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Tuesday, July 12, 2005


Posted by Daniel Green on 07/12/05 at 05:00 PM

As the author of Theory of Literature (long considered the primary theoretical pillar supporting the New Criticism), Rene Wellek surely exemplifies the imperative to separate theory from Theory that John Holbo has been discussing.  Wellek cleary believed in the efficacy of theory--which he defines as “concerned with the principles, categories, functions, and criteria of literature in general"--but as early as 1982 he feared that literary theory was undermining the very assumptions on which literary study had been based. Were his fears (at least about the kind of theory then being promulgated) well-founded? I think not.

His essay,"Destroying Literary Studies,” reprinted in Theory’s Empire, contends that Theory (primarily deconstruction and reader-response theory, but also extending as far back as Northrop Frye) was threatening “the whole edifice of literary study” in an “attempt to destroy literary studies from the inside.” In retrospect, this seems an absurd charge to have leveled against the likes of Derrida, Frye, Stanley Fish, and (!) Harold Bloom, and seems to vindicate the counter-charge that New Criticism was an especially narrow and insular movement. If even Frye and Bloom couldn’t be countenanced as serious-minded rivals, wasn’t it New Criticism that was doomed to destroy itself “from the inside”?

Probably so. Wellek is the only scholar associated with first-generation New Criticism to be represented in Theory’s Empire, so perhaps it would be unfair to take his remarks as representative of the attitude to Theory of the New Critics as a whole. (The editors of TE seem to present it as such, however. There are only two references to Cleanth Brooks in the whole book, a few scattered references to W.K. Wimsatt--mostly summarizing “The Intentional Fallacy"--none at all to John Crowe Ransom.) And it is indeed disconcerting (to me) to come across such pronouncements as these from someone famous for having made the distinction between “extrinsic” and “intinsic” approaches to literary criticism: that Theory “refuses to acknowledge that the relation of mind and world is more basic than language”; that Theorists “refuse to understand that words designate things and not only other words, as they argue”; that Theory represents “the rejection of the whole ancient enterprise of interpretation as a search for the true meaning of a text.”

This represents quite a retreat from, if not the letter, then certainly the spirit of New Critical practice. What other New Critic, faced with emerging methods somewhat more radical than his own but not finally that different in kind, would have resorted to the argument that interpetation is “a search for the true meaning of the text?” Did Wellek not read The Well-Wrought Urn? In my opinion, Wellek finally comes off as a crotchety old man rejecting everything unfamiliar to him, which really does no good for an enterprise such as Theory’s Empire, which presumably wants to reinforce the notion that some of the work done in literary study pre-Theory was valuable enough to be preserved.

Wellek’s dismissals of Derrida and Fish seem especially peculiar to me. Derrida, writes Wellek, “argues that all philosophy is shot through by metaphors, ambiguities, ‘undecidables,’ as is all literature and criticism. This view was welcomed by some literary critics and students as a liberation, since it gives license to the arbitrary spinning of metaphors, to the stringing of puns, to mere language games.” This may indeed have happened among some of Derrida’s followers, but that is no reason to throw out the deconstructive baby with the adulterated bathwater. Derrida’s work should have been welcomed because it actually gave added credibility to the notion that all unitary, totalizing readings are mistaken and further undercut the view, still held even by some poets and novelists, that writing fiction and poetry is a matter of “saying something.” The hysterical reaction to Derrida by people like Wellek only made deconstruction seem somehow relevant to the politicized varieties of academic criticism that followed, when in fact it was much closer to New Criticism itself, might even be seen as taking some of the assumptions of New Criticism to their logical conclusion.

Wellek’s account of Fish and his version of reader-response theory is equally strange. “By absolutizing the power of [subjective] assumptions,” according to Wellek, “he empties literature of all significance. . .Fish’s theories encourage the view that there are no wrong interpretations, that there is no norm implied in a text, and hence that there is no knowledge of an object.” Fish has repeatedly defended himself against the charge that he encourages intepretive anarchy, and I can’t improve on what he has said. (Interpretive communities do have norms, if the text itself does not.) Reading works of literature indeed does not produce “knowledge of an object” (not the kind of knowledge Wellek has in mind) but it does provide an experience from which knowledge can be derived (knowledge for interpretation). In some ways this is perfectly compatible with the New Critical precepts that would have us consider the reading of poetry to be a kind of dramatic experience rather than a process of gaining “knowledge of an object.” Fish can be taken as giving this approach to reading a sturdier epistemological foundation.

(Wellek seems to have a particular animus towards an experiential account of reading. Elsewhere in the essay he claims that John Dewey’s view of art “as the experience of heightened vitality” is part of an “attack on aesthetics.” It is not. It merely relocates the source of aesthetic pleasure from the “object” to the act of perception.)

The “theories” of both Derrida and Fish could have co-existed comfortably with New Critical formalism if everyone concerned had not regarded the differences between them as so considerable that they justified critical and curricular warfare. Judging from Rene Wellek’s essay (and many of the others included in Theory’s Empire), the New Critics and other traditionalists were just as responsible for initiating hostilities as the Theorists who ultimately defeated them.


Just to start the ball rolling in my non-expert way: back in the day, Wellek’s book seemed to have functioned as a compendium of correct opinion and a good way of getting quickly up to speed on the orthodoxy.

I don’t remember him ever being cited for especially cogent writing or analysis. My experience was pretty slender (I wasn’t a lit major), but there are at least a dozen critics of that school or of that time, of whom I have some idea what their specific contribution was.

By John Emerson on 07/12/05 at 07:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think we’re usually on opposite side of things, Daniel, but I agree completely with you here. The “theories” of both Derrida and Fish could have co-existed comfortably with New Critical formalism if everyone concerned had not regarded the differences between them as so considerable that they justified critical and curricular warfare. Totally. 

But, given that Derrida and Derridean ideas are regularly invoked by postcolonialists, queer theorists, cult studs, etc., the question might be asked whether New Criticism is actually that distant from the current Theory academy.  That it’s not is one of the claims argued by Walter Benn Michaels in his recent Shape of the Signifier.  What all these schools share in his view is precisely an emphasis on the (endlessly divergent) experiences of a text at the expense of its meaning. I don’t think you have to go all the way with his extreme intentionalist view to see that he has point here.

By on 07/12/05 at 08:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

There are a number of affinities between contemporary theoretical practices, deconstruction and Wellek; foremost among them is Wellek’s infamous--at least to the party-line New Critics--insistence in “The Concept of Comparative Literature” (1950) that “the attempt to isolate fact from opinion, criticism from scholarship, will and must fail.  There are no neutral facts in literature.” Thirty years down the line, De Man calls that hyper-self-awareness of ones own assumptions “theoretical ruthlessness.” Now identitarian thinkers call it “interrogating the subject position.”

Sean, I realize I just said that you can’t make these sweeping generalizations about distinctive theoretical trends (Althusser/Foucault) without flattening the theories in their entirety, but I think in this case, the comparison holds.  (So yes, I’m a hypocrite.)

For the record, however, I should say that Wellek’s Theory of Literature was the foundational text of New Criticism.  Ransom’s “Criticism, Inc.” is published in ‘37; his collaboration with Brooks, Understanding Poetry, in ‘38.  Furthermore, only certain essays in it could even be said to fit the New Critical model: the phenomenologically-informed “The Mode of Existence of the Literary Work of Art” and the obviously unfit “Literary History” were rarely--if ever--cited by New Critics.  Granted, the New Critics found his general polemics against positivism amenable, and they liked the Kantian distinctions between “intrinsic” and “extrinsic.”

Also, I can’t remember where he says it--I didn’t write in it my notes because it didn’t interest me at the time--but one of Wellek’s objections to deconstruction and Bloomian psychoanalytic readings concerned the apparent jargonaphasia to which they were prone.  He did share the New Critic’s basic anti-positivism, and abhorred the adoption of the language of the sciences (in this case, psychoanalysis) and the deliberate but, to his mind, unartistically muddy and metaphorical language (deconstruction). 

Contrary to the contemporary impression of Wellek, his thought was philosophically sophisticated.  I’ve little doubt that he could follow Derrida; he simply didn’t like the language for reasons both philosophical and aesthetic.  And before anyone says anything: 1) don’t say he should’ve read it in French, as I’ve no doubt the founder of Comp. Lit. in the American academy read it in French and 2) don’t mistake my knowledge of his work as a tacit agreement with its aims.  (That sound unnecessarily combative.  I didn’t mean it to be.  I just don’t want to defend Wellek on account of my pathological desire to “set the historical record straight.")

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 07/12/05 at 08:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

A thought experiment: the advent of “Theory” was not a betrayal of the New Criticism, but rather an outgrowth of the New Criticism, such that, at the end of the day, nothing has qualitatively changed since something like “literature” was established as an academic discipline.

In other words: Perhaps our Criticism is still, whether we like it or not, New.

By Adam Kotsko on 07/12/05 at 09:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

That thought experiment will lead you to the exact conclusion you’ve drawn from it, and that’s why it’s not all that helpful.  Many New Critics didn’t believe the advent of Theory to be a betrayal of their critical practices so much as a betrayal of the institutional structures founded upon them.  A combination of the influx of students on the G.I. Bill and the codification of English under a New Critical rubric led directly to the spread of English departments across the country.  To repudiate New Criticism was to repudiate the study of English qua English Departments, so for English professors to have joined in the fun was considered traitorous by those who had built the institutions the whipper-snappers were so intent on pulling down...which is only to say, from my perspective as an historicist, that while I think you’ve hit the conceptual nail on its conceptual head, debates that attempt to make sense of the American reception of post-structuralism without understanding their institutional context will inevitably come to this (conceptually correct) conclusion.  But that’ll only baffle anyone who undertakes them, hence my efforts to shoe-horn it into its historical and institutional contexts, both in this thread and in my post.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 07/12/05 at 09:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Then one begins to suspect that the current “Theory/anti-Theory” debate may have more to do with institutional power struggles than with the intellectual objections ostensibly at stake—such that, ironically enough, something like a Foucauldian analysis might be just the thing!

By Adam Kotsko on 07/12/05 at 10:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, I would say that certain branches of Theory were not inimical to the New Critical enterprise.  These were not really outgrowths of New Criticism, but rather foreign imports that were not inconsistent with New Criticism: De Manian deconstruction, French structuralism, Russian formalism.  These were forms of criticism that shared New Criticism’s emphasis on the primacy of the literary text.  All of these, I think, were still clearly aesthetic approaches to literature. 

The other branches of Theory - such as marxism, new historicism, feminism and gender studies, post-colonialism, queer theory, psychoanalysis, etc. - were fundamentally different.  These approaches did not start with the primacy of the literary text.  Instead, the literary text was just another piece of evidence used to justify the theory.  These were not aesthetic approaches to literature, they were primarily sociologicaly, historical, psychological, politcal.

This may be one reason why its wrong to think of all branches of Theory as of one piece.

By on 07/12/05 at 10:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Though I’m not prepared to argue it, it does seem to me that, given the New Criticism, (something like) Theory was inevitable.

And it seems to me that both make similar use of canonical authority. In the course of writing about a text, or group of texts, the critic makes statements about the human condition. Chances are those statements would be of little interest if asserted simply on the critic’s own personal and/or intellectual authority. But that’s not what the critic does. Rather, the critic makes those statements on the authority of the literary canon. The critic is merely interpreting the authoritative canon.

Of course, the Theory-laden critic typically will summon authorities other than some literary text, and may even give the appearance of rejecting canonical authority by severely questioning the text or even of the canon. But that questioning gets its force from the canonical status of the text. So the critic is still using the canon as a source of authority for his or her statements about the human condition.

What then are we to make of the turn toward popular culture? There the critic is no longer summoning canonical authority to his argument, for he is looking at materials that do not have such authority. Now there’s a threat. How long before this practice empties the canon of all authority? What then?

And yet, if one takes up the perspective of the Martian ethnologist, the canon has no particular privelege. It is just one phenomena of earthling behavior.

By bbenzon on 07/12/05 at 10:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think back when I was in grad school, it was sort of a commonplace understanding that De Manian deconstruction was an inversion of New Criticism.  To indulge in caricature, whereas New Criticism used close reading of texts to show how ambiguities and ironies resolved themselves into some larger coherence, De Manian deconstruction used close reading of texts to show how certainties and distinctions unravelled themselves into larger ambiguities.  The well wrought urn versus the finely fissured urn, I suppose.

By on 07/12/05 at 10:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Blah, I believe it depends on the New Critic in question.  The closer his or (rarely) her ties to The Kenyon Review or The Southern Review--i.e. to Ransom and the former Fugitives or Brooks at LSU--the more likely the critic will hold beliefs about the coherence of “social totalities.” (That many of the critics of this ilk contributed to the agrarian manifesto I’ll Take My Stand is no coincidence.)

Post-structuralists like De Man and all New Critics share an elevated notion of the value of “practical criticism.” Named after the chronicle of Richards’ abuse of undergraduates, Practical Criticism, or “close-reading,” or the idea that it’s all about the text, the whole text, and nothing but the text.  Deconstruction would, to put it mildly, “expand” the definition of what constitutes the text, but the critics who trained under the auspices of the New wouldn’t have had that difficult a time adjusting (at least not intellectually) to the demands of early post-structuralist thought. 

In theory, the New Criticism was monolithic and does conform to the commonplace understanding you espouse; in practice, however, it was as pluralistic as can be.  The leap from Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity to the post-structuralist belief in the indeterminacy of the text is not so great as some have made it out to be.

That said, neither approach entailed or could’ve anticipated the rise of advocacy criticism, which for obvious reasons has aligned itself with the post-structuralist lineage and denied, denied, denied any indebtedness (of its own or on behalf of post-structuralism) to the New Criticism.  But that, as I told Adam, is a more a matter of institutional politics; it is not, however, as Adam replied, an excuse to trot out Foucault’s a priori-assumption-validator.  We can do without power, thank you very much.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 07/12/05 at 10:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It was more a joke than a suggestion.

By Adam Kotsko on 07/12/05 at 10:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

bbenzon, I meant to respond to you directly, but instead I stole your point:

When I made the Empson comparison, I wanted explicitly to concede half your point.  Because of the influence of Empson--whose practical criticism privilegd ambiguity--the original New Critical emphasis on social totalities (Southern agrarianism borne of the Great Depression) would’ve necessarily come into conflict with Empsonian ambiguity, such that some sort of conceptual split would’ve been inevitable.  However, as I argued before--and as the unprecendented dominance 40-year dominance of New Criticism evidences--there are institutional reasons why even an inevitable conceptual split would’ve been a long time comin’.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 07/12/05 at 10:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Though I’m not prepared to argue it, it does seem to me that, given the New Criticism, (something like) Theory was inevitable.”

I have, in fact, argued this. Unfortunately the essay is not available online, but it can be found in *Philosophy and Literature* Volume 27, Number 1 (April 2003).

By Daniel Green on 07/12/05 at 10:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

As was my response, Adam.  (I 86’d the reference to the joys of Ramen cooked over an open flame.)

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 07/12/05 at 10:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

For the sake of full disclosure: In addition to being sincere, my comment was supposed to be a reference to the Berubean “more a comment than a question.”

By Adam Kotsko on 07/12/05 at 10:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

For the record, however, I should say that Wellek’s Theory of Literature was the foundational text of New Criticism.

The reason no one understood my argument is because I wrote the exact opposite of what I meant: that should’ve read “wasn’t the foundational...”

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 07/13/05 at 07:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

This nastiness thing, after all, is not at all unusual.  I hang out on an evolutionary psych listserve and those people can get pretty nasty about psychoanalysis, deconstruction, science studies, religion, and the apostate Stephan Jay Gould. This all has the feel of taboo and contamination, like you’re going to get infested with cooties if that stuff comes anywhere near your compound.  So you denounce it in no uncertain terms.

It seems to me that some of this is about exaggerating the difference between You and Them so that you really can feel secure that your different ideas are new and sound. But in fact, your new ideas are often pretty loopy and tentative, so you have to exaggerate the nastiness of the old ideas so you can feel justified in going so far out on a slender limb.  “Yeah, this limb I’m on may fall off at any moment, but your whole freakin’ forest is in a swamp fed by the Sewers of Late

By bbenzon on 07/14/05 at 01:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment



Don’t ask how that happened.

By bbenzon on 07/14/05 at 01:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

What Kaufman said about Wellek confirms my aexperience. In decades of listening to people talk about literature, a secondary interest of mine, I don’t believe I’ve ever heard anyone ground what they were saying on Wellek per se. He seems to have been a systematizer of orthodoxy whose works were suitable for indoctrination purposes (and for a sort of much-denser Cliff’s notes), but whose original ideas weren’t very powerful.

By John Emerson on 07/18/05 at 10:10 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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