Reading Against Polemic: Disciplinary Histories, Critical Futures

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)


THIS ARTICLE SUGGESTS THAT THE SELF-CONSCIOUSLY POLEMICAL TENOR of recent conversations about critical method has hindered efforts to change or diversify our repertoire of approaches. Critics curious about alternative paradigms have been greeted on a regular basis by any number of self-styled interventions – postcritical reading, the New Formalism, the New Affect Studies, and so on – which proclaim the discipline’s current practices inadequate or outmoded. In the first section of the article I argue that those who seek to challenge the purported dominance of a given method need to refocus their efforts away from telling others that their preferred approaches have ‘run out of steam’, and towards giving innovative readings that demonstrate, rather than merely assert, their novelty and value.1 The second section seeks to justify this recommendation by offering an ecumenical critical history showing how movements which succeeded in transforming the field did so, not by publishing polemical manifestos (though they often did that too), but through extraordinary readings which illuminated texts in ways that critics had never seen before – whether discussing their rhetorical effects with unprecedented detail and elaboration, parsing their philosophical implications, placing them in surprising new historical contexts, or drawing our attention to attributes that had formerly been overlooked or deemed unworthy of interest. Unlike recent more theoretical or historicist reassessments of mid-century criticism, such as Helen Thaventhiran’s Radical Empiricists (2015) and Marina MacKay’s Ian Watt: The Novel and the Wartime Critic (2018), this genealogy is less concerned with how individual scholars developed their ideas than with the effectiveness of specific forms of argumentation and rhetorical presentation in influencing other critics (which is why it focuses on a thoroughly canonical corpus).2 My aims are broadly consonant with Jonathan Kramnick and Anahid Nersessian’s call for methodological pluralism – as well as their attempt to ‘turn down the volume on the reading debates’ by ‘emphasizing the everyday realities of the profession’, as Heather Love puts it – even if this article gives us good reasons to be less than convinced by recent developments in the field.3 If its stance seems unduly sceptical, that is principally because it aims to model a mode of engagement with methodological polemics that refuses to be diverted from the disarmingly basic question of what a ‘new’ approach can tell us about a text that prior approaches couldn’t. This argument therefore has significant implications, not only for the discipline’s would-be reformers, but also for readers searching for more discriminating criteria for appraising the validity, efficacy, and value of claims to critical innovation.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)103-123
Number of pages21
JournalCambridge Quarterly
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 31 Dec 2019

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