The Critical Pulse

The Critical Pulse: Thirty-Six Credos by Contemporary Critics

JEFFREY J. WILLIAMS
HEATHER STEFFEN
Mark Bauerlein
Lauren Berlant
Michael Bérubé
Marc Bousquet
Morris Dickstein
Rita Felski
Diana Fuss
Judith Jack Halberstam
Amitava Kumar
Lisa Lowe
Mark McGurl
Toril Moi
Cary Nelson
Andrew Ross
Ken Warren
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 288
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/will16114
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  • Book Info
    The Critical Pulse
    Book Description:

    This unprecedented anthology asks thirty-six leading literary and cultural critics to elaborate on the nature of their profession. With the humanities feeling the pinch of financial and political pressures, and its disciplines resting on increasingly uncertain conceptual ground, there couldn't be a better time for critics to reassert their widespread relevance and purpose. These credos boldly defend the function of criticism in contemporary society and showcase its vitality in the era after theory.

    Essays address literature and politics, with some focusing on the sorry state of higher education and others concentrating on teaching and the fate of the humanities. All reflect the critics' personal, particular experiences. Deeply personal and engaging, these stories move, amuse, and inspire, ultimately encouraging the reader to develop his or her own critical credo with which to approach the world. Reflecting on the past, looking forward to the future, and committed to the power of productive critical thought, this volume proves the value of criticism for today's skeptical audiences.

    Contributors: Andrew Ross, Amitava Kumar, Lisa Lowe, Vincent B. Leitch, Craig Womack, Jeffrey J. Williams, Marc Bousquet, Katie Hogan, Michelle A. Massé, John Conley, Heather Steffen, Paul Lauter, Cary Nelson, David B. Downing, Barbara Foley, Michael Bérubé, Victor Cohen, Gerald Graff, William Germano, Ann Pellegrini, Bruce Robbins, Kenneth Warren, Diana Fuss, Lauren Berlant, Toril Moi, Morris Dickstein, Rita Felski, David R. Shumway, Mark Bauerlein, Devoney Looser, Stephen Burt, Mark Greif, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Mark McGurl, Frances Negrón-Muntaner, Judith Jack Halberstam

    eISBN: 978-0-231-53073-6
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Education

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. INTRODUCTION: CRITICISM IN A DIFFICULT TIME
    (pp. 1-10)

    The Critical Pulsegathers thirty-six “credos,” short essays in which contemporary critics tell what they think criticism should do and why they do it. The essays strip away academic edifice to give forthright accounts of critics’ views. They propose a number of ways to do criticism now.

    “Credo,” from the Latin, translates literally as “I believe,” and the genre of the credo typically suggests a statement of religious belief. Criticism leans in the opposite direction, suggesting skepticism or negation. Rather than beliefs, contemporary critics typically speak about theories, which tack to the scientific, focusing on the structures that embed literature...

  5. A CRITIC’S PROGRESS
    • 1 THE CASE FOR SCHOLARLY REPORTING
      (pp. 13-19)
      ANDREW ROSS

      Not a few politically driven writers of my generation might say that they took their cue from the challenge set forth in the editorial of theNew Left Review’s inaugural 1960 issue. It declared that “the task of socialism today is to meet people where they are, where they are touched, bitten, moved, frustrated, nauseated—to develop discontent and, at the same time, to give the socialist movement some direct sense of the time and ways in which we live.” These words were not penned in the abstract. They were specifically intended as a gloss on the decision to take...

    • 2 DECLARATIONS OF INDEPENDENCE
      (pp. 20-26)
      AMITAVA KUMAR

      I’m in an overheated hotel room in Beijing, reading aNew Yorkertravel piece about China by Jonathan Franzen. The essay is describing the ecological devastation caused by rapid development, but what stops me is a remark that Franzen makes about his Chinese guide. David Xu has “the fashionably angular eyeglasses and ingratiating eagerness of an untenured literature professor.” In that throwaway phrase, in its quick malice and wit, I come home. Whether this is revealing of the traveler’s loneliness abroad or not, I find myself thinking that I belong not to India or to the United States but to...

    • 3 ON CRITIQUE AND INHERITANCE
      (pp. 27-32)
      LISA LOWE

      There are many traditions of critique, but I have been involved in the ones that are dialectical and materialist: dialectical, in the sense that I understand the condition for critical thinking to be contradiction and I experience contradiction as the driving force behind difference, movement, and transformation; and materialist, in the sense that such thinking springs forth from within and prioritizes concern for the conditions under which production is organized. Within this situation of immanent self-contradiction, I have tried to practice critique as the persistent courage to inquire, to seek the possibility of just action. Much of my work has...

    • 4 WHAT I BELIEVE AND WHY
      (pp. 33-41)
      VINCENT B. LEITCH

      Although I completed my Ph.D. in literary studies during the early 1970s, I didn’t assert an explicit point of view, an identifiable critical position, until the late 1980s. In an article I wrote in 1987, “Taboo and Critique: Literary Criticism and Ethics,” I outlined my own project of cultural critique, fusing poststructuralism with post-Marxist cultural studies. First, I criticized the taboo on extrinsic criticism promulgated by the American New Critics and tacitly conveyed to me by most of my professors. Second, I sketched my own program by working through faults with the 1980s critical projects of Wayne Booth (liberal pluralism),...

    • 5 HEARING LOSSES AND GAINS
      (pp. 42-49)
      CRAIG WOMACK

      Like any critic I locate my work inside stories, places, and dates. This is my most recent, and telling, story: On Monday, July 12, 2010, I drove over to my paternal great-uncle’s place, east of downtown Eufaula, Oklahoma, and just off a little cove of the lake there. The visit was long overdue, and I had put it off for several years. Why? The music, for one thing. He always wants me and Dad and Dad’s twin brother to play guitar, and he sings 1950s country songs like a bawling calf separated from its mother at branding time. I like...

    • 6 LONG ISLAND INTELLECTUAL
      (pp. 50-56)
      JEFFREY J. WILLIAMS

      By the time I was fifteen or sixteen, I had decided I wanted to be a writer. It wasn’t, as some writers report, something I’d fixed on as a small child; then I wanted to be a cowboy or, a little later, a pro basketball player. When I got to high school, I’d occasionally put “lawyer” in the box marked “future occupation” on forms because I had verbal skills and it seemed a natural default. I also saw the writing on the class wall—my father worked at a cement plant, but since I was a good student I was...

  6. ACADEMIC LABOR
    • 7 WE WORK
      (pp. 59-66)
      MARC BOUSQUET

      I once shocked a colleague by responding to one of those newspaper stories about a prof “caught” mowing his lawn on a Wednesday afternoon by saying that many tenured faculty were morally entitled to think of their salaries after tenure as something similar to a pension. After all, in some fields, many folks will not receive tenure until they’ve been working for low wages for twenty years or more: a dozen years to get the degree, another three to four years serving contingently—and then, finally, a “probationary” appointment lasting seven years at wages commonly lower than those of a...

    • 8 WHAT IS CRITICISM ON ACADEMIC LABOR FOR?
      (pp. 67-73)
      KATIE HOGAN

      Books, articles, reports, blogs, websites, and discussion boards focusing on the dismal state of higher education have been appearing in rapid succession over the past fifteen to twenty years, with each statement attributing the current situation to decades of reduced financial and cultural support for solid, analytic education. A stunning example of this criticism of academic labor emerged eighteen years ago when Mary G. Edwards published “The Decline of the American Professoriate, 1970–1990.” Edwards outlined the all-too-familiar signposts: stagnant wages; the rise in contingent labor and the evaporation of tenure-track positions; the feminization of the professoriate; and the subtle...

    • 9 “ALL THINGS VISIBLE AND INVISIBLE”: BELIEVING IN HIGHER EDUCATION
      (pp. 74-81)
      MICHELLE A. MASSÉ

      When Jeff Williams asked me to contribute to this reprise of theKenyon Review’s “My Credo” series, my first association, like that of any other Catholic-trained child, was to the Nicene Creed. The years in which I intoned what’s listed in my old Saint Joseph’s Missal as “Our Profession of Faith” are long past. The structures of belief, however, remain in ways that can’t be disavowed, even while I now parse that phrase as suggesting the often silent—and sometimes fatuous—faith that characterizes “our” profession, teaching in higher education.

      Someone once asked me in some exasperation what I believed...

    • 10 AGAINST HEROISM
      (pp. 82-86)
      JOHN CONLEY

      Graduate workers have enough professional organizations—what we need are unions that win gains and exert collective worker power on the job. Organizing graduate workers’ unions that can do these things also necessitatesreorganizing our relationships to our jobs, as well as the feelings, sentiments, and ideas about our work that probably seem more or less natural to many of us. Put frankly, although many grad workers may support having a union in the abstract, we should not underestimate some of the real and accumulated barriers that block the processes of unionization—not only the ones in the state legislature...

    • 11 PACK CONSCIOUSNESS
      (pp. 87-92)
      HEATHER STEFFEN

      The history of the graduate student in America is a short one. We’ve only been around since the turn of the twentieth century, and we’ve only been used as TAs in large numbers since the 1970s. But our story (like that of adjunct instructors) is one of increasing reliance on our presence as the university’s reserve army of labor. In the last few decades, much activism, organizing, and criticism has reflected the ability of graduate students to accurately (and angrily) read and respond to our position as academic workers. But alongside the sort of class consciousness built on the knowledge...

  7. DECLARATIONS OF POLITICS
    • 12 ACTIVISM AND CURRICULUM
      (pp. 95-100)
      PAUL LAUTER

      I was already thirty-one, with a Ph.D. and two children, when I became deeply involved in the civil rights movement in 1963. As an undergraduate, I’d briefly joined the NAACP, not an everyday event for my family in 1950, and I had been involved with my graduate school buddy, Allan Brick, a serious pacifist, in bringing A. J. Muste to speak about conscientious objection at Dartmouth, where I had my first full-time job. I’d passed out leaflets announcing “Dr. Spock is Worried” at the showing ofOn the Beachat the movie theater in Amherst, where I was shortly to...

    • 13 REVOLUTIONARY CONSCIOUSNESS
      (pp. 101-106)
      CARY NELSON

      Through all my work runs a reformist leftist impulse and at least a modest iconoclasm. As I contemplate potential projects—including books just begun on the poetry of hate and on the largely forgotten, elaborate American advertising poetry of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—I typically gravitate toward the ones I feel will make the most difference in a particular cultural community or interpretive context. What project, in other words, will most unsettle a community’s fundamental assumptions, lead them into thinking differently about the social and political meaning of cultural contexts in which they are heavily invested?

      Recovering...

    • 14 GEOPOLITICAL TRANSLATORS
      (pp. 107-114)
      DAVID B. DOWNING

      In the fall of 1957, I was a young boy watching the grainy screen of our family’s first television set when images of an odd, spherical object with whisker antennae and the word “Sputnik” flashed across it. A month later, they (and “they” were pretty bad folks) sent a dog, Laika, into orbit, without even a thought that they might actually try to bring the creature safely back to earth. I was astounded. I certainly couldn’t imagine sending my own dog into space knowing that was the end of her. None of the watered-down explanations about what was going on...

    • 15 CRITICAL CREDO
      (pp. 115-120)
      BARBARA FOLEY

      My critical credo—or what would become my critical credo—was formed in the crucible of 1968 and 1969. Tens of millions were in motion to transform the conditions in which life is lived. It was imaginable that exploitation and its accompanying oppressions might be abolished, that people might create a social order in which it was possible to be human. The capitalist world order seemed anything but eternal: it had come into being in history and could go out of being in history. The understanding that communism is necessary, desirable, and possible became lodged in me as I came...

    • 16 THIS I BELIEVED
      (pp. 121-128)
      MICHAEL BÉRUBÉ

      Sixteen years ago, in the summer and fall of 1993 when I was writingPublic Access, I described myself as “a lefty middle-innings pitcher, keenly aware of living in a time when New Deal liberalism marks the leftward border of the thinkable in the United States, and committed to a pragmatic politics of the most fairly regulated markets this society can produce or imagine.” The end of that passage marked me as Not Left Enough in some quarters, but it’s the beginning of the passage that I’d like to explain. The middle-innings pitcher is the guy who shows up when...

    • 17 “HOPE DIES LAST”: CULTURAL STUDIES AND STUDS TERKEL
      (pp. 129-134)
      VICTOR COHEN

      As an undergraduate, I was drawn to the world of literary studies. Though I also pursued a degree in political science, it was in my literature classes that I learned about left politics. In spite of their Arnoldian framework, these classes trained me in a unique form of empathy that could be carried on throughout a lifetime and productively applied to situations, people, histories, and even things. How (let alone why) they accomplished this is something of a mystery to me, though Leslie Fiedler, in his own credo published in the Autumn 1950Kenyon Review, provides a clue. He wrote...

  8. PEDAGOGICAL MOMENTS
    • 18 CREDO OF A TEACHER
      (pp. 137-139)
      GERALD GRAFF

      My credo as a teacher: do whatever it takes to turn students into compulsively analytic intellectuals like yourself. It’s never mattered to me whatkindof intellectuals my students become—Left, Right, or Center—as long as I do something to help them become intellectuals I feel I’m a success. And if I do something to help them become really good intellectuals I’m even more of a success.

      Of course, if all or most of my students became followers of Ayn Rand or Charles Krauthammer I’d worry, but that hasn’t happened yet. I’ve been on the warpath for some time...

    • 19 OF CREDOS AND CREDIBILITY
      (pp. 140-145)
      WILLIAM GERMANO

      On a recent trip to Salt Lake City I made the visit to Temple Square, where I was greeted by two sisters, as Mormons style young female missionaries. One was from Berlin, the other from the Marquesas, and they were the politest people I’d ever met outside Japan. What was more remarkable? That missionaries had gone past Hawaii and Tahiti to a barely inhabited island Melville first told me about, or that Mormons had reached cosmopolitan, agnostic Berlin? The sisters asked me where I was from (Manhattan) and why I was in Salt Lake (conference). Neither of them had ever...

    • 20 TEACHING FRICTION
      (pp. 146-150)
      ANN PELLEGRINI

      Debates over the relationship between education and democratic citizenship have a long and often contentious history, from Plato’s Republic of philosopher-kings (and a few queens) to the contemporary and bipartisan hand-wringing of U.S. politicians over the failure of American students to keep up with their international peers—a failure that is held to threaten the economic future of the United States. At a moment when money is the measure of everything, this economic peril constitutes an existential threat to the future of America and the vaunted American Dream. As President Obama put the matter in a March 2009 address “on...

    • 21 COERCED CONFESSIONS
      (pp. 151-156)
      BRUCE ROBBINS

      I begin with two anecdotes. I would like to think that the genre of the anecdote offers at least a thin layer of protection against the threats of self-importance and self-righteousness. Self-importance and self-righteousness become significant hazards from the moment you even think about answering an invitation to produce a credo. Don’t be afraid, go ahead, tell us: how seriously do you take yourself?

      First anecdote. About ten years ago I was asked by a well-respected publishing company to consider working on writing a textbook in collaboration with an even better-respected authority in the composition field. The idea was to...

    • 22 ON RACE AND LITERATURE
      (pp. 157-163)
      KENNETH WARREN

      I began my career as a scholar at a moment when many of us were buoyed by the belief that it was imperative to align our scholarly practices with our political beliefs and that some of the literature we studied, especially the literature written by black, Latino, and Asian American writers, could contribute significantly to that effort. But I quickly came to see problems with this belief. As I wrote in my first book,Black and White Strangers: Race and American Literary Realism(1993), when it came to left politics, “the assumption implicit within much contemporary African-American critical practice—that...

    • 23 TEACHING THEORY
      (pp. 164-172)
      DIANA FUSS

      When I was a graduate student in the humanities at Brown in the heady theory decade of the 1980s, it seemed as if all the men were studying Marxism and all the women were studying psychoanalysis. There were a few border-crossers here and there in the graduate program, and quite often the Marxist theorists and the Lacanian theorists coalesced around deconstruction, but, for the most part, the men were in steady search of the real and the women were in hot pursuit of fantasy. While my male compatriots investigated material conditions, my female colleagues and I explored psychical emotions. The...

    • 24 AFFECT IS THE NEW TRAUMA
      (pp. 173-180)
      LAUREN BERLANT

      Here’s a tale about a time an accident led to an incident that is still shaping up as an event. Once I was at a conference. The conference was on feelings—on how the dynamics of their circulation shape the normative and potential workings of institutions, aesthetics, politics, historical imaginaries, and ordinary practices of sociality.¹ People had a lot of feelings at the conference, too: boredom, nostalgia, engagement, admiration, anxiety, criticality (friendly), criticality (hostile), criticality (confused)—the usual. But it was a good thing; people came to listen hard, to think aloud, and to be curious. They stuck around, they...

  9. THE DEFENSE OF LITERATURE
    • 25 ACCESS TO THE UNIVERSAL: LANGUAGE, LITERATURE, AND THE HUMANITIES
      (pp. 183-187)
      TORIL MOI

      I have been asked to write a credo, a declaration of what I believe in as a literary critic. The answer is: I believe in the value of language, of literature, and of the humanities. Yet I can’t just write about language, literature, and the humanities as if these words were unproblematic. Throughout history, women have been denied access to the very fields I care passionately about. Even today, women’s contributions to language, literature, and the humanities are often overlooked, undervalued and neglected. In many parts of the world, women are still denied equal access to learning and education.

      Simone...

    • 26 WRESTLING WITH THE ANGEL: A MODEST CRITICAL CREDO
      (pp. 188-192)
      MORRIS DICKSTEIN

      The role of critics varies greatly according to the roles they imagine for themselves, the course they pursue, and the audience they seek to address. Academic critics writing for their peers will take a different tack from public critics speaking to a general audience, large or small, or from writers themselves using criticism to carve out a space for their own work. Surprisingly, novelists and especially poets have proved to be among our best critics. Poet-critics form the main line of the English critical tradition while the critical foundations for the novel were laid by Henry James. Yet American writers...

    • 27 EVERYDAY AESTHETICS
      (pp. 193-201)
      RITA FELSKI

      I believe art is worldly, not otherworldly: not ineffable, untranslatable, or other. But I find myself increasingly troubled by the functionalism that shadows social theories of art, as critics vault over the disparities between individual works and social structures in their eagerness to nail down political meanings. The model of articulation, well known in cultural if not in literary studies, redeems such trespasses by allowing us to do justice to the contingency, mutability, and many-sidedness of cultural artifacts. And in the thought style of phenomenology, most recently, I have found a newly productive irritant against the trend to over-contextualization, along...

    • 28 CRITICISM IS VITAL
      (pp. 202-207)
      DAVID R. SHUMWAY

      William Carlos Williams wrote, “It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” My credo is a paraphrase: “It is difficult to get the facts from criticism yet people die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” By criticism, I don’t mean merely the interpretation and evaluation of literature or other texts but a broader project and attitude of which literary criticism is only the most familiar instance. This project has largely defined the disciplines we know as the humanities, and genuine criticism is...

    • 29 CRITICAL CREDO
      (pp. 208-216)
      MARK BAUERLEIN

      My critical credo begins with a particular feature of humanistic disciplines. That feature is amply revealed by previous credos published inthe minnesota review, specifically, by their variation. Review the entries and you see widely scattered interests and methods at work. One contributor aims to make students into intellectuals ready to enter tough forensic settings (Graff). Another one “remain[s] committed to looking for connections between the history of the left and the possibility of social change” (Cohen). One mentions his divorce after seventeen years of marriage while another describes a favorite class assignment in which students keep a gender diary,...

    • 30 WHY I’M STILL WRITING WOMEN’S LITERARY HISTORY
      (pp. 217-226)
      DEVONEY LOOSER

      Recently several colleagues asked me to defend my scholarly work. One of my areas of expertise is early modern women’s writings, and these colleagues apparently found that specialization troubling. Indeed, what they wanted from me was less a defense of my scholarship than my participation in a funeral for women’s literary history. They wanted a prediction about when the moment for studying women’s writings apart from men’s would be over—well and truly over. In fact, wasn’t it already over, they asked? Hadn’t gender studies in effect forced women’s studies out of the lexicon? Wasn’t a separatist approach to women’s...

  10. NEW TURNS
    • 31 WITHOUT EVIDENCE
      (pp. 229-236)
      STEPHEN BURT

      I am reading a first book by A., a poet who began as, and may remain, a performance poet—someone who writes for recitation, who evidently wants immediate reaction to oral performance from a live audience—along with a midcareer book by B., who is also a novelist, whose poems tell stories; as I admire the characters they reveal, the wayward insights and the comic self-description, I find myself thinking,If these are goodpoems,then there is no difference between poetry and any other sort of writing.

      I am reading a book by C., a rather good if derivative...

    • 32 ALL THERE IS TO USE
      (pp. 237-244)
      MARK GREIF

      I believe the right basis for criticism was once articulated by Kenneth Burke: “The main ideal of criticism, as I conceive it, is to use all there is to use.”¹

      This precedes Burke as many great critics’ method, and it will outlast those of us doing our short span of work now.

      The reason Burke’s ideal seems unprofessional is that histories of criticism divide us by our methods. They put critics into schools by their procedures rather than, say, by their subject matter, their styles, or their written personalities. There is something flattering about the seriousness with which they treat...

    • 33 OPEN
      (pp. 245-251)
      KATHLEEN FITZPATRICK

      When I first started blogging, back in June 2002, I didn’t have any sense at all that I was taking a stand or making a statement: nothing of the sort. I certainly wasn’t setting out to change the nature of scholarship. On the contrary, I’d just finished rewriting the book that grew out of my dissertation—a four-year research and writing process based on a dissertation project that had itself taken two years. Six years already, and I figured, more than a little naively, that it would take at least another year or so for the book to be published....

    • 34 TIMING
      (pp. 252-256)
      MARK MCGURL

      Is it an actual memory or only a story I heard from friends and internalized as my own? In any case, it goes like this: It’s the first seminar meeting of the first semester of graduate school. The professor, a thrilling devil, a guy with sparks flying off of him, slowly scans the room: “Let’s get one thing straight, you’re all here because you think things are basically okay with the world.” The mix of outrage and merriment in response to this sally is one I would see this man produce again and again in subsequent years, even as the...

    • 35 THE POLITICS OF SMALL PROBLEMS
      (pp. 257-263)
      FRANCES NEGRÓN-MUNTANER

      For as long as I can remember, I have been concerned about being seen as small and insignificant. Where I grew up, this anxiety came “in the water,” so to speak, from that transformative moment when a child can make sense of the statement “Puerto Rico is a small island with no natural resources.” The repetition of this axiom at home, at school, and on television was not so much meant to say that the island was “small”—a reasonable geographic observation—but that those of us who happened to live there could never survive without the wealth and protection...

    • 36 THE POWER OF UNKNOWING
      (pp. 264-270)
      JUDITH JACK HALBERSTAM

      Credos have always been a little off-putting to me: first there is the religious element, the Catholic chanting of a set of beliefs during mass; second, and probably deriving from the first, credos reek of piety and self-righteousness … not that I amnotself-righteous much of the time, but why advertise it? Third, I have been turned off to credos by the saccharine “This I Believe” segment on NPR where some pious, self-righteous, and quite possibly religious person tells you what he or she believes and therefore what everyone else in the world must start doing as a consequence....

  11. List of Contributors
    (pp. 271-276)