In Conversation with Bruce Robbins — Criticism and Politics

In this conversation with RevDem editor Kasia Krzyżanowska, Bruce Robbins discusses his newest book Criticism and Politics. A Polemical Introduction. He tackles the influence the democratic movements had on literary criticism; discusses the nostalgic paradigm of literary studies; ponders on the role of critics in society; and argues against populist approaches to literature.

Bruce Robbins — Old Dominion Foundation Professor of the Humanities in the department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. His books include Perpetual War: Cosmopolitanism from the Viewpoint of Violence (2012), Upward Mobility and the Common Good (2007), Feeling Global: Internationalism in Distress (1999), and The Servant’s Hand: English Fiction from Below (1986). His essays have appeared in n+1The NationPublic Books, and the London Review of Books. He is also the director of a documentary, Some of My Best Friends Are Zionists, available at

You intended your book to be both an introduction to and a polemic with academic literary criticism. Let us start with an introduction. Could you briefly present to our listeners what has changes throughout the last 50 years in this field? Could you walk us through how did it happen that, as one Amazon review of a classic selection of essays complained, since the 60s it is no longer possible to provide one certain stance on literature, have one common ground of criticism? Would you say that the main change was in the fact that academic critics no longer observed the students’ revolts, but rather actively participated in them?

Fifty years ago (it’s kind of dazzling to think that was fifty years ago when I entered the field), there was already a variety of approaches to criticism. This was a period of close reading, but there were also moral readings, there were historical readings… But all of them seem, looking back, to have assumed a universal subject, and that universal subject was not actually so universal. They assumed the existence of a white, male, heterosexual, upper-middle-class, well-educated person, who could arrive at a ‘correct’ reading. The idea that anybody who didn’t belong to those categories — who might be for example female or not heterosexual, or not upper-middle-class — might actually have something to contribute to an interpretation of the text, whatever the text was, based on their different experience, that simply didn’t exist.

The quick way of saying the thesis of the book is that it was the 1960s democratic movements, mainly in the name of race, and gender and sexuality, not so much in the name of class I have to say (I wish that had been different) — all of those movements had a major impact on criticism. They suggested a need for a multiplicity of interpretations. They did so in different ways and with different vocabularies; some of this came across in the vocabulary of what we call theory. We in America borrowed from you in Europe and from the prestige of a high philosophical tradition of ideas in order to back up the democratic movement in the US.

But my argument is that this is not a change that makes as much sense if you think of the philosophical movements without thinking of the democratic movements that really gave the ideas energy and allowed them to speak to people in a way that mere philosophy would not have spoken.  It’s the result of many different kinds of criticism which don’t necessarily claim kinship with each other.

That’s the quick version of the main argument of my book. 

The (one of many) points of polemics in your book with the current state of literary criticism is its approach to the past. You endow the critics with a rather prominent ask: to organise the past “because it has no organising principles of its own”, and to organise the contemporary tragedies (climate crisis, social injustices, job crisis) as interconnected by one political narrative, to be constructed by the critics themselves. This way, you try to break with the paradigmatic melancholy of literary studies — could you tell us a bit more on this feature?

I probably should have put this into my answer to your first question, but better late than never.  When I entered the field, I think I was offered a heroic self-image of what it meant to be a critic. And what it meant to be a critic was to rescue the past. A past that was perpetually on the verge of disappearing, which had a morally and aesthetically superior message to offer the present. The present was seen as degraded, degraded in a kind of loose way; nobody really spent a lot of time thinking about all the things that were wrong with the present. But this was a very attractive image, not only because we were allowed to think of ourselves as heroic rescuers, but because we could think of ourselves as oppositional.

We were told that the present was commercial, and it was technological, and it was morally empty. Much of this is inherited from T. S. Eliot and modernists like T. S. Eliot who had a very low idea of modernity and a very low idea of modern democracy, to bring it back to that. 

I make the argument that there is a paradigm of melancholy that was built into the profession when I entered it, and has stayed in the profession, sometimes in very enigmatic or invisible ways. I think sometimes that literary criticism that deals with embattled, marginalised cultures is also melancholic, but this is maybe too complicated an argument to get into now. 

I don’t actually think as you suggest that the critic has the heroic role of organising a past that otherwise doesn’t have any principles of organisation of its own. In fact, I am arguing against that. If we look at the past, at history, without assuming the paradigm of melancholy, we will see forces in history that should make us not exactly happy, but forces to which we can feel attached and that would give meaning to the kinds of activities that we engage in. That history is really there. It’s not an imposition on the reality of chaos.  I’m trying to avoid the cynicism of critics just saying ‘hey, I’ve got a good job, it’s got benefits, it pays pretty well, I get to read books, I get to talk about books, it’s great for me, but it doesn’t do the world any good, and there is no particular reason that society should pay for it, but in the meantime I’m really lucky’.  No. 

I am trying to say there is an organic relationship between critics in the present and the movements that helped put those critics into the academy, those movements of the ‘60s. Or, more precisely, the legacy of those movements; obviously not everybody actually participated in those movements. They get the benefit, however, because it has in fact been recognised that democracy needs to pay attention to collectivities that have been marginalised and under-represented. That includes women, people of different races, immigrants, it includes all kinds of people. The premise is that it is good for democracy for people to know about the experiences of other people, experiences that they might not otherwise know about.  Criticism is a vehicle for the transmission of those experiences.

If you look you can actually see a push in history towards greater democratization. We don’t have to impose a narrative of democratization upon the world, the world is offering us that possibility of getting with the programme, of aiding something that is actually out there. The kind of Nietzschean thesis that ‘the world is meaningless and only we impose meaning on it’ has been too popular among critics. I am inspired by, and this is one of the arguments that I make in the book, the idea that in the eighteenth century the ancestors of modern critics were helping to organise a new hegemony, a rising middle-class which had to make a place for itself in power vis-à-vis the old aristocracy. There is something similar, something analogous at least, that is happening today.

Obviously, it’s not an achieved hegemony that we are talking about but helping people that did not have a large voice in democracy until very recently get together with people who did have a voice, so as to further democratize democracy— that’s really the point that I am trying to make.  

When I say critics are organic to the social movements, I realise that lends itself to misinterpretation. I don’t mean that critics these days are on the telephone or getting text messages from the representatives of the different constituencies, whether feminist groups or Black Lives Matter. I don’t think it works that way in some literal sense. There is obviously a certain distance. But across that distance I see a coherence also. 

In the democratic world, as the argument is frequently made, a distinction between “bad” and “good” reading of a book can no longer be made — all readings are equally welcomed, particularly those appreciating authors from historically suppressed regions. If this argument is taken to its extreme, why ever the state should subsidise the literary studies at the universities, if people could relate to their own experience to judge a book, as they do via various social media accounts? 

You have pushed together a number of very interesting questions in that one question. I am really trying to think about what critics need to say to potential funders or sponsors in civil society or in the state to try to answer the question of why they should pay for us to exist. I’m assuming that it’s entirely possible that we would not be funded and that we would not be sponsored and that we would not continue to exist. I am a little worried that many of the activities that go on inside the profession are themselves not trying to answer the question of why anybody or ‘society’ should support the existence of this profession. 

The argument about democracy is really aimed as an answer. I am trying to say ‘hey, people out there, if you care about democracy, you should care about this profession’. It’s obviously not the only place in which there are representations of the experience of collectivities, mainstream or marginalized; that information gets transmitted in many other ways. But it’s one very, very important place where that happens. I don’t think, and this is to try to answer the first part of your question, that all interpretations are equally valid, and that all you have to do is ask people who belong to a particular collectivity ‘well, what do you think?’. If that were true, it would give us, the critics, not much work to do, so that would be a problem with it. Luckily, I don’t think you can completely believe anyone. A member of collectivity X, for example a woman, may not have thought about what their experience looks like from the point of view of, let’s say, a Black man, and the Black man may not have thought about what his experience looks like from the point of view of a white woman. And neither of them may have thought about the experience of a gay Chinese-American. So both from the perspective of criticism, and from the perspective of democracy, there is an enormous amount of work to do in bringing these different perspectives together. 

That’s convenient because I am of course trying to give the profession work to do. I’m arguing that we do have work to do, and that people should pay us for it, and that we have an expertise, and a socially valuable one.

But I certainly don’t think that all interpretations are equally valid, because, let’s say, an interpretation that does not take into account what the same text might look like to people who are situated differently is not worth as much as an interpretation as that that does take that into account. 

There’s lots of work to be done democratically, politically, as well as critically when we look at these texts which are representations of the experience of people who are differently situated from ourselves. 

Do you think there is a clash of interests between professional critics and non-professional readers?

Well, now you are bringing me to the polemical part of the book as opposed to the introductory part.

One of the things I am arguing with is a tendency that I see as neo-populist in a sense that it flatters ordinary readers, and it tells ordinary readers that they don’t need any expertise and that what they know is entirely sufficient. 

Maybe I am a little bit nastier in my polemic than I ought to be, but I do see a connection between this discourse within the profession and a kind of right-wing “culture wars” discourse outside the profession. This suggests these educated elites are just looking out for their own interests and are condescending to or expressing contempt for ordinary people. That is a discourse that is claiming to be democratic. 

The version of democracy that I’m trying to peddle here is one that has room for expertise and is trying to answer back to the sceptical or cynical populist critique in the name of ordinary readers. I am just going to repeat to you what I already said before: if you flatter ordinary readers that everything they already know is sufficient to allow them to interpret texts, you are saying among other things, misleadingly, that if you are a white guy of the middle class you can just follow your visceral reactions to a text and you don’t have to think what that same text might look like to a woman, it’s not your problem, you’re great as you are. I think democracy is harder than that.

I don’t think that people can be, or should be flattered, and I understand that it can look self-interested of me to say that because I’m claiming that the work that critics do, the expertise that critics claim to have, has to do with historical injustice. We speak in the name of justice.

But in a very down-to-earth sense, we really are mediators between various forms of experience. That’s what we do when we talk about cultural artefacts, literary texts, or films, or new media, or whatever it is that we talk about. But I am very worried by what I think of as this neo-populist move in which people are being flattered to attack the elites, get rid of the elites, and delegitimise claims to expertise. In the US US — I don’t know how it has been in Europe — this kind of discourse has led to de-funding and the collapse of the job market. And the profession has failed to answer those outsiders who say ‘Why should we be paying for you at all? You are just setting yourself up as experts, but people are perfectly capable of reading things on their own. Who needs you?’.

I wanted to ask you more about this neo-populist approach, but more on the side of aesthetics. Do you think that this approach which we could name as populist aesthetics exists, and what would be the features of this aesthetics?

I’m not sure that I have a good answer to that question. What I am most conscious of in this neo-populist aesthetics is its anti-historical impulse. One thing we don’t need, I think they’re saying, is your knowledge (your supposed expertise) of differences between one historical context and another. Old texts speak to us in the present exactly the same as if they had been written yesterday. Their universal experiences of love and death and beauty (we are back to universality again) are exactly the same for people in all cultures and all times and all places. That is, for example, if you’re black you should recognise the same idea of beauty as people who are white, if you are female… You know, it’s all the same. It’s the claim to universality, the claim that context is insignificant, that bothers me the most. 

I’m probably being a little bit disingenuous there because I do believe there is such a thing as beauty, and that it is part of our business to talk about it wherever we find it, and to actually make sure that we do find it.

But I don’t think that you have to rule out historical context in order to talk about beauty. 

There are beauties which are beauties, and are even more visible if you do pay attention to historical context and to differences of historical context. I also argue in the book (this is maybe getting a little bit too esoteric) that there are trans-historical experiences, and that in order to talk about aesthetics properly you have to be able to appreciate that people have always needed to grieve, to eat, to have shelter. There are experiences which are genuinely universal around things like that. I don’t think we should be thinking about history only in terms of differences, or only in terms of contexts that separate us from each other. There are also contexts that connect us to each other, and I am very much in favour of us connecting with each other.

I want to talk a bit more about aesthetics. You criticise aesthetics because of its claim to universality, but on the other hand, recently one author, Johannes Voelz, who was inspired by Matthew Arnold, sees in aesthetics a way to overcome polarisation, a way to induce empathy to the deconstruct ‘us’ in order to tie the knots with ‘them’. I wonder, what would you say to this kind of approach to reduce polarity?

I think that I would be very positive about it. It is a tradition of aesthetics that I come out of myself. In terms of European philosophy, you’re probably thinking more about Kant than about Matthew Arnold, although disinterestedness is a term that both Matthew Arnold and Kant used. If you carried the idea of disinterestedness to an extreme, it would mean checking all the particularity of your experience at the door, and confronting the text without it. You as a woman would have to try and forget that you were a woman, I would have to forget that I am a man, and so on. That would be an extreme version of disinterestedness in order for us to join together in an aesthetic appreciation of whatever it is, we would have to check all that. Obviously I don’t believe that, because you as a woman are going to carry your experience as a woman into the room, and you should be allowed to, and I as a man will carry my experience into the room, and so on. But I also believe, and I think this is consistent with what you were saying, that we can’t simply accept our own experience. When we enter into that room, when you present me with X that you think is beautiful, I have to think about the validity of your judgment of beauty, factoring in your experience as a woman looking at that X, and I have to be a little bit disinterested about my own interests and judgments as a man. An impulse to disinterestedness is necessary. 

There is an askesis, there is a self-doubt, a self-scrutiny, a pulling back from oneself, which I think is completely consistent with what Matthew Arnold and Kant mean by disinterestedness. It has to happen in order for us to have the conversation. ‘Don’t you find this beautiful?’ ‘Well, yes, maybe, maybe if I look at it this way, maybe if I look at it that way’. There is a conversation that we have, it forces us to ask questions about who we are based on the people that we are talking to, and the aim of it is a kind of agreement. I think Kant was right about that: when you call something beautiful you are demanding the agreement of other people, and there is something a little pushy about that. I think Kant was trying to imagine democracy in the Critique of Judgement, the third critique. The book is the political theory he never wrote. He thought that maybe what happens when people say ‘I think this is beautiful’ to each other is a model of what has to happen in order to create a more just society. I think aesthetics is absolutely relevant to that operation.

You speak in your book about the potentiality of existence of “critical cosmopolitcs”, which places itself between “fading post-colonial studies” and “depoliticized world literature”, trying to find distinctive features that an exemplary literary critic should embrace. Do you think that indeed good academic critics should share some particular features, a common identity, like the critics/journalists of the 18th century shared? Let me put a context to this question: in her book, Phillipa Chong, published by Princeton, convincingly argues that critics do not even identify with being a critic anymore, as their primary identification is a scholar/writer. 

I don’t know how much group identity people used to have as critics, and it is very hard to measure how much people have now. I can speak at least to the cosmopolitan side of your question, which I have spent some time thinking about. I would be willing to be pretty assertive about this: that a pre-requisite for critical or cosmopolitan identity these days is a willingness to be critical about one’s own society, that is to imagine oneself as part of an at least potential conversation with people who come from places like Budapest and Vienna. Even if you are not actually in conversation as I am very pleased to be with you at this moment, you imagine yourself in conversation with people from other places. And when you do, you imagine what they might think of your society, the society that you come from, and you identify a little bit with the potential view of your society that they would take as maybe opposed to the view of the society adopted by the people around you, inside the society.

I actually see a great deal of that. You brought up world literature and post-colonial studies. I don’t know how lively those terms are for the people listening to your podcast. But it seems to me, for example, that within post-colonial studies, if you are from South Asia these days, it is no longer a respectable position to say that all the ills of South Asia in the present can be blamed on the fact of colonialism. South Asian scholars are very, very interested in Dalits and the caste system. And that is an example of being a cosmopolitan critic: if you are from South Asia, you are critical in a cosmopolitan way about South Asia. Those are the dues you pay at the door these days if you want to consider yourself a cosmopolitan critic. And that maybe is new. If you are simply a champion of the society that you come from, you are no longer a fully paid-up member of the profession. 

This point can also be connected to the theme of democracy. Democracy within any given nation can only be a very, very imperfect democracy. Those of us who care about democracy want therefore to extend it beyond the borders of a nation. We are thinking about refugees, we’re thinking about climate change, we’re thinking about things that a democracy needs to worry about but that can’t be worried about simply within the borders of a democracy. As an American, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the bombs that America has dropped on other countries. The people in those other countries didn’t get to vote on whether they would be bombed or not.  America could be as democratic as possible (of course it is not actually extremely democratic, but let’s say that it could be a perfect democracy internally), but if it dropped bombs on people who didn’t get to vote on whether they would be bombed or not, then the decision and the situation are not really all that democratic. 

Probably in Europe we would be discussing the European Union and the current ongoing war that Russia has started in Ukraine. But maybe this is the moment I can ask you about the role of those organic intellectuals that you mentioned. Do you think that professional academic critics can chose to be apolitical these days?

Of course they can, and some do. I don’t approve of that because to choose to be apolitical in times like these is to say, ‘On the whole I’m not so bothered by the status quo, it hasn’t treated me very badly, things aren’t perfect, but they never have been perfect, so I have work to do for tomorrow and I am not going to worry about the bigger picture’. Of course, some people are going to make that decision, and there are days where I am tempted to make that decision myself, I have preparation to do for tomorrow, and I am not going to think about everything that worries me about the war in Ukraine or what I can do about it, if I can think of what I might do about it. I can understand that. People who have jobs like mine, and we are a minority, are very privileged, we have job security, we have benefits, we have a relatively reasonable teaching schedule. I don’t think those privileges can be given back, I’m not inclined to give them back, but I do think that they bring with them certain obligations to give back in some way to all those who don’t have those privileges, to take advantage of the capacities that my privileged position gives me to do what I can for all the people that don’t enjoy the kind of comfort and security that I do. It happens that my grandparents come from Ukraine, so I’m thinking about that maybe a little bit more than some people, but I think everybody is thinking about that right now. 

Do you observe any striking differences between you being a student and today’s students that are now going to university in their approach towards the political worlds and democracy?

Oh, that’s a tough question. It is really hard to generalise. There are students who I think have been beaten down a bit by the pandemic and by climate change. They are maybe less optimistic given how they suffered, some of them had two years of their education taken away, no real contact with their fellow students, for example, because of the pandemic, and they are generally more conscious of how awful the prospects for climate change are, and the general consequences of our abuse of the environment. For some people that’s a prod, a goad to be more politically active; for others, they just want to cover their heads and say ‘I hope it will go away by the time I am out there in the world’. I’ve been very lucky in the sense that as a teacher I always feel that there are people in my classes who are relatively happy to hear, critically of course, to listen to the kinds of things I have to say. If they were glaring at me, uncomprehendingly, with immense hostility all the time, I would just go home and cry and I would have trouble continuing with my professional activities. At least it is not that.

How does professing literary criticism in newspapers differ from professing scholarly work at university? This is a practical question, as you engage in both kinds of activities, publishing at Los Angeles Review of Books or London Review of Books. Are there different kinds of gratifications, or different audiences to target, with distinctive sensitivities? Or perhaps the difference between these two capacities lies in the responsibilities towards these audiences?

I don’t actually write for newspapers, but sometimes I do write for non-academic journals. Of course, non-academic journals are much more exposed to the pressures of the market. For example, if you are reviewing books, you know that you are advising a would-be consumer to buy or not to buy the book; in general, harsh ideological criticism is not very much encouraged in those market-oriented venues. But I don’t feel an enormous gap in the voice I try to adopt in non-academic places and the voice that I try to adopt in academic places. It may be that I have lost my enthusiasm for a strictly academic voice.

At this point, I feel people who read academic journals or academic books are on the whole grateful to encounter a more human voice that comes from non-academic places, and they don’t hold it against you as a writer. 

Obviously you want to say things that sound intelligent, otherwise it is depressing and people will make it clear to you that they don’t respect you. But if you can find a way of sounding intelligent but doing so with a minimum of academic jargon, and with a little bit of what we call ‘body English’, a little bit of the emotion that would go into non-academic writing, I think on the whole academic readers are more grateful than not.

In collaboration with Karen Culver.

The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

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