Critique and Postcritique

Critique and Postcritique

by Elizabeth S. Anker (Editor)


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Now that literary critique's intellectual and political pay-off is no longer quite so self-evident, critics are vigorously debating the functions and futures of critique. The contributors to Critique and Postcritique join this conversation, evaluating critique's structural, methodological, and political potentials and limitations. Following the interventions made by Bruno Latour, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Sharon Marcus and Stephen Best, and others, the contributors assess the merits of the postcritical turn while exploring a range of alternate methods and critical orientations. Among other topics, the contributors challenge the distinction between surface and deep reading; outline how critique-based theory has shaped the development of the novel; examine Donna Haraway's feminist epistemology and objectivity; advocate for a "hopeful" critical disposition; highlight the difference between reading as method and critique as genre; and question critique's efficacy at attending to the affective dimensions of experience. In these and other essays this volume outlines the state of contemporary literary criticism while pointing to new ways of conducting scholarship that are better suited to the intellectual and political challenges of the present. 

Contributors: Elizabeth S. Anker, Christopher Castiglia, Russ Castronovo, Simon During, Rita Felski, Jennifer L. Fleissner, Eric Hayot, Heather Love, John Michael, Toril Moi, Ellen Rooney, C. Namwali Serpell

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822363767
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 04/07/2017
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Elizabeth S. Anker is Associate Professor of English at Cornell University and the author of Fictions of Dignity: Embodying Human Rights in World Literature.

Rita Felski is William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of English at the University of Virginia and the author of many books, most recently, The Limits of Critique.

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Critique and Postcritique

By Elizabeth S. Anker, Rita Felski

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2017 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-6361-3


"Nothing Is Hidden"

From Confusion to Clarity; or, Wittgenstein on Critique


Critique, Method, Reading

It used to go without saying that the purpose of literary studies was to produce critique, and that to do so, one had to practice some form of the "hermeneutics of suspicion." These assumptions long ruled unchallenged. Already in the late 1990s, Eve Sedgwick observed that the hermeneutics of suspicion had become "nearly synonymous with criticism itself." Recently, Rita Felski has shown how the mind-set — the mood or attitude — characteristic of the hermeneutics of suspicion came to dominate literary studies. Whether they are deconstructionists, Marxists, feminists, Foucauldian historicists, or something else, Felski writes, most literary critics share the same suspicious — "knowing, self-conscious, hardheaded, tirelessly vigilant" — attitude. To suspicious critics, then, the text is never what it seems, or never only what it seems.

The reasoning behind this belief seems impeccable. To engage in critique is to expose ideology and the workings of power, encourage resistance, and generally contribute to social and political change. Practitioners of critique must therefore be fundamentally suspicious of anything that appears to be ordinary and commonsensical, and anything that presents itself as an "established fact," including the so-called facts of the text. The conclusion imposes itself: radical, committed, political, left-wing critics must read "against the grain."

By now, critique has begun to lose its status as the self-evident goal and method of literary studies. We no longer believe that power always seeks to cover its tracks. Well before terrorists began to release videos of their atrocities — well before they began to commit their atrocities in order to release their videos — Eve Sedgwick asked: "What does a hermeneutics of suspicion and exposure have to say to social formations in which visibility itself constitutes much of the violence?" Moreover, she argued, the hermeneutics of suspicion's obsession with the opposition between the hidden and the shown encourages paranoid readings. Bruno Latour notes that the techniques of critique are no longer the exclusive province of radicals. In particular, its trademark skepticism about "established facts" has long since been hijacked by everyone from defenders of the Iraq War to climate change deniers. For him, critique removes us from the things we actually care about: instead of writing about the things we cherish, we focus on their conditions of possibility. When we have exposed them as socially constructed, and thus as contingent, we feel that our work is done. But, Latour asks, what good does it do to know that something we love is contingent, or socially constructed? Is that really all we can say about the objects of our affection and admiration?

Despite their misgivings, neither Sedgwick nor Latour is against critique. Sedgwick wants there to be room for "reparative" readings alongside the usual paranoid readings. Latour wants us to get closer to the facts, to "cultivate a stubbornly realist attitude" by turning to the "matters of concern we cherish." For critique to renew itself, they both imply, we must learn to recognize situations in which suspicion is not called for, situations requiring us to speak up for the things we care about. Sometimes skepticism and suspicion will simply be less politically useful than admiration, care, love. Even Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus, who in their 2009 essay "Surface Reading" controversially argued that critique — "political activism by another name" — can't conceivably be the only purpose of literary studies, consider that "surface reading broadens the scope of critique."

As a feminist, I too am convinced that we still need to produce compelling critiques of injustice and oppression. But let's remember that it is perfectly possible to produce critical readings without invoking terms like the hermeneutics of suspicion, or symptomatic reading. Before intellectuals began to speak of the hermeneutics of suspicion, Simone de Beauvoir took apart the sexism in the writing of Henry de Montherlant, Paul Claudel, D. H. Lawrence, and André Breton, and Kate Millett's blistering political critique of writers from Lawrence to Henry Miller and Norman Mailer proceeded quite without reference to hidden depths. Such examples remind us of the obvious: critical readings existed well before professional literary critics began to believe that critique requires a particular vision of language, meaning, and texts, or a particular method of reading.

In "Surface Reading," Best and Marcus don't use the term hermeneutics of suspicion. They prefer "symptomatic reading," a term first elaborated by Marxist thinkers, notably Louis Althusser and Fredric Jameson. In Jameson's words, symptomatic readings set out to "seek a latent meaning behind a manifest one [and] rewrite the surface categories of a text in the stronger language of a more fundamental interpretive code." Over time, Best and Marcus note, the term has come to name any reading that "[takes] meaning to be hidden, repressed, deep, and in need of detection and disclosure by an interpreter." In their view, we should oppose the idea that the task of literary criticism is to disclose the hidden and the deep. We should reject symptomatic reading, or "depth" reading, and embrace "surface reading" instead.

The essay provoked innumerable, more or less irate responses. In a particularly well-argued essay, the Marxist critic Carolyn Lesjak accuses Best and Marcus of positing a "benign" and "culturally conservative" reader who is "neutral, objective, self-effacing, humbled before the text." The surface reader, Lesjak argues, "accommodates herself to the given, to common sense, against the now discredited excesses of the theory years." Lesjak, who is certainly not alone, is convinced that critique or symptomatic reading requires critics to probe beneath the surface of the text. In this way, a specific picture of texts (as things with surfaces and depths) gets entangled in a political project: to undo an oppressive status quo, to raise our political consciousness. This logic leads to the idea that critics who refuse to accept this specific picture of texts and reading must be conservative or reactionary, whatever their actual political views may be.

But if we look more closely at the disagreement between Best and Marcus and Lesjak, it's easy to see that they share the same picture of the text, namely as a thing or object with surface and depths. While Lesjak prefers depths, and Best and Marcus surfaces, all agree that there are two different methods of reading, namely one that delves beneath the surface, and one that more or less contentedly accepts the same surface.

In this chapter I challenge these views. To get beyond the by now exhausted terms of the debate about surface reading and critique, we need to learn how to think differently about texts, reading, and language. This is where Wittgenstein comes in. This may sound surprising, for Wittgenstein doesn't write about reading, or literary criticism. His philosophy has yet to be widely disseminated among literary scholars. It is also true that it can be fiendishly difficult to grasp what his concerns are, and even harder to figure out the implications of his philosophy for literary studies. But Wittgenstein repays the effort. His philosophy enables us to look at old questions in fresh ways, to raise new questions and escape from the pictures that have held us captive for so long.

I shall show that there is no need to think of texts and language as hiding something. This goes against the grain of the post-Saussurean assumption that language itself, just by being language, is always hiding something; that words, sentences, utterances themselves always wear masks; that there is always something else beneath or behind our words, a shadow of meanings covered up by the words themselves. This picture of language and meaning, which is far from compulsory, helps to shore up the idea that texts have surfaces and depths, and thus that it makes sense to oppose surface reading to depth reading.

I shall also show that critics who think they are uncovering hidden truths don't read any differently from critics who don't share this picture of reading. In fact, even the most suspicious critics, the very poster-figures for the hermeneutics of suspicion — Sherlock

Holmes and Sigmund Freud — don't do anything special. They simply look and think. There simply is no special "suspicious" as opposed to a "gullible" method of reading. Readers — and readings — may of course be more or less subtle and sophisticated, more or less knowing or naive, but that has nothing to do with "method." Finally, I want to oppose the idea that only "suspicious" or "symptomatic" readings are capable of acknowledging and exploring difficulty and obscurity. I do this by turning to Søren Kierkegaard's practice of reading in Fear and Trembling.

In my view, literary criticism — by which I mean what we now call "reading"— doesn't have anything we can plausibly call competing methods, at least not in the sense widely used in the sciences and social sciences: a set of explicit strategies for how to generate new knowledge. This is why literary critics often have trouble explaining their "method" to colleagues in other disciplines. Insofar as grant application forms take the procedures of the natural sciences as their norm, they force literary critics to discuss their "method" whether or not they really have anything to say about it. ("Reading" alone somehow never seems sufficiently "scientific" in such contexts.)

When Rita Felski discusses critique, she rightly refrains from calling it a method, and rather defines it by using terms such as mood and mind-set, and by focusing on characteristic rhetorical patterns. Critics clearly have specific thematic interests and political investments. But whether I do a postcolonial or a feminist or a psychoanalytic reading, methodologically I do the same sort of thing: I look and think in response to particular questions. In literary studies (as opposed to criticism) the methodological alternatives to reading are things like conducting interviews, setting up focus groups, chemical analysis of paper quality and watermarks, or computer crunching of big data.

Most handbooks and courses in "method" either provide useful instructions in how to do research (how to use archives and bibliographies, how to read seventeenth-century handwriting), or turn out to be overviews of various kinds of theory. But a theory is not a method. If we think of "deconstruction" or "feminist theory" as methods, we simply encourage students to take a given theory and apply it to a text. As I have argued elsewhere, this is truly the last thing we should teach our students to do.

The way we (literary critics) talk about what we do (often under headings such as "method" or "approach" and the like) is at odds with what we actually do. We mistake political and existential investments for methods, specific practices of reading. Whether they speak of depths or surfaces, readers do pretty much the same sort of thing regardless of their understanding of what they are doing. What we — literary critics — call different "methods of reading" are really different thematic and political interests, and different views of what is important in literature (and in life).

The implications are radical: the fetishization of the hidden and the deep does no work for literary critics. This is why Best and Marcus are right to challenge the ubiquitous invocations of depth and hiddenness. But it is also why Best and Marcus are wrong to believe that a call for "surface reading" will liberate us from the metaphor of depth. After all, the two are inextricably linked: any talk of surfaces calls forth thoughts of depths. In my view, claims about hiddenness and depth in literary criticism are empty. They don't underpin anything, not even critique.

This is a liberating insight, for it follows that radical critics no longer have to feel bound to the hermeneutics of suspicion. We can reject its characteristic oppositions — latent/manifest, hidden/shown, depth/surface — without losing anything at all. By "reject," I don't mean "exclude from our vocabulary." There can be no point in forbidding literary critics from using the word deep, for example (in this chapter, I use precisely that word about Kierkegaard's reading of the sacrifice of Abraham). I mean rejecting the belief that these oppositions tell us something interesting about how to read or not to read a literary text. Abandoning this view leaves the field of reading wide open. In the encounter with the literary text, the only "method" that imposes itself is the willingness to look and see, to pay maximal attention to the words on the page. What we do next, what we choose to focus on, is up to us. We are responsible for our own reading. This is liberating, but it is daunting too.

"Nothing Is Hidden," or, From Confusion to Clarity

The suspicious reader assumes that language itself hides its meanings from us. This belief is rooted in the post-Saussurean idea that the sign is split into a purely formal or material part (the signifier, the visible surface), and a buried or hidden part (the signified, the meaning). On the theory of the "split sign," any attempt to establish meaning will per definition become a hunt for the hidden — the sign here, the meaning there. Or, as Wittgenstein dismissively puts it: "Here the word, there the meaning. The money, and the cow one can buy with it." Critics who accept the idea of the split sign build the idea of the hidden into their very idea of language. And once they do that, they will find it impossible to break with the hermeneutics of suspicion.

Wittgenstein flatly denies that language hides anything: "How does a sentence manage to represent? ... How does a sentence do it? — Don't you know? After all, nothing is hidden" (§435). The main reason he insists that sentences don't hide anything is that for him, the meaning of a word isn't divorced from its use. In this essay, I can't go into what he means by "use." Let me just say that when Wittgenstein insists that nothing is hidden, he does not mean that everything is self-evident. He means that we shouldn't go around thinking that language itself — our sentences, our utterances — hides something just because it is language. Sometimes we lie, deceive, cheat; sometimes we are honest and truthful. This isn't something "language" does. It is something we do. We, as speakers, are responsible for our words. Language itself can't be blamed for our prevarications.

Wittgenstein thinks of utterances as actions, as something we do. If we think of a poem, a play, a novel as a particularly complex action, or intervention, we immediately escape the hold of some of the hermeneutics of suspicion's most entrenched beliefs. Actions aren't objects, and they don't have surfaces or depths. To understand an action isn't the same thing as to open the lid of a box. The "death of the author" doesn't apply to actions, for actions aren't divorced from their doers in the same way as objects from their makers. Think of the simplest of actions, such as reaching for a pen, or jumping over a puddle in the road. To understand the action is to understand why I or you do this particular thing in this particular situation, and to grasp the implications of doing it.

On this view, to understand an utterance requires us to ask about the speaker's motivations, reasons, and intentions; to ask about the repercussions, ramifications, consequences, and effects of the utterance; and to consider issues of responsibility, ethics, and politics arising in and through the action. From now on I'll refer to the whole range of such questions and investigations as the "Why this?" question.

Stanley Cavell, whose pioneering understanding of Wittgenstein has profoundly shaped my own, notes that "a certain sense of the question 'Why this?' is essential to criticism." We can't ask it unless we have noticed something, seen something that surprises or strikes us. In this way, a specific word, a way of applying paint strokes, a surprising camera angle can become the starting point for an investigation. "Why this?" is unrelated to the metaphysics of the hidden: it neither presupposes anything in particular about surfaces and depths nor prescribes any particular critical mood or attitude. We can ask "Why this?" in a spirit of confusion, or a spirit of really wanting to know. But we can also ask it in a spirit of suspicion. (To ban suspicion is no better than to generalize it.) The point is to be able to show why suspicion is called for in a particular case.

The suspicious reader is convinced that the text leads us astray. Wittgenstein thinks that we get lost in our own words, in our own unacknowledged or imperfectly understood assumptions. In Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein shows that philosophical problems arise when we let our words drift away from their ordinary use, yet still trade on that use. The result is not meaning, but the illusion of meaning. If I tell you, "I hid the car keys," you will usually understand. But what if you replied: "And I hid the meaning of my words"? It would take me aback, puzzle me, make me wonder what you mean. There simply is something odd about your use of this verb here, in this particular sentence, in these particular circumstances. In philosophy, Wittgenstein writes, we easily end up doing something similar, namely using ordinary words (see, for example), while twisting their usual meanings. Problems arise when we don't discover the problem: "A picture held us captive. And we couldn't get outside it, for it lay in our language, and language seemed only to repeat it to us inexorably" (§115). Then we are lost in the fog of our own language.


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Table of Contents

Introduction / Elizabeth S. Anker and Rita Felski  1
Part I. Countertraditions of Critique
1. "Nothing Is Hidden": From Confusion to Clarity; or, Wittgenstein in Critique / Toril Moi  31
2. The Temptations: Donna Haraway, Feminist Objectivity, and the Problem of Critique / Heather Love  50
3. The Eighteenth-Century Origins of Critique / Simon During  73
Part II. Styles of Reading
4. Romancing the Real: Bruno Latour, Ian McEwan, and Postcritical Monism / Jennifer L. Fleissner  99
5. Symptomatic Reading Is a Problem of Form / Ellen Rooney  127
6. A Heap of Cliché / C. Namwali Serpell  153
7. Why We Love Coetzee; or, The Childhood of Jesus and the Funhouse of Critique / Elizabeth S. Anker  183
Part III. Affects, Politics, Institutions
8. Hope for Critique? / Christopher Castiglia  211
9. What Are the Politics of Critique? The Function of Criticism at a Different Time / Russ Castronovo  230
10. Tragedy and Translation: A Future for Critique in a Secular Age / John Michael  252
11. Then and Now / Eric Hayot  279
Bibliography  297
About the Contributors  313
Index  317

What People are Saying About This

The Fugitive's Properties: Law and the Poetics of Possession - Stephen M. Best

"Following in the tradition of the great theory collections of the 1980s and '90s, Critique and Postcritique takes a generous, ecumenical, and evenhanded look at a major turn in the practice of critique. By tracing this turn and offering affirmative examples of postcritical reading, there is little doubt as to this volume's timeliness, relevance, and broad interest in the questions it raises."

Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network - Caroline Levine

“Taking up the most fundamental aspirations and methods in the field, Critique and Postcritique is an important, provocative, and timely volume. It resists onesidedness in order to engage a range of thoughtful responses, providing readers with a great deal to think with here at this moment of methodological upheaval. Critique and Postcritique will be of enormous value and significance across literary and cultural studies.”

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