- “We Gotta Get Out of this Place”: Literary Criticism in the Academic WorkplaceA Response to Winfried Fluck
We gotta get out of this placeIf it’s the last thing we ever doThe Animals, “We Gotta Get Out of this Place”1
Rita Felski and Caroline Levine are critics driven by irritation of varying degrees. Felski is irritated that the hermeneutics of suspicion, “a style of interpretation driven by a spirit of disenchantment,” has dominated the critical enterprise for about 40 years (2, 3). Levine is irritated by the limitations of “politically minded ‘new formalisms’” of today’s literary studies (12). She sees emancipatory possibilities in their patterns and collisions. Winfried Fluck points out in his perceptive engagement with both of them that these critics are frustrated by power-minded critical regimes that have suppressed the possibilities of literature that may be released, in Levine’s words, “when forms meet” (8). Felski argues that the historical, contextual turn in literary criticism, once liberating, has become constraining, determinative, and even destructive. Now, she says, it’s time for something new—so let us go back to the literature with what we’ve learned from a long generation of historical reading, including (but not limited to) the fact that we’re contingent subjects reading contingent books. For Felski, this insight is afforded by the generation of theory that preceded it. The idea of “affording” is central to Levine’s argument that if we look at what forms are doing, we may perform [End Page 287] “emancipatory” readings. As Fluck and others point out, Levine might be said to be answering Felski’s call for more enchantment and less disenchantment.
Felski wants to elbow aside the combative method that produces readings that are always digging—digging for the best meaning or context, and (indirectly) digging at the work of art. Fluck demurs. To draw on my epigraph, if Felski is telling us that “we gotta get out of this place,” Fluck is answering: you didn’t. You’re still in combat with the system that you want to escape. But Felski’s first premise, that we’re stuck doing aggressive readings, remains a salient point, along with Levine’s that we can surpass the character of those readings if we exploit the affordances of forms. Literary critics are indeed combative and competitive in their interpretive work, and it’s a fair critical question to ask why this is so.
A first answer might be that we’re taught to read and critique that way. But why would suspicious reading win the competition with other “styles of thought,” to use Felski’s phrase? There are many plausible answers to that question, but the one I want to spotlight has to do with the workplace in which these readings take place. You can call this a context (for Felski, “the C-word” ). In particular, I want to pair Felski’s question (of why we’re stuck) with Fluck’s pertinent observation that such inquiries have “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” (229). In other words, we can ill afford to get stuck at a tough time like this.
It’s a hard world to get a break inAll the good things have been taken.The Animals, “It’s My Life”2
Following from Fluck’s emphasis, let’s begin with the fact that the critical hermeneutics of suspicion take place in a professional academic workplace that has norms, standards, and its own traditional culture. As in society at large, members of the academic workplace compete for limited resources. Most pertinently, the academic workplace has a current employment problem that dates back more than 40 years—approximately the same amount of time (a decade or so longer) that Felski says that suspicious reading has dominated our marketplace of ideas.
That employment problem will be familiar to readers of this journal because everyone who teaches in today’s academia went [End Page 288] through it. It’s not merely a tough job market. After all these years, we...