Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Limits of Critique, Conclusion

Summary of “In Short”

In her conclusion, Felski reiterates her key points and emphasizes her intentions with the book, which is “motivated by a desire to articulate a positive vision for humanistic thought in the face of growing skepticism about its value” (186). (Though one wonders whether this is best achieved by infighting over terminology). Her target has been the “rhetoric of suspicious reading;” she defines critique as “the hardening of disagreement into a given repertoire of argumentative moves and interpretative methods” (187). This point is well taken so far as it goes, but the question remains to what extent “critique” is the best name for this; also, her attempts to avoid being seen to engage in anything like “critique” as she has defined it, has prevented her, imho, from tracing some of the more interesting attachments and articulations that could be followed in these interesting times of changing terminology. She does provide a backstory on how it was the puzzled responses to an earlier work which motivated her to elucidate the “limits of critique” (192).

She provides a list of what she sees as the most significant “difficulties of critique” (188-90):

1. “Its one-sided view of the work of art” (as something to be criticized rather than appreciated).

2. “Its affective inhibition.”

3. “Its picture of society” (aka the ironic stance of againstness and “problematizing.”)

4. “Its methodological asymmetry.”

The first three criticisms depend on her, in my mind reductive, polemical framing of the meaning of “critique” into a small corner of what it is typically taken to mean, then dismissing any statements to the contrary. The fourth is more interesting but is at least as applicable to ANT, and many other scholarly approaches; it is, for instance, the classic (and arguably unfair) argument against “hermeneutics,” which Felski celebrates.

She clarifies certain points which she is not making:

1. She does not argue that critique is a form of “symbolic violence.”

2. Nor does she equate it with “faux-radical posturing;” critique has had great and positive cultural and political effects, although “critique’s distrust of co-option and institutions means it is not always well placed to assess its own impact” (190).

She concludes with a call for more positive and nuanced forms of reading, along the lines of Sedgwick’s reparative reading, and Bennett’s “enchantment,” and reiterates her distinction between “critique” and “criticism.” Granted, Felski is in the field of literary criticism, whose practitioners can be assumed to have a rich and nuanced understanding of what is meant by the word “criticism.” I would argue, however, that for the general public the meaning is reversed, as expressed in the call you are more likely to hear in, say, a college social science class, or art workshop, to “not just be critical, but engage in critique.” Rightly or wrongly, it is “criticism,” not “critique,” that carries the implication, in the general culture, of mere negativity. Even if we refuse that simplistic connotation, and opt for the more cultured sense of “criticism,” this still carries the implication of some particularly knowledgeable expert (possessed of “the good eye,” to quote Gillian Rose), who explains works of art to the masses. In contrast, it is “critique” which, to me anyway, carries connotations not only of more democratic possibilities, but of playfulness and invention (not perhaps totally pertinent, but the scene in Young Marx in which Engels and Marx gleefully announce their “Kritik der Kritischen Kritik!” comes to mind).

And on that note, Felski does end the book somewhat dramatically and playfully: “The point, in the end, is not to describe critique, but to change it” (193).

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