Criticism and Politics
A Polemical Introduction
Bruce Robbins



What does it mean to call yourself “nonpolitical,” as Thomas Mann does in the title of his Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man? It might mean a desire to stay neutral when all around you are choosing sides, perhaps too hastily. It might indicate a desire not to be reductive in judging the wild, weird profusion of things that knock at the doors of your perception. It might come out of a wish to preserve politics itself as a meaningful category at a time when the category seems to be expanding too explosively in all directions. According to the New York Times of October 28, 2021,

“You talk to older people and they’re like, ‘Dude we sell tomato sauce, we don’t sell politics,’” said Mr. Kennedy, co-founder of Plant People, a certified B corporation. “Then you have younger people being like, ‘These are political tomatoes. This is political tomato sauce.’1

Lately the impulse to describe oneself as nonpolitical has perhaps become more attractive because of the much-discussed polarization of the US electorate. The idea that politics is ugly and sordid—something that entails giving oneself over to uncritical partisanship, forsaking nuance, conforming to a with-us-or-against-us crudeness of thought and feeling, and soiling oneself with unsavory moral compromise—may help explain the republication of Mann’s World War I–era volume. For years Reflections was not readily available, as I discovered while trying to get ahold of a copy during the global pandemic and closed libraries when I was trying to write this book. Now I find Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man not only available again, but reviewed, positively, on the front page of the New York Times Sunday Book Review.2

As it turns out, Reflections was unavailable for so long because it is unreadable. It is not a piece of juvenilia—Mann was thirty-nine when he began writing it and already a well-established writer—but he himself became embarrassed by the positions he took in it and by the over-the-top way he took them. He did not encourage the book’s translation into English. As Mark Lilla observes in his introduction to the New York Review Books edition, “Most readers today will find the reactionary political views he expressed in it repellent, as Mann himself eventually did.”3 Whatever nonpolitical means, it’s not the word that comes to mind if you consider what Mann is doing here.

Nonpolitical is unpolitisch in the original German. It might be better translated as “apolitical” or simply “unpolitical,” words that are used much more often in English and are thus more likely to strike a chord, one way or the other, in English-language readers. At any rate, while marching under the nonpolitical banner, Mann did indeed express political views, and to call those views reactionary is something of an understatement. He wrote Reflections during World War I, and he did so out of passionate support for Germany, accompanied by a palpable enthusiasm for bloodletting as such. The outbreak of the war had filled him with excitement, as if confirming his sense (shared with other artists and intellectuals of the time) that life could no longer go on in its pathetic, familiar triviality, so really, why not go to war? In a letter to his brother Heinrich, quoted in Lilla’s introduction, Mann says, in August of 1914, that we should be grateful for the chance to experience the “mighty things” that the war will bring. Europe, he proclaimed, needed a catastrophe. Channeling Nietzsche in his reactionary content as well as in his high ranting style, he opined that Europe had too much “civilization,” meaning too much enlightenment, too much reason, too much democracy. Here you can see the logic of him calling himself unpolitisch. In his eyes democracy politicized everything, and that was a disaster. War, the bloodier the better, was a cathartic escape both from “civilization” and from politics.

Mann’s enthusiasm for cathartic violence is not currently in vogue. Why then republish his Reflections, and in an attractive edition that is clearly not just meant for academics with an interest in the darker corners of intellectual history? To judge from Lilla’s introduction, the answer would seem to lie in a second term that, like war, Mann also set in opposition to politics. He opposed politics to culture. Culture, for Mann, was what Germany was fighting for. Culture was dark and demonic rather than peaceful, citizenly, and enlightening. It was profound, enigmatic, perhaps ultimately indecipherable, perhaps ultimately sacred. This general viewpoint ought to be familiar. Unlike Mann’s embrace of mass bloodshed, his understanding of culture as sacred mystery has not gone away. Nor has his certitude, which follows logically from that understanding, that in its essence culture can only be profaned by politics. As Lilla says, that is what makes Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man a “timely” book.4

“Mann wrote at a time, like our own,” Lilla says, “when artists were under great pressure to declare their political allegiance and shape their work accordingly.”5 The suggestion is that the present is also a time when many feel pressured to declare political allegiance and that Lilla wants us to learn from Reflections to resist that pressure. He does not spell out what exactly we are under pressure to declare allegiance to. He quotes a sarcastic passage from Mann that, in his words, “could have been written today”: “There is only a ‘yes’ or a ‘no,’ sheep and goats, one must ‘come forward.’ Tolerance and delay would be a crime.”6 Lilla concedes that Mann is inconsistent on this point; after all, Mann ended up saying yes to democracy and no to Nazism, though only after considerable delay and a quietly exasperated tolerance of Hitler that is beautifully captured in Colm Toibin’s The Magician. If the present contains any bad actors that might be analogous to the Nazis, or situations of manifest injustice comparable to those for which the Nazis are now remembered—actors and situations where a yes or a no might be justified—Lilla does not mention them. As against choice, he opts for “ambiguity” and “resistance to formulas.”7 In the final paragraph of his introduction, he comes down in favor of what Mann calls “aestheticism,” which seems to mean an artistic appreciation of life that transcends political side-taking and rules out the making of commitments: “There is more to life than is dreamed of in our values and commitments and causes and programs. Even in times of crisis and great injustice, some inner distance must be maintained.”8

It would be foolhardy to dispute the value of inner distance. Had there been more inner distance in 1914—distance from the most demanding “causes and programs” of the year, perhaps even enough to resist the clamorous appeals to patriotism and the life-threatening penalties that accompanied those appeals—the massive and meaningless slaughter of World War I might have been avoided, and with it, perhaps, the bigger and even badder war that followed. But producing that sort of distance from the nation’s demand for violence would have had to be a political achievement, a result of the shared recognition that there were sides to be taken other than national ones, sides directly opposed to the national ones. It would have been a result of both detachment (from patriotism at home) and attachment elsewhere—for example, the solidarity across national borders that very nearly stopped organized French and German workers from lending their support to the war in which so many of them were to die at each other’s hands. It does not go without saying that distance and ambiguity, culture and art should be opposed to politics. It is a sign of the times, however, that this opposition is once again in play.

I have a certain sympathy for cultural critics who register a friction and even an incompatibility between culture and politics. Anyone who has taught the genre of the political novel, as I have, will have noticed how uncomfortable even the genre’s classics are with politics—how eager Turgenev is in Fathers and Sons to pull his favorite characters clear of it and see them in some other, more personal light, how often Conrad in Nostromo condemns it as a dirty business. There is nothing uncharacteristic about Emilia Gould’s view in that novel that the “constant ‘savings of the country’” are “a puerile and bloodthirsty game of murder and rapine played with terrible earnestness by depraved children.”9 The imperative to be politically engaged is not usually the moral of the story. Even Albert Camus’s The Plague, often read as an allegory of the need to engage in the French Resistance under Nazi occupation, arguably makes a case against joining the Resistance, at least if it would entail violence—as effective resistance to the Nazis most certainly did. More often, the obvious takeaway in political novels has to do with critical distance, ambiguity, the ability to see things from more than one viewpoint—just the virtues celebrated in Lilla’s introduction to Mann.

Still, Lilla himself is very much a taker of sides, politically speaking; I pause for so long on his introduction in part because his own pushback against what he sees as the politics of the 60s will prove relevant to what follows. But as I hope this book will show, there are other ways of being political. Mann himself illustrates one of them. Though he quietly renounced the sanguinary German nationalism of his Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man, what he did not renounce, as Tobias Boes points out, is that book’s “assumption that an author and his country are conjoined by a representational link, and that both the words and the actions of an individual reflect the larger character of the national community.”10 Mann had an “active desire to become representative,” Boes concludes, and this desire shaped his entire career.11 In this sense even Mann’s novels can’t be enlisted on the side of the nonpolitical. On the contrary, Mann’s career offers one answer to a question that has bedeviled cultural politics since 1970, the period I will be dealing with in this book. It suggests that culture doesn’t represent only itself, but that it is socially representative, passively displaying truths about its time but also intervening—representing in an active sense—so as to push the social collectivity in a certain direction or directions. If it is indeed representative, it would be the duty of critics to figure out what cultural politics does represent, and how much, and with what effects. Cultivating the habit of observing and reflecting on interesting things that don’t immediately fit into a pre-existing political category, as Mann did so skillfully and as any critic will hopefully want to learn to do as well, need not interfere with that political sense of the critical vocation and might even be required by it.

Politics has never been reducible to a simple taking of sides. It has always been an “essentially contested” concept, to cite William Connolly’s application of W. B. Gallie’s phrase, in which what is contested includes how directly the object under consideration, whatever it is, impacts on the fate of the collectivity in question—but also, for that matter, what ought to count as a side.12 The playful work of imagining alternatives to a given social collectivity, utopian or dystopian or a mixture of both, can by no means be shrunken to a thumbs up or a thumbs down, yet it too is unmistakably political. For that matter, as will be suggested below, Aristotle’s old-fashioned sense of politics as the art of governing may not after all be entirely obsolete. More than one understanding of the political might well discover a legitimate interest even in humble tomatoes—who picks the tomatoes, how much the laborers get paid for that work, what pesticides are touched and inhaled while performing it, and so on.

The need for the would-be political critic to get beyond or behind political cliché is obvious as soon as you consider the multitude of possible targets and causes, each of them willing and able to organize political criticism around its priorities, some of them eager to get along with others, some not so much. Nearest to home, perhaps, is the market. In the academy, as in hospitals and law offices and seemingly everywhere else, there has been increasingly intense pressure over the past decades to accept the logic of the market as absolute. That pressure has been worst at the level of employment, where the proportion of university teaching performed by people without even a minimum of job security or (therefore) the freedom to speak their mind without fear of reprisal is somewhere between two-thirds and three-quarters. But a certain bullying has also been felt at the level of the discipline’s self-conception. One effect, natural enough in a generation that no longer feels itself shielded from the market, has been an inclination to seek refuge in the selling points that earlier incarnations of the academy had used to explain their existence to a broader public: uncontroversial values like art, pleasure, beauty, truth—as A. O. Scott does (albeit with considerable irony) in Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth.13 Another effect, closely related, has been a desire to flee political commitments and claims to representativeness, seen as controversial and likely to alienate the broader public, and in any case as utopian and self-aggrandizing. Thus, for example, Rita Felski accuses “the language of politics” of presenting itself as “the only permissible way of accounting” for literary works—a false accusation, but symptomatic of the times.14 On the other hand, market pressure can also lead to more serious thinking about political commitments—for example, about how hostility to the market has traditionally been part of what it means to be a critic. Hostility to the market, seemingly hardwired into the discipline, is a source of both energy and confusion. Does it make the discipline anticapitalist? On the contrary, does it make the discipline elitist? Can the discipline be both anticapitalist and elitist at the same time? The ambiguity is a reason why, for most critics of whatever persuasion, the subject of politics does not feel ancillary or accidental.

In the 1970s, two relevant events happened more or less simultaneously. Both turned out to be long-term phenomena. One was the impact of the 60s movements on higher education, an impact that was always controversial even within the academy, let alone outside it, but was eventually quite successful in transforming academic habits. The other was neoliberalism. Neoliberal policies of austerity have their own historical trajectory, but they won support for the defunding of public services, including higher education, in large part thanks to the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s, which took the post-60s politicizing of the humanities as an opportunity to stoke the rage of the “silent majority,” with special indignation directed at movements for racial and gender justice. Indignation is perhaps too strong a word for Mark Lilla’s version of this argument, but he has certainly presented attention to racial and gender justice as a political mistake, in large part because it added to the rage of the white majority and alienated the so-called Reagan Democrats among whom he grew up. It’s a well-populated position.

The 60s movements and neoliberalism also intersect in the sense that this defunding of public institutions of higher learning helped undermine the job market for humanities PhDs. And what affects the job market also affects the consciousness of those facing that job market. This context too helps explain why anyone in or near the discipline will recognize “criticism and politics” as an established and even unavoidable subject for reflection and debate.

As its title suggests, this book is intended both as an introduction to the subject of criticism and politics and (like Mann’s Reflections, though shorter and hopefully more readable) as a polemic. The immediate stimulus to indulge in a polemic came from a series of theoretical proclamations over the last decade or so associated with so-called surface reading and post-critique—proclamations that from my vantage point looked like attempts to depoliticize the practice of criticism and even to carry forward the right-wing culture war’s attack on the humanities, which seemed to peak in the 1990s but has remained a significant part of national politics. I felt “called out,” so to speak, provoked by these proclamations to mock what I saw as self-betraying silliness, maybe even, at worst, an impulse to repeat the errors of the unpolitisch Thomas Mann and some of his friends in 1914.15 I tried to put my own contrary assumptions on the table. I published several short pieces. They threw further fuel on the fire, and I can’t say I was entirely displeased to see the sparks fly.

Here is a sample, from a PMLA roundtable on Rita Felski’s The Limits of Critique. Felski writes:

“Anyone who attends academic talks has learned to expect the inevitable question, ‘But what about power?’ Perhaps it is time to start asking different questions: ‘But what about love?’” [p. 17 in The Limits of Critique]

And I respond:

Power has sometimes been used, it is true, in vague and intellectually sloppy ways. But when the over-critical critics of whom Felski disapproves talk about power, they are most often trying to talk, successfully or not, about injustice. If you think of power as shorthand for injustice, you will perhaps hesitate before calling for it to be decommissioned. The word injustice does not appear in the index of Felski’s book. Would she maintain that it is an inappropriate or a played-out topic? A flower can be beautiful. The photograph of the corpse of a child on a Syrian beach, beautiful or not, will also have to be discussed in terms of injustice. Is it clear to PMLA’s readers that the task of literature, and therefore of critics of literature, is to talk about flowers rather than drowned Syrian children or to see such photographs as if they were flowers? I am curious to know whether Felski would go ahead and make the case. I am also curious to know why society should pay for us to make this substitution.16

This remains pretty much my position. But in the process of meditating on this back and forth—leading me to pronounce that the “limits of critique” project amounted to a “corporate restructuring” of criticism and leading Felski to respond with comparable asperity—I came to feel a need to engage, historically and philosophically, on a deeper level than the pugilistic roundtables the hastily convened periodical venues would permit. Hence the project jettisoned some of the local squabbling and metamorphosed into a book-length hybrid, a mid-size polemical introduction. My aim shifted from the very likely ephemeral controversies of the moment, as I reframed the persistence of such controversies, bringing in some voices from earlier periods and thus laying out a more lasting and responsible position about how criticism has and has not been a political enterprise. I also attempt to explain, for those entering the profession now, what they ought to be thinking about and the larger meanings of their personal commitment to it.

I recognize a certain tension between the ambition to write an introduction—a work that claims to be cool, fair-minded, and authoritative—and the ambition to write a polemic—a work that is obliged to try to be livelier and to that end can afford to be less restrained in expressing its true opinion of its opponents. I have tried and (as I bring this project to a close) am still trying to find a suitable balance between the two. It doesn’t seem to me impossible.

To begin with, this project entails some work of historical contextualization. Chapter 1, “Criticism in the Wake of the 1960s,” discusses the heritage of Matthew Arnold as I encountered it when I entered graduate school at Harvard (admittedly not a perfectly representative institution) in the early 1970s and the dramatic collision between the Arnoldian model of humanistic criticism and the demands of the 1960s emancipation movements, which were little by little working their way into the humanities in the 70s and 80s and introducing a fundamental concern with race, gender, sexuality, imperialism, and other highly political topics. A collision of sorts did happen, with much of the resistance to the 60s influence framed in Arnoldian terms. And yet (so I argue) there were also deep continuities between Arnold’s notion of criticism as a sort of permanent opposition and the new style of opposition encouraged by the 60s movements, continuities that help explain both why the influence of the 60s “took” in the academy and why that influence assumed the form it did (particular, limited): for example, criticism that is political in the sense of being anti-reformist and anti-institutional. I offer Lionel Trilling as a relevant example.

At another level, the project of assessing the relationship between criticism and politics also requires a clarification of language. Chapter 2, “Criticizing,” begins with a discussion of the word “criticism” as it appears in Raymond Williams’s book Keywords, with attention to the difference between criticism there and in Williams’s earlier Culture and Society, the book that established Arnold as a central figure in a left-wing oppositional tradition. Williams (born in 1921) and Judith Butler (born in 1956), though of different generations, are discussed as central figures in the new left-wing oppositional tradition that came out of the 1960s, embodying a relationship to the 60s movements and negotiating between those movements and the institutional form that criticism had previously assumed. I put a discussion of Butler’s thinking on “critique” (in dialogue with Talal Asad) together with Williams’s on “criticism,” relating both to the charge that criticism is political in the sense of being merely negative, a form of faultfinding. Is faultfinding a decisive element in the legacy that the 60s movements left to criticism? Is it the necessary consequence of so-called identity politics? I argue that it is not, emphasizing Butler’s differences from Asad (whom I take to represent a disavowed but real identity politics). On the other hand, I also reinterpret the “historicist/contextualist paradigm” (Joseph North’s phrase) as an effect of what remains most desirable in identity politics—an effect that is irreducible to faultfinding.

I argue as well that the supplying of historical context represents a form of defensible expertise (expertise as such being a sine qua non of academic work) that more or less reconciles the anti-elitist, anti-expertise impulse of the 60s with the generation’s political goals. That those goals were never reducible to identity politics in any sense can be illustrated by Edward W. Said (born in 1935), the chapter’s final figure “of” the 60s generation, who helped define the decade’s influence on the characteristic intellectual procedures of the following decades. Colonialism in general, and Zionism in particular, being popular and populist in their appeal to their respective constituencies, how could academic critique of them ever have bowed supinely to the sensitivities of any given constituency, as the critics of identity politics accuse it of doing? On the contrary, Said’s distinctive and influential mode of critique reveals a commitment to universalism—a commitment that played a much larger part in the movements of the 60s (so I argue) than is usually recognized.

Even more than Williams, Butler, or Said, the figure who is most central to the self-conception of criticism in the decades after 1970 is Michel Foucault. Chapter 3, “Lost Centrality,” takes Foucault as the successor to Matthew Arnold: the next general guide to work in the humanities and to the understanding of what criticism has come to be and why it is worth doing. The chapter begins with a close reading of Foucault’s treatment of “commentary” in his lecture “The Order of Discourse.” That section (one of Edward Said’s favorites) deserves to be seen as perhaps the richest and most troubling discussion of the paradoxical nature of criticism, and (coming as it does in 1970) it makes a useful landmark for those tracing the trajectory of criticism and politics over this period. The chapter reads several recent critical enterprises (for example, “surface reading” and criticism-as-performance, as in Andrea Long Chu’s Females) as implicit responses to the dilemma Foucault laid out. As theorist of disciplinarity, Foucault also permits a structural comparison between the place of criticism in literary studies and the methods and objects of other disciplines. Does disciplinarity explain the coherence or incoherence of political claims for one’s work? Are the claims made by literary critics different in kind from those made by the practitioners of other disciplines? Are they more or less persuasive?

The chapter then takes up John Guillory’s argument (one of the most serious advanced during the culture wars) that it is the marginalization of the humanities that has generated their political claims, which should be understood not in terms of the politics they articulate but rather as a collective cry of disciplinary pain. Against this argument, I bring forward Guillory’s own account of the discipline’s lost centrality. According to Guillory, critic/journalists of the eighteenth century made claims to general social significance that were largely valid, since (by Guillory’s own account) these proto-critics played the socially significant role of codifying the norms by which the emergent middle class could identify itself as a class with common interests and a common destiny—the destiny of ruling. There is a striking parallel, I suggest, with the criticism of the 60s, although that parallel is obviously imperfect. In addition to class, the divergent interests and perspectives to be reconciled include race, ethnicity, gender, and so on. The goal of instituting a new mode of rule—building a new inclusive common sense that is respectful of all and yet remains open to communication and cooperation with older habits of thinking—has remained inarticulate, to say the least. Still, the analogy is intriguing and valuable, if only because it offers resistance to the tiresome tale of criticism’s or the humanities’ decline into irrelevance. Tellers of that tale must be reminded that it presupposes a real centrality that was there to be lost. On what was that presumptive public significance ever based? If criticism’s significance had a base, even if what was erected on it was something less than centrality, it becomes at least theoretically possible to imagine that it can have one again. That theoretical possibility leads us straight back to the notion of discovering common interests and ambitions among what seem to be the dramatically divergent perspectives of identity politics.

Chapter 4, “Aesthetics and the Governing of Others,” returns to Foucault. Foucault describes critique (in the essay “What Is Critique?”) as “the art of not being governed like that.”17 I read this description as a gesture of antinormativity. To point one’s finger with a “like that” is to refuse to state a principle or norm in the name of which one is objecting. The refusal of normativity is a refusal not merely to be governed, but also to govern, since governing, for Foucault, is what norms are inevitably guilty of. This refusal helps explain Foucault’s attraction to aesthetics, which is widely seen as a refuge from normativity. This is another point of convergence between Foucault and the 60s liberation movements, which are known for their own refusal of aesthetics, seen as falsely universalizing and falsely authoritative, but which also entertained (as it is easy enough to show) a much more positive attitude toward aesthetics. The central argument here, however, is trickier: that the “disinterestedness” of the Kantian aesthetic, which serves as a procedure for self-abstraction or self-problematization, is also an essential part of the politics of the 60s liberation movements and their inheritors. Given the divergent identities and interests that had to be considered and reconciled if the movements (plural) were to come together and function, even intermittently, as a single collective political force—as “the movement”—some degree of self-abstraction was a necessity, and the legacy of that critical habit is to be seen in the current status of the term “intersectionality.” Neither then nor now is freedom an absolute value. “Force till right is ready,” Matthew Arnold’s ominous phrase from “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time,”18 does not simply refer to Arnold’s willingness to use state violence against the rioters in Hyde Park; it can also be stretched so as to read, or so I suggest, as a commitment to see the aesthetic do the work of governing—the work of governing better.

Chapter 5, “Grievances,” focuses on the political movements that helped women’s studies and ethnic studies programs win acceptance from the academy in and after the 60s. Were these programs forced upon the academy by the sort of outside pressure that some within the academy (including those who hold that criticism is “too political”) feel should be discouraged now, and perhaps should have been discouraged then? Beginning with the history of Native American studies, this chapter argues that there were principles on which the academy welcomed these programs, principles of importance both to the way in which disciplines are constituted and legitimated and to the way in which the project of democracy makes its own demands outside the university. This is one of the more important senses in which politics is not external to the university. The university’s somewhat hidden desire for ethnic studies programs (some more than others) is illustrated with reference to Kenneth Warren’s reflections on the field of African American literature and Benjamin Schreier’s reflections on the field of Jewish American literature. For both, the principles involved turn out to be higher than mere demography or diversity—and these standards are not always met.

Yet the traditional logic that called for the preservation and transmission of the cultural heritage also remains operative when the cultural heritage is pluralized, as it is after the 60s movements, and for that matter when it is extended beyond the nation. What’s at stake is democracy. At the same time, the example of Edward W. Said demonstrates that democracy as it exists, on a national scale, is not sufficient to legitimize new intellectual work or for that matter to dictate the responsibilities of the intellectual. Reading Said through the lens of Noam Chomsky’s essay “The Responsibility of Intellectuals” (which Said greatly admired) and against Said’s own (exilic) theory of the intellectual, I present him as “organic” (in Gramsci’s sense) to Vietnam-era antimilitarism, a strain of 60s thinking that requires a geographical stretching of democracy as well as a rethinking of elitism and expertise.

Chapter 6, “The Historical and the Transhistorical,” argues that from a political viewpoint, Walter Benjamin’s wildly influential imagination of the “angel of history” is not a useful paradigm. This is in part because it abandons the concept of progress that was essential to the entry of ethnic and women’s studies programs into the academy and that ought, so I suggest, to continue guiding their efforts, and the discipline’s. Instead, ethnic studies and queer studies have largely made an uneasy peace with the discipline’s dominant mode of temporality and dominant affect, which is melancholy. Rather than a general or indiscriminate reverence for the dead as the dead, an affect whose antecedents are theological, this chapter argues for a sense of history that is political because it focuses on meaningful links between past and present. Is this so obvious as not to need repeating? No, I argue, given that constructionism, the practical disciplinary common sense that “X is a construct,” encourages the critic’s freedom to reconstruct the world only by assuming that the world comes in the form of a chaos of meaningless particulars on which meaningful narratives can then be freely imposed. Our freedom to impose narratives depends on the premise that the world, unimagined, is meaningless.

The strange premise that history is widely seen to be meaningless in itself is also traced through the chapter’s subsection entitled “History Versus Fun.” Here “fun” stands for the assumption that human nature is everywhere the same, the assumption (again, theological) of the right wing in the culture wars maintaining that it was only in those terms that the value of the Greek and Latin classics could be defended. Great literature was fun because there was no “context” to interfere with the reader’s pleasure; the reader in the present was free to identify with characters from the distant past without any knowledge of moral and cultural differences between then and now getting in the way. History does not or should not make a difference. The notion that history should and does make a difference emerges here as part of the political program of the 60s movements. And the recently expressed desire to get that paradigm out of the way so as to allow for crowd-pleasing entertainments and unalloyed reader identification emerges as a continuation of the populist politics of the right.

Yet history is not composed only of differences. If it were, it would truly be meaningless. Page duBois’s spirited attempt to take the Greek classics back from their right-wing champions reveals that the case cannot be made without attention to sameness as well as difference. Sameness, I will argue, can and must be understood as something other than a convenient and unexamined humanistic given—indeed, it too, properly conceived, is a valuable part of the legacy of the 60s movements. If history is properly conceived, transhistorical sameness is historical—as historical as difference is. This argument is pursued by a reflection on Fredric Jameson’s 1981 proclamation, in The Political Unconscious, that the cultural past can be only be retrieved if it can be seen as belonging to a single great collective story. This unfashionable sentiment is subjected to a certain doubt even in Jameson’s own subsequent work, and with good reason; the small and apparently innocuous word “great” in Jameson’s phrase commits the critic to making room for ample dark amoral violence, abusive power so extensive that it comes very close to meaninglessness, even if it doesn’t ultimately stop there.

Chapter 7, “Cosmopolitical Criticism in Deep Time,” takes as its premise that criticism’s new global scale, an effect both of capitalist globalization and of the 60s movements of international solidarity, has been accompanied by a corresponding expansion of temporal scale. Going back before 1500, before modernity, so-called deep time relativizes European colonialism and the core-periphery model. It thereby makes room for the subdiscipline of world literature, which emerges after 2000 as a candidate to replace postcolonial studies. But it also makes room for a new interest in the culture of Indigenous peoples, many of whom consider themselves as having been colonized by non-Europeans. It is too soon to assess the moral and political implications of this shift, which both rejects and sustains impulses of the 60s movements. Examining world literature in relation to developments in world history, this chapter considers two non-Eurocentric options: on the one hand, the moral shallowness that might result (once again) if criticism uses this opportunity to flee from context, and on the other hand, a more positive revaluation of anti-colonial culture both in Europe and elsewhere, seen now in a truly worldly perspective as one site of what has to be thought of as a narrative of moral progress. The chapter ends by reflecting on the contrast between criticism’s generally anti-progressive stance in theory and the claims critics often make for progress in their own work. Stuart Hall, perhaps the single finest example we have of an organic intellectual of the 60s movements, helps me draw the moral: that in order to believe in progress in the world as well as in their work, critics need to belong to the world in something like the way they belong to their work, and ensure that their work makes changes in the world.

That’s what I think critics are for.

As should be obvious, this book is not meant as a survey of criticism, even criticism over the last fifty years. It is not a guide to better living, like Scott’s, even an ironic one. It is not a how-to book for would-be critics trying to master the craft. It is meant as a brief introduction to how and why conceptions of what criticism is and does have changed, with commentary added about how we should feel about those changes from a political point of view. In trying to combine a slender but hopefully clarifying outline with a vigorous polemic that does not spill over into a rant, I find myself defending certain aspects of the profession as it was formed in the last half century—defending it because it has been attacked, and attacked in particular for what it has taken from the legacy of the 1960s, but also because, somewhat to my surprise, I find it worth defending. But the book is polemical in the sense that certain practitioners will not recognize themselves in it or be pleased by what they do recognize. Even at its most creative and constructive, as when it imagines alternative ways of being and feeling, politics is nothing if not divisive.


1. Emma Goldberg, “The 37-Year-Olds Are Afraid of the 23-Year-Olds Who Work for Them,” New York Times (October 28, 2021): Thanks to Lee Konstantinou for the reference.

2. Christopher Beha, “Thomas Mann on the Artist Versus the State,” New York Times Sunday Book Review (September 19, 2021): Beha is reviewing the re-publication: Thomas Mann, Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man, trans. Walter D. Morris and others, introduction by Mark Lilla (New York: New York Review Books, 2021).

3. Lilla, “Introduction,” ix.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid., xvi.

7. Ibid., xx.

8. Ibid., xxi.

9. Joseph Conrad, Nostromo: A Tale of the Seaboard, foreword by F. R. Leavis (New York: New American Library, 1960 [1904]), Part 1, chap. 6, 53.

10. Tobias Boes, Thomas Mann’s War: Literature, Politics, and the World Republic of Letters (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2019), 20.

11. Ibid. For Boes, Mann’s defining commitment in Reflections was “to consider all sides of any given issue” (106). This sounds innocent enough, but Boes does not ask here whether Mann’s commitment to the German side in World War I was consistent with it or, more abstractly, whether considering all sides of any given issue would preclude making a decision about that issue (for example, about Nazism) once the consideration had been completed.

12. William E. Connolly, The Terms of Political Discourse, 3rd ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993 [1974]).

13. A. O. Scott, Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth (New York: Penguin, 2016).

14. Rita Felski, Hooked: Art and Attachment (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2020), ix. See also The Limits of Critique (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2015).

15. A straw in the wind: “I have never argued that the aesthetic and the political should not be allied with each other or that such an alliance has been unproductive. I have simply advocated for distinguishing the two as carefully as possible in the moments when they get entangled”: Timothy Aubry, Guilty Aesthetic Pleasures (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018), 201.

16. “Not So Well Attached,” roundtable on Rita Felski’s The Limits of Critique, PMLA 132:2 (March 2017): 371–376. Readers may also want to consult Bruce Robbins, “Fashion Conscious Phenomenon,” a review of Rita Felski and Elizabeth Anker’s Critique and Postcritique, American Book Review (special issue on “Postcritique”) 38:5 (July/August 2017): 5–6 or “But What About Love”? Symploke 28:1–2 (2020): 542–545.

17. Michel Foucault, “What Is Critique?” in What Is Enlightenment? Eighteenth-Century Answers and Twentieth-Century Questions, ed. James Schmidt (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 382–398, at 384.