- Introduction to Focus: Postcritique
In 1989 Robert Alter published a book entitled The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age in which he set out to rescue the study of literature from the overcorrections of literary theory. Alter initially saw the rise of theory as a welcome correction to a discipline that had historically been “underconceptualized.” These new rigorous theories of reading derived from philosophy, psychology, anthropology, and linguistics promised to revolutionize the discipline. But in Alter’s estimation theory overran literature and ultimately changed what the study of literature was about. “In fact,” he contends, “for many of the new trends in literary studies, the object of the preposition ‘about’ is often no longer literature.”
Alter’s book was one of many salvos in the theory wars, a series of skirmishes over the place of theory in the discipline. Proponents and opponents alike typically represent theory as fundamentally political, while the alternative to theory—often termed anti-theory—is represented as apolitical. Under this rubric, Alter’s argument can be read as anti-theoretical, not because he saw theory as useless or harmful in itself, but because he didn’t believe that it belonged in literary studies: “… to give the new academic trends their due, such a person might be better off teaching sociology or history, psychology or political science, whatever the departmental aegis…such investigation surely has a legitimate place in the university.” But these approaches always end up treating literature as a “symptom of something else,” and for Alter this means that what the theorist is ultimately studying is not actually literature. Theory, he insists, has estranged us from the experience of reading and divided literary studies into sectarian groups.
In her compelling book, The Limits of Critique, Rita Felski argues that the various sects of literary theory share an underlying commitment to and attitude of critique. For Felski, critique can best be understood as what Paul Ricoeur called the hermeneutics of suspicion and what Eve Sedgwick deemed paranoid reading. Critique, as she explains in her contribution to this issue, manifests itself in literary studies through a disciplinary commitment to “de words: novels and poems are widely hailed for deconstructing and demystifying, defamiliarizing and destabilizing.” She claims that critique has become the horizon of literary studies and wants to explore the possibilities of reading beyond critique, hence the emergence of the term “postcritique.”
It might seem natural to some to align Felski with Alter and others who have argued that theory and its critical politics threatens to eclipse any and all other lights of literary studies. And this is how the formidable Bruce Robbins explains the critique/postcritique dynamic: as “political and apolitical criticism.” But is this the best way to conceptualize postcritique?
Some may agree with Robbins that postcritique is the latest anti-theoretical salvo in the theory wars. Although the example is anecdotal, I recently attended a panel on the concept of “Anti-Theory,” and the participants who mentioned Felski or raised the subject of postcritique positioned it as the latest manifestation of anti-theory. But the reception of The Limits of Critique has been overwhelmingly positive and resolutely theoretical. The book has been reviewed warmly, beginning with my own essay in Los Angeles Review of Books, and including praise from theory champions such as Terry Eagleton in publications ranging from the Times Literary Supplement to Textual Practice. So where does the conflict lie?
Anyone who views postcritique as a new fight in the theory wars will probably view postcritical reading as anti-theory and object that the definition of critique employed by postcritics is, in fact, a caricature of critique. The definition of critique tends to be the central point of contention in this conversation. Julie Orlemanski outlines the conflict in her excellent review below: “I know of no critical thinker worth engaging who would agree that one’s intellectual task is merely to ‘draw out unflattering and counterintuitive meanings,’ who would accept ‘skepticism as dogma,’ or who would recognize her scholarship as a ‘smooth-running machine for registering the limits and insufficiencies of texts’ or reading as ‘just a diagnostic exercise.’” Postcritique enthusiasts will say that literary critics are consumed...