Is This the End of Literary Studies?

A Profession!

What has become of literary studies?


The scene: a graduate seminar in literature sometime in the eerily becalmed days of the mid-1990s, when for an aspirant to an academic job, the future seemed poised to break in one of two directions—either the long-promised wave of retirements and a deluge of open positions, or a decisive sign that the hiring trend line was never going to reverse its downward course. Imagine not quite knowing what would happen—even if that is now, in fact, very hard to do. Imagine, with even greater difficulty, sitting in that seminar as a widely read, charismatic literary theorist stood explaining that our line of work was a profession—one that involved duties and allegiances that extended well beyond the separate institutions that would support our existence in the form of paid employment. The place where the person worked was not all that important; we would be judged—and rewarded—elsewhere.

A profession! To a graduate student at that time, the word had an alluring ring, naming a desire no one wanted to admit because of how unreal the possibility seemed and how embarrassing it felt to hold out hope that it might come true. Yet it sounded like belonging—suggesting the presence of readers, beyond just one’s teachers, who would read what you had to say. It sounded like plane tickets, and symposia, and honorifics floating in the air.

It’s not entirely a trick of memory, I think, to say that our seminar leader’s invitation into the temple of professional life raised more questions than it answered. The invocation of the “profession” of literary study seemed like a well-intentioned mystification. When did literary study become a profession? How did it differ, as an academic vocation, from the world of freelance literary journalism and magazine criticism, and how, in turn, did it relate to the institution from which it emerged—the university? And, finally, what were the costs of this academic professionalization, and were they worth paying when there didn’t seem to be much of a profession left?

To explain the historical process in which a field of specialized work emerges requires a great deal of demystification. John Guillory’s Professing Criticism aims to do this very task. Its goal is to understand how the practice of criticism, which flourished in the journalism of the 19th century, became a university discipline. What, Guillory asks, were the historical forces over the centuries that produced, out of a welter of disciplinary arrangements—rhetoric, belles lettres, philology—a fairly recent phenomenon, the academic profession of literary criticism? As his account shows, those forces were partly internal: A professionalized literary criticism came into being in order to distill the new meanings of “literature” in the wake of the fading social utility of Greek and Latin literacies starting in the 18th century. As literature began to encompass an ever-widening array of vernacular writing, and as a middle class began to read this literature, professionals were needed to codify and inculcate the skills involved in this newly delineated intellectual labor. There were also significant external causes, namely the rise in the Progressive era of a cadre of bureaucratized experts—engineers, administrators, lawyers, doctors, and others—who served the middle class and who embraced new modes of credentialed distinction in order to distinguish their work from nonspecialized and working-class labor. Many still practiced a literary criticism that remained outside academic institutions, but Guillory is particularly interested in those who hived criticism off from the realm of journalism and sought to make it a distinct and credentialed form of work.

Guillory’s story has much to tell us about the fortunes of this professional criticism and how it became inextricable from a larger sociology of professionalization. But its primary interest now is that the phenomenon he describes may be reaching its terminus. We are far enough past the 1990s to know which route the story took from there: Retirements led to the widespread casualization of the academic labor market rather than a boom in tenure lines. The study of languages and literatures underwent a decline in status; college education became impossible to separate from mass indebtedness. Meanwhile, newly empowered right-wing state legislatures slashed the budgets of humanities departments at public institutions that were increasingly tuition-dependent, pushing students into vocational majors better suited for the world after the 2008 financial crisis, one in which knowledge work was tied to the domain of tech entrepreneurialism. It would be hard for a member of an English department not to feel, looking back on the past few decades, like Tony Soprano telling his therapist, “I’m getting the feeling that I came in at the end.” The questions Guillory poses, then, have a long history but a new urgency before what seems like a precipice: Will literary studies continue as a professional activity, and if so, in what form? And might professionalism itself inhibit the changes that need to happen in the field?

Guillory is ideally suited to serve as a guide to the polycrisis that literary studies faces, because he is the profession’s great disenchanter. He came to prominence in the early 1990s with his landmark study Cultural Capital, a sociology of academic literary criticism. The book applied the theories of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu to survey how specific kinds of cultural knowledge confer status and power, and how institutions—particularly the school—help distribute this kind of capital, which exists not in opposition to economic capital but in a complicated relation of interdependence with it. What followed from this framing was a brilliant act of desublimation aimed at an earlier crisis of authority in the humanities, often referred to as the “canon wars.”

The canon wars centered on a debate over the continued viability of canonical literatures, a delayed reaction to the new social movements of the 1960s and ’70s that hit the academy when the children of those movements and a newly diversified professoriate arrived in enough numbers, and with enough power, to call for either the widening or the eradication of the traditional literary canon. The debates over method that roiled the discipline at the same time, over such innovations as the deconstructive emphasis on the deferral of meaning or the new forms of historicism that reconnected canonical texts to their “context” within nonliterary discourses, did not in principle rule out the canon and often addressed themselves to it in practice—but they all provided the means by which to imagine intellectual activity divorced from it. And so the canon did not disappear, but instead entered a fraught, precarious phase.

What was at stake during these years was not simply what was on the reading list or how, once that was agreed on, to read this list. For most literary scholars, what was up for debate was the very purpose of the profession. Instead of serving as guardians of cultural tradition, academic critics now embraced the idea of critique. As with many other fields that had absorbed the radicalism of the ’60s and ’70s into their ranks, literary scholars wanted their discipline to play its part in dismantling society’s hierarchical structures, of which the canon was one. Guillory called this the “curricular allegory”: the idea that expanding or changing the literary syllabus might achieve this aim rather than a politics that would almost certainly require action outside the academy.

In a steely, scrupulous tone, Guillory made the case that these canon revisions, however justified, displayed the field’s exaggerated sense of its own political agency, because it ignored the fact that the canon wars themselves occurred within the site of the school: a place fenced off from most of society and certainly not one that might radically change it. A syllabus, regardless of its contents, reproduced status distinctions. A more inclusive and egalitarian syllabus might broaden the canon but would not remove the stratifications of class; it would simply ratify a new kind of hierarchy. Until the canon wars could be reconceived as a question of widening access to cultural goods per se, Guillory argued, the debate—as well as the larger profession of academic criticism—would be doomed merely to repeat the theme of the unequal distribution of cultural capital.

In the end, Cultural Capital had a peculiar fate: It was one of the most widely read and admired books of the 1990s, and yet it had almost no practical effect. The canon wars did not dissipate; instead, as Guillory observes in Professing Criticism, they have only intensified into a “domestic forever war.” The conflict’s persistence, he adds, has in fact become a compensatory source of vitality for a profession facing a rapid status collapse. Literature, that is, no longer provides the cultural capital it did even as recently as 30 years ago. Guillory had warned back then of what he called the “capital flight in the domain of culture” newly apparent among the profession’s primary clientele, the professional-managerial class. With the dwindling cultural status of literary genres older than electronic media—particularly the receding importance of the novel, which for half a century at least had been the literary profession’s primary connection to a wider culture—the link between the haute bourgeoisie, now thoroughly integrated with mass media culture, and literature as a mode of distinction had ceased to apply. Canon revision could not be a solution to this tectonic drift.

Disenchantment is a great teacher, and Guillory is a master of its tones and maneuvers, yet it may be less effective as a guide to action, since it can be hard to apply its lessons. One might very well acknowledge that the primary function of the school is to reproduce cultural capital, while at the same time feeling that the transactions of day-to-day life within it can act in a more orthogonal, or even just chaotic, manner than that function would seem to dictate. It is perhaps still possible at that smaller scale to bring to bear various lived commitments—or at least to find a space within the university to reflect, ironically or agonistically, on the social function one serves despite oneself. But these daily resistances may not add up to much; they may instead be modes of evasion or deferral.

Professing Criticism is a response to the situation that Cultural Capital had failed to change. But Guillory has not abandoned the arguments of his earlier book—far from it. Back into the fray he goes, asking scholars to forgo the magical thinking of the curricular allegory and instead attempt to “democratize the curriculum” by expanding what is taught in the English literature classroom—particularly with regard to the literatures of global English—in order to outline a “global cultural commons” of literary English in which center and periphery can no longer be taken for granted as stable positions. The goal, Guillory argues, should not be symbolic representation but rather equality of access to cultural goods. This would involve just as much selection and even deletion as an anti-canonical position, given the proliferation of global English and the limited space of a syllabus, but with a different ethic: to outline a cosmopolitan history of writing in English in which works can be allowed to exceed their political-thematic function.

Reading these arguments in Professing Criticism, one can’t help but feel that Guillory knows his argument is even lonelier now than it was 30 years ago. The idea of representation that underwrites the curricular allegory is stronger than ever, informing virtually every debate in the arts. And even if we come to agree that the representational basis for syllabus revision is politically inert, it turns out that the right-wing enemies of canon revision do not concur. Just in the last few years, we’ve gone from ineffectual howls of protest at the inclusion of Toni Morrison on college reading lists to the active banning of her books in secondary school libraries. When your enemies agree about the importance of the terrain you’re battling over, it’s hard to concede it or shift your emphasis elsewhere. The literary scholar remains tethered as a result to the terms of the canon wars, whose tactics at least seem under their direct control. Enhancing access to a global cultural commons in English—which in practice means enhancing access to the college classroom and the cultural goods distributed there—is much less in their power.

So, for Guillory, the canon-wars quagmire continues, and not simply as a result of contemporary political exigencies but—his most sobering argument—as a result of the original sin of professionalization itself. When literary studies became professionalized at the turn of the 20th century, conforming to a widespread professionalization of knowledge work, it ensured the discipline a relative autonomy: the ability to control its labor market through the intrinsic evaluative procedures of a self-constituted “expert culture,” such as peer review and tenure. That autonomy, Guillory argues, produced economic as well as symbolic benefits. It allowed the literary profession to cater to the demands of the emergent New Class, as Alvin Gouldner called the broad stratum of ascendant middle-class knowledge workers that formed in the later 19th century. It also allowed the profession to remain partially distinct, nominally committed to values that were less instrumental: aesthetic sophistication, self-critique, political allegiances beyond liberalism. Professional autonomy enabled both the freedom of proliferating sub-specialties and the safety of the stable, long-term “career.” And it had other benefits to offer as the 20th century unspooled, particularly an ethic of formal equality that permitted the gradual if halting assimilation of new social groups into its ranks. One is tempted to say that it was a good deal, while it lasted.

Yet no matter the kind of work, Guillory argues, professional autonomy can also have considerable negative consequences. It deforms as much as it forms: By defending its partial exemption from either state control or the labor market’s unfettered logic, a profession like literary scholarship and criticism develops a “compensatory overestimation” of its social effects. Staking out autonomy produces a ferociously inflated sense of self-worth. And there’s a tendency for the rate of such rhetorical efficacy to decrease, particularly because what Guillory takes to be the profession’s aggrandized sense of social importance stems paradoxically from its political self-enclosure in the school. It’s a losing game, but one that is almost impossible to avoid playing: purchasing autonomy at the price of an inflationary rhetoric of self-justification.

The specific genealogy of the literary profession also exaggerated this tendency in ways that did not occur in other fields. In Guillory’s careful outlining of this history, literary studies—or what was long known as “English”—became first an academic department and then a profession that was turned inward to the institution of the college and outward to a self-regulating cadre of credentialed experts. What literary studies skipped in its rapid fin-de-siècle professionalization was a sense of itself as a discipline organized by a particular object of study. This was partly because that object was shared by a sizable number of critics who had remained outside the academy. The Edmund Wilsons, say, or the Mary McCarthys and James Baldwins—the successors to the pre-professionalized literary world before the rise of the English department—could be, and indeed were, effective at maintaining literature’s status with the public. This freed the academic literary professional to pursue methodological sophistication instead, as part of an internal, techno-bureaucratic rivalry with the physical and social sciences.

What developed as a result was a kind of torus, a vocation with a hole at its center. In the long summer of what Guillory calls the “postwar settlement” in literary studies, it provided the field with the freedom to claim primacy among the humanistic subjects. But by gradually detaching itself from a consensual object of study—moving from “literature” to “literary language” or even language tout court—the profession guaranteed that its legitimation to any wider public would become grandiose, abstract, insufficiently distinct. Worse news follows. If professionalization was the flaw in the construction of the bridge, making it unstable, it turns out there’s a meteor heading for the bridge anyway: the steady diminution of literature’s role in a culture where electronic, networked media is dominant. No amount of professionalization will protect literary scholars from that decline. It may even be that the constraints of the profession itself block scholars from engaging with it.

This can all sound like a disciplinary star collapsing in on itself. Is there any light that can still escape? Professing Criticism has suggestions for how literary studies can more sharply define its purpose. In a final hortatory chapter, Guillory argues that scholars should rethink their subject as a history of the medium of writing, reconnecting their field to the ancient arts of rhetoric while seeking to understand the role of writing in an evolving media system that threatens to swallow “literature.” But his most intriguing and unsettling observations hew closer to a sociological account of the material conditions of literary studies now—in particular, the terrain of graduate education in the 2020s.

Literary criticism’s happy sanctuary in higher education coexisted with a much longer tradition of critical writing within a journalistic public sphere; it simply widened the gap between the freelance critic and the bureaucratized critic within the academy. Only a vanishingly select few could keep their feet in both places, usually at some damage to their reputation from either side. Today that gap has closed. Guillory’s usually clinical tone modulates into something more like wonder when he describes how the metastasizing post-2008 casualization of the literary professoriate has created what he calls a “semiautonomous professional sphere,” a cultural space half-tethered to the university but ideologically distinct from it. Put more simply: Guillory’s term is an attempt to describe the world of the graduate student, postdoc, or adjunct—a world whose members actually outnumber, and may intellectually outweigh, the still-professional space of the tenured faculty who teach them.

Graduate students are perhaps the prime example of this semi-professional space. Forced to mimic “professional” activities in anticipation of the job market’s hyperinflated demands, they have to overproduce writing whose audience, crucially, will primarily be other graduate students. The seminar, as the site of professional reproduction, now dwindles in importance. What replaces it are “new associational forms” that are lateral rather than hierarchical: workshops, reading groups, student-led conferences, blogs and online reviews, union organizing, and even more ephemeral conversations on social media that adopt and discard theoretical approaches, shape new tastes, and in general articulate a critical will not welded to professional norms. Individual departmental cohorts and their once-specific cultures dissolve into a semi-public culture, “a national and even international corps.”

That culture’s inside/outside presence in relation to the university—existing as a sufferance of it rather than a preparation for permanent inclusion within it—explains both its sophistication and its independence: an intellectually fertile combination paid for, in a compromise no one sought, by the erasure of professionalism’s long-term economic guarantees. It’s a new and wrenching geometry: a temporary job and a public voice—but not really a career, the thing supposed to make it all viable, and thus not a true profession either. The university becomes a transient place where solidarities, not apprenticeships, occur; “criticism” names something that happens elsewhere. It is scarcely tenable, but it is increasingly criticism’s setting.

This is where Guillory is at his most provocative, signaled by the hesitant tone he adopts when discussing it. But there may be no reason for reluctance. If this is the light of the discipline’s dying star, the event has already happened—even perhaps as far back as the early culture-war phase of the 1990s, whose obsessive hold over literary studies was Guillory’s subject in his first book. But in retrospect, we might see the profession’s actual energy as having exploded elsewhere. By the time Cultural Capital was published, a phase of labor actions and organizing drives had just started to spread from public to private universities, forming new collectivities through the sharing of organizational and legal tactics. The ensuing struggles—at Yale, the University of California system, New York University, Columbia, and countless others—were generationally defining.

Meanwhile, just as unionization was picking up momentum, the Internet began to change the way that academics communicated and published. Guillory’s analysis allows us to see the mutually reinforcing tendencies of these two developments. By lowering the barrier to entry, the Internet encouraged an early 21st-century efflorescence of occasional criticism and spontaneous theorizing that fostered vibrant subcultural readerships. One result was the return of the little magazine—some new, some revived, but all of them providing a venue for a more directly politicized form of criticism, a politics increasingly inspired by the direct action of labor organizing. Cultural Capital may have been a final witness to one kind of literary criticism, stable as it once was; Professing Criticism is a witness to what is replacing it.

These changes, however dissimilar in scale and speed, intersected to create the conditions for what Guillory analyzes as thoroughly horizontal modes of association, cutting across institutional boundaries and professional norms. The new semi-public sphere silently replacing the “profession” is poised outward—to an online readership acquainted with literary theory but with no professional investment in it—and laterally, to the collectivity of labor movements and class identifications, not professional membership. The magazine, the blog, the union: These different but adjacent and interconnected phenomena have loosened the bonds of what was once called a profession by replacing its modes of association. Guillory’s “semiautonomous professional sphere” is a way of describing this epochal change, hesitantly perhaps because it may still seem like a transitional phenomenon leading somewhere unknown. If it isn’t at the center of Professing Criticism, its place in the book tells us that the history of “criticism” can no longer be written without it.

Of course, these shifts are relevant to a more general story of higher education and also intellectual life in the United States. But they have a particular importance for literary studies, given its uncertain place among the disciplines, and they suggest urgent questions that the next history of literary criticism will have to take up. Among them: What purpose does graduate education serve now? Students come to graduate school shaped by critical genres that are in any case not primarily academic ones; they are already reviewers, online essayists, cultural commentators. Harking back to the alt-weekly, the zine, and the little magazine, and taking place now in too many venues and subcultures to easily encompass, the fact that aspirant critics will likely have deep experience in extramural genres before starting their graduate education turns “professional training” into something hard to describe and possibly vestigial.

Similarly, what does a criticism written in this new hybrid space look like? Is it more or less “literary,” more or less committed to the distinctiveness of literature, when “literature” no longer primarily names a professional formation? Freed from the question of the syllabus, can it imagine the politics of literature more capaciously? How does it connect the bookishness of literature to newer media, particularly the media the critic writes in? We may know better in a few years’ time. But there may also be no reason to wait. Almost despite itself, Professing Criticism suggests that the change has already happened, and all we have to do is look around us.

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