- Steel TrapsA Response to Winfried Fluck
In “The Limits of Critique and the Affordances of Form: Literary Studies after the Hermeneutics of Suspicion,” Winfried Fluck offers an argument with engaging critical verve and all the incisiveness of a steel trap. Demonstrating with elegant force that even as some of the most skilled critics in our field envisage alternatives to methods that “focus on textual symptoms of underlying determining causes” (methods alternately labeled “critique,” “suspicious reading,” and “symptomatic reading”) (229), we remain collectively in thrall to a “Nietzschean philosophy of history, called genealogy, that sees only one driving force at work in history, namely an endless play of dominations” (246). Critique, postcritique, the practice of hope—whatever our flavor, Fluck argues, it’s domination (not turtles after all), all the way down.
It’s hard to argue with this. As a field, we don’t put much stock in individual or even collective agency, while believing ardently in the enormity and ubiquity of the forces arrayed against human actors. And despite our commitment to historical analysis, we no longer much believe in historical progress, nor hardly change—and certainly not the emancipatory kind. Fluck observes that the major schools of method and theory since the nineteenth century, which converged in their critique of modernity, all positioned literature as our savior from modernity’s “collateral damages.” Since the 1960s, though, critical theory has undermined our confidence in literary redemption. Now literature, when we turn our attention toward it, is alternately a map to, or index for, or a symptom of, domination. And while postcritique aims to revive our (and students’) interest in literature by offering different methods that promise new “stories of [End Page 272] liberation,” the liberation on offer is occasional and random at best. Never an overturning or an overcoming, but a moment: an arousal, a surprise, an unexpected respite, a temporary destabilization.
Fluck’s conclusion, however, calling on us to think beyond method by critically reevaluating the historical philosophy and aims on which our methods are based, quite literally does not offer us that path forward. He shows us the walls of the iron cage, suggesting we evacuate, without giving us a single clue about how we get out. Perhaps he imagines leaving readers to their critical devices, sleuthing for evidence of what he might consider it would mean to think beyond or without the box of “endless domination” (246). Our automatic answer—freedom—is (he tells us this much) the wrong one: assumptions “about a condition of unfreedom and narratives of liberation are . . . inextricably intertwined. One defines the other” (245). (It’s true that steel traps are designed to keep you stuck.)
Fluck focuses on the critical rejection of subject agency that unifies our disparate field. With entirely different projects, Rita Felski and Caroline Levine (and, it would seem, the other postcritique contributors whom Fluck names in the beginning of his article) converge in their inability to undermine critical consensus on the “decentered subject.” For Felski, the agency on offer is both partial and unpredictable, not about “control,” but instead “below the level of intentionality” (Fluck 235). In Fluck’s reading of Felski, the only form of agency available comes in the critic’s explanatory mastery. It is the chokehold of this precise form of agency—agency as critical mastery—that, Fluck seems to suggest, gives the lie to the postcritique alternatives even as they continue killing the literature they professedly aim to revive. As he concludes about Felski’s stated aim to empower readers with a revitalized way to relate to literature, “the interpreter tells the reader’s story” and in so doing, decides “what to include as significant or to exclude as insignificant” (emphasis added). Despite her promises, Felski liberates neither literature nor reader into new agency: rather both are “cast in a role that an interpreter has scripted” (235). Similarly, Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus’s apparent claim to attend to texts as actors via “surface reading” rejects any real agency for the text, except through an evasion of instrumentalization. And finally, he critiques Levine’s post-Foucauldian embrace of a chaotic, contingent world full of opportunities for political action...