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Criticism After Critique: Aesthetics, Literature, and the Political
Jeffrey R. Di Leo, ed.
Palgrave Macmillan 229Pages; Print, $69.99

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Jeffrey R. Di Leo’s collection Criticism After Critique: Aesthetics, Literature, and the Political emerges at a moment when academic critique—a politically animated critical skepticism that draws upon the insights offered by deconstruction, psychoanalysis, Marxism, and various forms of historicism—seems to have become stale, ineffective, and formulaic. Now that scholarship has debunked assumptions about the transcendental value of art, unmasked myth, illusion, and ideological aberrations, opened up an insular canon, exhumed repressed voices and forgotten histories, and demonstrated the complicity of the liberal-humanist tradition with the worst of Western Civilization, what next? The digital humanities, new formalism, surface and distant reading, new materialisms, and the self-proclaimed return to aesthetics represent some of the new critical fashions competing to carry the baton for literary studies into the twenty-first century. They promise relevance, innovation, a renewed political urgency, the ability to overcome common impediments such as the critic’s fallible subjectivity, and different ways of “reading” that can yield new forms of historical and sociological knowledge. With a range of new methodologies from which to choose, what is left of what Di Leo calls “the modus operandi of the humanities,” namely, critique?

Invoking the essay “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?” by the French sociologist Bruno Latour, Di Leo argues that there is a frustration with “a mechanical form of critique that responds more or less the same way to any and all new events.” He thus poses the following questions to the volume’s contributors:

How do we engage criticism at a time when critique seems to have run its course? What does sustained theoretical research and discussion look like when the notion of critique is under attack? Might we be confronting an aesthetic, practical, philosophical, New Formalist, or New Critical emphasis on the literary text? What, if anything, is the political project of literary and cultural criticism after critique?

Di Leo’s concise introduction orients Criticism After Critique toward future generations who, he argues, “are just coming to critique [and] will do so in a less doctrinaire manner” than orthodox scholars of a “Baudrillardian, Foucaultian, or Jamesonian” persuasion. The eleven essays in the collection thus offer a diverse set of responses pithy in length but demanding in intellectual rigor. The range of figures they engage—Kant, Adorno, Žižek, Rancière, Derrida, and Foucault as well as Danto, Cavell, Rorty, Wittgenstein, and literary examples including Yeats, Morrison, Carson, and the Martinican novelist Patrick Chamoiseau—point to the numerous topics and subjects covered. It is the ability to cover a wide terrain without losing sight of the past, present, and future of critique that makes Di Leo’s collection an important intervention into what can only be described as the latest chapter in literary criticism’s perpetual crisis of self-identification.

Criticism After Critique is divided into three sections sandwiched between Di Leo’s introduction and an afterward by R. M. Berry. The first section, “Criticism, Judgment, and Value,” provides an overview of some of the central contexts leading scholars to question the value of critique. David Shumway’s opening essay offers a short genealogy of critique. Taking his starting point from Žižek’s critique of ideology critique, Shumway explores the Kantian origins of critique and traces its legacy through German Idealism, philology, and the rise of the New Criticism to highlight how the humanities continually reproduces oppositions such as “interpretation versus judgment…hermeneutics of suspicion versus the hermeneutics of recollections …the text as object of critique and the text as bearer of knowledge” that also ironically sustain it. Sue-Im Lee’s contribution contextualizes the disillusionment with critique by examining the relation between the surge of interest in neglected literature (e.g. writing by minorities and disenfranchised groups) and the decline of aesthetic judgments. By summoning Arthur Danto, Lee emphasizes the need to theorize a way of making value judgments that might complicate the familiar conflict between the academy’s democratization of literature and...


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pp. 14-15
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