Literary Yard

Search for meaning

The Renaissance of Criticism: A Post-Postmodern Manifesto

By: Trevor Anthony                     

The dignity of the artist lies in keeping alive the sense of wonder in the world.
                                                                                           –  G.K. Chesterton

     The world loves nothing better than to blacken the radiant and drag the awe-inspiring through the dust.   
                                             – Goethe

It is understandable that over the last decades, many critics boarded the vessel of Theory in an attempt to travel in high style across turbulent cultural waters. Like a cruise on Titanic, criticism has always been a luxury. It is no accident that Matthew Arnold’s The Function of Criticism in the Present Time (1865) appears during the Industrial Revolution: Industry created leisure time which the technology of print helped to fill. Enter the Critic. But a century after Arnold, we are told that criticism is exhausted, it has “run out of steam,” it faces a “legitimation crisis thanks to a sadly depleted language of value that leaves us struggling to find reasons we should care about Beowulf or Baudelaire.”1 How then, did criticism squander its value? And more importantly, how may cultural value be regained?

We find ourselves in the midst of another revolution. The digital turn is transforming the ways that we read and exist in the world. It would be wrong-headed to blame the woes of criticism on the cultural-technological sea-change that has spawned armies of Trolls and Bloggers, Metacritics and Rotten Tomatoes. MIT neuroscientist Sherry Turkle notes that “since Socrates lamented the movement from speech to writing, observers have warned against each new mode of communication as destructive to a cherished mode of thought.”2 When photography hit the scene, French painter Paul Delaroche fretted that it would kill painting. Instead, the medium was reborn under the brushes of Monet, Manet and a host of Impressionists. Criticism, like the painting has an opportunity to respond, lead, dazzle and entertain: The hour is ripe for a Renaissance of Criticism. If criticism is to be relevant in the 21st century, it must leave behind a collection of corrosive practices – scour the toxic barnacles – and chart a course forward, informed by the logics of new media. In the first part of this manifesto, I will diagnose the sources for the exhaustion that has landed criticism in the soup. In the second part, connecting the logics of new media to the roots of criticism, I propose an ethos for moving into the future.

The Diagnosis

First, let us face the music: criticism did not run out of steam. Like Titanic, the boilers were stoked to capacity with celebrity, brain power and revolutionary zeal. The holds were stuffed with bright-eyed acolytes matriculating from the ivy-covered halls of academia. The throttles (spiggots?) wide open, criticism steamed ahead into a glorious, transcontinental future with Michel Foucault in black velour at the helm, Jacques Derrida navigating, and Stanley Fish shoveling coal. So, what went wrong? If criticism wrecked, it is because, like Titanic, it ploughed right into an iceberg. The name of that iceberg is Theory-with-a-capital-T. The traces of the doomed course of criticism are everywhere to be found in the pages of Theory, for example, in the words of Michel Foucault: “it is meaningless to speak in the name of – or against – Reason, Truth or Knowledge.”3 Criticism has only itself to blame for its current predicament.

It is now clear that the collision of criticism and Theory was fatal. At the dawn of the 21st century, Jacques Barzun observed that “critics have evolved….The latest practitioners, called Deconstructionists, have finally got the upper hand and disposed of the maker altogether in favor of his public, Tom, Dick, and Harry, all adept at ‘creativity.’”4 Showing his cards, Stanley Fish confessed happily that deconstruction “relieves me of the obligation to be right…and demands only that I be interesting.”5 In other words, critical theory as a pillar of postmodernism effectively undermined the value proposition of criticism itself, plunging the entire affair into the indistinct morass of relativism. The function of criticism was to serve as a stage for showmen. In the place of taste making – Arnold’s “disinterested endeavor to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world”6 – or the objective principles of I.A. Richards of William Empson, we were offered only subjectivity, or, per Foucault, the reduction of reason, truth and knowledge itself to reductive narratives based on an ill-defined, all-encompassing master principle: power.

In Explaining Postmodernism (2011), Stephen Hicks writes that in addition to the notion of criticism-as-subjective-play, a secondary brand of deconstruction replaced objectivity with a fixation on the author’s race, gender or group identity. It follows, therefore that the work of the literary critic is to “deconstruct” the text to reveal those interests. For example:

Herman Melville in Moby Dick may have thought that he was exploring universal themes of personal and social ambition, mana and nature – but what Captain Ahab really represents is the exploitative authoritarianism of imperialistic patriarchalism and the insane drive of technology to    conquer nature.7

Hicks describes postmodernism as a comprehensive philosophical and cultural movement battling the values of the Enlightenment and arrayed against all of the essential elements of modernism, including reason, individualism, freedom and progress. The rejection of all things modern amounts to a metaphysics of anti-realism, social subjectivism, identity politics, communalism and, outright hostility to the achievements of science and technology. The exhaustion of criticism was a foregone conclusion once it hitched itself to a wagonload of cynicism, skepticism, relativism and nihilism.

In The Limits of Critique (2015), Rita Felski observes that postmodern critical practice (“the hermeneutics of suspicion”) became the default mode of literary studies. She finds many faults with postmodern “Crrrritique,” including negativity, intolerance, intellectual pretension, and radical politicization, yet she concludes that the whole affair is essentially harmless:“the danger that shadows suspicious interpretation, I propose is less its murderous brutality than its potential banality.”8 Weaned on the Frankfurt School, she is reluctant to argue for a full break with “Crrrritique.” Her solution is to introduce “reparative” or postcritical thought alongside Theory. Here, I fundamentally disagree with Felski: the consequences of critical Theory are not banal, they are brutal. The examples of this brutality would fill volumes, but the following cases show a snapshot of the progression from morally compromised Theory to morally flawed practice.

A depressing and distressing example of the kind of moralistic posturing and intolerance that characterizes critical theory may be found in this example from the sub-brand of postmodernism known as post-colonialism. In it, Edward Said sets his sights of righteousness upon Jane Austen in a chapter entitled “Jane Austen and Empire” from Culture and Imperialism (1993).John Leonard summarized the piece in The Nation as: “See Jane sit, in the poise and order of Mansfield Park, not much bothering her pretty head about the fact that this harmonious ‘social space,’ Sir Thomas Bertram’s country estate, is sustained by slave labor on his sugar plantation in Antigua.”9 Enter Susan Fraiman in the journal Critical Inquiry, who finds faults both small – Said confuses Maria of Mansfield Park with Lydia from Sense and Sensibility – and large, “Said’s own identity politics” miss Austen’s “irony toward reigning constructions of citizenship.” Fraiman convincingly shows that Said based his accusation of Austen’s post-colonial malfeasance on a limited reading of Mansfield Park. Moreover, he is guilty of a “failure to consider Austen’s gender,” and painting her as a “flatly conservative.” However, this is all moot, since Fraiman nevertheless concludes that Austen is still a criminal: “My point, I should stress, is not to exonerate Austen of imperialist crimes.” In this little episode of postmodern virtue signaling, feminist identity politics trump post-colonial identity politics. Fraiman writes that “the yoking of gentle Jane to sex, subversion, or slavery still has the power to shock,” revealing the common aspirational practice of critics ennobling themselves by beating the artist down.10 Indeed, the deconstruction of Jane Austen seems to constitute a whole critical cottage industry, featuring scholarship such as Eve Sedgwick’s “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl” (1991). To call Austen a “criminal” is banal as well as brutal. To move forward, criticism must shake off the moral posturing normalized by postmodernism.

The case of Noah Carl showcased in Quillette demonstrates that the kind of postmodern thought used to trash Jane Austen has been deployed across disciplines to trash a living scholar. In May 2019, Noah Carl was dismissed from his position as a research fellow at St. Edmunds College, Cambridge as a result of a petition drive that drew over 1,400 signatories (596 academics and 874 students). The authors of the petition cited Carl’s “published work and public stance on various issues,” claiming that his work was “ethically suspect and methodologically flawed…[and contained] vital errors in data analysis.”11 Carl (BA in Human Science, MA in Sociology and PhD in Sociology from the University of Oxford) had been selected for the fellowship out of a field of 900. The college’s review found “it had followed an established inter-college procedure…[and had] fairly selected Dr. Carl as the best candidate.”  However, in deciding to sack him, the college’s Master claimed that Carl’s body of work “fell outside any protection that might otherwise be claimed for academic freedom of speech…Dr. Carl had collaborated with a number of individuals who were known to hold extremist views…that could incite racial or religious hatred.”12 Editorials decried Carl’s treatment, including pieces in The Telegraph, The Spectator, and The Times,which wrote that Carl’s “main offense seems to have been to challenge the ‘woke’ left-wing orthodoxy.”13 Quillette offered a defense of Carl, gathering more than 600 signatures of academics, calling out that the petition against him contained no references to any of his work, nor any evidence to back up the claims. Editor Claire Lehmann wrote that “we live at a time where academic freedom is under threat from ideologues and activists of all persuasions…Rarely has the power asymmetry between the academic mob and its victim been so stark.”14 Lehmann pointed out how the critical theory played a critical role in the trashing of Carl:

To judge the quality of Dr. Noah Carl’s work authoritatively, one would have to be an expert in…psychology, intelligence research (a sub-field of psychology), and/or economics…The ‘open letter’ was signed by hundreds of academics, but they did not have expertise in these areas. (For the most part, they had qualifications in fields like anthropology, gender studies and critical race studies). This is a clear departure from the established norms that, until recently, were adhered to in academic debates.15

The mobbing of Carl was based not on evidence, but on postmodern ideology. This shameful case study of “cancel culture,” the virtual version of the Parisian mobs of 1789, shows that supposedly academic elites are capable of immorality on par with the most loathsome Internet troll. The episode is perhaps most significant in demonstrating how postmodern intolerance has become a transdisciplinary practice, metastasizing from the humanities to the sciences. The wages of Theory are brutal.

As one of her five qualities of critique, Felski tells us that “Critique comes from below…a vision of critique that can be traced back to Marx…and cemented in the tradition of critical theory associated with the Frankfurt School.”16 The deployment of radical Marxist politics is, of course, the raison d’être of postmodernism; its standard bearers are vociferous on this point. For example, Fredric Jameson insists that “everything is ‘in the last analysis’ political,” by which, of course, he meant Marxist: “My position here is that only Marxism offers a philosophically coherent and ideologically compelling resolution to the dilemma of historicism.”17 His colleague at Duke University, Frank Lentricchia, pontificated: “seek not to find the foundation and the conditions of truth but to exercise power for the purpose of social change.”18 Jacques Derrida confessed that “deconstruction never had meaning or interest, at least in my eyes, than as a radicalization, that is to say, also within the tradition of a certain Marxism, in a certain spirit of Marxism.19 Camille Paglia, in her essay on David M. Halperin’s One Hundred Years of Homosexuality, demonstrates how such postmodern political posturing has produced bad scholarship on top of bad scholarship:

An unintentionally hilarious moment in Halperin’s book is when we are told that, once Foucault suddenly realized, after Volume One [of the History of Sexuality], that he’d better learn something about classical antiquity, he went to California. That makes a lot of sense – when you want to study Greece and Rome, leave Paris and go west, old man. At the end of the essay, Halperin exposes his own political agenda. Foucault’s work, he admits, “is framed by contemporary concerns and questions” and “has avowed purpose of making a difference in the here-and-now.” Foucault helps us in the “elusive project of discovering, and changing, who we are.” But when a scholar tries to alter, he has corrupted his mission. Scholarship swayed by politics becomes propaganda.20

The purpose of propaganda is, of course, to drive political action, so it is not surprising that events like the May 2017 takeover of Evergreen State College have occurred. The three-day exercise in radical Marxist identity politics drew national coverage in the New York Times and USA Today, etc., and world-wide exposure via the Internet thanks to the social media of the students themselves. As they occupied academic and administrative buildings, the students explicitly cited the radical politics espoused by their professors in the classroom. As a result, The Foundation for Independent Rights in Education (FIRE) named Evergreen among the ten worst colleges in the country for free speech: “Protest is good. Censorship is not. Disagreeing over how to stand up for diversity is not a good reason to intimidate or attempt to silence anyone.”21 The college faced a 20 percent drop in student enrollment and the state legislature even proposed privatizing the institution. In testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives, former Evergreen Professor Bret Weinstein stated that “something is seriously and dangerously amiss. At this moment in history, the center does not hold…tribalism is the natural result.” The fruits of postmodern ideology are banal as well as brutal.22

The Prescription:

To move forward, criticism must not only reject the metaphysics of postmodernism, but it must navigate in a new cultural landscape: the digital. Not only are the times a-changing, but humanity is a-changing along with them. The theory of Marshal McLuhan, by which technological innovations reciprocally influence our development as humans, has now been supported by cognitive science.As Nicholas Carr summarizes in The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (2010), “a new intellectual ethic is taking hold. The pathways in our brains are once again being rerouted.”23 New logics direct culture in the digital age, with material social and psychological consequences. For example, the logic of new media dissolves the categorical distinctions between Private and Public, Home and Work, Professional and Amateur. In this shifting environment, some like David Shumway see the crumbling of the ivory tower of academia as an opportunity for the humanities to become more relevant by engaging the public directly.24 Others like Fish see literary studies under siege by computational methods and neoliberalism.

There certainly is a crisis at hand – but it threatens our culture-at-large, not just the academy, the humanities, or criticism. Sherry Turkle states that “in the past twenty years we’ve seen a 40 percent decline in the markers for empathy among college students, most of it within the past ten years. It is a trend that researchers link to the new presence of digital communications.”25 It is very easy to correlate this statistic with some of the vicious behavior we see playing out across social media, with culprits that unfortunately include humanists, as demonstrated by the case of Noah Carl. Now, more than ever, young people require communicative, analytic, and empathetic skills that only the humanities can provide. Criticism as a discipline has a huge opportunity to rescue itself from nihilism, relativism, suspicion, negativity, politics, etc., and provide value. But first, criticism must reboot.

Let’s go back to the beginning of digital culture with the beginning of the computer. In our current climate, “hacker” conjures up the image of phantom Russians violating one’s e-mail or stealing social security numbers. However, the term originated as an unspoken manifesto of MIT programmers in the mid-1970s to describe a way of being, an aesthetic stance: “a hack can be anything from a practical joke to a brilliant new computer program…But whatever it is, a good hack must be aesthetically perfect. If it’s a joke, it must be a complete one. If you decide to turn someone’s dorm room upside down, it’s not enough to epoxy the furniture to the ceiling, you must epoxy the pieces of paper to the desk.” The Hacker Ethic includes these fundamental tenets:

  • Access to computers – and anything which might teach you something about the way the world works – should be unlimited and total. Always yield to the Hand’s-On Imperative!
  • Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not bogus criteria such as degrees, age, race, or position.
  • You can create art and beauty on a computer.26

The Hacker Ethic, that ebullient proclamation of independence, creativity and meritocracy, leads us right back to the early days of criticism and Matthew Arnold:

It must needs be that men should act in sects and parties, that each of these sects and parties have its organ, and should make this organ subserve the interests of its action; but it would be well, too, that there should be a criticism, not the minister of these interests, not their enemy, but absolutely and entirely independent of them. No other criticism will ever attain any real authority or make any real way towards its end – the creating of true and fresh ideas.27

The accord with Hacker Ethic and the Function of Criticism in the Present Time is striking and immediately apparent. Writing nearly a century before the MIT hackers, Arnold articulated the “Hand’s-On Imperative.” We may easily substitute “programming’ for “criticism” when Arnold writes: “To have the sense of creative activity is the great happiness and the great proof of being alive, and it is not denied to criticism to have it; but then criticism must be sincere, simple, flexible, ardent, ever widening its knowledge,”28 or that when he writes that “real criticism” is essentially an act of  “curiosity.”29 Matthew Arnold, it turns out, was a hacker.

Revisiting Arnold, it is clear how far the Frankfurt School and postmodernists strayed from criticism’s roots into the realm of relativism and propaganda. Because of the political-socialist imperative, Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno felt that they were bucking their School when writing about literature that they loved but that failed to fit the ideological model. As Felski, Harold Bloom and others have pointed out, Theory always ends in an exercise of tautology: Fraiman’s indictment of Said’s indictment of Austen makes clear that the feminist reading can only ever show how well a work fits within that particular feminist sect’s rules. Woe to the author denied blessing by the sect: they are labelled a criminal. Therefore, in the Renaissance of Criticism, the Critic-as-Hacker must march to their own drum. They must eschew sects and parties. They must judge on merit, not bogus criteria such as race or age. They must create true and fresh ideas.

The “postcritical” approach described by Felski also meshes with Arnold, suggesting that a reinvestment in the original ideas behind criticism offers the best way forward. Arnold spoke of the “rule of disinterestedness,” by which he meant “keeping aloof from what is called ‘the practical view of things;’ by resolutely following the law of its own nature, which is to be afree play of the mindon all subjects which it touches.”30 Three interesting points fall out of this brief but important statement: first, there is an obvious opposition to critical Theory’s “practical” interests (or in Marxist-speak, “praxis.”). Second is the obvious correlation between “free play” and “hacking.” Third, the “free play of the mind” sounds suspiciously like Felski’s postcritical, reparative, affective hermeneutics: “Reading in this light, is a matter of attaching, collating, negotiating, assembling – or forging links between things that were previously unconnected.”31 Felski cites several proponents of these kinder-gentler models of interpretation including Timothy Bewes, Sharon Marcus, Paul Ricoeur, H. Gadamer, Judith Butler, and Bruno Latour via his Actor-Network Theory (ANT).

Actor-Network Theory – indeed “postcritical” interpretation in general – may be better understood as a mode of practice rather than a theory per se. Latour explains that the primary tenet of ANT  “is that actors themselves make everything, including their own frames, their own theories, their own contexts, their own metaphysics, even their own ontologies.”32 While Felski sees her postcritical work living alongside critical theory, Latour sees ANT as opposed to it: “What’s so great about saying that things are acting whose existence you can’t prove? I’m afraid you are confusing social theory with conspiracy theory – although these days most of critical social science comes down to that.”33 As I suggested previously, Felski pulled her punches when she downplayed the toxicity of Critique. For criticism as the free-play-of-the-mind to go forward, it must leave stifling critical Theory behind.

The dirty little secret of Theory is that its real purpose is to elevate the Theorist. In the lexicon of Theory, the Theorist is that sage-like figure who has “always already” figured out the game. In the words of Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom, “everything was already going to be or do whatever it is the theorist is talking about, which somehow leaves the impression that the theorist made it happen.”34 The ambitious Sigmund Freud spent his whole career in pursuit of a disruptive, totalizing Theory that could win him wealth and fame. He never cured a single patient, but where he failed as a therapist, Freud became a bit hit as a Theorist.35 Paglia refers to Foucault’s “map of self-promotion” by which he sought to position himself as heir to Nietzsche, and Fish glibly admitted that deconstruction provided him a personal performance platform. In contrast, Arnold sounded a tone of humility, writing: “the critical power is of lower rank than the creative.”36 The digital milieu, having eroded the Professional/Amateur divide and provided a vast platform for anyone to voice an opinion, has now displaced the professional critic as a simple arbiter of quality or taste. Any kid on the Internet can condemn content they don’t like. Publicly denouncing an artist as a criminal, imperialist, masturbatory racist is no longer the privilege of the academic; it’s just business-as-usual for a dude on Reddit. The silver lining of this stinking cloud is the fact that the act of criticism-as-condemnation is now played out. Just like the realist painter of fin de siècle Paris, we critics must find new and fresh modes of expression. And it must start with a stance of humility that shows respect for the artist and their work.

Perhaps the most threatening of Arnold’s statements to the postmodern mind is the vision of criticism as “a disinterested endeavor to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world.” The entire critical-theoretical apparatus arrayed itself against this statement in an attempt to redefine culture. In his piece arguing for the active engagement of the public in the work of the humanities, Jay Gregory touches on the “intervention” of Cultural Studies as a formal project of critical theory that attempted to reframe culture as political activism rather than aesthetic production:

The rise of what called itself “cultural studies,” the turn both underscored critical theory’s inherent socio-political concerns and revamped the movement in ways that spoke more clearly to public issues…In retrospect it appears that the scholarship of theory and cultural studies was easily accommodated by the institutional regimes of publication, tenure, and a new “star system” of celebrity thinkers who appealed to an exclusively academic audience in contrast to an earlier generation of “public intellectuals.” The public for the humanities may actually have shrunk in part because of this esotericism, which also did not succeed in building any kind of funding base. 37

Cultural Studies with its Marxist preoccupation fit naturally into “institutional regimes” because they had already imbibed the Kool Aid of the Frankfurt School and other “Marxisms” through what Gregory describes as the importation of Continental critical theory in the decades of the 1960s through the 1990s. Central to the project of the founding fathers of Cultural Studies like Stuart Hall and Raymond Williams was the imperative to redefine culture as a postmodern narrative of class struggle and identity politics. An additional intellectual sleight of hand performed by Hall et al, common with other postmodern fields like critical race studies, consisted of the conflation of race and class, thus racializing the standard Marxist narrative of oppressor / oppressed. Hall made the political raison d’être explicit when he said that “Cultural Studies feels like an opportunity to come inside under the shelter of the university and be paid to do some of this [political] work and to take some students and subvert them into this [socialist] line.”38 Hall and his fellow travelers were quite successful in their mission to politicize the notion of  culture as well as in their subversion of young minds.       

One of the many ironies of this intervention is the fate of Hall’s academic career. In a 1992 speech in the United States, Hall mentioned the “intervention” of feminist politics at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham: “it’s not generally known how and where feminism first broke in. I use the metaphor deliberately: As a thief in the night, it broke in; interrupted, made an unseemly noise, seized the time, crapped on the table of Cultural Studies.”39 The unseemly noise and crapping did not sit well with the feminists back home. When the word of the speech reached them, they intervened in his career and ultimately ran him out of Birmingham, illustrating the adage from Jacques Mallet du Pan that “like Saturn, the Revolution devours its children.” His predicament directly mirrors the Fraiman-Said dialectic of dueling identity politics. The institutionalization of postmodernism has turned criticism into nasty political theater, preoccupied with narratives of oppression and invested in the purging of undesirables into the memory holes of history like millions of nameless victims of the gulag. We must turn our attention back to the creative work itself. This, of course, was Arnold’s point. I call for an intervention into the intervention of Cultural Studies, indeed the de-politicization of all academic disciplines. Criticism must reconsecrate itself as a “disinterested endeavor to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world.”

The Function of Criticism in the Present Time

The poison of the Theory, or postmodern hermeneutics of destruction, has irredeemably infected the bloodstream of criticism. The practices sanctioned under these banners are banal and they are brutal. They linger. The moral preening disguised as scholarship exemplified in the criminalization of Jane Austen continues to be copied, proliferated and modeled: witness Aparna Tarc’s takedown of Edgar Rice Burroughs in her first published work with the lofty title, The Literacy of the Other: Renarrating Humanity (2015).In this muddled work from the “Foucault says” school of scholarship, Tarc judges Burroughs’ oeuvre on an incomplete reading of a single work and then condemns him personally as “classist, racist, sexist” without backing up the claim with any evidence. Had she actually delved a little deeper she would have discovered Burroughs was deeply concerned with the plight of the “other,” her own privileged object of study.40 Even Toni Morrison has contributed to the postmodern madness in her insistence that race be the “major concern of the literary scholarship.”41

As if in answer to Morrison’s call, The New York Times Magazine launched itsexercise in critical race theory, “The 1619 Project,” which it has foisted upon the national high school curriculum. The project’s central claim, that American colonists launched the revolution in order to protect slavery, has been roundly refuted by scholars including James McPherson, Gordon Wood, James Oakes, Sean Wilentz and Victoria Bynum, who wrote in a letter to The New York Times that “every statement offered by the project to validate [the claim] is false.”42 And so the poor scholarship, dishonest journalism, and immoral criticism just keeps piling up under the pretense of activism.Criticism as moral posturing and character assassination must cease and the postmodern residue must be purged if criticism is to rise from malaise, exhaustion and irrelevance. The acolytes of postmodern metaphysics, by rejecting reason, truth and even knowledge, have led us to this dead end. The sad thing is that their act ever attracted such a wide following, a testament to Goethe’s nihilistic statement that “the world loves nothing better than to blacken the radiant and drag the awe inspiring through the dust.”

A radical revolution is called for. Walls must be torn down. And we must start with what I only half-jokingly call the Critical-Academic Industrial Complex: the institutionalization of postmodernism in the politics of the academy, the academic journal, the essay, the monograph, the syllabus, and in our very modes of writing and being as critics. We must free our minds from the shackles of critical theory. Rita Felski, channeling Emily Post, suggests that the postcritical may seat itself next to – and play nicely with – the critical. But this does not jibe: the schools of thought clash, as Bruno Latour understands. Felski finds “Crrrritique” to be non-essential, negative, elitist, politically biased, and intolerant. Why on earth, then, would she argue for continued investment in such morally and intellectually flawed stuff? So pervasive is the hold of Theory that Felski cannot reach the obvious conclusion: we must free ourselves from Theory to reinvest in Practice.

Practice now must perforce operate under the logics of the digital age. This is not to boost technology; I merely state the obvious. Cursing the camera didn’t get Paul Delaroche very far. The genealogy of digital logic lies in the Hacker Ethic. The ethos that launched the personal computer champions creativity, meritocracy, objectivity, reason and individuality – everything that Theory attempted to thwart, contest, subvert and undermine. Of course, I understand that the change is deeply disturbing to some. Nan Da, Stanley Fish, and others recently launched an energetic attack against the onset of digital culture in the form of the Digital Humanities and Computational Literary Studies.43 In one of the more interesting moves in this “DH War,” Sarah Brouillette came in like a lion as the co-author of an incendiary piece in The LA Review of Books in which she railed against the Digital Humanities for its “outright contempt” for humanities scholarship,” its “technocratic, conservative, managerial, lab-based practice.”44 Puffed up with righteous anger, Marxist loathing of capitalism, and postmodern gender politics (i.e., misandry), she included a sub-argument for purging males from the discipline itself. (Presumably her two male co-authors were on-board with the idea.) Three years later, however, Brouillette went out like a lamb, writing that “the temptation to think that courses that include substantial digital components are more practical – and professional – less merely academic – is pretty understandable.”45 Hardly a tactical retreat, Brouillette’s capitulation signaled a bow to the irreversible onset of new cultural logics of the digital era. Digital Humanities pioneer Jerome McGann described this phenomenon when he said that “the entirety of our cultural inheritance will be transformed and re-edited in digital forms.”46 The humanities are indeed being “restructured,” but not by corporatism or neoliberalism – we find ourselves in the midst of an epochal turn. Criticism must rise to meet the digital challenge.

The crisis confronting our culture is real. Turkle reminds us of the plunge in empathy among college students, most of it within the past ten years, linked to digital communications. “We are being silenced by our technologies ­– in a way, ‘cured of talking,’” she writes “These silences – often in the presence of our children – have led to a crisis of empathy that has diminished us at home, at work, and in public life.”47 Turkle’s work validates McLuhan’s statement from fifty years ago that “subliminal and docile acceptance of media impact [makes] them prisons without walls for their human users.”48 The mash-up of the  Hacker and Matthew Arnold, shows us the path forward. It solves what Felski sees as criticism’s “legitimation crisis” and answers the question of why “we should care about Beowulf or Baudelaire.” The moment calls for empathy in action. The critic can meet this need. This is our calling; this is our privilege; this is what we do. It is our challenge and responsibility to express our love of literature through our creativity, the written and spoken word, the podcast and video. Now more than ever, we may speak directly to our peers­ ­– our fellow man not our fellow academic – in ways that can move them, not batter them into submission or cancel via Theory. As critics, we must lead by example and empathy must be our beacon:

  • The goal of criticism is the creation of true and fresh ideas.
  • Criticism is constructive, not deconstructive.
  • Criticism is postcritical. 
  • Criticism is practice not theory.
  • Criticism is curious.
  • Criticism champions reason, truth, knowledge and the freedom of speech.
  • Criticism is independent, nonsectarian, apolitical.
  • Criticism is a meritocracy; it is not guided by bogus criteria such as degrees, age, race, or position.
  • Criticism respects the creator and their creation.
  • Criticism always yields to the Hand’s-On Imperative!
  • Criticism is a “disinterested endeavor to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world.”


About the author

Trevor Anthony is a twenty-year veteran of the media business, old and new – from classical theater to location-based entertainment and social media. He is a graduate of Duke University and the Yale School of Drama, and is currently a PhD candidate at Claremont Graduate University.

End Notes

  1. Rita Felski, The Limits of Critique (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2015), 5.
  • Sherry Turkle, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (New York: Penguin Press, 2015), 171.
  • Quoted in Stephen Hicks,  Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault (Ockham’s Razor, 2011), 2.
  • Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life: 1500 to the Present (New York: HarperCollins, 2000), 621.
  • Quoted in Hicks, 2011, 2.
  • Matthew Arnold, The Function of Criticism at the Present Time (London: Macmillan and Company, 1895), 81.
  • Hicks, 2011, 16.
  • Felski, 2015, 115.
  • John Leonard, “Novel Colonies,” review of C, in The Nation, March 22, 1993, 383.
  1. Susan Fraiman, “Jane Austen and Edward Said: Gender, Culture, and Imperialism,” Critical Inquiry 21, no. 4 (Summer 1995).
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  1. The Times View on the Sacking of Noah Carl: Monoversities,” The Times, May 10, 2019, See also Munira Mirza, “Intolerant Zealots Are Strangling the Intellectual Freedom of Universities,” The Telegraph, May 5, 2019, and Hugh Campbell, “The Truth About Noah Carl,” The Spectator, May 4, 2019,
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  1. Lehmann, Claire, “Cambridge Capitulates to the Mob and Fires a Young Scholar,”, May 2, 2019,
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  1. Quoted in Hicks, 2011, 5.
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