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Showing posts with label F R Leavis. Show all posts
Showing posts with label F R Leavis. Show all posts

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.

Sunday 27 October 2019

Review: Stefan Collini, The Nostalgic Imagination

Reading this book, I had the sense of someone successfully making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Stefan Collini is a conscientious researcher, who gets deep into the archives; a very alert and astute reader, able to pick up the significance of a parenthetic concession or an adverbial emphasis; and a fluent writer. He also constructs and sustains an interesting thesis which has wider implications than the local ones with which he is primarily concerned.

At the same time, I often felt that the authors and books  selected for analysis scarcely merit the very careful attention given to them. At times, something of what may be his exasperation shows through in asides which reveal a very nice, dry sense of humour. But his even-handedness does not allow him to go much further than that.

As universities began to develop imperial ambitions in the late nineteenth century,  new professionalised subject departments  put the squeeze on older forms of (often amateur) writing. In the new academic history, there was soon to be no place for the kind of general overview which cheerfully assumed both a general theory and a short set of moral, political or religious values to sustain narratives which offered readers a ready-made sense of how they (and, usually, their own country) had got to be where they now were. In England - and Collini is writing only about England -  a main victim of university professionalisation was what, as  a sixth former in the 1960s, I learnt to call The Whig Interpretation of History.

But there were still readers who wanted those general overviews and Collini’s principal thesis is that, in England, some part of the demand was met by the work of a group of writers and academics (nearly all with strong links to Cambridge University) whose official concern was with the teaching of English Literature, itself a new university subject, and officially focussed on its internal history and on text-focussed criticism. But, perhaps because less secure in its identity than academic history, university English Literature found room for historical and critical works which were stuffed with both general theory and moralising lessons. 

The general theory was most often pessimist, a story of cultural decline (T S Eliot, the Leavises) or, at least, fragmentation (maybe good-enough shorthand for Richard Hoggart, Raymond Williams) - combined with ideas about how the situation might be reversed, redeemed, or at least made tolerable to the sensitive. The proposed remedies seem to indicate some weakness in the original nostalgic diagnosis: the Church of England, hill-walking, cycling, adult education. I had assumed there were  flirtations with fascism among those Collini discusses, but he does not mention any. It would have been good to have had a disclaimer.

Collini does not at any point mention Imperialism, even though the period he covers (roughly from 1918 to the 1960s) embraces both the peak moments of British Imperialism in the 1920s and 1930s and its precipitous decline after 1945. I infer not a failure on his part but a likelihood that, for his authors,  the Empire was a bit like your income or your sex life; it was something there but not talked about, as if you didn’t have one or any. You just drank the tea, sweetened with the sugar. In terms of his main thesis, that his authors all gravitated to nostalgia about the past, not thinking about Empire may have helped leave the nostalgia untroubled.

In retrospect, though they were reasonably well informed about history, the group of critics with whom Collini is concerned had no access to an adequate analytical understanding of language (pace Empson). That did not really become available  until the work of Wittgenstein, J L Austin, H P Grice - and from another source, Mikhail Bakhtin - enabled the kind of work then accomplished by writers like Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson. The main achievement has been to create clear and useable distinctions between sentence and utterance, sentence meaning and utterance meaning, semantics and pragmatics. This has allowed a  recasting of  traditional rhetoric (which never distinguished sentence and utterance) and a  more sophisticated account of the field of author - narrator - implied reader - actual reader relations.

“Continental” semiology and semiotics as practised by Roland Barthes in the 1950s got underway in no better an analytical  position than the Cambridge critics, with Barthes professing to stare at images on the page much as the Cambridge critics professed to attend to words on the page. Both could only do it because of a great deal of only half-formed theory.

The general interest of Collini’s very readable book lies in its connection to the broader topic of changes in the hierarchy and distribution of writing genres brought about by twentieth century university expansion, an expansion which proceeded at an exponential rate. One result was a fairly long period when it seemed that the job of the non-science academic was to write unreadable and unread books, many to be published at astronomic prices by specialised publishing houses. At the same time, anything readable and read was regarded as inferior. But in  the last couple of decades  a clear movement has arisen to create “cross-over” books which can both function as core texts in serious university courses and appeal to a wider readership. Some of the American university presses have played an important part in this movement, though inhibited by increasingly censorious university environments.