This is the sixth installment of Criticism in Public, a series of interviews with academics about public writing, academic scholarship and literary criticism. Read previous interviews here.
In her “How Should a Critic Be?” graduate course at the University of Virginia, Emily Ogden provided students with an account of the history of literary studies to consider what it means to be a good critic and what constitutes a good life. Though no definitive answer was reached—and Ogden will tell you no definitive answer should have been reached—getting others to see what she sees is her goal as a critic. I can assure you that reading her essays in 3 Quarks Daily and the Yale Review or her forthcoming book, On Not Knowing, feels like entering into her purview, changing your own perspective because you’ve experienced hers.
Ogden is an associate professor of English at UVA. We talked over Zoom in November about the relationship between knowledge and the work of care and making available an aesthetic experience.
Jessica Swoboda: This past fall, you taught a graduate course at the University of Virginia called “How Should a Critic Be?” What was the goal of the class?
Emily Ogden: The goal was to compare critical schools, not only on the grounds of what they claim, what they take to be the object of their work, or what they think the method should be or the aesthetic is, but also what they think is the ethical responsibility of the critic. Here I didn’t necessarily mean ethics in the sense of how to treat other people, although it could certainly include that; rather I took the ethical question to be one of what constitutes a good life, and more narrowly, of what it means to be a good critic. The point I wanted to bear in mind in the class was that not just various but incommensurable answers have been given to this question of what a good critic is.
JS: Who or what inspired that focus?
EO: I was influenced by the way Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison describe the history of the scientific observer in their book Objectivity. What’s striking about their account of objectivity is that they see it as a mode of ethical training for the subject. Objectivity to them, at least as I understand it, is not just a form of sight you have when you subtract all preconceived views and values, but is, in fact, one regime of training for scientific observers that specifies what they should be like in order to see and depict the world well. Objectivity carries with it a regulative ideal of the scientific observer or illustrator, which Daston and Galison call “blind sight”: an observer ought to record exactly what they see without regularizing it or fixing imperfections. Blind sight is preceded by a different regime of scientific observation, called “truth-to-nature”: the scientific illustrator looks for an ideal type and then tries to represent that type.
These ethical regimes in turn affect the records of observation that a person will make. Daston and Galison give the example of depicting a snowflake: someone aiming for truth to nature might idealize an image of a snowflake, “fixing” broken radial arms of the ice crystal, whereas someone aiming for objectivity would instead scrupulously preserve these accidental features of the observed object in the image. The point is that historically specific regimes of value precede and shape the production of facts.
I thought it would be interesting to try out the idea that various critical schools also have different regulative ideals—different notions of the kind of truth or understanding they are seeking—and that these ideals then shape the kind of writing that critics produce.
JS: Why teach this course now?
EO: Because I think that the “method wars” conflict and the other conflicts in literary studies described by Gerald Graff in Professing Literature are, at least some of the time, understandable as a debate between critics with incommensurable ideas of what a good critic is. Graff understands the history of the discipline of English in the U.S. as a series of conflicts about what the aim of literary study should be—conflicts often kept out of the classroom, he says, but definitive for the field. For example, does a critic cultivate sensibility or theorize the social in a way that produces public knowledge? Is a critic’s stock-in-trade their taste or their philological knowledge (the “critics vs. scholars” divide)?
JS: How did you structure assignments or guide discussions to help students begin thinking in this way?
EO: I don’t know that it amounted to more than saying, “Here’s an account of our field’s history that you can try out.” I wouldn’t have wanted an assignment structure that made my conclusion inescapable. But I did pose the question regularly, of what a particular writer seemed to take good criticism to be.
I also framed the class in terms of the ethical aporias of modernity. So we started with Daston and Galison, Charles Taylor, Max Weber’s “Science as a Vocation” and also Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?, which I think is a brilliant exploration of what it means to ask questions about a good life in what Taylor would call a “cross-pressured” context. I also tried to include work that explicitly raised the question of what it is we are doing and with what purpose. Canon-building work of the Harlem Renaissance—for instance, Alain Locke in The New Negro, James Weldon Johnson in The Book of American Negro Poetry—raises these questions deliberately. In different veins, so do John Crowe Ransom’s “Criticism, Inc.,” Roland Barthes’s “From Work to Text” and the introduction to Practicing New Historicism. Postcritique is substantially about the question of what it is critics should be doing. So is Barbara Christian’s “The Race for Theory.” The list could go on.
JS: What, then, do you see as the “ethical responsibility of the critic”?
EO: I could not answer you in a way that would use the definite article: the ethical responsibility! If I felt that level of conviction, I probably would not have taught the class the way I did—as an intellectual history attentive to different answers to this question. Such an intellectual history is in a sense a therapy for being confused by your own incommensurate leanings. I’m a product of a long education and habituation in a profession divided between the cultivation of sensibility and the production of theoretical and historical knowledge about culture. Accordingly, I’m also divided in that way.
But if pressed, I’d say that to be a good critic, you have to be able to communicate your sensibility. As Stanley Cavell puts it, you have to be able to get others to see what you see. One impulse I have is to overcommit theatrically to this side of the critical double bind—to say, with Emerson, “I would write on the lintels of the door-post, Whim. I hope it is somewhat better than whim at last, but we cannot spend the day in explanation.” For me, the results of taking this statement—which is a knowing overstatement—as a tenet are enlivening.
I would also like to understand how to reconcile my sense that the stylish and striking expression of taste has value with what I have learned from Foucault about the history of the subject. How could one write ecstatically and/or whimsically and/or idiosyncratically without taking subjectification to be a form of freedom?
JS: Has this question influenced how and what you write?
EO: I’d say it’s the question behind my forthcoming book, On Not Knowing. That’s not to say the book answers the question but that it tries to find a way to live with it. While I was writing, there on the rug beside me were this question and my dog—both actually benevolent enough presences in the end.
JS: Can you say a bit more about On Not Knowing?
EO: On Not Knowing is a group of interlinked essays that grew out of an experiment: I wanted to try not editing the personal out of the critical essay. This was a different task from the one I took on with my first academic book, Credulity: A Cultural History of US Mesmerism. For that book, I depended a lot on the work of other scholars, and I also did some primary archival work. It was important that I establish how that archival work related to the secondary literature and how it helped me say new things about the primary literature.
In my scholarly writing in general, I’m also engaged in this kind of collective process of trying to say what occurred historically at a particular moment in time, both in terms of what happened and what structures of feeling were in process. I’m pursuing collective questions that another literary historian or historian of the same period might have a stake in.
But in On Not Knowing, my prompt to myself was to write about forms of unknowing, and to gravitate toward experiences in which knowledge seemed beside the point. The book starts with the feeling of being like a minnow or a schooling ocean fish, a creature that reacts so splendidly to tiny currents in the water but without being able to get, or act on, a bird’s-eye view. I describe, and try to write from the position of, being at once undermined and committed, incapable of giving a complete description of my acts and yet nonetheless responsible for them. It’s about how irrelevant one’s knowledge can be to the work of care. It’s about knowingness as an obstacle to love.
In Tact, David Russell says that essays take their liberty to start from wherever we find ourselves. I gave myself permission to do this in my book, on the theory that something definite is gained—a particular kind of intelligence is accessed, maybe—by not demanding to know where you are going before you get there. So the essays walk crabwise from one problem to another, and a substantial part of their work occurs in these transitions that don’t occur, that aren’t spelled out.
JS: I’m struck by the fact that you use the word “collective” twice in that response: “collective process” and “collective question.” Can you say more?
EO: The reason I use the word collective in relation to Credulity but less so in relation to On Not Knowing is because I think that establishing what happened historically can never be left to one book. A set of books might tell a variety of stories that converge to some extent, and so I submit my offering, but leave it to be corrected by a person who knows more about X, Y or Z. There’s something like a jointly held model.
Whereas in On Not Knowing, I try to offer a way of experiencing a set of texts or a way of thinking about a set of themes that is more partial and may well be rejected or may not be an offering that the reader wants. That doesn’t mean there’s nothing social about the enterprise, but I don’t have a sense of a kind of hologram of the world that I’m contributing a piece to as I do with historical criticism.
JS: Has writing On Not Knowing changed how you approach more traditional academic criticism?
EO: I think it has. But I also think getting tenure has helped. I feel that I can now take certain risks that I couldn’t take at a junior stage. I don’t mean to suggest taking risks isn’t possible while untenured—lots of people do have that courage—but I didn’t achieve it. For me it was necessary to have some security in order to think about doing the kind of work that I wasn’t sure would be recognizable to everyone as a critical contribution.
I still think there’s a place for doing the kind of historical work that I did in my first book. But I’m noticing in my second academic book on Edgar Allan Poe, who is in my historical area of expertise, that while I’m constructing a historical narrative, I’m also trying to get others to see what I see about Poe—I want to describe or make available an aesthetic experience.
JS: Is there an ideal public writing style?
EO: I think a good public writing style is affable but not completely cozy and comfortable either. Adam Phillips has a definition of perversion that I love: we are perverse, he says, when we think we know beforehand exactly what we desire. To know beforehand is to have foreclosed on the possibility of surprise. I’m apt to lapse into this feeling that I know beforehand. But a good essayistic style is an antidote to this kind of perversion, as Phillips’s writing certainly is. It says to you, “Here’s someone who is understandable to you, but who is nonetheless going through the world in an alien way.” Other ways of being struck are possible, besides the ones already known to you.
JS: If someone says to you, “That person is a clear writer,” what comes to mind?
EO: I think clear writing is often uncluttered and can be declarative—offering to do something and then doing it. I also think clear writing often involves some meditation on why the author is doing what they’re doing or what they’re seeking to get out of it. For example, Toril Moi’s Revolution of the Ordinary is a very clear book, and one of the sources of its clarity is her explicit meditation on what it is that she’s trying to accomplish and what difficulties she encounters in doing that.
Yet the subject matter of Moi’s book is also very difficult. Some of the things that are being explained are not easy to grasp even though the writing itself is clear. I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t really see difficulty and clarity as opposed. One way to put it is that there are forms of difficulty that are also clarity. I learned a lot from Karen Zumhagen-Yekplé’s A Different Order of Difficulty on this topic. She says that certain things are difficult in the sense that they’re inviting you to work through something, or to be changed by something, or to go through a process. That kind of difficulty could actually be accompanied by clarity. Here she draws on Cora Diamond. For Diamond it’s reality, not prose, that’s difficult in the first place. You might need to subject yourself to a difficult reality—try to understand it or live with it, that is—and if the prose that results from your working-through is difficult, this isn’t an affectation; it’s a consequence of the subject matter.
JS: What do you see as the purpose of arguing about literature?
EO: If canons aren’t discussed and written about, or if there’s no interpretative debate about why two novels relate to each other or even belong to the same historical story, then gradually we don’t have an object of study or a framework in which a historical understanding of literature is possible. Without that framework, we in turn don’t have humanities education. We don’t have new work on criticism or aesthetic response.
Another way to put your question would be to ask, “What do texts in the history of literature mean to us? And how are we to interpret them? Where did they come from? What are their appropriate contexts?” I do think a lively debate about all of that is the institutional and professional ground for a lot of the other things we do, in addition to being valuable in itself.
JS: Is that what literary criticism is for? Answering those questions?
EO: Yes, that’s what literary scholarship is for. I might define criticism a little more narrowly, as the task (to return to Cavell once more) of getting you to see what I see, or helping me to see what you see. Historical scholarship is part of how I might get you to see, part of how I might come to be able to see myself. But how I get you to see is indeterminate—we don’t know in advance what sort of showing will work. Nelson Goodman understands aesthetic experience as a kind of cognition. Thus, for him, the point of that experience is that we come to understand—and understanding has intrinsic value. I think that’s right. Aesthetic experience doesn’t have to be made subservient to something else—being empathetic, or being a better person, for example. It has its own value, as a way of coming to understand. And criticism serves the purpose of helping us to come to understand.
Image credit: Late nineteenth-century view of the Ralph Waldo Emerson House, © 2018-2022 Ralph Waldo Emerson Memorial Association