- Revolution Is a FictionThe Way We Read (Early American Literature) Now
Literary criticism may be nearing the most significant dispositional shift since the advent of New Historicism some thirty years ago. What Paul Ricoeur called “the hermeneutics of suspicion” and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick named “paranoid reading”—interpretive modes that view texts and especially their aesthetic dimensions as covers for abstract and dispersed ideological systems hidden below or behind, a methodology I’ll join Bruno Latour in calling simply “critique”—find their fundamental assumptions challenged by theorists sometimes lumped together as “postcritique.”1 The desire of literary critics to change what Rita Felski calls a “critical mood” can be measured by the academic traction of various earlystage analyses of—to refer to the title of an issue of Representations that helped spur such discussions—the way we read now. Moving forward, those investigations will take different forms in different literary fields, just as New Historicism did. I am concerned here with how such approaches to going “postcritique” might animate early American literary studies, a field that, for reasons I’ll explore below, has thus far remained largely impervious to such discussions.
In order to jump-start these examinations of our field imaginary, we need first to recognize that “critique,” in early American literary studies, takes two forms, not one, although both are ultimately rooted in the same axiomatic insistence that literature must be understood in relation to a “broader,” more stable, prior, and prioritized locale of meaning (ideology in one, history in the other). In addition to suspicious reading, which finds an abstract and hidden systematic agent that the literary text either reveals or obfuscates (or both), early American literary studies remains dominated by a faith in facts—a fact faith—that constitutes a text’s historical “meaning.” Both versions not only locate a text’s meaning someplace other than [End Page 397] in the text (what Heather Love and others have criticized as postulations of textual “depth”), they also deny the critic’s hand in generating that depth and the ideals (or threats thereof) discovered there. The critic’s purported disinterest (which I want to redefine here not as an honesty to one’s object of study but as a disloyalty to one’s own imaginative idealism) is maintained through accusations of “presentism” or biased projection that police the borders between objective and subjective criticism (the latter always under suspicious scrutiny). Hand in hand with critical objectivity comes deep skepticism about speculative idealism, and a nostalgic faith that literature’s meanings lay in the recoverable past, not in a present or future whose possibilities rely on the imaginative hopefulness of the critic. These assumptions, I believe, have kept early American literary studies from contributing to substantial methodological (as opposed to content) innovation, especially those centered on the imaginative aesthetics of literature and the ethical positions it might enable in the present.
Of “critique” as suspicious reading—what I’ll designate “hard critique”—the field has no shortage. Let me take a representative case study from the pages of Early American Literature. An essay about Robert Finley, who was instrumental in founding the American Colonization Society to transport freed slaves to the African colony of Liberia, starts by observing that Finley began his career as a schoolteacher who developed pedagogical strategies adaptable to larger social audiences, and concludes: “By advocating the expulsion of blacks characterized as lazy, docile, primitive, and violent, the society helped make ambition, civilization, and sensibility seem the natural and exclusive property of whites” and hence of “national identity.”2 That the society came into existence soon after the ratification of the Constitution, when political leaders struggled to define a uniquely American character, suggests, the author asserts, the central role racial differentiation played in the framing of national belonging and in generating “a race of Americans in the sense of both a common public constituency and a naturalized group character linked to the body.”3
The scholarship is sound, the argument tight, the author’s effort to say something meaningful about the relationship of nationalism and racism laudable. And yet, despite its claims for historical specificity, the essay produces suspicious conclusions (Finley said he...