The 60s as Founding:
On David Bromwich’s How Words Make Things Happen

Many years ago, David Bromwich and I conducted a brief correspondence. You can tell how many years ago by the fact that the correspondence took the form of letters, with stamps. The immediate subject, as I remember it, was politics. As I remember, I remarked on the surprising respect that David seemed to have for the lasting political wisdom of the Founding Fathers and the Constitution as guides to present political judgments, a respect which (so soon after the 60s) I found implausible. As I remember, David found it equally implausible that I should not share his respect.

I remembered our correspondence while reading How Words Make Things Happen (Oxford, 2019) for two reasons. First, because of an abrupt about-face that I had just executed about the Constitution. At first, like so many, I was angry that it gave us the Electoral College, hence putting Donald Trump in office in 2016 despite his losing the popular vote and making the 2020 election much closer than it should have been. Then, after last Wednesday, I suddenly felt obliged to be grateful for it, at the least because it gave cover to those rat-like Trump enablers who are now, as the media remind us, finally jumping ship. But I also thought of our correspondence because, as I read How Words Make Things Happen, it doesn’t think the passage of time makes much difference, or ought to make much difference. Literary critics would probably not sign on to that idea even though it is one of the discipline’s core assumptions: that’s why we tell our students that old books can still be good books, and even the best books. If it’s true that literary critics would not endorse this idea, the reason probably has something to do with our shared commitment to politics, which is quite real if also tempered in various ways by the protocols of the university around us. As a prolific critic of literature who has also published a great deal of political writing, including essays on Obama and a Verso book on Trump, Bromwich offers a chance to grasp something elusive about the relations between criticism and politics.

I have been trying to write a book about criticism and politics. The premise of the book is that the single largest event for the discipline of literary criticism over the past half century, from 1970 until now, has been the academic discipline’s assimilation of the legacy of the liberation movements of the 1960s: women’s liberation, gay liberation, national or anti-colonial liberation, and Black liberation, of course, but also those movements that don’t have the word “liberation” in their names, like the movement to resist US militarism and the environmental movement. My assumption is not that criticism has taken over these movements wholesale, but that many of their energies and purposes have made their way into criticism’s assumptions and practices, and (no less important) that debate over the 60s legacy, how to take it on, how much of it to take on, has been profoundly formative for the discipline (more so for example than “French theory”), and often in ways that are not so obvious. Under the heading of “not so obvious” I would put so-called “post-critique” and recent protest against the so-called “historical-contextual paradigm,” among other reactions against the general politicization of criticism after the 60s. I have no space here to discuss my regrets about the failure of the 60s to make class an equally formative part of our project of reforming common sense, a failure that can be heard in the populist war-cry against “liberal elites.”

Because this is what I’ve had on my mind, I read Bromwich’s How Words Make Things Happen not just with my usual admiration for the eloquence and intelligence of everything he publishes, but also, inevitably, while thinking of him as a critic who takes politics with unusual seriousness (he has recently edited a collection on the political essay) and, more precisely, while thinking of him as a critic who from early on said a firm and unambiguous “no” to the legacy of the 60s. I’m referring to his book Politics By Other Means: Higher Education and Group Thinking, published in 1992, at the height of the Culture Wars, but also to the last chapter of How Words Make Things Happen, which picks up on the earlier book’s themes by attacking speech codes, trigger warnings, and the pervasiveness of victimology on campus. I by no means embrace everything the 60s stood for, and certainly not cancel culture, but I resist the implication (perhaps it’s only in my head?) that speech codes, trigger warnings, and victimology on campus are the definitive legacy of the 60s movements.

The two foci around which the new book revolves are W.H. Auden’s famous line about poetry making nothing happen and J.L. Austin’s argument about the performative, or words that do make things happen. The idea that words do make things happen, and things other than the things they seem to be saying or describing, is a defining principle of criticism since the 60s—criticism that has wanted to make something happen politically. Bromwich’s conclusion, as I read it, is that yes, oh dear yes, even literary words do make things happen, but they do so uncontrollably, so there is always strong reason to fear their power. The question is: should we fear their power so much that we turn not acting into a mode of heroism? The section called “Speakers Who Convince Themselves” does see heroism in (I quote) “the very withdrawal from productive action” (41).

As I read it, Bromwich’s 1992 book Politics By Other Means: Higher Education and Group Thinking aimed to convince literary critics 1) that they are deluded if they think they are making anything of political significance happen and 2) that it is much better that they don’t make anything happen. Those aims are implicit in the title. “Politics by other means,” which is what you supposedly get in the academy, isn’t real politics at all, the title suggests, but it is much better so. Better because what you would need to make something of significance happen is, as the subtitle says, “group thinking.” “Group thinking”—what would it mean to be against it? Rejecting group thinking would mean rejecting the thinking of what we used to call a class. Were the working class, say, to decide as a group that it has had it, finally, with economic inequality, that would be “group thinking.” To disapprove of “group thinking” is to disapprove of any collective understanding of interests and principles; it’s to disapprove of politics as such. It’s thus to disapprove of making anything happen.

For a certain kind of political writing, the radical individualism that underlies the dismissive phrase “group thinking” can be an animating virtue. I would argue for example that it helped enable Bromwich’s bracingly uncompromising critiques of Obama, which I for one enjoyed a great deal. But perhaps I enjoyed them more than I should have. Those critiques sounded at the time like they came from the Left, but in retrospect I don’t think they did. They were moral judgments–moral in the sense that they accused Obama of not doing the right thing, assuming thereby that Obama was free to do the right thing. They were expressions of radical individualism. To be a radical individualist is to feel unconstrained by solidarity with any group, which seems to be the case for Bromwich; the 60s for him seem to have meant only anti-militarism, a useful stance but one not requiring solidarity. It is also to discourage consideration of the degree to which any individual’s choices, even a President’s choices, are unfree, circumscribed by both their solidarities and their situation—in Obama’s case, say, by the obstructionism of a Republican Congress or systemic racism or the Wall Street wing of the Democratic Party. I agree that Obama could have behaved better with regard to the immigrants he deported or the prosecution of Edward Snowden for telling the truth, and I would add that Obama didn’t want to confront Wall Street. But I would still conclude that, to think politically rather than morally, one has to assume that Obama was not entirely free to act as he wished.

To be fair, one might also say that Bromwich is holding Obama to the standard of Edmund Burke and Abraham Lincoln, both of whom acted as if they were free to do the right thing (on India, and on slavery) even though they were at least as constrained by circumstances as Obama was. Of course, to mention Burke and Lincoln is to set a very high standard.

To cite extenuating circumstances is always to run the risk of letting the individual shirk their moral responsibility. In How Words Make Things Happen, that risk is associated with Auden’s poem “Spain” and concentrated in the notorious phrase “the conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder.” That phrase an example of making things happen with a vengeance. As Bromwich reads the poem, Auden is saying that “Today we must do things we would rather not do, and we are willing that our acts should appear anonymous” (70). On the grounds that “History to the defeated/May say Alas but cannot help nor pardon,” the only choice Auden offers at the end of the poem is to be “the passive executor of an alien will.” “Only now [the reader] is under the command of forces he recognizes and approves of” (71). “The reader/volunteer … submits to the will of external forces and does so with a fatalistic obedience” (71). “The speaker … is compelled to exalt the act of self-suppression by comparing his obedience to a natural force, or by merging it with a collective will that looks like a natural force” (72). In other words, to choose to act at all, politically, is the moral equivalent of murder because to choose to act politically is to surrender individual freedom and instead obey an external force. Murder is the paradigm for political action imagined as both an abnegation of individual moral responsibility and as universally and unforgivably coercive. Again, the implicit aim seems to be to delegitimize politics as such. Better to read the great books.

I don’t think making a case for reading the great books depends on making a case against political action. Let us read great books. Let us also try to change the world, which so very badly needs changing. Pardon my banality. In the desire to be less banal, and in the desire to do higher justice to our topic, I also want to acknowledge a debt to Jonathan Arac, whose countervailing suspicion of action as a sufficient and reliable political criterion, in Commissioned Spirits, made a huge impression on me many years ago, and has continued to inspire countervailing thought in me. And following out one line of inspiration, I want to close by considering another thing that words can do. Words can pardon.

Pardoning is one of J.L. Austin’s performatives. And it comes up immediately in the next Auden poem Bromwich discusses, “In Memory of W.B. Yeats”:

Time that with this strange excuse
Pardoned Kipling and his views,
And will pardon Paul Claudel,
Pardons him for writing well.

This is of course the poem in which Auden says that poetry “makes nothing happen.” In the poem, it is “time” that explicitly does the pardoning, thereby relativizing moral judgments on Kipling and Claudel. Pardoning makes something happen. Auden doesn’t say that the poem itself pardons. But it does, of course. What Auden does here, with Bromwich’s apparent blessing, is just what Bromwich accuses him of doing in “Spain”: hiding his own action as an individual (the pardoning of Kipling and Claudel) behind the will of an alien, impersonal force: the force of “Time,” this poem’s analogue to “History” in the other. To do this is to make himself (I quote Bromwich again) “the passive executor of an alien will.” That’s what the poet does, and that’s what the critic does in interpreting the poet. Bromwich is no freer than any other individual of impersonal forces or of collectivities, including collectivities he might prefer not to belong to, whether he wants to murder or to pardon or merely to write or read a poem. I don’t even object to the one he chooses.

Pardoning can be a problem. As I write (January 13, 2021) there is legitimate fear that an unimpeached Trump might use his pardon power so as to wreck any attempt to enforce accountability for criminal acts committed by and under his administration. I hope that time (and the elections of 2000 and 2016 in particular) has made us less inclined to pardon the institution of the Electoral College bequeathed to us by the Founding Fathers. But the Electoral College and counting a slave as three-fifths of a human are not the only things the Founding Fathers are responsible for. The Constitution has its virtues. And the pardoning that comes with the passage of time is not something that the individual should always resist, as an alien imposition on their freedom or an abnegation of their moral responsibility. We cannot subordinate our moral judgments entirely to the pardoning force of time, but we would be crazy not to allow those judgments to be nuanced and constrained by its passage. Here, in deference to Bromwich, I could cite his hero Edmund Burke.

The social movements of the 1960s are receding into the past, of course, but they still ring louder in my ears than the Founding Fathers. And in my opinion, this is how it should be: given the relative amounts of time that have passed and the democratic actions that have occurred in the interim, the 60s should have more authority for us now than the Founding Fathers. In saying this, I show my true colors as an incorrigible optimist—an optimist about the pressure toward greater democracy that has been and continues to be exerted, an optimist about the direction of history. (Burke was not an optimist, though he acted—about India, notably—as if he were.) Pessimists of the intellect will always sound like, well, smarter intellectuals. But I’m willing to sound dumber if it keeps the ball rolling.