- Has Postcritique Run Out of Steam?
"Has Postcritique Run Out of Steam?" Let me begin by noting the temporal assumptions and somewhat uncanny doublings of this question. When something "runs out of steam," we are at the end of it; thus if we answer our title question in the affirmative, we are about to be Post Postcritique. The assumptions behind declaring that postcritique has run out of steam are not unlike those behind declaring we are post-critique. The assumptions here are that ideas and stances have their moment and then are followed and replaced by the next moment, which is an antithesis. We might even call this an oedipal theory of ideas, as the new dethrones what had been reigning, usually by declaring it "out of steam" or otherwise lacking in phallic juice.
The temporality of our panel title assumes that critique and its antithesis belong to different moments of literary criticism, different moments of the literary academy. With the few minutes I have here, I would like to suggest another temporality, an alternative distribution of critique and its opposite.
For my purposes here, the "antithesis of critique" covers a range of practices from objective, scholarly analysis to enthusiastic advocacy. Historically, it would for example include both New Critical close reading and traditional, "old" literary history. The opposite of critique will here be called "appreciation," and I will mean "appreciation" to cover this whole range of literary critical practices. The difference between scholarly analysis and advocacy of literature hangs, I would say, on canonical status. One can simply do scholarly analysis on any work in the canon, and that analysis is an in-depth form of appreciation. With a work not yet canonized, however, advocacy is required in order to make the case that a work is worthy of consideration. The history of academic literary criticism is replete with examples of both analysis and advocacy, and I will here consider all of them as forms of "appreciation."
Assuming this broad sense of "appreciation," and taking it to cover all literary criticism that is not "critique," this evening I would like to suggest a different temporal distribution of critique and appreciation, a temporality different than the succession model found in our panel title. And I would like to do this by focusing on a particular type of critique, on what has been arguably the most effective type of critique in the history of the literary academy.
With my time here on this roundtable, I want to talk about academic feminist literary criticism. I want to look at its history, a history I have studied, a history which offers, I would suggest, a different temporality of critique and appreciation than that presupposed by our panel title, a less [End Page 533] oedipal temporality, one less based in thesis followed by antithesis. Before we look at the temporality of critique in feminist criticism, I want to explain why I think academic feminist criticism so worthy of our attention, even as we here want to ponder quite general questions of critique and its opposites.
Academic feminist criticism is unquestionably a form of critique: it has critiqued sexism in literature, sexism in literary criticism, the sexism of the literary canon; it is based in and part of a broad critique of the sexism of our culture. Beginning in the early 1970s, feminist criticism spoke from an outsider stance in the literary academy, and was generally dismissed by insiders. A mere decade later, "around 1981" (Gallop 2014), it was recognized and accepted as an insider to academic literary criticism, with its acceptance and status growing through the 1980s. As I look back at this history, it is absolutely stunning how quickly feminist criticism went from margin to center of our discipline.
While feminist criticism affected various aspects of the literary academy, its single greatest triumph has been the opening of the canon that took place during the 1980s, and continues to this day. When the canon opened, it was not just to include women authors but led to a larger opening out to include authors of different races, cultures, geographic locations, and genres. While a number of other types of critique played...