Criticism of literature and criticism of culture

Ratio 22 (4):439-463 (2009)
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Abstract

There is a class of critics who are dissatisfied with the academic status of literary criticism and who want to re-establish for literary criticism the status it possessed in the early and mid nineteenth century as simultaneously cultural and social criticism. This is an impossible task. The 'cultural critics' of the nineteenth century possessed their authority because they were without competition and because they could command the attention and respect of the whole of the literate audience. However, at the end of the nineteenth century intellectual authority came to be based in specialised academic disciplines and individual authority was undermined and ultimately disappeared. At the same time, the arrival of universal literacy in Britain fragmented and ultimately destroyed the generally educated audience to which the cultural critics addressed themselves. Consequently there is today no role for the cultural critic. Literary critics cannot speak with authority about social, political, or cultural questions. They can, however, speak with authority about literature. Whether or not this criticism can be grounded in disciplinary knowledge, it serves a necessary function for an audience that no longer possesses the skill of reading literary works and lacks the background knowledge that is necessary to make sense of literature.

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