Towards Postcritical Thinking in Literary Studies: The Limits of Critique by Rita Felski
Critique as a Hermeneutics of Suspicion
How do we approach a literary text? How do we gauge the proximity or distance between ourselves and a text of our choice? Why do we value literature, and how do we make sense of the relationship we have with our immediate surroundings through our engagement with literature? These are some of the fundamental questions raised by Rita Felski in her refreshing, stylish book The Limits of Critique, in which she takes issue with the scholarly tendency to regard critique as the default mode for textual analysis. Borrowing the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur’s words “hermeneutics of suspicion,” Felski redescribes critique as a hermeneutic brand of interpretation that insists on treating texts with the utmost suspicion, as texts are believed to be always hiding something from the scrupulous, attentive reader. In other words, Felski finds fault with the prevalent ethos that encourages academics to read against the grain, or to consider texts as enemies to be vanquished or destroyed.
Such a reorientation of critique as a hermeneutics of suspicion demonstrates that instead of being a solely cognitive, intellectual enterprise, critique is an embodiment of a certain disposition or mood—especially attested by the wary-minded, detached, incredulous critics who exhaust every effort to excavate the ultimate meaning of the texts they grapple with. (In fact, Felski devotes an entire chapter to the spatial metaphors commonly associated with critical interpretation; this issue will be addressed in further detail later.) Although Felski indicates that critique has almost taken on the avatar of a playground bully, becoming “not just the one good thing but the only conceivable thing,”1 Rita Felski, <em>The Limits of Critique</em> (University of Chicago Press, 2015): 118. thus forcing out alternative modes of literary interpretation and appreciation, her point is not to do away with critique completely but rather to remind us of the experiential, sometimes ineffable feelings we have upon our first encounter with a particular text—be it a Conrad novel or a Scorsese film—and to initiate new perspectives for reevaluating literature, perspectives which may not be possible through a suspicion-laden, animosity-driven mode of interpretation.
The Rhetoric of Critique
What lies at the core of Felski’s argument is that we can be postcritical without being uncritical. The refusal to partake in the game of suspicious reading is not to be taken as being complacent with the status quo, or worse, being a tacit accomplice of existing hegemonic structures. It is probably because of the stigma of being uncritical (which is all too often associated with pejorative attributes such as unthinking, conservative, anti-progressive, hysterical, neurotic, and so forth) that scholars from different generations have rushed to align themselves with theoretical frameworks that purport to either dig down into or stand back from the texts. Digging down encompasses Freudian psychoanalysis and Marxist-inspired theories, both of which are bent on exposing the texts’ underlying presuppositions through what is known as symptomatic reading.1 Psychoanalytical critics have endeavored to retrieve the unsaid and unseen, such as repressed childhood traumas. On the Marxist front, see, for example, Louis Althusser’s <em>Reading Capital </em>(Verso, 1979) and Fredric Jameson’s<em> The Prison-House of Language: A Critical Account of Structuralism and Russian Formalism</em> (Princeton University Press, 1972). For those who dig down into the texts like archaeologists, the premise is that the surface cannot be trusted. Standing back refers to another common schema of suspicious reading, which requires the critics to distance themselves from the texts, in order to “denaturalize” what has been taken for granted as natural and expose the way the texts have been socially constructed.1 Nature, in the view of suspicious critics who stand back from the texts, has inherently negative connotations, and it should not be confused with the Romantic vision of nature as a transcendental, cathartic force. Rather, nature is associated with the realm of taken-for-grantedness, which includes societal norms or biological orders, and it is therefore everything critique rejects. New historicist and poststructuralist critics tend to fall under this category. Even though poststructuralist critics spurn the concepts of hidden truth or concealed meaning, they nonetheless engage in what Felski calls “second-level hermeneutics,” or a method of reading that shifts the focus from the texts per se to the broader contexts of cultural production.1 Felski, <em>The Limits of Critiqu</em><em>e </em>(University of Chicago Press, 2015): 55.As integral elements of the rhetoric of critique, the metaphors of digging down and standing back not only foster deep mistrust between critics and the texts they handle but also give rise to an academic language that calls for scholars to interrogate, unravel, demystify, expose, and take issue with their objects of study.
Throughout her book, Felski constantly reiterates the analogy between suspicious literary critics and detectives who strive to solve crimes, as both parties show genuine commitment to the idea of piecing together a coherent narrative from fragmentary, oftentimes misleading clues. Part of the reward for critics playing the detective game is the affective pleasure, or the thrill and excitement, afforded by the down and dirty pursuit of criminals. Other forms of reward are also discernible, such as the acquisition of much-coveted cultural and social capital awarded by academic institutions. The premise that underlies the parallel between critics and detectives is that there is a guilty party to be tracked down, be it a dishonest text that features an unreliable narrator, or an unshakable power structure that continues to perpetrate various forms of oppression. Although the advent of a neoliberal surveillance state in the post-9/11 era has halted some critics from actively adopting metaphorical detection techniques, for fear of becoming a part of a carceral society in which everyone is treated as a suspect, the moral undertones and the self-imposed ethical obligations of critique are hard to miss.1 Ibid., 100.
Postcritique and Affect Theory
Despite Felski’s endeavors at mapping the limits and pitfalls of critique, she makes it clear that it is not her intent to talk about postcritique as an equivalent of anti-critique. In fact, Felski remains quite ambivalent about using the word postcritique, and much of her argument relies on the epistemological framework of critique.1 In an interview with Francesco Giusti from the <em>Los Angeles Review of Books</em>, Felski expresses her ambivalent attitude about using prefixes such as “re-” and “post-,” and stresses that what the two prefixes imply is an unavoidable link with the past rather than a clean break: https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/passionate-affinities-a-conversation-with-rita-felski/. However, Felski is careful about not treading the path of a critique of critique, which would risk turning her book into yet another manifestation of critique. Instead of being a lonely trailblazer in the realm of postcritical approaches, Felski is actually surrounded by a number of like-minded scholars who have also started to question the dominant position of critique as the default option for literary analysis. Felski cites Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus’s provocative statement on surface reading, in which Best and Marcus urge scholars to approach texts as they are instead of trying to pry them open.1 Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus, “Surface Reading: An Introduction,” <em>Representations</em> 108, no. 1 (2009). Quoted in <em>The Limits of Critique</em>, 54-55. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s influential essay on paranoid and reparative styles of criticism was nodded to several times, as both Sedgwick and Felski are concerned about how suspicious reading rules out other potential methods of interacting with objects.1 Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You,” in <em>Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity</em> (Duke University Press, 2003). Heather Love is mentioned for her advocacy of an exhaustive but “thin” description, which stands in clear opposition to the philosophical tradition represented by Gilbert Ryle and Clifford Geertz.1 Heather Love, “Close but Not Deep: Literary Ethics and the Descriptive Turn,” <em>New Literary History </em>41, no. 2 (2010), and “Close Reading and Thin Description,”<em> Public Culture </em>25, no. 3 (2013). While giving credit to scholars who have been typically associated with the affective turn in the humanities field, Felski shows reservations about an unquestioning embrace of the surface, since the dichotomous view of surface versus depth could backfire and arouse even more suspicion. Nevertheless, Felski’s attunement to feminist theory and affect theory is recognizable, as demonstrated by her consistent academic interest in the interconnections between interpretation, phenomenology, and affect.1 Other than <em>The Limits of Critique</em>, Felski’s oeuvre includes B<em>eyond Feminist Aesthetics: Feminist Literature and Social Change </em>(Harvard University Press, 1989), <em>Doing Time: Feminist Theory and Postmodern Culture </em>(New York University Press, 2000), <em>Uses of Literature</em> (Blackwell, 2008),<em> Latour and the Humanities</em> (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020), <em>Hooked: Art and Attachment</em> (University of Chicago Press, 2020), etc. Well aware of how collapsing postcritique with surface reading may lead to a simplistic, overgeneralizing view about literary studies of our times, Felski takes on the mission of mapping the variety of positions among the critique and postcritique camps. In the meantime, Felski does not claim to be offering a new theory that can help us mend all the flaws of previous modes of interpretation (which is a herculean task that no single person could be expected to achieve); rather, the objective of The Limits of Critique is to encourage its readers to explore new ways to engage with texts, which may not be conceivable unless we start to see critique as merely one of the multitudinous modes of reading and writing literature.
An Alternative Model to Critique: Bruno Latour’s Actor-Network Theory (ANT)
In reimagining different vectors through which we can build new relationships with literary texts, Felski draws heavily on Bruno Latour’s seminal book Reassembling the Social, in which Latour proposes actor-network theory to reconceptualize social relations.1 Bruno Latour, <em>Reassembling the Social</em><em>: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory</em> (Oxford University Press, 2005). Instead of resorting to dualistic thinking that regards the universe as a massive amalgamation comprising dichotomies such as text/context, subject/object, nature/culture, and thought/matter, Latour sees all entities as actors that are capable of making changes and being changed. Agency in a Latourian framework is no longer a privilege of subject, but a composite, fluid, amorphous flow of intensity borne out from complex networks that involve multiple coactors. So are other social constructs like textual meaning, power dynamics, and historical discourse. Following the same vein, the significance of texts thus lies not in their ontological being, nor in their reflective or mimetic mechanisms, but in their nature of entanglement, or in Felski’s words, “the forms of attachment through which texts entice and enlist us, surprise and seduce us.”1 Felski, “Latour and Literary Studies,” <em>PMLA</em>, 130, no. 3 (2015): 739. The distinction between a knowing reader and an unknowing text dissolves in Latour’s treatise, as reading is no longer a hermeneutic activity unidirectionally imposed upon a passive, silent text, but a fully embodied, mutually constitutive process of cocreation, through which a wide variety of emotive links can be forged and fathomed, including but not limited to ecstasy, enrapturement, enthusiasm, befuddlement, anguish, neurosis, or phobia.1 Although Felski spends much space discussing how the style and tone of texts affect the way we orient ourselves towards them, her theoretical focus seems to tilt towards the positive side of the feeling spectrum. For an insightful analysis of the dysphoric feelings induced by textual encounters, see Sianne Ngai’s <em>Ugly Feelings </em>(Harvard University Press, 2005).
In addition to pointing towards a more democratic way of reading and writing literature, Latour’s actor-network theory also provides fecund grounds for us to test out the transtemporal potentialities of texts. For Latour, history is not a box that contains everything related to society, nor is human action an overbearing force that shapes history. Instead, history is seen as a convergence of a multiplicity of texts, each consisting of dynamic coactors. In other words, the point is not how a text is foregrounded against a specific context but how the distinction between text and context is levelled through an ongoing exchange of connections, disconnections, and reconnections.1 Felski, <em>The Limits of Critique </em>(University of Chicago Press, 2015): 156. What actor-network theory offers literary studies is a way out of being trapped by belletrism and material determinism, or an alternative means to encounter literature without insisting on the fickle divisions between interiority and exteriority, or between content and form. A text is no longer expected to play the role of a mirror or a symptom of a societal whole, nor is its singularity elevated to revelatory sublimity; a text is what it is because of the relations it forges with its surrounding human and nonhuman actors. In more practical terms, Felski calls for what can be understood as a mid-level reading, or a lateral reading, that falls somewhere between close reading, distant reading, and surface reading to account for the complexities of meaningful assemblages that allow a text to resonate across time and space.1 Felski, “Latour and Literary Studies,” <em>PMLA</em>, 130, no. 3 (2015): 741. Felski creates the term “mid-level reading” by analogy with John Frow’s discussion of mid-level concepts in the sociology of literature. See John Frow, “On Mid-Level Concepts,” <em>New Literary History</em> 41.2 (2010): 237-52.
Possible Applications of Postcritical Thinking in the Taiwanese Cultural Milieu
In Chapter 5 of The Limits of Critique, Felski shares her personal experience of practicing postcritical thinking in pedagogical settings. Encouraged to think outside the box of the hermeneutics of suspicion, one of Felski’s students conducted a project concerning the aesthetics of shock in postmodernity based on his own sense of shock upon watching the French film Irreversible. Another student broached questions about enchantment in Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, teasing out the rhetorical, narratological, and affective functions of the novel’s exceptionally sensual and seductive style.1 Felski, <em>The Limits of Critique </em>(University of Chicago Press, 2015): 181. While not offering a new theory for literary interpretation, Felski’s book is illuminating in that it carves out a safe space for us to freely explore new vocabularies to reflect on the aesthetic attachments we have to our objects of study, instead of feeling pressured to separate the affective from the cognitive, as the latter is obviously held in higher regard by the regime of critique.1 Felski’s recent monograph, <em>Hooked: Art and Attachment</em> (University of Chicago Press, 2020), highlights the vital function of attachment in facilitating aesthetic appreciation of high art and popular art.
It seems that postcritique has much potential to be applied to analyses of cultural production worldwide, and the unique geopolitical conditions of Taiwan have led to the creation of miscellaneous texts at our disposal. Why is it that Edward Yang’s Yi Yi—a restrained family drama set in contemporary Taipei—was able to move the audience to tears no matter where it was screened? Other than the issue of taste, or the translatability of arthouse films across sociocultural boundaries, can we also talk about how slices of urban life and humanity vibrate on and through the screen? On another front, can we employ something other than politics as the sole metalanguage with which we interpret all the cultural texts produced in the post-martial law period? This is not to suggest that politics is not important. Indeed, the importance of politics cannot be stressed enough, but a politicized reading may run the risk of turning every text we encounter into either a subversive fighter for justice or a collaborator with the dominant power. One possible alternative is to investigate the aesthetics of cynicism, which can be discerned in texts produced by individuals who occupy very different positions across the ideological spectrum, such as Chen Ying-zhen and Huang Chun-ming. A more recent example is Republic of Cynic, a multimedia exhibition created by the Taiwanese performance artist Yao Jui-chung.1 For more information about Yao’s <em>R</em><em>epublic of Cynic,</em> see: https://clab.org.tw/en/project/yao-jui-chung-republic-of-cynic-r-o-c/. In addition to the conspicuous political undertones of Republic of Cynic, the interactive nature of the exhibition complicates the relationship between the performer and the viewer, and the multilayered spatiality evoked by the exhibition venue further highlights the key role that embodied experience plays in aesthetic appreciation.1 The venue of Yao’s <em>Republic of Cynic</em> is the Taiwanese Contemporary Cultural Lab, which is the site of the former air force command headquarters in the Da’an District of Taipei City. Run by the Ministry of Culture, the facility is intended as an experimental, interactive space for artistic activities ranging from visual art and performance art to film and digital media.
Nietzsche famously said: “When you stare for a long time into an abyss, the abyss stares back into you.”1 Friedrich Nietzsche, <em>Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future</em> (Cambridge University Press, 2002): 69.This quote has been typically read with moral associations, as many have taken it to be an aphoristic warning of the danger of becoming the monster that we set out to fight against. Here I would like to stretch Nietzsche’s words a bit, hoping not to be too far-fetched or strained. What postcritique offers us is not a key to an absolute truth, nor a panacea for the faults of suspicious reading, but a versatile toolkit with which we can find solace in confronting and addressing our attachments and therefore expand our horizons of thought in a meaningful way. We are free to rearrange and reassemble the tools in the kit, as interpretation has transformed from a reductive process of deduction to an additive act of composition, which will certainly benefit from creativity and imagination. We can finally talk about things that have often been shoved aside by critical reading, such as space, tone, mood, texture, ambiance—and the list goes on and on. Perhaps it is time for us to moderate our hubris and admit that we may never get to the bottom of the abyss, however hard we try. Perhaps we may only encounter the abyss on a more equal footing when we become open to the idea of seeing the abyss as it is, instead of what we want it to be. By then, we will have the opportunity to appreciate the gaze of the abyss and receive the message it has for us.