Academics against academia: concern over `industry' of criticism

Criticism in the University, edited by Gerald Graff and Reginald Gibbons. Tri-Quarterly Series on Criticism and Culture. No. 1. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press. 236 pp. $25.95 cloth; $9.95 paper. We are living, some critics say, in an Alexandrian age, referring to the Hellenistic culture that flourished in the Egyptian city of Alexandria in the 4th and 3rd centuries BC. Centered on the great Library and involving the diligent efforts of scholars, critics, and poets, Alexandrian culture was dedicated to the preservation, study, and propagation of the classical Greek heritage. Although some Alexandrians, such as Callimachus and Apollonius Rhodius, created poetry that was valuable in its own right,

the image persists of a secondary or belated period over which hovers, however unjustly, the specter of decadence.

The mushrooming of academic literary criticism in the past 30 years, coinciding with the expansion of the university and the decline of other cultural institutions (commercial publishing, the theater, literary journalism), suggests parallels with Alexandria. It also causes anxiety. Have literary studies become too rarefied to reach the general readers? Are they irrelevant to the aims of today's creative writers? Has the university become the universe?

The contributors to this collection of essays express concern at the sheer size of the academic industry devoted to the production of literary criticism. Ironically, most of the concerned essayists are themselves academics, an apparent illustration of the Pogo principle: We have met the enemy and he is us. Is this, then, a noble attempt at self-criticism or just one more example of the profession's propensity for producing bricks from straw? Sometimes it seems that for every book or article that could be accused of obscurantism or pointlessness, there is another book or article criticizing the proliferation of pointless obscurantism.

Of course, this does not mean such dissatisfaction is unfounded. The problems are real. An essay by Wendell Berry deftly locates the problems besetting literary studies within the broader context of problems besetting the university and language. Overspecialization has resulted in the kind of university that grows ``not according to any unifying principle, like an expanding universe, but by the principle of miscellaneous accretion, like a furniture storage business.'' And within the specialty of litera ry studies, Mr. Berry reminds us, there is a need for both the endless ``echo'' of self-analysis and the ``silence'' or ``rest'' that comes with returning one's attention to the outside world.

Has criticism lost its contact with the earth? A number of essayists -- Morris Dickstein, Donald Davie, Mark Krupnick, and Gene Bell-Villada -- look to literary journalism for an antidote to overspecialization. In a more retrospective mood, William Pritchard seeks to recapture what first excited him about criticism: the challenge of trying to evaluate a work of literature.

But judgment can be an empty shell masking uglier realities. An assistant professor, Patrick Colm Hogan, offers a devastating portrait of academic ``quality control.'' Professional work, he says, is judged not for its truth, but for its ``salability'' -- its acceptance by a profession whose goal is neither pedagogy nor genuine research, but self-perpetuation. He also points to academe's exploitation of its junior members, whom he all too accurately describes as a surplus labor force powerless to bargain

with administrators and senior faculty.

From Marxist critic Frank Lentricchia, however, we get nothing this trenchant, only a defense of ``theory'' -- by which he means Marxist theory. Lentricchia's position is cogently criticized by William Cain, who agrees that academics should be politically responsible, but who considers Marxism irrelevant to American life. But Lentricchia displays true radical chic when he explains why it is far less vital for someone like him to take an active part in politics than to remain safely ensconced in tenured

chairs influencing the intellectual climate in favor of revolutionary ideas.

If the essays in ``Criticism in the University'' do not add up to what Gerald Graff calls a ``dialectical whole,'' they do provide a channel for those inside the profession to direct their attention outward and for those outside to have a look inside.

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