Thinking Elsewhere: A Response to Sonita Sarker by Way of Some Notes on Universality

By | January 25, 2022

This week, in a series of blog takeovers, we’re looking at Modernism, Theory, and Responsible Reading with posts from the collection’s contributors.

Guest post by Matthew Gannon

The first thing to note about Sonita Sarker’s essay is that it offers a necessary challenge to and reorientation of the various definitions of responsible reading that appear throughout this volume. Responsible reading can and should take on any number of meanings, even contradictory meanings, in the chapters that appear here. But what responsible reading should never suggest is a “mandatory curriculum” that becomes a burden that the reader “does not ask to carry but becomes hers to bear” (pg#). As Sarker points out in her conclusion, “who reads and where one reads from affect the nature of that responsibility” (pg#). Any understanding of reading that steamrolls local particularities in its quest for global generalizability is false. That said, when Sarker laments the tendency for such mandatory curricula to cause readers to “doubt their own capacity to be responsible for their own evaluation and appreciation and understanding” (pg#), it is not clear what exactly that capacity is or how it can be cultivated. This interesting intimation of responsibility as something like a readerly self-reliance that resists the temptation to disavow its “identity and location” (pg#) is unfortunately not fleshed out here. Yet even if it is not quite explicitly articulated, the kind of responsibility embraced by this essay is perhaps embodied and enacted by its provokingly personal—or at least positional—prose.

At the beginning of her essay Sarker performs a rhetorical self-dissection by dividing herself into two. There is first of all the student who is one of the “young girls in Kolkata, India” whose “home-work assignment was to mimic the methods of reading responsibly” (pg#). The methods in this case were primarily those of the New Critics and their ideas about aesthetic appreciation, artistic taste, and the edifying effects of literary study. Jumping ahead in time, Sarker describes herself as now “no longer so young, no longer in Kolkata but in St. Paul (Minnesota) on the Midwest prairie, on the lands of the Sisseton and Wahpeton peoples, still reading poetry and now teaching it as well” (pg#). While her work today is decidedly distant from that mandatory curriculum of her student days, Sarker is clearly still reading the New Critics, as evidenced by her essay’s trenchant criticism of that tradition.

Despite their differences there are some significant connections between the two Sarkers in this chapter: “I was…and still am…categorized as brown and female in the U.S” (pg#). This identity forms the basis for her censure of the New Critics, whose methods, Sarker finds, do not travel well. Commentaries on the limitations of New Criticism are by no means unfamiliar at this point. In Literary Theory Terry Eagleton describes close reading as foundational to “the beginnings of a ‘reification’ of the literary work, the treatment of it as an object in itself, which was to be triumphantly consummated in the American New Criticism” (38). More recently Audrey Wasser has noted that “New Criticism fails to deliver on its own promises” because it lacks “a positive, genetic account of the difference between form and intention, or form and its causal context” (50). Sarker’s perspective is rooted in the claim that New Criticism cannot be divorced from its own particular cultural identities like “Southern Agrarianism” (pg#) or “urbane cosmopolitanism” (pg#).[i] Those identities belong predominantly to a white, male colonizing bourgeoisie who are “themselves products of the very modernity that they oppose and from which they derive their privileges and advantages” (pg#). Sarker identifies this disavowal as typical of a broader hypocrisy when it comes to the cultural specificity of the New Critics. Their reading practices, which have that very pretense of generalizability mentioned above, can in fact be highly particular and should not be simply universalized by being packaged neatly and shipped out around the world.

That young student in Kolkata might be surprised to find that a generation after her experiences with mandatory curricula it is entirely possible—though not necessarily advisable—to receive what is regarded as a comprehensive education in literary studies despite being assigned little to no New Criticism.[ii] English departments today are not generally cults of close readers worshipping at the altars of Richards, Brooks, and Ransom—or Donne, Keats, and Eliot for that matter. Sarker expresses some wonder at the fact that her career has now spanned a number of competing, and repetitively circular, critical paradigms: “New Critical, New Historicist, Reader Response studies and recuperations of New Criticism” (pg#). The dominance of various versions of cultural studies during the last few decades has been so profound that New Criticism can even be presented—albeit not always convincingly—as a scrappy underdog looking to make a comeback to add some much-needed formalism to historicist overcorrections.[iii] These changes conspire to make the targets of Sarker’s criticism somewhat unfocused. Oxford, Cambridge, and Harvard may still be the academic tastemakers, but what does it mean when they have developed a taste for the very perspectives that Sarker presents as unpalatable in academia? What to make of the superseding of modernism by the New Modernist Studies that embraces the very positionality that has been traditionally refused by that field?[iv] And how can we make sense of the virtual disappearance of modernism itself as a hiring category and the abrupt rise of such of vaguely-named fields as Global Anglophone Studies with their think-tank titles?[v]

Those kinds of questions must be addressed if the aim is to critique not just New Criticism but the production of critical paradigms in the “late twentieth-century and current neoliberal capitalist times” (pg#). Much of Sarker’s essay operates with an intriguing analogy between the creation of such paradigms and the commodity form in which, for both, “the object is produced somewhere but is presented as having value anywhere in the world, whether that object is a car, a film…or a literary text” (pg#). She traces this effacing or mystifying of the culturally specific conditions of academic production to the “refusal of the politics of positionality” (pg#). But how far can the politics of positionality really take us? The avowal that a car is American made, for instance, might well be a feature of an advertising campaign as the local particularities of a commodity’s production can become a selling point. Capital is no stranger to multiplicity and difference, it knows identity and location as well as it does generality, and it can efficiently exploit positionality too—and not just when that positionality is refused or disavowed.

The contradictions of New Criticism’s bad universality—and the contradictions inherent in the production of critical paradigms as such—will not be resolved by an appeal to the particularities that are merely the flip side of the commodity form rather than its genuine other. Sarker’s analysis of New Criticism is rigorous and clarifying, but her framing of its specific faults entails certain problematic implications. For Sarker, New Criticism’s appeal to “universally applicable principles” (pg#) serves the ulterior purpose of preparing us to accept what Brooks calls “the burden of making normative judgments” (pg#; Sarker’s emphasis). Sarker cleverly connects Brooks’s burden, which is the false version of responsibility, with the spirit of Kipling’s “white man’s burden.” But in identifying the fundamental problem with those discourses as normativity and universality as such, rather than false normativity and universality predicated on power, Sarker undermines her own critique.

To be clear, New Criticism’s efforts to produce ready-made analytical tools and critical methods can turn reading into a kind of cultural commodity underwritten by its scientistic formulation. But it is precisely because works of art can only be understood immanently that applying external critical criteria is false—making the work of interpretation, as Nicholas Brown has recently put it, “the production of compelling ascriptions of meaning” that are “always open to dispute; the evidence is always available to anyone” (31). Furthermore, Brown adds, “such disagreements can take place only if there is something normatively in play” (31). Brown’s thinking on this topic addresses both the New Critics, with their false universality, and Sarker, with her preference for particularity:

A meaning is inescapably normative: no matter how manifold and complex, a meaning excludes other meanings. A commodity is inescapably nonnormative: since the commodity is produced for exchange, all that is required is that someone find a use for it, and all of these uses, not matter how contradictory they might be as meanings, do not contradict one another because they are not meanings but uses (162).

Sarker has succinctly summed up how New Criticism unwittingly falls into the trap of the commodity form. But Brown demonstrates here how the insistence of particularity is equally commodifiable. The eschewal of a normative field feels like freedom, but it is only the freedom of the market in which each unique individual can have their own personal product, each as valid as the next.

Without normativity, disagreeing about a text would be as pointless as disagreeing about a preference for one type of car over another. Without normativity we are back in the realm of taste, albeit not a falsely generalizable taste (though perhaps one that more close matches the market’s mantra: De gustibus non est disputandum). Through normativity, Brown argues, we can make an important distinction:

What we have arrived at is the distinction between an object whose use (or purpose or meaning) is normatively inscribed in the object itself—a meaning that is universal, in Hegel’s terms simply allgemeine, available for everyone and not therefore a private matter—and an object whose use is a matter of indifference from one standpoint and a matter of possibly intense but necessarily private concern from another (6).

Here we see the limits of positionality and the limits of grounding responsibility in the irrevocable differences of readers rather than the singularity of objects. Normativity does not automatically mean a “moral mission” (pg#), then, and universality is not synonymous with “hegemonic power” (pg#). Both, in fact, are necessary for genuinely anticapitalist and anticolonial critical theories and Sarker even relies on both—and her argument is better off for it. Without normativity and universality the decolonizing readings Sarker advocates would only be valid for some people at some places and times, just like certain commodities only suit some consumers depending on their personal preferences.

All this is not to say that the particularity that Sarker foregrounds is unimportant. Her desire for an “epistemological humility” that can “mitigate violence” (pg#) is admirable and legitimate too. But that should not discourage the rightful claim to universality. Theodor W. Adorno, who shared the concerns articulated by Sarker, noted that “thinking has the element of the universal. What once was thought cogently must be thought elsewhere, by others: this confidence accompanies even the most solitary and powerless thought” (293). We can say the same about reading, which if it has a responsibility it cannot be to side with universality or particularity but rather to not give up on the idea of a noncoercive relation between the two.

[i] Eagleton also notes that the ideology of the New Critics was tied to “the ‘aesthetic life’ of the old South” (40).

[ii] This can obviously vary significantly from department to department, but this has been my own experience with a North American education at least and it seems fairly widespread among the generation of early-career scholars today.

[iii] This is essentially Joseph North’s argument in his Literary Criticism, which finds in New Criticism methods that are more potently political than has been recognized. This sort of rehabilitation has also been carried out by New Formalism, especially Caroline Levine’s Forms, which seek to merge formalist methods with historicism.

[iv] See Douglas Mao and Rebecca L. Walkowitz, “The New Modernist Studies.”

[v] The point about “the virtual disappearance of modernism as a hiring category” was posed by the 10 November 2020 roundtable “Modernism from the Standpoint of Labor” chaired by Pardis Dabashi as part of the Modernist Studies Association’s series of online events “On Or About 2020.”

Modernism, Theory, and Responsible Reading cover
Matthew Gannon is a doctoral candidate in the Department of English at Boston College. His research investigates the politics of aesthetics and pays particular attention to questions of form in modernism. He is especially interested in aesthetic autonomy, literary responses to major political events like general strikes, and the politics of historiography. Matthew’s dissertation, “Modernity against Itself,” is predominantly informed by the theoretical intersection of Marxism and psychoanalysis. Focusing mainly on Wyndham Lewis, Virginia Woolf, Hope Mirrlees, T. S. Eliot, and James Joyce, “Modernity against Itself ” traces the ways that modernism was simultaneously related to and antagonistic to capitalist modernity.

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