ELIZABETH S. ANKER AND RITA FELSKI (eds.), Critique and Postcritique (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2017), 329 pp.

Amerikastudien/ American Studies, 63.1



Another death of Theory? Another burial? Another entombment during which no one sheds a single tear and all one hears are listlessly uttered anecdotes, as well as some mumbled and incoherent obscenities? Since many people outside academia think that literary studies is a scandalously useless discipline, it has to constantly justify its own existence. Those attempts at justification and the respective self-reflections of the discipline’s proponents can be useful or boring, stimulating and entertaining or jargon-filled nonsense. Whatever their nature, they keep the “Fach” alive. The “theory wars” of the past decades have shown how intense such debates can get. The discussion centering on the possibility of developing forms of postcritique of course has to be seen in connection with those “theory wars.” However, there is more to it. This becomes obvious in Rita Felski’s widely discussed The Limits of Critique (2015). In her opinion, critique is a style of thinking that is reflected in Fredric Jameson’s symptomatic reading, ideology critique, Foucauldian discourse analysis, certain forms of deconstruction, and versions of literary and cultural criticism that see it as their primary task to discover signs of transgression or (political) resistance in texts or that unmask political quietism. It is crucial to see that Felski does not offer a polemic against critique. Furthermore, it is of the utmost importance to appreciate that she does not seek to counterbalance the reign of critique and suspicious reading with the imperative that it was high time to realize the promising potential of a new aestheticism or new formalism. Instead, as Felski emphasizes, she presents “a close-up scrutiny of a thought style,”[1] which goes hand in hand with a certain intellectual mood or disposition.

In Critique and Postcritique, the editors, Elizabeth S. Anker and Felski, continue the work begun in The Limits of Critique. In their introduction, they seek to convince their readers that it is deplorable that the practices of symptomatic or suspicious reading still seem de rigueur for many literary scholars, and they thus seek to convince their colleagues to fully realize the tempting possibilities of a wide range of affective styles, modes of argument, and tones. Critique must not be seen as the only possible theoretical approach. While Felski’s argument in The Limits of Critique constantly returned to the ideas, and practices, of affect, style, ethos, mood, and tone, the editors of Critique and Postcritique also ask whether critique entails “a distinctive disposition, tone, attitude, or sensibility” (1). Moreover, they call attention to the question of whether “postcritique require[s] a different ethos or affect” (2).

Critique has often been dominated by a self-critical dimension, a desire to reach a metalevel. Anker and Felski suggest that it is interesting to ask how recent debates in literary and cultural theory differ from those attempts at self-scrutiny or self-reflexivity, and whether current reassessments of critique will be capable of elucidating the promising potential of a plurality of forms of postcritique. Emphasizing the “chronic negativity of critique” (11) and its self-proclaimed “oppositional, marginal, and embattled status” (13), the editors’ contention is that postcritical thought offers an alternative disposition. Today’s versions of postcritique include, for instance, Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus’s notion of “surface reading,” Heather Love’s idea of “thin description,” Franco Moretti’s notion of “distant reading,” affect theory, and Bruno Latour’s actor-network-theory and its move from debunking to assembling and from critique to composition.

What does Critique and Postcritique seek to achieve? According to the editors, it “carries out a threefold project: it offers an assessment of the legacy and status of critique; it explores a range of alternative methods and orientations; and it presents multiple perspectives on the value of a postcritical turn” (2). The first part, “Countertraditions of Critique,” offers discussions of counterhistories of critique that have hitherto been mostly neglected in literary and cultural studies. It consists of three essays: Toril Moi, “‘Nothing is Hidden’: From Confusion to Clarity; or, Wittgenstein on Critique”; Heather Love, “The Temptations: Donna Haraway, Feminist Objectivity, and the Problem of Critique;”; and Simon During, “The Eighteenth-Century Origins of Critique.” The second part, “Styles of Reading,” shows the postcritical critic at work, as it were. The essays of this part combine theoretical reflections with readings of novels as diverse as Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love, Jim Thompson’s noir novel The Killer Inside Me, and J.M. Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus. The essays in this section are: Jennifer L. Fleissner, “Romancing the Real: Bruno Latour, Ian McEwan, and Postcritical Monism”; Ellen Rooney, “Symptomatic Reading Is a Problem of Form”; C. Namwali Serpell, “A Heap of Cliché”; and Elizabeth S. Anker, “Why We Love Coetzee; or, The Childhood of Jesus and the Funhouse of Critique.” The third and final part, “Affects, Politics, Institutions,” focuses on the disposition of critique in the context of its politics. The essays in this section, even more so than the pieces in the other two parts, discuss the possible futures of critique. These futures, as the authors propose, have much to do with hope, imagination, a weak messianic power, and the idea of criticism-as-translation: Christopher Castiglia, “Hope for Critique?”; Russ Castronovo, “What Are the Politics of Critique? The Function of Criticism at a Different Time”; John Michael, “Tragedy and Translation: A Future for Critique in a Secular Age”; and Eric Hayot, “Then and Now.”

Critique and Postcritique is an important, stimulating, and timely volume. In a thought-provoking manner, these elegantly argued essays highlight the consequences of the postcritical turn, and at the same time they demonstrate how exactly a postcritical reading differs from a close reading, the work of ideology critique, a deconstructionist reading, or a version of discourse analysis. It is as interesting to follow Moi’s use of the later Wittgenstein and to understand why she holds that literary criticism “doesn’t have anything we can plausibly call competing methods” (34), as it is stimulating to contemplate Castronovo’s suggestion that it might be “productive to understand critique as the impossible pursuit of political relevance and meaning, one that anticipates but is destined never to achieve its exigent ends” (235). Moreover, there are productive tensions between Heather Love and Jennifer L. Fleissner’s creative use of Latour’s ANT and Christopher Castiglia’s proposal that instead of rushing postcritique we should try to revitalize and redescribe critique. As Castiglia puts it in an important passage:

It may not be “critique” that has outlived its usefulness [. . .], but the dispositions that have become customary, even mandatory, to carry it out. Dispositions have their corollary in methodology, however, so as part of suggesting an alternative disposition for criticism—hopefulness—I will argue that the introduction of two concepts—idealism and imagination—can revitalize critique. (212)

As one can see from these few examples, the essays in this volume do not simply engage in a mechanistic or ritualistic condemnation of critique. Rather, they seek to clarify how one can (dialectically) use critique’s shortcomings, oversights, and liabilities in order to accentuate the possibility of demarcating a realm beyond critique. It is problematic that these attempts to elucidate the futures of critique completely ignore the significance of American pragmatism (the irony is that almost all contributors to this collection of essays teach at American universities and most of them are American). If one intends to draw attention to the possibilities offered by a combination of panrelationalism, antifoundationalism, historicist nominalism, and the creativity of action, it is not only Latour’s ANT that serves this purpose. Pragmatism does the job just as well. From John Dewey’s attack on Platonism, dualistic thought, and the quest for certainty to Rorty’s scenario of a post-philosophical or poeticized culture, the development from finding to making has been central to pragmatism. Furthermore, pragmatism has the additional advantage that it is unwilling to consign the idea of humanism to the dustbin of history and instead shows how pragmatism, humanism, anti-authoritarianism, and postmetaphysics are linked. If one considers this combination as helpful then Latour’s move toward ontology and Best and Marcus’s neoempiricism and its attempt to reactivate the categories of “objectivity, validity, truth”[2] become problematic. In other words, pragmatism offers another perspective on the endeavor to imagine the contours of postcritique.

The same can be said about Jacques Rancière’s philosophy. While pragmatism does not play a role in Critique and Postcritique (nor in Felski’s The Limits of Critique, for that matter), Rancière is briefly mentioned in the introduction and in Castiglia’s essay. Nonetheless, as far as I can see the proponents of postcritique have so far avoided a detailed discussion of Rancière’s work and its implications for a critique of critique. From his early study La Leçon d’Althusser (1973) to Aisthesis: Scènes du régime esthétique de l’art (2011), Rancière has criticized a hermeneutics of depth, the notion of pure philosophy (or theory), and the idea of an immutable truth. He has sought to highlight the advantages of a horizontal and topographical analysis that directs attention to forms of dissensus hitherto unnoticed or marginalized. Instead of keeping philosophy and theory pure, he is interested in the creativity, contingency, and singularity of practices, their delimitations, and ways of confronting those delimitations. Furthermore, he claims that his practice of philosophy “is an-archical, in the sense that it traces back the specificity of disciplines and discursive competences to the ‘egalitarian’ level of linguistic competence and poetic invention.”[3] Striving to disclose “the contingency or the poetic character of any arkhê,”[4] the Rancièrian poetics of knowledge can be seen as trying to convince us that we should attempt to reach a point where we no longer deify anything and where we stop looking to philosopher-kings or theorists for versions of an immutable truth. Rancière’s poetics of knowledge and horizontal analysis concentrates on the common powers of linguistic innovation, the power of poetic invention in the world of practice, the relations between texts, images, and gestures, as well as on the contingency of any man-made foundation. It should be obvious that postcritical readings could profit from Rancière’s version of critique.

As mentioned above, one of the bêtes noires of postcritique is Marxism. In particular Jameson’s version of (Hegelian) Marxism has been criticized by Best and Marcus, Felski, and others. The problem is that these authors concentrate exclusively on Jameson’s The Political Unconscious: Narrrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (1981) without seeing the necessity of considering the rest of this Marxist’s impressive oeuvre. None of the postcritics, for instance, discusses Jameson’s understanding of utopia, which is central to his work from his early essay, “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture” (1979), to many of the pieces collected in Valences of the Dialectic (2009). That the postcritical analysis of Marxism is too undifferentiated also becomes obvious when Anker and Felski maintain that a hermeneutics of suspicion “can lead to a neglect of the formal qualities of art” (16). Anker and Felski make unequivocally clear that they think that Marxism is one of the most important theoretical approaches that they subsume under the category of critique. At the same time, however, they submit that critique too often is incapable of fully appreciating the formal dimensions of literary texts and works of art. This argument of course ignores the work of Adorno and Jameson. Undoubtedly, one can question the intimate link between narrative, depth, form, and truth in their texts (think of Adorno’s insistence upon the “truth-content of the works of art” — “der Wahrheitsgehalt der Werke”), but one ought to refrain from contending that postcritique as surface reading is superior to critique as far as the interpretation of aesthetic form is concerned. In this regard, postcritique still has much work to do.

Critique and Postcritique does not proclaim another death of Theory. There will be no burial, no fake tears, and no obscenities. On the contrary, this volume is one of the most convincingly and elegantly argued reflections on the state of—you guessed it—Theory that have been published in the past two decades. Critique is not the same as Theory, but it is dangerously close. Without doubt, the essays collected in this volume will have a profound and lasting impact on discussions centering on the question of what it means to move beyond critique.


Ulf Schulenberg (Bremen)

[1] Rita Felski, The Limits of Critique (Chicago, IL: U of Chicago P, 2015), 2.

[2] Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus, “Surface Reading: An Introduction,” Representations 108 (2009): 1-21, 17.

[3] Jacques Rancière, “The Thinking of Dissensus: Politics and Aesthetics,” Paul Bowman and Richard Stamp (eds.), Reading Rancière (New York: Continuum, 2011), 1-17, 14.

[4] Rancière, 15.