What is a Question?
I want to thank the editors for their stimulating question about questions: how do we formulate them and to what end? As a scholar and editor, I am drawn to question-driven research; one reason I don’t always feel at home in literary studies is because it is quite common to describe a talk or essay as “doing a reading” rather than asking a question. To be sure, essays in literary and critical theory are question-driven, yet their questions are also often question-begging. To ask about the relations between power and art, for example, is to assume that power is the pertinent framework for thinking about art; to explore why literary works subvert normativity is to take it for granted that normativity is something that calls to be subverted. To some extent, of course, all questions function in this way, otherwise there would be infinite regress and thinking could never get off the ground. Some questions, however, would seem to beg more questions than others. [End Page 31]
For this reason, I am often attracted to those questions that take as little as possible for granted: what exactly is x, what does it look like, what does it do? These questions are usually reactive; that is to say, they are triggered by a sense of irritation or frustration with assumptions about x, and especially causal, political, or ethical claims about the features of x that strike me as underjustified or over-hasty. For example, The Gender of Modernity arose out of a sense of puzzlement about the ways in which feminist scholars were talking about modernity in the early 1990s and my conviction that we did not yet know what modernity was, or meant, for women. Uses of Literature and my current work on aesthetic attachments are fueled by a similar sense that we have little idea what responses such as recognition, identification, enchantment, or attunement involve—what kinds of experiences they are. These questions of definition call for descriptive and empirically detailed answers. They cannot be resolved at a theoretical level, by ever more subtle or arcane reflections on theories of language or the status of the subject, but require attention to the messiness of examples and practices. We must be prepared to be surprised by what we find.
This is one reason I am drawn to actor-network-theory, as one of the few approaches that acknowledges the unpredictability of ties and connections (Antoine Hennion: “the surprise that peels away from the flux of things is the most ordinary of experiences.”) What counts as an actor? How is it enlisted by other actors? What kinds of mediations, translations, transformations are thereby made possible? These questions strike me as quite different from the usual ones we ask in literary studies. (Nor do they have much to do with “close reading” as a literary-critical method: some of the most eloquent descriptions of things-in-relation come from anthropologists, sociologists, and historians. Not everything needs to be “read.”) Another way of putting it: I am less interested in skeptical questions that distance us from the given than in those questions that draw us closer to the given.
RITA FELSKI is William R Kenan, Jr. Professor of English at the University of Virginia and editor of the journal New Literary History. She is the author of The Limits of Critique (2015), Uses of Literature (2008), Literature after Feminism (2003), Doing Time (2000), The Gender of Modernity (1995) and Beyond Feminist Aesthetics (1989), and editor of Rethinking Tragedy (2008), Comparison: Theories, Approaches, Methods (2013, with Susan Stanford Friedman) and Critique and Postcritique (2017, with Elizabeth Anker) as well as various journal special issues. She is currently a Niels Bohr Professor at the University of Southern Denmark, supervising a research project on “Uses of Literature” and writing a book about aesthetic attachments.