Wednesday, July 27, 2016

A Review of Rita Felski, The Limits of Criticique

Under review: Rita Felski. The Limits of Critique. University of Chicago Press, 2015.

Dan Weiskopf in ArtsATL, July 5, 2016:
Felski documents extensively how critics in the grip of suspicion cast themselves as detectives, turning over each word with gloved hands and dusting spaces for prints. Every text appears as a crime scene: no matter how placid and controlled it appears on the surface, a transgression must be concealed just beneath. Texts take on a kind of sinister agency, disguising their nature from readers in order to more subtly influence them.

9780226294032Suspicious reading, then, aligns itself with “guardedness rather than openness, aggression rather than submission, irony rather than reverence, exposure rather than tact” (p. 21). And it goes hand-in-hand with a view of language as tacitly coercive, a conduit for unconsciously replicating oppressive social structures. Critique is driven by the need to expose and name the “crime” perpetrated by the text, though here the quarry is “not an anomalous individual — a deranged village vicar, a gardener with a grudge — but some larger entity targeted by the critic as an ultimate cause: Victorian society, imperialism, discourse/power, Western metaphysics” (p. 89).
A false idol?
Felski argues compellingly that despite its many virtues, critique is a false idol. Perhaps its greatest failing is the inability to imagine anything outside of itself. Its totalizing ambitions force it to deny that there could even be any other intellectually rigorous method of engagement with a text. Whatever strays from the aim of demystifying and exposing the limitations of an artwork, or from seeing the work as ultimately an expression of relations of power that need to be opposed, must be a form of unchecked sentiment or complicity.
Critique only knows what it (thinks) it knows:
No, the problem lies with critique that only knows how to probe for the cracks, gaps and fissures in the fabric of a work, that sees debunking as the highest aim of interpretation, and that hollows out texts and artworks into mere arenas for ideological combat. As if rigor and insight had to be coupled with fault-finding and a strident meanness of feeling. This, too, is an effect of suspicious reading: to cast even your own emotions about a work into doubt, so much so that it’s rare that any critical texts contain meditations on our everyday feelings of amusement, pleasure, or surrender in the face of the works we are most passionate about.
But is Latour the way?
Unfortunately, Felski’s own proposals for “postcritical reading” are not always as sharply drawn. She is quick to reassure us — we scholars, at least — that “the antidote to suspicion is thus not a repudiation of theory . . . but an ampler and more diverse range of theoretical vocabularies” (p. 181). Drawing on Bruno Latour’s “Actor-Network Theory”, she proposes that we revise our view of the reader/text/context divides and see texts not as “servile henchmen” (p. 170) for ideology but as akin to agents themselves, enmeshed in our lives in countless ways and capable of compelling in us a far fuller range of emotional responses.

While it’s easy to applaud her call to move beyond the “vulgar sociology” (p. 171) of critique, it’s not clear that Latour’s generalized model of network relations is much of an advance. It’s also a little hard to square this slightly wonky scientism with her call for a renaissance of humanistic values in criticism. To write out one’s responses to a text or an image is to record the shifting interplay between two particulars, oneself and the work. So-called “strong” theories inevitably bleach out the specific nature of what emerges from these encounters. In this way they run counter to the impulse that drives criticism in the first place, which is to record the private, idiosyncratic act of figuring out for oneself what one thinks and feels about an artwork.
As you may know, I've given quite a bit of thought to Latour and even blogged a series of posts on Reassembling the Social, which I then turned into a working paper (downloadable PDF). The great weakness of Latour for literary studies is that, while he gives us a way of thinking about how we negotiate our relationships with one another, he has little to say about the mind and so gives us few to no tools for reaching into literature's interior. I have, however, suggested that his distinction between intermediaries and mediators is a good place to start. Intermediaries are transparent between interacting individuals while mediators require transformation and translation. I suggest, then, that we think of literary form as an intermediary while content must be mediated. That is to say, the literary text is both an intermediary and a mediator.

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