Pointing the Finger
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Pointing the Finger

There is a risk, in entering the debate over hermeneutics, of assuming or appearing to assume that our methods as critics are entirely determined by our conscious decisions. If this were so, it would certainly make us the ideal addressees of polemics appealing to us to make one methodological choice or the other. We could rationally weigh the arguments on each side and, through the exercise of a will transparent to itself, choose for the greatest good. Then only the execution would remain: one would sit down at the computer keyboard and exhibit the method one had selected, as though sight-reading a piece of music. This is the kind of agency that Talal Asad identified as a central formation, which is in part to say wish, of the secular: one in which “conscious intention” governs choice, and where the question behind action is, “Given the essential freedom, or the natural sovereignty, of the human subject . . . what should human beings do to realize their freedom, empower themselves, and choose pleasure?”1 Should they read suspiciously or affectively? What relation to texts would most free [End Page 166] and delight them? Suspicion, with its trust in exposure and its wish for freedom, has a reputation for being entangled with Enlightenment legacies. But the discourse on the state of the field—whether we defend suspicion, or rail against it—may deserve that reputation as well.

I begin this way in order to call attention to a double bind. Suspicious modes like the “pursuit of noncomplicity” that Robyn Wiegman has identified as central to American studies often involve some commitment to secular agency as Asad describes it.2 The critic measures herself and her subjects against the ideal of a will sufficiently independent from imperial ideology to intervene in history for the sake of empowerment, freedom, and the relief of pain. One might wish—as I do—to ease up on the pursuit of noncomplicity precisely in order to shed the secular commitments this mode seems to entail. While we idealize the unencumbered will, it is difficult to apprehend the lives of those for whom it may, on the contrary, have been a privileged form of action to disempower the self, allowing other agencies to inhabit one’s will: the clairvoyant who makes herself the instrument of the dead souls that communicate through her, for example, or the devotee who performs a ritual without deviation from tradition.3 But if one’s reason for renouncing the pursuit of noncomplicity is that one longs to be better able to tell off-secular narratives like these, then it becomes a problem that the state-of-the-field debate itself can easily become yet another shrine to the secular agent. The manner in which one makes, or calls for, a methodological change will matter. Appealing as it may be to urge oneself and others to a renovation of practices, how would one avoid reinstating the picture of critics as masters of their destinies through this very act of exhorting them—rationally, consciously—to change?

More practically, would reasoned exhortation work? I know that it was not through any single, deliberate choice that, in the course of graduate training as an Americanist, I adopted the pursuit of noncomplicity I now find myself faithfully practicing. Disciplinary conviction came more in the way the desire to marry comes to Virginia Woolf’s Orlando when she surfaces in the Victorian period: as a quivering over telegraph wires that would not yet exist for “twenty years or so,” more, an electricity that announces itself as an “extraordinary tingling and vibration all over her” until “all this agitation seemed at length to concentrate in her hands; and then in one hand, and then in one finger of that hand, and then finally to contract itself so that it made a ring of quivering sensibility about the second finger of the left hand.”4 My desire to be noncomplicit came shivering with the desires of others, and [End Page 167] with the future’s designs—those telegraph cables—on all of us. My critical acts are not entirely my own. This is good news and bad...