Are We Postcritical?

By Matthew MullinsDecember 27, 2015

The Limits of Critique by Rita Felski

I FIRST ENCOUNTERED what literary critics call “literary theory,” “critical theory,” or just plain “theory” in a class titled “Contemporary Literary Theory” taught by what must have been the world’s most patient professor. Each week we studied a different approach to reading, moving from formalism to structuralism to Marxism to feminism to deconstruction to postcolonialism and beyond. Every new theory presented itself as the true method of interpretation, the one that would lead me through the smoke screens and false fronts that obscured the meanings of works of literature, or what I learned to call “texts.” Structuralism was the answer to all possible questions, it seemed, until I learned about Marxism, which was supplanted by feminism and so on. “Now I’ve really got it,” I would think each week, only to be disabused of my former faith when the next theory showed me the true path to meaning. Reading, it turned out, was not simply following the story or argument or imagery. It was a complex process whereby text and context, words and their worlds had to be decoded like hieroglyphs. I came to think of “theory” as a kind of shorthand term for the many different approaches to deciphering these hieroglyphs, and I realized that the world of literary studies I was so eager to join was subdivided into camps. The Marxists wanted to talk about class, while the postcolonialists wanted to talk about empire.

What Rita Felski explains with such insight and clarity in her new book, The Limits of Critique, is that the features that make these theories seem so different from one another are the very things that ground them all in a common ethos, the ethos of critique. Whether she takes a formalist or a queer approach, the critic’s job is to interrogate the text, diagnose its complicity with social forces, rebel against this complicity, and extol the virtues of texts that do this work for us. The authority of critique depends, in part, on its dispassionate tone, its ability to provide the critic with enough distance to identify and interrogate what seems like common sense. If she does not engage in critique, then the critic is thought to be naive, uninterested in politics, or, far worse, a humanist!

Felski argues that critique has become the very kind of common sense it sets out to expose. Her book sets out to show that critique is not coterminous with literary studies, but rather one methodology among many. Although I think she accomplishes this goal in a way that expands the parameters of the discipline, I expect the goal itself to meet with opposition. At a moment when the seeming insularity of literary studies is just one example of the humanities’ steady slide toward oblivion, Felski’s view of critique will be seen by some as a backing-away from the most interdisciplinary, political skill we have. After all, if we don’t engage in “critical thinking,” how will we continue to justify our existence? But Felski’s argument does not do away with critical thinking. Instead, by examining what critique can and cannot do, she rethinks politics altogether and reimagines the contribution literary critics might make to the university and the culture at large.

The Limits of Critique begins by redescribing critique as a literary version of what the philosopher Paul Ricoeur calls the “hermeneutics of suspicion.” To read suspiciously is to insist that the text’s real meaning always lies hidden. By redefining critique as a hermeneutics of suspicion, Felski demonstrates that it is not an exclusively intellectual enterprise. Instead, critique’s dispassion and detachment mark it as a resolutely emotional endeavor. Taking on the role of the critic has its own affective rewards. The critic is the knowing reader who stands above or beyond the many attachments that prevent the lay reader from being able to see what a text really means. The critic is never naive. The critic is a member of an exclusive club made up of those who are in the know, those who are not bamboozled by the appearances of things. As it turns out, literary critics have practiced a method whose intellectual virtues have often obfuscated its emotional pleasures.

The origins of this argument can be traced back at least a dozen years in Felski’s work. In Literature after Feminism (2003) she tells the story of teaching Henry James’s The Bostonians to a class of college students who missed out on the novel’s sophisticated treatment of gender because of their resistance to its patriarchal values. “They were so eager to impose what they saw as the correct feminist reading on the text,” she recalls, “that they were oblivious to what the text might say back to them.” Felski identifies this commitment to resistance as both a classic feature of feminist interpretation and a prime example of Ricoeur’s “hermeneutics of suspicion.” The reference to Ricoeur in Literature after Feminism is illuminating but brief, and Felski quickly moves on.

But it seems the resonance between feminist interpretation and the “hermeneutics of suspicion” echoed loudly in her thinking about how theoretical approaches like feminism teach us to read. Within five years of Literature after Feminism, Felski published Uses of Literature (2008), building on the work of Eve Sedgwick and others to argue that suspicion has become the de facto posture of the literary theory classroom and calling for a change: “At this point, we are all resisting readers; perhaps the time has come to resist the automatism of our own resistance, to risk alternate forms of aesthetic engagement.” When I first read Uses of Literature it took me back immediately to that “Contemporary Literary Theory” course and my struggle to understand the diverse range of “theories” in relation to what everyone around me was simply calling “theory.” It helped me start to make sense of why I found the semester’s successive revelations so thrilling and confounding. Uses of Literature takes a step beyond Literature after Feminism, offering four alternatives to suspicious reading: recognition, enchantment, knowledge, and shock, each outlining a less antagonistic methodology.

What began as an observation about certain brands of feminist interpretation in Literature after Feminism and grew into a revision of literary theory more broadly in Uses of Literature has evolved into an argument about the very horizon of literary studies in The Limits of Critique. The limits of critique are most obvious in the literature classroom, where teachers exhaust themselves in their attempts to help students see that we are not trying to teach them “the answer,” as if there was one. Rather, we are trying to help them see in a certain way, that certain way being, of course, the way we see. It’s not that we want them to come to the same conclusions, but that we want them to learn how to ask the same kinds of questions that we have learned to ask. I’m less concerned (though not unconcerned) with my students’ interpretations of Toni Morrison’s Jazz than I am with their ability to ask the kinds of questions that will produce new insights. They learn to adopt a certain attitude toward the text and the existing criticism of the text, an attitude that primarily values these things for what they don’t say. Students become critics who are looking for a gap to fill, an absence to make present. In this way, critique is a “matter of style, method, and orientation (‘knowing how’ to read a text or pursue a line of reasoning), involving emulation of both tone and technique.”

Felski argues that this style takes two basic forms and that these forms have become second nature for the critic. Critics “dig down” and “stand back.” Digging down is the practice of the Freudian and the Marxist. These critics stoop to excavate, interrogate, and dissect the text. They mistrust its surface. Standing back is the move of the poststructuralist and the New Historicist. These critics distance themselves to situate, contextualize, and denaturalize the text. They mistrust what seems natural. These metaphors of digging down and standing back function as the centripetal forces of critique. They encourage the critic to adopt a distrustful attitude toward the text. Interpretation hinges on the assumption that all texts mean more than they say. The act of reading simply becomes the act of “drawing out the nonobvious.”

Although standing back does not buy into the same search for foundational truth that motivates digging down, it turns a similar critical gaze on whatever seems natural. That which is taken for granted must be scrutinized. But, as Felski counters, “It is one thing to point out that certain ideas are bad and also taken for granted. It is another to conclude that they are bad because they are taken for granted …” Critique assumes that what is taken for granted is necessarily bad and cultivates such an assumption as the default mood of the critic. In a characteristically smart turn of phrase, Felski quips that “opposing critique to common sense fails to acknowledge the commonsensical aspects of critique.” Suspicious readers may not take note of how their guarded approach to a text produces one reading instead of another. They may always assume that the text or author is guilty of some crime requiring suspicious interpretation.

Felski describes the suspicious critic as an inspector or detective. If critics read by digging down and standing back, then we write by working from effect to cause like good detectives always do. Critics must tell a persuasive story about the text’s complicity with larger social structures. The point is not only that the critical reader adopts the mistrustful eye of the detective but also that it is the suspicious spirit of critique that prompts her to take on this persona in the first place. Every text has something to hide, and once the critic has figured out which social forces lie buried beneath its surface or hidden in plain sight, she must give a persuasive account of the text’s complicity. The text is always an accomplice, if not a perpetrator. The thrill of detection is what draws so many of us to literary studies in the first place. We take pleasure in discovering the hidden forces that determine the structure and content of the text and in belonging to the exclusive club reserved for those who can think this way. But like many other specialized forms of knowledge, critique depends on self-awareness, even a hyper-self-awareness, and suspicion can become monstrous when turned on itself.

In recent years, Felski observes, “the kinship between critic and detective has become frayed …” As the detective has come to represent the state’s panoptic eye, critics have come to distrust the detective and identify with the criminal instead, all the while continuing “to read like a sleuth.” More and more, the critical reader begins to perform a critique of critique: “It is no longer the text that is charged with criminal activity but the exegesis of the text.” We have reached a point of diminishing return, a vicious circle: the more suspicious we become of critique, the more we are captured by its style.

This endless critique of critique haunts every chapter of the book. Felski defends her project again and again from the accusation that it simply doubles down on critique. This repetition is no doubt necessary as her intended audience is made up of those who live and breathe critique. In my view, she successfully answers this objection. The book does not set out to reveal how critique has overshadowed a truer path to meaning, but to catalog just how it has become “synonymous with intellectual rigor, theoretical sophistication, and noncompliance with the status quo,” how it has become “not just one good thing but the only conceivable thing.” Felski’s goal is not to critique critique, but to redescribe it as the air of literary studies with an eye toward expanding our atmosphere. She does not seek to undermine, expose, and thus dismiss critique, as critical readings typically do with their objects. If anything, we come to understand its strengths and pleasures more deeply by exploring its limits.

And yet, don’t we have to consider the political implications of curbing critique? Critique has become the default mode of the literary critic in part because of its refusal to settle for the status quo. If we move away from critique as the foundation for literary studies, don’t we risk ignoring the political conditions in which texts are produced and read? In fact, Felski insists that there is nothing “automatically progressive about a stance of suspicion.” The irony and detachment that propel critics are now commonplace. The critic is no longer an outsider railing against the establishment. Critique is no longer marginal; it is mainstream. But the political implications of Felski’s argument extend far beyond reassessing the claim that critique is inherently politically progressive. She also draws on the work of philosopher and science studies scholar Bruno Latour to reimagine the very idea of “politics.”

Latour is perhaps most widely known for his claim that, as the title of one early book puts it, We Have Never Been Modern. He is also well known for his theory of social relations, which he outlines in Reassembling the Social. In this book, Latour pioneers his own brand of what other sociologists and philosophers call actor-network theory. The basic idea is that groups we generally think of as “social” are not static or essential, but constantly in process or under construction. That is, we can’t look to “social explanations” for why things are the way they are because the “social” is the very thing that always needs to be explained. We cannot rely on social forces to explain a text, or on a text to explain the social forces that produced it. For Latour, what’s important about this view is the significance of all humans and nonhumans in forming these networks. In other words, all humans and things are actors. Everyone and everything is a mediator rather than a mere intermediary, even and especially literary texts.

Latour’s actor-network theory helps Felski redescribe the relationship between texts and their contexts because it refuses to think of them as somehow separable or distinct. So when we think about the political implications of how we read, we cannot simply think of the text as an object produced in a certain political context, or as an intermediary that can transmit that context to us, or even as a mere critique of that context. The text must be understood as a mediator, an actor that plays a significant role in the very formation of that context. “Politics, in the sense developed by actor-network theory,” Felski explains, “is no longer a matter of gesturing toward the hidden forces that explain everything; it is the process of tracing the interconnections, attachments, and conflicts among actors and mediators as they come into view.” Under the banner of critique, to ask about politics is to ask how the text is complicit or subversive in its social context. actor-network theory, by contrast, sees the politics of reading in the relations between the myriad actors involved in the act of reading. Examining the limits of critique does not mean that we must abandon politics. It means that we must think about politics in a more rigorous way. It certainly does not mean that we must no longer be critical. The question, for Felski, is: “Can we be postcritical — as distinct from uncritical?”

What would it mean to be “postcritical” in Felski’s sense? In September I had the opportunity to attend “Recomposing the Humanities with Bruno Latour,” a conference hosted by Felski at the University of Virginia. Latour closed the all-day affair with an unsurprisingly refreshing and funny presentation. But it was Felski’s talk, “Doing the Humanities,” that has stayed with me most. In an effort to take a further step beyond the limits of critique, she offered four answers to the question, “If we’re not only doing critique, then what else do we do when we do the humanities?” First of all, she says, we curate. We are caretakers who preserve a tradition (yes, even when we critique that tradition). We also convey, both communicating and transporting values, sensibilities, texts, and stories. We criticize. Criticism in this sense includes forms of disagreement and objection that do not follow the mood and style of critique. Finally, we compose. We make. Composition is not creation out of nothing, but creation through gathering, assembling. It is encouraging that Felski is already building on the work of her latest book, and to know that there are critics who look at literary studies as a discipline of building up and not only tearing down. We need a book like The Limits of Critique now, at a time when, as Latour has famously said, critique has “run out of steam.”

Some books are so incisive and timely that they seem inevitable. To read them is to feel that if their authors had not come along to write them then surely someone else would have. The Limits of Critique is such a book. By exploring its limits, Felski frees critics from relying on critique as the gatekeeper of literary studies and offers a prescient guide to life in a postcritical world.


Matthew Mullins is the author of Postmodernism in Pieces (Oxford 2016). His essays and reviews have appeared in American Book Review, Arizona Quarterly, First Things, SubStance, and other venues.

LARB Contributor

Matthew Mullins is the author of Postmodernism in Pieces: Materializing the Social in U.S. Fiction (Oxford University Press, 2016) and Enjoying the Bible: Literary Approaches to Loving the Scriptures (Baker Academic, 2021).


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