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Long Live Literature?

Long Live Literature?

Englit, Radical Criticism and
Cultural Studies
Martin Ry/e
Has the time come for ‘English’ as an academic discipline
to disappear? A crisis can only last so long, after all, before
it becomes terminal (or terminally boring). And ‘English’

has been in a self-proclaimed state of crisis for the last
fifteen years, in part at least because of the challenges
mounted by radical critics concerned with the social
determinants, reception and meanings of writing and culture. I
The appearance of exciting new work during the 1980s only
served to intensify doubts as to whether the discipline was
viable. Feminist scholarship and theory extended the
boundaries of the canon, and then moved on to question the
criteria, and the notion, of the canonical. Conceptually
sophisticated studies prodded and pulled Englit out of its
notorious theoretical innocence: theory began to become its
own object, until literary texts – ‘primary texts’ , did we once
call them? – barely figured in the works of some critics.

Historicisation, especially the project of cultural materialism,
seemed to represent a decisive move beyond the old model
of ‘literature and its background’: but this was to take
literary studies into areas beyond the usual competence of
literary academics. As studies of popular culture grew more
numerous and ambitious, and as ‘high’ and ‘low’ texts were
increasingly viewed together, the boundaries of the canon
were further blurred or eroded. In short, all this intellectual
energy was profoundly disturbing of the disciplinary status
quo – which was, in most cases, part of the explicit intention
of the authors involved. 2
So is it time for Englit, abandoning any claim to academic
autonomy, to move into the conveniently adjacent field of
‘cultural studies’? Cultural studies in Britain may have been
initially sociological in inspiration, concerned with mass
culture in recent and modern times, its favoured objects
forms of contemporary social regulation and resistance,
rather than instances of representation (certainly, rather
than high cultural instances): this at any rate was clearly the
focus of work at Birmingham. B ut the historical study of
cultural production, surely part of ‘cultural studies’ in any
full definition, will accord a greater prominence to the
written word. If literary texts can no longer be read as
instances of ”’literature” as a given and self-sufficient
object’ ,3 they can be read instead, within such a programme,
as instances of discourse in a given social and historical

Radical Philosophy 67, Summer 1994

conjuncture. Jude the Obscure will not be offered as part of
‘our heritage’ (the canon’, but as an exemplar of the late
Victorian construction of gender and sexuality. Perhaps
‘literature’ (the texts) will survive, taking or usurping a
central place in the new field, even as ‘literature’ (the
discipline) collapses?

This however is to beg the question of how, within the
wide field of representations which cultural historians
confront, we are to define those qualities of literary texts
which justify our paying particular attention to them. How
are we to back Raymond Williams’ surprisingly confident
assertion of the ‘centrality’ of ‘writing’ (and for Williams,
the term ‘writing’ as he uses it here would tend to imply
canonical literature)? The field investigated by ‘cultural
materialism’, Williams argued in his 1981 !ecture on ‘The
Crisis of English Studies’, ‘still centrally includes … major
forms of writing, which are now being read, along with
other writing, in a different perspective. Cultural materialism
is the analysis of all forms of signification, including quite
centrally writing, within the means and conditions of their
production’.4 In the dozen years since that lecture, Englit
has moved substantially in some of the directions Williams
advocated. I doubt, pace Antony Easthope, that any ‘new
paradigm’ of literary study is being or will be agreed:

change has perhaps been a semi-intended result of the
introduction of modularity, and of the consequent breakdown
of disciplinary boundaries in the humanities in HE, as much
as it has come from the consistent implementation of any
‘paradigm’.5 Literature surely is being studied less as a predetermined body of texts, and more as part of the history of
discourses, within ‘the analysis of all forms of signification’

– even if this has happened under the sign not of ‘cultural
materialism’ butof ‘cultural studies’, a politico-theoretically
agnostic title. But the basis for this continuing attention to
the literary (beyond the natural readiness of literature teachers
to go on teaching literature, even if no longer ‘under
conditions of their own choosing’) has been little articulated.

If what we are interested in is representation, social-historical
semiotics at large, why, and how, should we go on studying
these forms of ‘signification’?

In what follows, I begin by offering an extended critical
review of the developments which have undermined the


disciplinary autonomy of Englit, and argue that as the
historicisation ofliterature becomes the dominant tendency,
some kinds of literary text are likely to disappear from
circulation; but others, read in new ways, will acquire new
kinds of interest. Teaching literary texts within the analysis
of cultural history requires, I then go on to claim, something
more than a view ofliterature as, simply, ‘discourse’. But a
theoretically sharper definition of literature as related to
‘ideology’ is problematic in other ways – in part, because of
the collapse of the political and theoretical confidence
which underwrote the concept of ideology; in part, because
that concept, deployed monolithic ally and at a high level of
generality, was always a blunt instrument for engaging with
the complexities of good writing. An overarching
theorisation of the literary in relation to the social/historical
is not within our grasp at present. What may be attainable,
and what I offer in conclusion, is some methodological
clarification as to how within the analysis of cultural history
we can engage with (some) literary texts in ways that
respect, and draw upon, their qualities as particular kinds of
discourse: kinds, namely, which while they offer us material
for a specification of cultural discourses at large, also work
on the basis of forms of (humanist) identification. These
forms may in principle be deconstructed by anti-humanist
readings, but they remain persistently available to readers
because they constitute the principles of intelligibility of the
text itself. This way of seeing literature will only preserve
some bits of ‘our literary heritage’, however, and it will do
so on grounds different from those which have underlain the
canon of Englit.

The ‘Value-question’

Terry Eagleton declares in Criticism and Ideology that ‘the
instalment of the “value-question” at the heart of critical
enquiry is a rampantly ideological gesture’.6 He then goes
on to make this ‘gesture’ for the next 25 pages, in a
discussion of ‘Marxism and Aesthetic Value’ which stands
as one of the clearest statements of the issues in recent
radical criticism. 7 There are in fact good reasons why the
‘value-question’ cannot be repressed, both because, as
Steven Connor has recently insisted, it is inherently
ineluctable (to deny value is to invoke it),8 and because if the
curriculum ofEnglit and its status as an academic discipline
are under challenge, then the validity of aesthetic valuing,
as the (alleged?) basis of the canon, is all the time at stake.

As Lillian S. Robinson points out, it is all very well to
preserve an agnostic or pluralist attitude towards the canon
and its aesthetic underpinnings in principle, but things
sharpen up once changes are proposed, displacing established
texts in favour of newcomers. Are feminist critics and
scholars challenging the very notion of canonicity, are they
proposing a female counter-canon to parallel the existing
largely male one, or are they arguing that women writers
(Edith Wharton, for example) should be better represented
in the canon since their work is as good, by the established
criteria, as that of men writers whose place is secure? In
other words, is there one spurious canon; a plurality of

separatist canons; or one authentic, but changeable, canon?9
This involves familiar arguments as to whether aesthetic
judgement is in principle (or in part) transcultural, or
whether aesthetic valuations are just culturally relative. 10
What is not always observed is that Englit can survive – has
survived, and is surviving – major shifts in taste, and the
canonical revisions that follow on these. If Englit is defined
as the study of those texts which at a given time are regarded
as especially valuable from an aesthetic point of view, this
definition can persist even as the criteria of value shift and
the books that figure in the canon alter: after all, the
Leavisian ‘Great Tradition’ began life as a counter-canon.

Literary works surely must be viewed as possessing
what we may agree to call ‘aesthetic value’, in the following
sense. They have qualities (,aesthetic qualities’) that cannot
be replicated in any account or paraphrase of their discursi ve
and denotative aspect (their ‘content’ and ‘meaning’), and
which we can apprehend as distinct from that aspect. These
aesthetic qualities do not exist in any pure state, since the
work is both ‘content’l’meaning’ and ‘aesthetic qualities’

through and through. But readers can become aware of and
take pleasure in the work’s aesthetic qualities, at least
insofar as they have been educated to do so. For such
readers, the aesthetic dimension of the work is a factor in the
value they place on it, and a criterion by which they may
value one work more highly than another – though other
factors, to do with other qualities (what the work is about),
certainly also influence this valuing: when we value literary
works we do not value them ‘purely aesthetically’.

By summing things up like this, I intend to put the matter
in a form that allows us to see how the ‘valoe-question’ is
implicated differently in Englit and in cultural studies. The
former has constituted itself as a discipline on the ground of
the aesthetic. In its own account of itself, its canonical texts
are selected in virtue of their aesthetic excellence. Its
pedagogy and academic literature have been mainly
concerned to identify and communicate the elements and
conditions of that excellence. In Englit, as Bennett
sardonically notes, the student is to prove her/his fitness as
a reader by producing, as if it were her/his own, the expected
‘judgement’ on the work’s quality. I I ‘Content’, and the
‘background’ of history, politics, intertextuality, all figure
here as distractions, dangerous insofar as they tempt readers
to discuss the text in the wrong way, as if it was good
because it was about something. In the words of the Punch
joke that Orwell quoted long ago, ‘one doesn’t write about
something, one simply writes’, 12 and it is this ideology of
writing which, in its pure form, Englit would inculcate.

Aesthetic quality is hypostatised as an essence which is the
only fit object of attention.

Cultural studies, by contrast, would appear to pay scant
deference to ‘aesthetic qualities’. The history of aesthetic
judgement may be of interest as a region of discourse/
ideology, and the value placed on various cultural works or
genres may itself be an object of enquiry, but the selection
of texts for examination within the analysis of cultural
history need not obey aesthetic criteria. That selection
would appear to be determined mainly by the culturalRadical Philosophy 67, Summer 1994

historical questions we are interested in: thus insofar as
literary texts do remain of interest, and ‘writing’ remains
‘central’, it will be above all and in principle because their
content/meaning engages us. The milieu in which a text
circulated will also be pertinent. From this it would follow
that, other things being equal, elite culture may well be
regarded as less interesting than popular culture.

Many works, of course, are likely to be picked out by
either Englit or cultural studies criteria. Thus Jude, as we
noted, readily justifies itself as culturally-historically
interesting, quite apart from being an established (though
quite recently established) canonical text. 13 A kind of
judgement which in fact involves ‘aesthetic criteria’, but
probably not as explicit grounds of choice, seems likely to
persist, insofar as cultural historians selecting literary texts
for attention are unlikely to dispense with some kind of
distinction between what Edward Said bluntly calls ‘good
books and less good books’ . 14 If we decide to look at some
of the many available 1890s novels dealing with marriage
and sexual conventions, and if we pick Jude and Gissing’s
The Odd Women, rather than Grant AlIen’s The Woman who
Did (even though the latter was more widely read, and
imitated, at the time), 15 this will be because we regard them
as better for our purposes: more interesting in the ways they
represent, and work on, the issues that concern us. The very
same books which are good in this sense will often be good
also in terms of a more ‘aesthetic’ valuation focussed on
their formal properties – narrative organisation, descriptive
density and precision, vigour of language and so on. After
all, a writer intelligently engaged with wider social and
cultural questions is likely also to deploy that intelligence to
other ends, as a ‘purely literary’ craftswomanlcraftsman.

And the material of the text, itself indissolubly both ‘form’

and ‘content’, is to be apprehended at once in itself and in
relation to the wider social meanings and constructions that
engage us.

But the fact that we have to
read in both ways at once does
not obliterate the distinction
between ways of reading (ways
we can be taught to read). Over
the last fifteen years it has
become less common in
academic study to approach
texts in terms of a hypostatised
‘aesthetic value’, and more
common to approach them in
terms of their implication in
cultural and discursive history.

There is not, I think, much
substance in the view that this
kind of approach is necessarily
reductive. With literary genres
that have been significant sites
of cultural contest and of social
(Elizabethan and Jacobean
drama and Victorian fictional
Radical Philosophy 67, Summer 1994

realism are the obvious instances in English writing), the
text ‘in itself’ always tends to reveal a fuller meaning within
the kind of historical and contextual specification which
cultural historians can provide: one does not have to assent
to every detail of his reading to acknowledge, for instance,
that Paul Brown’s placing of The Tempest in the context of
Elizabethan andJ acobean colonial discourse actually extends
our sense of the issues with which the play is dealing. 16
(There are, of course, other dimensions of The Tempest than
those which Brown illuminates: once the text is engaged
with, it will have – a point to which I return – the power of
exceeding our predetermined interrogati ve framework. This
‘excess’ tends to reveal the limits of a ‘purely aesthetic’

criticism, however, quite as much as those of a culturalhistorical approach.

Where there will be a reduction is in the size and scope
of the canon: some texts which have survived within Englit
may (as in the cases of Shakespeare and Hardy) flourish
anew within the perspectives of cultural studies, but other
texts will cease to be of interest. Donne’s ‘Anniversarie’

does not really yield all that much if we are looking for
evidence about early modern constructions of gender.

Seamus Heaney’s engagement with questions of history
and identity makes ‘Station Island’ an immediately
interesting text for the cultural historian, but many of his
poems in Seeing Things – those about perception, about the
special visual quality of sea horizons – fit into no such
cultural-historical basket.

So ‘literature’ will tend to shrink insofar as it becomes a
branch of cultural studies. Given education’s predominant
role in defining and transmitting literary culture~ some texts
of Englit are likely to vanish from such general circulation
as they still enjoy today, much as those of Sophocles and
Horace have done. An ‘educated person’ (someone with a
humanities degree) will no longer he expected to recognise


the work, or perhaps even the name, of (say) Andrew
Marvell, let alone A. H. Clough. It is vain to hope that most
of those texts valued within Englit for their aesthetic
excellence, but unconcerned with issues of the kind pursued
by cultural historians, will somehow survive within cultural
studies. Everyone must decide for themselves whether their
disappearance is a light or a heavy price to pay for the gains
we have made by historicizing, and politicizing, the text.

Politicisation of the Text:

‘Ideology’ and ‘Discourse’

To historicise is to politicize: to draw the text down from the
empyrean of aesthetic transcendence, into the play of
discursive projects and meanings in a given place and time
– projects and meanings which will have a more or less
marked political dimension (generally occluded in the
established critical procedures, themselves in this negative
respect ‘political’, of Englit). Beyond this general sense, a
more particular and directed politicisation ofliterary studies
has derived from the kinds of attention proposed by radical
critics, which have been, of course, politically motivated.

As well as determining the choice of texts and the kinds of
questions asked of them, this has also altered the discursive
relations they are drawn into. It becomes less pertinent to
speak of a literary tradition, a series of diachronic ‘influences’

from (say) Jane Austen to George Eliot to Henry James
(Leavis’s succession in The Great Tradition), and more
pertinent to contextualise (say) Mansfield Park
synchronically: to look, for instance, as Said proposes, at
how the English aristocracy managed the slave plantations
it owned, a theme referred to quite tangentially in Austen’ s
text, but of considerable importance to the social class she
represents. 17
If the project has its origins in Marxist criticism Williams’s The Country and the City (1973) is an early
instance, even if the textual materials Williams analyses
there now strike us as rather exclusively ‘literary’, by
subsequent standards 18 – feminist scholarship and criticism
have been the major force in its development during the
1980s. The theoretical framework, particularly in England,
has sometimes been anti-humanist (Lacanian or
Althusserian); but feminist textual politics have reflected
and extended a direct personal engagement with both the
micro-politics of the academy and the social politics of
patriarchy. A double move has been made: on the one hand,
unpicking the naturalised surface of the text, showing how
the gendered subject positions it offers are constructed both
within and beyond the work; on the other (in some tension
– a creative tension, I would argue – with this antihumanism),19 revaluing literary work as having offered
expressive possibilities to culturally marginalised writers,
and illuminating the meanings of this work, which has been
ignored or undervalued because that aspect of its significance
was unrecognised in the critical tradition (it now seems
hardly credible, for instance, that Vanity Fair can for
decades have been regarded as a major novel and Villette as
a minor one).20 Gay critics have demonstrated that from
their perspective too, interventions from the cultural margins

can raise questions about representation and subjectivity
which resonate in such central texts as Shakespeare’s,
disturbing the harmonious closures which an earlier criticism
liked to find in the plays and highlighting the contested
meanings and ‘dissident readings’ which they can yield. 21
I doubt if it is useful, or even feasible, to attempt a
synoptic account of the relations between these and other
kinds of recent radical criticism, and the various theoretical
frameworks – deri ved mainly from Marx (often via Althusser
and Macherey) and Gramsci, Lacan, Foucault and Bakhtin
– that have been influential. A range of different and often
incompatible positions has been adopted, sometimes
explicitly and sometimes implicitly. Individual critics have
been eclectic, and some of them have shown little interest
in theory, or have been actively sceptical as to its uses. ‘For
many British literary critics,’ Sinfield argues, ‘including
feminists and affiliates of ethnic and sexual minorities, the
breakthrough of the late 1970s was less into theory and
more away from formalism … and into the possibility of
relating English teaching and writing to left-wing political
concerns.’ And Edward Said has recently deplored ‘the
massi ve, intervening, institutionalised presence of theoretical
discussion’ as an obstacle to the ‘historical study of texts’ .22
Nonetheless, without ‘theory’ it is difficult to speak of
‘history’ at all, to propose relations between history and
textuality, or to bring this kind of analysis into connection
with ‘left-wing political concerns’. In the late 1970s and
early 1980s, the moment of high Althusserianism within the
Radical Philosophy 67, Summer 1994


literary academy, there was an attempt to produce a new
general theoretical account of the status of literature in
relation to the social/historical, and to develop a criticism
that would deploy or activate this general theory. Some
valuable studies (for instance, Penny Boumelha’s Thomas
Hardy and Women) expressed an indebtedness to this work.

Nonetheless, it moved, in my view, at an unhelpful level of
generality and was eminently vulnerable to the kinds of
humanist mockery that E. P. Thompson directed at Eagleton
in The Poverty of Theory.23 It is far from clear that the
abstractions of the critical-theoretical programme actually
helped much when it came to the historical analysis of
literature: what Macherey says about lules Verne, for
instance, in his Theory of Literary Production (the key text
of this moment), is interesting and not altogether obvious,
but hardly requires the particular theory to whose extensive
(and often question-begging) elaboration the earlier part of
the book is devoted.

Apart from its limited usefulness, high theoretical
discussion of literature and ideology sometimes licensed
that kind of criticism in which the critic, possessed of the
master-discourse of the ideological (and enjoying the benefit
of hindsight), carries out a series of forensic procedures on
the body, or corpse, of the text. It is hard to know which to
admire most, the critics’ technical sophistication or their
political virtue: in both departments the poet comes a long
way behind. 24 The problem with this tone is not, I think, a
superficial one: it betrays a kind of impatience with the
literary which is not perhaps quite what one hopes for in the
critic or cultural historian.

Be that as it may, the moment of Althusserianism has
passed now, and in recent years Foucault and Bakhtin have
been at least as influential as Althusser, Gramsci or Marx
himself. There has been a shift from materialism towards a
discursive conception of language less as an effect than as
an instance (even a primary instance) of power. It is of
course debatable whether such a loose notion of ‘discourse’

must or even can support a socialist politics of the kind
which Marxist conceptions of ideology (however
problematic) offered to validate. The adoption of a loosely
Foucauldian view of power/language, going along with an
interrogation of the text from the perspective of culturally
marginal groups, has meant that the politics of recent radical
criticism have often been more about identity (gender,
sexual orientation, ethnicity) than about class.

To judge the potential and the limitations of this kind of
‘identity politics’ is to take on general theoretical and
political questions which I do no more than mention here,
turning, in my final section, to some more narrowly academic

Foregrounding the Literary Text
If a ‘weak’ conceptualisation of literature as discourse has
taken the place of a problematic but ‘stronger’ theorisation
of the literary as related to the ideological, we are left with
the critical and pedagogical question: how to teach, and
write about, the literary as part of the discursive?

Radical Philosophy 67, Summer 1994

By the discursive we can by no means understand simply
other more popular fictional texts alongside the existing
high literary canon. A cultural-historical contextualisation
of the literary requires us to attend to non-fictive written
discourses such as politicians’ speeches, legal and medical
texts, journalism. It also requires attention to non-written
texts (to take one example, the cultural production of
‘Englishness’ this century has been centred not just in
writing, but in visual art and film), though my impression is
that many attempts to bring literary criticism under the aegis
of cultural studies have hitherto neglected this need for an
interdisciplinary curriculum. The instahces of cultural
production reviewed will evidently be selected in accordance
both with the theme we are pursuing – sexualities, national
identity, eugenics and ‘degeneracy’, or whatever-and with
the historical period in question: debate in the Victorian
periodical press, for instance, makes an appropriate context
for Victorian novels, whose address was to that audience
and which were indeed often themselves published in those

Within a survey of cultural history, the literary text may
well be regarded just as part of this wider discursive fabric;
and its overall tendency summed up as part of a broader
characterisation of the period in question. 25 The complexities
of the text are readily ignored in such an approach, which
calls on it to illustrate or confirm patterns of signification
already traced elsewhere. However there is another kind of
work, which foregrounds the text in order to engage with its
internal and often contradictory play of meaning and establish
its detailed relations with other cultural practices and
languages. 26 It is in this context that we may be able to
specify qualities of the literary text which, because they
indicate how texts can be fruitfully taught and discussed,
also go some way towards demonstrating why they are
worth special attention. I conclude by commenting on some
methodological issues which arise here and which perhaps
have wider implications for the development of an evaluative
approach to cultural production which does not seek value
onl y or mainly in the kinds of (formal) properties tradition all y
associated with literary aesthetics.

Within ‘cultural studies’ conceived as the study of
signification, to select any text for particular attention
cannot but involve the production of a foregroundbackground perspective. If the selected text is at all complex
and substantial, it inevitably appears excessive: the
‘background’ of other texts, as ‘discourse’ or ‘signification’

in general, acquires a kind of blank generality, while the
work in the ‘foreground’ takes on a voluble specificity
which continually drags us away from whatever questions
we have already designated, towards the proliferating
meanings of this text. For instance: we have chosen Jude
because we are interested in constructions of gender and
sexuality, but we find ourselves talking about the relation,
then and now, between education and social mobility, or
wondering why, when Hardy is reputed to be a ‘pastoral’

novelist, the few rural scenes in the novel are notably plain
and brusque. In my view this fore grounding should not be
regarded as a perhaps regrettable effect of necessary

pedagogical practices (to do with the need for reading lists
and the availability of books), but defended, theoretically,
as a proper way to grasp the cultural-historical.

In the first place, the variousness of the text, its sliding
away from whatever point we would like to nail it down to
and towards other matters related to other kinds of interest,
should usefully remind us of the relativity of our own
definition of what matters. Secondly, engagement with
fictions of subjectivity will make us aware that the thematic
and conceptual organisation which we deploy, when we
isolate (for instance) ‘gender’, violates the actual
interconnectedness among aspects of identity and social
subjectivity as they arise in fictions. We may decline to
believe in any notional full humanist subject whose being
would transcend these partial specifications; but we will be
reminded that at any rate, subjects of the kind whose
representation is central to the procedures of complex
fictional texts (as opposed to some theoretical or historical
texts) never come into being except in the interplay between
varied discourses. Moreover the ‘contingent’ elements in
fictitious biographies parallel contingencies of life – the
chances which fix birthplace, temperament and fortune which while they resist theoretical reduction nonetheless
have their determining influence on identity.

In these ways, the relations between the literary text and
discourse in general can beĀ· seen as homologous with the
relations between the subject and the social. If ‘cultural
studies’ is concerned to analyse as a problem (rather than to
expound as a truth) the social and discursive construction of
identity, the foregrounded literary work offers for this
analysis a kind of material which is not just particularly
interesting, but indispensable.

Here we return to the tension between humanist and antihumanist reading. In my view, both kinds of reading are
required, both pedagogic ally and critically. To take Jude as
an example one last time: it is clear that we can, and should,
deconstruct the givenness of the two main female
protagonists, demonstrating that they are produced within a
familiar late Victorian binary opposition between madonna
(Sue) and whore (Arabella). This refusal by the reader of
offered subjectivities can extend also to other characters,
and can involve us in contesting the unity and authority of
the narrative voice. In all such moves, historicisation is
important, allowing us to specify discourses, images and
practices beyond the text which the novel articulates and/or
with which it is in dialogueY Critical practice of this kind
is obviously anti-humanist in its subversion of stable, unified
subjectivities and in its insistence on the discursive
determination of identity – a subversion and an insistence in
respect both of the text and of the social world.

Nonetheless, humanist identification is also required. At
one level this is just a necessary adaptation to the act of
reading, part of Coleridge’ s ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ :

it is known to every child that when we read novels or see
plays, we must suspend our sceptical knowledge that these
are not ‘real people’, or we can get nowhere. But a humanist
reading plays its part also in our more sophisticated
engagement and reflection. First of all (as in the case of

Jude: there are analogous critical and pedagogical strategies

in other cases), 28 our rejection of the stereotypic binary
definition of the feminine is motivated by our conviction
that real women, at the time of the book’s writing, could not
be reduced to one or other of the available positions. And
this appeal to an authentic identity not present in the text
(without which the criticism is deprived of any political
edge) is an appeal against the power of discourse in the
name of that which discourse fails to represent. The crucial
point, however, is that such a misfit between discursive
construction and authentic SUbjective being is created within
the text itself, both as a paradoxical effect and also as what
we register as an intended, organised meaning. In Sue’s
case at least, this ‘reading against the discursive’ can be
recognised as her own project. And the author too (it is
necessary here to speak of Hardy as if he existed, if only to
save time) is involved in this ‘project’, both in the banal
sense that he wrote the book, and in the more complex sense
that this meaning of Jude, this way of apprehending Sue as
struggling in and against languages that would make her
what she is not, is made available to us as a way of reading
partly through the promptings and interventions of that
same authorial voice which in some of its other interventions
we may want to quarrel with, destabilise, and relativise as
itself no more than the blotting-paper of received discourses
written elsewhere.

To sum up: many literary texts (especially many plays
and novels) offer this complex interplay between discursive
construction of identity and refusal of that construction. 29
(These are rather likely to be the texts we used always to call
‘good’, since the kind of complexity we are discussing
obviously tends to arise where characterisation is subtle and
non-stereotypic.) Grappling with that complexity, using
simultaneously a language of constructed subjectivity and
a language of authenticity, a language of decentred textual
signification and a language of readerly interpretation and
authorial intention, we are inevitably engaged with questions
that go to the heart of textuality and representation, of the
social forms of identity, and therefore of the reasons why
literature has been and is important.

Radical Philosophy 67, Summer 1994

feminist criticism in the Introduction to SexuallTextual Politics.

The opportunity to attend the English Graduate Colloquium at the
University of Sussex has been a valuable stimulus to my thinking on the
questions which this essay addresses. I have learned a lot through
teaching and designing Continuing Education courses with my colleague Nannette Aldred. I am much indebted to Kate Soper, for her
scepticism as well as her support during many conversations on the
themes ofthis essay. I am also grateful to those who commented critically
on the original version of this article as submitted to RP.

Here I focus exclusively on this aspect of the ‘crisis in English
studies’ and do not discuss the influence (particularly strong in
the USA) of Derridean deconstruction and more generally of
new (or apparently new) varieties of close textual reading. For
an overview of the field, see Patrick Brantlinger’ s recent (1990)
study, Crusoe’s Footprints: Cultural Studies in Britain and
America, which, however, perhaps overstates the importance of
literary studies within the overall development.


Some important books which have contributed to and which
reflect these shifts within English literary criticism are listed in
the bibliography. This is not meant as an exhaustive list. It
reflects my own particular interests.


Bennett, p. 285.

In Williams, 1983, pp. 192-211.


Easthope’s account of the ‘old paradigm’ is notably more
convincing than his sketch of the new one, as I argue in my
review of the book in RP 64.


Eagleton, 1976, p. 164.


But see also Bennett, chapters 5-7, for a full discussion. Eagleton’ s
own account in The Ideology of the Aesthetic is obviously
grounded in much wider philosophical reference than this earlier, and influential, chapter in Criticism and Ideology.


See Steven Connor, Theory and Cultural Value, 1992.


The discussion in Bennett traces this argument back to its
Kantian formulation.


Bennett, pp. 150-165.


In Orwell, Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters (Penguin
ed., 1970 etc.), vol. 1, p. 289.


The secure place that Hardy now holds in the taught canon of
nineteenth-century texts derives both from the arguments of
radical critics (from Williams on: see The Country and the City)
and from the continuing popular success of his work, with the
major novels more or less continuously in print since the early
twentieth century. Leavis, in The Great Tradition, notoriously
felt that Henry James had ‘struck the appropriate note’ in his
dismissive remarks on Tess (‘the good little Thomas Hardy’

etcetera). C. H. Sisson, who would probably be flattered to be
described as a surviving Englit purist, allows himself a few gibes
at the aesthetic deficiencies of Jude in his Preface to the Penguin
edition (where he also describes Sue Bridehead as a ‘bluestocking’).


In his interview with Radical Philosophy 63, p. 24.


See Boumelha for a full discussion of how Jude is related to the
literature of ‘new woman’ and ‘anti-marriage’ fiction.


Paul Brown, This Thing of Darkness I Acknowledge Mine’, in
Dollimore and Sinfield, 1985.

Said interview (see note 14 above): there is a discussion of the
topic in Said’s new book, Culture and Imperialism.


Lillian S. Robinson, ‘Treason our Text: Feminist Challenges to
the Literary Canon’ , in Show alter, 1986, pp. 105-121.


It is of course true that earlier critics, not all of them Marxists,
had sometimes, e.g. in Humphry House’s celebrated work on
Dickens (The Dickens World, 1941), produced work which
anticipates ‘cultural materialism’. However, there has been a
significant increase in both the amount and the sophistication of
work produced since the early 1980s.


See especially Moi’s discussion of humanist and anti-humanist

Radical Philosophy 67, Summer 1994


Gilbert and Gubar, 1979, is an influential instance of this kind of
revaluation, which includes chapters on the work of the Brontes.


See the essays in Political Shakespeare (ed. Dollimore and
Sinfield, 1985); these include work written with close attention
to the politics of race and class, as well as gender. See also
Sinfield, 1992.


Sinfield, 1992, p. 8; Said interview (see note 14 above), p. 26.


E. P. Thompson, The Poverty ofTheory, 1978, p. 358. Eagleton’s
elaborate terminology made Criticism and Ideology a particularly tempting butt, but similar substantive criticisms might have
been made of elements in the influential books by Belsey and
Wolff, and indeed of the Williams of Marxism and Literature.


Barrell’s essay on Words worth (in Barrell, 1988) is an instance
of useful historical commentary spoiled by this kind of tone – a
tone found also in some of the essays in Gloversmith, in passages
of Eagleton’s Criticism and Ideology, and elsewhere.


As, for instance, in some of the discussion in Showalter, 1992 or
Sinfield, 1989.


For instance, Boumelha, much of Sinfield, 1992, Stallybrass and
White, or Watson.

It is thanks rather to its provision of this kind of evidence than to
its Althusserian rigour that Boumelha’s book is invaluable.


Sinfield pursues a similar tack in his re-readings of Twelfth Night
and other plays in Faultlines – even though in his discussion in
the early part of the book, he seems to opt for anti-humanism.


The centrality of the Bildungsroman owes something to the way
in which it foregrounds this characteristic quality of fiction. Jude
is Hardy’s Bildungsroman, even though (unusually for the
genre) it was his last novel. Austen’ s Sense and Sensibility (a far
better example than Pride and Prejudice, discussed by Franco
Moretti in The Way of the World) is an earlier case in point;
Joyce’s Portrait is a later one.

John Barrell, Poetry, Language and Politics, 1988
Catherine Belsey, Critical Practice, 1980
Tony Bennett, Outside Literature, 1990
Penny Boumelha, Thomas Hardy and Women, 1982
D. Cairns and S. Richards, Writing Ireland, 1988
P. CoIls and R. Dodd., Englishness: Politics & Culture 1880-1920,1986
Valentine Cunningham, British Writers of the Thirties, 1988
Jonathan Dollimore, Sexual Dissidence, 1991
Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield (eds), Political Shakespeare, 1985
Terry Eagleton, Criticism and Ideology, 1976
Antony Easthope, Literary into Cultural Studies, 1991
Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic, 1979
Frank Gloversmith (ed.), Class, Culture and Social Change: A New View
of the 1930s, 1980
Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning, 1980
Mary Jacobus (ed.), Women Writing and Writing about Women, 1979
Pierre Macherey, A Theory of Literary Production, 1978
Tania Modleski, Loving with a Vengeance, 1984
Tania Modleski (ed.), Studies in Entertainment, 1986
Toril Moi, SexuallTextual Politics, 1990
Elaine Showalter (ed.), The New Feminist Criticism, 1986
Elaine Showalter, Sexual Anarchy, 1992
Alan Sinfield, Literature, Politics and Culture in Post- War Britain, 1989
Alan Sinfield, Faultlines, 1992
Peter Stallybrass and Allon White, The Politics and Poetics of
Transgression, 1986
C. J. Watson, Irish Identity and the Literary Revival, 1979
Raymond Williams, The Country and the City, 1973
Raymond Williams, Writing in Society, 1983
Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature, 1977
Janet Wolff, The Social Production of Art, 1981


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