Literary Criticism and Bipartisanship

This post was written by Nick Mason, English, HC Faculty Fellow

Much like the literary classic – which Mark Twain memorably dubbed a “book which people praise but don’t read” – political bipartisanship is at once universally endorsed and virtually extinct. In the past year alone, long-revered U.S. Senate protocols were ditched to expedite the party-line confirmation of a Supreme Court justice and the largest tax reform in a generation moved forward without any across-the-aisle negotiation or minority party support. Bizarrely, though, in the midst of this, any given day’s news featured the likes of Paul Ryan, Nancy Pelosi, or Chuck Schumer singing paeans to compromise and even Mitch McConnell – the chief architect of modern congressional steamrolling and stonewalling – pledging, “We hope 2018 will be a year for more bipartisan cooperation.”

It might be high time, then, to require all elected officials to return to freshman English, where presumably they were once taught the ethical and rhetorical necessity of considering both sides before staking out a position. That said, while I’d love to see more national leaders with training in the humanities, it’s hard to imagine our politics magically becoming less partisan if, say, the 2018 midterm elections saw a wave of forty-something English, art history, and philosophy graduates storming Congress. Because, truth be told, after the “negotiation unit” in our first-year writing courses, most of us schooled in humanities departments of the 1980s and 1990s were trained largely in critical modes that, while intellectually enlarging and frequently illuminating, tended to privilege – and, at times, predetermine – partisan interpretations.

On the plus side, my generation’s deep immersion in feminist, Marxist, and postcolonial theory and other paradigms of “resistant reading” left us more cognizant of and empathetic toward marginalized voices and more hopeful that literature – and literary criticism – could point the way toward a more just, peaceful, and inclusive society. At the same time, however, the late twentieth-century vogue for leftist theory made the humanities an increasingly uncomfortable place for conservative and even moderate students and faculty. Lingering legacies of this unfortunate trend are the ideological homogeneity found in many liberal arts departments and a tendency toward groupthink on pressing social concerns, even in fields predicated upon open dialogue and clear-eyed interpretation.

Given my musings of late on these issues, I not surprisingly found last year’s thematically connected lectures by Deidre Lynch (Professor of English at Harvard) and Rita Felski (Professor of English at Virginia) particularly compelling. For the Humanities Center to book both of these speakers in a single semester was something of a coup, as Lynch and Felski rank among the most important voices in our fields’ newfound reconsideration of evaluative and affective criticism after the forty-year reign of resistant reading and sociopolitical critique. Although Lynch’s work is more historical and Felski’s more broadly philosophical, their recent books and BYU lectures share an emphasis on developing interpretive modes that, while preserving the conceptual sophistication and rigor of “high theory,” offer more space for moderate, negotiated, and perhaps even (my word, not theirs) “bipartisan” readings.

In part inspired by these scholars, when the Keats Letters Project – an ambitious scholarly initiative to publish short online essays on the bicentenary day of each of the 252 surviving letters John Keats wrote between 1815 to 1820 – asked me to write on a 3 November 1817 letter where the poet reacts to his cohort’s brewing feud with the arch-conservative Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, I found myself playing the somewhat unconventional role of critic-as-conflict-mediator. While my post is more of a squib than a fully thought-through and worked-out essay, it represents at least a fleeting attempt at a more judicious, less strident, and, dare I say, bipartisan mode of literary criticism.  

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