Michael Clune. A Defense of Judgement. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2021. 256 pp.
Review by Kasia Bartoszyńska
25 August 2021
Michael Clune’s new book, A Defense of Judgment, is clearly intended to be an intervention, a bold and polemical statement about what we need, now: judgment. Or rather, we need to admit—embrace—that our role as literary critics, and educators, is to provide expert judgment; Clune argues that it’s what most of us are already doing anyway.
What does Clune mean by judgment? An evaluation, an assessment of quality? Not exactly. Or: sometimes. “Expert judgment doesn’t take the form of a naked claim about the value of an object,” Clune writes (p. 85). It is “a process of disclosing particular features and qualities” (p. 85). This makes judgment sound like close reading (a “famously vague” method), meaning that we engage with the text, illuminate the ideas that it contains, and examine how it uses particular generic or stylistic techniques to convey those ideas to the audience (p. 74). This is not judgment in the sense of measuring a work against a particular standard, because the criteria with which we evaluate are drawn from the text itself (and, perhaps, from our own expertise, particularly our knowledge of literary or historical context).
This hardly seems controversial. Why can’t we admit to doing it? Here lurks a different account of judgment, implicit in the book, but never fully argued for: what holds us back is our commitment to equality. Our egalitarianism prevents us from advocating for some texts, not as good, or worthy of interest, but specifically, as better than others. Clune uses Marx to explain that the principle of equality requires sameness, commensurability, reduction to one standard of value, which is an illusion created by the market. One might note that hierarchical judgment would seem to require the same thing—I cannot judge one thing as better than another without either seeing them as fundamentally similar or subjecting them to some common standard of quality (this is why, in anti-racist work, we often speak of equity, rather than equality). Although he avoids saying so much of the time, in his boldest moments, Clune acknowledges that hierarchy is needed: “If you tell me my preference for Fifty Shades of Grey or SUVs is neither better nor worse than a preference for Emily Brontë or public transportation, you are robbing me of the opportunity to enrich my life by transforming my values” (p. 63). Clune is cagy about this aspect: rather than openly arguing for the evaluative work he sees as necessary to the profession and explaining how it ought to function, he argues around it, discussing why the commercial market is not an adequate arbiter of value, and explaining that judgment is not purely subjective. Whenever he describes how judgment actually functions, he reverts back to the more comfortable idea that it is a process of careful attention. But there is a clear insistence, threaded through the book, that we are not simply in the business of being better at reading.
This explains why Clune is largely disdainful of formalism, as most clearly expressed in a compressed and highly selective account of Caroline Levine’s Forms. Although formalism seems to offer Clune the notion of a specific expertise in reading, he sees it as circular (everything comes back to merely recognizing forms) and uninterested in the ideas within the text. The ideas in an Emily Dickinson poem “are not encoded, they are expressed” and all that a formalist can do is “destroy the possibility of bringing Dickinson’s work into contact with the concerns of anyone who isn’t professionally committed to reducing literary values to formal criteria” (p. 105). Though Clune is seemingly open to the idea that aesthetic education teaches people to recognize things in a text that they otherwise couldn’t, dashes are apparently a bridge too far.
Clune’s unwillingness to be constrained by the form of the text is clearly on display in the second half of the book, in the three chapters (on Dickinson, Samuel Beckett and Thomas Bernhardt, and Gwendolyn Brooks) that are intended to serve as case studies, demonstrating the payoff of his critical approach. The most generous characterization of the method being used to analyze these texts is a paraphrase of Clune’s own—that he is interested in the ideas in a given work of literature and in bringing them into dialogue with similar ideas. A less generous way would be to say that he projects his own interests onto the texts, using evidence selectively and making blatant leaps in reasoning. So, for instance, he sees Dickinson’s “I heard a fly buzz” as constructing an analogy between death and absorbed listening. This argument hinges on the claim that the lines of the last verse—“There interposed a Fly — // With Blue—uncertain—stumbling Buzz—// Between the light— and me”—are describing a purely auditory experience. Clune is insistent on this point: “this poem would not be as powerful as it is were the experience one of sight, for example, or of distraction” (p. 118). I am not a Dickinson expert (then again, neither is Clune, raising the question of what he actually means by “expert” when he talks about expert judgment), but I think it’s fair to say that there’s plenty of room for disagreement here.
The more interesting question is how such a reading shows us the merits of the practice of judgment. Clune’s point seems to be that the value of this poem is that it contains this idea, which it is our job is to help students to perceive and understand. How is this an act of expert judgment, rather than interpretation? Probably because it is also an implicit argument for why one should read Emily Dickinson: her work contains ideas such as this one, which are better than the ideas in Fifty Shades of Grey.
Ultimately, then, disguised within an argument for judgment as close reading, we find the real intervention: a proposal for a Great Books version of literary studies, but one without any account of what would constitute greatness, or how it would be determined.