Reconstructing Criticism

Philip Smallwood

Pope's Essay on Criticism and the Logic of Definition

2003
226 pages
$43.50
ISBN 0-8387-5544-5
LC 2003000297

At a time when the edifice of Critical Theory has itself come under the critical and historical spotlight, this study establishes grounds for bringing pope's 1711 poem, An Essay on Criticism, into a new and more productive association with the dynamics of the contemporary critical scene. In this theoretical and analytical study Smallwood begins by setting forth a new context of relevance and reception that ultimately leads back to Pope's early eighteenth-century poem, and in the greater part of the book he marks out in depth of demarcating "criticism" today.

Drawing on numerous examples of recent attempts by critics to make explicit the essence and value of their critical practice, Smallwood comments on the shortcomings these repeatedly reveal. He recognizes that criticism, no more than literature or art itself, cannot be finally codified or defined, but insists on the need for clarity in the exposition of criticism's purposes, and the consciousness of a common community of practice available to audiences outside the academic fold. Smallwood affirms throughout the unfailing currency and utility of the term "criticism" as new languages have taken over the critical domain, or have sought to replace or abolish "literature," and he distinguishes, finally, between the propositional logic that is everywhere apparent and contested within the modern theory of criticism and Pope's poetic evocation of the idea of criticism. The poem in this respect finds its best explanatory context in a strain of British Idealist thought that has been too often occluded by Theory.

The book concludes that Pope's poetic definition has an indispensable historical role to play in the analysis of our present uncertainties over criticism's purpose and function, and that the symbolic meaning of the Essay on Criticism has important current implications for criticism as a literary form. In foregrounding the poem, the study brings into sharper focus both the shape of critical history and the historiographical problems of the literary-critical "event." An afterword to the volume examines the claims to have "redefined" criticism that have come from the direction of cultural studies. Despite the egalitarian aims of cultural studies in its earlier phase, its more recent forms, Smallwood suggests, betray an intellectual corporatism and bourgeois consciousness that appear to defeat its original purpose.

About the author:

Philip Smallwood is Professor of English at the University of Central England in Birmingham, and the author, most recently, of Reconstructing Criticism: Pope's "Essay on Criticism" and the Logic of Definition (Bucknell University Press, 2003) and Johnson's Critical Presence: Image, History, Judgment (Ashgate Publishing, 2004).

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