Thursday, February 24, 2022

Limits of Critique, Chapter 1


Summary of Chapter 1: The Stakes of Suspicion

Felski introduces her critique of critique and the idea of critique as “mood.” One of the repeating questions which I come back to in reading this is, to what extent is “critique” the best word for what she is criticizing? There are certainly strengths and weaknesses: one of the strengths is what could be called the “blackmail of critique,” in which critique is presented as the only oppositional view and everything else is just unthinking and uncritical; while at the same time, critique (or at any rate suspicion) is widespread institutionally in the service of order (as police, detectives, etc.). The immediately obvious benefits of her argument are those in which she situates “critique” as an institutionalized practice, an imagined community, an overarching modernist narrative, and so on.

She emphasizes the connection of critique with de- prefixes rather than re- prefixes: “demystify, destabilize, denaturalize” rather than “recontextualize, reconfigure, or recharge” (17). My response here is, besides noting the de/re link to D&G, that isn’t this just to repeat the claim that critique must be part of a praxis to be useful? Here, as in Latour, the assumption that critique is first and foremost an academic practice becomes limiting.

One accusation of the use of critique that she returns to is the point that “accounting for the social causes of something serves as a means of downgrading it” (23). This is true rhetorically – and above all culturally – but only under certain conditions of articulation (my notes here refer to the ritual/ritual split, and to the effects of the Aristotelian cause/category trick (which she refers to (without using that name), and the Latourian question of delegation in an assemblage (which she does not refer to). This idea that explanation or contextualization is dismissive needs to be resisted, not accepted as somehow inevitable or acceptable. She demonstrates the peril of this almost immediately with a imho poorly thought out point of terminology, that “critique does not produce persons but must seduce persons” as part of a paragraph criticizing the “unfortunate locutions” of social constructionism. Intentionally or not, in doing so she has aligned herself with a realist view of the subject, and thus falling directly into the [culturally far more dominant] natural vs. social opposition in which “nature” is the preferred term, and “social” is seen as ephemeral or secondary (this is why social explanations render things unimportant while natural ones solidify their importance).

And in relation to this ephemerality of the social as against naturalized categories (she promises a critique of “denaturalization” later), she consistently makes spook-like references to critique as “spirit” etc.: e.g., “Suspicious interpretation, we could say, ‘takes on a life of its own’...” (23), or as “spirit of disenchantment” (32).

Again, she discusses (more convincingly) the aspects of critique as mood and as ethos (in the rhetorical sense: convincing by character). She talks about critique as [disciplinary] “self-problematization” and the allure of theory in the 80s and 90s. Part of this was about learning a mood and demeanor, part was the creation of a community, attachments etc. None of this, however, is particularly damning, unless “critique” is defined very narrowly as a mood or approach which could never admit or accept this side of itself. She in fact notes the positives of this, but then proceeds as if situating or contextualizing the practice did indeed degrade it – this may be the most significant problem with her approach.

One interesting issue is that she (and others) adopt the term “hermeneutics of suspicion” from Ricoeur for their critique of critique, but Ricoeur meant this much more positively. There is thus a discussion on what Ricoeur meant by it and the positive sides of critique which he saw (which include problematizing the self, the “complacency of consciousness” (31)). Opposed to this is a “hermeneutics of restoration” which looks to a text for inspiration or wonder, joy., i.e., “uncritically.” Felski says the difference between these two is the difference “between unveiling and unmasking” – a distinction which I completely cannot follow. These are both forms of decipherment/uncovering (aletheia) but she does not expand further to show how they are different, or for that matter, which is which.

Interestingly, she embarks on a lengthy – and to my mind, quite reasonable – defense of “hermeneutics” (and more broadly, “interpretation”) as a term against the slanders of Foucauldians, Derrideans, and everyone who has pigeonholed the word into the revelatory insights of a priestly caste (my terms there). “If we conceive of interpretation as a retrieval of non-obvious or counterintuitive meaning” then it is obviously much more widespread and important and thus not to be dismissed (33). This immediately begs the question as to why “critique” is to be slandered in exactly the way she complains that “hermeneutics” has been. A lot of the implicit force of her argument – the mood perhaps I should say – has to do with implied but to me murky differences between “critique” vs. “interpretation,” “explanation” vs. “understanding,” and so on. Anyway she spells out that practices of critique are kinds of interpretation and so should not be so hostile to hermeneutics, but then states that in her conclusion she will draw on hermeneutics as an alternative to critique. My feeling is that instead of using any of these words in these vague ways, qualified terms should be introduced: e.g., “suchandsuchy critique,” or “so-and-so interpretation.” Of course she will not because 1) she has already criticized the “critique of critique” whereby a certain practice of critique is identified as “bad critique”, thus salvaging the category of critique itself (as in Debord’s “spectacular critique”); and 2) simply, she has chosen to take on the concept or at least the word critique wholesale, either for the glamour of slaying so powerful a dragon, or, more empathetically, for the value of achieving independence from such a wheel-in-the-head. She ends her “rebranding” of hermeneutics with a reference to Ricoeur insisting that hermeneutics is about “exposing ourselves to a text as well as imposing ourselves on a text;” this is immediately reminiscent of Benjamin’s modern hero (as opposed to the flaneur or panoramicist), and of course to the practice of critique as understood at SUVA.

She then spends several pages on the concept of “suspicion,” explaining in particular how and why she uses this term instead of Sedgwick’s more judgmental “paranoia,” or the more favorable “skepticism.” IMHO there are interesting points made regarding suspicion as mood, but much of what this term allows is an over-generalization of the criticism of critique, to any “suspicious” practice. Her primary text on this is a mid-20th century psychologist Shand, who comes across as a classist twit (and his problematic over-spread, and reification, of “suspicion” she adopts as her own).

Part of her critique is a temporal one, regarding expanding suspicion in modernism and post-modernism, in which context academic critique is simply no longer as special or different as it imagines itself to be. She details four “strands” of the “prehistory of suspicion” that continue to have effects today (she appears to be obliquely referencing, but not using, the Foucauldian concept of “genealogy): 1. philosophical suspicion; 2. literary suspicion; 3. vernacular suspicion; and 4. professional suspicion.

The philosophical is of course the obvious one and that which Ricoeur had been referring to, and in fact overemphasizing. Literary suspicion is about the practice of writing and reading modernist texts, having to do with the suspicious practice, and reaction to, modernity, a “suspicious sensibility” (43).

“Vernacular” suspicion is what I would have called “political” and it is interesting how the word choice degrades it a bit, as if “well let us pause to recognize what goes on outside the ivory tower.” Her treatment of this is far better than Latour’s, though still unsatisfying. She points out the “weapons of the weak” and suspicion as a practice by the oppressed, exploited, etc.; and that sometimes this emerges into what we could call a critique (citing Laclau and Mouffe: “a state of subordination is transformed into a state of antagonism” (44)). This extra-academic practice of critique is used by academics as a support for their special claims of their own practice of critique as an inherently oppositional force. Felski counters that “vernacular suspicion is promiscuous rather than partisan” (45), echoing Latour’s invocation of conspiracy theories. And indeed this is an important point to take note of in this “post-truth” moment. She later asserts (citing Christian Thorne): “forms of skepticism or antifoundationalism have no inherent or necessary political effects” (51) – a significant response to Stirner, yet one still wonders just what meaning “political effects” has in this context: that is, how it is articulated/reterritorialized. She promises to return to this in chapter 4: my questions here would have to do with the politics of articulation, of which the “political effects” she cites (rightist “skeptics” for example as opposed to progressive causes, etc.) are a secondary articulation (into our existing political system). (Leaving aside the question of whether people who believe in conspiracy theories are being “skeptical” or “credulous”).

Finally, professional suspicion, she points out, is separated by class from the former, undermining its ability to lay claim to vernacular suspicion as a founding and righteous predecessor or inspiration. (Though she notes the idea of academics etc. as “knowledge workers” in a “New Class”, I would raise the issue of intellectuals as lumpen, and also question to what degree so-called “knowledge work” can be usefully and non-problematically separated out from other forms of “work”). She makes an important point, that professional suspicion is not just academic but suffused throughout the subjects who operate the state, most classically the detective, but also police, bureaucrats, experts and professionals more generally; I would add scientists (she does not). “Suspicion” in this sense becomes again part of modernity more generally, and in the service of power rather than opposed to it. On the other hand, this has been a sleight of hand – replacing “critique” with “suspicion” as if they are the same – and the figure of the detective who is professionally suspicious, but who through some experience develops a critique (and thus ends up betraying his bosses, etc.) immediately arises. I would hope that she would engage with Foucault’s notion of critique as ethic, because here the subjectifying call to be critical could be tied into the reproduction of power systems in an ambiguous way. In contrast, her insistence on submerging critique into the broader category of “suspicion” is more rhetorical and does not seem to produce much beyond a Latourian-style closing off of critique as terminology. She takes aim at “Foucauldian critics” who themselves have tried to puncture the “disinterested,” “objective” stance which professional suspicion takes the form of – while practicing it themselves! This is not as much of a withering critique as she seems to imagine it to be, because she has once again assumed that if “the ideal of objectivity … is traced back to modern regimes of power” it is “thus implicitly or explicitly discredited” (48). This is a pretty bad reduction of the ambiguous Foucauldian stance of the productivity of power – and given that Foucault is, to me, the primary source on what “critique” could or should be (she has yet to refer to his essay of that name), an insight into what potential insights could be missing overall from Felski’s book. We shall see; in regard to her point about the affective style of these Foucauldians (Rose, Joyce come to mind): to the extent that this is a valid criticism, should the answer be that they just need to re-read the Gay Science?

Felski ends with a restatement of her critique of critique (50) and a revealing statement:

A suspicious sensibility, it turns out, assumes various guises and crops up in many different milieus. It is cultivated by prosecutors and professionals as well as anarchists and avant-gardists; it thrives among cops as well as robbers, climate change skeptics as well as queer theorists. In short, suspicion is thoroughly enmeshed in the world rather than opposed to the world, and offers no special guarantee of intellectual insight, political virtue, or ideological purity. (51)

Let’s take these three sentences in turn. First sentence: the “suspicious sensibility” takes the form of a spook, which is truly acting when subjects imagine themselves to be; furthermore, it possesses the shapeshifting cleverness and mobility of metis. The paradox of whether such metis/polytropism opposes the State (a la Scott) or acts in its service (per various readings of the “polytropic” in colonialism) is immediately raised. Second sentence: lacking a proper name for this form, I called it a “crowded field” in my notes on the text. Basically it fills the function of any list of numerous disparate social actors (e.g., in taxi driver memoirs, summaries of their diverse passengers). Something panoramic is going on here though I have yet to explore it further. In the immediate context, however, she is making an important insight but does not seem to be drawing out of it what I would have (though this could happen later). I would suggest this shows how important and timely such suspicion is, and that suspicion (and its subcategory, or ambiguously related practice anyway, critique) take place within a crowded field in this “post-truth” moment. The complexity and contestedness of the current world hardly seems like a compelling denunciation of the need for critique as a “suspicious” re-articulation. Of “suspicion” perhaps; but this concept is the weakest and most amorphous in the book so far. Anyway the third sentence: I mean obviously this is absolutely correct, but again it is addressed to an amorphous “suspicion” rather than a more specific practice of “critique.” Perhaps the Gay Science or the Pyrrhonists should be referred to for a more joyous and varying affective experience of critique; Felski has simply defined the word into one affective corner and based her argument on this limitation (along with the subsequent hat-trick of shifting her criticism to “suspicion”). Anyway her next two chapters will explore the “style and sensibility of critique” in more depth.

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