Reading After the University

From Public Books:

It’s no news that the university is in crisis. Foreign-language departments have perhaps been the most affected, but few humanities programs have gone unscathed. English departments form the subject of two new attempts to provide a backstory to our present disorder: Outside Literary Studies: Black Criticism and the University by Andy Hines and Professing CriticismEssays on the Organization of Literary Studies by John Guillory. Both depict literary study within universities as something strange and recent. And both situate the university in longer stories of racial capitalism and class distinction. Taken together, they provide a sobering analysis of the limited political potential of today’s English departments.

At the same time, amid this morass of dysfunction, both books soothe themselves with the fact that the university has no monopoly on reading. Students are never confined to the official syllabus. Some part of literature and literary study has always been eccentric to the university curriculum, and accounts of the “outside” of university-based practices, like the one Hines finds in a Black radical tradition that emphasized literature’s political potentials, could proliferate in many directions. Disciplinary outsides and eccentricities have tended to negatively inform professional literature scholars’ assertions that study of “their” objects requires specialist training in unique methods, or that university-based study of literature is the most inherently humanizing or importantly political reading practice. Guillory and Hines flip the script. By treating the professional literary academic as only one kind of reader, they suggest that attention to the varieties of reading practice ongoing outside the university may be an optimism appropriate to our contemporary moment.


Both books part ways with what Abigail Boggs and Nick Mitchell describe as a liberal “crisis consensus” that envisions universities as inherently progressive institutions that need only be saved from the recent ravages of neoliberal privatization.1 Hines depicts the English department as having been an “institutionalized cultural space governed by whiteness and anticommunism.” In his telling, the postwar establishment of the new criticism, which foregrounded close reading of the text as a self-contained aesthetic object, helped ground the emerging postwar hegemony of US liberal capitalism, which imagined itself as an apolitical unity-amid-diversity in opposition to mandated Soviet conformity. None of this could have happened without demonizing left and communist Black intellectuals who treated culture as an engine of revolutionary transformation.

In turn, Guillory’s historical breadth—encompassing the rise and fall of rhetoric, belle lettres, philology, and more—supplements some of Hines’s archival work on the late 1940s and 1950s. Guillory understands the new criticism as just one piece of a massive sociological and methodological shift that made the literary object a “verbal work of art” and, built around it, the English department as a site of disciplinary expertise. By subordinating documentary or political aspects of the text to “an aesthetic ontology,” English professors granted themselves jurisdiction over literary inquiry, and thus a role within the university in servicing the expanding professional-managerial class.

In Hines’s account, the new criticism enabled the racialized exploitation and exclusion of some people to secure the freedom of others within the “state-academic apparatus.” “Black writers, Black leftists, and communist affiliates who sought to build institutions around the critical study of Black literature,” among them Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Melvin B. Tolson, fought the new criticism’s consolidation with US institutions, seeking instead an interracial coalition that would challenge American capitalism and “the ills of racial liberalism.” Their radical vision of future possibility was undermined by a “racist interpretation complex” that made “the imagining of such efforts, and the efforts themselves, appear improbable.” The causal claim is important here: it is the racist interpretation complex, backed by and embodied within the new criticism, that undermined the work of those committed to using the study of literature and culture in service of radical social transformation.

Hines’s interest lies in the political and economic circumstances that have shaped methodologies for literary study. His is a form of attention that has itself been denigrated by the new critical formalisms that interest him, which would insist that one “focus on the text” or “look at the literature itself.” You may object that these kinds of new critical approaches in their purest expression are not especially resonant anymore in the contemporary English department. You may even say that approaches indicting new critical work as apolitical formalism—a tradition of critique to which Hines adds—have been more characteristic of the discipline since the late 1960s.

This is where Guillory’s account comes in. His sociology of the institution explains why, long after new criticism’s fall from grace, the English department continues to be relatively homogenous. For despite Hines’s materialist interest in the political-economic backgrounds framing literary inquiry, he attributes more agency than does Guillory to the new criticism as an intellectual formation, describing it variously as a “crucial instrument,” an “integral part,” and as having “played an important role” in the establishment of English as a discipline of whiteness and anticommunism that rejects political approaches to literature as a betrayal of its true import. Unlike the revolutionary conceptions of culture that flourished in the people’s schools, in which writing could express and shape radical consciousness of the need for social transformation, “new Critical methods denied the possibility of criticism garnering any material force,” Hines argues. Does a critical tendency’s own self-conception undermine its material force, or do the material forces shaping study already relegate criticism to a particular role, at best a handmaiden or a message force multiplier?

Link to the rest at Public Books

PG was tempted to go on a rant, but posted the adjacent Henry Kissinger quote instead.

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