Rita Felski’s The Limits of Critique

In her 2015 book, Rita Felski describes how a critical or suspicious way of reading has become the dominant academic method for studies in literature. The hermeneutics of suspicion, as she calls it using a phrase from Bruno Latour, are based on the premise that the text is withholding something; that in order to arrive at the core of the text, one has to read against the grain. It is a a mentality that induces paranoia. An important task in the eyes of the critic is to dispel illusions, and yet the act of suspicious reading maintains it own narrative structure and runs the risk of unknowingly manufacturing a secret to uncover in order to serve the initial premise, thereby creating a different kind of illusion all of its own.

In its surgical efficiency to expose hidden (or imagined) traces of domination, critique seems to act as a progressive force. But is that really the effect of relentless suspicion? When complicity is revealed, what comes next? Ideally, the ignorant reader is turned into a more enlightened individual, but there is a waft of elitism to that thought. And as Felski shows, the suspicious mood induces distrust in authorities, so is it not more likely that instead of enlightenment, one spreads suspicious attitude instead? If there was a hidden motive behind the text analyzed by this author, what is the hidden agenda of this text in turn?

Felski is clear in pointing out however, that she does not want to denigrate critical analysis and return to a naïve aestheticism. She merely stresses that a suspicious mind is not the only attitude with which we can approach books (and indeed phenomena in general). Getting trapped by letting a tool of the mind dictate the boundaries of thinking itself stifles our creativity, hence the limits of critique. There might be a multitude if other aspects of literary works that are not visible to the suspicious reader, but will appear to an open mind, one who is reading with the text instead of against it.

She presents a different mood, or indeed several, which together might go under the denomination of post-critical. Two examples are the restorative, as suggested by Eve Sedgwick Kosofsky, and the one based on Actor Network Theory (ANT). According to that model, it is a mistake to view a book as a passive substrate for the reading subject to project his or her prejudices upon, instead the text has an agency of its own. Not in any sentient way of course, but in that when meeting with a reader, not only the text is affected by the subject, but he or she is in turn affected by the text. The communication goes both ways in that sense. From a larger perspective: Not only do we use our understanding of the world to understand a book, but a text will in turn influence how we make sense of our lives, quite apart from the narrative universe.

The interactions across the networks are in no way restricted by time or space. Therefore, the concept of context must also step down from its throne. Why are temporal “boxes” still the standard way of sorting cultural artifacts? It is not so different from categories attributed to national identity, which have all but lost their significance. The interpretations of texts are in a constant state of flux, for what reason must first temporal context equal to most truthful? I find these questions highly intriguing. It allows us to see connections between artistic works across time, space and genres, thereby widening the horizons of interpretation considerably.

What are your thoughts on this?

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