Review of Mark Bauerlein’s “Literary Criticism: An Autopsy”

Scott Sprenger
Department of French and Italian, Brigham Young University
Provo, UT 84602

Mark Bauerlein. Literary Criticism: An Autopsy. Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997. 176 pp.

The 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 the field.

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” (4).

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 fields.

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 strategy.

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 Bauerlein’s 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” anything.

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 them (60).

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 calls”).

Each one of the book’s 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, we’ve 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 criticism.

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 Bauerlein’s “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 generation.

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 Bauerlein’s conclusions.


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