- The Practices of Hope: Literary Criticism in Disenchanted Times by Christopher Castiglia
According to Christopher Castiglia, we in literary studies have become experts at critiquing and deconstructing everything that stands in our path. This widespread attitude of vigilant suspicion has, however, tended to encourage both a neglect of the things which move and inspire us and a reluctance to articulate the sources of our hope, including our hope for a fairer and more just society. To this extent, Castiglia's study chimes with arguments made in recent years by Rita Felski (mentioned in the book's acknowledgements), Bruno Latour (referenced throughout), and, in a somewhat different register, Eve Sedgwick (also referenced). The originality of Castiglia's work lies in its application of this line of thought to American studies and to mid-twentieth-century American criticism and politics in particular.
As Castiglia makes clear in his Introduction, his reservations about the dominance of critique as an approach in literary studies ought not to be taken as an opposition to critique as such. Castiglia is well aware that there is much in America's past and present that clearly demonstrates "the need for critique of an unjust world" (1). His contention is rather that when critics come to inhabit this mode to the exclusion of all others, literary studies risks forgetting what Castiglia, drawing on the work of Jane Bennett, calls "the replenishing experiences of wonder that make the world worth fighting for and encourage resilience when those struggles seem overwhelming" (1). It is this undue emphasis on critique, he claims, that has resulted in the disenchanted stance of much academic criticism today. Castiglia then discusses what he deems the "most exasperating" [End Page 855] form of such an overemphasis, an ultrasuspicious approach to the reading of literature which he suggests is the result of the overprofessionalization of the discipline (2). In this version, "a tone of self-congratulatory indignation is taken as the sign of critical acuity and topical relevance imagined to be requisite for publication, job placement, and academic advancement" (2). It is this kind of critique which, it is argued, has done most to provoke the responses of Felski, Latour, Sedgwick, et al. Castiglia goes on to make a persuasive case that critique in this vein is, in fact, the belated offspring of an earlier form that arose during the Cold War. Critics of those decades inherited a "paranoid" epistemology that was a distinctive product of that period in American public life. In attempting to maintain the latter well beyond the Cold War's end, however, contemporary critics are finding that critique has, in Latour's much-cited formulation, "run out of steam," with clear signs that its "conservative methodology and progressive content [are] at cross-purposes" (2).
As Castiglia rightly notes, however, the fact that an approach has been misused is no argument, by itself, for its abandonment (2). Far from wanting to abandon critique altogether, he calls for a more capacious mode of critique, one that would make room for hope as well as suspicion. As developed here, this mode centers on two key terms: imagination and idealism—terms that, Castiglia grants, "may seem naive or old-fashioned but which are essential to making criticism more than a disenchantment tale" (2). This latter point is closely connected with one of the book's main contentions, namely that "every critique is a determined affirmation, an inverted expression of idealism. In offering critiques, we measure the present or the past against ideals, in comparison to which what is or has been seems inadequate and unjust. Without ideals, there would be no critique" (2–3). Castiglia holds that all critique has idealism as its core, whether it knows it or not. An alternative form of critique, then, would be one in which critics would be more aware of the ideals informing their work and would make these explicit in their critical practice.
Idealism must be accompanied by imagination, however. One of the regrettable tendencies of critique...