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The book cover for Jonathan Kramnick's "Criticism and Truth: On Method in Literary Studies."

University of Chicago Press

In 1966, Roland Barthes published a short book—a pamphlet, really—called Criticism and Truth, in response to Raymond Picard, a distinguished professor and the biographer of the French classical playwright Racine, as well as the editor of Racine’s collected works. Barthes had published a structuralist analysis of Racine, and Picard’s response was titled New Criticism or New Imposture?—from which one may readily surmise the tone.

Barthes’s reply was polemical enough. He and his co-thinkers were self-consciously avant garde in both literary taste and theoretical commitments, and pulling the noses of establishment worthies was not a temptation easily resisted.

Barthes insinuated that Picard’s demand for “objectivity” and “evident truths” reduced scholarship to accumulate dust in libraries, while Barthes and company tried to formulate new questions and new ways of reading.

No code exists for judging the outcome of combat by pamphlet, alas, though it bears mention that Barthes’s remains in print in both French and English. Picard’s does not and is only remembered, just barely, for inspiring it. On the other hand, two or three generations of theory-bashing polemicists have recapitulated Picard’s grievances about academic criticism (e.g., jargon, trendiness, too much sex and psychoanalysis, etc.), without ever hearing of him.

Barthes goes unmentioned in Jonathan Kramnick’s Criticism and Truth: On Method in Literary Studies (University of Chicago Press), although I suspect that the shared title and manifesto-like brevity of the newer book is more than coincidence. But the differences between them are more striking. Kramnick neither advocates nor denounces any particular approach to literary studies. Nor does the author’s tone ever grow combative, although he expresses alarm at the prospects of academic literary criticism’s continued existence as a recognized field of study within the contemporary university.

In “an academic system transformed by 2008,” he writes, “and then again by 2020,” the already “decade-long crisis in employment, with the number of tenure-track jobs diminishing every year and a transition to adjunct or otherwise precarious labor well under way” now poses an existential threat to the discipline through the potential destruction of the remaining “infrastructure of training from one generation to the next.” The threat to how the field reproduces its professional expertise is also a threat to “the counterflow of ideas and practices from the young to the old” so that “academic discussions don’t calcify into a liturgy or disappear altogether.” There now looms the possibility of “an extinction event in the history of knowledge.”

The degree to which other disciplines may be similarly threatened is not a question the book takes up. Although Kramnick occasionally refers to his area of concern as “the literary humanities,” his emphasis falls on identifying the core practice or method that defines literary criticism in particular. A discipline engages with “a part of the world that is presumed to be important for collective flourishing … whether its domain is numbers or networks or novels.”

Articulating the place of literature in “collective human flourishing”—or specifying what distinguishes literature from other kinds of written language, for that matter— falls outside Kramnick’s project at hand. Bracketing such questions (each of them taken up elsewhere, at great length, by colleagues in great numbers) gives the book its quality of extreme concentration and lucidity in the pursuit of the common element in thriving academic literary criticism: the element that must be preserved, lest the whole discipline disappear.

Identifying such a core element, given extreme heterogeneity of interests, theories and kinds of literary works taken up by literary scholars (see any Modern Language Association convention program) is a herculean task. The name he gives that common element is misleadingly familiar: “close reading,” a term to which Kramnick attaches a distinctive connotation. In ordinary usage, it “appears to imply a particularly intense version of the ordinary practice of reading,” he writes, “an especially hard concentration on the written word”—a slowing-down of “the mind’s rapid decoding of the arbitrary symbols that compose a language” to focus on patterns, implications, contradictions and other elements of the text’s meaning-making processes.

So construed, close reading is defined by the eye, whereas the specific character of close reading as a method within academic literary criticism, in Kramnick’s reckoning, involves the hand, which weaves together the literary text’s language and that of the critic writing about it.

Close reading is productive. It “is craftwork in a literal sense,” he writes. “It is something one does or makes with one’s hands, and its mode of attention is a kind of dexterity.”

“Craft” implies more than a set of skills. A craft is carried out and transmitted by a community of competent practitioners, at varying levels of proficiency; the transmission of skill is accompanied by that of standards and of the aptitude to recognize excellence and originality when they appear.

Rallying literary studies around a redefinition of the discipline as a form of intellectual craftsmanship (one practiced in common by scholars who overall share very little else in terms of shared interests) will not slow what the author calls the “many-pronged catastrophe” of the humanities, now well into its third decade. When Barthes wrote his pamphlet, the humanities was the beneficiary of an incredible pace of university expansion that had helped create—among other things— a public interested in following debates within the humanities. The economic and intellectual environment that Kramnick’s short volume responds to is in all respects more constricted; his argument (even in the very attenuated form I have presented it) is directed at the small public likely to recognize the nod to earlier debates in its title.

But it merits attention beyond its field. “What would be lost in the event of close reading’s passing,” Kramnick writes, “would be the equivalent of what would be lost from any other field of study should its proprietary method vanish from the world: a way of knowing, a way of orienting oneself to objects of interest, a way of saying to others that this esoteric piece of social and physical reality calls out to us as worth our time.”

Scott McLemee is Inside Higher Ed’s “Intellectual Affairs” columnist. He was a contributing editor at Lingua Franca magazine and a senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education before joining Inside Higher Ed in 2005.

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