On the limits of critique

The premise of Rita Felski’s (University of Virginia Professor of English) argument in her most recent book The Limits of Critique, or the point rather, is that the time is ripe for us to spend time critically analyzing critique itself; to dissect how we recognize it, how it has evolved, and ask how or if the suspicious reading that is its modus operandi has gone too far. She argues the onus critical theorists and academics have placed on critique, the dominant position we have created for it in discourse, and our subsequent forsaking of the alternatives, has nearly eliminated the possibility of (my words here) pleasurable reading.

What she suggests is that critique is generally a self-fulfilling prophesy; it’s mood (the word here used in the characterization of Heidegger as the bridge between feeling and thought, affectation, if you will,) “causes the world to come into view a certain way.” Its authority is conveyed by a language and style of its own, evidenced in a disaffected manner and mood, a critical distance, which is for the most part taught as the only alternative to empty, ignorant, or surface-level reading. Of course literature saw writers themselves aggressively inspiring that suspicion in their readers with the dawn of modernism, something which Paul Ricoeur was quick to note saying,“It may be the function of the most corrosive of literature to contribute to making a new kind of reader appear, a reader who is himself suspicious.”

But that’s neither here nor there. Regardless of who is responsible for the suspicion of motive that was the precursor to critical theory, it is the unfortunate but very real nature of language that it, as it continues in use by certain groups, can take on a life of its own, moving from describing something to dictating it. That notion, that language can often accidentally predict instead of simply describe, is something our greatest critical theorists have used as a defense of critique (they must suss out where language is doing just that!) although they more often than not have, over the course of the last fifty years, failed to be as skeptical of their own language and language patterns as they are of those of their subjects.

But is this true of critique as a method of reading? Is critique, something which emerged with the purest aims, its goal to elucidate a suppressed reality in a text or investigate a work’s context, be responsible for creating that reality, or context instead of deciphering it? Does its very existence de facto determine its results? Can we, anymore, claim objective analysis is possible through a tool which has infiltrated our culture to such a drastic degree?

We’ve come a long way from the very valid initial critique posed by Marx when he first advocated for the notion that a text “fails to say what it means and does not mean what it says.” (Felski is quick to point out the position of primacy the critics who would follow in Marx’s footsteps create for themselves in all of this: the notion of textual repression of course serves as evidence for the need of a critic, a detective, to dig up that which is repressed.) In the 70’s when our language changed to one of “symptoms” and “tensions” and a critic was charged with diagnosing the symptoms and pinpointing the tension which evidenced a text’s illness, or larger reality, the critic might be more accurately characterized as a doctor, but regardless, he/she is assumed to have achieved a certain level of trained experience, they are assumed to be capable of plumbing the depths of a text’s woes, something we mere mortals could never hope to do on our own.

And, for a time, this was necessary. Critique has done much good. It broadened the field of what we could consider seriously, cultural studies making acceptable discourses on popular and media art, for example. Freud, Marx and Nietzsche all helped us achieve a renewed awareness of what philosophers as far as back as Plato have been warning us of: language’s duplicitous nature and the tenuous link between sign and meaning. It reawakened us to the fact that we don’t have to accept things at face value and to a profound appreciation of the power of reason and it encouraged a rethinking of all of the mythologies (in the sense of Barthes and his characterization of culture masquerading as nature) and power-laden structures in language that we have taken for granted over the course of history to the profound detriment of a great many peoples.

But we’ve come a long way since critique’s utopian beginning, and, as is our human wont, we have forgotten the consequences, the negatives, of something that is and has often been, a force for good.

Felski draws our attention to many aspects of critique which it seems should be obvious but aren’t. As examples, the idea that “skepticism implies a worldview” (that of skepticism), that critique, while striving ostensibly for objectivity, betrays its subjectivity in valuing one thing over another as a target for critique, and the notion that through all of critique whether it be post-structuralist (interested in teasing out the ambivalences, the “taken-for-granted” aspects  of a text in order to point out what fails to admit its contingency) or materialist (critique more interested in pushing beyond the surface); the critic’s most egregious error is the faith they place in themselves (something we’re fortunately moving past in the 21st century as we find more and more things to distrust). In the words of Stanley Fish “we cannot access all the conditions that make our speech possible.” When critics are by necessity forced to use the same language as their subjects, they place themselves in as vulnerable a position as their subjects whose language and way of speaking are often the subject of analysis. And of course the primary challenge to critique’s claims to impartiality Felski offers is the self-fulfilling prophecy of the critic intent on finding guilt, the idea that we initially alluded to; when one is seeking a motive, it’s generally rather unsurprising that he or she tends to find one.

The most substantial gray area of them all however is the fact that critique, which defines itself in opposition to the mainstream, is now, for the most part, part of the mainstream.

Of course it is fast apparent that none of this negates the validity of critique but rather is elucidated simply in an effort towards transparency and, more importantly for Felski, to offer alternatives, many of which hearken back to a simpler (albeit guilty) time. It truly becomes fast apparent to even the novice critical theorist (me!) that this reimagining of critique, this critique of critique, was as inevitable as each of its predecessors: once a language becomes the dominant discourse, once everyone agrees on the extent to which it has become institutionalized, it’s time to reevaluate.

She begins and concludes her study at the same place: arguing that it has never been more important for the humanities to be able to make a case for their validity as pillars of our educational system. Why? Because critique “is too often silent” on the question of why we are drawn to art in the first place.

AO Scott makes a poorly argued but valid point in his recent tome Better Living Through Criticism, that what criticism is at its purest is an articulation of why one or another of us is drawn to one work of art over another. He defines a critic as someone who doesn’t stop at “I like it!” or “I Hated it!” but instead attempts to determine why (if it sounds easy it’s not.)

What critique has also done, albeit inadvertently, is wholly neglect the circular nature of history. Felski utilizes Actor Network Theory, with its conceptualization of many different kinds of actors and a mutually interdependent and infinite redefining through interaction, as the basis for a new kind of critique. Specifically as it relates to her field of literary studies she argues for a reconsideration of texts as nonhuman actors in how they modify a state of affairs, in their social nature given that “if art is discussed, it is not solitary.”

“That art works are linked to other social phenomena…is not a sign of their fallenness,” she asserts, “but a precondition of their existence.”

A reading of Felski’s work should inspire more than anything else perhaps, is a feeling of surprise: surprise at how far we’ve come since the dawn of critique in the late 19th or early 20th centuries and surprise at critique’s role in the dwindling role of art and culture in our society. What it should incite is a desire to fight back and to seek to create, alongside Felski, a post-critical critique which is not informed by pre-fortified theories, but instead a fluid, occasionally positive, occasionally not, critique that takes into account the myriad ways we have of experiencing the art with which we engage.