The Hangman of Critique




IN 1993, the novelist David Foster Wallace wrote an essay in which he criticized the pervasive irony of American culture. Irony “serves an almost exclusively negative function,” he complained. “It’s critical and destructive” but “singularly unuseful when it comes to constructing anything to replace the hypocrisies it debunks.” The literary and political cohort who started writing in the 1960s and in the ’70s — postmodern pioneers such as Thomas Pynchon, Ishmael Reed, and Kathy Acker — had by the 1990s successfully demolished conventional thinking, but had failed to construct any positive alternative. Wallace hoped a different ethos might arise. He famously called on his fellow writers to become a “weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching.”

More than 20 years later, Wallace’s argument continues to find an appreciative audience. And in many ways, his hopes have been fulfilled. A prominent new cohort of writers (including Zadie Smith, Dave Eggers, Colson Whitehead, and Jennifer Egan) have written fiction sympathetic to Wallace’s criticism of irony and postmodernism. These writers do not so much abandon postmodernism as attempt to move beyond its limitations toward something new.

And it turns out it wasn’t only artists who were rejecting the irony, skepticism, and paranoid incredulity that many critics described as characteristic of postmodern culture. Many well-known literary critics, philosophers, and critical theorists were making the same transition. Using rhetoric that resembles Wallace’s attacks on irony, these critics have specifically targeted the academic practice known as ideology critique: the practice of exposing, through close textual analysis, the ideological presuppositions that artistic works (or other texts) cannot acknowledge. The dissident intellectual Randolph Bourne pointed out the affinity between irony and critique, in 1913, describing irony as a way of “letting things speak for themselves and hang themselves by their own rope.” The ironist (no less than the practitioner of critique) repeats “words after the speaker, and adjusts the rope.”

But many have now have lost faith in the hangman. In the pages of Critical Inquiry, the philosopher Bruno Latour asked a question that many have since repeated, “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?” Latour’s essay expressed a desire to replace the intellectual commitment to “debunking” false claims of objectivity with a new commitment “to protect and to care” for what we cherish. Writers who once identified as advocates of critique likewise share doubts about the “hermeneutics of suspicion.” The literary critic Michael Warner has observed, “Whether we are propounding new criticism, deconstruction, or cultural studies, our common enterprise is to discipline students out of their uncritical habits into critical reading.” The effort to question that “common enterprise” (whether that enterprise is specifically postmodern or dates back to the Enlightenment) has taken on many names: reparative reading, surface reading, generous reading, uncritical reading, among others. But the best name for this new intellectual tendency in literary studies is the term Rita Felski uses in her lively manifesto, The Limits of Critique: postcritical reading.

Like Wallace, Felski worries that “[a]n entrenched disbelief […] pervades contemporary culture,” but that “familiar divisions between the savvy and the sappy, the critically enlightened and the sheeplike naïveté of the mass” have lost “their last shreds of purchasing power.” “Why is it,” Felski asks, “that critics are so quick off the mark to interrogate, unmask, expose, subvert, unravel, demystify, destabilize, take issue, and take umbrage?” She wonders what literary scholars might be overlooking by focusing excessively on critique. In a previous book, she argued that devotees of critique might instead focus on how literature fosters recognition, knowledge, shock, or enchantment, among other capacities and emotions. Felski wants us to treat literature not only as an object of academic criticism, not only as an agent that sometimes has the capability of criticizing reality, but also as an agent that has the power to act positively in that world.

Felski’s proposals have, unsurprisingly, already met with controversy. Some academics have enthusiastically welcomed Felski’s book as “a prescient guide to life in a postcritical world.” Others complain that postcritics “challenge, avoid, or disavow scholarly endeavor that is overtly critical of existing social relations.” Felski unsurprisingly denies that the postcritical project is necessarily supportive of existing social relations. She challenges “the assumption that whatever is not critical must therefore be uncritical.” She rails against what she characterizes as “the false choice between the critical and the uncritical.” The controversy will likely intensify now that Felski has won a $4.2 million grant from the Danish National Research Foundation “to develop new frameworks and methods for exploring the many social uses of literature.”

As postcriticism grows, we should critically assess its promise and perils. Our assessment should take seriously Felski’s claim that being postcritical needn’t require abandoning critique. And if postcritics are indeed neither “uncritical” nor “anticritical,” they will welcome such scrutiny. But to be open to criticism requires being open to the possibility that the critics might be right. Our best arguments may compel us to reject or demand more of the postcritical project.

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My first response to The Limits of Critique was, well, suspicion. I question whether literary study really resembles the world Felski describes. Critique is certainly an important part of literary studies but is far from being the sole or even exclusive disciplinary ethos of the profession. By contrast, Felski and other advocates of postcriticism often make it seem as if defenders of critique are a ruthless zombified horde. In the postcritical view, the only thing lovers of critique do when they encounter a text is “interrogate, unmask, expose, subvert, unravel, demystify, destabilize, take issue, and take umbrage.” Critique “does not tolerate rivals.” It unfairly dismisses its opponents as betraying “naïveté, bad faith, and quietism.” It sees itself as “not one path but the only conceivable path.”

This is a cartoon portrait of academic life that is, if taken literally, unconvincing. Some literary scholars may hold these extreme and uncompromising views, but they would be the very first to suggest (rightly) that they are a tiny minority. The work of literary scholars has always been far richer than that. And even paragons of critique, such as the great Marxist literary critic Fredric Jameson, don’t fit the stereotype. It is hard to read Jameson’s major works of criticism without registering his great love of many of the objects of his critical and political analysis (Wyndham Lewis, William Gibson, Émile Zola). Indeed, to the degree that our critical spirit arises precisely from our positive political, ethical, and social commitments, we have for a long time already been fulfilling the postcritical call to mount a positive defense of literary study.

Postcritics object that critique-lovers delay articulating or defending such positive programs, that the better world we seek is always over the horizon, always just out of sight, receding from view, the subject of never-to-be-conducted future research. Critique might be our first word when discussing the purpose of literary study, postcritics will argue, but it shouldn’t be the second, let alone the final, word. Such disagreements are hard to settle. So let me approach the disagreement from a different direction. What would it mean if the postcritical argument were true in its own terms? What if it was the case that critique had become “second nature, no longer an alien or obtrusive activity but a recognizable and reassuring rhythm of thought”? What would follow? What, in other words, is really the matter with academic skepticism? What harm does it cause?

Some claim that being too critical damages the soul of students and scholars. This is the answer Lisa Ruddick offers in a widely circulated essay called “When Nothing is Cool,” published in The Point. Ruddick has been less circumspect in her attack on academic skepticism than Felski. By Ruddick’s blistering account, critique is responsible for nothing less than the “unaccountable feelings of confusion, inhibition and loss” that English graduate students feel about their chosen profession. The wholly indoctrinated skeptic suffers from “deadness or meanness.” The skeptic’s alleged rigor masks a love affair with “destruction.” She is forced to participate in a shallow “game of academic cool” in which “anything except critique can be invaded or denatured.” Critique’s prestige spreads intellectual and moral despair. Our attitude of “academic cool” threatens “to burn through whatever is small, tender, and worthy of protection and cultivation.”

Graduate students in literary studies may often feel despair, even deadness and meanness, but an excess of cool seems like an especially implausible explanation. Far more damaging are bad mentoring, crippling overwork, social and geographic isolation, and the absence of opportunities to join the profession after spending a decade training. For too many graduate students, whether critical or postcritical, earning a PhD is the end — not the beginning — of a promising academic career. The skepticism that threatens graduate students and young faculty members results, therefore, not from the skepticism of academic theorists but from the skepticism of legislatures, administrators, donors, austerity-loving think tanks, and taxpayers.

This brings us to the second danger that our skepticism supposedly poses. Scholars like Felski argue that we need to articulate a positive vision of literary studies not to save the souls of graduate students, but to save the profession itself. If we don’t more often and more vocally justify the value of literature and literary studies in positive terms, those with power will dismantle literary studies. Felski writes that she is “motivated by a desire to articulate a positive vision for humanistic thought in the face of growing skepticism about its value.” By making “a more compelling case for why the arts and humanities are needed,” Felski hopes to fight reactionary forces that would disassemble the humanities.

At this moment in her book, the intellectual and intra-disciplinary case she has been making against critique becomes something different. It becomes a call for humanists to do a better job explaining what they do outside the bounds of the discipline. Felski is right that scholars should “communicate with intellectual strangers who do not share our assumptions,” but she is here not only arguing that we should describe our (critical) assumptions. She seems to be arguing that we should change those assumptions. If “strangers” don’t like our work, we should do different work.

I assume she doesn’t mean to be interpreted this way, but Felski’s words seem to suggest that those dedicated to critique should give up their intellectual commitments in order to satisfy extrinsic extra-disciplinary demands. From the perspective of a committed skeptic, Felski does not seem to be defending the humanities. She seems instead be asking that the mission of the humanities be transformed. No discipline can ever wall itself off from the world or the demands of power, but disciplinary autonomy is an important fiction, a tactical fiction, a way of talking about what serious study requires: functional independence from the market, the state, as well as social coercion and intimidation. Academics may never be separate from the world, but the utopian fictions of disciplinary autonomy and academic freedom prescribe the institutional arrangements within which academics will become best equipped to study the world. Actual academic institutions have a pretty bad track record of living up to this ideal — universities are often sexist, racist, and homophobic, and they often perpetuate existing forms of domination and exploitation — but it would be a mistake to claim that we have achieved no freedom whatsoever. When the institutional foundation of our functional autonomy, however limited and compromised, is threatened, what we should be most skeptical about is that any positive vision will ever satisfy administrative, corporate, and legislative incredulity.

This is why I would describe the contemporary anxiety over critique not as part of a “method war,” as Felski has called it, but rather as part of a “justification war.” As the financial pie of academic literary study stagnates or shrinks, the promise of having a space of even limited functional autonomy has correspondingly shrunk. The literary scholar Scott Selisker smartly describes Felski’s project in precisely these terms. He suggests that since the 2007/2008 Global Financial Crisis, “we in literary studies and the humanities have recognized and thought through the implications of our vulnerability and lack of institutional power.” To the degree that criticism could be imagined as a general enterprise — not the practice of a handful of great critics, but a way of describing the vocation of literary studies — it was because persistent, relatively robust institutions enabled critics to practice their art.

When we watch the institutions we assumed were part of the academic firmament be destroyed, the material conditions of our work become newly visible. My ultimate criticism of postcriticism is therefore that any meta-commentary about how we practice criticism — any discussion of the ethos of criticism and interpretation — must always also attend to the sociological and political-economic grounds upon which criticism occurs. Such sociological work must give an accurate description of the political circumstances that once allowed critique to prosper, in however limited a fashion, and now seek to undermine it. The conclusion cannot be that we must methodologically placate powerful skeptics — it is a mistake to believe that any method we adopt will satisfy them for long. We should instead conclude that our task is to defuse the power of such skeptics to undermine our capacity to choose whether and to what degree we exercise our critical judgment. This fight is ultimately a political fight, in which our attitudes, ethos, and rhetoric (whether critical or postcritical) will at best play a supporting role.

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Lee Konstantinou wrote the novel Pop Apocalypse and the literary history Cool Characters: Irony and American Fiction.


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