"Critical Inquiry" and the Ideology of Pluralism

W. J. T. Mitchell
1982 Critical Inquiry  
There are no definite positions to be taken in chemistry or philology, and if there are any to be taken in criticism, criticism is not a field of genuine learning. This remark from Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism has a rather poignant ring in the 1980s. It calls up a time, the 1950s, when criticism, along with the other social sciences, seemed ready to emancipate itself from ideology, ready to establish itself as an autonomous discipline free from contamination by "extrinsic" approaches,
more » ... ady to abandon questions of value and taste in favor of a neutral, systematic, scientific methodology. It doesn't take a particularly acute sense of history to observe that things have not turned out the way Frye expected. Criticism has not disentangled itself from other disciplines such as history, philosophy, and psychology to discover its own unique axioms and postulates; it has turned instead toward increasing interdisciplinary entanglement. Criticism has not freed itself from ideology; it has made ideology one of its central subjects. And it has certainly not liberated itself from "positions"; for better or worse, much of our recent critical energy has been occupied with polemics and statements of position. These developments do not, of course, prove that Frye was wrong A version of the following remarks was first prepared for a conference on "The Institutions of Criticism" held at McGill University in May 1981. Since statements of position are increasingly in demand in recent criticism, it seemed appropriate to say something about ours. Cnrtical Inquiry 8 (Summer 1982) ? 1982 by The University of Chicago. 0093-1896/82/0804-0003501.00. All rights reserved. 609 610 W. J. T. Mitchell Critical Inquiry and Pluralism about what criticism should become, only that he was a rather poor predictor of what it would become in the twenty-five years after Anatomy of Criticism. Indeed, one could argue that Frye was a very good prophet (as distinct from a predictor) on the grounds that criticism has failed to become a genuine science precisely because it has fallen back into ideology and position mongering in the last quarter-century. There doesn't seem to be any way of settling this argument, however, either by appeals to history or to theoretical principles. I propose instead in the following pages to reflect on a particular case history which is part of the development Frye failed to predict but which has discernible roots in the values he espoused. This case history is none other than that of Critical Inquiry, a journal which was founded with the professed purpose of encouraging "reasoned inquiry into significant creations of the human spirit," a rational, progressive humanism rather like Frye's, and yet which has found itself the scene of the major ideological disputes in the criticism of the '70s and '80s, and which has actually begun to sponsor an ideologically conscious criticism with special issues on feminism, politics and interpretation, and the formation of artistic canons. Our reasoned inquiries have taken us a considerable distance from Frye's dismissal of these matters as "ideological perorations" which have no place in a rational criticism. Before we turn to the particular case of Critical Inquiry, however, it may be useful to reflect briefly on the species of which it is a member. It seems clear that we live in an age not just of criticism but of institutions of criticism. These institutions range from the foundations and universities which provide a material basis for critical activity, to those immaterial institutions we call "schools of thought," to the hybrid institutions which structure research and the exchange of information. One thinks here specifically of professional conferences, disciplinary associations, and, finally, of critical journals, the places where the intellectual and material institutions of criticism come together in the products we call critical texts. The more one reflects on the notion of "institutions of criticism," the more difficult it becomes to think of any kind of critical activity that is autonomous and independent of institutional involvement. And yet the idea that criticism has, or should aspire to, this sort of autonomy is a persistent illusion that has prevented criticism from taking a clear look at itself. A rather striking emblem of this illusion of autonomy presented itself on the program of a recent conference on-what else?-"The Institutions of Criticism." The program showed a young tree tied to a supporting post, and the moral of this emblem was clear: the tree stood for the "living work" of criticism, while the pole stood for institutions such as schools, libraries, foundations, and publishers which support the growth of criticism. The further implication was that criticism, like the
doi:10.1086/448173 fatcat:cezniwe77zhcvlgbgec5rq5aty