This trajectory from devastating truth to conventional wisdom may, however, encapsulate something essential to capitalist realism itself. It is apt, if tragically ironic, that the phrase that best describes what Robert Tally Jr. calls the “enervation of our imagination” of an alternative world (and ultimately of an alternative to the end of the world) should devolve into a stock phrase. In 1980, Christopher Ricks commented that “the feeling lately has been that we live in an unprecedented inescapability from clichés.” The maxim of capitalist realism — that “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism” — both describes and has become an example of this depressing fact. Even the critique of capitalist realism risks being grasped by what it seeks to grasp: our seemingly ever-increasing inability to imagine something genuinely new or different, in spite of the apocalyptic threat posed by “all that exists.”
Tally’s new book, For a Ruthless Critique of All That Exists: Literature in an Age of Capitalist Realism, is particularly concerned with this question of the conditions of imagination under late capitalism, the ways in which it might be kept alive in the face of market forces that conspire to deaden it. As the title suggests, Tally argues that our only hope lies in a revitalized “ruthless critique of all that exists” (borrowing a phrase from the young Marx) — especially critique as it is practiced, or might yet be practiced, in literary and cultural criticism. In an age of capitalist realism, where society is mystified by “the tyranny of the actual” (as Tally also calls it), only a critique of this reality and its cultural products can help us imagine something beyond its limits. This idea, for Tally, is not exclusively Marxist; it is implicit in all “careful reading, considered meditation, and creative speculation.” The literary critic Northrop Frye, for example, held that critique as a mode of literary analysis was principally a means of “educating the imagination.” If we want to imagine the end of capitalism, and not merely the end of the world, we cannot dispense with the critical reading of literature.
Tally argues that the need for a revitalized critique is made all the more urgent by the increasing tendency within literary studies (and arguably the humanities in general) to think that we might not need critique any longer at all. Literary critics such as Sharon Marcus, Stephen Best, Toril Moi, and especially Rita Felski have sought to complicate critique as a method of interpretation and undermine its assumed political and ethical efficacy. Critique, they argue, is elitist, depressive, and ultimately misses the point. More precisely, it is overly detached from what it analyzes, opting to interrogate the text in order to draw out its withheld or disavowed meanings, but at the expense of understanding the text itself. In its place, these critics have increasingly adopted so-called “postcritical” alternatives, modes of reading more concerned with the surface of a work than what lies beneath, reading with the grain rather than against it. According to Marcus (one of these postcritics), this does not really represent a new critical model of reading; rather, it is “just reading.” For Tally, though, such a postcritical approach to literature and culture is exactly what one would expect to find in a society unable to imagine alternatives to itself: it is “at once symptomatic and (perhaps unconsciously) supportive of a system that has naturalized the idea that it is total, complete, and insuperable.” To reformulate some words from Jameson: Postcritique is the cultural logic of capitalist realism.
There are three main reasons for this. In the first place, Tally argues, a satisfaction with surface meaning and a resistance to critical analysis always betray a resignation to the status quo and that which sustains it: “Appeals to the plain, the simple, and the ordinary cannot help but serve the forces of mystification.” For example, one challenge leveled by Felski (echoing an earlier claim by Bruno Latour) is that, with its chronic “paranoia” and “suspicion,” critique reproduces the logic of climate change denial. Tally cleverly turns this analogy around: climate change deniers are in fact committed to a profoundly uncritical “surface reading”:
This is why commentators across all right-wing media tend to point to the thermometer on the first cold day of each autumn as “evidence” that global warming is either a liberal hoax or simply a false hypothesis. […] It is not that these climate skeptics view expertise with suspicion (although some undoubtedly do), so much as they celebrate the obvious truth of their own surface readings.
This argument is persuasive — up to a point. When it’s a record-breaking 40 degrees centigrade in Cambridge (as it is as I write this), climate skeptics tend not to appeal to the obvious truth of their own surface reading of the mercury, instead making superficial appeals to so-called long planetary temperature cycles, or something. Either way, climate skeptics’ data-handling practices bear all the hallmarks of the conservative “common sense” approach to complex structural questions, which we can also arguably see in the postcritic’s approach to literature.
The second reason that postcritique is symptomatic of capitalist realism, for Tally, is its propensity to present itself as “natural.” Consider, for example, Marcus’s account of postcritical reading as “just reading.” This, Tally argues, is a straightforward example of ideology, that which “present[s] socially constructed phenomena as if they were purely natural,” offering itself as “just” so, while implicitly bolstering the economic base that sustains it.
This leads to Tally’s third reason: that the principles and methods of postcritique resign themselves to the institutional demands of the neoliberal university. Here he draws upon the work of Carolyn Lesjak. In the face of increasing casualization, budget cuts, and, most pertinently, a prescribed sense of literature’s irrelevance, “postcritical” critics have capitulated in an attempt to conform. In Lesjak’s words, they cynically comply “with the instrumentalization of knowledge and thought driving the very institutional and university policies that see the humanities as obsolete.” As Tally claims, it is not coincidental that the postcritical “visions of austerity, modesty, and limited range” cohere with capital’s own self-presentation, nor is it coincidental that postcritical projects have in turn been favored with generous grants and awards. Most notably, “Felski has received a multimillion-dollar grant, a sum virtually unheard of for research in the humanities, to study the ‘uses of literature.’”
Tally also attacks practices of “distant reading” or “computational criticism” on these same grounds. Pioneered by Franco Moretti, such criticism attempts to assess huge numbers of texts, not by “reading” them (as we might understand it) but via the application of computational methods to literary data, often harvested from digital libraries with the use of search algorithms. For Tally, distant reading merely replaces one surface with another, and still critique is forsaken. Instead of the surface of the individual text, what distant readers scan is a surface of their own construction, made up of generalized tropes and trends. The literary critic becomes the big-data analyst. “[O]ne does wonder,” Tally writes, “what effects […] the neoliberal Zeitgeist […] may have had on the formerly Marxist critic’s [Moretti’s] views of literary analysis and ideology critique.” (As Tally also notes, Moretti has since distanced himself — no pun intended — from this work, conceding that “big data has produced a decline in theoretical interest, which, in its turn, has made our results often mediocre. […] Only a resolute return to theory may change the way we work.”)
Tally’s criticism of distant reading is, however, something of a sideshow to the main event — a ruthless critique of Felski. Tally writes in the book’s introduction: “If Felski’s work comes in for harsher and more pervasive criticism in what follows” — and indeed it does — “that is not so much because hers is the most egregious as it is because her work has been the most celebrated and influential.” It is also surely because Felski’s 2015 book The Limits of Critique represents the most sweeping and polemical attack on all that is allegedly wrong with critique and the critical paradigm in literary studies. By his own admission, Tally has taken this personally (“one cannot always avoid feeling affronted, particularly where friends and colleagues are concerned”), and so his retaliation pulls no punches. As such, he matches Felski’s sweep and polemical tone. While he criticizes Felski for “not offer[ing] any specific examples of objectionable practices by critics or other writers,” one could argue that Tally isn’t much better himself, often relying on the same few quotations from The Limits of Critique to make his point. As a result, For a Ruthless Critique is unlikely to win over Felski or her acolytes. Still, by resisting the good authorial intentions of one’s adversary, the force of a polemic can serve to sharpen the contrast, and thus help us to see it more clearly.
On the other hand, Tally is at his best on those occasions when he does engage closely with Felski’s writing, particularly when lambasting her often bizarre stylistic and rhetorical tics. Citing a passage from The Limits of Critique that consists of just 113 words (I counted), Tally draws our attention to a staggering series of violently shifting metaphors — a press agent, public relations, having the high ground, attack, a bulletproof vest, enemy fire, a spanner in the machinery, the gritting of teeth, a prescribed panacea that offers no cure, and the exercising of a muscle — all applied to a personified but ill-defined concept of “critique.” “It is a rather impressive half of a paragraph,” Tally writes, “but it tells us nothing of critique other than that Felski does not like this fellow very much.” “Crrritique!” Felski writes a couple of pages later. “The word flies off the tongue like a weapon.” Tally notes that “weapons do not usually fly off tongues, even metaphorically.” Once these rhetorical tendencies are highlighted by Tally’s withering understatement, one can’t help but notice how bombastic and blustering Felski’s style can be — using a lot of evocative words to say very little. If postcritique is the cultural logic of capitalist realism, then the confidently mixed cliché is its style — the enervated imagination, after all, can only draw upon that which already exists.
For a Ruthless Critique of All That Exists dedicates less space to what a revitalized critique might look like, although what the book does propose is suggestive and compelling. Appealing to Jameson’s argument that Adorno’s Marxism might anachronistically be more suited to the era of postmodernism than it was to his own, Tally argues that now is the time for a return to “high theory” — not as a project of nostalgia but in order to recover “those aspects of high theory that most effectively speak to our present condition.” Anna Kornbluh’s novel account of the plasticity of realism, as both reflecting and actively shaping social forms (in her 2019 book The Order of Forms: Realism, Formalism, and Social Space), is posited as one possible example. What seems to be important, for Tally, is that critique contra Felski does not (or at least should not) aim to be wholly negative, suspicious, or paranoid, but should always give way to the imagining of new utopian possibilities.
If I might finish with my own suggestion: perhaps what is needed is a return, not just to the high theory of Adorno and the Frankfurt School, but to Hegel. Not only might this save critique, but it might also silence the postcritics by beating them at their own game. Hegel, after all, was the first to move beyond the limits of Kant’s seminal conception of critique, defined as it was by critical detachment from its object, by unthought presuppositions, and by a mechanistic methodologism — all charges leveled against our contemporary notion of critique by Felski et al. And yet, rather than reverting merely to the surface, to a precritical realism or naturalism that valorizes the immediacy of one’s experience (as the so-called postcritics suggest), Hegel’s immanent critique begins by taking up what is before us in its immediacy without any detachment or presuppositions, but only to be forced to confront what this unwittingly excludes. To experience this ironic reversal is to overcome the dichotomy between the surface of the text and its conditions of possibility. Perhaps, too, it could overcome the dichotomy between the end of the world and the capitalism that hastens it, could help us recognize that the two are inseparable. Such a critique might not prescribe any utopian alternative, but it could intensify the need for imagining one.
Robert Scott has a PhD in English from the University of Cambridge, where his thesis was on the idea of “speculative reading” in the work of Hegel. His academic work has appeared or will soon appear in Textual Practice, Angelaki, and Critical Horizons. He is also the editor of a volume of lectures by Gillian Rose, Marxist Modernism: Introductory Lectures on the Frankfurt School, forthcoming from Verso Books.