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Friday 5 July 2024

Review: Francis Mulhern and Stefan Collini, What Is Cultural Criticism?


I read in the newspapers (and so betray my age) that we are in the middle of world-wide culture wars, fought on multiple fronts by many millions firing off tweets, some of which land on newspaper pages where I encounter them. The title of this book may lead some unsuspecting browsers to think that it will have something to say about those wars. It doesn’t; the bulk of the text was written before Twitter was invented in 2006 and comprises exchanges between Francis Mulhern and Stefan Collini in which they praise and criticise each other in about equal proportions.

In What Is Cultural Criticism? Francis Mulhern provides the Marxist Super Ego. He thinks that there is no privileged position from which we can criticise; neither old-fashioned pre-1939 Kulturkritik (as he calls it, without italics) or more recent Stuart Hall-style Cultural Studies can provide a neutral metadiscourse about our culture. We should face up to this and embrace the truth that the only coherent interventions in cultural space are political ones and Cultural Politics the only viable option to discredited alternatives. We have to take the plunge: Mulhern’s latest book (2024) is thus appropriately titled Into the Mêlée. (The title includes two diacritical marks which Microsoft does not, in this case, supply automatically – I have had to insert them manually; it treats melee as an assimilated word (like hotel). Verso sticks with the traditional and Francophile-signalling version. The book could have been titled more simply Into the Fray.)

In relation to Mulhern’s Super Ego, Stefan Collini plays the part of persecuted Ego who patiently defends a practice of cultural criticism which, in relation to literary texts, attends closely to both words on the page and collateral information but doesn’t proceed on the assumption that the important thing is to assign the text to a box in some prior schematism, Marxist or otherwise. If this means you get to be accused of “liberalism”, so be it.

In this case, I think Collini’s fastidiousness wins. He has an outstanding record as diligent historical researcher and careful expositor and critic who writes lucid and vigorous prose. Those virtues are on display here. Mulhern I feel (and Collini uses the expression) over-theorises, as is the habit of punitive Super Egos. But as Collini observes, Mulhern’s own interventions in his other writings including some of those included in Into the Mêlée are not particularly schematic except insofar as he shows enthusiasm for chunking history so that Periods and Movements succeed each other rather like Modes of Production. But, in my view, Periods and Movements only exist so that academics can have Specialisms.

I have two criticisms and a bit of Id which needs to stage a fight.

I am getting older and have a habit now of repeating myself but surely not on the scale of Mulhern and Collini and even in this relatively short book.

More substantively – and this is especially in relation to Collini’s work – they are both rather too accepting of the inherited canon of authors about whom they are expected to have something to say. They don’t upset applecarts. The names of Matthew Arnold, T S Eliot, F R Leavis, Raymond Williams and Richard Hoggart appear repeatedly. Stuart Hall gets in briefly as originator of Cultural Studies as we now know it.

Where are the surprises? Who has been left out? There is a Penguin Classics edition of George Eliot’s splendid essays in cultural criticism but she is entirely absent. Queenie Leavis does not appear; it’s true her Fiction and the Reading Public (1932) won’t be on the shelves of a local bookshop - you will need to go to Amazon for a Print on Demand copy. It may not be a very good book but it might be thought a precursor of what later in Birmingham came to be called Contemporary Cultural Studies.

And in relation to Matthew Arnold and F R Leavis, is it not time to move on and find someone else to write about, let alone promote in  stylish paperback? Culture and Anarchy is written in a daft style which invites lampoon; it’s hard to take seriously especially if, like me, you are a non-conformist tea-drinker. F R Leavis just announces Who’s Who in the Great Tradition and if you don’t make the cut (Laurence Sterne “trifler”; Charles Dickens “entertainer”) then, tough. And Leavis wasn’t even a nice man; he appalled me when as a naïve undergraduate I joined a group taking tea with him back in 1967. Asked a question about someone’s work he replied to the effect that he hadn’t read him for a long time but he was surely nasty now. An eyebrow went up. Is this cultural criticism?

That’s enough of the Id.