Friday, December 28, 2007

McLemee, Scott. "Criticism, Character and Tenure." INSIDE HIGHER ED December 27, 2006.

The word 'criticism' shares the same root as 'crisis' — a bit of fortuitous etymology that everyone in literary studies remembers from time to time, whether in the context of sublime theoretical arguments (interpretation at the edge of the abyss!) or while dealing with the bottom-line obstacles to publishing one more monograph. Not to mention all the 'criticism/crisis' musing that goes on at this time of year as people finish their papers for MLA, sometimes with minutes to spare. Once this season of crisis management is past, I hope readers will turn their attention to Geoffrey Galt Harpham’s new book The Character of Criticism (Routledge). Harpham, who is president and director of the National Humanities Center, offers a meditation on what happens (in the best case, anyway) when a literary scholar encounters literary text. Most of the book consists of close examination of the work of four major figures — Elaine Scarry, Martha Nussbaum, Slavoj Žižek, and Edward Said – who bring very different methods and mores to the table when performing the critic’s task. The contrast between Nussbaum and Žižek, in particular, seems potentially combustible. But the book is not a study in the varieties of critical engagement possible now, given our capacious theoretical toolkits. Harpham’s argument is that literary criticism is a distinct type of act performed by (and embodying) a specific type of agent. We don’t read criticism just for information, or to see concepts refined or tested. Criticism is, at its best, a product of “cognitive freedom,” as Harpham puts it.
Interpretation represents a moment at which cognition is not absolutely bound by necessity to produce a particular result . . . and this moment serves as a portal through which character, an individual way of being in the world, enters the work. . . .
Read the rest here:

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