Critical Inquiry 5 (3):569-575 (1979)

Wellek is surely right in arguing that the New Critics did not intend to behave as formalists, but I think he needs to explain why they came so close to doing so in spite of themselves. One explanation may lie in a sphere Wellek mentions but might have probed even more fully, the long-standing Romantic and modernist revolt against the culture of science, positivism, and utilitarianism. In Culture and Society, 1780-1950 , Raymond Williams argues that the Romantic reaction against industrial-utilitarian society led to a specialization of literature that attenuated literature's claims in a self-defeating way. Instead of contesting the realm of objective knowledge, the defenders of literature conceded this territory to science and commerce, either celebrating literature for its very freedom from such knowledge or claiming for it some alternate form of knowledge that could not be made rationally respectable. One could argue that the same pattern of misplaced reaction is seen in the New Criticism, that its revolt against the utilitarian, "Platonic" drives of science and positivism took the form of an attempt to divest literature of objective "truth of correspondence." Having equated this kind of truth with the most reductive forms of scientism, moralism, and propagandizing, the New Critics made it difficult to justify their own ambitious claims for the humanistic knowledge embodied in literature. Their way of reacting against the depravities of technological culture continues to be a common one today and can even be found in such adversaries of the New Critics as the cultural revolutionaries, the phenomenologists, and the deconstructionists—all of whom express the paradigms of our modern "adversary culture." It is an understandable and even perhaps an admirable reaction, but it has led to distortions in our conception of the humanities—one of which is the aggravation of that very dissociation of sensibility into scientific and poetic components that we all say we want to have done with. Gerald Graff, chairman of the English department at Northwestern University, is the author of Poetic Statement and Critical Dogma and, most recently, Literature against Itself: Literary Ideas in Modern Society. He responds in this article to René Wellek's "The New Criticism: Pro and Contra," published in Summer 1978 in Critical Inquiry
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