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Critique and Postcritique
Elizabeth S. Anker and Rita Felski, eds.
Duke University Press 336Pages; Print, $27.95

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Postcritique, we are told on the first page of this book, is “gaining significant traction.” It’s “very much in the air.” Postcritique, we are told, rejects the hermeneutics of suspicion. But there is something suspicious about this opening. It’s a familiar PR technique: if you want to get people talking about X, you tell your target audience that X is what people are talking about.

It is more or less in this fashion-conscious fashion that the postcritique phenomenon, such as it is, was launched. In 2004 the science studies scholar Bruno Latour asked: “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?” The fellow out-of-steamers who applauded Latour’s essay (which serves as the epigraph to Heather Love’s essay here and is mentioned in four or five others) do not seem to have noticed that the title is a logical fallacy (the fallacy has a Latin name) and a variant of the comic line “When did you stop beating your wife?” In both cases, the reader is tricked into answering a question that, no matter what the answer is, will involve accepting a false premise—that you have been beating your wife, that critique has run out of steam. No grounds for the premise are given, although you or your husband might feel inclined to dispute it.

Does postcritique exist? Yes and no. It certainly exists as a project of academic self-advertising. It arguably exists as well, to the extent that it has caught the attention of young people, as a reflection of the terrible, terrible job market for new and aspiring PhDs. Spirits are low. Under the circumstances, many are primed to agree when someone comes along and says, as the postcritiquers have been saying, that the discipline’s sense of socio-political mission has been too high and that it is time to lower our sights.

But no, postcritique does not exist as what its backers claim it to be. Postcritique presents itself as rejecting and replacing something it calls “critique.” But “critique” is a creature of its fantasies. In what real landscape does this monster of pure negativity lurk? Are there really teachers of literature out there who do nothing all day but interrogate, demystify, and unmask? And yet, that is the profile the postcritique crowd asks us to recognize and join in hating. I hate to say this, since there has already been so much talk of postcritique as marking an ominous if only would-be turn to the political Right, but this pointing of the finger at pathological accusers really does remind me of the Right’s habit of political correctness-baiting, its use of potent stereotypes like the black welfare queen or the paroled repeat-offender rapist in order to make such figures seem representative.

Postcritique, too, is about manipulating the emotionally manipulable. For much of this book, shameless caricature reigns. Toril Moi proposes that critique “can’t conceivably be the only purpose of literary studies”—as if anyone had ever proposed that literary studies had only one purpose and that critique was it. Heather Love proposes that it’s time to describe the world as it is—as if feminists and Marxists and Foucaultians, say, had shown no urge to describe the objective realities of class and gender and incarceration along with desiderata like freedom and equality. Russ Castronovo quotes Rita Felski to the effect that the fundamental quality of critique is “againstness.” Is againstness really an accurate description of Marx? Freud? Derrida? Foucault? Judith Butler? Do these thinkers and those who take them seriously really spend their time repeating platitudes like “liberation from oppression”?

In The Limits of Critique, the book in which co-editor Rita Felski laid out her own convictions, we read the following: “After a long period of historically oriented scholarship, scholars of literature are returning to aesthetics, beauty, and form. Are we not missing something crucial, they ask, when we treat works of art as nothing more than virtual symptoms of a...


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