Critique and Post-Critique or The End of “Critiquiness”

Juliane Römhild

Review Felski, Rita, and Anker, Elizabeth S., Critique and Post-Critique, Duke UP, 2017

Critique and Post-Critique, edited by Rita Felski and Elizabeth S. Anker, continues Rita Felski’s exploration of new critical approaches beyond the suspicious reading practices that usually travel under the heading of critique. After her earlier volume The Uses of Literature (2008), in which she outlined four different reading modes based on a neo-phenomenological examination of the experience of reading, and Beyond Critique (2015), in which she explained her dissatisfaction with the status of critique as the master-discourse in literary studies in more detail, Critique and Post-Critique now gathers a range of essays from such prominent critics as Toril Moi, Heather Love, Jennifer Fleissner and Ellen Rooney. The collection offers a range of views on the tensions and potential connections between the practices of critique and the new dawn of post-critique. The title of the book is programmatic: the majority of contributors to this volume are not interested in doing away with either post-structuralist critical practices or symptomatic reading entirely—perhaps an impossible undertaking anyway as Felski and Anker point out: “the ‘post-’ of post-critique denotes a complex temporality. An attempt to explore fresh ways of interpreting literary and cultural texts that acknowledges, nonetheless, its inevitable dependency on the very practices it is questioning” (1). Instead, the overall direction of this volume is to curb the excesses and complacencies of a critical framework that once started as the cutting-edge of left-wing criticism and has become academic mainstream in the humanities. Accordingly, several essays call for a rejuvenation rather than the abandonment of critique.

The book opens with an excellent overview by Felski and Anker of the philosophical and political underpinnings and the development of critique as a heterogeneous body of theory. It offers a possible definition of the term itself and looks at the disposition of the critic before situating critique as a political project in the field of cultural and social history. It then includes a useful summary of the current status of nascent post-critical approaches and concerns.

The first section of the book includes essays on the “Countertradition of Critique”, invoking thinkers as diverse as Wittgenstein, Donna Haraway and Nietzsche to outline alternative histories of critique and/or criticism. Opening with a deceptively straightforward account of critical practice based on the question “Why this?”, Toril Moi draws upon Wittgenstein to explore a form of criticism that rejects the psychoanalytical depth model of literary criticism and the critic as detective, revealing the “hidden” truths of the text. Instead, driven by the question “Why this?”, the literary critic seeks to clarify their own sense of confusion or irritation with a text. This does not do away with the chain of cause and effect as the argumentative model of criticism, but it reconceptualises the political drive of critique as a thematic rather than a methodological concern—not all answers the critic may find are necessarily politically charged. According to Moi, this opens up a wider and richer field of potential answers available to the critic. Moi’s main critical activity is based on the much-maligned practice of re-telling, or paraphrasing, the text as involving an inevitable (and potentially difficult) act of interpretation in the process. The next essay by Heather Love enters the fray of academic and intellectual politics more directly by using the work of Donna Haraway for a critical reading of Bruno Latour’s contributions to the field of post-critique. According to Love, Haraway’s often undervalued cross-disciplinary expertise offers a potential bridge between the critical practices of the humanities and the more fact-based approach of the sciences, resulting in a comprehensive ethos of care and a sustained awareness of “how knowledge is made”. Simon During offers an alternative history of the origins of critique. He traces several aspects of critique in Nietzsche’s writing before showing central features of critique, such as irony and polemic, in 18th century writing—long before the ascent of the post-war philosophy and cultural criticism usually associated with critique.

The next section of the book focusses more closely on “Styles of Reading” with essays offering close readings of particular texts or styles of interpretation. Jennifer L. Fleissner offers an astute exploration of suspicion in Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love with reference to Latour, reading the novel as a meta-critical response to the issues of symptomatic readings in the humanities/science divide. Fleissner is followed by an inspiring contribution by Ellen Rooney, who, drawing on Althusser and Marx, offers a spirited defence of symptomatic reading that recuperates precisely the elements critique seems to have lost: the willingness or ability of the critic to be surprised, and with it a sense of humbleness and revived analytic prowess. C. Namwali Serpell writes on literary cliché, much maligned by critique—a rich source of meaning if approached as “a material form of language” and a “mode of affective exchange” (165) rather than a stale collection of truisms hiding their own emptiness of meaning. Elizabeth S. Anker closes this section with an astute analysis of Coetze’s theoretically charged writing, which invites and eludes critique in equal measure and for that reason enjoys great popularity among scholars. It therefore lends itself to Anker’s meta-critique of our own scholarly preferences, the strengths and weaknesses of critique.

The last section of the book takes a closer look at “Affects, Politics, Institutions”. Several articles in the first two sections could also be read under this heading. It opens with an excellent analysis by Christopher Castiglia of our misgivings of critique. Castiglia locates our dissatisfaction not in the method of critique but in a critical disposition he calls “critiquiness”: “a combination of mistrust, indignation, ungenerosity, and self-congratulation” (214). Castiglia traces the suspicious Us-against-Them stance of critique back to its roots during the Cold War era when, in contrast to the melancholic resignation many critics feel today, political engagement was driven by strong sense of hope and political agency, which he wishes to recuperate for our present. Hope is coupled with imagination for Castiglia, the speculative mode of fiction and a firm belief in “the potential lying in wait” (226). This turn towards the future is also at the heart of Russ Castronovo’s essay on the politics of critique. Taking the famous picture of Edward Said throwing a stone as his starting point, he addresses the wide-spread frustration and disappointment with the apparent ineffectiveness of critique as a radical mode of thought that, despite its dominance across the humanities, has not even managed to protect its own domain from neo-liberal assault. Tracing the political mission of the critic back to Matthew Arnold, he locates the potential of critique not in the pursuit of any specific political agendas. Instead, he looks towards critique as a form of Walter Benjamin’s “weak messianic power” (246). Critique works best when missing the political mark (just like Said’s stone) by training our sense of imagination, of openness and possibility. John Michael takes his criticism of critique one step further: together with our belief in art, our belief in critique as the harbinger of a better world and the provider of truth has fallen prey to the same logic of secularisation and pluralisation that has continued to erode religious faith in many corners of the globe. Accordingly, looking to Whitman as the poet of democratic plurality (“I contain multitudes”), Michael suggests a different role for the modern critic, who should act as translator. Translation rather than revelation “is the activity of reconstituting, redescribing, and recontextualizing meanings” (271) based on close attention to the text and with an acute awareness of its own performance of meaning. In the last contribution, Eric Hayot looks more closely at the different temporalities of critical fashions, human ageing and political and institutional change. It cannot be accidental that the prevalent spirit of disillusionment originated with a generation of critics who were just passing into middle-age. Hayot sees the problem with the different speeds of human, political and institutional change, all of which contribute to our current sense of crisis. Rather than take this crisis for granted, he encourages us to question our own comfortable beliefs in a world going to the dogs and remember Walter Benjamin’s Jetztzeit, which always holds the potential to disrupt the status quo.

Critique and Post-Critique does not offer a comprehensive or even particularly clear vision for our post-critical future. Instead of new critical approaches, we find meditations on the role and identity of the critic in our current time, speaking specifically to the state of academia in the US. However, several connecting threads between individual contributions emerge: it seems that the self-righteous complacency of “critiquiness” rather than critique is at issue. For several contributors, post-critique seems to mean a return to the vibrant, radical roots of critique. Rather than a turn to “surface reading” as suggested by Sharon Marcus and Stephen Best, Eve Sedgwick’s “Paranoid and Reparative Reading” and Bruno Latour’s “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?” are the cornerstones of post-critical thinking. Most contributors still locate at the heart of their practice the progressive political mission to change the world and therefore remain loyal to some of the founding principles of critique. Symptomatic reading remains a much-valued practice, although the suspicious detection of the truth somewhere hidden in the depths of the text is dismissed as a gesture of “critiquiness” rather than critique. Toril Moi’s question “Why this?” broadly resonates with the logic of symptomatic reading; her suggestion of paraphrase as a valid critical method has commonalities with Michael’s figure of the critic as translator and the repeated call for close, attentive reading throughout this volume. The self-reflexive stance of critique remains key to any sense of critical integrity and is crucial to the deepening conversation between humanities and sciences about how knowledge is created across the disciplines.

Over the course of the book, a figure emerges that I would call the “good critic”. The “good critic” can be found across all critical territories within and beyond critique: open-minded, self-reflexive, and driven by a genuine interest in and close attention to the text. The good critic remains willing to be surprised by the text and accepting of the inevitably provisional character of any reading. To other readers and students, the good critic is an advocate of hope, of poetic imagination and intellectual curiosity, of self-awareness, and political agency. Critique and Post-Critique is essential reading for all practitioners of literary criticism. It offers a good overview of the history of critique and the current debates surrounding it, as well as food for thought for our professional identities as critics and scholars.

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