfortunately, of intensifying scholars’ disagreements with each other—erroneously named now as the “method wars”—when in truth, this friction is the result of magnifying small differences in the niches of the virtual public sphere. The frustration of the professoriate has been redirected inward. We shout at each other rather than speak to the public.
JS: It strikes me that this line from the preface to your forthcoming book Professing Criticism connects to what you’re saying: “The proliferation of new media has displaced literature itself from its historical position as the premier medium of entertainment and edification.”
JG: Yes, absolutely. I argue in Professing Criticism that as the frustration within the literary professoriate about access to the public sphere has increased, the claims being made for the transformative impact of literary criticism have been paradoxically exaggerated. A large part of my new book is devoted to puzzling out this paradox. The opinions of literary scholars one finds on internet sites are often very smart, especially when scholars are addressing cultural matters.
But the dual condition of greater access to the internet public sphere, combined with a tendency for this sphere to fission into niche publics, confronts literary scholars with a particularly complex problem of public expression. The reason for this quandary is that the object of our discipline is an artifact of the print medium, the work of literature. We haven’t yet figured out how to bring this print medium into relation to a constantly ramifying universe of public expression on the internet, over which is layered the much more restricted “mainstream media.”
JS: How do you think literary critics can usefully adjust to this situation?
JG: Before we can even begin to overcome the limits of dissemination that literary study faces these days, we need to start talking about literature in relation to new media. (I don’t mean remediations of literary works such as film versions of Jane Austen.) As literary scholars, we need first of all to acknowledge that literature is a medium and that what is at stake in literature as a medium is the whole history of the medium to which literature by definition belongs: writing. Writing is not going away, and writing is still enormously important in our society. In my view, our first theoretical task in the current media environment is to clarify the lines of relation between the study of literature and the general domain of writing.
The forms of writing now are extraordinarily diverse and include modes of communication we didn’t even imagine would become writing in the 1980s or 1990s. We didn’t imagine that the students to whom we teach literature today would be writing—that is, texting—all the time. On top of that, we have new visual and auditory forms of media that are complexly related to new forms of writing. We’re confronted with the enormous problem of negotiating between the old-school medium of literature—the verbal work of art—and all these new forms of communication, some of which exist on a fuzzy border between aesthetic artifact and ephemeral communication.
JS: A lot of junior scholars, early-career researchers and non-tenure-track professors are turning to public venues to publish their writing. Yet several of the tenured scholars I interviewed said they only turned to those venues once they got the freedom that comes with tenure. What do you think has caused that shift in perspective?
JG: It’s a tremendously interesting phenomenon, as it suggests the degree to which autonomy within the academy is not enough. There is obviously a strong desire among many scholars to reach an audience beyond the academy. In this context, the most interesting development to me in recent years is the entrance into the internet and print public sphere by postdoctoral students who have left the academy, either by choice or by virtue of not getting a rare tenure-track job. These scholars have found a way to sustain the life of the mind beyond the academy, and perhaps they are forging a path for others to follow.
In any case, they constitute a growing public for scholarship, or better, for a hybrid discourse that mediates scholarship for a potentially larger public. Once these scholars have been liberated, so to speak, from the necessity of producing a dissertation in order to get a job, or from publishing a book in order to get tenure, the pressure to write in a certain way for their peers and superiors goes away. So they enter into the public sphere well-informed and with well-developed interests, but without the constraints that are imposed either on graduate students or on assistant and associate professors who are still trying to advance in the hierarchy of their disciplines.
Can this new mode of scholarly writing overcome the fissioning of the internet into an uncountable number of niche venues? Will these venues shake out into a hierarchy that enlarges the public for intellectual discourse without imposing new constraints on writing? I don’t know. But I do think that there’s an opportunity here for thinking about a much larger public sphere than academia. Chad Wellmon and Paul Reitter are working toward the same idea in Permanent Crisis. In that book, they ask: What are the humanities beyond the university? Is this the only form in which we can have intellectual discourse?
For a long time, we thought that was the case. During the twentieth century, there was an enormous contraction of intellectual discourse to the university. And though we had a handful of people like Susan Sontag or Edward Said who were “public intellectuals”—some academics, some not—now we have potentially far more than a handful, potentially many thousands. In that circumstance, it seems particularly urgent that we learn to stop policing each other’s discourse, that we truly embrace freedom of inquiry.
JS: What planted the seed for Professing Criticism? When did the book really start taking shape?
JG: The seed was planted not long after my book Cultural Capital was published in 1993, partly because I was getting feedback that made it clear that my book’s arguments were not well understood. Some readers were saying that Cultural Capital was just another instance of the conservative position in the canon debate, according to which we should embrace the received canon, and reject revision for the purpose of including works by minority authors. That was absolutely not what I was arguing.
I thought I was insistent, first of all, on the notion of the canon as an imaginary totality of works, only temporarily instantiated in school syllabi. And, secondly, I offered in the book considerable proof that syllabi are constantly being revised, driving the mutation of that imaginary totality, the canon. The works considered to be canonical at any one moment historically are not necessarily the works considered to be canonical twenty, or fifty, or one hundred years prior—or later. My argument was that canon formation is always driven by a tension between the transmission of a valued tradition and the necessity of making room within the curriculum for new works. This relation always has to be negotiated.
After Cultural Capital was published, I wrote that essay on literary critics as public intellectuals you mentioned earlier. Not long after writing that piece, I wrote an essay on the American reception of Pierre Bourdieu. Initially, people took me to be debunking aesthetics in the way Bourdieu supposedly did. But I found in his work, especially in The Rules of Art, much more sympathy toward the aesthetic as, in his terms, a strategy for distancing the economy and its pernicious effects. In that sense, the work of art was analogous to the work of science.
So those two essays could be considered the seeds of Professing Criticism. They disclosed how much theoretical business was left unfinished by Cultural Capital. A lot of this unfinished business arose from what I invoke as “professional deformation” in Professing Criticism. The prime instance of this, in my view, is the overestimation of the aim and effects of literary study, an error than could only arise as a result of a failure to see clearly the institutional location of our labor, the way in which disciplines, professions and institutional structures like the university interact to enable or inhibit what we do.
JS: On the idea of feeling misunderstood by other scholars: What do you see as our responsibility when engaging our colleagues’ work?
JG: As someone who has argued very vigorously with other scholars on occasion, I would say that what we owe to our colleagues, especially those with whom we disagree, is respect and honesty. Intellectual inquiry has to be conducted in an atmosphere and with an assumption that one can be completely honest, in both one’s agreements and disagreements.
I realize I take a risk when I say this, and especially when I practice what I’m preaching, but I’ve always felt that scholarship should be impersonal. Even though you inevitably express personality in your writing, when there’s genuine disagreement about a position or the logic of an argument, issues of personality should be set aside. I don’t think there’s much to be said in defense of muting one’s disagreement or moderating it to protect sensibilities.
JS: What do you see as the purpose of presenting arguments about literature?
JG: Our desire to make arguments about works of literature follows from our sense of provocation in the literary work, or what we otherwise might call the awakening of interest. By this I mean to refer not only to the pleasure we take in a literary work—pleasure itself is a provocation—but also to the discomforts and puzzles mixed into this pleasure. The literature that is most interesting and enduring for us is the literature that provokes in some way. I realize that this statement approaches banality, but it’s a place to begin. This initial impact is far from what we call an “interpretation,” and might never eventuate in an interpretation. Yet it’s the occasion of all interpretation.
I often use the analogy here of going to a museum and encountering a docent who is good at the task. The docent points out aspects of a painting that might not be seen at first glance. But at second glance, the docent’s auditors might begin to see and to be provoked. Whether or not they go on to talk about the painting, they have already crossed a certain threshold. They have already come to the realization that they have been provoked into thought and feeling. Scholars are just the ones who owe the most to the docent figures of their intellectual formation, their teachers.
JS: And you’re speaking to another person’s perspective deepening your own perspective or enabling you to go deeper into whatever you’re thinking.
JG: Exactly. Speaking at all becomes an occasion for dialogue; it becomes an occasion for communication, not just with oneself, but with others.
JS: It makes what we do a little bit more interpersonal as well.
JG: Yes. Whether there is agreement or disagreement about the quality of the work, the desire to talk about a work is always the desire to talk to someone else who has also seen or read or heard this work. Criticism and scholarship are fundamentally attempts to gratify the desire to have a dialogic response to a human creation.
JS: How would you describe the current state of literary criticism?
JG: That’s actually my concern in the greater part of Professing Criticism. But let me give an abbreviated account. I think that what we have at the moment is a kind of “normal science” version of literary criticism—very little that is really paradigm-changing or transformative. And yet the scholarly standard is high, probably higher than when I was in graduate school. We have a significant number of really good books every year in literary criticism. But the problem for me is that there’s tremendous redundancy in argument. The quality of work isn’t really the issue. Neither is the quality of the minds at work. The issue is that the same argument is basically being applied to many different literary artifacts.
So there seems to be to be something slowing down in the discipline, resisting real innovation, despite the proliferation of new fields and subfields. I would even say that this proliferation is itself evidence of exhaustion, a fecundity that is topical but leaves the underlying structure of literary argument the same. When we look more closely at these new fields, at the arguments about individual works, the logic, the rhetorical strategies, seem identical.
In my book, I make a case for seeing 21st-century literary criticism as confronted with a “legitimation crisis.” But this crisis has more to do with our sense of the ultimate aims of criticism, which have been conceived so universally as political, than with the actual methods by which we approach works of literature. These methods are much less different from each other than we think they are. This is why, for me, it’s rather what scholars have to say about a moment in a novel or a poem that still has the capacity to surprise; at that scale, interesting things can still happen.
My sense is that the discipline is waiting for some theoretical or conceptual revolution that would open up new possibilities, that would make literary criticism look very different at a macro scale. I don’t know for sure what that would be, but I suspect that it would have to entail a resituating of literature both in the discipline and in the media system, a task that is almost too large to contemplate.