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This review is taken from PN Review 277, Volume 50 Number 5, May - June 2024.

Cover of Criticism and Truth: Method in Literary Studies
Mike FreemanJonathan Kramnick, Criticism and Truth: Method in Literary Studies (University of Chicago Press) $12.50
Epistemic Job Spec

It may work in practice, but – as in the old joke – will it work in theory? And does it need re-branding if it’s to compete in the academic market place? Earlier Jonathan Kramnick has written extensively about the porous membrane between the humanities and the sciences, but here the tenured professor assumes a collegiate benevolence, helping younger and would-be academics during the freeze on hiring and funding since the 2008 financial crisis and Covid. This cohort need jobs, just as literary departments need it to reinvigorate the discipline’s perspectives and energies. But university administrators have to be persuaded about the value of literary criticism, purposes, properties, procedures, as a ‘form of knowledge’ in the way other disciplines exert their leverage in the academic market. So here’s the intersection of literary methodology and employment tactics.

Making particularly good use of the neo-Aristotelian Alasdair MacIntyre’s version of ‘practice’, Kramnick sets about anatomising the ‘epistemic infrastructure’ of literary analysis in its sequential three stages: ‘close reading to contextual elaboration to argumentative synthesis’. But the ‘form of knowledge’ formula points in two directions. It’s a way of doing the job, a discipline’s distinctive techniques, skills, criteria, terminologies. It’s also a question of the categories of knowledge, the sorts of truths, that a discipline claims to be producing. We might perhaps know how zoology or history exemplifies such categories, but it might be harder to demonstrate – especially to a sceptical university administrator – how criticism of poetry or the novel can be taxonomized, methodologically and conceptually, and exactly ...

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