The Limits of Critique

The Limits of Critique

by Rita Felski

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The Limits of Critique by Rita Felski

Why must critics unmask and demystify literary works? Why do they believe that language is always withholding some truth, that the critic’s task is to reveal the unsaid or repressed? In this book, Rita Felski examines critique, the dominant form of interpretation in literary studies, and situates it as but one method among many, a method with strong allure—but also definite limits.

Felski argues that critique is a sensibility best captured by Paul Ricoeur’s phrase “the hermeneutics of suspicion.” She shows how this suspicion toward texts forecloses many potential readings while providing no guarantee of rigorous or radical thought. Instead, she suggests, literary scholars should try what she calls “postcritical reading”: rather than looking behind a text for hidden causes and motives, literary scholars should place themselves in front of it and reflect on what it suggests and makes possible.

By bringing critique down to earth and exploring new modes of interpretation, The Limits of Critique offers a fresh approach to the relationship between artistic works and the social world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226294179
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 10/20/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 240
File size: 359 KB

About the Author

Rita Felski is the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of English at the University of Virginia and the editor of New Literary History. She is the author of several books, including, most recently, Uses of Literature and Literature after Feminism, the latter also published by the University of Chicago Press.

Read an Excerpt

The Limits of Critique

By Rita Felski

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-29417-9


The Stakes of Suspicion

Let us begin with the matter of "mattering." What lies behind the weird consonance of titles in criticism? What mind meld has spawned such synchrony and symmetry of wording? One volume after another buttonholes its readers in insistent, even indignant, fashion: Why Does Literature Matter?, Why Literature Matters in the 21st Century, Why Poetry Matters, Why Victorian Literature Still Matters, Why the Humanities Matter, Why Milton Matters, Why Reading Literature in School Still Matters, Why Books Matter, Why Comparative Literature Matters. That this verbal tic has gone viral — that mattering is exercising the minds of an expanding cohort of critics — points to a change of gears and an overhauling of priorities. The overall tone of such titles is one of exhortation combined with a whiff of exasperation. No more hair-splitting, nit-picking, angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin scholasticism! Leading questions can no longer be avoided: Why is literature worth bothering with? What is at stake in literary studies?

Pressures to tackle such questions are mounting from outside as well as inside the academy. Faced with an accelerating skepticism about the uses of the humanities in a market-driven age, literary studies find themselves in the throes of a legitimation crisis, casting about for ways to justify their existence. Why, after all, should anyone care about literature? Until recently, answers were thin on the ground, given the sway of a hypercritical sensibility along with a historicism fixated on past resonance rather than present relevance. Among literary theorists, especially, talk about value was often met with a curled lip: spurned as antidemocratic, capricious, clubby, and in the thrall of a mystified notion of aesthetics. Critics continued to prefer some books over others and to explicate and elaborate on these books, sometimes with verve, acumen, and passion. Yet their reasons for doing so were often glossed over or else boiled down, as we will see, to the sole measure of their "criticality." To look back over the last few decades of literary debate is to encounter many of the same qualms, doubts, reservations, and misgivings that are now being voiced by outsiders, if for very different reasons. Literary theory, especially, cast its lot with a spirit of ceaseless skepticism and incessant interrogation; modeling itself on Mephistopheles in Goethe's Faust, it was "der Geist, der stets verneint" — the spirit that always negates. After decades of heady iconoclasm, after the bacchanalian joys of ripping up New Critical attitudes and scoffing at Leavisite platitudes, we are left nursing a Sunday morning hangover and wondering what fragments, if any, can be retrieved from the ruins.

To be sure, leeriness about values and norms is hardly unique to literary studies. Across the humanities, scholars are often trained not to articulate such values but to interrogate them, to recite the familiar Foucauldian mantra: Where does the discourse of values come from? What are its modes of existence? Which interests and power relations does it serve? Academics thrive in the rarefied air of metacommentary, honing their ability to complicate and problematize, to turn statements about the world into statements about the forms of discourse in which they are made. We conduct such interrogations endlessly, effortlessly, and in our sleep. When asked to justify our attachments and defend our commitments, however, we often flounder and flail about.

Michael Roth tackles this lopsidedness in his essay "Beyond Critical Thinking," noting that scholars are all too adept at documenting the insufficiencies of meanings, values, and norms; like tenacious bloodhounds, we sniff out coercion, collusion, or exclusion at every turn. We are often stymied, however, when asked to account for the importance of meanings, values, and norms in all forms of life, including our own. Rigorous thinking is equated with, and often reduced to, the mentality of critique. The result can be a regrettable arrogance of intellect, where the smartest thing you can do is to see through the deep-seated convictions and heartfelt attachments of others. "If we humanities professors saw ourselves more often as explorers of the normative than as critics of normativity," Roth writes, "we would have a better chance to reconnect our intellectual work to broader currents in public life."

Literary studies, moreover, can avail itself of a distinctive and double-edged weapon: the critique of literature versus literature as critique. A toolkit of methods lies ready to hand to draw out what a text does not know and cannot comprehend. The scalpel of political or historical diagnosis slices into a literary work to expose its omissions and occlusions, its denials and disavowals. Reading becomes, as Judith Fetterley famously argued, an act of resistance rather than assent, a way of unbinding oneself from the power of the text. For a significant cohort of critics, however, such an approach seemed jejune and lacking in finesse: a sign less of the text's failings than of an insufficiently subtle reading practice. Instead, things were flipped around: we no longer needed to aim critique at the text because it was already being enacted by the text. Literature could now be lauded for its power to defamiliarize and demystify, to lay bare the banality of the commonplace, to highlight the sheer contingency and constructedness of meaning. We did not need to be suspicious of the text, in short, because it was already doing the work of suspicion for us. Critic and work were bound together in an alliance of mutual mistrust vis-à-vis everyday forms of language and thought.

Such a program has undeniable affinities with the agendas of those artists and writers estranged from, or at odds with, the mainstream of social life. Whether we are thinking of Flaubert's tirades against bourgeois bêtise or the caustic thrust of Brechtian alienation effects, Woolf's puncturing of male pomposity or Dadaist mockery of the museum as mausoleum, modern art has often sought to shake things up. It has been a thorn in the flesh, a fist in the eye, a forceful twisting and torquing and repurposing of ordinary language. What we might question, though, is the fervor with which "criticality" is hailed as the sole metric of literary value. We can only rationalize our love of works of art, it seems, by proving that they are engaged in critique — even if unwittingly and unknowingly. A particular novel or film thus serves as a meritorious exception to the ideologies that must be ritually condemned. All too often, we see critics tying themselves into knots in order to prove that a text harbors signs of dissonance and dissent — as if there were no other conceivable way of justifying its merits. In this respect, at least, we remain faithful descendants of Adorno and a modernist regime of aesthetic value. Both aesthetic and social worth, it seems, can only be cashed out in terms of a rhetoric of againstness.

And yet there are other salient desires, motives, agendas that drive acts of reading and that receive short shrift from critics scouring works of literature for every last crumb of real or imagined resistance. We shortchange the significance of art by focusing on the "de" prefix (its power to demystify, destabilize, denaturalize) at the expense of the "re" prefix: its ability to recontextualize, reconfigure, or recharge perception. Works of art do not only subvert but also convert; they do not only inform but also transform — a transformation that is not just a matter of intellectual readjustment but one of affective realignment as well (a shift of mood, a sharpened sensation, an unexpected surge of affinity or disorientation). Works of art, Chantal Mouffe notes, can trigger passionate attachments and sponsor new forms of identification, subjectivity, and perceptual possibility. And here critique is stymied by its assumption that anything that does not "interrogate" the status quo is doomed to sustain it, that whatever is not critical languishes in the ignominious zone of the uncritical. Priding itself on the vigilance of its detachment, it proves a poor guide to the thickness and richness of our aesthetic attachments.

That the shake-up of the canon in recent decades and the influx of new voices and visions has altered our perceptions of what literature is and does is indisputable. Yet it hardly follows that such changes are best captured in the idiom of critique — rather than inspiration, invention, solace, recognition, reparation, or passion. Such an idiom narrows and constrains our view of what literature is and does; it highlights the sphere of agon (conflict and domination) at the expense of eros (love and connection), assuming — with little justification — that the former is more fundamental than the latter. Anyone who attends academic talks has learned to expect the inevitable question: "But what about power?" Perhaps it is time to start asking different questions: "But what about love?" Or: "Where is your theory of attachment?" To ask such questions is not to abandon politics for aesthetics. It is, rather, to contend that both art and politics are also a matter of connecting, composing, creating, coproducing, inventing, imagining, making possible: that neither is reducible to the piercing but one-eyed gaze of critique.

In highlighting the salience of mood and method in criticism, I seek to kick-start a conversation about alternatives. What happens if we think of critique as an affective stance that orients us in certain ways? And as a particular cluster of conventions rather than a synonym for freewheeling dissidence or disembodied skepticism? Ideas and discourses, writes Peter Sloterdijk, "would dissolve like writing on water if they were not embedded in the ongoing processes of repetitive life that guarantee, among other things, epistemic characteristics and discursive routines." Critique is not just a questioning of routine but a putting into places of new routines — a specific habit or regime of thought that schools us to approach texts in a certain manner. And here I turn to Ricoeur's two key words — suspicion and hermeneutics — in order to draw out their pertinence to literary and cultural studies. Why, after all, should we speak of suspicion — rather than, say, skepticism or paranoia — and in what sense does contemporary criticism remain a distinctively hermeneutic or interpretative exercise? Finally, the chapter gestures toward a wider history of suspicious interpretation that has yet to be written: a history that must surely qualify any view of the uniqueness or exceptionalism of critique.

Suspicion as Mood and Method

In surveying the recent history of theory, we must give credit to the extraordinary waves of energy and excitement it unleashed. For a generation of graduate students — including myself — who had been weaned on a bland diet of New Criticism and old historicism, the explosion of literary theories and critical methods was irresistible. The intellectual passions of the 1980s — the Macherey reading group, the late-night discussions of Cixous or Irigaray — were intense, feverish, and palpable. Suddenly, there was an overabundance of vocabularies at our disposal — a cornucopia of methods for connecting literary words to a larger world. Then, as now, I had misgivings about the vangardist tendencies that often tagged along with theory — as if only those schooled in the latest Parisian philosophies could escape a cloud of unknowing and the shame of ideological complicity. But, like many of my peers, I found the heady debates of the time indisputably interesting.

My first forays into theory occurred at the high point of Althusserian thought in the early 1980s — with its insistence that we were always already ensnared within ideology and interpellated by various state apparatuses. Its influential model of symptomatic reading — developed by Pierre Macherey, Fredric Jameson, and others — drew from psychoanalysis as well as Marxism: the language of literary and film studies grew weighty with references to symptoms and repressions, anxieties and the unconscious. Embarking on a feminist dissertation, I immersed myself in theories of the male gaze, femininity as masquerade, the features of a feminist aesthetic. Vocabularies proliferated and changed with an often bewildering speed: performativity and the panopticon, the mirror stage and the mise en abyme, interpellation and l'écriture féminine. The text was ruthlessly restrictive and repressive, closed, coercive, claustrophobic, exclusionary — or else the text was polyphonic, chaotic, carnivalesque, intrinsically unstable, convulsed by its internal contradictions and teetering on the edge of incoherence. Each new framework promised, with the roguish gleam of a salesman's wink, to overcome the limits of previous ones: to deliver the definitive theory of the subject or concept of power that would nail things down once and for all.

These frameworks would eventually yield ground to postcolonial studies and queer theory, to New Historicism and cultural materialism. Theory was contested, revised, and rewritten throughout the 1980s and '90s, in response to internal debates and disputes as well as the visibility of new political actors. There were vociferous demands for greater attention to historical details as well as the specifics of social identities, for precise calibrations of political inequity as well as an expansion of theoretical argument beyond its Eurocentric premises and preoccupations. Meanwhile the subject of postmodernism triggered a veritable avalanche of books and articles before suddenly expiring — like an overadvertised brand — around the turn of the century. To immerse oneself in the last few decades of literary and cultural theory is thus to be caught up in a dizzying whirlwind of ideas, arguments, and world pictures.

What is called "theory," in short, consists of many language games, not just one: as David Rodowick shows in his illuminating history, there are countless breaks, ruptures, dead ends and detours, fresh starts and false starts, unexpected reversals and repetitions. And yet these language games also share certain resemblances. Stephen Greenblatt and Catherine Gallagher summarize the stance of New Historicism as being "skeptical, wary, demystifying, critical, and even adversarial" — a description that perfectly matches virtually every other critical approach! In spite of the theoretical and political disagreements between styles of criticism, there is a striking resemblance at the level of ethos — one that is nicely captured by François Cusset in his phrase "suspicion without limits." In what follows, I adopt an angle of vision that reveals unexpected continuities among much-canvassed discontinuities. It is not that the differences between theories do not matter — in many circumstances they are crucial — but that an exclusive fixation on these differences prevents us from asking equally important questions: What do forms of critique have in common? To what extent do they prime us to approach texts in a given state of mind, to adopt a certain attitude toward our object?

Let us call this attitude a "critical mood." That essays published in PMLA or the Journal of Philosophy are unlikely to voice explosive emotions or visceral passions does not mean that scholarship is stripped of affect. Here the idea of mood gives us a helpful handle for the low-key tone of academic argument. Mood, as discussed by Heidegger and others, refers to an overall atmosphere or climate that causes the world to come into view in a certain way. Moods are often ambient, diffuse, and hazy, part of the background rather than the foreground of thought. In contrast to the suddenness and intensity of the passions, they are characterized by a degree of stability: a mood can be pervasive, lingering, slow to change. It "sets the tone" for our engagement with the world, causing it to appear before us in a given light. Mood, in this sense, is a prerequisite for any form of interaction or engagement; there is, Heidegger insists, no moodless or mood-free apprehension of phenomena. Mood, to reprise our introductory comments, is what allows certain things to matter to us and to matter in specific ways.

The notion of mood thus bridges the gap between thought and feeling. Mood accompanies and modulates thought; it affects how we find ourselves in relation to a particular object. There is more going on in literary studies than theoretical debates, political disputes, and close readings. Whether our overall mood is ironic or irenic, generous or guarded, strenuous or langorous, will influence how we position ourselves in relation to the texts we encounter and what strikes us as most salient. Critical detachment is not an absence of mood, but one manifestation of it, casting a certain shadow over its object. It colors the texts we read, endows them with certain qualities, places them in a given light. A certain disposition takes shape: guardedness rather than openness, aggression rather than submission, irony rather than reverence, exposure rather than tact. We are talking here of an orientation in the phenomenological sense, a constellation of attitudes and beliefs that expresses itself in a particular manner of approaching one's object, of leaning toward or turning away from a text, of engaging in close — yet also critical and therefore distanced — reading. Like any other repeated practice, it eases into the state of second nature, no longer an alien or obtrusive activity but a recognizable and reassuring rhythm of thought. Critique inhabits us, and we become habituated to critique.


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Table of Contents


1 The Stakes of Suspicion
2 Digging Down and Standing Back
3 An Inspector Calls
4 Crrritique
5 “Context Stinks!”

In Short

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