January 17, 2021

Fighting Words

By Cord Brooks WHAT DO CRITICS talk about when they talk about critique? Each other, mostly.
This was Laura Wilder’s conclusion when, back in 2005, she conducted a study surveying the discourse of literary criticism. Wilder sampled articles from the likes of Critical Inquiry, Novel, and New Literary History — frontrunners in the turn toward theory — in order to rhetorically assess what literary critics were saying to and about each other in these venues. What she found, though, was less a culture of consensus than of umbrage and rivalry, with 86 percent of the articles sampled employing the same formula: “the mistaken critic topos.” This is the phrase that Wilder uses to describe a tendency by which critics appear less interested in a text or literary object than in “the critical discourse surrounding the text and its affinity with the evaluative stasis.” In other words, Wilder saw these literary critics as being more interested in each other than in the traditional work of criticism, which was supposed to center on the explanation of how texts work, mean, signify, or matter. At the same time, though, Wilder observed that critics were quick to assess their peers’ faults via the rubric of explanation. The point of critique, it seemed, was not about explaining but about calling out others’ failures to do so.
In her newest work, Hooked: Art and Attachment, Rita Felski declares herself to be similarly uninterested in the work of explanation. This is a process that starts with questions: Felski launches a multifaceted inquiry into how and why audiences become attached to specific works of art, viewing attachment and its various synonyms (including identification, relation, and attunement) as a positive, affective force. In focusing on attachment (which is about feeling), instead of explanation (which is supposed to be about reason and, so, the absence of feeling), Felski aims to chart a new path for studies in the humanities, freeing it from the chains of critical disparagement. But while Felski explores how audiences become drawn to aesthetic objects, she offers very little in the way of attachment, or concerted attention, to the objects she discusses. Instead of close readings or direct engagement, Felski, who is an admirer of the French theorist Bruno Latour, sidesteps explanation in favor of generalization and “gloss.” She mentions Latour’s influential actor-network theory, for example, but proclaims that she is “more interested in doing ANT than explaining it.” This approach is emblematic of her efforts in Hooked to drive a wedge between explanation — traditionally viewed as the domain of critics like herself — and “doing,” or action. Throughout, she resists building consensus or siding with the explainers, who, she says, are variously at fault.
In the introductory chapter, for instance, she indicts her own field for “zigzagging” between futile methodologies that mine for minutiae while failing, overall, to “shed […] light on fundamental questions” or provide big answers. Then, in the second chapter, she blames those same critics for doing the opposite: for overemphasizing explanation and “smoothing over uncertainty” with the help of big, totalizing theories. It is between these two poles that she locates her own activities as a critic, opting for what she calls a “midlevel focus.” In claiming that middle ground, she opposes many of the traditional tools of her trade, including close reading on a micro level and theorizing on a macro level. It’s a move that looks, at first glance, like the assumption of a neutral stance. But neutrality, as Felski shows, is not necessarily synonymous with benignancy.
Hooked does not trade in warm fuzzy feelings of appreciation; it brims with casual violence. Felski’s favorite word is “scission” and she employs this word — and others like it — repeatedly throughout, often in reference to the historical work of critique and all the harm that it has wrought, as she sees it. She wields the term as defense against what she calls “stubborn dichotomies,” including “art versus society, text versus context, [and] sophisticated versus naïve response.” ANT, she claims, grants her the ability to “circumvent” such dichotomies, “to walk around [them] in order to arrive somewhere else.” Other theoretical models — including the ones she was once drawn to, like cultural studies and feminism — lead only to the “scission of the subjective versus the objective: I versus they.” Here, Felski cloaks her comments about scission in labored syntax and an incomplete sentence fragment: without a noun, it’s hard to tell who or what is responsible for hacking away at the ties between subject and object.
But if one pauses to assess, in the spirit of Wilder’s work, Felski’s rhetoric, what emerges is an inventory of abuse. Some of that abuse is the work of Felski’s unnamed foes; but a lot of it is hers. Felski’s brand of criticism “cuts aslant,” “slices across,” “severs,” “stabs,” “pulverizes,” and “pries apart.” The phrase “cuts across” appears with greater frequency, even, than “scission” in Hooked, suggesting that Felski may be as interested in the idea of attachment as she is in the prospect of dismemberment. This, perhaps, is what she means by “doing” — doing damage, wreaking havoc. It’s a project that makes a lot sense if one refuses the work of making sense, of explaining and accounting and engaging. For while Felski refuses to close read in this book, substituting musings on themes of attachment for textual analysis, she also refuses to turn and face her opponents squarely. She cites very few of them, in fact, which hampers her efforts to “cut across” and forces her, instead, to lob grenades from afar.
In Felski’s view, critique fails because it is rooted in both distance and dislike. Her study rests on the claim that to be critical is likewise to be hypocritical: criticism teaches us that attachments are bad, but then goes and doubles-down on its own attachments to itself, turning method into orthodoxy. Existing outside of the confines or orthodoxy are those who Felski problematically refers to as “lay” readers. These audiences have no problem with attachment; they eagerly cathect and attach and “hook up to” the artistic works they consume. That they are then browbeaten and shamed for doing this by critics is evidence of a widening gulf between the two parties that, according to Felski’s logic, might just help to explain the contemporary crisis in the humanities. “The difference between academic and lay audiences is not one of detachment versus attachment; it is, rather, the difference between attachment to an object and attachment to a method,” she argues, highlighting what she sees as the hypocritical character of institutionalized critique.
Felski marshals this idea of hypocrisy and uses it to reinforce the borders between these “lay” audiences and the critics who are out to spoil their fun. “Lay audiences,” she claims, “have no reason to share in such [critical] investments; what matters to them are specific books or movies or songs that entertain or educate or, very occasionally, change a life.” This dismal and reductionist view of what an average person wants does as much injustice to these audiences, who are disallowed any claims to critical consciousness, as it does to the critics who comprise Felski’s milieu. After all, she spent years editing New Literary History, a pioneering publication once devoted to critical theory (and one of the journals cited in Wilder’s 2005 study). But in Hooked, she focuses on the fight to free herself from a system she has helped to engineer. More than a contribution to literary studies, the book reads like a record of her attempts to wriggle free of the entanglements that come with consensus.
Accordingly, Felski works to put distance between herself and other critics. Early on in Hooked, for example, she compares those critics who remain committed to the hermeneutics of suspicion to climate change deniers. Building off of Latour’s denunciation of social constructivism, Felski asks, “At a time when climate change deniers are attacking the legitimacy of scientific knowledge and fake news has become a cliché, is a ratcheting of skepticism really what we need?” Such a charge runs uncomfortably close to Trumpian logic, where negativity is viewed as the problem and positivity worth the lies that are necessary to manufacture it. The day I read this sentence was the same day that Trump announced a new plan to ward against “left-wing indoctrination,” otherwise known as critical thinking, in America’s public schools by instantiating a “pro-American curriculum that celebrates the truth about our nation’s great history.” The connection between “truth” and an attitude of sustained “celebration” deserves to be met with skepticism. Felski is accusing cultural critics, of course, of doing the reverse — of refusing to accept the truth and relying on suspicion as a kind of reflex. But in equating the practice of skepticism in the humanities with its effective inverse — ignorance — Felski is outsourcing the work of knowledge-creation to the already anointed STEM sector and undermining the future of her own discipline.
That future is, thanks to the twin forces of corporatization and austerity, already in great peril, as we know. Felski comments sympathetically on the contemporary crisis in the humanities but disparages those who have dared to rectify, remake, or renovate it outside of the traditional channels of academia. She refers to the “increasingly beleaguered condition of the humanities” in the final chapter of Hooked, acknowledging how this has left qualified and accomplished scholars without adequate institutional support. But while she alludes to questions regarding the attitude of the work of criticism to the relations of production of its time (to paraphrase Walter Benjamin), she refuses to follow through and assess her own position in them. She abdicates her responsibilities as a producer, even as she faults others for their efforts to produce differently, under worsening conditions of crisis.
Rather than championing their work, Felski subtly demeans those who remain “attached” to criticism as a practice but who lack the professional imperative to produce it. This “rising class of para-academics,” as she calls them, “sustain their intellectual passions by writing in online venues such as LARB, Public Books, or The Point” — three venues that I have written for, not as a para-academic, mind you, but as an academic, full stop. While Felski admits that these “online publications” (all of which publish in print, in some form or another) sometimes cater to bona fide academics who might wish to “break free of scholarly straitjackets in order to experiment with voice, form, and genre,” she minimizes the work that these publications put into sustaining scholarly discourse, viewing them as handy but ultimately lesser alternatives to the “real” work of scholarship. The “para-academics” who keep them running, meanwhile, are made to resemble recovering addicts: their work, rather than proving that criticism still matters, appears merely symptomatic of their individual “attachment” to, or dependence on, the intoxicating substance of critique.
Felski offers these critiques of critique in the name of innovation. But, like so much that is taken for innovation these days, her efforts disguise — and thus actually privilege — destruction. Reading Hooked, I recalled an essay by Maureen Tkacik that was published in The New Republic just over a year ago, in September 2019. I could have sworn it had been longer than that; an ensuing year’s worth of catastrophic headlines had almost made me forget about the Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crash that occurred earlier that same year, in March 2019, on the heels of another incident, the Lion Air crash of October 2018. All told, 346 people died in these accidents, which were the result of faulty, new technology that had been added to Boeing 737 MAX jets at the behest of managers, not skilled engineers. And more than any other article I read in the wake of them, Tkacik’s article helped to put that combined tragedy in perspective. This was not simply a failure of technology, Tkacik explained, but a failure of innovation. The aviation industry, having “matured” to the point where real innovation — meaning tangible improvements to its physical products — had stalled out and become “incremental” at best, had finally resorted to innovating at the level of “supply-chain management.” This meant cutting costs, especially labor costs, and updating features that were previously working just fine, styling those changes as qualitative improvements.
All of this is to say, contra Felski: there’s nothing wrong with criticism. But there is a lot wrong with the institutions that once housed it. Felski’s right in feeling that something is amiss, but wrong in thinking that thing is criticism or scholarship itself. The problems that plague humanities scholars today are not attitudinal but, in fact, grossly material; our own managers and administrators, unable or unwilling to assess value otherwise, have pursued innovation in the form of reduced tenure lines and more flexible labor conditions. Felski purports to peddle new wares in Hooked — wares that will save this mature industry from itself — but a quick glance under the hood reveals that it’s actually more of the same, with complaints about other critics comprising the bulk of the machinery, just like it did back in 2005.
Hooked asks scholars to return to a halcyon age that predates critique. The future of critique, meanwhile, continues to bravely take shape outside of traditional, institutional containers. If Felski has not yet realized this, it might be because her career as a critic has more in common with critique’s institutionalized past than with its future.
Sheila Liming is associate professor at Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont. She is the author of What a Library Means to a Woman (U Minnesota Press) and Office (Bloomsbury), both published in 2020.
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