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Catherine Belsey. A Future for Criticism

The Loss of Pleasure
Lee GARNER and Jennifer MURRAY
Bibliographical reference

Catherine BELSEY : A Future for Criticism.Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011. ISBN: 978-1405169561. 21 €

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  • 1 A Future for Criticism,Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.
  • 2 Shakespeare and the Loss of Eden: The Construction of Family Values in Early Modern Culture, Palgra (...)
  • 3 Culture and the Real, Routledge, 2004.
  • 4 Textual Practice, 24.6, 2010.
  • 5 Critical Practice, Methuen, 1980.

1Catherine Belsey’s A Future for Criticism1follows publications on Shakespeare2 and an exploration of a Lacanian approach to cultural criticism;3 it is contemporaneous with the publication by the journal Textual Practice4 of a special volume dedicated to critical views on her work over the years, notably since the publication of her influential Critical Practice.5

2The title promises new directions, a vision for the future, a way forward for the literary/cultural critics that we, as teachers and researchers, are. The book achieves its goal somewhat falteringly: much time is spent chastising fellow critics for what they are misguidedly doing, and the crucial point where it is “time to confront the issue directly” (107) arrives rather tardily, in the last chapter of the book, entitled “Desire”.

3Indeed, the structure of the book would seem to be one of the obstacles to a dynamic engagement with the issues raised. The book begins with a preface which delineates the central terms of Belsey’s argument: criticism, which the author defines as “systematic analysis, including interpretation, exposition, and commentary,” (xii) fiction, where the term is allowed its full range of textual meanings associated with prose, poetry and drama, and finally pleasure, a term which receives no specific definition, but ranges in its associations from expectation, to gaiety, or yearning. Whatever its form, argues Belsey, pleasure is the neglected child of cultural criticism.

4Based on this configuration of terms, Belsey then explores many of the ways in which criticism tends (and has tended–her references cover stories from Greek mythology to current production) to become distracted from its primary object: the investigation of the text with a view to exposing the way in which it produces the pleasure which keeps the reader (spectator, listener) hooked. These wayward paths include:

    • 6  See for example, Joan Copjec, Imagine There’s No Woman: Ethics and Sublimation, MIT Press, 2002.

    emphasis on the moral values of the text: criticism, Belsey rightly claims, should offer more than an “assessment of a text’s commitment to civic virtue” (32); that said, the fact that Belsey relates this moralizing tendency to the recent critical turn to “ethics” (19) seems unjustified to the extent that this investigation of ethics (at least in the Lacanian strain) works precisely against normalizing symbolic morality and focuses on the effects of the real;6

  • foregrounding the historical context, thereby producing criticism that resembles ‘social studies without statistics’ (quoting Perloff, 26);

  • grounding the meaning of the text in the life of the author, and giving in to infatuation with the author, whereby “interpretation surrenders to romance” (52);  

  • thematic summarizing of stories, as if the content were the meaning: “The assumption that fiction replicates, or aspires to replicate, reality silently underlies much current academic criticism” (55).

5Of the seven chapters, entitled Pleasure, Piety, Biography, Realism, Culture, History and Desire, the five central ones provide a critique of the dominant or persistent forms of literary criticism in operation today, and with which Belsey takes exception. This is not to say that she does not recognize certain strengths and even pleasures in the modes of criticism examined; on the contrary, Belsey takes pains to indicate what the strengths of these approaches are, before outlining what she sees as their limitations. In the chapter entitled “Realism,” for example, the author recognizes the ways in which realist texts offer pleasure: “The magic of realism depends on the similarity in conjunction with the difference” and is thereby “capable of exciting an ambivalent desire: to close the gap and find reality in the representation; to keep it open and preserve the fiction.” (59-60). Nonetheless, she points out that a “criticism that privileges mimesis filters out textual resistance” (69) offering too smooth and definitive a world view. Similarly, in the chapter on “History,” Belsey acknowledges the ways in which historicism allows us to recuperate knowledge of the historical subject, since literary texts “provide [...] primary evidence of cultural change, which is to say a discontinuity of meanings and values” (95). Yet at the same time, she laments the fact that most historicist criticism, does not in fact exploit the “cognitive dissonances of [the] specific moment” (96). On the contrary, they tend to read the literary text primarily as an instance of the dominant ideology of its period.

6Belsey’s general call for greater attention to the ambiguities of the text, through a willingness to let ourselves be surprised, rather than simply seeking confirmation of what we already think we know, is incontestably a valuable reminder. Taken in its broad lines, one finds little with which to openly disagree in Belsey’s A Future for Criticism.

7And yet, a sense of dissatisfaction (of disappointment?) prevails. Does this come from the text’s indecision about its intended audience? If the work is addressed to academics who have been through the theory battles and debates, this rehearsing of the old shortcomings of various approaches offers little that’s new; no fresh polemic (in spite of the author’s stated desire that her book should “provoke constructive dissent” {xi}) is presented; certainly no new theoretical framework is offered. If, on the other hand, the book is a ‘beginner’s’ handbook, it’s treatment of theory and the debates it involves is too understated to be of much use. And yet, theory, referred to only in its shortcomings in the chapter on “Piety” is the unacknowledged source of many of the most interesting moments in the book. Certainly, references are made to Saussure, Williams, Barthes, Derrida, Lacan, but no real place is given to the idea that teachers do need to continue to grapple with theory if they are not to fall into the ‘dogmatic slumber’ that Belsey cites Derrida as warning against (31).

8Where Belsey is strongest is in the final chapter of her book. Here she gives the answer to the question of wherein lies the pleasure that has been neglected: it is to be found in loss. Loss as the driving force of desire, loss which demands its metaphoric substitutions and analogous metonyms, its reworkings and momentary suspensions. Taking Eurydice as the paradigmatic lost object, with Orpheus forever attempting to recover his beloved, and the impossibility of achieving this goal, Belsey suggests that the drama of human subjectivity is played over and over for us in fiction, where stories are our poor, magnificent substitute objects of consolation. Her citation of TheGreat Gatsby is very effective in its encoding of this endless advancement and return: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past” (112). This view of fiction owes much to psychoanalytic theory, as Belsey implicitly recognizes (111); it also goes hand-in-hand with the formalist methods of analysis (including the influence of structuralism and post-structuralism) which requires a reading that starts from the text, from its internal organization and language. Good texts offer the reader pleasure, even the pleasure of pain, but each text does so in its own unique way, each in accordance with the possibilities of its own historical moment.

  • 7  In this vein, one might usefully refer to the very pedagogical work of Terry Eagleton in his How t (...)

9If one had to locate the desire of this text, this future for criticism to which Belsey invites us, it would be in its call for a return to the text, to the analysis of its “genre, register, vocabulary, sentence structure, rhythm, mode of address, all the formal components of the fictional text” (106)7 with a view to understanding how these formal features encode the question of loss, and thereby, how they produce the pleasure which makes the fiction both culturally specific in form, and widely shared in its appeal to our human drive to ‘bridge the gap’ of desire between our “real, biological, organic” beings and the “symbolic, the place of meaning and consciousness” (110). This is an important reminder, a necessary reformulation of the task of the critic. Might it have been arrived at a bit more directly? Or is Belsey’s deferring circuitous route a proffered pleasure?

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1 A Future for Criticism,Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.

2 Shakespeare and the Loss of Eden: The Construction of Family Values in Early Modern Culture, Palgrave MacMillan, 2001.; Shakespeare in Theory and Practice, Edinburgh University Press, 2008.

3 Culture and the Real, Routledge, 2004.

4 Textual Practice, 24.6, 2010.

5 Critical Practice, Methuen, 1980.

6  See for example, Joan Copjec, Imagine There’s No Woman: Ethics and Sublimation, MIT Press, 2002.

7  In this vein, one might usefully refer to the very pedagogical work of Terry Eagleton in his How to Read a Poem (Blackwell, 2007) which allies formal analysis with cultural knowledge of human subjectivity through a range of accessible examples.

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Electronic reference

Lee GARNER and Jennifer MURRAY, “Catherine Belsey. A Future for CriticismE-rea [Online], 9.1 | 2011, Online since 11 September 2011, connection on 26 September 2021. URL:; DOI:

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