- The Limits of Critique and the Affordances of Form: Literary Studies after the Hermeneutics of Suspicion
In the heyday of “Theory” in literary studies, the field’s high intellectual status (and heroic self-conception) was grounded in the grand project of both unmasking the hidden political, ideological, and cultural constituents of literary texts and looking for remaining possibilities of agency and resistance. Today, the question is whether and for how long literary studies should continue this project.1 If not, what could be the possible alternatives? The question has gained a new urgency in a period of declining student enrollments, depleted funding of higher education, erosion of public support for the humanities, and a loss of disciplinary standing. In this context, Rita Felski’s book The Limits of Critique, published in 2015, has been a wake-up call. For Felski, “literary studies find themselves in the throes of a legitimation crisis, casting about for ways to justify their existence. Why, after all, should anyone care about literature?” (14). For Felski, the starting question of literary studies should be why literature still matters.
In this debate, critique has emerged as an umbrella term to describe a number of approaches that pursue projects of critical unmasking. The term seems to have been made popular by Bruno Latour’s Critical Inquiry essay “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam?” While Latour uses the term as synonymous with critical thinking in general, Felski has reappropriated it to describe what she calls “suspicious readings,” that is, readings of literary texts based on a hermeneutics of suspicion. These readings focus on textual symptoms of underlying determining causes that are not openly [End Page 229] acknowledged in the text, but shape it decisively and can therefore be considered its actual constituent of meaning and significance. Such absent causes can be capitalism, imperialism, colonialism, white supremacy, or heteronormativity, to name only the most frequent current references. Critical studies that have often been mentioned in this context are Fredric Jameson’s The Political Unconscious (1981), Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet (1990), Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark (1992), and Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism (1993). From an American studies perspective, one may add Amy Kaplan’s The Anarchy of Empire in the Making of U.S. Culture (2002) as a representative example. But those are only some of the best-known manifestations of a mode of reading that began to replace formalism in the wake of the 1960s and has dominated literary studies ever since. Felski calls them suspicious readings; however, insofar as these readings are not merely driven by suspicion, but already know what they are looking for, namely symptoms of an absent cause that is well known, “symptomatic readings” may be even more fitting.2
At present, Felski may well be the strongest voice of a postcritique movement, but its membership appears to be growing and has produced several important contributions. With a special issue of Representations on “Surface Reading,” Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus have set up a programmatic alternative to symptomatic readings.3 Felski and Best/Marcus refer to Sedgwick and her shift from “paranoid reading” to “reparative reading” as an important inspiration. In a recently published volume, Critique and Postcritique (2017), edited by Elizabeth Anker and Felski, authors as diverse as Toril Moi, Heather Love, Christopher Castiglia, and Russ Castronovo in their position and approach, take the challenge to go beyond critique as their common starting point for the development of a postcritique agenda.
Yet one should not restrict a growing dissatisfaction with the current state of literary studies to this group. There are at least three other groups that should be mentioned in this context. One consists of critics who are wondering what has happened to aesthetics in symptomatic readings—a dissatisfaction with the diminished role of the aesthetic in today’s literary studies that seems to resurface at certain intervals.4 There is also a growing number of scholars who may be characterized as a “What’s Happened to the Humanities” group, as exemplified in an essay collection from 1997 with the same title edited by Alvin Kernan but also in essays by...