Joseph North

Joseph North's picture
Associate Professor of English

Ph.D., Columbia University

I write and teach about the literature and politics of the English-speaking world over the last two centuries or so.  My first book, Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History (Harvard University Press, 2017), tracks the history of Anglo-American literary criticism from the beginning of the 20th century to the present, focusing particularly on the question of its political character.  There I proposed that the discipline’s history since the 1920s had fallen into three phases (many earlier accounts had assumed there were two).  I also drew  renewed attention to the old distinction between literary scholarship and literary criticism, arguing that if the distinction struck many as less relevant today, this was chiefly because scholarship now dominated the field.  Where the demise of mid-century criticism had been noted, it had been read as a sign of political progress.  I agreed, but added that the demise of mid-century criticism had also been part of the wider transition to neoliberalism.  Agreeing wholeheartedly that we should not revive defunct critical modes, I nevertheless argued that criticism has its own humane and political potentials distinct from, and complementary to, scholarship.  On this basis, I examined what I took to be among the most interesting existing practices of the discipline, searching for signs of a new paradigm for criticism to come.

I am currently at work on two further books.  My second book, Our Mobs (Stanford University Press, forthcoming 2024), is a history and critique of the concept of the ‘mob.’  In recent years this word has taken a prominent place in many political vocabularies, right, center and left: the U.S. right has claimed that ‘Antifa mobs’ and ‘Black Lives Matter mobs’ are looting U.S cities; the U.S. center and center-right have claimed that ‘woke mobs,’ ‘#metoo mobs,’ ‘twitter mobs,’ and ‘cancel culture mobs’ are trampling on freedom of speech and respect for the rule of law; and the U.S center and center-left have claimed that a ‘mob’ stormed the Capitol in 2021.  Given this, it seems worth asking where this concept comes from, and whose interests it tends to serve.   I trace the history of the word ‘mob’ from its origins in the political crises of seventeenth century England through to its various uses in political and literary life today, paying special attention to the historically unusual way in which the word has reversed its valence in Australia and New Zealand, most powerfully among the First Peoples of Australia, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. 

My third book project, The Aesthetic Life of Centrism (also to be published by Stanford), is a history, analysis and critique of political centrism in the English-speaking world over the last two centuries, focusing especially on its aesthetic and literary elements.  I understand ‘centrism’ not merely as the position of ‘moderates’ within major political parties, but as a normative range of sensibility expected of us all as the price of our admission into modern political life.  At first glance, centrism appears to be merely a habitual preference for moderation, gradualism, and compromise in politics, but in fact it is much more than this. The left-center-right spectrum is one of the deep metaphors that undergird political modernity: it structures our political imaginations in something like the manner in which figures such as ‘Fortune’s Wheel’ and the ‘Great Chain of Being’ structured much medieval social and religious thought.  Yet for all its importance, the metaphor is more often assumed than examined.  Moreover, except in periods of crisis, those who do examine the metaphor tend to speak merely of ‘left’ and ‘right’ (often in disparaging terms).  Often the effect of this is to valorize the political ‘center’ while leaving it unexamined.  I seek to analyze how ‘centrism’ itself has operated as a normative range of political and aesthetic sensibility over the last two centuries or so, both in our formal politics and - crucially - in our art and literature.


20th and 21st century literature in English; the history of literary criticism; critical methodology; theories of the literary; the history of universities; the politics of aesthetic education

Selected Publications

- ‘A Sketch of the Mob.’  In Helen Groth, ed., Global Riots.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2023   (forthcoming)

- ‘Criticism as a Practice of the Commons.’  PMLA 138, no. 1 (2023): 151–57.

- ‘Two Paragraphs in Raymond Williams: A Response to Francis Mulhern.’  New Left Review 116 (Mar-Jun 2019): 161-187.

- ‘Still Hoping: A Response to Dermot Ryan.’  b2o (July 2018).

- ‘What’s ‘New Critical’ about ‘Close Reading’? I.A. Richards and His New Critical Reception.’ New Literary History 44, no. 1 (2013):141-157.



‘Readings in English Poetry I’; ‘Readings in English Poetry II’; ‘What is Criticism For?’; ‘The Politics of Emotion and Sensibility’; ‘Poetry and Political Sensibility’; ‘Literature and Social Justice’; ’Directed Studies: Literature’


‘Criticism and the Commons’; ‘The Teaching of English’; ‘Dissertation Workshop’