Immanent Criticism and the Artistic Orders

The relationship between works of art and criticism evolved over time, eventually becoming a spontaneous order. In the oral tradition, the poet would have had immediate audience feedback, to which he would have adjusted his performance. The critic was the audience. In many cases, they directly participated in the performance. When the arts became increasingly specialized, a full-fledged spontaneous order emerged. Outside of buying and selling, the readers/viewers/listeners ceased being critics—precisely because there was little face-to-face feedback. The artists were freed to be more adventurous, and the professional critic arose to explain to everyone—reader/viewer/listener and artist alike—what it was they were encountering.

In this way, criticism provides feedback—criticism is imminent criticism when it arises out of the spontaneous order of the arts and is addressing the order itself. For example, Reader Response criticism of particular works is not necessarily immanent criticism unless it affects (or is intended to affect) the rules of the literary spontaneous order. A literary analysis that helps you understand a work better isn’t necessarily part of immanent criticism, especially if it only helps you understand the meanings, symbols, etc. Art criticism is imminent criticism if it address the rules of the order, which can be addressed in critiquing the rules of a given work. Thus, reader response, canon criticism, cultural criticism, etc. that take on the system as a whole, or at least consider individual works as parts within that whole, represent imminent criticism, while critical stances that deal with individual works might more aptly be included within the spontaneous order itself.And some works of literary analysis of course do both.

If we were to place this kind of criticism within the spontaneous order, then metacriticism would be included in the realm of imminent criticism. For example, one might consider Frederick Turner’s The Culture of Hope, Beauty, and Natural Classicism immanent criticism of the literary order itself, but essays and collections that deal with specific works, like Literature and the Economics of Liberty, Paul Cantor and Stephen Cox, eds., as being within the spontaneous order itself (although the introductory essay by Cantor would more properly be considered immanent criticism).

Thus literary analysis can perform two roles: that of helping readers to simply understand the given work or works, or addressing and challenging the actual rules of the order itself, helping the system itself evolve. Either way, literary and art theory is properly understood to be part of the literary and artistic orders, either as aids to the reader/viewer/listener to better adapt them to the works within the order, or to encourage further evolution within the order itself.

Only if it is coming from the inside, though, is the criticism considered to be immanent criticism. Criticisms from the outside, having nothing to do with the structures of the works themselves, but rather with issues outside the consideration of art qua art, are not part of immanent criticism, but rather belong to other orders. An objection emerging from the political order or the moral order are really quite beside the point when it comes to the rules of art per se. Such criticism can certainly have an effect on the works—certainly censorship can affect these orders rather deeply—and we cannot deny that each spontaneous order overlaps and each affects the other in important ways we will investigate on this blog, but what they will not be is immanent criticism.

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