- A Reply
My essay on “The Limits of Critique and the Affordances of Form” had its origin in a study group at the University of Freiburg in Germany in which we tried to get a sense of the current state of literary studies. Rita Felski’s The Limits of Critique (2015) and Caroline Levine’s Forms (2015) were the two books that impressed us the most, so much so, in fact, that I decided to have a second look at their arguments and their underlying premises. My subsequent readings confirmed a first impression that these books offered original and constructive contributions to current critical debates. Despite my critical comments on a number of issues, I still hold this view. My own essay has therefore been written with the purpose of clarification, not dismissal or rejection. That is why I am glad about the generous responses Felski and Levine have provided. As Leonard Cassuto puts it in his response, “[w]e can be grateful for their books” (293).
Nevertheless, disagreements remain. What is the most fitting term to describe the characteristic interpretive procedure of the hermeneutics of suspicion as we have encountered it over the last decades: suspicious readings or symptomatic readings? Felski is right in pointing out that the former term is the broader one. My preference for the latter may have something to do with the perspective of the field in which I am based, that of American studies, where symptomatic readings are by no means dated. On the contrary, despite variations, they are still a dominant paradigm. The reason is easy to grasp: as in the case of other nationally oriented literary studies, interpretations in American studies are not merely aiming at a formal or aesthetic dimension. They also want to understand these aspects as nationally meaningful, either as a significant part of the national narrative or as a wake-up call to revise it. For this, one has to be able to identify national constituents even in texts where they [End Page 296] seem to be absent. But I also doubt that symptomatic readings have gone out of fashion in other, not-nation-focused literary studies. The texts and authors I mention at the beginning of my essay as representative examples are still leading authorities in the field and have inspired innumerable publications that pursue the same projects and use the same method. It seems to me that by dismissing the term symptomatic so categorically, Felski is working against the relevance of her own argument.
Both, Felski and Levine, take their points of departure from a state of literary studies they find unsatisfactory. Both want to get beyond this state. That is why it seems fitting to focus on the narratives of liberation that they are offering. From what do they want to liberate literary studies? Felski protests against my use of the term routine because it is an honorable pragmatic term, but in the quotation from my essay that she supplies the key word is not “routine” but “stifling.” At another point I speak of a “stifling orthodoxy of thought” (231). The reading habits Felski discusses are not healthy habits in the sense of pragmatism but a form of interpretation that has become predictable and formulaic. The debate highlights a key difference in the analysis of the problem: Felski sees it in an intellectual style of detection that has become entrenched in literary studies; I see it in what detection almost always finds, an absent cause that constitutes and determines the literary text. By attributing the problem to a style of thought, a crucial question is left open: Are suspicious and/or symptomatic readings problematic because interpretation as detection often ends up reducing literary texts to deeper, absent causes or because they do so in a repetitive and formulaic manner?
In my discussion of Levine’s Forms, I certainly do not argue from a belief in the possibility of a freedom from forms. As Levine points out herself, one cannot avoid form, and it is one of the strengths of her book that she shows how all-pervasive forms are. Our disagreement lies in Levine’s starting point, her Foucauldian equation of form or...