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Literary Criticism
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Literary Criticism
An Autopsy

Mark Bauerlein

176 pages | 5.5 x 8.5
Paper 1997 | ISBN 9780812216257 | $24.95s | Outside the Americas £18.99
Ebook editions are available from selected online vendors
A volume in the series Critical Authors & Issues

"It's later than you think! Literary critics, practicing and prospective, had better take a close look at Mark Bauerlein's mordant and humorous 'autopsy.'"—Frederick Crews, editor, Unauthorized Freud: Doubters Confront a Legend
"There isn't another book like this: a primer and a polemic on the jargon of literary study, impressive in its range of examples and uncompromising in its critique. Bauerlein describes the motives of several prospering forms of contemporary obscurantism, analyzes the conditions in which they arose, and maps the terrain in which they continue to flourish. His account is written with nerve, wit, and a tough-minded intelligence."—David Bromwich, Yale University

"A thesis I both understand and endorse. . . . I agree with him when he writes that the critical terms currently fashionable have very little to do with literature."—Philip Thody, Journal of European Studies

"This slim volume with its seemingly innocuous title takes the buzz words of contemporary critical theory to task for their pseudostatus as methodological tools…The items under the knife—cultural studies, discourse, gender theory, to pluck out a few—highlight how little real cutting edge there is in current literary criticism."—Forum for Modern Language Studies

"A shrewd demonstration, amusing and saddening at once, of what has gone wrong with so much academic writing in the field that used to be literature. It is in its way a pointed and revealing piece of cultural criticism, but of the sort which that fashionable pursuit cannot—and for reasons Bauerlein's excellent little book implies—perform."—John Hollander, Yale University

As the study of literature has extended to cultural contexts, critics have developed a language all their own. Yet, argues Mark Bauerlein, scholars of literature today are so unskilled in pertinent sociohistorical methods that they compensate by adopting cliches and catchphrases that serve as substitutes for information and logic. Thus by labeling a set of ideas an "ideology" they avoid specifying those ideas, or by saying that someone "essentializes" a concept they convey the air of decisive refutation. As long as a paper is generously sprinkled with the right words, clarification is deemed superfluous.

Bauerlein contends that such usages only serve to signal political commitments, prove membership in subgroups, or appeal to editors and tenure committees, and that current textual practices are inadequate to the study of culture and politics they presume to undertake. His book discusses 23 commonly encountered terms—from "deconstruction" and "gender" to "problematize" and "rethink"—and offers a diagnosis of contemporary criticism through their analysis. He examines the motives behind their usage and the circumstances under which they arose and tells why they continue to flourish.

A self-styled "handbook of counterdisciplinary usage," Literary Criticism: An Autopsy shows how the use of illogical, unsound, or inconsistent terms has brought about a breakdown in disciplinary focus. It is an insightful and entertaining work that challenges scholars to reconsider their choice of words—and to eliminate many from critical inquiry altogether.

Mark Bauerlein is Professor of English at Emory University. He is editor of The Turning World: American Literary Modernism and Continental Theory, by Joseph Riddel, also available from the University of Pennsylvania Press, and author of Whitman and the American Idiom.

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