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Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to editor@pnreview.co.uk

This item is taken from PN Review 48, Volume 12 Number 4, March - April 1986.

Nicolas Tredell/EDITORIAL
BLISS was it in that dawn. In the 1970s, a range of new and renovated modes of thought - structuralist, post-structuralist, deconstructionist, Marxist, psychoanalytic - began, despite ignorance, incomprehension and rejection, to spread in English intellectual life: it seemed, in one scenario, like an awakening. Leavis had aged into Urizen, self-closed, all-repelling. A complacent liberal humanism lolled like a drowsy Silenus upon criticism, invoking Leavis's concentrated refusal of theory to justify its idleness and insularity, while evading his tense engagement. Change was long overdue. If imagination had failed to seize political power in 1968, it could at least seize critical power now, and fuse literary criticism, once more, with vivid commitment. The MacCabe affair at Cambridge in 1981 focused and dramatized what had already come to be seen as a contest between ignorance and enlightenment, inertia and innovation.

But France, again, was ahead of us. In 1975, Roland Barthes registered the ironic reversal, the binary inversion, by which he, once attacked by a Sorbonne professor as a fraud, was now seen himself as a professor. So the whirligig brings round its revenges: the bastard child of French culture, who had shown up the goddess Nature as a sham, ascends to the Collège de France. And when the quarrel of the critics was replayed elsewhere, cultural history returning as farce, the supposedly subversive ideas were, ever more quickly, lifted to the heights: overnight, paradox became doxa. A suspicion started to grow: had it ever, really, been anything else? Now, that suspicion has been confirmed: the wheel has stopped spinning: the revolts were academic after all, and permanent revolution sorts ill with the academy. The blissful dawn was a dream: we have another dawn, in which we wake from masks and misrecognitions, from the permitted transgressions of carnival, to find, in the iron light, order restored.

But not the old order: a new orthodoxy. While order can liberate, orthodoxy stultifies. This post-revolutionary regime marks the start of its decay by banishing the poets. As due punishment, imagination gets exile. The warning signs were there. Listen to this, from 1981: 'to many people today the assumptions of much established literature are thoroughly disagreeable: its attitudes to wealth and hierarchy are repugnant, it is fundamentally sexist, its religion is delusory' (Essays in Criticism, 31:3, p. 181). It is Alan Sinfield: Cato could not be sterner. In 1982, PNR 30's review of Re-Reading English advised attending to that volume's more strident voices: 'they speak of what could be the future' (p. 29). 'The Politicization of English' (PNR 37) pointed to a 'complex movement of individuals, activities and ideas' (p. 12) represented by some 'New Accents' books - for example, Structuralism and Semiotics, Formalism and Marxism, Critical Practice, Poetry as Discourse - by Terry Eagleton's Literary Theory, by magazines such as Red Letters and Literature and History, and by the 'Literature Teaching Politics' network. This movement - which was not, as the essay stressed, a conspiracy - had as one of its main aims the appropriation of the teaching and criticism of literature for political purposes - justifying itself by the argument that such teaching and criticism had always been covertly political, a means for the reproduction of 'bourgeois ideology'. The essay observed that, given what was then the balance of forces in higher education, the politicization movement was likely, at least in the immediate future, to have limited success; it warned, however, that its influence should not be underestimated. 'Post-Theory' (PNR 41) suggested that the proliferation of literary and metaliterary theories, and the growing improbability, increased by the epistemological scepticism of some of the theories themselves, of any one theory gaining authority, meant that we were entering a post-theoretical age which would lead us again to literature, to art (certainly not conceived of as separate from life and society). While it seems true that we are now in an era of post-theory, the return to art has been blocked by orthodoxy. The situation today, of which politicization is one major element, is sketched in the conclusion to Eagleton's The Function of Criticism (1985):


For a new generation of critics in Western society, 'English Literature' is now an inherited label for a field within which many diverse preoccupations congregate: semiotics, psychoanalysis, film studies, cultural theory, the representation of gender, popular writing, and of course, the conventionally valued writings of the past (pp. 123-4).


This might seem a mere rhetorical flourish, calling to mind that 1960s pop hit which hymned a whole generation with a new explanation. The orthodox, however, despite flushes of Utopian euphoria, are not flower children, but professionals, some into middle age and beyond, who enjoy the power which the 'bourgeois society' they condemn grants critics and teachers. This does not in itself mean that their assumptions dominate, and there is an obvious danger of taking such critics at their own valuation, giving them more importance than they deserve. It might seem more accurate, or at least more 'tactically' astute, to propose that a cheerful or chaotic pluralism prevails, and to see that 'congregation of diverse preoccupations' as, not a set of sects, but a broad church. But this is to ignore the fact that those 'pre-occupations' - none of them, in themselves or in combination, necessarily pernicious - are selectively assimilated and organized so as to denigrate literature, for example by admitting it, as in the above quotation, as a condescending concession ('of course') and with the implication that it has been valued merely as a matter of convention. It is to ignore the fact that orthodoxy shows itself, not only in the books and critics we have mentioned, but much more widely. It is evident in the assumptions and approaches of many of the books that now reach PNR for review, and in a now pervasive critical vocabulary. Terms that were once provocative and exciting are today employed to exhaustion: nouns such as 'signifier', 'signified', 'difference', 'fissures', 'gaps', 'splits', 'contradictions'; verbs like 'construct', 'disrupt', 'insert', 'inscribe', 'interpellate', 'produce', 'subvert', 'put in question'; adjectives such as 'plural', 'polysemous', 'dispersed', 'decentred'; they can, it seems, be applied anywhere, to any text, any situation. With them comes a pseudo-strenuous rhetoric of 'struggle', 'tactics', 'strategy', and a standard repertoire of abuse: 'bourgeois', 'common sense', 'liberal humanist', 'organic unity', 'transcendence'. To utter, with serious intent, words such as 'literature', 'discrimination', 'imagination' gives the Gradgrinds of orthodoxy the chance to strike with their demand for definition, and, when this is not immediately forthcoming, to dismiss them with their own sort of brisk commonsense.

Orthodoxy is also increasingly evident in the formal content of higher education courses and, more insidiously but coercively, in the more or less subtle censorship of oral and written discourse in the academy. In A New Mimesis (1983), A. D. Nuttall observes: 'The student who says in a seminar that Lawrence is splendidly true to life will be answered with smiles of conscious superiority as if he had committed some mild bêtise' (p. 54). Norman Cantor, writing in the June 1985 issue of The New Criterion on the current state of the humanities in the United States remarks: 'The Marxist penetration of the universities has also created pedagogical problems: there is a particularly blatant kind of young academic now who tries to politicize everything on the campus, including his or her own classes' (p. 32) - and it should be said that the problem here, at least in regard to literature studies, is less one of Marxism per se than of its fusion with other elements of orthodoxy. Back in Britain, a contributor to the 1983 'Literature Teaching Politics' journal who seems thoroughly committed to the orthodox cause nonetheless records of her experience on a postgraduate course: 'I know many women students (myself included) who spent a lot of their time, both in and out of seminars, in tears or in a rage at the patronising dismissal they had received because of their traditional training' (p. 76). That 'traditional training', of course, may not be a problem much longer.

It would be interesting to know how many, in recent years, have moved away from or steered clear of the study, teaching and criticism of literature because of the prevalence of orthodox attitudes. It is an understandable choice to withdraw wholly from the situation; there are, after all, other, perhaps more immediately rewarding activities; one could enjoy literature, possibly enjoy it much more, without ever again opening a book of literary criticism or theory. And if one lacks the opportunity or inclination to withdraw, it may seem best - to adopt, in parodic spirit, the military register that the orthodox favour - to adopt a low profile, to let others fight it out, to carry on quietly with teaching, writing and research, and hope to emerge, eventually, to take the field. But this fugitive and cloistered virtue cannot be praised. A direct challenge is in order.


This special issue of PN Review aims to identify, contest and provoke debate upon the new orthodoxy. We did not want to rerun the tedious tape of the 'crisis in English studies'; that had become too academic, parochial, repetitive: Vladimir and Estragon insult each other, but 'Critic', once the final, crushing term of abuse, is simply the signal for a replay, and there's nothing, really, to be done. Nor did we wish to pose as the Olympian convenors of a staid symposium. We decided to issue a statement, in the form of a manifesto, which set out, as emphatically as possible, the features of the present situation, and the action needed to remedy it. We invited responses.

Manifestos concentrate the mind wonderfully. Vital in Modernist culture, they may affront today: the academy dulls discourse. To say this implies no disrespect for scholarly scruple; but we reject pedantic timidity. A manifesto is not an academic essay, and we assume, in this rhetorically sophisticated age, that people can distinguish between the two genres, and not expect one to be the other. It is intended to say the essential things, without reservation: not to give a blandly 'balanced' view, but to intervene in an urgent situation. To have singled out books, critics, schools of criticism would have been to risk a premature demonization or deification that would have diverted attention from the issues and pre-empted and limited response. We aimed to provoke contributors to give, in any way they felt appropriate, their own sense of the situation, their own specifications.

A selection of responses is published in this issue. They make up a play of clashing, contrasting voices, from a range of positions, in a variety of tones. There is reason, passion, principle, humour, anger: we have not tried to enforce a false unity, to efface sometimes violent differences. It is too easy today, by initial or subsequent exclusion, to assemble a group of like-minded people who will validate one's own terms of reference, whatever their internal dissensions. The very variety here may seem, in itself, to disprove the existence of an orthodoxy; but to take this view would be to neglect the relations of power - not necessarily, of course, commensurate with formal professional hierarchies - now obtaining in the critical and academic worlds. The range this issue permits might not be possible elsewhere. Our final aim for criticism is not, however, an anarchic or affable pluralism, but a common language, common ends; we do not wish, here, to draw what would be premature conclusions; but we hope that, to adopt T. S. Eliot's words, the contents of this issue exhibit a heterogeneity which the intelligent reader can resolve into order.

Our defence of literature against criticism, our advocacy of a criticism for literature, implies no narrow sense of the literary. To cite T. S. Eliot again: to isolate the concept of literature is to destroy the life of literature. Not for the first time in England a debate about literature and criticism is, as our responses show, also a debate about culture, education, politics, society. In every sense, it matters.
NICOLAS TREDELL

This item is taken from PN Review 48, Volume 12 Number 4, March - April 1986.



Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to editor@pnreview.co.uk
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