Intellectual History and the Postcritical Turn

9780226294032The “postcritical” is having a minor moment. The Chronicle Review just published a profile of Rita Felski, its leading advocate in literary studies (whose book on the “limits of critique” has been widely and positively reviewed); at the JHI blog, Daniel London has raised the question of what the postcritical has to offer to intellectual historians. To put it very briefly, Felski’s argument is that literature has been overtaken by a “hermeneutics of suspicion”—a “paranoid” conviction that the meaning of texts is hidden behind its explicit meanings—that has calcified into a pseudo-radical orthodoxy and precludes all other, “positive” approaches to literature.

The easiest and perhaps least useful thing one could do is to point out how familiar this line of argument is, how often variants of it have been voiced by disciplinary and political conservatives over the past three or four decades. But I want to propose an alternative interpretation of what is happening with the postcritical. This interpretation does not presume to expose what is “really” happening behind the explicit arguments of its proponents; it attempts simply to draw parallels between the announcement of the postcritical and other recent scholarly “turns.”

My interpretation is as follows: the postcritical is the latest instance of a scholarly phenomenon in which expansive constellations of philosophical ideas and methodological approaches are reduced and consolidated into a single object for the purposes of establishing a supersession narrative. An example of this is the history discipline’s consolidation of the “linguistic turn” as a discrete moment that has been surpassed, an operation Judith Surkis brilliantly narrated in the American Historical Review. It involves the creation of an object that did not exist previously—“critique,” the “linguistic turn”—by assigning an essential set of characteristics to ideas that were previously seen as heterogeneous. Reduced, consolidated, and homogenized, the new object is then easier to overcome, to set in a narrative of methodological supersession. The “turn” operation may be initiated for all sorts of reasons: diminishing returns of an overused set of techniques (which often implies their dilution and domestication), a perceived need to “rebrand” the humanities, or a desire to shift a field in a direction some of its participants find more congenial.

What is ‘Critique,’ Exactly?

The central contention of the postcritical discourse is a dominant orthodoxy called “Critique.” A back-of-the-napkin genealogy of this notion might point to Bruno Latour’s influential 2004 essay, “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?” What is most remarkable about this essay is the way that Latour proceeds without a definition, allowing the term “critique” to attach to an enormous variety of intellectual programs, from Kant to Pierre Bourdieu to Jean Baudrillard. Critique is then pathologized as a kind of individual scholarly performance that encompasses all efforts to look beneath the most obvious and intended meanings of texts, of ideology, of arguments, etc. “Critique” equals weapons of paranoid deconstruction aimed at what humanities scholars like and kept carefully away from their own sacred cows. “Antifetishists debunk objects they don’t believe in by showing the productive and projective forces of people; then, without ever making the connection, they use objects they do believe in to resort to the causalist or mechanist explanation and debunk conscious capacities of people whose behavior they don’t approve of” (p. 241).

Felski continues the consolidation move in this 2012 essay, where she outlines the “five characteristics of critique.” Once again, the definition of critique is exceptionally vague and all-encompassing:

An unusually powerful, flexible and charismatic idea, it has rendered itself ubiquitous and indispensable in literary and cultural studies. Critique is widely seen as synonymous with intellectual rigor, theoretical sophistication, and intransigent opposition to the status quo. Drawing a sense of intellectual weightiness from its connections to the canonical tradition of Kant and Marx, it has managed, nonetheless, to retain a cutting-edge sensibility, retooling itself to fit the needs of new fields ranging from postcolonial theory to disability studies. Critique is contagious and charismatic, drawing everything around it into its field of force, marking the boundaries of what counts as serious thought.

The five characteristics of critique, Felski continues, are negativity (“characterized by its ‘againstness’”); secondaryness (“does its thinking by responding to the thinking of others”); intellectualism (“interested in big pictures, cultural frameworks, underlying schema,” vs. everyday practices and common sense); marginality (“it rails against authority”); and intolerance (“it insists that those who do not embrace its tenets must be denying or disavowing them”).

Given my relative unfamiliarity with literary studies, it is, of course, possible that an ethos of paranoid negativity and highly politicized readings dominate English and terrorize those who want to focus on enjoyment and other subjective experiences of reading. But Felski appears to be describing the personality of the occasional paranoid, sociopathic scholar rather than the modalities of critical reading. First, it is a gross and misleading simplification to claim, as Latour and Felski do, that critical or suspicious are unaware of the possibility of critical tools being applied to their own commitments. Second, historical studies, whether in literature or history, are by definition interested in “big pictures” and “cultural frameworks.” Third, critical reading is less about positioning oneself “against” than about opening up, illuminating both the intended meaning and its ability to animate surrounding texts and contexts. Fourth, in my experience, this is often—perhaps usually—done with good deal of sympathy for the authors and texts in question. What exactly, then, is Felski referring to when she speaks of critical austerity, banishing any hint of the human and the positive? Does “critique” in this sense really exist?

Some English scholars in the Chronicle have similar doubts:

Felski also makes critique seem more dominant than it is, says another skeptic, Lee Konstantinou, an assistant professor of English at the University of Maryland at College Park. “It might be that I just went to graduate school at a different time”—Konstantinou earned his Ph.D. in 2009, while Felski got hers in 1987—“but I was not told that the only valuable thing that I could be doing as a literary critic would be to debunk or expose the disavowed meanings hidden within literary texts,” he says. As a doctoral student at Stanford, he learned to think of himself as a scholar engaged in literary and cultural history — a practice that, while it did involve critiquing, also put a premium on visiting archives and documenting the past. “The picture of criticism that these post-critics create seems a little bit reductive,” he says, adding, “Literary critics are not handcuffed to the project of critique.”

Perhaps a shift toward the history discipline can illustrate the roots of my skepticism. History was more successfully resistant to the imported philosophical ideas associated with the American humanities between 1970 and 2000, and thus had even less of an excuse to complain about a dominance of “theory” (the previously consolidated object that has now been re-named “critique.”) Nevertheless, complaints about theory abounded, and the effort to keep the car firmly on the road of straightforward empiricism and “telling the truth about history” were always strong.

Despite the efforts of European intellectual historians and some superficial appropriations of “theory” in cultural history, historians remained largely philosophically illiterate. And yet, despite the real marginality and dilution of philosophical ideas in history, they could still be constructed into a powerful methodological villain that was eviscerating the “real” business of history, i.e., discovering empirical facts about the past. This narrative succeeded by mobilizing narratives of “theory” as nihilistic, destructive, and negative, the opposite of history’s more positive, constructive role. It was also performed by consolidating a range of diverse, incompatible approaches into a single object—in history, a “linguistic turn”—that further methodological “turns” could then simply consign to the past as if by a natural movement. As Surkis argues, this operation “forecloses these critical possibilities rather than creating new horizons” and “implicitly consigns still-vibrant analytic resources to a periodized posterity and politically compromised epistemology.”

“Postcriticism” seems like exactly this sort of consolidation, consignation, and foreclosure. The positive side of its efforts may be entirely admirable—a desire to explore the subjective experience of reading, of identity-formation through literature, etc. Felski and others are not wrong to argue that these endeavors are perfectly compatible with progressive scholarship and pedagogy, and that particular theoretical enterprises should not be sacralized as “good” politics. The members of the Frankfurt School, the poststructuralists, and almost all other European thinkers would agree that recognizing some books as more important than others is a necessity of intellectual culture and scholarship. But I suspect the other approaches Felski champions have always been a part of literary scholarship and pedagogy; if they need re-iteration, it should be on their own terms, rather than against an imaginary object—“critique”—that codes a diverse range of analytical techniques as negative, paranoid, destructive, and passé. It is an unnecessary foreclosure that has the ring of cheaply-acquired hype common to declarations of methodological “turns.”

Intellectual History and the Interrogation of “Turns”

What, then, should the stance of intellectual history be toward the postcritical? I agree with Daniel London that intellectual historians have not engaged in sort of “critique” Felski describes, partly because I doubt that it is a real phenomenon. Critical reading is a core practice of intellectual history, where it functions—like I imagine it does elsewhere—mostly the way it should: as essential to understanding both the author’s intent and as part of historical explanation more broadly. A few outliers aside, intellectual history as it currently stands remains fairly allergic to prosecutorial or paranoid reading, having carefully earned its ability to handle explosive and politically-compromised texts with rigor and responsibility.

One of the most common jobs of intellectual historians is excavating, de-sedimenting, and untangling the de facto narratives—along with the hagiographic and the paranoid narratives—of the intellectual past. Over the past several decades, this task has often spilled over into “history of the present,” with intellectual historians serving as “methodological consultants”—some would say “gadflies”—for a historical profession that insistently neglects the philosophical education of its members. As methodological consultants familiar with the theoretical underpinnings of what bubbles up into methodological debates, intellectual historians can indicate the presence of poorly-posed questions, false problems, and uncomprehending repetitions. This task strikes me as increasingly important in an era when the pace of scholarship and the demands of corporate higher education are driving an even more rapid succession of methodological turns and claims to novelty.

Intellectual historians should of course read the work of literary scholars like Sedgwick and Felski—not to mention someone as broadly influential as Latour—for the insights and intellectual discovery that they may offer. But they should also refuse to participate in any scholar’s self-serving claims of novelty and intellectual revolution, and should insist that such scholars win their credibility by argument rather than by savvy branding and large grants. I take Bruno Latour, for example, as a serious philosophical interlocutor, but my training as an intellectual historian leaves me unmoved by his often grandiose claims to have overturned Kantian philosophy and rendered most social theory obsolete. In interacting with postcritical discourse, intellectual historians should be open to genuine insight and skeptical of hazy interpretive moves that would render large swaths of the philosophical canon superseded and inoperable. And while we should resist facile links between methodologies and politics, we should not shy from interrogating methodological novelty in relation to the broader intellectual situation, and doing our best not to gravitate toward approaches that mirror and tacitly ratify cultural ideologies that should be subjected to criticism.

Update: This post by Scott Selisker on Felski’s book, which one would need to consider to do full justice to her argument, is worth reading as a companion to my less-informed account. I also enjoyed this one by Lee Konstantinou.


One comment

  1. “The members of the Frankfurt School, the poststructuralists, and almost all other European thinkers would agree that recognizing some books as more important than others is a necessity of intellectual culture and scholarship.” Indeed so. Alas, a lot of the so-called intellectual historians over at the US intellectual history blog missed the memo:

    Liked by 1 person

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