- A Distinctive Alternative to Ideological Critique
BASED ON FOUR LECTURES at Oxford University in 2015, Amanda Anderson's brief but trenchant book concerning her distinctive alternative to ideological critique in literary studies deserves the attention of anyone who has been following the debates about literature and the hermeneutics of suspicion. For those who have not been attending to the discussions closely, the book can serve as an accessible primer that characterizes and comments on influential work by Rita Felski, Caroline Levine, Franco Moretti, Lisa Zunshine, Jane Bennett, Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus, Lee Edelman, Ray Brassier, and others (in Chapter 3 but also intermittently throughout). Anderson provides essential references regarding the new formalism, distant and surface reading, cognitive science in literary studies, and other recent directions as she projects her own alternative. She makes the case remarkably concisely that all these other directions have slighted literature's moral dimension, while allowing that thinkers such as Stanley Cavell have recognized its importance. Rejecting negative critique, she proposes a kind of interpretation that she claims can be culturally critical without being suspicious, one that combines aspects of non-Freudian psychoanalytic theory, specifically British object relations theory as D. W. Winnicott developed it, with Juergen Habermas's communicative ethics. Anderson provides an example of the interpretive results in her comments on Middlemarch in Chapter 3, which is physically and substantively the central segment of the volume's five parts.
The book consists of an introduction and four chapters that treat in turn the neglect of morality in the psychological perspectives that according to Anderson inform a great deal of literary interpretation; the nature and significance of slow, moral time; the tragic and the ordinary in Middlemarch; and actual and potential relations between literary interpretation and the human sciences. The introduction comments on Kant's and Aristotle's low standing and negligible influence in contemporary literary interpretation as an aspect of the pervasive tendency to [End Page 454] treat morality with evasion and suspicion rather than accepting moral development and moral norms as central to literary interpretation. She traces the critique of morality back to Wilde and Nietzsche but emphasizes the anti-moral assumptions of Freudian psychoanalysis as pervading cultural criticism, literary criticism, and a great deal of post-Freudian psychoanalytic thinking. Anderson argues as well for a continuity of disregard about morality between Freudian perspectives and the attitude of cognitive science, with its emphases on punctual time and fast time—on immediate response rather than rumination—and its isolating of thinking from the context of ordinary life. Kant's insistence on morality's primacy is central for her exploring "the force of our interest in moral experience, and the complexity of moral experience as it is lived in time" (9). Because she has mentioned Habermas, "interest" has a significant allusive ring, implicitly evoking Habermas's early work on human interests of knowledge, that is, on the persistent motivations for knowing that characterize human thought and action. On the introduction's last page Anderson expresses her investment in normative commitment and value in "relation to lived experience … both individual and social," while pointing the book's direction in its closing toward considering the humanities' current situation. Anderson seeks to formulate interpretive perspectives to do justice to literature's presentation of the full range of moral experience, but this ambitious book's perspective shifts toward the end to include relations among the disciplines and with the public.
Chapter 1, "Psychology contra Morality," describes the challenge that psychology, including evolutionary psychology, and cognitive science pose to traditions associated with Aristotle, Kant, reason, and autonomy, despite the fact that, according to Anderson, moral concerns persist implicitly in cognitive science's responses to literature. In particular the concept of character has come under pressure intellectually in ways that Anderson sees reflected in the determinism of literary naturalism and in fluid or fragmented identities in modernist and postmodernist writing. By character, Anderson means not just the representation of individuals in literature but also distinctive mental and moral qualities. That is evident from her emphasis on "integrity...