Notes on Felski's The Limits of Critique

“A Short History of Modernist Painting,” Mark Tansey, 1982

A couple of interesting reviews of Rita Felski’s new book, The Limits of Critique (Chicago, 2015) have appeared (by Davide Panagia and Matthew Mullins), but neither struck at quite what made the book compelling and thought-provoking for me. In my conversations with friends and colleagues, on Twitter and at MLA, I’ve found the book to be quite controversial. I think this is so largely because, from descriptions of the book, one might imagine it to be a reactionary, anti-political retreat into aesthetic appreciation. We’ve seen plenty of those in the past and I’ve found what I’ve read in the genre to be deeply banal; I want to describe why I think Felski’s book stands far apart from them, and what it adds to the number of provocations on method we’ve heard from Bruno Latour, Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus, Heather Love, and others. I’ll try to do so here by talking about a provocative comparison Felski makes between artistic avant-gardes and the rhetoric of critique.

The Rhetoric of Critique

First off, a quick description of what the book does: it gives a rhetorical analysis of the “thought style” of critique, which comprises “symptomatic reading, ideology critique, Foucauldian historicism, various techniques of scanning texts for signs of transgression or resistance” (2-3). It’s not against critique—to wit: “not conceived as a polemic against critique” (5)—so much as it wants to submit critique to examination in a way that might either allow us to strengthen its methods and rhetoric, or to find new modes of politically progressive intellectual work that might be blind spots of critique’s style of thinking. A list of early questions helps to describe Felski’s goals in this light: “Why is critique such a charismatic mode of thought? Why is it so hard to get outside its orbit? To what extent does it rely on an implicit story line? How does it orient the reader in spatial terms? In what ways does it constitute an overall intellectual mood or disposition?” (3). This kind of metacommentary is, I think, essential for a self-reflexive understanding of any mode of discourse, and it’s not an unprecedented mode of analysis within theory. Felski’s own The Gender of Modernity (Harvard, 1995) considered modernity as a gendered concept in what I understand to be an innovative and influential mode of feminist criticism. Recall, too, Jacques Derrida’s essay, “White Mythology: Metaphor in the Text of Philosophy” (collected in Margins of Philosophy [Chicago, 1982]), where he examines the “heliotropic” metaphors of Western philosophy, in which Descartes and Kant just as much as Plato couch their analyses within a recurrent narrative pattern, one in which the authors hold the key to a path from darkness to enlightenment. Derrida then uses that narrative pattern to consider anew the roles of self-presence in philosophical discourse.

And so with critique: rather than saying it names the presence of thought itself, we can now read critique as a set of tropes, which includes the metaphors of digging down and standing back, detection, a suspicious attitude, and a set of assumptions about either texts or critics themselves diagnosing diseases that are otherwise invisible and endemic. (I’ll say as someone who’s just finished a book about tropes of false consciousness in U.S. political, scientific, and literary culture, that critique is also full of metaphors of false consciousness.) Others, especially Best and Marcus, have already dealt with symptomatic reading in ways not dissimilar from Felski’s here, but one thing I like especially about Felski’s book is the analysis of critique’s interest in standing back: the cultivation of distance, the complex and self-knowingly impossible fetishization of a position outside of current ideological frameworks. When a position is shown to be tainted by, say, the assumptions of imperialism or some logic of neoliberalism, we scramble to find some patch of less-polluted ground to stand on. I’ve found it increasingly frustrating, since reading the book, to hear conference panels full of people banging their heads against one wall in particular: “isn’t it both desirable and impossible to find a way out of that capitalist or neoliberal or imperialist logic? So, then, how do we do it? Here’s a tiny step forward. But still.” And so on. By showing us that this quandary is largely an effect of critique’s spatial metaphors and perhaps even its version of the dozens, Felski suggests there might be something else to do with our valuable Q & A time.

I’ll note here what has struck me as one limitation of Felski’s method, or caveat, or problem, for thinking of it as a tool for reading other works. These narrative patterns she finds in critique are the worst that critique has to offer. That is, The Limits of Critique is much more likely help us pinpoint what’s boring about a by-the-numbers dissertation chapter than it is going to enable us to “take down” the argument of a book by a leading affect theorist. (And I don’t think the book is meant to diagnose the narrative patterns of critique as something that necessarily mars smart work.) By the same token, though perhaps it’s useful to consider the moves of critique precisely because helps us to read graduate work differently, that is, because the patterns Felski identifies are the set of moves and moods that have become a part of professionalization in many subfields of literary and cultural studies. The moves of critique are what we imitate when we don’t know what to do; but are they intrinsically smart? Are they the only way to be smart? Are they the only way to do work that’s politically progressive? Those are the questions Felski suggests might be answered with a “no.” As for the alternatives she does suggest, another small limitation I find in Felski’s solution of looking toward positive modes such as addition, translation, composition, and connection (182) is that smart analytical work, either inside or outside of the rhetorical paradigm of critique, has already been doing the kinds of redescription that post-critical readers like Felski are calling for, just couched within, and sometimes unfortunately subordinate to, the narrative and metaphorical frameworks of critique. Also, work of the type she calls for could be said to already dominate some subfields of literary study (say, early modern) and to be gaining strong footholds in other subfields (like mine, contemporary U.S.).

Critique and the Avant-Garde

As this isn’t intended as a proper review of Felski’s book, I want here to pursue just one other aspect of The Limits of Critique that was productive for me. There’s a comparison that Felski makes between critique and the artistic avant-garde that reminded me of some of Jameson’s observations in A Singular Modernity (Verso, 2002). Here’s Felski’s comparison: “In both cases [critique and the avant-garde], the rallying power of a concept hinges on its antagonism to a larger social field that is pictured in spatial as well as temporal terms. Thus the imagined location of critique/the avant-garde is elsewhere: outside, below, in the margins, or at the borders. […] [C]ritique, like the avant-garde, imagines itself taking a crowbar to the walls of the institution rather than being housed within them” (119). This passage goes on in other terrific directions, too, but I’m interested in how she suggests both camps imagine that outside position as a position of possibly illusory power. In A Singular Modernity, Jameson imagines what he calls the “ideology of modernism,” that of a commitment to the “autonomy of the aesthetic” (161), that is, some form of power or the absolute that art has that nothing else does. What I have always found particularly interesting about Jameson’s argument is his stipulation that this ideology of modernism was invented in the mid-century and carries over to criticism of the post-war period up to the present. This amounts to an investment (complex though it may often be), on critics’ part as much as artists’, in the “classical modernist Absolute … an effort to articulate the vocation of art to be somehow more than mere art” (181). That something “more” often takes the form of a political promise in contemporary criticism.

What I take from combining Felski’s and Jameson’s arguments is this: when we either propose or demand that cultural texts be endowed with a kind of power to critique, to step fleetingly outside of the murk of capitalist exchange (as in Adorno or Greenberg), or to “speak truth to power,” we engage in a kind of critical modernism in Jameson’s sense. Our readings of the representational politics of texts show, at least in our rhetoric, an implicit faith in the autonomy of the aesthetic. Sometimes we fetishize the avant-garde work of art’s power to resist being tainted by commercial culture. (Rachel Greenwald Smith’s work on “compromise aesthetics” is a fascinating analysis of the various responses to that tendency in recent literature and criticism; Andrew Goldstone’s terrific Fictions of Autonomy [Oxford, 2013] considers it in modernism and late modernism.) Other times, we implicitly ascribe to a text’s politics a rhetorically magical liberatory or pernicious ideological power. From the way we describe a text’s politics, it sounds as though the work might, at any moment, be simulcast to a world filled with people strapped to chairs, like Alex in A Clockwork Orange. If we were to trace how different readers made use of the text, or how institutions (including our own) play a role in disseminating those texts, I think we’d have a more difficult but more worthwhile task as critics. Admittedly, ascribing ideological thumbs-ups and thumbs-downs to texts is one of the least interesting things that happens within works of critique, works that are usually otherwise analytically and descriptively rich. Often, though, it’s still a question that a peer reviewer will ask in our profession: “but what is, or are, the politics of the text?” As though it has a politics that can be determined outside of the range of its uses (an argument I play at in this recent post on Orwell’s 1984). Moreover, placing less emphasis on the question of whether a text’s internal politics are good or bad doesn’t, I think Felski is suggesting, mean simply returning to the question of whether texts are aesthetically good or bad. Rather, we’re being prodded to ask new questions, and not questions that are politically inconsequential.

Post-Critique, Post-Autonomy

The final move I’d like to make here, to come full-circle to look at the post-critical turn as a phenomenon in itself, is to ask if we believe in the autonomy of critique, and what comes after the end of that belief. I think that when we say the humanities are valuable because what they offer is “critique” (as Felski suggests we often do in a recent talk), we’re imagining that the value of critique is very much like that of the avant-garde: it’s something that stands apart and gives perspective, that has a special and mysterious power all its own and that is an absolute good in itself. That mysterious power is also a bubble that can pop.

The deflation of 2008, then, could be described as the moment of the post-critical, even if I hesitate to embrace the Kuhnian paradigm model the term implies. It’s the moment of a new and I think productive moment in which we in literary studies and the humanities have recognized and thought through the implications of our vulnerability and lack of institutional power. Some post-critical movements, such as the digital humanities or cognitive literary studies, have grown quite directly through the promise of funding on the model of the sciences, and the former at least has blossomed into some very impressive work and research directions. Overlapping somewhat, there is also a lot of new work that is self-consciously examining the institutional situations of literature, literary and cultural studies, and the humanities: new sociologies of literature (as described by Jim English and exemplified his work and in the Post-45 school’s work on literary institutions), and also new sociologies of criticism (as in work by Ted Underwood and Andrew Goldstone and Jonathan Goodwin) and the compelling mixtures of critique and advocacy we find in the new university studies (Chris Newfield, Alan Liu, and Sara Ahmed among many others), in its many, often activist, manifestations. Indeed, much of this refreshingly self-reflexive work imports most of what’s best about critique and pushes it in new directions, and in narrative frames that emphasize description, persuasion, and action.

And then a third camp of post-critical reading would come in the form of Felski’s own work, that of Best and Marcus and the so-called method wars. I read into the campaign against symptomatic reading (as I wrote in passing in a recent article) a desire to preach in a voice that reaches beyond the choir stall—to form rigorous arguments that readers who mistrust Freud will find convincing, and that some non-captive audiences might even pick up. (My projection here admittedly oversimplifies: critique has been picked up, and it has its pleasures beyond that of simple mastery, and it has certainly changed for the better the way journalists and critics write about culture in the U.S. print and web media.) But in our own work, if we lose some of our overconfidence in the power of critique itself to offer better political futures, then we can look to improve our techniques of persuasion. We can look more carefully at whom we’d like to persuade, of what, and to what ends. Those people might speak the neoliberal language of disruptive innovation, or the policymaker’s language of empirical data. But the challenge of translation that faces us is one of building bridges, not that of finding high ground on which to stand alone. In that light, critique seems less akin to Hegel’s Absolute Knowing than to another of the Phenomenology of Spirit’s figures, the Beautiful Soul: too pure for a corrupt world, paralyzed and incapable of action. With this comparison, I want to emphasize that I see Felski’s book as a methodological challenge, and not as a perverse rear-guard conservatism attempting to return us to older modes of aesthetic appreciation. Felski’s endgame, in theorizing our modes of attachment to literature (which her previous book does very provocatively), is not quite the direction I’m heading in my own work. But I think we can take her analysis of critique as a call to find ways to be more charismatic, to find broader audiences, and to invent new ways of doing the work we care about.

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My thanks to Gabriel Hankins, Nathan K. Hensley, Eric Song, Omaar Hena, Lee Konstantinou, and Faith Harden for letting me harangue them about this book and for raising objections that have helped me to think it through.