The Limits of Critique
by Rita Felski

Reviewed by Kathryn Fleishman


Published by University Of Chicago Press, 2015   |   240 pages

In our relationships, writes Henry David Thoreau, “there is no rule more invariable than that we are paid for our suspicion by finding what we suspected.” Suspicion exploits vulnerability; its conviction is that there is always something in the other to convict. As Rita Felski argues in The Limits of Critique, suspicion is the de facto posture of literary interpretation, so habitual that we have forgotten how to imagine alternative forms of rigorous thought. This produces in us a kind of intellectual austerity, marking off alternate pathways of connection and innovation, lest we risk our scholarly credibility. Among the book’s most striking images is that of critique as a playground bully: “Unwilling to admit the possibility of peaceful coexistence or even mutual indifference, it concludes that those who do not embrace its tenets must therefore be denying or disavowing them.”

Critique presents itself as the most rigorous, if not the only viable, means of textual analysis, inherently skeptical thanks to the critic’s noble detachment from her object of study. However, as Felski points out, a detailed pursuit of networks of textual attachment also asks us to bear rigorous witness to our own critical attachments. Critique is not just a mode or style, then, but a mood of approaching texts that is invested in the appearance of objectivity. If, as a practice, critique is secondary, negative, intellectual, oppositional to authority, and intolerant of its rivals (as the author outlines in her fourth chapter), what are the consequences? Why does critique so often respond to its critics by asking them to double down on critique, as if the only alternative were to be “starry-eyed, compliant and complacent”? Might we be surprised by the alternatives if we exited this dichotomy altogether? This is a line of questioning already at work in Felski’s previous book, Uses of Literature (2008), where she asserts, “There is no reason why our readings cannot blend analysis and attachment, criticism and love.” In the Limits of Critique, Felski advances this argument, entreating us to consider texts more as friends to be understood than as foes to be vanquished. We can be postcritical, Felski argues, without becoming uncritical.

Across Indo-European languages, ‘suspicion’ is etymologically linked to words for ‘think’ or ‘look’ with prefixes meaning ‘under’ or ‘behind.’ For the last four decades, critique, broadly defined by these two major categories, has focused on the text as “an inert object to be scrutinized” rather than “a phenomenon to be engaged.” In the ‘depth’ tradition (Freud, Marx, Nietzsche), we dig out a single, predetermined truth from ‘behind’ appearance, while in the ‘surface’ model of poststructuralism (Foucault, Derrida, Butler), we concede that the boundless complexity of language renders interpretation impossible, and that all things ‘natural’ are in fact “stamped by culture all the way down.” Analyzing the spatial metaphors of “digging down and standing back,” Felski presents the theoretical traditions of Freud and Foucault as unlikely twins that, while seemingly pitted against one another, actually foster a similar pretense of detachment – even antagonism – in the reader, rather than understanding and engagement. This is not to say that differences between types of critique do not matter, only that we fail to see how fundamentally similar they are, even across critical modes generally understood to be opposed. Rather than exposing more about a text, Felski argues, suspicion actually limits our critical interpretations because it consistently applies the same type of logic to a vast array of questions and texts.

In constructing the postcritical, Felski draws most heavily on Reassembling the Social, Bruno Latour’s 2005 primer on actor-network theory (or ANT – a field of study that examines the behavior of individuals, or “actors,” within social networks). Latour takes issue with the failure of his own discipline (sociology) to be “scientific enough.” Too many sociologists, he argues, start with a hypothesis based on ‘the social’ and bend the data to fit, rather than allowing the results to speak for themselves. In literary criticism, we encounter the parallel in the ubiquitous impression that however scrupulously detailed the analysis, and however rigorous the argument, the thesis is often predetermined by the critic’s quasi-religious loyalty to her particular brand of critique.

Through the figure of the detective, Felski illustrates how suspicion seeks out a guilty party, even without evidence of a crime; like Thoreau’s companion, the text is never presumed innocent. As readers of D.A. Miller can attest, where the detective novel pins the blame on a guilty individual at the narrative’s conclusion, critique often names from the start a guilty party that is larger-than-life: society, ideology, or discourse, for example. Felski’s assertion that critics have distanced themselves from the metaphorical detective recently, seeing him as a precursor to the “data mining” of our own surveillance state, recalls Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus’ 2009 observation in Representations that peeling back the mask of ideology is less and less satisfying in an era when that hypocrisy is so patently on display.

Indeed, Felski forcefully dispels the notion that the postcritical is apolitical. In a passage of remarkable prescience, she presses us to recognize that “vernacular suspicion is promiscuous rather than partisan,” and that we are seeing now “an excess of distrust rather than a surplus of belief” in contemporary political and public culture. As 2016 has demonstrated, suspicion proliferates “right-wing populism, hostility toward big government, grassroots opposition to multiculturalism and a scapegoating of migrants, disdain for out-of-touch intellectuals and an energetic debunking of their scholarly credentials… is the piling up of yet more skepticism really what we need?” From the first chapter, Felski makes a fine distinction against so-called “paranoid” forms of reading, choosing instead “suspicious” as a descriptor. After all, to diagnose paranoia would be to engage in the same “thinking behind” that Felski is trying to resist, whereas suspicion merely describes an affective orientation. A starting place for the alternative lies in phenomenology, says Felski, “in a care or concern for phenomena, a preference for description over explanation, a willingness to attend rather than to analyze.” Taking up Ricoeur’s concept of a hermeneutics of suspicion, Felski considers what stances like trust, restoration, and recollection might afford.

For his own discipline, Latour wishes to redefine the ‘social’ as “the tracing of associations” – not “a thing among other things… but a type of connection between things that are themselves not social.” Like Latour, Felski carves out the postcritical mainly in negative space, providing a list of “things that a postcritical reading will decline to do,” including interrogating, diagnosing, or deconstructing a text, as well as fixating on the misrecognition, undecidability, and impenetrability of language. And yet actor-network theory, to which Felski devotes her fifth and final chapter, does provide a positive model of readership as well. Felski presents three principal means of thinking beyond the limits of critique: texts can be transhistorical (we can supersede period boundaries, even as we acknowledge the material and historical conditions in which a text was created), they can be actors (they can affect us, they can effect difference), and they can render our hermeneutics affective (we can combine intellectual rigor and emotional attachment, seeing reading as a cocreation, rather than a battle, between ourselves and text). After all, the effort “to seek to reduce something to dust by showing that it is made up” is rather self-defeating for a critic of the literary arts.

Felski is encouraged by a “eudaimonic turn in literary studies: a disenchantment with disenchantment” that offers us the chance to reconnect with the texts we teach and study and to explore attachment and pleasure as facilitators of, rather than obstacles to, readerly thought. This does not mean that we hold the text in “a spirit of reverence” and pure aesthetics, but rather that we acknowledge how art might “reorient and refresh perception,” and how “generosity and unabashed curiosity” function. Actor-network theory helps us form a defense of humanistic thought “in the face of growing skepticism about its value,” since our “social or ethical commitments…require us to communicate with intellectual strangers who do not share our assumptions.” It might also minimize histrionics as we communicate the stakes of our beliefs to one another; while “reading… indisputably has an ethical dimension,” Felksi argues, it is “more like a traffic violation rather than a capital crime.”

The Limits of Critique is part of a much larger academic movement; in the last decade or so, a rising tide of scholarship has challenged critique as the pinnacle of intellectual inquiry. Felski traces the revival of this Ricouerian sentiment to interventions by Amanda Anderson, Janice Radway, and José Muñoz, to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s call for “reparative reading” (2003), Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus’ manifesto on “surface reading” (2009), and Heather Love’s call for a “descriptive turn” in Close But Not Deep (2010). The postcritical, in Felski’s work, is also clearly rooted in feminist critique, as she herself acknowledges. Feminist and queer theorists from Vivian Sobchak to Leo Bersani have questioned the privilege of detachment-as-power, considering the transformative power of being “carried away,” of actively allowing ourselves to be affected and acted upon. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s apt characterization of “strong theory” – that it “cannot yield to a text – a process that it perceives as a form of shameful abasement or ideological surrender” – means that when we search for a predetermined solution, “we are shielded from the risks, but also the rewards, of aesthetic experience.” The search for full conceptual coherence is of course the power of strong theory, but it is also its greatest weakness, since it means we can never admit being moved by the literature we engage.

In The Limits of Critique, Felski offers an excellent, accessible overview of critique as a tradition, reviews some of the main inroads the postcritical has made, and delineates some of its most promising affordances in clear, applicable terms. She makes plain that she wishes to “besto[w] upon [critique] some of the sympathy it is inclined to withhold from others,” asking in return that her reader resist critique’s counterproductive tendency to defend itself against the postcritical by insisting that “any deterrents of critique are met with a stronger and more suspicious strain of critique itself.” In almost every chapter, Felski is careful to point out that critique, while in need of expansion and revision, is neither as extreme nor as unpleasant as many of its detractors have claimed.

Ultimately, Felski argues, the equation of critique with legitimacy is a modern, Western, and staid position in need of examination and expansion. We delude ourselves if we think our work is ever denuded of attachments and prejudices; in fact, these are the pre-conditions of all phenomenological experience. Felski’s carefully-chosen terms (“postcritical,” “transhistoricist,” “neophenomenology,” “affective hermeneutics”) advance a networked concept of thought itself. She enacts actor-network theory’s branching logic by attaching her book to a critical and philosophical tradition, rather than merely opposing or erasing it. Felski reminds us, in her tireless and intricate review of its pleasures and values, that critique remains essential to literary study, even as we learn to work beyond its limits. As a discipline, we’d be lost without it. It just so happens that we might also be lost within it.

Kathryn Fleishman is a doctoral candidate in English and Film & Media Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. She is currently completing her dissertation, which examines the relationship between feminist theory and the postmodern aesthetic across a range of novels and films since 1945.

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