Resonant Thoughts: Merve Emre’s “Has Academia Ruined Literary Criticism?” (2023)

“Establishing a formal method of critical inquiry was in part an attempt to put literary studies on a par with the sciences, which were the chief models for the development of the professions in the university. Close reading branched out into many methods of reading—rhetorical reading for the deconstructionists, symptomatic reading for the Marxists, reparative reading for the queer theorists—culminating in what has been called the ‘method wars.’ […] Discussions of how a novel or a poem worked were less valuable than whatever historical or political occurrences it manifested. The aims of criticism and of scholarship diverged.” 

“The final phase of criticism’s arc began with the rise of a figure that Roger Kimball memorably described as the ‘tenured radical,’ and which we might think of as the Scholar-Activist. For her, the proper task of criticism was to participate in social transformations occurring outside the university. The battle against exploitation, she claimed, could be waged by writing about racism, sexism, homophobia, and colonialism, using an increasingly refined language of historical context, identity, and power. Literary artifacts (poems, novels, and other playthings of the élite) could be replaced as objects of study by pop-culture ones (Taylor Swift, selfies, and other playthings of the masses). By 2004, it was possible for Edward Said to lament that there were only two paths available to the critic in an era of intense specialization. He could ‘either become a technocratic deconstructionist, discourse analyst, new historicist, and so on, or retreat into a nostalgic celebration of some past state of glory associated with what is sentimentally evoked as humanism.’”

– Merve Emre, “Has Academia Ruined Literary Criticism?”

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