Mark Bauerlein. Literary Criticism:
An Autopsy. Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press,
title of Mark Bauerlein's smart and often witty book would
suggest that literary criticism has died and that the author,
like a pathologist, will examine the corpse for the underlying
cause. But the book actually diagnoses how and why American
literature departments are committing "disciplinary suicide."
In other words, we're not dead yet, but we're getting close.
And the reason for this, argues Bauerlein, is the near-complete
breakdown of focus and methodological rigor brought about
by the recent "cultural turn" in literary studies.
In our rush to widen criticism's focus to include the real-world
concerns of history, culture, society and politics, Bauerlein
believes we've lost sight of the very thing that justifies
and legitimizes our institutional existence: the "literariness"
of literature and the traditional disciplinary methods of
inquiry that lead to a refined understanding of it.
The author's charge is that while
the ethical and political intentions of socio-historical or culturally-focused
criticism (what he calls "representational criticism")
may be noble, the practical effect has been a deterioration of
traditional disciplinary standards. What is more, by promoting
the idea that academic literary criticism's concerns are too narrow,
elitist and formal, or that its emphasis on coherence and disciplinary
methodology overlooks literature's political and social contexts,
representational criticism has produced an insidious anti-disciplinary,
anti-methodological sentiment that Bauerlein believes dominates
Taken out of context, many are likely to view Bauerlein's thesis
as retrograde or, worse, as a sign of reactionary insensitivity.
However, it should not be construed that Bauerlein is against
the substance of representational criticism's concerns. His criticism
is that the arguments produced by representational critics are
often slipshod and ineffectual, that they all too often lack sufficient
evidence, erudition and intellectual rigor to be taken seriously.
Cultural and social concerns may indeed enhance literary scholarship,
suggests Bauerlein, but only if these concerns are subordinated
to literary questions: "If the goal is to organize an inquiry,
we shift our priority from fidelity to reality to coherence of
method. Then, we find that questions of the accuracy or correspondence
of our conceptions of literature come after we determine how the
conception fits in with a systematic method of interpretation"
Bauerlein is not interested in engaging in a political argument;
he defends the literary discipline on purely pragmatic grounds,
pointing to a number of practical problems and paradoxes that
arise as soon as a common disciplinary focus is abandoned. For
example, how can we pretend to transmit knowledge when we can't
agree on a common definition of our disciplinary content and objectives?
With so many realities and so many extra-disciplinary methods
now at our disposal, by what principle do we decide what to pass
on to our students? By what parameters and standards of judgment
do we evaluate our students work for grades or our colleagues
work for publication or advancement? (9)
From a scholarly point of view, one of the fundamental problems
with representational criticism, according to Bauerlein, is that
its advocates often lack proper training in sociology, history,
political science or cultural anthropology--that is, the very
disciplines their chosen focus demands and requires. In the place
of careful argumentation and logical rigor, representational critics
invoke an interdisciplinary method. But this, says Bauerlein,
often turns out to be no method at all: interdisciplinarity often
merely gives license to mix and match conceptual frameworks that
may have nothing in common; it has become a way of compensating
for a lack of methodological expertise by using sexy terms and
catchphrases borrowed from prestigious authorities from other
What unifies representational criticism, according to Bauerlein,
is not a common method of inquiry, but a common conviction that
the humanities are a political construct, an ideological arm of
a privileged class whose objective is to oppress and mystify the
underprivileged. Once this idea is accepted as given, critics
become concerned only with debunking oppressive ideologies,
exposing abuses of power, restoring voices and images
of the misrepresented, and/or assigning texts a moral value based
on a "correct" political or social orientation. For that reason, the
value of contemporary academic criticism is often determined by
its conspicuous display of social and political allegiances, not
by the soundness of argument or the validity of the method. Indeed,
according to Bauerlein's account, critics systematically avoid
conventional argumentative and methodological standards in order
to hold onto the illusion that such an anti-institutional gesture
signals a stricter fidelity to social and political agendas.
Herein lies the major paradox Bauerlein's book explores: how do
critics juggle the conflicting demands between their social/political
allegiances and the formal and pragmatic constraints imposed on
them by the institutional setting? How can critics remain faithful
to extra-disciplinary realities all the while teaching them, giving
conference papers on them, directing dissertations on them, publishing
on them, in a word, institutionalizing them?
To pull off this magic act, representational critics have devised
a clever anti-method method--what Bauerlein refers to as "strategic
obscurantism." The strategy consists of using sophisticated
disciplinary terminology to distinguish oneself from the masses
of unskilled observers, but then avoids the kind of rigorous argumentation
that would communicate erudition and understanding. The effect
is to short-circuit real method by using catchphrases that signify
method. What's troubling about this for Bauerlein is that now
vocabulary and rhetorical gestures pass for authentic scholarship;
and the procedure is easily imitated, even by neophytes. When
what counts most is one's political orientation, one need only
know the correct passwords that telegraph this orientation to
like-minded conference chairs and journal referees.
Bauerlein presents his analysis of these recent critical excesses
in the unusual form of a glossary. He calls his book "a lexical
autopsy of literary criticism," "a glossary of pathological
terms," and "a handbook of counter-disciplinary usage"
(xiv). It begins with the entry "construction," followed
by "cultural poetics," etc.; it meanders through the
alphabet covering such familiar terms as "gender," "problematize,"
"rethink," and it ends with "what so-and-so calls."
The idea behind such a glossary, says Bauerlein, is simple: readers
new to representational criticism may find its terminology either
equivocal, incoherent or non-sensical, and thus, may wish some
clarification. Bauerlein's ideal readers, however, are obviously
representational critics themselves; the glossary is merely a
conceit to explain why their critical terms do not make sense,
or rather, why they make sense only as part of an unavowed anti-methodological
To get an idea of Bauerlein's argument, let's examine his gloss
of the widely used term "essentialize." He begins by
reminding the reader of the long philosophical tradition of ontological
study from which the term's root-word "essence" derives.
He then cites uses by contemporary critics who either neglect
to engage in an ontological argument or who appear to be unaware
of the philosophical background that the term implies. What interests
him precisely is this conversion by critics of the substantive
"essence" into the verb "essentialize." In
its current usage as a verb, critics would suggest something like:
the attempt by someone (or some group) to transform a contingent
attribute into an immutable essence for social or political advantage.
In Bauerleins view, the verb thus functions as a kind of
critical shorthand for dismissing or subverting any ontological
assumption. The mere suggestion that someone may be essentializing
is enough to undermine their position.
Bauerlein's interest here is not to defend those who would use
essentialist definitions as political cover; it is to explain
that the verb "essentialize" contains a logical confusion:
if "essence" means an inherent, immutable quality of
an object, how one can perform the conversion of a contingent
quality into an essence? Put differently, how can one add an immutable
quality to an object where it is already lacking? Essences, by
definition, pre-exist human experience or invention. They are
either there or not there. It is therefore impossible to "essentialize"
This is of course precisely the point constructivist critics wish
to make: "you cannot essentialize." But they make it
for political purposes (i.e., to expose any given state of affairs
as the result of hidden political interests) and in a methodologically
suspect way (i.e., without arguing for it). What is more, the
verb "essentialize" rhetorically disarms any criticism
of the "anti-essentializing" position since essentialists,
too, would have to agree that the act of essentializing is impossible.
But they would of course agree for philosophical reasons, not
political ones, which is tantamount to saying that there is no
real agreement. Indeed, there is no real debate here. But representational
critics are not interested in such distinctions. According to
Bauerlein, critics use the verb "essentialize" not logically
to disprove essentialist arguments, but rhetorically to silence
Many of Bauerlein's other glosses (e.g., "discipline,"
"discourse," "ideology") follow this same
pattern: he shows how critics wrench a conventional term from
its disciplinary context and then adapt it to fit their own strategic
purposes. Each time he shows how the term produces a confused
or incoherent meaning from a logical point of view, but a coherent
meaning from a political/strategic point of view. Under other
entries (e.g., "problematize," "rethink"),
Bauerlein discusses the common absurdity of pretending to redefine
a longstanding disciplinary problem within the space of a brief
article or conference paper. The amusing entries "-ing"
and "the question of" argue that critics use the present
participle (e.g., "rethinking," "remapping,"
"theorizing") and vague references to "the question
of this or that" as a way of converting the simple activity
of questioning into an argument. Another cluster of entries (e.g.,
"radical," "decisive assertions") focuses
on how critics forestall their opposition by imposing their claims
with an absolutist rhetoric. Still others emphasize how representational
critics eschew academic debate by invoking the arguments of a
prestigious, extra-disciplinary authority ("what so-and-so
Each one of the books 23 entries is rigorously argued and
convincing. Bauerlein pursues his thesis with a tough-minded and
uncompromising tenacity, the cumulative effect of which is a devastating
indictment of the literary profession. The glossary-as-critique
is a satisfying format; it allows Bauerlein to make his points
in quick, cogent arguments as well as to put together in a clever
way the various parts of his diagnostics. There is, however, a
drawback: if read in one sitting as a normal book, Bauerlein's
principles of clarification become somewhat repetitive. By about
two-thirds of the way through, weve seen most of the pieces
of the puzzle and can begin to anticipate what he will say. In
that case, it may be better to read the book in small sections,
rather than in one go. Another potential weakness is Bauerlein's
insufficient account of the fact that every generation of critics
develops a critical shorthand that makes sense to its users, but
not to outsiders or to succeeding generations of critics. One
has only to look back to an earlier generation to find the same
kind of rhetorical strategies, catchphrases and imitation of extra-disciplinary
authorities that Bauerlein finds so reprehensible in contemporary
If this generational consideration is an oversight, it shows up
in other ways as well. For example, it shows up in how he glosses
the few terms included from the 1970's (e.g., deconstruction,
theory). Bauerlein complains that contemporary critics focus exclusively
on the ethical and political connotations of "deconstruction"
because they are unaware of the long philosophical tradition behind
it. However, it's not altogether clear that last generation deconstructors
who knew about the philosophical tradition were any more methodologically
correct than contemporary critics. As Bauerlein himself points
out, the strategy of the last generation of critics "consisted
of a savvy facility in implementing these theories, in applying
them to this or that text in accordance with the master's precepts.
. . . [T]hey trained students to become theorists like themselves"
(144). If theory is what originally drove students of literature
to pursue interests outside the discipline, one could easily view
contemporary representational criticism as a logical extension
of the rise of theory. In that case, it's surprising that "theory"
gets only a half-page treatment in Bauerleins diagnosis,
whereas all the other entries average around 3-4 pages.
This blindspot also shows up in the terms Bauerlein neglects.
If his aim is to analyze the confusion caused by anti-disciplinary
strategies, one term that he should have included is: "text."
When critics extended the meaning of the term to cover virtually
any cultural object from Dante's Divine Comedy to Spiderman
comic books to "The Oprah Winfrey Show," they eliminated
any principled way to distinguish between which objects require
professional literary/analytical training and which do not. The
current trend away from literature to society and culture thus
may find one of its sources in another term popular with an earlier
These, however, are only minor issues and they should not detract
from the overall importance and strength of Bauerlein's argument.
Though Bauerlein's purpose is obviously polemical, one of the
many merits of the book is that he backs up his polemical fireworks
with unmistakable philosophical rigor as well as disarming wit
and humor. It should be difficult even for the most hardened skeptics
to avoid Bauerleins conclusions.
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Lingua Romana: a journal of French, Italian and Romanian culture
volume 2, issue 1 / fall 2004