The Limits of Critique
by rita felski
university of chicago press, 232 pages, $22.50
“That thing that you like is actually bad.” This, more or less, is the central thesis of countless articles on subjects ranging from Taylor Swift’s “squad” to the movie Love Actually to Pope Francis’s latest notable public gesture. Sure (the argument goes), these things might initially seem to be good—promising new possibilities for friendship, romantic comedy, or mercy (respectively)—but the cool demystifying critic refuses to be taken in by their shiny appeal. Each winds up confined to a half-lit shadow world named by the newly popular term “problematic”: not flagrantly bad or offensive, but certainly not unimpeachably good. This tendency can be found at all points of the political and theological spectrum. But whence comes this at times relentless drive to unmask, uncover, and insist on the seamy underside of nearly everything that seems worthy of regard?
A new book by the literary critic Rita Felski helps explain this phenomenon. For Felski, a habit of “suspicious reading” has overrun literature departments, crowding out all other orientations toward the things that we love. She does not argue that this technique is bad or misguided, or even that it necessarily leads to false conclusions. She seeks instead to show—through careful description of its characteristic methods and moods—the “limits of critique.” Most importantly, critique is unable to explain or acknowledge why (or sometimes even that) we love what we love.
Felski thus joins a long line of critics of critical thinking. In the mid-twentieth century, Hans-Georg Gadamer argued against the “prejudice against prejudice,” and Michael Polanyi insisted on our necessary dependence upon inarticulable “tacit knowledge.” More recently, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, arguably the founder of queer theory, questioned the field’s nearly exclusive commitment to unmasking the workings of power—a tendency she dubbed “paranoid reading.”
Set in this context, Felski’s argument that there are “limits of critique” is itself unoriginal. Yet the book has been enormously successful within the academy. At the latest convention of the Modern Language Association (the primary meeting ground for English professors) the book was mentioned repeatedly, often with the sense that it best describes “what we’re doing wrong and how we might do it differently.”
In other words, The Limits of Critique has struck a nerve. The book’s success in garnering a hearing (along with a host of friends and enemies) derives primarily from two features: its acute grasp of intellectuals’ psychology, and its demonstrated appreciation for the gains and achievements produced by the family of techniques, moods, and intellectual moves that Felski gathers under the term “critique.”
When Felski argues that critique is “limited,” she means that literary scholars have for too long assumed that the only intellectually respectable stance toward our texts is one of guarded defense, grim paranoia, and suspicion. In this mode, for example, Dickens’s representation of multiple classes in his fiction demonstrates not a capacious social conscience but the Victorian novel’s sinister implication in emerging and expanding techniques of surveillance and control of the lower orders. And so on.
As several of her readers have noted, Felski slightly overstates her case. In order to make her point, she posits a unified organism named “critique” that is in truth less dominant or coherent than her argument lets on. In my own experience in three very different graduate programs in English, for example, the actual practice of teaching literature to undergraduate and graduate students is more varied and interesting than her book at times implies.
But even if critique is less dominant than Felski intimates, its reach far exceeds departments of literature. As a mode of thinking and orientation toward all kinds of non-literary phenomena, critique today is ubiquitous, finding a home in both the left and the right. Even in this magazine: The argument that “Gay marriage might look like liberation for an oppressed minority but is actually an attack by the rich on the poor” is a textbook instance of “critique.” No matter what you think about the cogency of this argument, it undeniably gains some of its bite from its ingenuity, its counterintuitive surprise, and its claim to expose the covert workings of power.
Much of critique’s persuasive force, as Felski emphasizes, stems from its “aura of rigor and probity that burnishes its dissident stance with a normative glow.” (In the terms of Aristotle’s Rhetoric, it depends as much on ethical appeal as on logical appeal.) Felski is at her best in her explorations of the psyche of critique’s practitioner—who can, at any moment, be any of us. For Felski, the stance of critique can provide its own half-recognized pleasures, stemming from the critic’s feelings of intellectual superiority and her refusal to be duped. Critique is therefore not a just a technique or a tool that one might pick up or put down, like a fork or a screwdriver. Critique should also be understood, she writes, as an “overall intellectual mood and disposition.” Its practitioner at once resembles the detective who “digs down”—bringing to light what others were too weak, craven, or fearful to ferret out—and the dandy, who “stands back,” too cool to “like” the books he reads.
The detective and the aesthete are united in their shared stance of detachment. They decline to engage or be implicated in what they are assessing. (You’ll surely have noticed by now that my own stance in this review is often that of the aesthete, which creates its own problems.) Felski’s assessment of the profession of literary studies, however, succeeds precisely because she refuses either of these positions. She demonstrates the difference between critiquing from within and from without. This is the difference between pointing to something wrong “over there” and owning up to one’s complicity in what is deficient. This is also the difference between telling your roommate that your apartment is dirty and pointing out her filthy stove to your mother-in-law. The first might lead to persuasion and ameliorative action; the second will just make her dislike you.
Too often, this is a lesson that the conservative critics of the academy whom I grew up reading failed to learn (think Allan Bloom and Roger Kimball). Spot-on observations about deficiencies in the intellectual life of the humanities frequently arrived from a consciously outsider position, earning them only dismissal (they are rhetorically ineffectual) and disdain (because they seem more like an attack on an entire community than an attempt to benefit that community). Critique too often takes this position. Always “distancing, deflating, and diagnosing,” critique claims to speak from a disengaged elsewhere.
Yet Felski is an undeniable member in good standing of her guild: the editor of the journal New Literary History, the author of multiple books on feminist theory and Victorian literature, and professor of English at the University of Virginia. She attends conferences and (remarkably, for a humanities professor) earns lucrative grants. In short, she is in constant conversation and contact with those whose approaches she criticizes. Her importance in the field, in fact, points toward a sometimes little-understood fact about literary studies: that far from a dreary monoculture, the field harbors deep disagreements over the aims, methods, and content of what and how one should teach.
Felski consciously positions herself within these debates. Though pointing toward the limitations of critique’s relentlessly suspicious unmasking, she is unwilling to join the call of some within the profession to narrow one’s focus to aesthetic or formal questions. Instead, Felski suggests an increased attention toward why and how people love the artworks that they do. “Experiences of engagement, wonder, or absorption,” she writes, should be treated “not as signs of naiveté or user error but as clues to why we are drawn to art in the first place.”
Felski shows that an exclusive commitment to critique can actually preclude recognition of one’s loves, of those things to which one is erotically attached (in the broadest sense of the term). “Why,” she asks, “are we so hyperarticulate about our adversaries and so excruciatingly tongue-tied about our loves?”
There is an admirable humility here, one that takes seriously the experiences of the person sometimes condescendingly called the “common reader”: someone like yourself, when you read for no other reason than because you like to. These readers find themselves drawn into the works of Tolkien, or Austen, or David Foster Wallace, or Anne Tyler, or Eugene Vodolazkin, or whomever not because they want to diagnose something that is wrong with these books, but because they offer an experience of . . . well, something that seems inchoately but truly worthwhile and pleasurable.
Felski asks what might happen if we looked not “behind the text” but “in front of the text, reflecting on what it unfurls, calls forth, makes possible.” In doing so, she seeks to rehabilitate the validity and importance of what we might call “literary desire”: the force that drives you to reread your favorite book yet again; or to finish that work of genre fiction even when you know the ending; or to press a beloved book awkwardly into a distant acquaintance’s hands in hopes that she, too, will come to love what you love and might one day talk with you about it.
Understanding these actions would also involve acknowledging what Felski terms “the text’s status as coactor: as something that . . . makes things happen.” Her own book thus calls us to take our texts, ourselves, and our experiences seriously. She and I share a hunch: that studying why and how we love what we love might tell us something worthwhile about our world, ourselves, and the objects of our desire.
Michael West is a Ph.D. candidate in English at Columbia University.