||Sussex Library of Study
Do I dare / Disturb the universe?
(T. S. Eliot, ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, 1917)
“a creative intellectual enterprise as rare as it is necessary in an
academy which is now over-institutionalised and deadened by bureaucracy.”
In 1961 C. S. Lewis published An Experiment in Criticism; over forty years later, at the beginning of a new century, there is pressing need for a renewed sense of experiment, or invention in criticism. The energies unleashed by the theoretical movements of the 1970s and 1980s have been largely exhausted – many now say we are experiencing life after theory; some, indeed, say we are experiencing life after criticism. Criticism, we might say, is in crisis. But that is where it should be; the word ‘criticism’ comes, as we know, from the word ‘crisis’.
Talk of crisis does not, though, fit easily within the well-managed contemporary academy; with its confident talk of ‘scholarly excellence’, there is a presumption that we all know, and are agreed upon, what scholarship and criticism is. However, to echo Paul de Man, ‘we don’t even know what reading is’; and what is, potentially, exciting about our present crisis is that now we really know that we don’t know what reading is. It is, then, in a spirit of learned ignorance that we propose critical inventions, a series which will feature books that, in one way or another, push the generic conventions of literary criticism to breaking point. In so doing the very figure of the critic will shift and change. We shall, no doubt, glimpse something of what Oscar Wilde famously called ‘the critic as artist’, or what Terry Eagleton called ‘the critic as clown’; we may even glimpse still more unfamiliar figures – the critic as, for example, autobiographer, novelist, mourner, poet, parodist, detective, dreamer, diarist, flaneûr, surrealist, priest, montagist, gambler, traveller, beggar, anarchist… or even amateur. In short, this series seeks the truly critical critic – or, to be paradoxical, the critic as critic; the critic who is a critic of criticism as conventionally understood, or misunderstood. He or she is the critic who will dare to disturb the universe, or at least the university – in particular, the institutionalisation of criticism that is professional, university English. Establishment English is, though, a strange institution that is capable of disestablishing itself, if only because it houses the still stranger institution of literature – which, as Jacques Derrida once wrote, ‘in principle allows us to say everything/ anything [tout dire]’. We, therefore, do not or cannot yet know of what criticism may yet be capable – capable of being, capable of doing. critical inventions will be a series that seeks to find out.
Read the text right and emancipate the world.
(Robert Browning, ‘Bishop Bloughram’s Apology’, 1855)