From the Critique of Power to the Poetics of Justice
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From the Critique of Power to the Poetics of Justice

What would it feel like not to be dominated?

Some version of this question is posed in each of the critical projects named in my title. The first, the critique of power, often identifies domination with enchantment. As Michel Foucault observed in “What Is Critique?,” the critical attitude emerges, in its modern form, when reason attempts to disentangle itself from the rationalizations that justify and legitimate the exercise of authority. It asks, “For what excesses of power, for what governmentalization, all the more impossible to evade because [End Page 160] it is reasonably justified, is reason not itself historically responsible?”1 To pursue critique is to follow a line of inquiry that leads away from ideological mystification, toward a way of knowing whose allure is the consolatory promise of noncomplicity in a corrupt order.

The second kind of critical project I wish to introduce, the poetics of justice, sets aside the overburdened distinction between the rational and the irrational. It presumes that people might be enchanted not only into submission but also into other postures—into protest, for example, or into dissent. The poetics of justice attends, accordingly, to the fantasies of persuasion and belonging that attend every invocation of justice, whether the speaker is a judge cloaked in authority or a self-styled martyr faithful to a higher law. I may as well admit from the beginning that any schematic opposition between critique and poetics oversimplifies things. It probably obscures as much as it reveals. In the end, though, my aim is not to argue for poetics, against critique. I’ll suggest, instead, that some reflection on the poetics of justice in nineteenth-century America might move us toward a fuller, more open reckoning with what critique has meant all along, both as an institutionalized academic practice and as a fantasy of collaborative world-making in its own right.

For a few years now, some of us who spend our working lives with the artifacts of nineteenth-century culture have been growing restless with the demystifying work of critique—“disenchanted with disenchantment,” as Nancy Bentley says.2 Perhaps the most influential document of this restlessness in the field so far, Cindy Weinstein’s and Christopher Looby’s American Literature’s Aesthetic Dimensions, signals a turn away from the styles of skeptical reading sometimes known as “the hermeneutics of suspicion,” toward a renewed engagement with the varieties of sensuous experience and imaginative play that literature makes possible. Presenting their volume as a friendly rejoinder to a previous generation’s demystifying projects, the editors argue that attentiveness to aesthetics does not blind us to history. In fact, much of the interest of the aesthetic, for the contributors, is in its distinctive ways of negotiating with historical conditions, including its ways of projecting alternatives to those conditions. “And so it comes about that aesthetic questions return to the critical conversation, perhaps in fruitful conjunction with the political questions that have earned their central position in our inquiries.”3

My own recent work on the poetics of justice—that is, the varieties of nonrational persuasion that popular legal literature was imagined to [End Page 161] exercise on its first publics—has been undertaken in the same spirit. Still, I wonder: how different is this spirit, really, from the one that animated critique? After all, the politicized historicism that prevailed in American literary and cultural studies from the 1980s until very recently was not concerned only to expose the ruses of power. Critique also set out to discover versions of itself in the nineteenth century. This was one crucial aspect of the canon wars. Works written by marginalized and disenfranchised subjects were said to subvert hegemonic ideologies, and their authors were reclaimed as the intellectual ancestors of a politicized critical practice. The authority of critique, in other words, was not simply claimed by scholars in the present; it was attributed to authors and texts from the past. Indeed, setting out to recover works of the subversive imagination, critique endowed texts with quasi-magical powers of revelation and conversion. These powers were not usually called “aesthetic,” but the event of disenchantment tended...


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