jump to navigation

Literary Criticism Is Anti-Intellectual 8 March 2007

Posted by Todd in Academia & Education, Literature, Philosophy & Social Theory, Science, Social Sciences.

I just read this irritating article by Tom Lutz on Salon.com excoriating people who don’t like literary theory. Here’s my response.

Earlier letter-writers [responding on Salon.com] have already made two solid arguments against the current state of English departments in academia: first, the language employed by literary theory is messy and imprecise; and second, much of what passes for literary studies today is thinly veiled political advocacies or social studies through the lens of literature. I would argue that these critiques don’t go far enough.

1) Literary criticism borrows from social theory (e.g., Marxism) without any anchoring whatsoever in the empirical data behind those theories or the long history of empirical engagement them, which has modified and challenged and in some cases rejected them altogether over time. Lit-crit picks up theories that appeal to them with no training in how to ask the related empirical questions other than “using” theory to “read” a text. And so social theories aren’t treated scientifically — as “best possible answers given current data, but changing as we gain more data” — but instead are treated as “lenses” through which to “see”. [These people still take Freud seriously, for God’s sake.]

2) Ironically, lit-crit simultaneously deconstructs the idea of “truth” (usually from a Derridean perspective) even as they treat their disconnected theories as such and while willfully ignoring a raft of scientific data about how our brains actually produce knowledge. They already know that science is a suspect (or Western, or colonial, or sexist, or racist, or whatever) “universalising discourse” and therefore NOT true [e.g., see the writer’s blithe and ignorant dismissal of sociobiology.].

3) Lit-critics are not trained in science or in social science, yet the pretend to be able to speak authoritatively about society and culture and human nature. Not only do they not do actual research, they don’t know how to conduct that research; and worse, they usually spend a lot of time arguing that such research isn’t possible. In other words, lit-crit makes claims about society and culture for which they have ZERO evidence or justification for making.

So the problem isn’t with the anti-intellectualism of the ignorant masses who “just do not get” lit-crit. The problem is that lit-crit is itself anti-intellectual, having set itself up as the purveyor of true-sight while dismissing whole fields of empirical research psychology, social interaction, or even human biology. [They reject this criticism, however, because they know that privileging “empirical” research is situated, dominating discourse and relies on a subject they’ve already “proved” to not exist.]

I’m not against complex social analyses of literature; and I would also argue vehemently for the value of the humanities, the study of human meanings and human aesthetics. But as a social scientist, I’d appreciate some good old-fashioned humility from the lit-crit crowd, and admission that they study LITERATURE, which is an ART FORM, and that they are limited in what they can with any degree of scholarly seriousness make reliable claims about.



1. imani - 8 March 2007

I confess that I find it not only difficult to pin down the wobbly crux of the Salon article but also to pinpoint what you’re responding to? One thing clear from the Lutz piece is not that he is excoriating those who don’t like literary theory, but New Historicism and all of its off shoots. (He, to a certain extent, rightfully aligns Bloom and Prose with New Critical theory.)

So statements that pile all of lit crit together and saying it borrows from Marxism or whatever seems a bit rash. Or that literary criticism dismisses science when, through merely casual readings of journals and The Valve (a prominent lit academic blog) shows evidence to the contrary. (There is Naturalist criticism after all, to name one.) Lutz is specifically targeting them for being “anti-academic”, because it is a certain kind of literary theory that currently rules the establishment.

Or so I’m told by many persons but Lutz apparently thinks this establishment is a figment of all our imaginations. They’re being anti-boogeyman.

In other words it would be better if your post were more nuanced and had any…evidence rather than being a grouping of wholesale assertions, in order to convey the intellectualism you claim literary criticism lacks. You do have good points they’re just wobbly. If you want to be at all persuasive, anyway.

(I don’t even see where Lutz was poo pooing the masses. I thought Bloom, Prose and their ilk were the subject of his mockery? Surely he doesn’t consider them to be hoi polloi.)

2. oaklandchloe - 8 March 2007

OK, well first of all since I am anti-intellectual and don’t know how to research, I just won’t read the Lutz article and I will opine only on your comment. ART FORM, jeez louise, that is giving literature (and ART) a lot of credit and assumes they exist outside of political and social discourses. AND of course goes back to the old art for art’s sake argument. I do believe that when I am in class teaching how novels represent social systems and what not, that I am doing serious social and cultural work!
HA! TODD, give us lit crit nincampoops a break, and tell them refined social scientists, as if they were scientists, to get off their high horse! Love the venom though

3. Todd - 8 March 2007


Yeah, it’s a blog, not a journal article, so I’m not really going to write a piece with lots of citations. I am, however, pretty confident in my characterizaions of the trends in lit-crit over the past few decades. My reading of Lutz was that, while you’re right that he’s attacking Bloom, et al (for whom I hold no particular love), he is necessarily also defending the dominant trends in literary criticism (since, say, the mid-1980s). Further, he both implicitly and explicitly criticizes people who like “just the text” and uses his “friend” as an example (wherein he also makes the ignorant condemnation of sociobiology).

I wasn’t aware that a “naturalist” literary theory had been added to the pantheon since I got my couple of degrees in literature in the early 1990s, but it doesn’t surprise me. It’s the modus operandi of the academic lit-crit to borrow from other disciplines in an effort to legitimate itself. What bothers me about this is that the study of literature doesn’t NEED to be legitimated in the first place: it should go without saying that the study of human meaning through aesthetics is a valuable part of liberal education and of research. When lit-critics became enamoured of all things French (namely po-mo philosophy, itself a massive slog of unsubstantiated claims), it lost its ability to talk about literature and claimed the right to speak authoritatively about things it did not study.

In any case, none of this at all undermines my primary point which is that lit-crit misappropriates theory from other disciplines, does no research that would give it the authority to make the claims it does (about human society, culture or biology), and its fundamental po-mo assumptions at the moment give it a bizarro-world double bind that allows it to continually spew unsubstantiated nonsense while arguing that science is oppressive and situated.

In a nutshell: Lit-crit studies LITERATURE, and the width of its claims to the contrary belie deeply problematic assumptions about the production of knowledge; and lit-crit clings to theories/philosophies that have been rejected, criticized, or modified by those doing empirical research (psychoanalytic critique being the most obvious example; but also the pomo assumptions about the power of “discourse” are simply, empirically wrong).

So it probably wouldn’t convince you otherwise, but without spending a couple months to write a peer-reviewable essay (that have incidentally been written elsewhere and far better than I could do it), that’s about as good as it’s going to get on a blog.


4. Todd - 8 March 2007

Yeah! I was hoping Chloe would drop by! You’re one of my readers whom I knew would give me shit for this. I wish you were here so we could argue over coffee (or a shwarma) or something. I need the intellectual stimulation.

5. Todd - 8 March 2007


I have much to say in response, but let me just start by saying that I did not say lit-crits were incapable of doing research, nor did I say they were incapable of understanding research. What I said is that the research they actually do does not support the claims they make from it (viz., broad claims about society, culture, and human nature).

I further never claimed that social scientists don’t have ongoing discussions about their own methods’ strengths and weaknesses and problems (as do *all* scientists); I am arguing that lit-crits act as if they are part of that enterprise, condemn social scientific method (as you did in your response, by asserting that social science isn’t a science at all); and then continuing to make the claims they make.

I never argued that the research about the meaning of literature is unimportant or that it wasn’t an intellectual enterprise; I did argue that the brands of po-mo philosophy employed in literary criticism have given lit-crit unwarranted liscence to make claims for which it has no evidnece, by denying the power of scientific mindset (small-s, meaning intellectual endeavors based in the scientific assumptions about method) and elevating the power of discourse and language well above the power it actually has.

Imuni is right that my argument is sweeping and lacks specific evidence, but that is simply the nature of the forum.

All I really want from lit-crit is a relatively benign admission of the limitations of their claims and a self-conscious narrowing of the claims they make from the study of literature. OR conversely, I would ask them to actually go out and do social-scientific research to back up the claims they are making theoretically (e.g., ethnography); as you know I”m all about interdisciplinary research. I just think it needs to be more than gestural.


6. imani - 8 March 2007

I wasn’t saying you were wrong, nor was I asking for tons of cited evidence. Just a bit of nuance. (I was not aware that one needed to write a peer-reviewed essay to achieve nuance. In fact your comment already did that when you finally got into specifics.)

And naturalist lit crit theory, the little of what I’ve read from it, does not seek to “legitamize” lit crit as you see it, but to incorporate scientific knowledge, specific information on how the brain processes knowledge, to an understanding of literature. I am all for studying “the text itself” but I see no valid reason to unnecessarily limit literary study. Literature does not exist in a vacuum. It doesn’t have to be an either/or situation, in my eyes.

Yes he is criticising people who just “like the text”. Ergo the New Critical theory folks. Bloom and Prose et. al. Isn’t that what I typed?

I don’t need to be convinced. I’m pretty much an “art for art’s sake” kind of girl. I just found your response to Lutz’s article too general. And I really don’t ascribe to the idea that blogs are inimical to anything more.

(Of course, you can do whatever you want.)

7. trevor - 8 March 2007


I’m more than a bit baffled as to how cleanly literature and social science can be separated, and I hope I’m misinterpreting what you’re saying here. Because as much as I respect your opinions and applaud you for raising this as a worthy discussion point, I really don’t see how lit-critters are somehow posing as social scientists. You definitely say your piece about the pomo pluriverse, but if the post-structuralists taught us nothing else in the theory wars of the 1960s and 70s, it’s that all realms of human experiences are socially contextualized. I think that’s a hard thing to ignore.

Despite what Harold Bloom and the New Critics wanted us to believe, to study literature is not simply to study the mechanics of an artform. There are very real social forces at work underneath that have to be addressed if one is to gain a larger appreciation and understanding of a given text. The question, then, is not what makes Shakespeare a great dramatist/poet/etc., but what cultural forces create a Shakespeare in the first place.

So when Stephen Greenblatt, for just one example, considers Shakespeare’s work, he considers not only specific plays, poems, what have you, but also (and, oftentimes, more importantly) their cultural contexts. I’m not intimately familiar with Greenblatt’s research methods, but I think it would be very hard to make the case that he is somehow an impostor of a “real” social scientist, or that he is not doing empirical research. And Greenblatt is someone is very much considered a lit-critter in English departments around the country (or, I should back up and say, he was when I was in grad school not too long ago). I’d be very interested to hear your take on him, as you obviously hail from a different discourse community within the humanities.

Another part of the problem here is, as I think you’re suggesting, that contemporary literary criticism is primarily concerned with the philosophical over what can be “proven.” To write and publish what’s considered serious lit-crit today demands a fairly comprehensive understanding of Western philosophy, and there are certainly some problems with this. I can remember very clearly the first week of my very first lit theory class as an undergrad, and being asked to read Poe’s “The Purloined Letter” alongside works by Heidegger, Lacan, and Barbara Johnson. Juxtaposing a short story, novel or poem with a heavily Latinate tract on the nature of time, The Other or frames of reference is certainly daunting, and I’ve seen my share of friends run out of literature classes clutching big chunks of their own hair. I’m assuming that’s what the Salon article insinuates when it talks about “saving” literature from these awful places called English departments.

But I think a lot of that is disingenuous, and to a large extent, misinformed. The theory wars are over, and they’ve been over for quite some time now. What we’re seeing in literary criticism now is a re-emergence of close readings, forms, and a return to aesthetics. Henry James is very much in vogue these days; a lot of practicing and would-be scholars are tired of apologizing for either not reading or being able to articulate a response to James Joyce. This, of course, doesn’t mean that there aren’t lit-critters untouched or unphased by the big flyswatter of postmodernism, but those discussions have really been over for decades; as a result, today’s lit-critter, I think, has to keep a larger view, and somehow still find a way to explain literature’s function within the society that produced it.

Perhaps what you’re referring to, Todd, is the rise of what’s commonly called “cultural studies”? Again, I have a lot of trouble with the characterization that scholars who do the work of cultural criticism (Michael Berube, for example) aren’t doing “real” research, but there’s certainly a heated argument about that. You described lit-crit as “anti-intellectual,” and there are plenty of people who believe “cultural studies” isn’t “real” academic work.

Ironically, oftentimes these are people way outside of academia, and right-wing politicos at that. Berube was on Michael Medved’s radio show late last year to “debate” Elizabeth Kantor, a *true* poseur-academic who recently published a book for the Michael Savage and Ann Coulter crowd called The Politically Incorrect Guide to English and American Literature. It’s a discouraging exchange, for Berube constantly has to fend off political attacks from both the host and the person he’s been brought on to “debate,” and it’s a depressing mess of what many people might mistake for a “serious” conversation about literature. Click here to give it a listen. Thank goodness, it only runs like 35 minutes.

Harold Bloom has been a subject in this discussion. I find it more than a little ironic that Derrida, Debord, Sontag and now Baudrillard have all passed on to the big whatever in the sky, and Bloom is still very much among us, and certainly the only literary critic that is known to a mainstream audience. His work is widely studied not just by academics, but by shoppers at Barnes & Noble. Don’t be surprised to see him pop up on The Daily Show one of these nights; how many lit-critters can say that?

8. Harold Bloom, part 2 « TREVOR DODGE - 9 March 2007

[…] Bloom, part 2 9 03 2007 There’s a very interesting discussion brewing over at Todd’s place concerning the nature of contemporary literary criticism.  […]

9. Todd - 9 March 2007


Thanks for the clarification of your intentions. I was a bit harried yesterday and so was writing quickly and off-the-cuff, as you had noted. I appreciate your efforts to keep me honest.

I agree that there should be no reason to narrow the scope or style of literary criticism. And I’m with you on the l’art-pour-l’art thing. My primary concern is a methodological concern, which is that very often the lit-crit that I have read over the past 15 years or so has made claims that it simply cannot support with the evidence it has. Speaking with someone who studies literature in academia today can be extremely frustrating as they make pronouncements about human society, culture, and nature based on their readings of literary theory and novels. In other words, I’m asking for some intellectual honesty and some critical thinking about what kinds of conclusions can reliably be drawn from an engagement with philosophy (lit theory) and literature (an art form, in the broadest sense).

Thanks again, and see more in my response to Trevor.

P.S. I’m not sure that I ever argued that blogs are inimical to more in-depth conversation. I was simpliy saying that unless an individual has the time to compose/construct deeper arguments, blogs normally lend themselves to the kind of off-the-cuff rant that I produced. I do actually also produce scholarly works; but they are painstaking and take lots of time. I tend to be sincer in blogging; but much less careful than I would be in more formal writing formats.

10. Todd - 9 March 2007


Thanks for stopping in and for your thoughtful response. I have to be honest that I didn’t expect anyone to read my arcane rant about my irritations with literary studies in academia, but it warms the cockles to engage with serious thinkers.

Unfortunately, I’m a bit pressed for time, so my response to you is going to be necessarily gestural (but hopefully I’ll get back to it later today).

1) I haven’t ever read a lit-critter [aside: i like your nomenclature] who explicitly calls themself a social scientist. What I have read on numerous occasions are pieces of literary criticism that make claims that should require social scientific data collection (quantitative or qualitative) to be reliable. In other words, I often find pieces on literature to be engaged in making social scientific claims without doing social scientific research.

2) I completely agree with you that as a human production, literature cannot wholy be separated from social scientific concerns, and you illustrate why that’s so quite nicely. I would argue that both on the production and the consumption side, art (in the broadest sense, as an aesthetic human object, the consumption of which is its own end) is inextricably imbricated in its contexts. And when I say “art for art’s sake”, I don’t mean what the Frenchies meant when they said it; I mean that the study of art needs to be seen for what it is. My problems arise when those studying the works of art and its contexts of production and consumption make claims about those contexts and/or the production and consumption processes for which their studies have no evidence.

I have read solid literary criticism that relies on social scientific data when discussing its the contexts of the piece. Where I have problems is when assumptions are made about those contexts without evidence, either from the text itself (an over-extended new-critical meets old historicism gaff) or by reifying the literary theory (most often misappropriated social theory or over-valued philosophy).

3) I have no love for Bloom, et al, and their claims that it’s all in the text. I think the New Criticism was highly useful in formal analyses of how a literary work of art actually functions as art, but it coldly and artificially believes that the work can then be divorced from its contexts of production and consumption. I’m a social scientist, so that intellectual move just seems silly to me.

4) I need to clarify my own background in this discussion, as I think that will be really useful to many people in understanding where I’m coming from. I received two undergraduate degrees in literature (one in French and one in English). Both departments were obsessed with poststructural/postmodern theory (or at least my professors were). So my literary education was steeped in pomo conventions and assumptions. Then in graduate school, I moved to cultural studies, where again I was awash in a sea of postmodernism. I ended up becoming completely disgruntled with the whole enterprise and for my Ph.D. moved over to sociology. My basic complaints (and these are extremely abbreviated, for which I apologize) are two-fold:

a) in both my experience in literature and in cultural studies, I found that theory took on an almost dogmatic form. Literary and cultural theory became dogmas that were to be proven from our research; they were “lenses” through which we interpreted the objects of our studies. Without going into detail, this is methodologically problematic in the extreme. [See my point No. 1 in my original post.]

b) I then found people making all kinds of claims about human interaction, meaning production, and even human biology that could not be supported empirically (and indeed many of which are or have been directly contradicted by research outside of those fields). [See point No. 3 in original post.]

Okay, there’s a third point: c) Postmodern theories (yes, I know they’re diverse; and yes, I’ve read widely in the field) (again being extremely gestural) sets up a kind of system that at once seeks to undermine empirical research by over-estimating the power of language and ideas (a position soundly defeated by contemporary cognitive science), and on the other hand setting up its adherents as those who can see what is “really” going on. It’s an odd, contradictory position; and it’s ultimately what I was aiming at when I called lit-crit “anti-intellectual.” Really, what I’m saying is that pomo theories are anti-intellectual. [See point No. 2 in original post.]

4) I did not mean to imply that doing cultural or literary research is not real research. And in fact in my comments, I hope I’ve made it clear that I think such research is important in the academy and outside. Again I’m making a methodological complaint, which is that the claims made using the methods of literary studies are more often than not UNWARRANTED BY THEIR EVIDENCE, quite simply because they do not usually actually employ the methods (usually scientific) necessary to gather the data they would need to make the claims they are making.

5) I haven’t been in a literature department for over a decade, and I left because of what you call the “theory wars”. I am heartened and excited to hear you say that there is a return to the study of literature there. That is what I would argue for. I disagree that those discussions have been over for decades, however, because I was in two different literature departemtns where those arguments were alive and well in the early 1990s.

6) I do find that sometimes the work of “cultural criticism” isn’t real research. It is, simply, cultural criticism. I wouldn’t say that it’s without value; but I would say that, again (sorry for the broken record), it often makes claims unsupported by itsl evidence. And I would point to Berube as a great example. However, were I to meet Berube, I would simply have a long discussion/argument about methods; I wouldn’t simply throw out his ideas. When I encounter cultural criticism, even good criticism and even criticism I personally agree with, the little voice in my head always asks, “Yes, but is it true? Are you assumptions backed by data? Is there evidence to support this position or assumption and what is the quality of that evidence?”

P.S. You are evil for making me start listening to that debate; honestly, I only made it through about 5 minutes before I had to find a bell tower somewhere.

11. trevor - 9 March 2007


Thanks for your thoughtful response. Your position is much clearer to me now, and I can certainly better see where you’re coming from. I do understand the concerns about pomo theory and cultural criticism in the brighter light of empiricism, but I’m not convinced that empirical research is a universal legitimizer for all discourse communities. Philosophy, for example, is a discipline that necessitates something other than empirical data, and those are essentially exploring philosophical issues aren’t doing the same kind of research as those in empirically-driven sciences.

Perhaps this is the larger point you’re making? If so, I largely agree. But I do believe there’s real academic rigor in the work philosophers do, and there’s a necessity to discuss this work where literature is concerned. Just as I don’t believe we can separate literature from its social context, likewise I don’t believe we can fundamentally separate art and philosophy. The bits that I understand of Theodor Adorno tell me that making art is deeply philosophical (and thus, probably, inherently political).

Then again, I’m largely a happy product of those same pointy-head pomo professors you referred to, so therein might lie the difference. Also: I had just begun reading post-structuralist theory (Derrida and Baudrillard in particular) when I saw U2’s “Zoo TV” tour in the early 90s. As I filed out of the arena that night, a lot of what I was reading starting clicking in firing in ways that I didn’t really understand at the time, but certainly make sense through cultural critical lenses now. Reading this thread and clarifying my own sense of things here just made me realize that I took a logical leap beyond empiricism that night. Silly me. 🙂

12. trevor - 9 March 2007

And yes, Berube’s appearance on the Medved show is very unfortunate, isn’t it? To assume that somehow he and Kantor could somehow carry on an honest, engaged conversation about literature is also to assume that Medved and his ilk are interested in honest, engaged conversations in the first place…

13. Hellmut - 15 March 2007

The most important data to critics should be the text. Rhetoric is a great tool to analyze texts and it is a tool kit that the humanities have produced themselves.

I love Kenneth Burke, even though the man never should have published a line without having a stranger edit his composition first. The New Rhetoric creates a rhetorical theory that emulates logic.

Speaking of logic, that’s something that every language PhD should be required to master.

I have to say though, Todd, that we social scientists have similar issues. I am thinking about all the hot air about methodology. I have no more patience for that stuff because the bulk of our colleagues are woefully off the mark.

Methodology begins with logic. Instead of thinking about fancy techniques, most of us are not considering the relationship between indicators and concepts with sufficient care.

14. Diane Vera - 17 May 2007

Speaking of “lit-crit” folks claiming expertise outside their field, you might be interested to know about the similar pretensions by some academics in the field of art. I know of at least one former “assistant professor of art and philosophy” who has parlayed her art expertise, plus her knowledge of a certain school of philosophical thought, into a claim to be an expert on “ritual violence,” and who has actually managed to persuade a whole bunch of police departments to take her seriously as a consultant, despite her blatant disregard for things like facts and evidence. See my collection of articles about Dawn Perlmutter and her
Institute for the Research of Organized and Ritual Violence

15. Todd - 19 May 2007

Oh good god, that irritates me. Just last week I got into a bit of an intellectual battle with someone who is a Ph.D. in philosophy because she kept spouting off Foucauldian bullshit. I kept saying that Foucault’s claims were not only unhistorical, but have been disproven by subsequent historical research. It ended badly with me saying that while I have the utmost respect of philsoophical inquiry, it needs to maintain some perspective on what exactly can be “known” without doing actual research. I tried to remain respectful and collegial about the whole thing, but the woman’s air of superiority and self-righteousness was almost too much to bear. I don’t know why humanists get that feeling that they “know” stuff without a single whiff of metholodically sound research, data, evidence to back it up.

16. Diane Vera - 21 May 2007

In the case I wrote about, philosophical inquiry sans factual research can be not just irritating, but downright dangerous. Dawn Perlmutter has lent academic credence to a witchhunt that put hundreds of probably-innocent people in prison — some of whom are STILL in prison due to lack of money for appeals.

17. Meer Mushfique Mahmood - 2 May 2011

May I publish this page in my blog – ‘Literary Fusion’?

18. Huskie - 2 January 2012

I wish I could take every lit-crit class I ever took over again. As a duel major, English/Psych, I noticed the Grand Canyon-esque rift between what constituted “research” and “data” in each discipline…I just couldn’t articulate it, and besides, 80% of the time I was struggling to keep up with the readings (and the impenetrable vocabulary), while balancing a marriage and a full time job.

Good job, Todd…you posted what I’ve been kicking myself for not voicing in class six years or so ago. Best post I’ve ever read on the subject.

Sorry comments are closed for this entry

%d bloggers like this: