The Real World of Reading

A response to Jonathan Kramnick’s Criticism and Truth

Ankhi Mukherjee

From a folio of responses to Jonathan Kramnick's Criticism and Truth: On Method in Literary Studies. To read the entire folio, click here.

auto-da-fé, the 1935 novel by the forgotten Nobelist Elias Canetti, is a cautionary tale of intellectual blindness and petrification, rendered, as the science fiction writer Ian Watson noted, with “the exaggerated savagery of a cartoon strip.” The Sinologist Doktor Peter Kien’s fatal flaw is that he understands little outside his own specialized field. Canetti’s novel addresses not just the compartmentalization of knowledge but the grotesquerie of the Nietzschean head without a body and its simple inability to address social life. The novel’s three sections are titled “Head Without a World,” “Headless World,” and “The World in the Head.” Peter Kien slides from an acceptable solipsism to a pathological one, from a harmless idée fixe to full-blown paranoia. The original title of Auto-da-fé was Kant Catches Fire, which stressed the philosophical narcissism that leads to the self-immolation of its juridico-literary archive, and it was Canetti’s friend Hermann Broch who talked him out of calling the hero of the book Kant. The tongues of flame that destroy Kien and his counterworld—his Alexandrian library—at the end of the novel symbolize serried crowds and mass psychology: the advent of the modern world his monkish self-absorption has failed either to apprehend or to lock out.

I was reminded of Canetti as I read the methodological ruminations in Jonathan Kramnick’s Criticism and Truth: On Method in Literary Studies, which enjoins literary critics not to lose sight of the world and social organization in the drive to master detail. And this too, the house of literary studies, is imperiled: “Our worries are existential because we have had to contemplate the end to all of this, an extinction event in the history of knowledge, now fast, now slow, here visible, there hidden.”

Kramnick, evoking the ecocritical vocabulary and activism prevalent in studies of climate crisis and species extinction, presents a bleak overview of the discipline (and the humanities in general) over the past decades: austerity cuts and defunding; the dwindling of tenure-track positions and the academic precariat; the losses and deficits in the university sector brought on by the pandemic. In the United Kingdom, where I live and teach, English studies—the exemplary humanities discipline with its sinewy networks in the postcolonial Anglophone world and its renewed relevance in East Asia with its rising demand for English proficiency—has had to cope with its own extinction risks. These include the increase in university fees and student loans; sharp drops in enrollment; the economic downturn, which has cast doubts on the transferable skills and employability value of humanities degrees; and the British government’s overt prioritizing of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) subjects over SHAPE (social sciences, humanities, and the arts for people and the economy) disciplines in research, innovation, and even immigration policy. “No discipline of study is separate from its material conditions,” Kramnick observes, arguing that to ensure the survival and propagation of literary criticism we need to pay renewed attention to the specialisms that constitute “a claim for its existence.” That method, craft, that skilled practice, according to Criticism and Truth, is close reading.

In this way, Kramnick’s book may seem to represent yet one more entry in the method debates which have consumed so much of our discipline’s intellectual energy in recent years. In Revolution of the Ordinary, for example, the literary critic Toril Moi advocates for the power of ordinary language philosophy over the currency and claims of “theory,” arguing that etymologically, method (derived from the Greek meta, “with,” “after,” and hodos, “way,” “road”) is a protocol—“a clearly defined series of steps to be taken in a specific order to reach a replicable result”—that literary critics and humanists have little use for. Conceding that research fields such as the history of the book or philology do profess methods, Moi suggests that, in general, “I am not convinced that literary criticism—professional readings of literature—has a method in the usual sense of the word.” There is no trade secret, no method for reading and finding the words to express one’s perception and experience of the text. The grasping for method emanates from the “fear that when we voice our view, we will discover that we are alone, maybe mad, certainly cast out,” Moi speculates.

In Moi’s reading, the act of criticism is a lark, a plunge, to be undertaken without fear or shame, and certainly without method. “Critique,” that other enduring keyword of scholarly practice, has been similarly deflated in recent reflections on the discipline. “It seems undeniable that the ethos of critique is losing its allure for a significant number of younger scholars as well as many established critics,” Elizabeth Anker and Rita Felski state in their introduction to the collection Critique and Postcritique. “The intellectual or political payoff of interrogating, demystifying, and defamiliarizing is no longer quite so self-evident,” they insist, unambiguously positing “critique” as the mode of intellectual argumentation guilty of the joyless actions described above—namely, interrogating, demystifying, defamiliarizing.

Kramnick sidesteps the contrived distinction between the pleasures of postcritical criticism and the diagnostic priorities of suspicious reading to focus instead on actual practice.

In this reading, the critique-minded critic is the psychoanalyst “treating the text as a patient”; the psycholinguist unraveling its “contradictions, slippages, elisions”; the Foucauldian forensic detective of knowledge/power entanglements; the Marxist curator of “fragments of social totalities” which are corrupted by these very totalities. The editors use “critique” and “theory” interchangeably, positing each as enervated by its own reactive, hypervigilant, and codic critical stances. Both practices constitute “a suspicious hermeneutics,” Anker and Felski contend. As such, they neutralize what the philosopher Jacques Rancière calls art’s dissensus—the disruptive potential unique to it—by seeking a correspondence between “aesthetic virtue and political virtue” when, according to Rancière’s Dissensus, no criterion for establishing such a correspondence exists. With all its “negativity and opposition,” critique fails to justify the “aesthetic or social importance of literature or our practice as critics.”

Kramnick’s book is brisk and no-nonsense in its negotiation of a nostalgia for the effortless ease of reading and the fallacies inherent in takedowns of the ethos of critique. The method debates have not been “about method at all,” he points out. They are, instead, “an occasion for a proxy debate about what sort of attitude one should bear to their objects of study and, beneath that, a proxy debate about whether and to what extent it is important to claim relevance for interpretive work at a moment of crisis for the discipline’s footing in the academy and the academy’s footing in the world.”

Bravo, I say. Postcritique manifestoes like Anker and Felski’s seem conveniently to forget the continuities of formation between literary criticism and literature from the nineteenth century well into the twentieth, and that “criticism itself was a genre of literature,” as the literary theorist John Guillory points out in Professing Criticism. Or that the transmutation of this genre of literature as academic discourse has allowed it imaginative excursions from the domains of literature and the university into cultural criticism, digital engagement, interdisciplinary knowledge exchange, public scholarship, and even philosophical abstractions. Kramnick sidesteps the contrived distinction between the pleasures of postcritical criticism and the diagnostic priorities of suspicious reading to focus instead on actual practice, “the topic of method qua method” that the so-called method debates have derogated. “I take no stand in these debates, except to say that no discipline can be relevant without having a secure lock on knowledge, and that no discipline is relevant if it ceases to exist.” I would reverse the order of the sentence to highlight its sardonic humor: no discipline is relevant if it ceases to exist, and no discipline can be relevant without having a secure lock on knowledge.

Kramnick imagines the minutiae of “method”—the in-sentence quotation, for example—as placing, insetting, sorting, weaving, stitching, mortaring, grouting, or fading or blending the grout. The critic as a veritable handworker, to use that Victorian terminology. This also bespeaks age-old anxieties about the role of the critic, positioned uncertainly between the beneficiary of a gentleman’s education and the starving artist dependent for his or her livelihood on market forces. I am reminded of the spider’s web in A Room of One’s Own that Virginia Woolf evokes to describe such imaginative work: “When the web is pulled askew, hooked up at the edge, torn in the middle, one remembers that these webs are not spun in mid-air by incorporeal creatures, but are the work of suffering human beings, and are attached to grossly material things, like health and money and the houses we live in.”

The artist-critic is also caught in transit between fuga mundi and what the sociologist Erving Goffman, in his book Asylums, calls “voluntary total institution,” enclosures that mediate the relationship of their members with the outside world in which organizational rules apply. “Writing criticism is knowing how to do something and the knowledge exhibited a kind of know-how,” Kramnick states. The difficulty, however, is in replicating or scaling up this skilled practice. The literary critic Derek Attridge relates this difficulty to the singularity of literature and its resistance to definition and reduction, which, of course, he treats as a starting point, not a dead end. Kramnick addresses this issue robustly. Method in literary studies is not a murderous grasp of meaning but a grappling, Kramnick states, “with the thisness of particular artifacts in order to derive from them some more capacious argument, set of concerns, or register of significance.” And the shaping of the terms and object of exegesis is critical as well as creative, “a making of something new and something valuable.”

Because of my own interest in postcolonial studies, I want to conclude with a mention of the theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s Critique of Postcolonial Reason. It is not a concrete example of postcolonial method—note the title of the work—but a critique in which method spectacularly takes off like a firework. My focus is on a section in which Spivak traces the figure of the “native informant” through philosophy, literature, history, and culture. In ethnography, the native informant is the native individual providing information in semi-formal settings, generating a text of cultural identity in which the informant has no stake. Spivak’s strongest criticism of postcolonialism as a stance is that it coopts the foreclosed position of the native informant. She proposes that a different standard of literary evaluation, necessarily provisional, can emerge “if we work at the (im)possible perspective of the native informant as a remainder of alterity, rather than remain caught in some identity forever.”

Spivak finds such a remainder of alterity in Christophine, Antoinette’s Martinican nurse in Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys’s rewriting of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Despite her commodification—she is a wedding present—Christophine is briefly entertained as a sovereign self in the novel. She is an adept mediator between cultures and someone who understands the limits of cultural translation. A post-emancipation consciousness—“No chain gang, no tread machine, no dark jail either. This is a free country and I am a free woman”—Christophine is given the license to talk back to Antoinette’s husband Rochester about his gross exploitation of his wife. Soon after the exchange, however, Christophine is “quietly placed outside the story,” Spivak observes, “with neither narrative nor characterological justification.” Spivak reads in her parting words—“Read and write I don’t know. Other things I know”—a flouting of the curricular study that wrought colonialism, “a singular strength, not a weakness.”

The site of the native informant can only be read; the informant cannot be repurposed as a reading position. “I am calling for a critic or teacher who has taken the trouble to do enough homework in language and history,” Spivak writes, one who can analyze the structure of address of the text in the interest of what she calls “active interception.” Not advocacy on behalf of the silenced, or a self-marginalizing subject who appropriates the native informant’s position to become the functionary intelligentsia mediating between transnational corporation and the country of origin, but a critic whose skilled practice tracks the decolonizing consciousness emerging unrecognized in that nonequilibrated space—the consciousness that will eventually send up the plantocracy in flames. Christophine is not real; she is a creation of Jean Rhys. But neither author nor critic is making stuff up in this “ideally illumined space,” as George Eliot described the reconstructions of the observed world in Middlemarch. In that dream of meaning we term interpretation, the literary critical insight contributes, Kramnick observes, “a truth available only because of the creative act.”

Ankhi Mukherjee is professor of English and World Literatures at the University of Oxford, and a fellow of Wadham College. She is the author of award-winning monographs, including Unseen City: The Psychic Lives of the Urban Poor and What Is a Classic? Postcolonial Rewriting and Invention of the Canon.
Originally published:
June 17, 2024


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