Deprovincializing Criticism: On Bruce Robbins’s “Criticism and Politics”

By Christopher NewfieldMarch 24, 2024

Deprovincializing Criticism: On Bruce Robbins’s “Criticism and Politics”

Criticism and Politics: A Polemical Introduction by Bruce Robbins

BRUCE ROBBINS’S Criticism and Politics: A Polemical Introduction (2022) is two books in one. The first book grapples with criticism’s zombie deadlock—the century-old debate about whether criticism can and should analyze historical contexts as well as literary texts. Can criticism create knowledge about “politics” as well as poems, plays, and novels—about content as well as form? Robbins’s answer is “yes, it must!” and he’s well known for writing a series of valuable books that consider literature and criticism in relation to the cultural and social systems through which they move: academic professions, class structures, welfare states, and democratized cosmopolitanisms, among others.

I think of “criticism and politics” (the text versus its context, the aesthetic versus the historical) as criticism’s legacy dualism, one based on false problems that should be set aside. Even so, since the 1960s, the putative conflict has maintained internal divisions in literary and cultural studies without producing the methodological clarity it claims to seek. It enjoyed its most recent revival in the 2010s, and Robbins’s book reflects his encounter with that decade’s particular iteration. Make no mistake: superb literary research has emerged nonstop, but it has been inadequately supported by a fractured profession.

Robbins’s second book-within-a-book is titled “Aesthetics and the Governing of Others.” This second book is radical, though inexplicit enough that I need to extrapolate from some of Robbins’s statements (I’ll try to be clear when I am doing this). The governing of others has two aspects. The first is to move from critiquing power to wielding power through one’s own group or class. (Robbins ties this to literary critics’ prospective move from Michel Foucault to Antonio Gramsci.) The second aspect is criticism’s prospective power of self-governance. This requires not only an active consciousness of working conditions but also the pursuit of real power over them. It would likely mean a new militancy among academic critics towards reducing contingent employment, fixing research funding shortfalls, undoing managerial control over academic freedom, and expanding unionization, among other things. Importantly, while Robbins alludes to this second aspect of the governance of others—criticism’s empowered self-governance—his book doesn’t discuss it explicitly.

Of course, Robbins’s notion of governance would update the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley’s famous comment that “[p]oets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Yet it would do so in a more focused sense, suggesting that poets and critics be acknowledged co-legislators of knowledge systems, collaborative generators of the world’s many forms of knowledge, including engineering, law, medicine, sociology, politics, and performing arts, as well as community, Indigenous, and “standpoint” knowledges. Variations of literary-critical self-governance, hinted at by Robbins, would arise to the extent that criticism’s knowledge workers, its splintered cognitariat, are able to bind the professorial fraction of the professional-managerial class to labor rather than to capital—that is, connect them with the peoples of the world who, throughout Robbins’s career, have typically gone unrepresented.

Such is how I interpret Robbins’s trajectory, though it’s often understated and ultimately incomplete. I will fuss about this from time to time, but Robbins couldn’t be more right about the neglect and the importance of the basic job—turning criticism into a source of governance of and power over the institutions that foster knowledge and culture.


Robbins’s initial thesis builds on his longtime view that politics is native to criticism. From this emerges his main claim: criticism’s core vocation is to help everyone grasp literature’s distinctive representation of the experience of others—“previously underrepresented others,” as he clarifies elsewhere.

“Experience” is a key term. In an article published two decades before Criticism and Politics, Robbins wrote:

[I]f we are ever going to see some organized impulse toward the equalization of life chances between those who make shirts and those who wear them, this change will clearly not happen by means of a sudden mass exercise of Kantian ethics. It will happen as an outgrowth of habitual desires, fears, and anxieties, embarrassed perceptions and guilty pleasures that, though pervaded by thought, do not belong on that level of rigorous conceptual rationality Kant elsewhere demanded.

Literature is a crucial domain in the overall knowledge system because it represents individual subjective experience in minute detail and in relation to that of others. Literature goes where conceptual rationality cannot. It generates “an imperfect and historically determined version of common sense, perhaps only emerging but significant enough to be worth tracking, that links the thoughts and feelings of ordinary people to the fate of others in a larger collectivity.” That larger collectivity can’t be limited to the “national-popular” but must become international as it simultaneously respects and permeates everyday boundaries of culture, ethnicity, language, and related identities.

Criticism also plays a special role in the knowledge system (and here, I extrapolate): it links the literary together with its cognate nonfictional representations of, for example, Bangladeshi garment workers, to create a multilayered and integrative understanding for the typically distant North American reader. Additionally, criticism adds reflexivity about the barriers—conceptual, cultural, racial, experiential—that make understanding both faulty and capable of continuous improvement. Robbins dubs this “knowledge about the limits of knowledge”—which, he rightly insists, is real knowledge. Furthermore, criticism doesn’t produce this layered, self-reflexive knowledge simply by analyzing a poem or a story in rigorous explication de texte; instead, it places literary texts and their subjects in various, suggestive knowledge contexts. This makes most if not all criticism interdisciplinary.

Robbins is completely convincing on the question of whether criticism incorporates politics in this expanded and existential sense. However, there’s also the question of how criticism might represent this enormous range of experience, not to mention the unlimited kinds of knowledge that constitute it. The answer lies on a bridge between the two parts of Criticism and Politics, which I’ll read into the record as a supplement to what the volume plainly says.


The first of Robbins’s two-books-in-one takes up the 2010s variant of the legacy debate. Specifically, Robbins feels compelled to criticize Rita Felski in the wake of The Limits of Critique (2015). There, Felski argues that, “[a]fter a long period of historically oriented scholarship, scholars of literature are returning to aesthetics, beauty, and form.” She observes those scholars asking: “Are we not missing something crucial […] when we treat works of art as nothing more than virtual symptoms of a historical moment, as moribund matter immured in the past?” For his part, Robbins rejects this characterization of historicist scholarship—one in which the text is treated like a “symptom” of history—as a “belligerent fantasy.”

General readers may be surprised by the binary contrast between history and art, and the forced choice between them. Felski was building on an entrenched discomfort among academic critics surrounding the idea that a literary work is important primarily as a reflection of a historical moment or social issue, rather than as an autonomous aesthetic accomplishment. The latter view, espoused by formalist analysis, was embodied in what we still call the New Criticism, whose heyday was a two- or three-decade period in the middle of the 20th century when enrollment was booming and universities had money for effectively everything—including the study of so-called high culture. Decades later, the 2010s reimagined this debate over whether formalism, effectively a version of “close reading,” remained the discipline’s only true method.

Robbins and Felski thereby face off in a script that the profession has been writing about itself since the 19th century. Within this framework of criticism and politics, Robbins insists that politics are an inherent feature of criticism in English, that “critics need to belong to the world […] and ensure that their work makes changes in the world.” This engagement was the mark of 18th-century criticism, he notes, carried forward during the English Romantics’ defining encounters with revolution and industrialization, and then codified decisively in the mid-19th century by Matthew Arnold. Criticism, writes Robbins, “sometimes takes literature as its object, but it always and necessarily aims at life,” and he goes on to invoke Arnold’s “much-repeated formula” that poetry “is a criticism of life.” English-language literary criticism is thereby historically a subset of cultural criticism, even of social criticism in the broadest sense; it can’t be denatured by engaging in cultural or social criticism.

Robbins’s model of criticism as descended from Arnold has a second feature. In addition to concerning both texts and life, “[c]riticism for [Arnold] is a kind of permanent opposition. It assumes that something is fundamentally wrong with the culture of the present and that its task is to make that wrongness known.” In other words, critique is inherent to criticism—which, in English, is the literary study inherited from Arnold and his followers.


Robbins is right to describe literary criticism as part of a larger and diverse project of the criticism of life or of society or of culture. Even so, this claim functions at a high level of abstraction; it doesn’t determine practice or effects. And, although Robbins is also right in noting that the dualist boundary between text and world was imposed by a subset of later critics and is not intrinsic to its history, criticism-with-politics is also not fundamentally oppositional. It may be structurally autonomous from the main centers of social and economic power in the mold of Gramsci’s “traditional intellectual,” and yet nonetheless conform to those same centers. (Gramsci insisted on this point, as Robbins notes elsewhere.) With respect to wider professional questions, criticism has been generally conformist and passive about fixing the profession’s structural racism, or reversing the degradation of its own working conditions.

In short, rejecting the dualism of literary criticism versus politics is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for building a criticism that comprehensively represents the experience of others. These representations need to be wide-ranging and inclusive to register as plausible, much less interesting, to those outside the profession—as well as to most of its existing, diverse membership. In my view, criticism needs to function as an interdiscipline, working competently with institutional and social factors as well as with the linguistic, cultural, philosophical, and psychological concepts that have long been part of its established repertoire. How is that going to happen?

Here we get to Robbins’s second book-within-the-book, on the governance of others.


In chapters three and four, Robbins summons Foucault as the Arnold of our time, since, despite their divergent politics, Foucault succeeded on Arnold’s scale at making criticism matter to the understanding of society. He fused textual criticism with the criticism of social and cultural systems. He authorized an intensified focus on how social practices not only control the subject from outside but also constitute the subject’s identity from within. Robbins observes how, “[i]n his 1978 essay ‘What Is Critique?’ [Foucault] answers his title question as follows: critique is ‘the art of not being governed, or the art of not being governed like that and at this price.’” Critique always involves the rejection or refusal of an existing mode of government, as well as the provision of reasons for that refusal.

But, as Robbins laments, Foucauldian critique stops there. To show how not to be “governed like that” does not illustrate how one would be governed, how government should work, or what governance one and one’s group would accept. Robbins regrets that Foucault’s critique of governmentality “refuses to make a proposition that would hold for anyone other than its own speaker, its own context.” Of course, there’s always resistance in Foucault; what’s lacking is the active construction of radical collective alternatives.

In this way, Foucault’s influence both empowered and damaged criticism as a profession for Robbins. Professions need to engage in collective self-governance to survive, improve, and communicate with society. Powerful ones (medicine, physics) do this very well; they engage in daily work to hegemonize public consciousness for their benefit. Weak ones do not, and criticism’s weakness has been ratified by a Foucauldian doubt that aesthetically oriented professionals need to try—and succeed—to govern themselves and their professional institutions.

Vitally, Robbins suggests that criticism’s real choice is not between corruption (oppressively governing others) and defeat (being oppressively governed by others). There’s another choice, in which criticism brings the intellectual results of its real successes at explaining recognition and representation to the exercise of governing power:

With regard to the humanities at least, […] the university is a site where contesting claims to representation are adjudicated, and contesting versions of collectivity are fashioned, scrutinized, and tested out. By its participation in this activity, moreover, the university would be laying an implicit claim for its own significance to the society around it. This proposition would explain one sense in which academics can legitimately be thought of as doing what Gramsci expected of organic intellectuals: they do not merely convey or reflect the values of their constituencies, but actively help to shape them in relation to the values and constituencies around them.

Gramsci appears here as a sort of anti-Foucault: he defined the organic intellectual through their “capacity to be an organizer of society in general.” In other words, Robbins opens up new terrain by shifting from criticism and politics to criticism and governance.


Were criticism to have made this shift, how would it govern differently and better? History isn’t much help. The postwar US university expected literary studies to join other disciplines in supporting national economic and military preeminence by, among other things, demonstrating the country’s Euro-British roots and accompanying white cultural superiority. Today, universities govern themselves through a mixture of oligarchic and managerial control, and so do humanities deans and literature departments.

The final chapters of Criticism and Politics invoke the canonical figures of Gramsci, Fredric Jameson, and Stuart Hall as potentially suggestive examples. Not only do I find Robbins’s discussion here too diffuse; I also don’t believe this canon of important thinkers gets close to the range of criticism today. Still, with minor extrapolation, they can be assembled into a platform for criticism’s activist relation to rebuilding its professional life and its public effects.

Jameson stands here for a socialist constructivism. It’s socialist in its continuous effort to acknowledge radical differences in identity and positioning across the world while simultaneously weaving these into a “single great collective story”—a story in which capitalism is a passing stage rather than the end of history. It’s constructivist in that this collective story is told by everyone involved (as opposed to some magisterial narrators) through representations of diverse, even incommensurable everyday experience. Radically anti-dualist, Jameson integrated text and history, thereby suggesting that criticism could develop into an interdiscipline able to tell a greater story by drawing on the arts, humanities, and social sciences, among other fields.

Hall appears as a great scholar of the cultural systems that underwrite what is now widely termed racial capitalism. “As a member of a movement,” Robbins insists, Hall “thought in terms of making gains, theoretical and practical.” Hall made social movements central to the analysis of culture and history, “putting together […] a coalition that would be capable of governing, and capable of governing differently.” Hall also believed the Left’s social movements needed to “develo[p] toward dominance.” I would narrow criticism’s immediate remit from governing the world differently to (co-)governing knowledge differently. When meshed with other fields, as Hall’s work often was, criticism can create the cultural conditions for an economy after neoliberalism—through, say, computational humanities’ exposés of racial bias in New York publishing, or explorations of Shakespeare’s hostility to tyranny (to name two of a multitude of critical projects with systemic importance).

Gramsci returned to express the process by which intellectuals construct and exercise this alternative governance. Organic intellectuals are those who aspire to “organiz[e] social hegemony and state domination.” And they do this (at least initially) not because of socialist-egalitarian ideals, but because of “the need to create the conditions most favourable to the expansion of their own class.” Robbins invokes only one positive example of this class consciousness: the effort of 18th-century critics “to contest the ruling class above them,” and, in doing so, to make “the middle class […] a governing class in their own right.” While those critics had the right idea about governing power, they didn’t ultimately escape subordination to the ruling class.

And so, 200 years later, Gramsci identified the organic intellectual as a site of struggle rather than a past achievement. Gramsci appears here not to mandate political content for criticism, but to suggest how criticism—if it hopes to influence anything outside itself—must struggle for social hegemony on behalf of its current class interest. That class interest (here, again, I extrapolate) is first and foremost a solid, influential, fully funded place in the knowledge system. To seek this isn’t to conform to capital; it's to have a base from which to fight or rewrite it, specifically in solidarity with dominated groups around the world. Post-1960s criticism has increasingly “represented” these groups through the massive expansion of its subdisciplines, despite these coming mostly from the unfunded and often thankless margins. Now, the crucial step is to acquire power over knowledge institutions. That way, critics might have the material capacity to conduct scholarship—to teach, write, and publicly engage in solidarity with labor rather than with capital, with the dominated instead of the dominating.


What material steps would criticism take in “developing toward dominance” (or, in my view, toward power to co-govern knowledge)? Robbins doesn’t offer any. He approaches his colleagues with open hands, as though saying, “Think about it. Think about learning to govern differently.” Naturally, he’s sensitive to an inhibiting trauma shadowing criticism: “The problem is that,“ he writes, rather gingerly, “most if not all of the 60s constituencies did not see themselves as ‘developing toward dominance.’ Dominance was what they suffered from, not what they were seeking.” True, and, accordingly, the book takes things slowly.

Yet now, many years into criticism’s material and institutional decline, its reluctance to seek dominance—to achieve co-governance—risks locking in the trauma. The same goes for criticism’s provincializing projects: hardening its borders, nursing its legacy dualisms, disparaging its mixed materials and methods. There’s much combined intellectual-governance work to do in criticism’s pursuit of power within current systems of knowledge. The importance of Robbins’s book is to show that this work is part of criticism’s past—while also insisting that it must be central to its future.

LARB Contributor

Christopher Newfield is distinguished professor emeritus of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara and director of research at the Independent Social Research Foundation, London. He is the author of The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them (2016), among other books.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!