Monday, May 16, 2022

Limits of Critique, Chapter 4


Summary of Chapter 4: Crrritique

I came to this chapter with great expectations that Felski would finally address the political side of critique, particularly the non-academic “vernacular” critique, which had been given short shrift throughout the book. She does address these to some extent, with many great asides and insights. However, the overall framing of the book – the emphasis on “critique” as a deeply suspicious and arrogant activity, and the definition of “critique” into a corner of what it is more typically taken to mean – is simply getting tiresome. In this chapter, as in others, Felski addresses a range of important and interesting issues relative to the practice and imaginary of “critique,” in particular authors who emphasize the ambiguous or complex character or situation of critique as a practice; but having adopted her framing of critique as a limiting practice that has to be gotten beyond, she is then forced to dampen down all these other perspectives, flattening them into the opposition between “critique” and “post-critique,” and just watching this happen again and again becomes a bit dull and disappointing. Felski, Sedgwick, Latour, and others have argued that critique has lost its revolutionary “steam” and become predictable and obligatory in recent decades; it seems “post-critique” achieves the same effect in record time. [“First as tragedy, then as farce?”]. Opportunities to get beyond the traditional idea of critique are repeatedly dismissed, in the interest of keeping “critique” in a box, in which it can be assailed in the name of an as-yet-nebulously defined “post-critique.”

Felski begins the chapter by imagining her readers growing impatient or having even thrown down the book in exasperation; Professor Challenger’s puzzled, dwindling audience comes to mind, but unlike Challenger, Felski is not going through some process of dissolution: she is holding firm to her argument and its rhetorical framing, come what may. She reiterates the point that much of the effect and prestige of critique is achieved through rhetorical stances and ploys, “invoked rather than examined” (117), but then, without any apparent sense of irony, uses her own rhetorical framing to fight and “puncture” the rhetoric of critique. She raises what is one of the most important points in her book, what might be called the paradox of academic critique: critique is framed as inherently oppositional if not revolutionary, but in some parts of academia it has become the establishment. Unfortunately the “postcritique” stance seems to evade this paradox rather than resolve or transcend it: the answer seems to be to give up on the idea of being oppositional or revolutionary as academics. [The fact that “critique” is a much more marginalized practice in the most influential and well-funded parts of academia is ignored.]

Felski iterates the important [critique] of critique, also made by Latour, as idealist/utopian, relying on some ideal society that remains “elsewhere” in time and space; this emphasis on an ideal means that practitioners of critique can always be suspicious of, or even dismissive of, any partial or moderate coming-to-terms within the present system – advances such as the legalization of gay marriage are shown to be partial and ultimately superficial gains which maintain the current system rather than allowing for true progress. This also leads to the paradox that critique, as a dominant academic practice, cannot be conscious of or accept its own dominance as part of the system that it is inherently suspicious of.

Nietzsche’s maxim comes to mind: “All ideals are dangerous: because they debase and brand the actual; all are poisons, but indispensable as temporary cures” (Will to Power, #223). By invoking the ambiguity of the pharmakon Nietzsche has actually out-Latoured Latour on this point – ideals such as the “elsewhere” supporting critique are not inherently or always poisons, they may be cures depending on how and where they are deployed [within what assemblage, how, etc.]. With critique-as-pharmakon we are back to the “how much?” question that seems to be much more fundamental (and continuously re-raised by successive generations of critics) – like all those before, the “post-critique” critics are playing this game with their own re-articulation, but have not developed a critique that captures this aspect of the game they are playing. Citing Vattimo, she notes the ties of critique to “a progressive philosophy of history” (119), and indeed the values and rhetoric she is identifying as at the heart of “critique” seems largely to be traits shared by modernity itself (including “post-modern” variants). With such a large, backgrounded formation as the ultimate source of what you are criticizing, the point of singling out “critique” to target by itself becomes unclear – perhaps a sort of argument-by-synecdoche [could “critique” be seen as that one vent which, if destroyed, takes out the entire Death Star of the modern?] or could “critique” simply be a scapegoat, taking on all the sins of the academic complex, so we can get on with business as usual?

Felski notes, but does not pursue very far, the “mystique of critique” (120), along with the question of just why the nicely exotic word “critique” was incorporated wholesale into the English language when “criticism” had already been around for some time [William’s Keywords entry on “Criticism” unfortunately fails to mention “critique” at all]. It seems that a good way to puncture this mystique would be to tear down the distinctions between “critique” and “criticism;” however, Felski’s response is the opposite: she seeks to strengthen and reinforce the distinction, in order to trap “critique” in a small corner of the (previously) overlapping semantic space. Setting up the rest of the chapter, she proposes to discuss five qualities of “the current rhetoric of critique” (121): it is secondary, negative, intellectual, “from below,” and “does not tolerate rivals.”

By “secondary” she means that critique never stands on its own: “a critique is always a critique of something” (121). Her argument here involves demarcating a clear boundary between “critique” and the broader, less suspicious practices of “criticism” which critique targets [though ironically, criticism in any use of the word is also a secondary discourse]. One of the better parts of this insight involves critique becoming a moving target a la the avant garde: each generation of critics critiques the previous generation, using critique better and more rigorously and showing all the hidden assumptions and layers of meaning which the earlier critics missed. She notes the spatiotemporal framing: critique looks backward at a past which it understands better than those in the past ever could have; not unlike the native subjects of early anthropology, the critics of the past are trapped, “contained within a historical moment” (123); the current wave of practitioners of critique, in contrast, stand outside of time, and are thus able to see more clearly [but cf the later discussion of “transcendent” vs. “imminent” critique]. My passing objections here are that critique is not only backward-looking but Janus-faced (toward that future “elsewhere” which she had previously criticized, but here forgets about), and that the critical stance of critique toward established truths, tastes, etc. is not simply about some will to denial or negativity, but about a contest between differing values and standards of valuation.

The “secondary” aspect of critique means that critique is always “ventriloquating” past texts and past critics, taking their words into its own mouth and delivering out of them new, previously hidden or unsuspected meanings. This important, Bakhtinian insight, unfortunately, seems to Felski to be a failing of critique rather than a key to its importance: “Critique, in short, cannot entirely protect itself from the possibility of being undone by its own object” (125). To insist that this is a fatal blow, Felski has to dismiss the arguments made by many thinkers who would see this as a central aspect of what critique is all about in the first place.

She raises and then somewhat weakly dismisses Adorno’s distinction between “transcendent” and “imminent” critique [though her brevity here can be perhaps excused, seeing as a similar distinction, and Felski’s collapsing of said distinction into one, was the subject of Chapter 2]. She notes that critique “opens up a gap” between itself and its object, in a way that is not merely suspicious or denigrating, but productive, allowing for “thinking otherwise;” but then follows this with what feels like an intentionally reductionist misreading of Foucault’s “injunction that we should challenge what exists rather than provide alternatives” (126). Felski argues that critique following this immanentist programme, somehow [stunted or perverted] due to its lack of a clear goal or outcome, finds its “impulse toward transcendence” manifested in other ways, primarily in the ethical/moral stance of the critic as outsider, rebel, etc.: “an attitude of restless skepticism, irony, or estrangement – rather than a systematically grounded framework” (127). What Felski seems to have intentionally missed is that Foucault’s injunction was a practical and political one, intended to use that very opening-up and open-ended power of critique as part of its praxis to create change.

Turning to her second aspect, Felski argues that critique is inherently negative, even if it sometimes has a “affirmative residue” (127). She notes Marx’s definition of critique as an “inversion of an inversion,” an act of setting aright that which mainstream ideology has obscured [of course, from Marx’s perspective, this would make critique a positive/corrective response to a negative situation]. Her primary target once again, however, is the rhetorical and affective stance of the critic, as having a privileged perspective “as if the negativity of critique were somehow beyond rhetoric or misinterpretation or prejudice or narrative, a nose-to-nose encounter with the gritty textures of truth” (129). Nevertheless, it is Felski herself who insists most strongly on seeing critique in this way. She notes the critique of such negativity offered by “post-modernists,” “Foucauldians” and so on, who prefer a language of “troubling” or “problematizing” to outright condemnation; but quickly dismisses these, flattening all variants into a “common ethos” of “sharply honed suspicion” (131). Here is one of the points where Felski’s argument simply becomes boring and predictable. The best arguments of post-critique, imho, are the opening up kind, not trying to shut down critique but arguing for a diverse range of approaches, in which suspicion is but one of several hermeneutics. But here, Felski is faced with a diversity, an opening up of multiple approaches, and her response is to shut them down, by arguing that they are all, in essence, the same. It’s like the promise of “post-critique” is hampered by its need to fight off and put down “critique.”

The third aspect is “critique is intellectual,” which is mostly about the use of language. Should practitioners of “critique” use common-sense, broadly understandable language, or obscure, difficult terminology? Arguments on both sides are marshalled: Minh-Ha weighs in on the perils of clarity, and Butler on the value of difficulty; Bové and Dutton, on the other side, weight in against “intellectual kitsch.” However, as Felski points out, “the quality of being either pedestrian or perplexing is embedded not in the words themselves but in how readers perceive and respond to these words” (137); in other words, what matters is the audience and the pragmatic aspect of communicating with them; “difficulty” and “clarity” are mere surface effects here, relative to context. Instead of fully embracing the implications of this insight, however (which imho lead to an opening-up critique of critique), she shifts gears and starts emphasizing the semantic distinction between “critique” and “criticism” in which (per her usage) “critique” is something academics and intellectuals engage in, and “criticism” is a more general activity of evaluation and discussion which anyone can engage in. She cites Latour’s complaint about overbearing academics who assume they have special insight which everyday people lack; Latour of course uses straw men for this but we can quite fairly insert Bourdieu’s concept of “misrecognition” through which everyone except Bourdieuian sociologists are persistently duped. Responding to this phenomenon she brings in the very promising argument by Boltanski and Thévenot about the “ordinariness of critique” out in the everyday world. But of course – to maintain the overall polemic framing – Felski cannot accept this as an insight or as a precursor to her own argument, but instead folds this kind of thinking about “critique” back into the elitist form. She insists that it is wrong for academics to refer to any such extra-intellectual criticism as “critique” because “‘critique’ is not a term of everyday language” (139) to which the first two responses that spring to mind are 1) sorry about that, Gramsci and 2) but “criticism” is? I feel this need to shut down the use of the word “critique” [uncritically, I would add: not as in “not negatively” (because negativity is not the productive core of critique anyway) but “without sufficient self-evaluation or questioning”] misses an opportunity to undermine the assumptions and privilege of academic critique [but then again, it is only critique that is being targetted here; academia and its privileges are not, and criticisms thereof are only invoked strategically]. For a more promising, open-ended critique of academic critique, we have only to look back at Sedgwick’s embrace of the term “theory” in a similar vein to Boltanski and Thévenot’s “ordinary critique.”

Of course, Felski – to maintain consistency – needs to deny the primacy or even the existence of critique as an extra-academic phenomenon for the sake of her next argument, which will be against the claim that critique is “from below.” Here, she finally references Foucault’s “What is Critique,” but only for the idea of critique as “the desire not to be governed” (140), which allows her to conflate this sort of “second-order” critique (per her use of this term in earlier chapters) represented by Foucault, Butler, etc., with critique that opposes itself to ideology, a la Horkheimer, Debord, etc. (141). She mocks critique’s self-image as “a blow against authority rather than the exercise of authority” that fancies itself as “allied, in some way, with the interests of traditionally subordinate groups” (140) on the premise that “those at odds with the status quo see better and farther than others” (141). “Critique is authorized by being rooted in the experiences of those who have been traditionally deprived of authority: the traditions of vernacular suspicion” (142).

The ability of academia to justly claim such a heritage or alliance is of course wide open to challenging; however, Felski perhaps considers this too easy and well-trodden a path (she would see it as a “critique of critique” in any case). For all that, imho it would have been the more productive and interesting path to take. Missing from any of this discussion is any concept of an experience of contradictions or a break, or the very possibility of Gramsci’s organic intellectuals. Felski has already insisted, and here continues to do so, that “critique” does not exist outside the ivory tower, so she cannot now take it away from the academics and award it to the plebs. In any event her agenda is solely to attack the concept, or rather the word “critique,” and the particular rhetorical-affective formation she associates with it; like Latour, she seems to have no interest in deflating the power or prestige of academia per se. She does give some ink to those critics who complain of the “domestication of critique” by the university, which she dismisses with reference to the problematic “domestication-domus” metaphor (145), instead of treating the larger issue of critique as a phenomenon recuperated (we might say) by the university, and the class positions and power relations that shape it. But again, this would be a “critique of critique” and is thus off the table; and after all it is not the university that is the target, but “critique” alone. For all the many great arguments and insights that Felski has made in this book, it seems we reach here one of the significant limits of post-critique.

There are several of these good insights in this chapter, but they are either posed as minor caveats to her over-arching argument, or kept safely on the “post-critique” side of the critique/post-critique distinction. She notes that “critique not only ‘detaches from,’ but ‘connects to’” (144), that is, is involved in the formation of networks, alliances, even that romantic sense a practitioner can have of taking part in a grand historical tradition of intellectual opposition, a conversation with “Kant, Marx, and Foucault” (135); she lists the spatial metaphors involved in the positioning of critique, “inside and outside, center and margin” (146). Echoing Latour, she makes a profoundly sensible call for a “politics of relation, not of negation” (147), without any admission of irony whatsoever, or of the idea that critique could also be more about relation than negation (despite having talked about critique-as-relation three pages earlier). It seems that there is much potential for opening-up and rearticulating or contestation of “critique” here, but that would of course be “critique of critique” – preserving something that needs to be destroyed while possibly imperiling some things which need to be preserved – [and an admission, furthermore, that critique is actually also productive rather than merely negative.] Critique is to be defined merely as negation, and that negation is to be negated. All the old attachments and chronotopes of “critique” must be smashed and replaced: I want to congratulate Felski and Latour for how well they philosophize with a hammer, but I fear they would insist, “no, no, this is not a hammer, it’s a post-hammer.

The chapter concludes with a discussion of the final aspect of critique, that it “does not tolerate rivals” (147). There is a very valid point at the heart of this, regarding the use of the suspicious attitude to shut down and/or silence alternative approaches. However, Felski herself here is intent on shutting down those critiques of critique which she refers to as “critique of critique,” (in contrast to her own, “post-critique” critique of critique). This is all dependent on her purification of the word “critique” into the corner of incessant suspicion and negativity; the “critique of critique” must always result in an intensification of suspicion: “the problem with critique, it turns out, is that it is not yet critical enough” (148: emphases original). My growing sense, from reading this and other discussions, is that that is only a part of what critiques of critique typically involve – instead, there is a contestation over the character of the gap that practices of critique establish in relation to their object; and there is also a “how much” or a “how far” question, of taking critique/suspicion further, or pulling it back. Felski, for instance, is in fact saying that “critique” is not yet critical enough, because it fails to consider the downsides of its own excessive suspicion, and should retreat back to a more productive point. This sort of recalibration or rebalancing of critique seems to be a big part of what is in fact contested over time in debates over critique, and the reason why I would include Felski, Latour, etc. as participating in such a critique of critique, pace their objections. And there is a lot more room for nuance and productive ambiguity in this space than Felski seems to admit. And it is really this shutting down or closing off of that productive space which is disappointing about this book, and runs counter to its stated promise. In the last paragraph, Felski cites Rorty to the effect that “the best way of redirecting an established line of thought is not to take up arms against it … but to come up with inspiring alternatives and new vocabularies” (150). Why wasn’t this the starting point of this book (as it was in Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter) instead of the end point? Why are we reading this on page 150? In any event, Felski is not yet ready to lay down her arms, but will continue battling on for two more chapters.

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