Matthew Sussman Responds to Alicia Christoff

I found it quite interesting that Alicia Christoff contrasts the “argument” of Cohn’s book with its “methodology.” Indeed, I hadn’t realized how Cohn notices moments of still life in Victorian literature while also advocating a “suspensive mood of criticism” that is capable of replicating them. If we expect our criticism to express what it studies as well as to explain it, then indeed, there is something odd about a massive critical project dedicated to the suspension of cognition. But I’m not sure that there is really a paradox here or that such a norm should govern literary criticism.

In “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time” (1949), Northrop Frye famously argues that “the arts are dumb” and only criticism lets them speak. In terms of methodology, then, literature and criticism have virtually nothing in common. One is the data that literary criticism investigates, the other is an attempt to construct a systematic body of knowledge about that data, to organize and interpret it according to critical principles. The attitude of the critic is thus different from that of the common reader, who, although he or she have many legitimate goals, does not usually count the systematic production of knowledge among them.

Frye’s stark division between literature and criticism may now strike us naïve, particularly as we have become sensitive to the fluidity of discourses and the important role that criticism plays in constructing the objects it describes. But I think Frye’s point helps us remember that the purposes of literature and criticism are kept distinct not by accident but by design. If Cohn were to talk about the literary suspension of knowing in a way that mirrored that suspension, it would be impossible for her book to provide a contribution to knowledge as we understand that term in an academic context. It would be something else, surely, perhaps something valuable from the perspective of ethics or affect, but not the addition it currently makes to our understanding of Victorian texts.

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