IN No Crisis, we set out to consider the state of critical thinking and writing — literary interpretation, art history, and cultural studies — in the 21st century.
It is hard to make a living in criticism these days, yet there are some of us who can hardly imagine living without it. The last several years have been an era of crisis for the academic humanities, traditionally the home of the interpretive disciplines. Across the system of education in the United States, in fact, there are many crises. There are also strange polemics in the air. They say that we critics lost our way when we lost touch with the classics; that we have made the wrong political commitments; that our writing is ugly, jargon-ridden stuff. They say, often, that they would prefer to save or defend some truer version of the humanities — but their bad-faith attacks end up justifying austerity measures, suggesting that we critics brought this crisis on ourselves. For our part, we see the crisis as the effect of economic and administrative decisions, not a failure of ideas. In No Crisis, we hope to show that the art of criticism is flourishing, rich with intellectual power and sustaining beauty, in hard times.
This was our plan: we got in touch with a group of eminent critics and writers from a range of institutional settings, working on various topics. Several of them were tenured professors, some were at other places in academic careers, and a few were not academics at all, but each had written pieces that moved and delighted us. We told them that we wanted to introduce readers beyond the academy to some of the best recent criticism. To that end, we asked each of them to choose a critical text from the last 15 years or so, and to write about why it matters. The idea, we said, is not coolly to describe and evaluate, as in a conventional book review; it is to stand with and think with a critic whose writing you value. This value, we said, may be intellectual, social, emotional; the tone of the essays may be personal, playful, or more conventionally serious.
One of our aims for the series was to account for how criticism is actually being written in the present, to consider the state of the art, but we did not wish to put forward a manifesto or ask contributors to sign on to a program. We had no interest in pronouncing the death of an old school or the inauguration of a new one. We wanted the account to emerge more spontaneously — a collage-like picture of late 20th and early 21st century criticism, composed from many points of view.
Still, a couple of patterns, frequencies of tone and mood, might be perceived. One is a drift away from the fantasy that our intellectual work, whether we call it criticism or that spikier name “critique,” could ever stand outside systems of inequality and coercion, untouched by them. In the beautiful essays that we received for No Crisis, there is a feeling of deep entanglement and impurity — “a recognition of complicity,” as Johanna Drucker puts it in her piece on the art historian T. J. Clark. One thing that may have been lost in the crisis is the institutional autonomy that allowed some critics to imagine that they could speak truth to power without, at the same time, speaking with and within power. There is no more noncomplicity. This is not to say that the time for critique has lapsed, only that critique has become reflexive in a new way, less saintly, a little dirtier.
Another pattern, another kind of impurity in the No Crisis essays, is an effort to reconcile an oppositional politics and an openness to beauty. This is what Peter Coviello admires so much in Jennifer Doyle’s writing about the arts — the way it “stages a vibrant encounter between […] fury and love.” Maybe loving your object of study, taking joy in its mysteries and its weird gorgeousness, doesn’t have to be some leisure-time indulgence, set aside when you turn to the serious business of unmasking or historicizing. Maybe, as Namwali Serpell’s essay on Rita Felski says, there is no contradiction between “analysis and attachment.” Maybe the capacity for delight, for affiliation, can animate critical work, all the way through.
The essays in No Crisis are works of criticism in their own right, showing how a sophisticated understanding might be sustained, not diminished, by a kind of love, which is also a form of shelter.
Caleb Smith is professor of English at Yale University.