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  • The Paranoid Style in Postcritique
  • Frida Beckman (bio)


From the 1990s and onwards, scattered signs of the decline of the heyday of theory in academic departments gradually formed enough coherence for some to call it a state of "post-theory," "after theory," "beyond theory," "death of theory," and various designations of that kind. Indeed, we are so beyond that decline now that even these "posts" and "afters" and "beyonds" and "deaths" seem rather unfashionable. In recent years, we have also, increasingly many argue, not just moved beyond theory but also beyond critique. There is a much longer history of the possibility and the crisis of critique, reaching back, ultimately to Kant and the dawn of modern critique, but also to Matthew Arnold, through Walter Benjamin and Theodor W. Adorno. In this article, however, I will pay attention mostly to the joint effort of its most recent trend, which is essentially the pronounced need to revisit, reconsider, and perhaps also reject, modes of critique and ways of reading as they have been practiced, primarily in humanities departments, over the past few decades.

The trend can be said to consist of two main strands. To begin with, we have what some see as a new crisis in critique as it has been identified, in quite different ways, by theorists such as Bruno Latour as well as by for example Antonio Negri and Jeffrey T. Nealon (and myself, see Beckman 2016). This crisis is characterized by a deep uncertainty about what use our critical tools can have in relation to the contemporary political landscape. In different ways, what is expressed is a sense in which critique has been consumed and perhaps even been put to work by the forces it was once trying to resist. The second strand of the current revaluation of critique has a stronger link to literary studies and includes focus on reading practices other than the kind of symptomatic- or suspicious reading associated with theory. This strand is often seen as kindled by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's revaluation of her own "paranoid" reading practices in the late 1990s. Since then, we have seen an intensifying inclination to propose "new" ways of reading. "The [End Page 37] way we read now," as Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus called a special issue of Representations in 2009, are many, and apart from Best and Marcus' own "surface reading," other proposed ways of reading now include for example reparative reading, generous reading, and distant reading. To date, the most consistent reassessment of critique as a reading practice emerges from what Rita Felski and Elizabeth S. Anker call "postcritique."

Where the crisis in critique as represented by Latour may be seen as a crisis brought on by the suspicious linkage between theory and politics in the present, I would identify as a key characteristic of the postcritique Anker and Felski represent the very questioning of theory's impact on the world and, indeed, the questioning of the usefulness and applicability of such larger political engagements in the first place. What we see, then, in this burgeoning attention to the role of critique in recent years is on the one hand a concern about the unquestionably significant, but also decidedly detrimental, role that critique is seen to play in the hands of contemporary politics and culture and on the other, the sense in which critique has or should be made redundant, that is, that it is fundamentally ill-equipped to deal with the present.

This article reads these two strands of the postcritical turn not just as an "ominous sign of defeatism" and as an example of "a failure of nerve on the part of intellectuals who are no longer prepared to embrace the role of gadflies and oppositional figures" (Felski and Anker 2017, 18) but as an even more worrying sign of the way in which neoliberal practices and control mechanisms are influencing critical thinking. As such, it will trace, not only how postcritique fails to escape the logic and pattern it aims to move away from, something Eric Hayot has already shown (2017, 287), but also how it gets caught up in a paranoid style that is particularly associated with structures of...


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