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Postcritical Reading

Literary studies, in recent decades, have been overrun by forms of critique: styles of suspicious reading that take their bearings from Freud and Foucault, Marx, and Butler. Incoming students are confronted with a dizzying array of theories and frameworks: tying them together, however, is a shared stance of skepticism, knowingness, and detachment. The prevailing ethos is one of againstness. This does not mean that English professors loathe literature, as conservative scholars like to lament. On the contrary, they often prize literary works as vital allies in struggles against error and injustice: the writings of Joyce or Woolf are deciphered to show how they subvert social norms and pull the rug out from under commonsense beliefs. The language of literary studies is littered with de words: novels and poems are widely hailed for deconstructing and demystifying, defamiliarizing and destabilizing.

This line of thought is not mistaken or misguided as far as it goes—few people would deny that literature can cast a critical light on social reality. And yet it is also notably one-sided. What about re words? How does literature replenish, reconfigure, recreate, reimagine, reinvent? If it is against, what is it for? Here literary critics are likely to fall silent: there is a virtual taboo, it seems, on articulating positive accounts of the books we teach and write about. We are badly in need of more comprehensive and compelling vocabularies of value. In two recent books I’ve argued for a literary criticism that is more attuned to the many different reasons why people read literature; that takes seriously the force of their attachments and the thickness of aesthetic experience.

It is in this context that I talk about “postcritical reading.” We’ve seen a surfeit of “post” words in the last few decades—postmodernism, poststructuralism, postfeminism. Why add yet another to the mix? “Postcritical” refers to ways of reading that are informed by critique while pushing beyond it: that stress attachment as well as detachment, that engage the vicissitudes of feeling as well as thought, and that acknowledge the dynamism of artworks rather than treating them as objects to be deciphered and dissected. “Post” acknowledges a reliance on the thing one is questioning: a dance of dependency and difference rather than a simple opposition. (Post-critique is not the same thing as anti-critique.) One advantage of the term is its openness: a refusal to specify a single correct path for literary scholars. Rather than closing things down, “postcritical” leaves room for differing alternatives to a prevailing ethos of suspicion and skepticism. Yet it is also crucial to clarify what postcritical reading is not.

It is not, for example, nostalgic for a time when the canon was almost entirely white and male, when criticism relied on a purely formalist language of irony, paradox, and ambiguity, and when any attempt to discuss the social or philosophical meanings of literature was waved away as a category mistake. (The point needs to be insisted on; thanks to the grip of the art versus politics opposition, it is sometimes assumed that anyone who questions the sovereignty of critique must be a dyed-in-the wool aesthete. My own background is in critical theory and British cultural studies; I dislike aestheticism, high formalism, and the obsession with close reading as a path to redemption even more than the clichés of critique.) My current work centers on the “uses of literature”—what literature does in the world: how it acts and reacts, absorbs and inspires, transports and is transported across space and time. “Use” should be understood capaciously, in the spirit of Dewey, and not confused with a crass utilitarianism: the uses of literature can include escapism and enchantment, the shock of recognition and the subtle reverberations of semiconscious affinities. I am interested in how literature composes, connects, ties, builds, brings together. Of course, worldly ties are not free of power, as critical theory reminds us—but neither are they reducible to power. We need a critical vocabulary that is more attuned to the complexity of ties—as not just chains of domination, but also indispensable forms of relation. Bonds do not only constrain, but also sustain...