• February 4, 2023

Deconstruction, Identity and the Dying Art of Criticism

Imagine a group of book people sitting around talking about literature. Some work in the English departments of the nearby universities. One ventures the idea that “a performative model of subject formation cannot be thought of separately from its implication in regulatory practices that work in discursive regimes that rewrite the” materiality “of the subject by citing norms.”

What does that mean? Before anyone can make a decision, another participant must do the following: “The isolation of the performative in the Victorian novel,” he says, “is thus the condition for the possibility of its disciplined reappearance as an illocutionary hallucination of the performative as a material event of subjectivity, which in a discursive context emerges that can generally be referred to as a “change of identity”. ”

You may think I made this up. But while the group members don’t exist, the sentences do. They come from a University of Michigan Press book on “The Novel”. I am withholding the title and name of the author out of charity. These are examples of a notation commonly used in science. It’s solipsistic, “performative” – one of his favorite expressions – and sealed. Nobody speaks like that and nobody will ever do it.

However, like all of the university’s press releases, the book in question would have been peer-reviewed and undoubtedly received a polite reception by the author’s friends. It’s a form of writing that has brought exclusivity to a point of perfection. The style derives from the project loosely known as deconstruction. Conceived in Paris to address issues related to power and privilege in society and to examine how they function in the literary canon, English studies began to be adopted in the 1980s. The reverberation can be felt today in the “decolonization” of the curricula – the last step is the banishment of supposedly “white supremacist” old classics – and in the overthrow of statues and the renaming of schools.

Until Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault and others revolutionized literary studies, technical writing was reserved for specialist disciplines – for example abstract algebra. But literature by its nature resists marginalization. It has been cultural conversation together since Homer’s time. The greatest English writers, from Chaucer to Whitman to Shakespeare and Dickens, were all popular writers. It was not until the twentieth century that the concept of literary elitism emerged, and it was not until the second half of the century that critical investigation began its development towards the type of writing I have cited. Since only a few can understand it, it must be the most elite literary genre ever known.

I’ve been drawn to literary criticism since books have been central to my existence. Critics like TS Eliot and Virginia Woolf lead the reader to a wider appreciation than would otherwise be possible. In many cases, the critical writing is just as exciting as the discussed work. And it helps to keep the right words in the right order. “If there was better criticism, there would be better books,” Toni Morrison told the New Republic in 1981.

It’s not hard to see criticism get a bad rap. But a reader can look forward to Alexander Pope’s formalism on Monday, and Allen Ginsberg’s informality on Tuesday, dealing with the criticism that joins everyone. John Ashbery’s cryptic poem “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” does not convey its meaning in the same way as a poem by Robert Frost. But with the perseverance of the reader and the insight of a helpful critic, Ashbery’s poem opens up a new aesthetic perspective. So everyone applauds the critic whose function, as Eliot put it, is “the common pursuit of true judgment and the correction of taste”.

How appealing it sounds. And how out of date. We can guess what our imaginary friends who are discussing “discursive regimes that paraphrase the“ materiality ”of the topic” would make of these terms. Whose taste after all? And who has the privilege to correct this?

Such challenges make “common striving” implausible in today’s literary climate. Prime mainstream critics are still at work in this and other magazines, but concepts like taste and judgment have fallen under the wheels of new buzzwords: beware of gatekeepers (by and large, editors). Every “correction”, so the argument goes, should have to do with “historical underrepresentation”. Here the unimpeded imagination presents itself not as a source of invention, but as an instrument of oppression. If the goal is to correct an unfair balance of power, then the means must include the removal of curious concepts like “taste”.

Anyone who pays even close attention to making short lists of book prizes and awarding creative foundations knows how this new form of correction has become a leading driver in decision-making. It may turn out to be a good thing, but be frank about the fact that gender and racial diversity are essential ingredients in all areas of contemporary critical judgment today. You can call it the common pursuit of social justice. In other words, identity approval outperforms critical approval.

Mr. Campbell was the editor and columnist of the Times Literary Supplement for many years.

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