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Dr Alistair Brown
Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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The Political Art of Criticism and Quarks


In order to justify its exercise, literary criticism has had to 'get political', as well as maintaining a vaguer, aesthetic objective. Increasingly, cutting-edge science seems to have a hazy ambition to discover the complete nature of the universe. The lack of immediate, real-world, practical developments from this process means that science also must now have political objectives to explain the continued investment placed in it.


Every morning, usually dressed in the old and slobby clothes which is one of the perks of working alone most days, I turn on my computer and wait as (always a tentative moment!) the summery blue Windows screen appears, reassuring me that the hard-drive demons have not been wreaking overnight destruction. I watch as the strip at the bottom of the screen scrolls slowly and hypnotically across - blue-white-blue-white, right-left, right-left; and as I watch, this solemn space of waiting for the loading of the notes and files and tools that will let my working day continue, institutes a small dilemma, a crisis of confidence. I know that once the process is complete, when I have opened the word processor and pulled down that recently used file list (telling evidence of how much work, or diversion from work, was achieved the day before) and opened my document on Conrad or Modernism, I will be once again a literary critic. So in the pause before this career kicks of again, I ask myself what is it for? Why, when I could be a policeman, or an engineer, or a lawyer am I instead going to sit here all day (my slobby clothes getting steadily sweatier) criticising, analysing, literature?

Finally, after about five years of worrying in this way - the same way most mornings - I think I, like the English (or French, or Indian, or American) Literature department which has as an institution faced an identical question, have it solved: literary criticism has to get political.

Feminist studies, post-colonial readings, Marxist analyses all promise to do something with literature which has wider implications for the text as an artefact. Although the study of literature from these perspectives will have its impact mediated through a variety of institutions and in a number of texts and verbal discourses (it can rarely hope to present its findings in the exclusive, terminological language of modern literary criticism) eventually, as Kristeva, Said, Eagleton, Williams have achieved before me, something of what I write may have an impact on the social and political networks outside of the confines of my study, in both senses of that word. Said commented that in fashioning Imperialism and Culture, a literary critical text, that the university, with its hetergenous make-up, enabled him to write a book which had explicitly political intent - to prevent "uncritical and unthinking forms of [nationalistic] education" - paradoxically without being partisan:

In its writing I have availed myself of the Utopian space still provided by the university, which I believe must remain a place where such vital issues are investigated, discussed, reflected on. For it to become a site where social and political issues are actually either imposed or resolved would be to remove the university's function and turn it into an adjuct to whatever political party is in power.

By writing as a literary critic first, and through exposing the biases which go into making up both the canon as a whole of Western literature, and the books which constitute it, Said could be at once disengaged from party and nationalist politics, exist in a continual state of dialogue accepting of alternative, equally valid perspectives (something modern party-political institutions cannot do), whilst at the same time permeating political ideas into national institutions. Because novels, poetry and drama are out there accessible to all, criticism - both of books and of the critics - is something one can do at any time; the critic (not just the B.A. version) does not have to become an M.P. to function, to make a statement. The telling statistics are in the novel or poem or play, and therefore cannot 'lie' in Churchill's sense of the relation between statistics and truth, only be interpreted in different ways.

As Said lucidly showed, the critic, then, can bring close to the fire those excluded voices and stories, can highlight how Europeans and Americans have huddled and hogged its heat, leaving those of a different colour, class or gender out in the cold, their stories either not found in the canonical texts or, if present, described in biased, misrepresentative, stereotyped ways. Literary criticism and the departments in which it is exercised can, if it functions effectively and legitimately with an awareness of the power within it, and its obligation to project by implication and suggestion that power outside it, make a difference. And, within the university in which each department exists, it can draw together cultures and races by inviting lecturers to speak about their own, not necessarily western, literature; it can act as a cohesive intellectual force which mixes history with sociology, philosophy with science, and brings together the specialist practitioners in all those disciplines. This is not to suggest that the study of literature cannot, or should not, be an end in itself, a study with vaguer, aesthetic objectives as well as with practical ambitions. However, in an educational world governed by league tables, standards and assessment exercises which demand quantitative, as well as qualitative, statistics, we must justify our ambitions to ourselves and to those who fund us; it is not enough in this environment to say it is just "a good thing".

Through the empirical terms by which it must be measured in modern society, the raison d'etre for literary criticism hovers somewhere between an art and a science: like an art it need not have no purpose other than satisfying the aesthetic desires of its creators; like science, however, it is publicly funded and therefore today it is answerable in terms of its solid achievements, what goods it delivers to the consumers (the tax-payers) who own it. The latter issue would seem to be a natural outcome of scientific endeavour, and therefore science, unlike literary criticism, must not always look over its shoulder to justify its presence. Here there is always an end-goal in site, a hypothesis to be tested which, if proved, may be developed in real-world applications. If some beautiful interpretation may be applied to that discovery - and who can not be awed by the images of the early galaxies, or the simplicity of E=mc2? - then that is a happy but not essential by-product.

However, increasingly science is heading into brave new (sub-atomic) worlds, environments characterised by the vagary with which they can be studied and by the creativity of mind required to come up with a particular conception of the world which, as yet, we don't have the maths to understand. As science extends, with performative rhetoric, into quasars and quarks and quantum mechanics, the members of the science faculty, turning on their supercomputers, may face a similar dilemma to that personal one faced by me. What is it all for? What is the practical goal of what seems an increasingly artistic game played by an elite few, wrapped up, like the literary critic, in an isolated and isolating terminology?

Whilst, in a world of which complex technology is an irrevocably synthetic part, it is evidently absurd to suggest that science is no longer relevant, there are legitimate questions over the extent to which cutting-edge, theoretical physics, maths, chemistry can have any immediate application. Some have argued - an extreme position - that one reason quantum physics among other things is so difficult is that it is not of evolutionary necessity for our survival that we know about it; if it were, our brains would have developed in specific ways to enable more than just a handful of select geniuses to cope with the maths. As it is, science has become such an exclusive game (whether because of biology or not) that we have the bizarre position where one mathematician, Louis de Branges, claims to have solved one the vital Reimann Hypothesis, but this cannot be verified because it would take another mathematician years to learn the new maths - which de Branges himself and alone developed specifically for this case - required to check it.

Although it is short-sighted to suggest that simply because the majority of people cannot cut through the visual waves and scrawls of Greek letters required to comprehend particles and the universe it is neither necessary, nor natural, nor capable of producing results which may be adapted to real-world, practical applications, there is no doubt that in the immediate term science must face a crisis of belief. Although science has always struggled with the ethical dilemmas it produces, these have been with its results - the ability to control and harness nuclear energy in ways both destructive and productive, for example - rather than with its methods. Now, however, the question hovers not only its end, but its means to a (vague and possibly non-existent, impractical) end.

However, it is in this new advanced scientific method that the solution to this problem lies. The experiments to understand the universe require vast amounts of investment: manpower, processing power, expensive technology to develop and launch satellites. The image of the solitary individual in a lamp-lit room, wearing slobby, sweaty clothes - the Newtonian figure - solving these problems is laughable in the modern context; today entire industries work towards understanding the boundaries of just one piece of the jigsaw. Even individual countries cannot finance all of science's projects, and thus such science demands international co-operation to build and pay for the underground particle accelerators and the space stations where the questions may be answered.

Thus science, like literary criticism, has had to get political, to negotiate new contracts for working which introduce into the community anyone with the proper minds, regardless of nationality or heritage. It acts as a cohesive force, unifying nations, supporting international study, drawing on all aspects of the faculty. It even, through the use of distributed computing, engages the otherwise alienated individual. When I am not working on my computer, the screensaver kicks in and analyses a tiny, but potentially significant, packet of data. Advanced science - even though it would seem to have little impact on how our food is cooked or how reliably our computers run - therefore does take on a social dimension, having the quality and potential to be a force for cohesion and union. Thus literary criticism and the study of quarks, are both very much political arts.

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This essay was the result of a fascinating workshop I attended which was organised by the poet Diana Syder, whose work examines extensively the role and influence of science (even of the 'cutting-edge' sort). Her book Maxwell's Rainbow is published by Smith Doorstop Books.

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This page was published on April 6, 2005 | Keywords: literary criticism, science, politics, research

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