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John Holbo - Editor
Scott Eric Kaufman - Editor
Aaron Bady
Adam Roberts
Amardeep Singh
Andrew Seal
Bill Benzon
Daniel Green
Jonathan Goodwin
Joseph Kugelmass
Lawrence LaRiviere White
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On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

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Monday, November 20, 2006

Received Wisdom: Empson and the New Critics

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 11/20/06 at 09:02 PM

Article #1:

In the 1950s, the New Criticism, championed by F.R. Leavis, I.A. Richards and, ironically, the troilistically inclined Empson, was the dominant literary ideology. This insisted that the text and only the text mattered; the life was nothing. Subsequently, literary theories such as structuralism went further, claiming there was no such thing as an author; texts were written by the culture, not the individual.

Article #2:

So it was with what he called the Wimsatt Law, which maintained that the intention of an author should be of no concern to the interpreter; if the poet succeeded, all the relevant evidence of intention was there in the poem. Wimsatt regarded the poem as a ‘verbal icon’: an autonomous verbal structure, an aesthetic object independent of the truth or morality of whatever it says.  This places Wimsatt on the Richards side of the argument with Empson, who found the Wimsatt Law disgusting: it violated his strongly Romantic notion of what poetry is and does; and he thought he saw that the entire profession of literary criticism, on both sides of the Atlantic, had been corrupted by it.

Which is the correct account of Empson’s relation to the New Criticism? 

The author of the Times article—not to mention people who have or desire employment in an English department—should read Mark Jancovich’s The Cultural Politics of New Criticism.  For once, the Amazon description of an academic book is pithy and cogent:

In this book, Mark Jancovich concentrates on the works of three leading American writers—Robert Penn Warren, John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate—in order to examine the development of the New Criticism during the late 1920s and early 1930s, and its establishment within the academy in the late 1930s and 1940s. This critical movement managed to transform the teaching and study of English through a series of essays published in journals such as the Southern Review and the Kenyon Review. Jancovich argues that the New Criticism was not an example of bourgeois individualism, as previously held, but that it sprang from a critique of modern capitalist society developed by pre-capitalist classes within the American South. In the process, he clarifies the distinctions between the aims of these three Southern poets from those of the next “generation” of New Critics such as Cleanth Brooks, Warren and Welleck, and Wimsatt and Beardsley. He also claims that the failure on the part of most contemporary critics to identify the movement’s ideological origins and aims has usually meant that these critics continue to operate within the very professional terms of reference established through the New Critical transformations of the academy.

Empson and Richards don’t factor largely in Jancovich’s account, which is my point—the term “New Criticism” transforms all literary scholarship written before 1968 into a caricature of second generation of American New Critics.  Much of what passes for the “political” in literary scholarship relies on the contradistinction between the current face of literary studies and that caricature.  I share with those who commented on Bruce Robbin’s review of the Bérubé the belief that literary studies tilts left for some reason—but “not being a New Critic” isn’t it.

(I wrote a similar encomium last August.  Ignore the post and dash to the comments, in which, this idea acquired much-needed refinement.)


Comments

Jancovich argues that the New Criticism .... sprang from a critique of modern capitalist society developed by pre-capitalist classes within the American South.

What Kenneth Rexroth called “The Pillowcase Head-dress School”.

By John Emerson on 11/20/06 at 11:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think that a relevant and interesting exercise in this regard is to read Paul Fussell’s and Edward Marx’s articles on “The Man Who Would Be King” back-to-back. Both are available via jstor.

By Jonathan Goodwin on 11/21/06 at 01:15 AM | Permanent link to this comment

That was a bad slip in the first piece you linked - I saw that in ALD today.  It’s all the more strange coming from an English critic who presumably was educated in an English university and thus I’d have thought would naturally recognise New Criticism as a mainly American phenomenon. 

I would perhaps advise anyone seeking a job in an English department to read literature, then some literary critics, and if you’re still hungry, a book about literary critics after that.

By on 11/21/06 at 03:46 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The one person who understood Goodwin’s “joke” found it hilarious and laughed himself to death.

By on 11/21/06 at 04:05 AM | Permanent link to this comment

JD, why do you say Jonathan’s comment is a joke, sorry, a “joke”?  It’s a straightforward suggestion.  And as I found when I looked at the articles, it’s completely pertinent to a discussion of a romantic iconoclast like Empson’s relation to New Criticism, and also pretty telling proof of why when New Criticism fell over it fell so very very hard. 

The article by edward Marx is pretty entrancing actually.  I haven’t read ‘The Man Who Would Be King’ and am unlikely to.  But that’s a very good piece.  I like how he draws a comparison between his own subject matter and episodes in Conrad criticism which will be familiar to everybody; that kind of gesture is always appreciated. 

And I have to wonder, has anyone actually researched the relation between Freemasonry and c18-c19 English philosophy and literature?

By on 11/21/06 at 04:54 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m a bit suspicious of the the idea of a “pre-capitalist class” in Southern society circa 1920.  The period following Reconstruction was all about transforming the South into a capitalist paradise: conservative culture, cronyist politics, business-friendly taxation (i.e., none).  James C. Cobb has written excellent stuff on this issue.  (I’d also argue that the slave plantocracy was the Arcades of America: the cultural symbol of the real work of capitalism in turning people into things.  Ishmael Reed’s *Flight to Canada* is *The Arcades Project* of slavery.) Southern pre-capitalists in the 20s were like Scottish clan chieftains in the 20s: and both like to imagine they’re still living in Walter Scott’s pre-45 romance.

It would seem to me that the Fugitive Movement was the cultural face of New South capitalism: an anti-capitalism so removed from any actual labor movement that it basically preserved High Art *for* the New South’s professional classes.  The Agrarian reaction would seem to be a challange to the capitalist transformation of a romantic plantation culture; but historiographers like Cobb argue that all this blood’n’soil stuff served to wrap the New South in a gossamer of nostalgia, allowing New South politicians to defend business-friendly policies as part of the brave, aristocratic individualism of the Old South.  (This point too is made by Reed in *Flight to Canada*, as the Master’s planation—the romantic castle Camelot—is also the headquarters of a multi-national corporation funding both sides of the Civil War against each other while pursuing its own economic interests.  While the slave master dies [spoiler alert: too late], the “pirate” of the novel controls the networks of economic exchange in the end, a plot device through which Reed can turn an jaundiced eye on the idea of “freedom” in slave literature: the routes to freedom are paved by commerce.  Aren’t you glad you get a summary of my diss chapter on Reed?)

By on 11/21/06 at 08:12 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I briefly got confused about what troilistically-inclined could mean. After I stopped just misreading it as trollistically-inclined I proceeded to assume that the author was comparing Empson to Troilus - as in “This is the monstruosity in love, lady, that the will is infinite , and the execution confin’d.” But that didn’t make sense. Then I remembered about Empson’s love life.

By John Holbo on 11/21/06 at 08:43 AM | Permanent link to this comment

That was pretty much Rexroth’s point. The Fugitives et al could be called anti-capitalist, but only from a paternalistic landlord’s point of view. The term “Agrarian” tips their hand; the South was a resource economy, weak in manufacturing, technology, and finance, and like other such societies, was strongly hierarchal with landowners at the top. Sharecroppers were not landowners and were only only semi-free labor.

I studied under surviving New Criticism types back in the old days, and the bracketing-out of context, especially political context, was unbearable. Essentially, you were not supposed to think about slavery when reading Benito Cereno, nor about inperialism when reading Heart of Darkness, nor about war or justice when reading Billy Budd. They were all about the sinful heart of man and the consequent need for stern authority.

By John Emerson on 11/21/06 at 09:12 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Also, it seems unfair that Scott should get comments to his Empson post when mine always go begging, lonely.

By John Holbo on 11/21/06 at 10:43 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks, Laura. I recently taught “The Man Who Would Be King,” and while I think Fussell’s a bit too quick to dismiss the rest of Kipling’s short fiction, it’s very good, esp. when you consider it was written by Kipling in his early twenties. Fussell’s essay is clearly in a new critical mode--though it involves substantial historical research, which you find quite a lot of in Wimsatt (if you haven’t read his articles on Poe’s cryptography and ombre in the “Lock,” life has treated you poorly--and both available via jstor!). Marx’s article is interesting both for its research and its piquant tone, particularly how it argues that postcolonial criticism recapitulates the sins of the New.

By Jonathan Goodwin on 11/21/06 at 12:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

john H: “Also, it seems unfair that Scott should get comments to his Empson post when mine always go begging, lonely.

Oo!  Comments-envy!

By Adam Roberts on 11/21/06 at 05:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

As Aresenio (who he?) used to say . . . hmmmmm.  Maybe it’s time for another Zizek post or a Theory-as-Higher-Eclecticism sally. Or even that good old-fashioned intentionality and Wordsworth on the beach—not like sex on the beach, is it?

By Bill Benzon on 11/21/06 at 06:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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