The word “criticism” shares the same root as “crisis” -- a bit of fortuitous etymology that everyone in literary studies remembers from time to time, whether in the context of sublime theoretical arguments (interpretation at the edge of the abyss!) or while dealing with the bottom-line obstacles to publishing one more monograph. Not to mention all the “criticism/crisis” musing that goes on at this time of year as people finish their papers for MLA, sometimes with minutes to spare.
Once this season of crisis management is past, I hope readers will turn their attention to Geoffrey Galt Harpham’s new book The Character of Criticism  (Routledge). Harpham, who is president and director of the National Humanities Center,  offers a meditation on what happens (in the best case, anyway) when a literary scholar encounters literary text. Most of the book consists of close examination of the work of four major figures -- Elaine Scarry, Martha Nussbaum, Slavoj Å½iÅ¾ek, and Edward Said – who bring very different methods and mores to the table when performing the critic’s task. The contrast between Nussbaum and Å½iÅ¾ek, in particular, seems potentially combustible.
But the book is not a study in the varieties of critical engagement possible now, given our capacious theoretical toolkits. Harpham’s argument is that literary criticism is a distinct type of act performed by (and embodying) a specific type of agent. We don’t read criticism just for information, or to see concepts refined or tested. Criticism is, at its best, a product of “cognitive freedom,” as Harpham puts it.
“Interpretation represents a moment at which cognition is not absolutely bound by necessity to produce a particular result,” he writes, “...and this moment serves as a portal through which character, an individual way of being in the world, enters the work.”
In the week just before the MLA convention, I interviewed Harpham by email about his book -- a discussion that led, in due course, to asking him for his thoughts on the MLA's recent report on scholarship and tenure.  A transcript of the discussion runs below.
But first I want to quote some favorite lines in The Character of Criticism. They appear in a section drawing out, at some length, the parallel between literary criticism and the kinds of responsiveness and responsibility before “The Word” one finds in, say, Saint Augustine.
“The act of writing a critical text,” as Harpham puts it, “reaches deep into oneself, testing one’s acuity, responsiveness, erudition, and staying power. But critical writing also tests attributes normally considered as moral qualities, including the capacity to suspend one’s own interests and desires and to make of oneself a perfect instrument for registering the truth of The Word.”
Easier said than done, of course. Harpham goes on to describe the obligations thus imposed on the critic, thereby fashioning a new identity in the process. Here’s a passage in a format suitable to be printed out, clipped, and posted near one’s computer monitor for sober contemplation:
“One must .... wish to be regarded as a person who can overcome insubordinate impulses, remove clutter and distractions from the field of vision, isolate the main issues, set aside conventional views, persevere through difficulties, set high standards, see beneath appearances, form general propositions from particulars, see particulars within the context of general propositions, make rigorous and valid inferences from concrete evidence, be responsive without being obsessive, take delight without becoming besotted, concentrate without obsession, be suspicious without being withholding, be fair without being equivocal, be responsive to the moment without being indiscriminate in one’s enthusiasms, and so forth.” --Geoffrey Galt Harpham
That final clause -- “and so forth” -- is really something. Talk about criticism and crisis! The prospect of adding more to that list of demands is either inspiring or terrifying, I suppose, depending on the state of one’s character....
Here's the interview:
Q: We use the word "character" as a way of talking about a fictive person. We also use it, when talking about real people, to refer to a definitive pattern of behaviors and attitudes (something durable, if not inflexible, about how they deal with other people). And then, of course, there's the old-fashioned, moralistic sense -- as in referring to someone "having character" or "being of weak character." When you write about the role of character in academic literary criticism, which of these usages fits best? Any secret yearning to be William Bennett motivating your work?
A: Since I’m talking about the character of criticism, your second version, the “definitive pattern of behaviors and attitudes,” is the most pertinent for my purposes. But the first usage, referring to fictive people, is also relevant, because fictive characters have to exhibit more consistency than real people, just in order to be recognizable from one textual moment to the next. I’m willing to entertain the possibility that the two are linked, that personal consistency is a self-imposed constraint or “fiction” that makes us recognizable to ourselves and others.
To me, the most powerful instances of criticism are those in which the drama of perception and understanding, which is also a moral drama in the broadest sense, is somehow visible in a shadowy way, encoded or encrypted in the critical text. I’ve always been struck by the fact that the criticism that impressed me most deeply managed to suggest an intimate encounter, even a kind of wrestling, between a strong, committed, informed, and responsive mind and a cultural text that probed and tested that mind, revealing its powers, limitations, and dispositions -- in short, its character. Part of the character of criticism is its capacity to reveal the character of the critic, even in ways the critic has no knowledge of. In fact, I think that criticism is, or can be, one of the most interesting ways of manifesting character.
Any yearning I had to be William Bennett was more than satisfied when I became president of the National Humanities Center: He was one of my four predecessors, before he went to Washington to serve in the Reagan administration. He is, however, interesting in terms of all three of your definitions of character. Because he does not display consistent behaviors (scolding people about their lack of moral strength on the one hand, compulsive gambling with horrific results in Vegas on the other), he has come to be seen as a kind of “fictive person,” one that exists only in books -- his books. Some people, inspired perhaps by those very books, might draw old-fashioned moral conclusions.
Q: Your first chapter has a long section describing a sort of ideal-typical "critical character" (so to speak) through an account of the act or process of critical writing as testimony to the power of a definitive encounter with a text. It’s powerful. But it’s also utterly inapplicable to an awful lot of critical prose one comes across, whether in academic books or journals or at sessions of MLA. The tenure-driven critical encounter often seems like an effort to apply some exciting new theoretical gizmo to a problem that would otherwise be uninteresting except as an occasion for trying out said gizmo. Or is that completely wrong? Is criticism as vocation (the response to a call) actually surviving amidst all the so-called "professionalization"?
A: I agree that the optimal “critical character” is rare, and for good reason. First, one has to be not only a critic, with a certain kind of education and professional opportunities, but also an unusually interesting person, one whose responses to the world are consistent, valuable, and meaningful, significant in a larger sense because they seem to proceed from some set of commitments and convictions rooted in human experience. Then, one has to be willing and able to expose oneself to a text, to respond without defensiveness, to be alive to a challenge. And lastly, one has to be able to write in such a way that both adheres to professional decorums and does something more by giving the reader some sense of the experience of coming to grips with an object of great significance and value.
In addition to the critics I discuss in my book (Scarry, Nussbaum, Å½iÅ¾ek, Said), I can think of a number of others, but really, it’s a wonder anybody can do this. Much of what goes on in the world of literary studies (including gizmo R & D) supports the very best work by providing a professional context for it. Such work can be honorable without being heroic; it can, of course, also be neither. But the best work is done by those who are personally invested in it. I think if more people felt this way about criticism, their work and even their careers would profit and the whole field would be more interesting.
I have learned a great deal about the profession of literary studies from studies of professionalization, but I do not think that criticism benefits from a heightened awareness among critics of their status as professionals. It’s a difficult situation. As marginal and undervalued as literary scholars are at most colleges and universities, they need to develop their own credentialing structures just to keep their sense of dignity intact. But nothing kills the authentic spirit of criticism faster, or deader, than a consciousness of one’s own professional circumstances. Criticism is a professional discourse, but the sternest test of criticism is whether it can communicate even its most refined or challenging thinking in the vernacular.
I would not call criticism a vocation in the Weberian sense; nor would I call it a calling, as if it were a summons you could not refuse without disgracing yourself or violating your own deepest nature. But the greatest critics, the ones who animate and advance the discussion, do seem to have a certain need or urgency to communicate in this form that comes from within.
Q: Well, I want to challenge you a bit on part of that last answer. "Criticism is a professional discourse," you say. But that calls to mind R.P. Blackmur's statement to the contrary: his definition of criticism as "the formal discourse of an amateur." He meant, among other things, that the critic's role was connected pretty closely to the activity of the artist -- that it is a loving ("ama-teur") participation in the making and assimilation of literary form (even if at a certain, well, formal distance). Besides, the idea that there is anything particularly academic about literary criticism is a very recent development in cultural history. In 1920, an English professor who wrote criticism was doing something a little undignified and certainly "unprofessional." So how is it that all of this has changed? Or has it? If asked to name a recent critic whose work really manifested a strong sense of character as you've described it, I'd tend to think of James Wood, who's never been an academic at all.
A: I'll push back a bit on that one, even if it forces me to defend what I have just criticized. Blackmur began his career of poetry and editing in the 1920's; his critical career was finished over a half-century ago. And he was unusual even in the company of amateurs that dominated the literary scene at that time in that he did not have a B.A. Moreover, at the same time as Blackmur was advocating critical amateurism, John Crowe Ransom was writing "Criticism, Inc.," an early manifesto for professional academic criticism (1938). So even in Blackmur's time, his position was not the only, or even the dominant, position being enunciated.
I doubt that most people today would find criticism written in 1920 particularly interesting unless it was written by T. S. Eliot. Come to think of it, with the exception of Eliot's The Sacred Wood, I don't know of one durable, much less memorable piece of criticism that appeared in that year. Modern literature (post-Wordsworth) was not taught in universities, and criticism was necessarily confined to newspapers and journals like Hound and Horn, Blackmur's journal. The total situation today is different, and I don't think that we get a purchase on the present by reminiscing about the old days. Nor is James Wood an argument on your side. He is comfortable outside the academy, as is Louis Menand. But today, they're both at Harvard, Wood in a non-tenure-track position. They are part of the reason that (I contend) Harvard has, right now, the greatest English department ever assembled.
Universities provide jobs and -- in the case of Harvard -- ask little in return. Of course, the university does determine, in large ways and small, what goes on in criticism. Still, precisely because so little is explicitly demanded, an individual critic should find it possible to cultivate that "ama-teur" orientation that -- as I gather you feel -- is the precondition of character in criticism. If it were impossible, I would expect and even hope that talented young people would leave the profession (as I'll call it) in droves.
Q: The question of what counts as scholarship, and how it gets counted, is very much in the air, now, given the recent MLA task force report. The four figures whose work you examine in The Character of Criticism (Elaine Scarry, Martha Nussbaum, Slavoj Å½iÅ¾ek, and Edward Said) have produced work in the usual venues and formats of scholarly publication. But all of them have been active in other ways -- through public-intellectual commentary, but also as activists, at least to some degree. Can you draw any lessons from their examples that might be useful now, as other critic try to figure out how to respond to the felt need to change the circumstances of academic work?
A: This question approaches some very swampy ground, and my response may not get us on dry land altogether.
One easy response to the general problem you describe would be to declare that "the circumstances of academic work" have already changed, and that blogging, chatting, intervening in online discussions, and "public intellectual commentary" conducted in non-academic forums should be recognized by promotion-and-tenure committees as valid academic work, to be considered alongside books and articles in scholarly journals.
Even though this, too, is an easy response, I disagree. Universities pay you to do university work and they are not obliged to accept just any view of what counts. And, as an abstract proposition, it is important, both to oneself and one's readers, that one has established one's scholarly credentials before one weighs in. I say "as an abstract proposition" because I'm all too aware that our credentialing procedures, even at the very best universities, are, shall we way, non-ideal. But in theory the discipline and skills acquired in the course of mastering a certain body of knowledge and finding one's voice in an established discourse serve one very well. None of the people I discuss in my book were public intellectuals at the beginning of their careers, with the exception of Å½iÅ¾ek, who was operating in a very different environment. Nor, for that matter, were Noam Chomsky, Stanley Fish, Walter Benn Michaels, Skip Gates, Paul Krugman, or even Michael Bérubé.
One may think that it's stifling to insist that gifted young people hold their tongues until they prove themselves to their elders, but I don't see it that way. They aren't holding their tongues; they're doing what they were hired to do, and what they presumably love doing; and in the process they are preparing themselves so that if and when they do speak out on public matters in a public forum, they speak with an authority gained over years of reflection on the archive of human creative accomplishment. A distinguished professor, enraged, is a force to be reckoned with.
I know that the real effects of tenure, from an institutional point of view, are to depress faculty pay and encourage people to serve on committees. But among its side effects is a certain measure of protection for people who exercise their freedom of speech in oppositional ways. In fact, I think that tenure imposes a certain burden on one's conscience to do what one can when the situation calls for action.
Q: OK, but the new venues and potentials for digital publication represent only one part of the changing circumstances in academic work. The task force addressed the larger question of what kinds of scholarly activity count for tenure. Any thoughts on the rest of the report?
A: I've thought about tenure a good deal, especially in 2000-1, when I headed a university-wide committee on faculty evaluations and rewards at Tulane. Tulane was a perfect place for this debate to take shape because it was not an elite institution, but routinely compared itself to Brown, Northwestern, Emory, Rice, and Vanderbilt. In other words, faculty were encouraged to think of themselves as serious researchers, even though most of them were not -- if they were, the comparisons would have been more realistic.
What I found over the course of that year and a half was that the contemporary debate on tenure was being driven by a variety of forces, including state legislatures hostile to academia in general, conservative academics hostile to elite institutions, high-powered researchers at those very elite institutions, and a great many ordinary academics who were doing lots of committee work and teaching and wanted to be recognized, with promotions and salary increases, just like those who were publishing regularly. "Flexibility" was the key phrase: universities were encouraged to reward flexibility, as individuals realized themselves in their various ways. Our committee found several problems associated with "flexibility," each one of which we considered insurmountable.
The first was that it granted extraordinary powers to department chairs to work out individualized agreements with faculty members, and that was a recipe for corruption and cynicism. Second, it eroded faculty governance by making department chairs into members of the administration, rather than volunteers arising within the faculty. Third, it meant that the rank of professor at an AAU, Carnegie I institution would not mean anything in particular, and that would lead to a loss in status for all.
In principle, I was not opposed to "flexible" rewards for faculty, but I thought that each institution had to decide what it wanted to be, and how its faculty should be expected to think of themselves. At the top research universities, flexibility is a very bad idea: All faculty should be seen as having jumped over the same bars. At flagship state institutions, it's still a bad idea. But from there on down -- and at Tulane, one of the questions we had to face was exactly where we stood -- the issue was not so clearcut. Many colleges and universities may wish to reward superb teaching or loyal service to the institution with rank and salary increases.
The MLA recommendation that speaks most clearly to this issue is the one about the "letter of understanding" that institutions should issue to their faculty, outlining the expectations. But such explicitness would cause as much grief as it alleviated. It's a buyer's market for faculty, so lower-down institutions have a realistic chance to staff their faculties with Ph.D.'s from top-tier universities, and many do. These young stars may arrive still thinking of themselves as eminent-scholars-in-the-making. If they were given an official document stating that they were not to think of themselves in that way, it would have a demoralizing effect on them, their colleagues, and their students; it would be seen as a way of capping aspiration and upward mobility, and that would be inconsistent with the very idea of higher education.
If the letter of understanding outlined strict requirements for tenure and promotion, it would encourage precisely the wrong state of mind (checking the boxes) for real scholarship or intellectual inquiry. And if it said that there are many excellent self-realizing things you can do to be rewarded, then it would in effect abandon the very concept of "standards," and that, too, would be destructive.
Q: Whatever its potentially morale-killing effect, the "letter of understanding" would at least be explicit. Do you have an alternative in mind?
A: In a sense I do.
Each institution has to come to a rough understanding of itself, leaving enough room for anomalous individuals to be judged on terms appropriate to their contribution. I'm afraid there is no substitute for the act of judgment exercised case by case by people who are presumed to be competent. Though that presumption can be challenged in individual instances, it must be maintained, because it and it alone ensures faculty governance.
I speak from experience here. I -- like Martha Nussbaum, Louis Menand, M.H. Abrams, and many others -- was denied tenure (many years ago, at Penn), so I know how difficult it can be to maintain one's faith in the competence and judgment of one's betters. But the experience builds and tests character. Which is where we began, isn't it?
(A number of Harpham’s recent papers -- several of them overlapping with the themes of his new book – are available here. )