The following essay is part of the Los Angeles Review of Books special series "No Crisis": a look at the state of critical thinking and writing — literary interpretation, art history, and cultural studies — in the 21st century. Click here for the full series.
RITA FELSKI describes her remarkable work of criticism, Uses of Literature as an “odd manifesto as manifestos go,” an “un-manifesto,” and “a defective or delinquent manifesto.”[i] It might seem that Felski protests too much. But she is simply trying to accommodate a nuanced book to a boldly titled series, Blackwell Manifestos, in which “major critics make timely interventions to address important concepts and subjects.” The series description stipulates that its texts be “written accessibly and with verve and spirit” and “engage and challenge the broadest range of readers […] interested in ongoing debates and controversies in the humanities and social sciences.” The prompt for this review of Felski’s manifesto, part of the LARB series called No Crisis, has a similar impetus behind it. I was asked “to choose a critical text from the last 15 years or so, and to write about why it matters. The idea is not coolly to describe and evaluate, as in a conventional review; it is to stand with and think with a critic whose writing you value.” One reason I selected Uses of Literature among the various recent critical texts I admire is because it is a key, and sometimes overlooked, origin point for the very energy and motivation behind something like No Crisis, the editors of which say: “we hope to express some of the beauties and pleasures that we find in criticism now.” This is precisely the task Felski sets for her 162-page text, except that she hopes to find beauty and pleasure in literature and film rather than criticism.
It might seem odd to call a goal so familiar and positive — so beautiful and pleasurable — a “manifesto.” Felski notes that while her book suits one definitional aspect of the form — a harping on one note — it also eschews the avant-garde legacy of the manifesto as a demolition of art, history, and value. This is why Uses of Literature is an un-manifesto, “a negation of a negation, an act of yea-saying not nay-saying, a thought experiment that seeks to advocate, not denigrate.” To say yea in the aftermath of a recent critical and theoretical tradition so inclined to naysay is indeed a battle cry. This is how Felski describes the current doldrums of the discipline:
We are called on to adopt poses of analytical detachment, critical vigilance, guarded suspicion; humanities scholars suffer from a terminal case of irony, driven by the uncontrollable urge to put everything in scare quotes. Problematizing, interrogating, and subverting are the default options, the deeply grooved patterns of contemporary thought. “Critical reading” is the holy grail of literary studies, endlessly invoked in mission statements, graduation speeches, and conversations with deans, a slogan that peremptorily assigns all value to the act of reading and none to the objects read.
Following the lead of Eve Sedgwick, Felski notes that this posturing lends itself especially well to what Paul Ricoeur dubbed a “hermeneutics of suspicion.” Felski castigates this as “a quintessentially paranoid style of critical engagement [that] calls for constant vigilance, reading against the grain, assuming the worst-case scenario and then rediscovering its own gloomy prognosis in every text […] Critics finds themselves unable to justify such readings except by imputing to these works an intent to subvert, interrogate, or disrupt that mirrors their own. The negative has become inescapably, overbearingly, normative.”
The editors of a 2009 special issue of the critical journal Representations, Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus, offer a similar assessment of the field, while taking up Sedgwick’s call for a new mode of reading.[ii] The set of essays in the issue exemplify what Marcus and Best term “surface reading,” which they see as a counter to the tendency to dig beneath the text’s surface that Felski also bemoans. This Representations issue has been widely addressed, cited, and refuted; there have been calls for papers and at least one conference devoted to the topic. Perhaps because Felski’s book came out just the year before, it is not mentioned in the issue and has received slightly less attention. Felski would not necessarily have been the right fit for the issue. As she has elsewhere noted more recently, “the general idea of ‘reading for the surface’ has been around for a number of decades” in poststructuralist criticism influenced by Foucault and Barthes, and it does not necessarily solve the problem of suspicious reading because it is equally susceptible to a “hyper-vigilant, über-critical sensibility.”[iii] Criticism that “stands back” to examine the text’s surface is still keen to “denaturalize” that surface, is still “imbued with the spirit of disenchantment, the difference being that the diagnosis of illusions no longer culminates in a retrieval of buried secrets.”[iv]
Rather than turning to surface, as such, Felski stakes her claim in Uses of Literature for what she calls a “neo-phenomenology” of reading, “thick descriptions of experiential states,” which toggle between surface and depth, cognition and affect, lay and scholarly reading, literature and life. While the history of phenomenology in philosophy is of less interest to her, using a theory of experiential knowledge as a general heuristic appeals for several reasons. It attends to the first-person perspective; it calls us “back to the things themselves” and analogously to “do justice to how readers respond to the words they encounter”; it permits a catholic approach to a spectrum of literary responses; it accounts for “milieu and moment,” as well as the “densely woven filters of interpretation and affective orientation” built into reading; and finally, it permits an unapologetic focus on the everyday, the commonsensical, the quotidian, and the pragmatic — hence the unapologetic titular word “uses.” As she puts it:
To propose that the meaning of literature lies in its use is to open up for investigation a vast terrain of practices, expectations, emotions, hopes, dreams, and interpretations — a terrain that is, in William James’s words, “multitudinous beyond imagination, tangled, muddy, painful and perplexed.”
This phenomenological bent also links Felski’s work both to the queer and feminist criticism in which she was already a pioneer, and to recent returns to “affect,” “aesthetics,” and “ethics” in the discipline at large. The greater freedom of the manifesto form allows Felski to consider a plenitude of texts — poems, novels, plays, and films — that exemplify oft denigrated ways of engaging with literature: recognition, enchantment, knowledge, and shock. She separates these four “modes of textual engagement” into a “tentative taxonomy,” while acknowledging that they are neither exhaustive nor mutually exclusive; her conclusion goes some way toward articulating their interplay.
Chapter one opens up the question, “What does it mean to recognize oneself in a book?” via several scenes of recognition within literature, whereby characters discover themselves — their thoughts, their desires — in the novels they read. While critics have long been wary of the “Madame Bovary” problem, Felski attributes the recent scholarly trepidation toward recognition to two factors: the fetish for alterity in studies influenced by philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, and the impact of critical theory’s two key scenes of misrecognition, Jacques Lacan’s essay on the mirror stage and Louis Althusser’s description of hailing as an ideological apparatus. Noting that the “idea of misrecognition presumes and enfolds its antithesis,” that is, recognition, Felski goes on to point out the far more positive uses of recognition in fields like politics, anthropology, and sociology. Recognition in these contexts, she argues, conjoins knowledge (of the self) and acknowledgement (by others); subjectivity becomes inextricable from intersubjectivity. Felski’s readings of the reception of Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler and reception within Pankaj Mishra’s The Romantics reveal recognition’s capacities for self-intensification, awareness that one’s experiences are distinctive but not unique, and for self-extension, seeing oneself in what initially seems strange. A brief discussion of Virginia Woolf’s description of Mrs. Ramsay’s “wedge-shaped core of darkness” in To the Lighthouse offers the possibility that what we recognize in literature is precisely what is opaque in all of us.
In chapter two, Felski takes up another bugbear of ideologically minded criticism: enchantment. She begins with a brilliant juxtaposition of, again, meta-scenes of aesthetic engagement: literary critic Joseph Boone’s rapturous close reading of modernist novels and actress Mia Farrow’s face as she watches the movies in The Purple Rose of Cairo. Alternating between the scenes reveals just how spurious is the distinction between the “fastidious attention to the luminous aesthetic detail” in close reading and the “all-embracing sense of being swept up into another world” in filmgoing. Both, after all, involve “total absorption in a text, intense and enigmatic pleasure,” that “confounds our deeply held beliefs about the rationality and autonomy of persons.” Felski draws attention throughout this chapter to the anachronistic feel of enchantment, which seems to lead us right back to primitive, childish, or nostalgic ways of experiencing art. But this rejection of enchantment — as old as Plato’s casting the poets out of the Republic — is often attended by various forms of snootiness: classism, iconophobia, and sexism. Deconstruction and cultural studies both evince a condescension toward feminine, “low” artifacts of enchantment. Felski recovers its uses in an anime film, Miyazaki’s Spirited Away; Manuel Puig’s play, Kiss of the Spider Woman; Charles Bernstein’s poem/essay “Artifice of Absorption”; and several works of criticism including J. Hillis Miller’s On Literature, and D.A. Miller’s Jane Austen, or The Secret of Style. Each of these texts presents the necessarily dual nature of “modern enchantment,” an awareness of the bounds of time and mediation around the enchanted moment. As Felski paraphrases Michael Saler, the contemporary “ironic imagination” entails “a pleasure in enchanted worlds that acknowledges the imaginary nature of such worlds.” This duality allows us to consider enchantment’s absorptive, somatic effects without acceding entirely to its ideological sway.
Chapter three offers a strenuous critique of the bad faith that characterizes literary criticism’s tendency to dismiss literary knowledge. Criticism, Felski points out, relies on the very same truth claims it critiques in so-called naïve readings of literature. It also often treats mimesis as a straw man, ignoring its complexity or holding it to impossible standards of utter fidelity and comprehensiveness in representing the world. While criticism does take literary knowledge into account, it too often relegates it to a set of symptoms; in this model, the text does not know what it knows — it unwittingly enacts or displays the deep structure of ideology lurking beneath its surface. Felski argues that these critical moves avoid key aspects of mimesis: its inextricability from genre, which enables its most transparent effects; its inextricability from artifice, which is precisely what grants literature a heightened and often unprecedented access to experiential truths; its ineluctable mediation, which in fact does mirror the ineluctable mediation of experience itself; and its capacity to refer beyond itself, if not necessarily to the real world. Felski relies heavily in this chapter on Paul Ricoeur’s notion of mimesis as metaphor (rather than as reflection), and takes up his description of how the world is prefigured by discourse, and how the literary text then configures this material, and thereby transfigures the reader. Felski articulates the phenomenological knowledge that literature makes available through three mimetic devices. She unfolds the intersubjectivity — the mind reading — that renders Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth a “social phenomenology.” Tom Winton’s Australian novel Cloudstreet exemplifies the ventriloquy literature affords, while honing the political edge to a well-worn critical celebration of heteroglossia. And Pablo Neruda’s Residence poems allow Felski access to literature’s material knowledge, the wondrous attention to objects that opens up a tactile, textural, yet textual phenomenology of everyday things.
Felski concludes Uses of Literature with the mode of engagement most popular in our current critical environment: shock. She presents here a crucial counterpoint to the generally positive aesthetic bent she has thus far shown. Yet, as she demonstrates, aesthetic theory across several disciplinary lines has continued to reject the “shocking” in order to privilege affects like empathy or intellectual capacities like disinterestedness. Even those critics who have self-consciously addressed shocking material, like Fredric Jameson or Leo Bersani, tend to domesticate these texts by placing them firmly within the past, logical frameworks, or predetermined logics like psychoanalytic disturbance and linguistic différance. This taming, Felski points out, characterizes the history of the avant-garde’s shock tactics, which were always both asocial and deeply social, possessed of bravado and theatricality as well as genuine utopian violence. Despite claims to the contrary, shock is always mediated; it simply cannot entail the complete dissolution of self or cognition. Rather than glibly mapping eruptive art onto revolutionary history, Felski considers texts that have stayed — or become — shocking to us, including Euripides’s The Bacchae, Heinrich Von Kleist’s Penthesilea, Charles Baudelaire’s “Une Charogne,” and Gayl Jones’s Eva’s Man. These texts prove her contentions about the odd temporality of shock: its refusal to adhere to a teleology whereby we become less shockable; its tendency toward punctuation and suddenness; its part in the surprise-habituation-surprise spiral of literary history; its susceptibility to contextual contingency; and crucially, its exemplarity for afterwardness, a larger scale historical version of the time-lag inherent to the psychoanalytic patient’s experience of trauma. This chapter also showcases Felski’s skills as a feminist critic, as she acutely assesses the gender dynamics of shock (often masculinist attempts to offend feminine prudery), while drawing attention to a “shadow history” of shock in the female “novel of sensation.” She concludes by meditating on two perpetual threats to the shocking text: the audience’s indifference or its absolute refusal.
In these four short chapters, Felski goes a long way toward recuperating familiar reading responses that have lately been given cursory or cavalier treatment in critical study, that have been deemed gullible, rationalist, reactionary, or totalizing. To consider the values of literary experience in this broader way undermines the dichotomy between high and low art. Felski seeks out examples of “emphatic experience,” a framework capacious enough to encompass a panoply of aesthetic encounters, as well as “the differential force and intensity” and “multiple value frameworks” they afford. The risk of the positive aesthetics she “rough(s) out” in these pages is that ever present threat to the critic: seeming naïve. Is it possible, she asks, “to discuss the value of literature without falling into truisms and platitudes, sentimentality and Schwarmerei?”
Yes, I would answer; Uses of Literature proves it. By way of conclusion, I’ll posit that Felski avoids losing this “gamble,” this “quixotic wager,” because of her deft deployment of four modes of critical engagement. These uses of criticism, so to speak, are oriented toward phenomenology — the experience of reading Rita Felski. They are neither exhaustive nor mutually exclusive; they do not correspond exactly to Felski’s modes, nor do they roll off the tongue quite as well as hers. But they blend, in Felski’s words, “analysis and attachment, criticism and love.” I call them mediation, modulation, redescription, and wonder.
Throughout Uses of Criticism, Felski attends to the mediated nature of aesthetic engagement at different levels. By mediation, I mean both attention to medium — to the forms that filter artistic communication — and the lay sense of diplomatic intervention. Mediation of the first kind broadly characterizes Felski’s phenomenology; she adopts Ricoeur’s effort to reframe phenomenology as “the interpretation of symbols rather than the intuition of essences, as well as his insistence that the self is always already another, formed at its core through the mediating force of stories, metaphors, myths and images.” This allows Felski to render her mode of recognition, for example, far more complex than the homilies about identification and “relatability” that get tossed around academic and blogo-spheres. To recognize oneself in a text is a “perplexing and paradoxical” thing: “in a mobile interplay of exteriority and interiority, something that exists outside of me inspires a revised or altered sense of who I am.” Felski also never loses sight of the mediation endemic to art as such: “aesthetic pleasure is never unmediated or intrinsic.” In her chapter on knowledge, language does not preclude access to “truth,” it structures it: “knowledge and genre are inescapably intertwined, if only because all forms of knowing — whether poetic or political, exquisitely lyrical or numbingly matter-of-fact — rely on an array of formal resources, stylistic conventions, and conceptual schemata.”
These brilliant interventions about mediation are a kind of lens — or perhaps the pixelated view through the weave of a veil — that Felski inserts into the critical camera we train on art. This attention to medium is important because the modes of response Felski considers are frequently derided for ignoring or eliding literary form. As she paraphrases the critic Marie-Laure Ryan’s thoughts on enchantment, “readers are so entirely caught up in what they are reading that the verbal medium is effaced: they no longer perceive or register the words they are scanning, but feel themselves to be fully subsumed with an imagined world.” And yet, as Felski points out, Ryan fails to consider “the possibility of being seduced by a style,” “the possibility of an emotional, even erotic cathexis onto the sounds and surfaces of words. Here language is not a hurdle to be vaulted over in the pursuit of pleasure, but the essential means to achieving it.”
In this smart engagement with Ryan, we see not only Felski’s keen eye for literary texture, but also an example of her deft mediation between different schools of critical thought. The sheer range of references on display in Uses of Literature necessitates some of her maneuvering between the Scylla and Charybdis of, say, deconstructive and cultural criticism, or ideological and theological critique. Felski has a wonderful ability to treat other critics with respect while noting their shortcomings; she raises an eyebrow at critics who denounce using literature for knowledge only to wield truth claims left and right, or who insist on the “radically asocial and disruptive aspects of shock” while achieving great “success in making a career of writing about it.” Mediation characterizes Felski’s negotiation of textual exempla as well, as she moves with great dexterity between high and low genres, between canon and candy. This form of mediation, in a diplomatic sense, is quite distinct from that tendency toward overqualification that marks — and mars — so many literary critics. Felski may perpetually move between persons, ideas, texts, but she does so with boldness and clarity.
Her refusal to be pinned down — or to put it more positively, this openness toward variance as a principle of selection and argument — suffuses her attunement to the vicissitudes of time, as well. I’d categorize this as Felski’s use of a critical mode of modulation. This works at a micro-level, as when she describes shock’s relationship to suddenness,
a violent rupture of continuity and coherence, as time is definitively and dramatically rent asunder into a ‘before’ and ‘after’ […] a distinctive temporality characterized by a logic of punctuation, as the continuum of experience shatters into disconnected segments marked by dramatic variations of intensity.
But it also works at a macro-level, as when she considers how Nachträglichkeit, or afterwardness, affects the enigmas of textual transmission:
thanks to this time-lag between the occurrence of an event as its resonance, meaning is delayed, washed forward into the future rather than anchored in one defining moment. And even as fragments of past experience persist into the present, their meaning mutates under the pressure of new insight. Retrospection recreates the past even as it retrieves it, in a mutual contamination and commingling of different times.
Felski’s phenomenology also takes advantage of modularity in forms other than movement through time. Felski’s use of a loosely modular structure — her four “modes of textual engagement” — also offered a template for my first book, Seven Modes of Uncertainty, reviving the taxonomic impulse of old school critics like William Empson while allowing categories to bleed into each other. In her individual chapters, Felski sees knowledge and recognition as related concepts, and uses enchantment and shock as foils for one another. In her conclusion, she discusses the relationship between knowledge and enchantment, alludes to the notion of a shock of recognition, and deconstructs the opposition between shock and enchantment by showing that the former can be alluring and the latter can be disturbingly uncanny. By calling her four logics of aesthetic reception “modes,” Felski can meditate on their aesthetic, affective, and ethical energies. Modulation also allows for the variation among readers, within readers, and in the dramatic fluctuations that characterize individual reading experiences, with their multiplicity of motives and affects, strategies and scenes.
This might seem too much like a series of crumbling boxes stuffed with ragtag exempla if it weren’t for Felski’s intense and detailed descriptions, which I call a mode of redescription in accordance with her own preference for the term elsewhere.[v] While a hermeneutics of suspicion tends to dissect and pierce textual exempla, a countermethod of mere surface description begs the question. As Tzvetan Todorov put it in his introduction to The Fantastic, “Literature says what it alone it can say. When the critic has said everything in his power about a literary text, he still has said nothing; for the very existence of literature implies that it cannot be replaced by non-literature […] If descriptive science claimed to speak the truth, it would contradict its reason for being.”[vi] Rather than eschewing description, Felski doubles down on it, so to speak, the reasoning for which is somewhat analogous to her choice of the word “recognition” over “identification”: “when we recognize something, we literally ‘know it again’” and yet “recognition is not repetition; it denotes not just the previously known, but the becoming known.” Redescription, in Felski’s hands, becomes an adroit tool for bringing into being an already mediated experience, be it reality or reading.
Sometimes this entails breathing spirit into texts that I have not read. Of Cloudstreet, she writes, “it is not far-fetched to think of language as another dwelling place in the novel, as a force that shelters and gathers together its inhabitants. Its bricks and mortar are colloquialism, slang, vulgarities, Australianisms, passing observations and clichés, assembled into a shape of experience that is both familiar and strange.” Of Neruda’s paean to “prodigious scissors,” Felski lucidly evokes how “entangled in human lives, companionable if calmly indifferent, such daily things serve as precious repositories of associations and memories, marked with the traces and smells of their uses, bearing witness to an infinity of accumulated acts and untold histories.” Very often Felski’s redescription approaches defamiliarization — making us attend once more to what is right before our eyes:
Scissors have cut their way through history, trimming nails, making flags, chopping off hair, cutting out cancers […] A mundane object turns out, on closer inspection, to be monumental in its sheer ubiquity, as indispensable as eyes or teeth, an astonishing prosthesis caught up in the endless symbolic and practical work of culture.
As Felski’s explains in her conclusion, one of her aims is to look “anew at what we have assured ourselves we already know.”
But rather than simply making the familiar strange, Uses of Literature often recasts the familiar as wondrous. Felski performs for aesthetic experience the service for which she praises poetry: “its single-minded attention to the sheer thingness of the thing, which may paradoxically reanimate and revitalize it, saving it from the abyss of oblivion or obsolescence.” The parts of Felski’s book that I quoted at length in my own are the “thick descriptions of [the] experiential states” afforded by her four modes. These passages, often in the first or second person, are so vivid that I will simply quote some exemplary excerpts of what I would name critical mode of wonder. Here is Felski:
On recognition: While turning a page I am arrested by a compelling description, a constellation of events, a conversation between characters, an interior monologue. Suddenly and without warning, a flash of connection leaps across the gap between text and reader; an affinity or an attunement is brought into play. I may be looking for such a moment, or I may stumble on it haphazardly, startled by the prescience of a certain combination of words. In either case, I feel myself addressed, summoned, called into account; I cannot help seeing traces of myself in the pages I am reading.
On enchantment: …you exist only in the present and the numinous presence of a text. Not only your autonomy but your sense of agency is under siege. You have little control over your response; you turn the pages compulsively, you gaze fixedly at the screen like a sleepwalker. Descriptions of enchantment often pinpoint an arresting of motion, a sense of being transfixed, spellbound, unable to move, even as your mind is transported elsewhere. Time slows to a halt: you feel yourself caught in an eternal, unchanging present. Rather than having a sense of mastery over a text, you are at its mercy. You are sucked in, swept up, spirited away, you feel yourself enfolded in a blissful embrace. You are mesmerized, hypnotized, possessed. You strain to reassert yourself, but finally you give in, you stop struggling, you yield without a murmur.
On knowledge: The technique of deep intersubjectivity instantiates a view of particular societies “from the inside”; we come to know something of what it feels to be inside a particular habitus, to experienced a world as self-evident, to bathe in the waters of a way of life. By attending to the salience of what is said and what is left unsaid, by readings looks and gestures, attending to half-voiced thoughts and inchoate sensations, we become attuned to criteria of distinction that seem at first glance to be baffling or opaque, that may surprise us in their sheer arbitrariness. The House of Mirth does not just depict a network of social discriminations and judgments, it also enfolds readers, through its inculcation of countless examples, into an experiential familiarity with the logic of such judgments, with what we might call a “feel for the game.”
On shock: …we are slowly made aware that the corpse is in a state of perpetual motion; maggots are pouring like a viscous liquid across the ragged remains of the body, falling and rising like a series of waves. The poet is truck by the sheer beauty of this rhythmic movement as it mimics the music of running water and the sound of the wind. Even as he conjures up the horror of death jerked back to life, of flesh uncannily animated by the worms that are consuming it, he wrenches us into an awareness of the remarkable symmetries that thrive in the midst of putrefaction. Yet this aestheticizing gaze does not annul the horror of what is being evoked but accentuates it; the rotting carcass is both like, yet utterly unlike, the blossoming flower to which it is compared.
As the latter two evocations of Wharton and Baudelaire suggest, this mode of wonder — a kind of awe at the things literature uses us for — emerges not simply from a rhetoric of subjectivity or affective intensity, but from a close attention to what Felski calls the “grain and texture” of specific works of art. They seep into her language, tilt and stretch her images, evincing precisely that openness to art she advocates while intensifying other readers’ experiences of the texts. These moments of wonder are not the bloodless abstractions of reader response Felski abjures in her introduction. They are rich phenomenological redescriptions that retrace aesthetic experiences as they modulate over time, as they expose the textural seams of their mediation.
These moments of redescription thus enact the closest thing to a slogan in Felski’s book: “What literary studies sorely needs at this point is not just a micro-politics but a micro-aesthetics.” Despite the bracing clarity and boldness of statements like this, I agree with Felski’s hedging about the term manifesto. As a neo-phenomenology of the “different, even incommensurable reasons” we value literature, as a testament to the fact that “there is no single fiber that runs through the entire thread of reader response,” Felski’s book lacks the blunt force of a manifesto, that blind strike for or against. No, it is not really a manifesto. Rather, and this is what I most admire about it, Uses of Literature epitomizes a most valuable use of criticism: it makes literature manifest.
[i] Rita Felski, Uses of Literature (New York: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008), 1, 135. All references to this book henceforth will be parenthetical by page number.
[ii] Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus, “Surface Reading: An Introduction,” Representations 108, no. 1 (2009), 1-21.
[iii] Rita Felski, “Digging Down and Standing Back,” English Language Notes 51, no. 2 (Fall/Winter 2013), 8.
[iv] Ibid., 17.
[v] Ibid., 7.
[vi] Tzvetan Todorov, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, trans. Richard Howard (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1973), 22-23.
Namwali Serpell is an associate professor of English at UC Berkeley.