Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Laura Heffernan and Rachel Sagner Buurma review Professing Criticism

John Guillory. Professing Criticism: Essays on the Organization of Literary Study. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2022. 424 pp.

27 July 2023

Review by Laura Heffernan and Rachel Sagner Buurma

John Guillory’s Professing Criticism investigates a contradiction at the heart of literary study: its uneasy merger between the social mission of the nineteenth-century critic and the professional identity of the twentieth-century scholar. The hint of oxymoron in the book’s title reminds us that even as scholars today wish to speak critically about society to a broad public, as Victorian critics once did, we have been carried further and further away from that older media landscape by the wild success of our own professionalization. Beginning with the early twentieth century formation of scholarly associations, formal apprenticeships, academic degrees, legal procedures for accreditation, and so on, the “interminable, competitive, constantly innovative process” of professionalism has taken on a life of its own (p. 42). English professors today, Guillory argues, mistake the rewards this system offers—which are actually part of the university’s insular and standardized assessment of knowledge production—as validation of their criticism of society. It is this mistake that Guillory aims to analyze and correct. In place of this “overestimation of aim,” Guillory installs a more modest justification for the profession of literary study (p. 81). 

Professing Criticism is itself modest in tone, if not in scope. The nearly four hundred page essay collection ranges widely in its search for a historically expansive account of literary study. Its fourteen chapters consider the discipline’s long prehistory and visit scenes of its present: departmental debates over curriculum, the advising of graduate students in a post-tenure era, tenure and promotion committee meetings with skeptical scientists, Guillory’s own YA literature course. The burden of synthesis falls on the reader, but the general impression we get is that a better acquaintance with past organizations of language and literary study might bring some clarity of purpose to contentious scenes today. Underpinning the book’s project is a belief that justification matters—that developing a better account of what we do and why we do it will help us negotiate “the probable contraction of the literary disciplines in the face of overwhelming social and economic forces” (p. xv). 

Professing Criticism’s core argument appears in part 1 of 3. Here Guillory draws on sociologists of professionalism, including Barbara and John Ehrenreich, Alvin W. Gouldner, and Magali Sarfatti Larson, to describe how English faculty professionalized in the early twentieth century before they settled on a disciplinary object of study. It was only at mid-century that English arrived at a suitably delimited definition of the literary text as the object of interpretive attention. But this “phase of relative stability” proved vanishingly brief (p. xii). By the 1960s, continental theory and the “new social movements” had resurrected the nineteenth-century critic’s prerogative to speak about and to society at large (p. 60). Absent the nineteenth-century critic’s periodical public, this desire to effect “social change directly through the critique expressed in literary criticism” is, for Guillory, doomed to fail (p. 43).

English professors may wish to enact political change, but the more immediate social purpose of humanistic disciplines, for Guillory, lies in their reproduction of the professional managerial class through the teaching of undergraduates. If Guillory’s 1991 Cultural Capital rested with the Bourdieuvian insight that our direct function is to train the professional managerial class, Professing Criticism returns to contemplate this sociological fact more deeply and optimistically. Over the course of the book, the process through which literary criticism conveys the embodied knowledge of its professional practices—creating “informed, insightful and habitual reader[s]”—becomes a fascinating object of study itself (p. 78).

Part 2 of Professing Criticism excavates this prehistory of literary study, going back to a premodern era in which “reading and writing, along with the arts of speaking . . . constituted all there was to learning” (p. 343). Proceeding through the centuries, we see the gradual marginalization of the rhetorical arts, the supersession of philological research and the belleslettristic formation of taste, and the narrowing definition of “literature” into a suitable object of study, allowing English to take its place—somewhat disappointingly in this vast timeline—as “one discipline among many” (p. 344). Guillory calls professors away from both criticism (which names a motive, or desire to address a public) and method to their disciplinary object: literature. But this object is not naturally occurring like biologists’ frogs or flies, and part 2 explores the historical contingency of the category of literature.

Part 3 of Professing Criticism takes up problems exacerbated by professionalization and feels grounded by Guillory’s decades of service to the profession. In these chapters, we see how credential inflation affects graduate education, how an overemphasis on both research and publication stunt humanities scholarship, and how first-year writing teachers face an impossible task. “Ratio Studiorum,” Guillory's concluding chapter, offers an overview of justifications for literary study, ranging from the cognitive arts conveyed by classical grammatica, to the refinement of moral inquiries that literature’s representational capacities demand, to the cultivation of aesthetic judgment, to the modern impulse to “know and to say what works of literature mean” (p. 383). Sedimented and fragmentary versions of the various rationales inhere, for Guillory, in the practices of literary pedagogy that play their part in forming the “professional profile” (p. 42).

If it is “time to consider a different way of representing the humanities in the public sphere,” what solutions does Professing Criticism offer? (p. 106) Some suggestions are good (reclaiming literature’s role in forming the knowledge worker as she builds up information into a “‘body of knowledge’” in chapter 5, “The Postrhetorical Condition”); others are baffling (the splitting of the English department “across the spine of World War II” proposed in chapter 8, “Contradictions of Global English”); some have been widely suggested or are widely practiced already (inviting former students return to talk about their alternate career paths) (pp. 156, 230). Overall, the book explores implicit solutions to the biggest problem: literary critics’ “overestimation” of the political efficacy of their scholarship (a problem presented as so pervasive as to obviate the need for specific examples)(p. x). Correcting this tendency would, for Guillory, involve rolling back courses organized around “a political thematic,” abandoning an agenda of curricular “‘decolonization,’” being less focused on contemporary social and political problems, and rebuffing students’ supposed desire to “see themselves” represented in literature (pp. 74, 225, 229). In place of the humanities’ political projects, Guillory suggests repeatedly that we return to “the practice of reading,” the “real site of articulation between the discipline and its social environment” (p. 101). Such a return would free us from the contortions of hyper-contemporary method, and free literary artifacts—which “do not need to be interpreted”—from us, returning them to a larger world of readers of which we are a small part (p. 386).