Can something as coolly analytic as scholarship be said to have a mood? If so, there are signs in recent years of a change of disposition within cultural scholarship, a collective mood-shift. Consider the title of an influential 2004 Critical Inquiry essay by Bruno Latour, “Why Did Critique Run Out of Steam?” The title conveys a shared sense of deflation or drift, one that apparently resonated with a great many readers. At the same time, Latour’s titular question may actually beg the question most in need of examination: Has the project of critique in fact reached a point of diminishing returns? Has the effort to unveil the ideological forces at work in art and culture become a less urgent or effective scholarly aim? In the field of American studies, at least, the notion that critique has run its course is belied by vital and ongoing political projects of many stripes, from indigenous studies to work on the hemispheric south. Yet even here, it is hard to miss a change in the tenor of recent discussions, a new “restlessness” (as Caleb Smith calls it) in the way scholars are now regarding both their historical objects and their critical methods.
The change is sharpest when seen in contrast. Those of us trained in the 1980s can recall a very different prevailing mood. Fredric Jameson’s call to “always historicize!” distilled a disciplinary conviction common to new historicism, ideology critique, and cultural studies. And almost as significant as the words of Jameson’s slogan was its punctuation mark—that rare bird, an academic exclamation point. For those responsive to Jameson’s call, the exclamation point did not signify the bark of a stern command but the sound of an exhilarating invitation. (Come historicize!) Jameson himself referred to his slogan as the “moral” of his study, a word hinting at a locus of meaning, discoverable [End Page 147] through a rigorous hermeneutics, that could somehow redeem the damage wrought by history. In dazzling acts of counterintuitive reading, Jameson’s brand of critique posited “the political perspective . . . as the absolute horizon of all reading and all interpretation.”1 And for Americanists who shared Jameson’s critical aims, that horizon was less a limit or a restriction than an enabling frame that opened to view a more expansive historical landscape. Black vernacular signifying. Abolitionist sympathy. Mythologies of nationalism. Through the critic’s power of historical demystification, these and other formations were dramatically defamiliarized and revalued, dissolving the pieties of a complacent liberal history in order to expose the underlying operations of power. The act of unveiling felt like a kind of secular revelation, the promise of a liberation to come.
Today exhilaration is harder to come by. One reason, according to Elizabeth Maddock Dillon, may be that the role of “heroic critic” seems to have been eclipsed. At a time when inequalities are often starkly visible, “the ruses of power no longer seem to require veiling.” Demystification may be less a revelation than a redundancy. In another sign of a shift in academic mood, mood itself has become an object of study. Affect studies has brought new theoretical brilliance and historical perspicacity to the study of the nineteenth century. But can it be a coincidence that the mood most studied has been melancholia? The explosion of digital resources and the new tools for the manipulation of data have produced divergent scholarly feelings: some experience euphoria, others mere vertigo. In either case, the result is an unsettling of reflexive habits of critique. Indeed, observers like the cultural historian Hal Foster have described our present moment as belonging to a “post-critical condition.”2
Other diagnoses are more dire. In the wake of a “post-critical collapse,” some have argued, the task of the scholar or intellectual can only be to understand enough about our networked world to be able to “surf the waves of capital.”3 But however disruptive these new conditions have been to familiar kinds of critique, they hardly condemn us to fore-swearing any form of critical thinking. Going along for the ride on the “waves of capital” (or, perchance, going under) is not an inevitable scholarly fate...