Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 16. Nr. Juni 2006

9.6. Spreading the Word: Texts and the Text
Herausgeberin | Editor | Éditeur: Mihaela Irimia (University of Bucharest)

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Criticism, from Text to Texts: Modernity in the Making

Carlos Leone (Brown University Visiting Scholar, BPD/FCT)


My purpose in this presentation is to value criticism, or critical discourse, as one of the key elements in intellectual and social modernity in the Western world. My primary focus is on 17 th and 18 th centuries because the modern sense of criticism was defined then and persists until today as the proper sense of the word, as I will try to make clear. The fact that 19 th century modernism and 20 th century post-modernism have obscured the perception of the social function of criticism does not disavow it, but requires another sort of argument that I am not in position to elaborate on this occasion. I should say, however, that those trends depended upon a successful modernity process to develop and therefore, do not contradict it, quite the contrary, they take it for granted, something that is established whether they aspire to change or to demolish it.

In the first section of this paper I present a short and schematic perspective on the relation of criticism with three social changes that are generally regarded as typically modern (the Reformation, the formation of the Nation-State system and the development of civil society). In the second section, much shorter and merely a temporary conclusion, I present my own views on the present state of modernity.


I. From criticism to text

If one accepts the monstrous task of defining modernity (or even just some of its most relevant periods, such as Enlightenment or Romanticism), certain features are bound to be noticed, independently of our view on them or on their relative importance in our eyes. Such features are those which represent aspects of Western civilization that are not entirely made up of a strict evolution from the past, but rather try to break free from their immediate tradition. The modern worldview envisages something new, entirely or at least in part, and its achievements are to be identified in the characteristics of those societies that became modern. Let me point out three aspects I consider (unoriginally) widespread and capital, if in different forms, across Western Europe: the schism of Christianity; the formation of the modern Nation-State; the rise of a civil society within the boundaries set by State power.

1. Criticism is closely associated with the schism, as the schism represents itself a consequence of the critical spirit or attitude, an intellectual doppelganger of the individualist capitalist ethos made famous by Max Weber. The theological strife and political warfare of Reformation depended upon the individual’s ability to set himself into an empowering mode of relation with the traditional powers of society, both political and religious. In the late Middle Ages there were of course pre-formations of this attitude, such as Marsilius and William of Ockham; but it is with the unleashing of academic discussions about, say, the right to kill a tyrant to the general public, in the form of a critical interpretation of the Biblical text regardless of the authority of the Roman doctrine, that criticism gains its laurel as a modern element of societies.

All the aspects of Reformation call upon critical analysis: intellectually, as it demands a personal reading and interpretation of the Scriptures; politically, as it engages in the refashioning of laws, habits and practices long established (separating Church and State powers); religiously, as it dispelled the possibility of a homogenous western religion and in fact paved the way for a defence of tolerance to both believers of other faiths and atheists.

This does not mean that Reformed religion proved more rational or tolerant than Roman one, but only that its comparative lack of political power contributed to shorten the effects of its own fanaticism. That mix of rational outlook to the world provided by a self-proclaimed right to criticism and a very strict belief-system (something also present in other periods of the Roman Catholic faith, by the way) proved to be a fertile ground for the growth of criticism as a social practice. I mean: criticism is, up until the present, both a movement of rational, neutral, analysis (its Beruf as vocation) and the borderline fanatic, self-imposed duty to persist against all odds in its argument (its Beruf as profession). Thoreau’s «a majority of one already» conveys beautifully this feeling of self-election by result of one’s work to a select society. I will return to this point in a minute.

If we consider people like Erasmus or Morus, we will in all likelihood grant them a status of distinction in their work not only as intellectuals but as critics in the sense I am describing, regardless of our appraisal of their texts. For they have questioned Christianity and not just some specific interpretation of it (as in the late Middle Ages), never subsiding in heresy. They proved able to face up to all challenges the worldly powers set against them without losing their faith or their intellectual freedom and thus inscribed criticism, of a moral kind, among the forces to be reckoned with in the new societies on the making.

2. Let me now return to the «select societies» I mentioned a moment ago. Although this is a topic generally regarded as a typically 18 th century one, which is also true, the very dynamics of a critical discourse making its ways out of academic domains led to the development of such societies earlier than that. One can say they always existed, but their importance to what I’m saying lies in that they had, in response to religious wars in Europe, the historical opportunity required to become decisive.

The response to religious wars was, of course, the formation of the nation-State and the centralization of power in the hands of the absolute monarch. L’etat etait lui, so to speak. And the gradual evolution to such a situation, forming a Court society of gentry serving the king made available a socially prevalent model for the select societies based on criticism. They were devoted to forms of sociability that evaded the instruments of absolute power but, unlike their 18 th century followers, they contended that criticism served a useful purpose for State power (Spinoza, in the end of TT-P). In short, the growing influence of critical reasoning, that had started with the critical reading of the Bible and was making its way alongside the spread of readership, was perceived as a model for all forms of intervention in society, albeit accessible only to a small number of learned men.

Select societies made their way in discussing politics, economy, history, the arts, etc. Their social function of influencing the nation-State’s sovereign is apparent already very early on, when modern censorship is developed in order to control them. Above all, Richelieu demonstrated just how close criticism and power had become, as he not only created a strict set of rules and instruments of repression but actively engaged in promoting modern forms of social intervention to the advantage of the power he represented. The French Academy, the French National Theatre, some of France’s most influential newspapers of the 17 th century, among other initiatives (above all the standardization of the French language), clearly show the nation-State’s usage of text as a tool for social modernity. And for that usage, criticism’s select society model of discussion was recognized as a worthy case-study. Criticism’s emphasis on reading and thinking for oneself engendered of course resistance from political power in the form of modern State censorship, but they shared a common worldview mediated by the Press and, above all else, the printed word over the printed image. The text, first the religious then the bureaucratic one, was an object of criticism and that defined modernity in the most pervasive way, ranging from designed effects to unexpected ones.

Something quite opposite took place in persistently pre-Modern nations, such as Portugal or Spain. Despite a precocious engagement with European expansion, that opened the world for the whole continent, both countries remained in the 17 th and 18 th centuries apart from the Reformation, from the surge of criticism and from its usage by modern, centralized political power for its purposes. Hence, not only censorship remained under religious tutelage but religion suffered a counter-reformation although no reformation ever took place there. Not surprisingly, soon all of modern Europe regarded the Iberian peninsula as «gothic», i.e., pre-modern, for the social features of modern societies were almost completely absent: almost no rule of Law or separation of secular and religious power, little social mobility, incipient central State forces, lack of scientific and cultural innovation. In a word, societies deprived of the elements typical of a critical perspective were regarded as pre-modern.

3. Such a perception reached its height by the 18th century. Its symbol is the «critick» and its ideology is Philosophy of History (what is nowadays e dubbed grand-récits). Together, they form the Enlightenment.

The critic is undoubtedly the forerunner of the 19 th and 20 th century intellectual. His other designations (Aufklärer, libre penseur) concur as they all stress the creative, not merely analytical, aspect of his action. The historical opportunity I mentioned above was in fact seized and the critical study and its spread were at last deemed universal. No longer in a subsidiary role, the critics were bringing enlightenment to all and anticipating general freedom. Of course things were never easy, and so even the great ones restrained from excessive public exhibition (consider Kant’s view that Aufklärung was not harmful to the State as it affected only learned men). Nonetheless, the social relevance of the public figure that embodied the ideals of criticism was, by the late 18 th century, indisputable. Frederic II, an enlightened despot (in itself a curious category, reflecting the overwhelming influence of criticism’s ideals even in societies still holding on to many aspects of feudalism), actually bothered to reply to critics and satirists in his works, while giving shelter in his court to those persecuted across Europe. The pre-eminence of critics as elements of the avant-guarde of society became evident when Diderot and D’Alembert assembled the Encyclopédie, but the process was already in motion everywhere by then.

The privileged explanation for the triumph of criticism as a producer of modernity came along quickly in the guise of Philosophy of History. A term coined by Voltaire and made famous by Herder, philosophy of history designated the logic of events significant enough to be enrolled in historical records. With such diverse authors recurring to it, it is no surprise that there were so many and so different philosophies of history during the following centuries, and that fact only stresses that such an effort to reveal a logic, an underlying meaning in events, became since the 19 th century the task of the socially committed intellectual, both in the avant-guarde and in the counter-revolutionary (counter-modern) circles.

Criticism was by now all the text needed to be. No longer interpreting a religious text or in dialogue with official directives from the siege of power as in the two preceding centuries, criticism had already a modern history to consider and interpret, an history of which itself was part of. Since then, it never looked away from that goal of unveiling the ultimate meaning of events, which explains its deterministic tendencies (heavily criticized in Marxism but also frequent elsewhere). Again, that mix of fanaticism and rationality, of a free agent that feels obligated to take risks far beyond his own private interest.

And if one prefers narrative to theory, instead of Herder or Hegel just read Don Quixote, a perfect example of all this (and a lot more!).


II. Modernity in the making

I started by mentioning that modernism and post-modernism are outside the scope of my presentation, and so I must end. Before that, I think it is relevant to say something about the relation of modernity with itself, even if that brings me right into those issues I intend to avoid. By saying modernism and post-modernity take modernity for granted, I mean that only in modern societies, where the long work of criticism was undertaken successfully, developed that sort of historical consciousness of modernity as a specific immediate past. I pointed out the cases of Portugal and Spain (in fact, two rather different cases) as examples of denied modernity, so to speak. I want to finish with what can be regarded as my personal viewpoint on modernity, despite its work-in-progress status so far.

If, as I just suggested, modernity’s self-perception first established itself during the 18 th century and philosophy of history was its narrative, such a worldview is not incompatible with our own habits, despite claims to the contrary. The public success of works like those of Huntington on the clash of civilizations or Fukuyama’s announcement of the end of history indicate that the modern mind frame is still heavily indebted to teleological narratives, even if they don’t make sense as they use to do in the 18 th and 19 th centuries. I certainly agree with Lyotard about the end of grand récits, but I do not follow other post-modernists claims about the total disintegration of the very possibility of any kind of sense at all (Lipowetsky). Even deprived of a strong, or a thick, or a great theory about our lives and our societies, we all can make sense of our personal and collective experiences in terms that are recognizable as modern, i.e., as critical. I would go so far as to say that Nietzschean perspectivism is a sense-making theory, not any nihilistic destruction of sense (and considering the importance of sense and value in Nietzsche’s conception of life and hierarchy, and I don’t think I’m being provocative in saying this).

My take on this subject is that the continuous decay not just of modern, critical reading, but of reading altogether jeopardizes both criticism and its contribution to modernity, constituting a threat to modern modes of organization of life, both social and personal. Hence, the call for non-dialogic logics or the conversion of Literary Studies into Cultural Studies so as to accommodate what is not text overlooks the fact that learning to read a text is necessary in order to subsequently read an image or anything else. In an age in which mass media are more and more regulated by images and less and less by text (ck. Internet and TV), modernity is not coming to an end as much as coming to an obscured (sometimes obscurantist) form. Modernity, more than a risk society, generates now societies of uncertainty - the assessment of risk declines as the uncritical appropriation of texts and issues by image-educated individuals creates uncertainty about what are the very problems at stake.

There is no past to go back to, and no inescapable destiny of a new Middle Ages to submit to, as I see it. But there is a enormous task, or set of tasks, to be accomplished, by which I mean differentiating the various processes of modernity according to context and historical periods, insisting on the conceptual and self-analytical exercise of modern criticism rather than getting rid of it alongside with everything else in name of a much talked about - but never established - end of modernity.

© Carlos Leone (Brown University Visiting Scholar, BPD/FCT)

9.6. Spreading the Word: Texts and the Text

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For quotation purposes:
Carlos Leone (Brown University Visiting Scholar, BPD/FCT): Criticism, from Text to Texts: Modernity in the Making
. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 16/2005. WWW: ../../../index.htmtrans/16Nr/09_6/leone16.htm

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