Prof Willie Burger delivers his inaugural address

Posted on September 06, 2011

Abstract of the address

“Critique Engagée” – Literary Criticism that can change the world? Literary Criticism after Theory.

Over the last few decades postmodernist literature and criticism have rejected the idea of a white, western, male monoculture. Elements of Derridean and Faucauldian thought have penetrated to every level of literary criticism, resulting in a characteristic incredulity towards universal truth claims and evaluative judgement. The humanist concepts of universal timeless qualities of the good, the truth and the beautiful inherent in good literature have been undermined. Every discourse is a historically situated narrative amongst other narratives – each with its own characteristics and effects. In these circumstances the task of literary criticism was often reduced to merely showing how each text is merely a narrative and that each word gets its meaning as a result of its place in the structure. Critics are “deconstructing” in order to show how a specific discourse excludes (and thus wields power).

The deconstruction of presuppositions and certainties eventually leads to a cynical relativism, an ironic way of living where nothing is real and where “anything goes”. The author and critic underwriting these ideas indeed rid us from an obsolete cultural ideal but in the process render itself irrelevant.

In these circumstances, it is argued that there is a need for “engaged criticism”: a kind of criticism (deduced from the idea of “littérature engagée”) that appeals to the reader to take full responsibility for his/her own being in the world, an evaluative criticism that does not return to superseded humanistic beliefs but that values literature that enable us to share our most important questions and our deepest emotions.

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