The Cycles of Disciplinary History and Anti-Blackness


The following paper was written for the Making of Humanities V Conference at Johns Hopkins University in October. 

Disciplinary historians of literary studies have yet to thoroughly account for how literary critical movements coincide with political and institutional forces on culture and literature. To address this gap there has recently been a turn to what some call the “new institutionalism,” which engages the ties between university interests, public and private funding, and the privileging of certain literary forms and styles over others. Books like Mark McGurl’s 2009 The Program Era or Andrew Rubin’s 2012 Archives of Authority have provided important revisions of both literary and disciplinary history, but they have done little to upset the tendency to narrate the disciplinary history of literary studies as a dialectical march of formalisms. Writing in PMLA in 2007, Marjorie Levinson recalls this march, which she admits as reductive, but ultimately unavoidable: “New Criticism -> structuralism -> deconstruction -> new historicism -> postructuralism.”[1] This narrative is so well known that Levinson need not outline the tissue of transitions. They are rendered as right facing arrows, symbols of progress.

Even when these transitions are outlined in detail the processes of institutionalization are rendered passive. Many disciplinary historians figure the New Critical 1940s as an institutional break that centers the study of criticism within the university while discussing that break in terms of New Critical methods. These descriptions lack a thorough explanation of what it means to institutionalize and by fiat how much attention, if any, institutionalization devotes to literary critical method. English departments are not gutted over methodological dissatisfaction; university funding in the U.S. is part of a dense ecosystem of neoliberal financial policies, conservative culture war justifications, and, perhaps, lastly of academic debates. There are accounts of the New Criticism that attribute its establishment in the university to the passage of the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, or as it is commonly known, the G.I. Bill. Even these explanations resort to a logic similar to those accounts that conflate method and institution. They rely upon the idea that close reading is inherently populist, which is, in fact, a quality that arose as a result of its institutionalization, not as a reason for it. Shifts in disciplinary history that are tied to institutionalization are part and parcel of larger historical, ideological, political, and economic shifts. Further, disciplinary history tends to claim institutionality when what it wants to describe is method, and often when it tries to think at the level of the institution, it loses sight of particularities of a literary critical movement.

There is shorthand for this problem that manifests in descriptions of the New Criticism’s pivotal role in the history of literary studies. As Douglas Mao writes, “It is presently a commonplace among scholars and teachers of literature that New Criticism is, and has been for decades now, both dead and alive.”[2] The dead part of New Criticism is the vacuum it created outside of the literary, while the living part is the long legacy of close reading that remains “the very thing that made us a discipline” as Jane Gallop has put it.[3] As I see it, this dead-and-alive construction is constitutive of the present challenge of disciplinary history.

Surprisingly the rhetorical construction of New Criticism’s zombie state is nearly as old as the New Criticism itself. The first people to make dead-and-alive arguments were not disciplinary historians in the latter part of the twentieth century; they were the New Critics themselves. In 1948 John Crowe Ransom noted that “the stock of New Criticism is having a dip on the market.”[4] Shortly thereafter Cleanth Brooks observed that New Criticism had “exhausted its energies.” By 1951 Austin Warren had come across the idea that “Anglo-American criticism has come to an end” so frequently that statements about criticism’s demise had become “commonplace.” In 1949 Allen Tate called these types of reflections “autotelic criticism” and argued that autotelism was what made the “myth [of New Criticism] by giving it a name.”[5] Describing the connections between the discipline and its institutionalization as dead and alive is as much the foundation of the discipline as close reading claims to be. In a strange repetition of the segregation between method and institution, literary studies scholars insist that we have moved past the historical and political blinders of New Criticism when it comes to interpreting literary texts. I am here to insist that we have yet to remove those blinders in disciplinary history, which is a provocation not only for those interested in doing disciplinary history, but also for critics who see themselves as inheriting a redeveloped and reformed New Criticism. I return to the establishment of the signature autotelic, dead-and-alive New Critical gesture to recover the important political and institutional history that the gesture has erased. I do so to outline an alternative way for thinking about the relationship of critical methods to political-economy and the university. I also do so to think about how the dead-and-alive gesture has been significant in preserving a kernel of anti-blackness within literary studies.

I bring up anti-blackness because another aspect of the New Critical story that gets distorted within disciplinary history is New Criticism’s relationship to racism and the plantation complex. Many of the most prominent New Critics – Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren – were also members of a group called the Southern Agrarians, a 1930s aesthetic and socio-political movement. All of these critics contributed essays to the 1930 Agrarian manifesto, I’ll Take My Stand in which the Agrarians argued that the South should return to an agricultural economy to evade the cultural deterioration brought on by industrialization funded and perpetuated by the north. Their nostalgia for an agricultural economy in the U.S. South combined with little to no treatment of slavery’s role in the reproduction of that economy, and with later defenses of lynching, segregation, and other racist practices, made clear that the “way of life” Agrarianism sought to revive was a continuation of the South’s system of racial apartheid. By the time World War II rendered Agrarianism a political impossibility, the Southern Agrarians needed to find an updated strategy that could preserve a kernel of this mode of living and its emphasis on leisure, privilege, and work within the unrelenting expansion of industrial capitalism. The kernel preserved turns out to be the New Criticism and the “tradition” of literature it engenders. Whether it is a belief in the subsequent apologia from certain Agrarians or because of faith in the anti-racism of subsequent developments in methodology, many current scholars see the Southern Agrarian origin to the New Criticism as a chapter in an entirely different history. It is something that has been worked over before, a mere detour in a larger institutional narrative marked by the arrows of transition.

What if we take literary criticism’s ties to a form of capitalism seriously, the same way that we take seriously the relationship of historiography, forms of financialization and the slave trade? Ian Baucom outlines the latter nexus in his 2005 Specters of the Atlantic and his thinking provides a useful model for reevaluating the lost institutional and political threads of disciplinary history. He considers the development of historiographical modes in terms of their alignments with the cycles of accumulation that mark capitalism’s development. The dead-and-alive formation of current disciplinary history recalls Marx’s general formula for capital: MCM’. That formula, associated with the diachronic transitions from circulation to production and then production to circulation, has become the foundation of Giovanni Arrighi’s account of the long historical development of the capitalist world-system. For Arrighi, these cycles “enable capitalism to prosper and expand ‘endlessly’ over the last five to six hundred years before and after its ventures into the hidden abodes of production.”[6] Arrighi’s analysis focuses on political power, rather than production to describe the shifting geographical centers and forms of capital over overlapping, century-long cycles of accumulation. For example, just as Britain’s long-nineteenth century reign wanes the United States of America’s long-twentieth century begins due to the material growth enabled by foreign investment of excess capital (circulation) into American coffers to support the U.S. production phase. Ian Baucom picks up this framework to argue that capital’s cycles of accumulation drive not just history, but the very forms of history itself.

Building on Benjamin’s angel of history and Derrida’s Specters of Marx, Baucom argues the cycles of accumulation generate a hauntological portrait of history. Any given present is marked by its repetition and intensification of an earlier cycle of accumulation. For instance, the late-twentieth and twenty-first century financialization of the world-system recalls and intensifies the insurance logics of the long British nineteenth century that provoked the Zong massacre, the murder of 133 slaves to recoup the insurance monies promised in case of their loss in transit. This particular comparison is not an arbitrary one. The slave trade’s thingification logics provide a prologue to today’s “surplus populations” kept in various states of exception and incarceration via the rationalities of global neoliberalism. Baucom explains our present as one that “inherits its nonimmediate past by intensifying it, by “perfecting” its capital protocols, “practicalizing” its epistemology, realizing its phenomenology as the cultural logic “of the entire social-material world.”[7] He calls this repetition hauntological because it is only “intermittently that we become aware of…the what-has-been accumulated within the present.”[8]

The intermittent appearance of New Criticism as dead and alive reminds us that the past of critical development (the dead) remains with the material inheritances of our present (the alive). Given that the New Critics established this temporality as the means for discussing their own material and critical contribution to literary studies, it follows that their historical insertion perfects, practicalizes, and realizes the ongoing persistence of the social-material world (i.e. the plantation complex) they imagined. We can trace the continued accumulation of value to New Critical formalisms, as well as the tendency of literary studies to oscillate back to reinventions of the New Criticism as time goes forward. Edward Said’s remark that deconstruction was simply the New New Criticism, as well as current concerns about the formalist vacuum of the current descriptive turn – the arrival of the New New New Criticism! – suggests that literary studies oscillates back to and intensifies its New Critical past.

The repetition and intensifications of critical paradigms differ slightly from Baucom’s and Arrighi’s analytic strategies. For one, my claims about criticism’s cyclical development do not span the long centuries of capitalism’s cycles of accumulation. Instead the development occurs over mere decades, from the 1940s to the present. Distinct from Baucom’s account of recognizable historiographies tied to these structural shifts, I am not describing how critical formalisms are determined by large-scale capital developments. Instead, I am describing how the New Critics embraced historiographical strategies to glimpse a particular vision of a capitalist world. This strategic embrace lends the disciplinary history of literary studies tendencies recognizable within the terms of the accumulation of value, but leaves the unfolding of those processes out of sync with the temporal spans of the long century. That said, the familiar disciplinary history of literary studies largely coincides with a period of global turbulence, a period with a much murkier picture of continuity or rupture from Arrighi’s pattern. The New Critics can be read in this light as part of an ideological shift in the 1950s and 60s that enables a large-scale structural turn to postindustrial economy and neoliberal political policy.[9] The institutionalization of New Critical method is one of many cultural instruments born out of an embrace of capitalism’s enclosure of knowledge as proprietary material. This fine-grain distinction – a distinction between the material cycles of accumulation at the level of world-system and the more ideological, historical insertion of cycles of accumulation within literary studies – accounts for the fact that the two are in and out of joint.

An example of this ideological and historical insertion of cycles of accumulation within the history of literary studies can be found in a brief reflection on New Criticism by John Crowe Ransom. He describes the present situation of criticism in financial terms to generate value for a new critical production regime: “the stock of New Criticism is having a dip on the market. As an amateur at literary economics I should doubt if it is wise as yet to sell this criticism short, but it would seem that actual production and merchandizing in this business are ready for a going over.”[10] Despite claiming to be an amateur, Ransom’s sense of the shifting economic order largely mirrors contemporary descriptions of capitalism’s ruthless demand for the “new” and the “creative destruction” of the supposedly old.

The economic processes heralded by the “New” in New Criticism signal the intensification of strategies for the accumulation of value. The self-declared death of criticism at this moment was less about criticism ceasing to exist, than it was an indication that the version of criticism which had hit the shelves of the periodical room was given firm institutional and material support for its speculative value.[11] Published six years before Ransom’s call to refinance criticism, Joseph Schumpeter’s theory of creative destruction argues that the pressure to make “new” is not a natural phenomenon, but a demand resulting from historical configurations of capital.[12] When Ransom suggests that the literary critical market requires a “going over,” he implies that bringing an artificial end to the New Criticism serves a vital strategy to establish its presence and continued relevance within English Departments. That presence relies not just on the artificial death of criticism, but the actual material boundaries restricting who has access to the life-giving capacities of the university. As Evan Watkins has pointed out, the perpetual demand for and production of “the new” requires a set of working conditions not available to many outside – and, increasingly, to many within – the academy.[13] The “going over” of the critical marketplace ensures elite value for literary critical inquiry, just as it raises the borders for participating within that circuit of value. As it turns out, Ransom’s financial ploy was not solely metaphorical. The New Criticism’s success can be understood in terms of its embrace of a shifting mid-century financial landscape, one in which university and foundation funding played a major part, rather than the retooling of close reading, a method that even then was not new at all.

The new thing about New Criticism was not its method but its hauntological description of critical practice. Reading New Criticism’s contribution as an institutional strategy sheds light on how its latent plantation logics are embedded within the organization of critical labor. In formulating literary criticism as contingent upon a mode of life (Agrarianism), the New Critics—or the unreconstructed Southern Agrarians—effectively created a space figuratively protected, but still contested from the production of knowledge and information within the wartime and post-war university. Lindon Barrett has considered this question before in terms of value (An aside: Barrett’s book has frequently been overlooked. The virtual disappearance of such books illustrates how the dead-and-alive formation of New Criticism polices accounts of its anti-black racism and anticipates a larger argument how the disciplinary boundaries instantiated by the New Criticism have perpetuated.)

Barrett describes the New Critical ability to confuse deliberately social, political, and aesthetic forms of value as a virtual cycle of accumulation:

To draw an analogy: Ralph Ellison, in his essay “The Shadow and the Act,” construes the appearance of the 1915 film Birth of a Nation and subsequent Hollywood portraits of African Americans as shadows of a previous act, an act involved in “[t]he problem, arising in a democracy that holds all men as created equal…[and that is] a highly moral one: democratic ideals had to be squared with anti-Negro practices. One answer was to deny the Negro’s humanity a pattern set long before 1915.” One might conclude, from the undeniable genealogy connecting New Criticism to Southern Agrarianism and, in turn, to the line of U.S. social thought marking affinities between Agrarianism and the sentiments of George Fitzhugh and Thomas Jefferson, that the accession of the notion of a discrete literary text is similarly the shadow of such an act. The act throws many shadows.[14]

Barrett embraces the Ellisonian shadow and act metaphor to highlight the accumulation of strategies for the reproduction of racist ideology. As Baucom’s account and the ties to the slave trade intimates, racist ideology develops alongside large-scale shifts in capital, an idea that can be traced back at least to Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction. Barrett focuses on how one of the shadows cast by the acts of American conservatism has been the New Criticism’s emphasis on the isolation of the literary text from the world outside of it. This emphasis makes the literary object alive and all other material dead by comparison. The distinction persists in the idea that racialized (or gendered) writers do inherently political work, not literary work.

In an extension of Barrett’s argument, I see the widespread isolation of the history of literary critical thought from activity and events outside of the academy as an instrument of anti-black, necropolitical forces. The New Critical turn to destruction and death of critical paradigms, metaphorically, at least at first glance, makes disciplinary history a matter of life and death. The governance enforcing and protecting modes of life and death have been described under the framework of biopolitics, which Achille Mbembe has since revised under the term necropolitics, to emphasize how colonial powers mete out death to colonized populations in an effort to protect life. This idea is stated plainly in James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, “This innocent country set you down in a ghetto in which, in fact, it intended that you should perish.”[15] Baldwin argues that the ghetto, representative of both physical structure and public policy, polices and generates a surplus population of those socially and civically dead. I wager that criticism’s tendency to make some aspects of a text alive and some dead, as well as disciplinary history’s tendency to make methodological aspects alive and historical/institutional aspects dead, stem from the necropolitical logics of the mid-century American state.

One effect of the New Criticism has been the disciplinary insistence that social facts such as race are completely dead when it comes to literary reading. To think about the dead-and-alive construction at the institutional and disciplinary levels is to think about how the necropolitical enforcement of black surplus and death acts through literary studies and disciplinary history. That is, the Agrarian insistence that black life operates outside the realm of a given “way of life” — and is therefore dead — becomes the discipline’s form of policing and excluding black scholars, writers, and thought from the university. Similarly given that the cycle of accumulation of disciplinary historical value represents an ideological embrace of larger forces of capital accumulation, New Criticism also becomes a means to enforce the divisions of racial capitalism. The period of its rise also carried within it the rising pressure of desegregation and therefore the need for racist divisions to be maintained by alternative means. Integration rhetoric called for unification, but as our own present reminds us, integration’s call for unification relied upon black people agreeing to the covenants of American nationalism, while even then continuing to subject black people to the potential of social and corporeal death via police brutality and mass incarceration.

Christopher Newfield has pointed out that the New Criticism provided the means to unify the university, the humanities, and society, an affirmation of its alignment with the nationalist, racial apartheid state of the midcentury U.S.: “If the university could unify society, it would be at that society’s center. If the humanities could offer a unified culture, it would put itself at the center of the university. If New Criticism could offer a means to this unity, English would lead the humanities…If the humanities was to offer the university a way of unifying culture, New Criticism offered to the humanities the unifying methodology.”[16] Thinking about a large scale, economic, political, and institutional history supplies a more expansive way to interpret the effects of literary critical method. These effects extend not only to the literary canon, but also to the shape and personnel within the university. The university unified by the New Criticism still substitutes method for material history and thus enforces unification by means of the exclusion and death of blackness. Our disciplinary history may constitute a symptom of a larger phenomenon of capitalism, but interrupting these cycles of accumulation within disciplinary history may illuminate the shadows obscuring the broader forces shaping the work and method of literary studies.

[1] Marjorie Levinson, “What Is New Formalism?,” PMLA 122, no. 2 (March 2007): 563. Barbara Herrnstein Smith calls this same progression a “parade” in “What Was “Close Reading”? A Century of Method in Literary Studies,” minnesota review 87 (2016): 57

[2] Douglas Mao, “The New Critics and the Text-Object,” ELH 63, no. 1 (1996): 22.

[3] Jane Gallop, “Close Reading in 2009,” ADE Bulletin, 2010, 15.

[4] John Crowe Ransom, “The New Criticism,” The Kenyon Review 10, no. 4 (1948): 682.

[5] Allen Tate, “A Note on Autotelism,” The Kenyon Review 11, no. 1 (1949): 13.

[6] Giovanni Arrighi, The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power, and the Origins of Our Times, (Verso, 2010), 26.

[7] Ian Baucom, Specters of the Atlantic: Finance Capital, Slavery, and the Philosophy of History (Duke University Press, 2005), 29.

[8] Ibid., 341–2 n46.

[9] See, Lisa Duggan, The Twilight of Equality? Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics, and the Attack on Democracy (Beacon Press, 2014), 8; Mark McGurl, “Everything and Less Fiction in the Age of Amazon,” Modern Language Quarterly 77, no. 3 (2016): 452–3.

[10] Ransom, “The New Criticism,” 682.

[11] Evan Kindley, “Big Criticism,” Critical Inquiry 38, no. 1 (2011): 71–95.

[12] Joseph A. Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (Routledge, 2003), 81–86.

[13] Watkins writes “that the value assumptions of ideologies of the new become not only ineffectual but dangerous” (27). The danger comes because not only is the production of the new reliant on “working conditions by no means available everywhere,” but so are the practices of ‘resistance’ that the work calls for produced under the rubric of “the new.” Study – be it for the purposes of political resistance or literary criticism – requires time, if nothing else, and time for study has been consistently encroached upon by the demands of capital. The professionalization of universities both at the undergraduate and graduate levels reflects the idea that study as such has been deemed invaluable, or, antagonistic to the aims of career and capital. Evan Watkins, Work Time: English Departments and the Circulation of Cultural Value (Stanford University Press, 1989).

[14] Lindon Barrett, Blackness and Value: Seeing Double (Cambridge University Press, 1999), 172.

[15] James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (Vintage, 1992), 7.

[16] Christopher Newfield, Ivy and Industry: Business and the Making of the American University, 1880–1980 (Duke University Press, 2003), 147.

dh essay in blind field

My essay on DH, the neoliberal university, and “the strategic use of minority culture” appears in Blind Field today. As part of the argument, I tracked job advertisements in the MLA JIL over the last fifteen years. Included below are some of the figures from the piece.

the making of humanities V

I am pleased to be presenting my paper, “New Criticism as Dead and Alive: The Cycles of Disciplinary History and Anti-Blackness,” on the “History of Criticism” panel at the The Making of Humanities – V. The conference will be held at Johns Hopkins University on October 5-7 and serves as the annual meeting of the Society for the History of the Humanities.

It looks to to be an exciting panel!

History of Criticism

  • Nicolas VanDeviver, Edward Said and the Crisis of the New Criticism
  • Andy Hines, New Criticism as Dead and Alive: The Cycles of Disciplinary History and Anti-Blackness
  • Yung-Hsing Wu, Close Readings of the Feminist Kind
  • J.E. Elliott, Manufacturing Dissent: Brand English in the Corporate University