The final phase of criticism’s arc began with the rise of a figure that Roger Kimball memorably described as the “tenured radical,” and which we might think of as the Scholar-Activist. For her, the proper task of criticism was to participate in social transformations occurring outside the university. The battle against exploitation, she claimed, could be waged by writing about racism, sexism, homophobia, and colonialism, using an increasingly refined language of historical context, identity, and power. Literary artifacts (poems, novels, and other playthings of the élite) could be replaced as objects of study by pop-culture ones (Taylor Swift, selfies, and other playthings of the masses). By 2004, it was possible for Edward Said to lament that there were only two paths available to the critic in an era of intense specialization. He could “either become a technocratic deconstructionist, discourse analyst, new historicist, and so on, or retreat into a nostalgic celebration of some past state of glory associated with what is sentimentally evoked as humanism.” In 2023, we would consider him extremely lucky to find employment in the professoriat whichever path he chose.
Have a great time at university, kids!! Your technocratic destructionist essays about Taylor Swift and selfies will no doubt save the world from Trump and Putin!