Eve Houghton on The Political History of Book History

Book History and the Political History of the Discipline - An Introduction
Eve Houghton  (Graduate student in English at Yale University)
My blog series for this semester is on “Book History and the Political History of the Discipline,” the remit of which—broadly conceived—is to think about the role of book history in debates about politics and power within the field of literary studies.  
I want to start by looking at two recent critiques of book history as politically regressive or conservative. The first is Michael Clune’s much-discussed work on literary taste-making and the cultivation of aesthetic judgment, in “Judgment and Equality,” Critical Inquiry 45 (Summer 2019). While Clune doesn’t mention book history specifically, I think there is a strong implicit anti-historicist stance in a piece that depicts the profession of literary studies as mired in “an unprecedented refusal of aesthetic judgment” (910), in which critics tend to depict judgments about whether a text is good or bad as always specific to the individual and/or historically contingent. Clune sees the current critical orthodoxy about judgment as untenable because “the elimination of aesthetic judgment leaves market valuation the undisputed master of the cultural field” (911), leaving no way to, for instance, arbitrate between the authority of an English class syllabus and the New York Times bestseller list. His prescription for the field is that literary critics should try to undo the tradition entanglement of progressive politics and equality, in order to be able to embark on the project of “aesthetic education” and pronounce confidently to students that some texts are better than others. 
It would be unfair to suggest that Clune thinks that all arguments about literary value from history are illegitimate or uninteresting. But the polemical contentions here don’t seem to leave a lot of room for historicist or book historical argument. For instance, we can argue that texts were important or valued in the past (“the poet William Strode was very widely circulated in the 1630s”), but I think Clune would see that as yet another concession to the judgments of the market, albeit in an earlier historical context. Many of the central questions in book history and bibliography—who were the agents involved in the production of this book? who read this, and in which contexts?—might seem vital to book historians, but don’t on the face of it seem to have much to contribute to Clune’s project of aesthetic education. They don’t necessarily make a case for majoring in English over potentially better-paid or more useful fields (925-926), or “contest…the neoliberal hegemony of the market” (910). In fact, much of the most influential work in book history in the past three decades has focused on re-centering the market in our accounts of literary history, by focusing on the role of stationers, licensers, binders, booksellers, and other agents of book production. I haven’t seen this discussed very often, but I think book history’s deep commitment to the judgments of the market is one reason for the sometime antipathy between literary historians and more overtly politically-committed leftist critics, and would like to think about this more in future posts. 
Ultimately, what is most telling about Clune’s “Judgment and Equality” on historicism and book history is not that it takes an oppositional tone in relation to those fields, but that it is largely silent about them. This seems to me significant and worth pausing on, for those of us who identify as literary historians, because Clune’s work has (deservedly) generated a lot of interest and excitement in the field. What role does book history have to play in the current lively debates about aesthetic judgment? I’ll keep exploring this in my next blog post on another influential leftist critique of historicism, Joseph North’s Literary History: A Concise Political History (2017). 
Further Reading
Michael Clune, “Judgment and Equality,” Critical Inquiry 45 (Summer 2019)
Michael Clune, “The Humanities’ Fear of Judgment,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 26 August 2019, https://www.chronicle.com/interactives/20190826-CluneJudgement