I agree with Jonathan Mayhew that for literary study "Mere 'appreciation' seems a little cloying, a little narrow, in prescribing an attitude of silent awe." The experience of literature is grounded in "mere appreciation" (although I would contend that "appreciation" is a much more concentrated and difficult task than its connotation as passive "admiration" usually suggests), but if the study of literature is to go beyond the initial (or even repeated) intensified encounter with the work, it does need to, in a sense, leave the "appreciation" of the work behind. Even a more methodical analysis of the specifically aesthetic elements of a text has to suspend immediate appreciation in order to focus on the particular devices the text incorporates and on the effect these devices create--in other words, on how the text works. "Silent awe" is hardly a useful response when the actual study of literature takes place.
But I can't agree--based on my reading of most scholarly articles published in most "name" academic journals--that for very many academic critics "it is simply taken for granted that there are other questions to be asked aside from 'what makes this poem beautiful?' and that the discipline can't go anywhere being confined to that question. In other words, appreciative admiration is assumed (somewhere in the background) but is not itself the goal." It is true that "there are other questions to be asked" aside from the aesthetic ones, but I don't believe that academic criticism in its current manifestation assumes "appreciative admiration, " foreground or background. Or if it does make such an assumption, it does so only to dismiss aesthetic appreciation as the concern of naive readers who haven't been apprised of the strategies employed by academic critics to transcend the "merely literary" in favor of more "serious" issues of politics and sociology.
And it may be true that the "discipline"--literature as submitted to the protocols and conventions of academic inquiry--can't remain "confined" to the question of aesthetic beauty, but this is a problem not for literature per se but for the subject "literature" as it is defined within the academic curriculum. In a recent profile in The Chronicle of Higher Education of M.H. Abrams, Jeffrey Williams comments in passing that "Today the New Criticism, the dominant approach to close reading from the 1940s until the 1960s, seems narrow and constraining." New Criticism was constraining only to the extent that to use it meant to attend entirely to the literary qualities of literature, to withhold biography, history, and politics as subjects tangential to the focused analysis of literary writing. Presumably those more interested in history or politics than in literature would indeed find New Critical close reading "narrow and constraining," although one could ask why such scholars chose literature as their course of study as opposed to, say, history or politics. As Jonathan himself says, "when literary studies forgets the aesthetic, watch out! The discipline becomes unmoored from its reason for being, confused in its aims."
I'd have to say that the discipline of literary study has become more than unmoored and confused. I'm afraid that "the overt hostility to aesthetic questions in certain quarters," as Jonathan puts it, has become the mainstream attitude among academic literary critics. Some writers might still be valued because they can be used to shore up ideological positions, but "literature" as the record and register of literary art is held in contempt, at best the avocation of amateur readers (including bloggers), at worst a fancy instrument of oppression wielded by hyperliterate elites. If the only way works of literature can usefully be brought into the classroom or the pages of academic journals is to examine them for their "social constructions", or to expressly belittle mere aesthetic questions, in my opinion, as I've said here before, the best thing for literature would be to remove it from academic curricula altogether.