- Race in the Crucible of Literary DebateA Response to Winfried Fluck
In “The Limits of Critique and the Affordances of Form: Literary Studies after the Hermeneutics of Suspicion,” Winfried Fluck helpfully questions the “value assumptions and tacit normative principles” underlying Caroline Levine’s Forms (2015) and Rita Felski’s The Limits of Critique (2015). As Fluck notes, discussions of these books have mainly focused on “how convincing these approaches are as new methods of interpretation” (231). Instead, through detailing Felski’s and Levine’s investments in freeing the reader toward new attachments and affects (Felski) and foregrounding the collisions of literary and social forms (Levine), Fluck identifies a shared principle across these projects:
Both want to get out of narratives of determination but for different reasons: While Felski wants to revitalize our encounter with literature by liberating it from the stranglehold of formulaic readings, Levine rejects single-factor analysis for political reasons. She wants to arrive at a better kind of politics, one that is open to pursue a range of potentialities, both in the reading of literary texts and in political action.(241)
I find Fluck’s questioning of normative principles extremely important as a pause for reflection, and I continue in this vein by analyzing the implications of Felski and Levine’s shared antagonist and protagonist. If they have a shared antagonist in “narratives of determination,” as Fluck identifies, I would add that they also have a shared protagonist. Both of their correctives utilize Bruno Latour’s Actor–Network [End Page 260] Theory (ANT) in order to reformulate an understanding of the “social” that undergirds Levine’s “social forms” (19) and Felski’s formulation of artworks’ “sociability” (176).
To synthesize my conclusions up front: one, the respective ideas of the “social” developed in Levine and Felski via Latour do not understand that being made not to act constitute social processes just as much as being made to act. I develop a linkage not made between Gabriel Tarde (whom Latour has named his predecessor) and W. E. B. Du Bois to provide an understanding of the social attentive to this dynamic and argue that we get a completely different picture of determination, action, and inaction as a result. Two, the characterization of “narratives of determination” in Fluck, Levine, and Felski as explanations based on “single-factor analysis” (Fluck 241), a “focus on ultimate causality” (Levine 17), or “trac[ing] textual meaning back to an opaque and all-determining power” is a description that disavows protocols of reading often categorized within race and ethnic literary studies that are multiply attuned to racialized and gendered realities (Felski 152). Part of the problem is the listing and compartmentalization of race, gender, class, and queer critique and the authors’ reproduction of these schemes under the umbrella of “determination” or “causality” against which they pose their models. Both Felski’s and Levine’s understandings of the “social” and of “determinisms” suffer from not taking on insights from the traditions of race and ethnic literary studies and the possibilities for thinking literary and social relations articulated there. Moreover, a critique of their understandings from this vantage point suggests the way in which their antideterministic stances feed into anticollectivist visions of social, political, and economic struggle. I turn in the end to Fluck’s central diagnosis, which argues that Felski’s and Levine’s antideterminisms depend on “[a]ssumptions about a condition of unfreedom and narratives of liberation” (244–45). But Fluck’s brief genealogy of these narratives of unfreedom does not consider the lines of thought that I locate in Du Bois and others. By considering alternate genealogies, we start from a richer understanding of determinisms and are better able to think about collectivist social struggle.
One strain connecting Felski’s and Levine’s proposals for rethinking literary-critical assumptions relating literature and the social is Latour’s ANT. For Levine, Latour is crucial for anchoring her critique of causality:
Networks are useful . . . because they allow us to refuse metaphysical assumptions about causality in favor of observing linkages between objects, bodies, and discourses. Latour asks us simply to notice points of contact between actors as well as the routes actors...