2. The Hegemony of New Critical Modernism

Charles Feidelson, Symbolism and American Literature

We are most inclined to imagine ideological creation as some inner process of understanding, comprehension, and perception, and do not notice that it in fact unfolds externally, for the eye, the ear, the hand. It is not within us, but between us.

M. M. Bakhtin,The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship
A distinctive strain of method and assumption runs through much twentieth-century criticism, centering in the idea of "structural analysis." Moreover, the critical ideas and literary practice of modern literature are often remarkably close together, so that the "structural" emphasis of the critics corresponds directly to a certain experimentation with language by poets and novelists. Empson's Seven Types of Ambiguity and Joyce's Finnegans Wake suggest at once a new departure in taste and a close kinship of theory with practice.
Charles Feidelson, Symbolism and American Literature

In 1953 Charles Feidelson, setting out to trace "the rise of symbolism in America, its differentiation from romanticism, and its continuity with modern literary aesthetics," noted the degree of consensus existing between Modern criticism and Modern writing.[1] The "structural analysis" to which Feidelson refers in Symbolism and American Literature is, of course, neither the "structuralism" of the Russian Formalists nor the French "structuralism" abetted by the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss, but the mode of text-centered analysis promoted by the New Critics.[2] Feidelson avoids the term "New Criticism" throughout the text of Symbolism and American Literature, but the tenor of his argument and his footnotes render unmistakable the particular strain of "modern criticism" he describes. Feidelson's reluctance to identify New Criticism by name may be directly attributed to his effort to sift through intra-critical polemics in order to establish the existence of "a reference point for a larger body of modern literary theory, criticism, and practice than can be brought under any [...] rubric."[3] Consequently, he writes of an "inherent direction," not of "a formula to which all modern theorists and writers--even the most determinedly 'structural' of critics and the most experimental of poets--would subscribe without reservation."[4]

Where Feidelson, seeking to establish the existence of a consensus of modern "critical ideas and literary practice," begins by downplaying particular polemics, I begin with the existence of that consensus established and turn to examine the broad, successful polemic it embodies--its history and its consequences. What Feidelson observed in 1953 as the "close kinship of theory with practice" was the hegemony of New Critical modernism: "a new departure in taste" that emerged from the wide ranging debate of the early twentieth century through the triumphal confluence of a particular strain of critical discourse and particular literary practices. New Critical modernism was openly polemical at its birth. In its maturity, this consensus maintains its distinctive agenda all the more forcefully in that what was once but a part of a broader critical and literary debate has become naturalized and internalized, capable of representing itself, not as a critical polemic or literary movement, but simply as modern criticism and literature. With this understanding, it is only proper to call Feidelson's "distinctive strain" by its openly controversial names: New Criticism and Modernism--together, New Critical modernism. Its preeminence is not guaranteed by a simple silencing of its opposition--the voices of its predecessors or its contemporary and subsequent challengers. New Critical modernism "represents the inherent direction" of modern aesthetics to the extent that as a discursive phenomenon it has included and vitalized a host of dissenting voices. Its hegemony does not depend upon the open allegiance of every critic and writer to a doctrinally compact "rubric." As Feidelson notes,

This is not to say that most, or indeed any, modern writers can be reduced to this concept without remainder. [....] On the other hand, much of the opposition to modern symbolist theory takes place within the same frame of reference as that theory--does not represent a change of venue but a retrial.[5]

Feidelson points to the effect of hegemony that concerns me here, the process whereby consensus in the midst of debate is maintained by a dominant group's ability, in Gramsci's phrase, to "pose all the questions about which the struggle rages."[6]

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