Is literary scholarship an emancipatory political activity? In this paper, I argue that the claim to some form of political emancipation has become a tic—a professionalizing tic—of our discipline. Recent books by Joseph North and Caroline Levine provide examples of the phenomenon for the current moment of academic literary criticism, if one also challenged by the idea of “postcritique.” In order to situate the current moment, the paper looks back to the domestication of modernism in the American academy after World War Two and the intersection of the aesthetic difficulty associated with modernism (and later postmodernism) with the political radicalism of the New Left. Susan Sontag, herself a public intellectual rather than an academic, was an early celebrant of the conjunction of aesthetic and political radicalism in the American context, but the paper also explores the reservations expressed at the time by Lionel Trilling and Irving Howe, from academic and political perspectives. As critique was routinized in the academy, it overlooked the class identity of the professions themselves, and in particular the hostility between the professional and working classes (the subject of important examinations, in the American context, by Barbara Ehrenreich and Thomas Frank). This neglect or indifference lends itself to the easy caricature, relished by right-wing media, of the “tenured radical.” It does not, however, mean that critique has no place in academic literary criticism.
Kevin Pask teaches English literature at Concordia University, Montreal. He is the author of The Emergence of the English Author: Scripting the Life of the Poet in Early Modern England (1996) and The Fairy Way of Writing: Shakespeare to Tolkien (2013), as well as studies of contemporary nationalism in Québec and the United States. He is currently working on a study tentatively titled On Difficulty and Reading for Pleasure in the Age of Professionalism.