Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Bauerlein, Mark. "What We Owe the New Critics." CHRONICLE REVIEW December 21, 2007.

When Garrick Davis told me he had assembled an anthology of New Criticism, I reached across the table and shook his hand. Davis is the founder of the Contemporary Poetry Review (, an online magazine that covers the poetry scene inside academe and out, and he had wanted to compile a selection of essays by that loose cohort of academics from the 1930s, 40s, and 50s who had advanced a formalist study of literary language and tried to erect a discipline upon it. Davis came to literary study through Practical Criticism (I.A. Richards), Seven Types of Ambiguity (William Empson), The Well Wrought Urn (Cleanth Brooks), The Verbal Icon (W.K. Wimsatt Jr.), Language as Gesture (R.P. Blackmur), and other midcentury classics, and he remains a devotee. The New Critics taught him to focus on a poem's verbal detail -- not its historical context or political/psychological/philosophical ideas, but its metaphors, ironies, and ambiguities. In graduate school in the 90s, he never succumbed to the postmodernist insight on the impossibility of meaning and objectivity and closure, and the blandishments of various political criticisms left him cold. That makes him, of course, a throwback. For most graduate students interested in literary theory of any kind in the 80s and 90s, Jean Baudrillard, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, Jean-François Lyotard, Julia Kristeva, et al. were a passion. Students might have felt a thrill when they read Hegel on tragedy or Nietzsche on nihilism, but the latest thinkers had an added aura of the new. They bore the romantic air of radicalism, and if they were the revolutionaries, then their predecessors were the ancien régime, quaintly obsolete. As the literary theorist Peter Brooks put it a few years ago, "The coming to America of continental 'theory' in the 1970s created a new avant-garde of sorts — a genuine one, I think." It changed fields in the humanities so quickly and sweepingly that it joined the ranks of other great paradigm shifts in the career of thought, this one given momentous titles such as The Poststructuralist Turn. In a few short years, the whole vocabulary of criticism changed, and so did the idols. Students flocked to Cornell University, the Johns Hopkins University, the State University of New York at Buffalo, and Yale University to hear the most up-to-date purveyors. When the "theory turn" happened, those who didn't participate suddenly sounded old-fashioned and out of it, and younger scholars and students took the lead. They emulated the radical-reader pose, as in Wlad Godzich's introduction to the second edition of Paul de Man's Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism: "Caution! Reader at Work!" They savored the breathless, adventuresome phrasings of Derrida's Of Grammatology, absorbed the transvaluation of bourgeois values in Foucault's Discipline and Punish, and overlaid their own prose with melodrama and historic import (proclaiming about "criticism in crisis," "ideological unmasking," "the posthuman," etc.). And the more disciples credited grand theorists with breakthrough insight and radical rethinking, the more the New Critics faded into the past. . . . Read the entire review here:

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