by Beatrice Fazio

John Guillory is a Professor of English at NYU. He specializes in early modern literature, the history and sociology of criticism, the problem of canon formation, the theory of pedagogy, and graduate education. He is the author of a landmark study, Cultural Capital (UCP, 1993), which analyzes the historical and institutional conditions that led to (or prevented) a certain body of texts from taking on canonical status. Guillory’s most recent book, Professing Criticism (Chicago, 2022), explores the cultural and historical development of literary criticism as an academic discipline.

Beatrice Fazio: In the preface to Professing Criticism, you argue that the phrase teaching literature is misleading because what teachers and students produce in academic courses is not literature but criticism. Literary criticism, which has literature as its object of study, was elevated to a disciplinary status only after World War II. Before that, the concept of the “humanities” was organized around a different array of disciplines, including rhetoric, philology, and belles lettres. Invoking the American scholar and educator John Crowe Ransom, you claim that criticism has morphed from being synonymous with reading into something that should be “handled by professionals” and, therefore, cannot be done by just anyone. Hence your book’s fundamental question: What does it mean to “profess criticism?” When explaining the crucial process that laid the groundwork for distinguishing literature as a discipline from literature as a profession, you take your readers on a rich and well-distilled sociological journey into the history of literary study. As with any memorable journey, readers do not follow a linear path but must follow your argument’s course and recourse, in the words of eighteenth-century Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico. I would like to start our conversation with a question about beginnings. When did literature become the object of its own discipline?

John Guillory: The answer to this question depends upon how “literature” is defined. In the oldest and broadest sense of the word, there has always been something like a “discipline” of literature because to study literature meant to study all “writing,” of whatever genre. Techniques for studying writing developed in ancient Greece and were elaborated into a formal system of education in Republican and Imperial Rome. The greatest exemplar of this formal system of education was Quintilian, whose Institutio Oratoria established the paradigm for the study of literature descending into the nineteenth century. But if we take the sense of “literature” as equivalent to the “imaginative” or fictional genres of writing, and “discipline” to mean a department of study in the university, then literary study dates only from the nineteenth century, and is only really formalized in the twentieth. I recount in my book the story of what I call the “delimitation” of literature, the successive shedding of its most general significations, which even as late as the eighteenth century included oratory and history as well as poetry and drama, on the way toward its current identification as referring to imaginative and fictional genres of writing. Even this signification is unstable, as the history of literary study reveals that the novel was very definitively excluded from the curriculum until the mid-twentieth century. Poetry and drama remained the exemplary forms of literature. At the same time that literature was studied mainly in these forms; university departments of “English,” “French,” or “German” were focused more on language than literature, and still heavily indebted to the philological tradition. Only with the shift in emphasis from linguistic analysis to criticism was it possible for literature to become the object of a university discipline. This discipline would come to include the novel as well as poetic forms. In an interesting recent turn, literature is coming increasingly to be identified with the novel, while poetry is coming to refer to another artistic mode of writing, more likely to regarded as a performative genre, cultivated as much or more outside the university as within.

BF: Let us go back even further to the fourteenth century to discuss the role of Renaissance humanism in this story. Humanist pedagogy was born from a desire to forge a scholarly community capable of understanding texts—particularly classical texts—critically, assessing their value for both the individual and society, and exercise critical judgement. Throughout the early modern period, European students—including famous ones like Montaigne, Galileo, Descartes, Miltoncontinued to be intensely trained by private tutors, at grammar schools, and in academies or universities, in a series of arts inherited from antiquity called the studia humanitatis (which included Latin and Greek grammar, rhetoric, history, moral philosophy, and poetry), with the goal of becoming philosophers, writers, theologians, orators, scientists, among other things. Eventually, however, ideals and practice parted ways, and humanist pedagogy, with its prearranged order of study, became associated with scholarly knowledge aimed at benefiting a narrow social circle. According to scholars such as Anthony Grafton and Lisa Jardine, humanistic pedagogy, whether secularized or not, has failed in its civic mission by producing highly educated representatives of the ruling class rather than eloquent and honorable citizens.In the seventeenth century, following the unprecedented advancements of the human sciences and empiricist methods applied to pedagogy, education in the studia humanitatis became viewed as a lengthy and laborious process that emphasized mind training and indoctrination over character development (Bildung), and which remained focused on scholarly disciplines that lacked useful empirical application and influence on the public sphere. Do you think there is a connection between the Renaissance humanistic curriculum and the professionalization of literature?

JG: There is indeed such a connection, but it is not easy to describe this connection in linear terms of an inheritance. It is important to recall that the concept of “profession” was confined largely in the premodern world to the three ancient professions: divinity, law, and medicine (physic). These professions were the seedbed of much scholarship, but the production of this scholarship was not necessarily “professionalized” in the modern sense. The later concept of profession refers to an organized form of expert labor, socially recognized and eventually legally sanctioned by degrees and licenses. This sense of profession included potentially all forms of expert labor, although in practice only certain socially prestigious versions of expertise count in our society as “professional.” This condition leaves the connection between the humanistic curriculum and professions uncertain. Many humanist intellectuals before the twentieth century circulated outside the university system, as what we would consider to be the realm of the “amateur.” They did not necessarily have degrees or teach at universities or secondary schools. And yet, both within the university and in the “amateur” public sphere, writers who composed in literary genres or who wrote about literature maintained a vital connection to the humanistic tradition. This tradition survived in sometimes rich, sometimes attenuated forms in university literary study into the present, though the richer instances are often most engaged in the study of premodern literature. In the circumstance of a weakened humanistic tradition, the professionalization of literary study followed a path of development relatively divorced from the humanistic curriculum. Hence the legacy effects of that curriculum are less obvious, if still observable, in literary disciplines as well as in history, philosophy, and classics.

BF: As we move from beginnings to ends, from birth to death, I would like to discuss with you the demise of rhetoric. It has been suggested by scholars such as John Bender and David Wellbery that understanding rhetoric today means grappling with its fundamental discontinuities and differences from its classical and Renaissance predecessors. Accordingly, they distinguish between the old concept of “rhetoric” and the new, postmodern notion of “rhetoricality.” Classical rhetoric involves a set of persuasive communication techniques as well as the strategic positioning of ideas and arguments within a specific context. Rhetoricality emerges, instead, from the erosion of the ideological premises of classical rhetoric during a time of epochal shift between the Enlightenment and the Romantic period. It encompasses a broader understanding of communication and, unlike classical rhetoric, recognizes the multiplicity of voices, perspectives, and discourses, highlighting the interconnectedness and fluidity of communication in contemporary society. In a chapter called “The Postrhetorical Condition,” you challenge the idea that rhetoric died simply because of epochal breaks by exploring how rhetoric failed to survive the emergence of a new educational system in the nineteenth century. Can you explain why this happened?

JG: The brief but too simple answer to the question of rhetoric’s demise is that its program of study was tied to the study of Greek and Latin languages and that once the vernacularization of the curriculum was accomplished, rhetoric lost its textual base. The longer but also deeper explanation has to do with a shift from the practical occasions of rhetoric, which were oriented toward the aim of persuasion, toward the problematic of communication, which in turn was correlated to the emergence of a concept of information. This is the argument of the chapter in Professing Criticism in the chapter you cite, “The Postrhetorical Condition.” Bender and Wellbery offer an alternative history in which rhetoric is transmuted into “rhetoricality,” a more tacit exercise of persuasive techniques, operating without necessarily invoking the lexicon of the “old rhetoric” or even the aim of persuasion itself. I would suggest that Bender and Wellbery’s story is not incompatible with mine, as both narratives rely ultimately on the interest in “communication” as the fundamental tendency undermining the authority of rhetoric, beginning in the early modern period with Bacon, Descartes, Hobbes, and other philosophical writers. In retrospect, the rhetoricians of antiquity were so fixed on the techniques of persuasion that they ignored, relatively speaking, impediments to the success of communication. Although this concern might be read as implicit in much of their discourse, it is much more explicit in the thought of early modernity, and in fact, one might say that it is a leitmotiv of that thought. At the same time, as Bender and Wellbery recognize, the agenda of persuasion spreads out into multiple discourses and forms of communication, as with the use of visual imagery in advertising. Sometimes, this version of rhetoric (or rhetoricality) can look very obvious; but the point is that it is more or less distinct from the rhetorical system of antiquity.

BF: The chapter on rhetoric is followed by one on “Two Failed Disciplines” of the nineteenth century, namely, belles lettres and philology. Philology, broadly defined as the study of language, is perhaps as old as rhetoric and played a crucial role during the revival of classical studies in the Renaissance. Six hundred years later, Nietzsche noted that philology was overburdened with classical literature and stuck in the undiscriminating idolatry of the past. During my undergraduate studies at an Italian university, I studied philology and learned how it laid the foundations for criticism and textual hermeneutics. It was my perception, however, that philology was a specialized discipline that conflicted with, and even suffocated, a broader humanistic outlook. Philology’s audience in academic research and instruction was too narrow, and literature seemed to be relegated to a place of secondary importance. Friedrich Wolf’s Prolegomena to Homer or Ernst Curtius’ European Literature raised issues that have accompanied me throughout my education, but they also revealed a presumption of intelligibility that I generally associate with the Italian academic tradition. Do you think that a similar scenario happened at the American university?

JG: I believe that you must speak to the Italian university system from your knowledge of it. My general impression is that aspects of both rhetoric and philology survived in humanistic discourses longer there than in the Anglo-American university system. No doubt, this was partly a result of the fact that so many of the fundamental texts of the humanist tradition are Italian in origin, even those composed originally in Latin. In any case, the question about philology raises a complex issue related to the earlier question about professionalism. Philology passed through several phases between the later Middle Ages and the later nineteenth century. As Grafton and Jardine argued in their indispensable From Humanism to the Humanities, the humanistic or civic agenda of philology was attenuated over time as philology became a discourse more of specialized scholarship, in which arguments about language and history predominated over the aims of the classroom. One unfortunate result of this development was the decline of Greek and Latin in the university, more or less to the learning of those languages, which were presumed to be an end in themselves. They ceased to be the languages in which active scholarship was conducted. In the Anglo-American university, English ultimately became the language of scholarship. At the same time, philology became extremely specialized, focused less on the languages of antiquity than on English and its precursor Germanic and Indo-European languages. This study developed in parallel with that of the natural sciences and was, for a time, considered just as much a science as biology or physics. This equation was difficult to sustain, however, into the twentieth century, and the position of philology was complicated by its distinction from, on the one side, the natural sciences and, on the other, the belletristic criticism that was becoming increasingly popular in the later nineteenth century. Philology was positioned “between literature and science” in the argument of a famous book by Wolf Lepenies, entitled in German, Die Drei Culturen.

BF: In chapters four and ten, you explain why academics from other disciplines have difficulty understanding what humanities research entails. Humanities scholars, by contrast, have become increasingly defensive against the accusations made by their “detractors” and the vagaries of generalized misconceptions. The tangible relevance of these oppositional dynamics cannot be denied. Why is the nature of humanities scholarship misunderstood?

JG: In my chapter discussing the situation of the humanities in Professing Criticism, I argue that the defense of the humanities has been undermined by its participation in a “conflict of the faculties” in which the humanities are pitted against the natural sciences. This competition has been ruinous for public presentation of humanities scholarship, which has failed to convey the distinctiveness of its object. Without reprising at too great a length my argument in this chapter—I discuss there the dual nature of the humanities object as both “monument” and “document,” terms borrowed from the work of Erwin Panofsky—I would emphasize in response to your question both the misunderstanding of the humanities among the general public and the poor self-understanding of the humanities professoriate itself. Because the objects of humanities study are so various—a world of events, ideas, and artifacts—humanities scholars have defaulted in their rhetoric of defense to the assertion of high-minded social aims, such as the creation of good citizens or, more simply, good humans. The identification of this moral aim of the humanities is not wrong, but it fails to give an adequate account of what it is that humanities scholars study. Scientists, by contrast, always account for their disciplines in just these terms: They study atoms, stars, chimpanzees, viruses, storms, and a thousand other objects that excite immediate interest in the general public. My argument is that it would behoove humanities scholars to express first and above all the interest of their objects of study: the events of human history, the works of the human imagination, and the ideas that have captivated and driven human beings from the beginning of recorded history. There is no lack of interest in the specificity of these objects, a specificity that contrasts with the vagueness and generality of the moral and civic aims usually cited in the defense of humanities disciplines.

BF: One of the focal points of your study is the evaluation of humanities scholarship. As you note, publications are in higher demand, which has resulted in a wider gap between professional success measured primarily by the number of publications and success measured by a variety of factors, including teaching experience and pedagogical knowledge. Is “weak scholarship” something that refers to a limited number of publications, or publications that do not actively address critical social issues, or both? And why do you think scholarship outranks teaching, which can be an important determinant of what constitutes a valuable contribution to an institution and what motivates, engages, and prepares students?

JG: One of the central arguments of my book is that humanities scholarship has come to be judged by standards that are more appropriate to the social and natural sciences than the humanities. This situation has nothing to do with the relatively lesser “certainty” of arguments in humanities scholarship. There are plenty of disagreements in the natural and social sciences as well! It has rather to do with the way in which evaluation has been deformed by the procedures of professionalization, according to which success can be measured quantitatively. This measure demands “productivity” or quantity of publication as the basis for judgment. This measure is not altogether inappropriate, but it is fundamentally incomplete and distorting. Humanities scholarship is, first of all, not reducible to publication but is also expressed importantly in teaching, which is generally undervalued in the university, and involves particularly unfortunate consequences in the humanities. The devaluation of teaching is an issue that transcends the problems of humanities disciplines and would require far more space here to its remediation than I can give it. In addition to this problem, what we call “scholarship” cannot be reduced to the practice of specialized “research” on the model of the natural and social sciences. Research is only one component of humanities scholarship. This kind of intellectual endeavor requires scope as well as specialization, the ability to make correlations across fields that are distant in time and space. For this reason, scholarship in one area of the humanities ought to be of interest, at least potentially, in any number of other areas of specialization. I would go further than this and say that the most interesting humanities scholarship is one that makes connections among far-flung fields. This potentiality of humanities scholarship is not always realized, a fact that condemns much scholarship to ephemeral interest. But it is also the case, in my view, that good and even great scholarship continues to be produced, in which we find a successful balance between the advantages of specialization and the scope of intellectual interest.

Beatrice Fazio is a PhD candidate in Romance Languages at the University of Chicago. Her work focuses on Renaissance and early modern Italy and Europe, with a strong interest in intellectual history, geocriticism and environmentalism, women writing and gender studies, and the history of political thought. She is currently working on two book projects. The first explores how the Italian Renaissance and European early modern legacy was received and revivified in nineteenth century Italy during the Risorgimento. The second book engages with early modern environmentalism and traces the history of this theme in literary texts from a transnational perspective. Her work has been supported by the Modern Language Association, the University of Chicago Humanities Division and the Franke Institute for the Humanities.

Edited by Artur Banaszewski

Featured Image: Demosthenes Practicing Oratory, painting by Jean-Jules-Antoine Lecomte du Nouÿ, 1870, via Wikimedia Commons.