Two leading critics grapple with problems of literature, politics and intellectual practice.
In What Is Cultural Criticism?, Francis Mulhern and Stefan Collini propose alternative understandings of what ‘culture’ means: rear-guard projection of values excluded by capitalist modernity, or a useful shorthand for a set of collectively practised prompts to reflection?
The debate opens with Mulhern’s account in Culture/Metaculture of what he terms metacultural discourse. This has embraced two opposing critical traditions, the elite pessimism of Kulturkritik and populist enthusiasms of Cultural Studies. Each in its own way dissolves politics into culture, Mulhern argues. Collini, on the other hand, protests that cultural criticism provides resources for genuine critical engagement with contemporary society. Tension between culture and politics there may be, but it works productively in both directions.
This widely noticed encounter is that rare thing, a sustained debate in which, as Collini remarks, the protagonists not only exchange shots but also ideas. It concludes with Mulhern’s engagement with Collini’s writing on the subordination of universities to metrics and bureaucracy, and a companion rejoinder from Collini on Mulhern’s study on the ‘condition of culture novel’ and his essays on questions of nationality and the politics of intellectuals.