Monday, February 28, 2022

Limits of Critique, Chapter 2


Summary of Chapter 2: Digging Down and Standing Back

In this chapter, Felski takes on the role of spatial metaphors in the practice and discourse of critique. she talks about the power of “metaphor clusters” and the advantages and disadvantages of using particular metaphors: “analogies can smooth or derail the path of thought” (53) [how do you “derail a path”?] She uses the metaphor of “fresh” vs. “stale” to describe the effect of promising new metaphors as opposed to established, constraining ones. “Figures of speech can become stubbornly entrenched and hard to budge, taking on a life of their own, dictating what and how we see.” [aka, wheels in the head]. She talks about how metaphors “choreograph” a text, influencing how a reader approaches and understands it. Her main intent in this chapter is to take on the two prominent metaphorical descriptions of critique, featured in the title. The first, “digging down” metaphor of uncovering is associated with Freudian and Marxist traditions; the second, “standing back” metaphor with post-structuralism and a recently influential issue of Representations.

A key text for the “digging down” metaphor is Jameson’s The Political Unconscious, which combined both Freudian and Marxist influences and popularized the “digging down” metaphor, along with Althusser’s concept of “symptomatic reading.” The presumption of such an approach is that the “manifest meaning” of a text is superficial or misleading, because there is a deeper, “latent” meaning, which reveals the true purpose or message of the text. For Freudians this is a “repressed” meaning. More broadly, “digging is an ethical and political imperative” on the part of the critic (58). She traces some of the history of this metaphor, from the influence of archaeological discoveries (such as Troy) on Freud’s use of the digging and discovering metaphor; to the emergence of a more sophisticated psychoanalytical approach, informed by semiotics, in the 1970s (Lacan, etc., are not named).

In exploring the productivity of this approach, she notes that when “gaps and fissures” in a text are discovered, this allows for an ambiguous reading, rather than mere hypercriticality and “suspicion” (63). “Admiration and love,” can coexist with, or form an essential motivation for, critique, and texts can be “rescued” from the “shame of the sheerly ideological” by noting how they struggle with or challenge ideology rather than merely replicating it. She notes Jameson’s “stout defense” of the “positive hermeneutic” aspect of Marxist critique (64): that this is not merely, or even primarily, about tearing down, and that leftist critique in fact has utopian elements and inspirations. She then somewhat weakly criticizes Jameson’s point, by calling such utopianism an “endemic suspicion of the present,” in which “all hopes are pinned on a world beyond this world.” She backs this up with a note citing Latour’s “compositionist manifesto.” Similarly, she notes the nuance of George Steiner’s “fourfold structure of interpretation,” only to conclude that “this double-sidedness disappears, however, once dialogue gives way to a diagnosis of symptoms.” That is, the specific form or practice of “symptomatic reading,” (a subcategory of this broader metaphor which she has traced over a century) is taken as more significant than all the ambiguity and complexity that advocates of “digging” critique speak about. It’s like she has to recognize that they talk about and praise ambiguity, but then take it away from them, because it will be part of “post-critique,” and thus be denied as an inherent or essential aspect of “critique.”

Part of her criticism could be understood as a call for a “flat ontology” or a “flat reading” (though she uses neither of these terms, nor the “flat” metaphor, which is part of the “surface” metaphor she will be critiquing next). In such a reading, “ideology” or the “political unconscious” are [spooks,] and don’t really exist out in some imagined underworld or overarching space; instead they are “housed in the scribbled notes, computer files, and footnotes of the critic’s own workspace” (66). This is a riff on Latour’s criticism of Levi-Strauss’s “unconscious structures of primitive myths,” (202n23), as existing not in Africa or Brazil but in the filing cards in Levi-Strauss’s office, or more specifically, in the assemblage of human and non-human actants that has composed or created or established them, or whatever word Latour wants to use [though isn’t it fair to ask, does not “Levi-Strauss’s office,” itself, exist in Latour’s files and folders, etc.?]. Felski follows this with one of the first of three or four short paragraphs (scattered through the chapter) in which she outlines her own vision of how texts should be read. She cites Ricoeur re: a “surplus of meaning,” which any text overflows with, and which is more than any one reader or critic could capture or interpret. “There is no need to resort to repression, in other words, to account for contradiction, nuance, or implicit meaning” (66). [here we are at the boundary between the opening and closing sides of post-critique: does the above “no need” imply that the search for “repression” should cease? Or that it should simply not be mandatory or dominant, and that it can co-exist with other approaches and styles? After all, sometimes, repression happens, however that term is to be understood].

It seems her argument is really with “symptomatic reading,” and its need to posit symptoms which are themselves the result of a repression of the latent meaning, in the service of some kind of ideological unity or orthodoxy. Althusser and Jameson seem fitting targets of such a critique. However, it is less clear that this criticism accurately fits all of the variety of approaches which use the “digging” metaphor, and she seems to be taking this as a kind of ideal form which the rest must be seen as somehow trending to – perhaps “unwittingly?” She ends the section on digging with a reference to criticisms that arose from within, and a move toward a more nuanced and open form of reading by Macherey and others. She notes the rehabilitation of Freud as the “French Freud,” who was not simply a believer in the scientific veracity of his own theories, but one who was always testing the limits of the knowable: Freud was thus rehabilitated “by applying essentially the same techniques that had been used to ‘save’ canonical works of art” (68). She notes: “it was assimilated, in other words, into an influential style of thinking, that views irresolution, contradiction, and doubleness as the quintessential intellectual virtues” (69). This invocation of a late-20th century academic form of metis leads to the emergence of the next, competing critical metaphor of surfaces and “standing back.”

However, the second “metaphor cluster” she has identified ends being a bit more mixed: “surface,” “standing back” at a distance, and so on. Instead of keeping the “standing back” emphasis from the chapter title, she names this section, “Against Nature,” emphasizing a different key aspect of this form of critique, which is denaturalization [although this whole concept of “second nature” seems also key to many of the Marxist critics who fit better with the first trend]. Typical of her argument here are statements like: “The right to rail against social injustice, reinterpret images, or take issue with badly made arguments is not in dispute, but it is less evident that such rebuttals need to be framed as excoriations of nature” (71). Not to jump ahead too far, there is just so much conflation going on in that sentence: for instance, the implications that to criticize naturalization per se means also to insist that “such rebuttals need” to take that specific form; and also that accounts of “second nature” and “denaturalization” are “excoriations of nature.” WTF?

She traces this “excoriation of nature” through various precursors, such as the 19th century dandies of the aestheticism movement, a la Baudelaire, etc. In a reaction against the idealization of nature in Romanticism, the aestheticists celebrated artificiality and feared or derided “nature” as the “realm of the automatic and unthinking.” Another trend is that of Russian Formalism and their practice of ostranenie, or “strangemaking.” (Phenomenology’s suspicion of the “natural attitude” is added as another precursor a few pages on (73)). “Denaturalize” and “defamiliarize” become synonyms (72). The point of defamiliarization/denaturalization is to reveal that what we consider to be “natural” is in fact a product of culture. “Modern ‘culture,’ in a paradoxical reversal of the usual distinction, thus enforces the metaphorical sway of ‘nature,’ as second nature.” The “paradoxical reversal” she seems to be referencing here, is the fact that “nature” is culturally (ahem) a much stronger and more privileged term than “culture;” this form of criticism reverses that to undermine the power of exactly this privileging of “nature” and of naturalizing categories, etc. It is interesting that (and all the moreso given her frequent references to Latour) she does not mention the cultural (ahem) and institutional dominance of the “hard sciences” and of biological and “natural” explanations in the US, which is in fact the source of the “cultural and social explanations are belittling” theme she has copied over from Latour (and seeks to deploy uncritically, if it is fair to use that word). She has of course signalled in the previous chapters that she will argue against the claim of critique to be oppositional; she may of course be correct about this within specific discourses but on the broader field, it certainly remains a counterhegemonic discourse – and it seems a bit naive or willful to ignore this fact, quite evident to, for instance, an instructor of introductory anthropology and sociology courses. She will, later in the chapter, claim that “critique” is elitist and academic, and cultivates an alienating language and stance which distance it from the everyday language of everyday people; be that as it may, this very insistence on “critique” as a dominant discourse, seems clearly confined by a perspective limited to the ivory tower, and only certain parts of it, at that. And certainly not the best funded or influential parts!

She lists three kinds or aspects of “nature” which come under the glare of critique: human nature, inner nature, second nature. She repeats this theme often throughout the rest of the chapter, and the question arises as to whether she really wants to rehabilitate the concept of “nature” (untouched or excused from these criticisms), and to what end? One guess is that this is a form of post-humanist argument, that our way of talking and being suspicious of “nature” limits our connections and “alignments” or whatever with non-humans and the natural world more generally. However, this has not been specifically stated here. Another question that arises here is what role such rearticulations of words and concepts like “critique” and “nature” as here proposed, play in a potential contemporary rearticulation of the position of academics, the university, and so on in these early decades of the 21st century. Felski (paralleling and echoing the more pointed account in Bookchin, as I was reading recently) outlines the growth of “critique” as an academic practice, corresponding to the era of the acceptance of (tame variants of) Marxism into the academy from the 60s through the 80s. Bookchin’s reading seems to see these radical intellectuals/academics (he was himself one after all) as part of a class fraction (or what have you) involved in a link or alliance with the working class (and later on, with progressive movements challenging racial, gender, and heteronormative hierarchies). The academic practices of “critique” and “denaturalization” Felski is critiquing emerged in this era, and thus served the interests of this class or group, (or class fraction, I don’t really know the Marxist terminology). [Felski herself does not mention any kind of class or group analysis of this sort, though she does make a passing reference to “elective affinity;” perhaps she is saving this topic for chapter 4, on politics]. In any event, some have argued that we are currently in the midst of a new rearticulation to fit new changing circumstances: old words and concepts are being updated to meet the new needs of the time. This is the critique outlined, for instance, by Michel Bauwens of the “woke ideology” (or the coherent and interesting parts of that critique, anyway). A word like “critique” from this view, is done away with to make way for new terminology: a fresh start and a shorter citation pattern (we all just talk about “matters of concern” now, and cite Latour instead of Foucault or Butler, or Gramsci). But a new rehabilitation of “nature” seems to put a lot more at stake. Later in this chapter Felski recounts, critically, the attempts by Butler and others to stave off naturalizing categories and the collapse of their form of critique into “orthodoxy;” she again will dismiss this as “not necessary.” But the other (suspicious, yes) side of the question is what is gained by academics (or a group or faction thereof) becoming newly re-enabled to talk about “nature” and the “nature” of things? In the context, of course, of a university and culture that have privileged nature and naturalizing categories all along, all the moreso as the university becomes increasingly streamlined into a productive, corporate-aligned business model.

She turns next to the topic of antinaturalism as style and tone, starting off with a surprisingly inaccurate reading of Foucault’s style as “famously impassive,” “purged of obvious signs of affect and attachment,” “cool rather than hot” (74). Though it is fair that Foucault is “scrupulously nonjudgmental,” this is all part of his ironic detachment, which is, far from lacking in affect, above all playful and often maddeningly so. In a footnote she slightly qualifies this with a recognition that there is “another side” to Foucault, but overall it is surprising that a writer like Felski, so attuned to nuance and style, would short-change one of the foremost proponents and practitioners of the gay science.

She turns then to Roland Barthes, and describes the great influence of his Mythologies: followed with his own dissatisfaction at how orthodox and common the method he used had become by the 1970s; his response was to “move away from critique” (75; in Felski’s words), to experiment with more diverse and playful styles of reading and writing. (It is of course Felski’s circumscribed usage of “critique” that limits the word to Barthes’ earlier, but not his later, texts, nor indeed to his own critique of his earlier style).

She notes that this “ironic consciousness” was often linked to political and radical activism, and that an “elective affinity” was forged between “French theory” and “a vanguard of queer theorists, feminists, and postcolonial scholars (76). This group is/was particularly critical of naturalizing language and the use of it by social movements: they used the ironic detachment and corrosive unending critique of the “stand back” variety to evade cooptation. This led them to question or oppose the use of any received, naturalizing, or essentialist language, like “identity,” appeals to the biological reality of “woman,” etc. (and is not Felski herself carrying this forward a step by critiquing the received value of “critique?”) Felski quotes Lee Edelman: “critical negativity, lacking a self-identity, can never become an orthodoxy.” This idea of critique, or a radical practice of critique, as immune to cooptation, and specially so, is one of the key arguments Felski is determined to refute. Here, she takes Edelman’s claim to task from “the perspective of actor-network theory,” by pointing out that “critical negativity” in fact has numerous “identities:” “as a material and physical object, a contribution to a tenure file, a reckoning with one’s scholarly rivals, a means of working through a midlife crisis,” and so on. Other than the fact that “identity” seems to be being used in different sense by Edelman and Felski, this appeal to context (always situate?) is of course reasonable but seems to too-confidently insist that a corrosive critique, or an attempt at hewing to anti-naturalizing or anti-essentializing discourse, can have no effect whatsoever and is nothing but a pipe dream. The ultimate question is about the power and possibilities of articulation which such concepts and uses of language have – and situating/contextualizing them does problematize them further but not in a way that actually discredits such language, but rather, that renders it really more important to be understood fully, imho. (And it seems likely that Felski will return to this as her point: she is not anti-critique, but postcritique, after the manner of the “postmodern” or the “post-structural”; however, her polemical language and rhetorical stance (of disabling by explaining) makes her come across as a bit blunter, and indeed I suspect she is moving (“unwittingly” or not) between both positions).

She continues her discussion of postcolonial readings informed by the “stand back” tradition; the idea that texts and their authors “unwittingly” reproduce colonial ideology “is key” (77). “The set of socially constructed phenomena becomes an ever-expanding field that subsumes every conceivable object and practice.” This latter is a silly-sounding statement – the very premise of cultural anthropology and several related disciplines is that “socially constructed phenomena” are what we have to work with, and it is better to realize and study that, than otherwise – by this light, the perception that socially constructed phenomena is “an ever-expanding field” is reminiscent of the conservative who complains that gay and transgender people have suddenly been brought into existence by political activists. There is, of course, a sense in which, per the usage of ANT, this is true; and in fact the point Felski is making is, ironically, that the concept of “socially constructed phenomena” is itself a socially constructed phenomenon, a product of a specific, situated, assemblage of humans and non-humans, etc. But we get again here to the problem of just where Levi-Strauss’s office is (see above); and there is an extent to which both Latour and Felski, having marshalled the endlessness of critique to embark upon a critique of critique, want to suddenly cut off this endless process at a convenient or useful point – which is, itself, quite reasonable as a pragmatic and productive move, but which imho is less felicitous when it appears to be made into a basis for a moralizing argument against other ways of talking about the social and so on, and of using critique.

Here, she again refers to the argument that to explain something as socially or culturally constructed is to “reduce it to dust” (paraphrased from her words, which derive from Latour’s). She cites Latour’s discussion from Reassembling the Social where he is moving away from the terminology of “social construction” because other sociologists misunderstand it – specifically, he and the other ANT thinkers having shown that science is socially constructed, other sociologists congratulate them for showing science to be all “hogwash” or words to that effect. (Scientists, in turn, are also indignant over this idea). Latour and his friends are initially (and correctly) surprised that other sociologists misunderstand the concept and accord so little status to products of social construction, even though these are the things they themselves study. The problem with this passage is it is wholly a straw man argument – no one is named or quoted to this effect – very typical of Latour (though not of Felski, who gives direct quotes from real people and texts when she wants to give examples of discourse). And then these people who clearly misunderstand sociology and the concept of social construction, are taken as exemplars of sociology and social construction, and the reason these concepts have to be moved beyond. This slippery slope argument used by Latour is then adopted by Felski but used as a tool – by explaining the rhetorical and socially situated character of critique as a practice and as a set of metaphors, she seems to believe she is degrading it – but that does not follow, at all, because of course everything is socially constructed.

She turns then to Butler as an exemplar of “fin-de-siècle critical theory” (78), trying to avoid essentializing language and the trap of identity. I think in reality the more important metaphor or sense of critique here, which Felski has not identified as such, so far as I can tell, is not its “superficialness” as opposed to depth (that was a convenient organizing opposition of her own, but it does not live up to the needs of the chapter overall), but its endlessness and corrosiveness or mobility, its resistance to fixed endings and conclusions. And yet how Felski responds to Butler is also to emphasize the undendingness of discourse: she points out that when people accept or claim identities (which Butler is resisting) they are practicing what I would call (after Spivak) “strategic essentialism;” not as final or enduring states but as temporary ones: “they speak, they hesitate, and they speak again” (79). Such essentializing can be used to police and control, but it is not always used for this purpose or this effect. “It is not that questions of power are irrelevant to such speech acts but that the writer must clarify their relevance by attending to specific cases.” [Always contextualize?] None of these very apt observations seem to be much of a criticism of Butler’s point about language, however. It seems that in Felski’s situated view, aspects like citationality and the entailments of articulation are simply being ignored. Of course, for instance, a strategic essentialism that makes an appeal to a concept of enduring identity, reproduces that concept and keeps it alive and relevant. Merely to point out that discourse is situated and agonistic, etc. does not obviate that point about overall and long-term effects. It is all about articulation, and Latour and Felski, in debating the uses of language and concepts, are playing the same game. She does cite Toril Moi making an observation Volosinov would approve of: “It is impossible to theorize power in language in advance of any utterance.... You need to understand who says what to whom, for what purpose, under what circumstances.” Yet again, Volosinov’s target was actual functionalists and structuralists, it is hard to see how such a criticism applied to Butler cannot but depend on a reductive understanding of what they are saying and doing.

Nearing the end of this section, she makes the claim that the style of antinaturalism creates “a forbiddingly high wall between ordinary language and the language of critique” (80). A fair point but one fitting more for the academy in general than any particular school within it – one could argue that much of what ANT does is construct new terminology to replace the old, thus creating new in-groups who know the right language to use (e.g., “matters of concern,” “attachments,” and so on). She reiterates her critique of the critique of naturalism and the “taken for granted:”

It is one thing to point out that certain ideas are bad and also taken for granted. It is another to conclude that they are bad because they are taken for granted—in other words, that anything taken for granted is an agent of domination.

Two thoughts here: 1) part of the most successful aspect of her critique of critique so far, is precisely how she has pointed out that certain aspects of it (such as its special radical or moral character) are in fact taken for granted, and that this is bad! And even allows for domination to creep in! 2) again, what she is specifically targetting in this paragraph is the idea of nature, and it seems a rearticulation is being called for – and what rearticulation of “nature” and of “the natural” is being made possible, and for whom, and for what interests could an “elective affinity” be found, in the present and near future?

She ends with the observation that all forms of thinking and language rely on unanalyzed “black boxes” and here we see perhaps, a more important critique – a reference to the limits of critique promised by the book’s title. “In short, critique overestimates [aka, “takes for granted?”] the transcendent force of its own self-consciousness and the extent to which it can liberate itself from convention” (81). [Mind you, what was identified a few pages ago as “fin-de-siècle critical theory” is now equated with all of “critique.”] She equates this with “the old dream of philosophical transcendence, the view from nowhere,” – what she earlier referred to as the “suspended animation” of the philosopher (76) – and this is a ridiculous thing to say, given the political attachments of many of the people she is criticizing, and the arguably disabling attack she herself is making on their attempts at avoiding essentialism, etc. – and to what end? Is she not the one who will be left in “suspended animation” via her critique of all the attachments and black box assumptions of critique as a radical practice?

In the concluding section, she summarizes, “we have considered two variants of critique, hermeneutics versus genealogy, depth versus surface, the pursuit of truth versus the interrogation of nature.” Once again, slippages abound – two common sets of metaphors used to describe critique have somehow become two “variants of critique,” not to mention the fact that she has in fact identified quite a range of metaphors, which don’t seem to neatly fall into the two categories that she keeps insisting on. And of course, it is weird to call arguments against naturalization “the interrogation of nature,” for so many reasons, but most simply, because its advocates don’t believe that what they are interrogating is in fact “nature.” She discusses Foucault’s theory of power and how it differs from Marxian and Freudian depth-seeking, and cites Dreyfuss and Rabinow on the claim that Foucault’s work escapes the charge of being a “hermeneutics of suspicion” (82). She goes back to her move, in the previous chapter of (quite reasonably, imho) expanding on the use of the word “hermeneutics” to include what Foucault is also doing, as “second-order hermeneutics” (83). (And thus the opposition between “digging down” and “standing back” “variants” of critique, has now become an opposition or rather historical and methodological relation, between “strong” (aka first-order) and second-order hermeneutics). Here I should expect some recognition of the similarity in moves: Foucault criticized “hermeneutics” and tried to create new methods (e.g., “genealogy”) that move beyond it; isn’t this what Felski is also doing with “critique?” And in both cases it is a fair question to what extent the words they have chosen to describe what they are critiquing are accurate or even reasonable fits. She ends with a call for a text to be seen as a “phenomenon to be engaged” and “a potential source of knowledge rather than just an object of knowledge;” and for reading as “a cocreation between actors that leaves neither party unchanged” (84). To me, this comes across as a reasonable, though not particularly shocking or surprising call – for what we could call a third-order hermeneutics?

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