Summary of Chapter 5: “Context Stinks!”
This chapter could well have been the first chapter of a much more convincing and inspiring book, with, for example, some case studies illustrating her ideas in this chapter (and indeed, Felski’s 2020 book, Hooked: Art and Attachment, appears to follow the program laid out here). Felski now tones down, for the most part, the polemic against “critique” to offer some suggestions of how reparative or eudaimonic reading can be done, in a way that is “postcritical – as distinct from uncritical” (151), with “a language of addition rather than subtraction” (182).
The name of the chapter derives from a Latour quote, and refers to the misuse (as Felski makes clear at several points) of context to “contain” texts within a bounded field of explanation. This is tied to the old debates between internalism/formalism versus externalist/historically contextualizing approaches to art, and the dominance of the latter since the late twentieth century is what makes it Felski’s primary target. However, she is not calling for a reversion to the older formalist approach, but to a new way of reading and critiquing (or “post-critiquing” I suppose) that gets beyond that old [shell game], and beyond the related old shell game of agency versus structure.
Her very reasonable proposal is to treat works of art as actants, with their own unique capacities and need to work through attachments, networks, etc. Much of the chapter is taken up with laying out this idea, and there are several great, and very quotable definitions spelling out ANT concepts with a clarity and directness typically lacking in Latour. She also discusses more reparative and joyful modes of reading, replacing the hermeneutics of suspicion with concepts of “wonder” and attachment. This is all very promising, though it would have been more interesting to see it applied, instead of just raved about.
There are several points in the chapter which lead me again to question to what extent “critique” is the right name for what she is arguing against, and also for whether that thing she is arguing against (the rhetoric or hermeneutic of suspicion) is in fact the right antagonist. For instance, she reiterates her [critique] of the endlessness of critique, in which the practitioners of the new, more critical critique pity the poor, past practitioners of the old, benighted forms of critique, only themselves to be replaced down the road; yet she is essentially doing the same thing, by situating her ANT approach as the end of this series. This seems to be a matter, not of critique per se, but of the role of critique [as re-articulation or reterritorialization] in relation to the legitimation of academic and scientific authority within modernity; simply pointing out that there is always more going on (a la We Have Never Been Modern) does not, in itself, dissolve the power of such a historicizing frame, which is, after all, why Felski herself, without any apparent sense of irony, engages in it even as she criticizes it. And in general it seems like that construction of academic and scientific authority, or bases of/modes of performance of authority, is the bigger fish that is simply not being fried here.
(Perhaps “critique” could be seen as synecdoche here, but there is a danger in taking synecdoche too seriously, for instance we could might focus on getting rid of the crown, or for that matter the king, when it is the institution of royalty that is the problem.)