Jeffrey Williams:

Literary criticism once had an outsize reach, influencing the terms and concepts of disciplines like art and legal studies. With it came an outsize ego. During the 1970s and 80s, the heyday of literary theory, scholars aimed to explode the foundations of Western metaphysics, foment a revolution of the sign, overturn gender hierarchies, and fight the class struggle.

…Since the 1950s, the dominant practice in academe has been “criticism”; not the dusty excavation of facts about literature that had marked the field before that—the linguistic and historical background on Elizabethan England or Norse verb forms, or whether Chaucer traveled to France to hear his tales—but analysis and interpretation. Critics became seers who uncovered the special significance of texts, or warriors who critiqued society. Today they are still interested in “reading” texts, but their approach to what they read is different.

…A good deal of contemporary criticism has performed “symptomatic reading,” a term that conveys looking for the hidden meaning of a text, using, for example, Marxian, Freudian, or deconstructive interpretation. Fredric Jameson has been one of its most influential practitioners, codifying the approach in his 1981 Political Unconscious to look for “a latent meaning behind a manifest one.” Surface reading instead focuses on “what is evident, perceptible, apprehensible in texts,” as Best and Marcus put it. Thus the critic is no longer like a detective who doesn’t trust the suspect but more the social scientist who describes the manifest statements of a text.

Again with the Marx and Freud! I’m beginning to think that Peter Watson wasn’t being overly hyperbolic when he suggested that a large part of the reason why the left became increasingly moribund throughout the twentieth century, both culturally and politically, was because of its compulsive obsession with trying to force reality onto the Procrustean bed of those two ludicrous theories.

Anyway. In all these years of autodidactic learning, I had never heard, in so many words, of “symptomatic reading”. Yes, I’m familiar with the concept as described, but I still didn’t know it had a specific name, let alone that its counterpart, “surface reading”, required a theoretical designation as well, as if it’s some kind of revolutionary new invention, rather than simply “the way most non-academics would intuitively go about reading a book” (sorry; “interrogating a text”).

Today’s modesty may not bode an academic withdrawal from public life. It may simply register an unsettled moment, as past practices cede and a new generation takes hold. The less-optimistic outlook is that it represents the decline of criticism as a special genre with an important role to investigate our culture. While realism carries less hubris, it leaves behind the utopian impulse of criticism.

Oh, I don’t know about that. Practicing and facilitating clear, informed communication seems idealistic and revolutionary enough to me.