I thought I’d dash off a rather sketchy review of Rita Felski’s The Limits of Critique (Chicago, 2015). I’ve been enthusiastically reading and thinking about it since it was released last fall. It’s a really interesting text by an excellent scholar, and it wrestles with a lot of methodological questions that have been on my mind since I started grad school. What follows isn’t a thorough review, and maybe not much of any sort of review at all. I don’t bother with summarizing chapters or carefully reconstructing the argument. Mostly, I just wanted to think through some of the ways I agree with the project, and where I don’t.
Anyway, the Limits of Critique is one of the more interesting contributions to that age-old question of how to do scholarship on arts forms like literature or music. Old though it is, is has become a timely question again. I’ve noticed a recent vogue for interventions in scholarship, many of which are framed historically as criticisms of the current paradigm of scholarship. In my field, this most closely coincides with what is usually called (often with groans or embarrassment) the new musicology. While that term is confusing for a number of reasons, what is really at stake is the legacy of the intellectual climate that emerged in universities in the 1980s and 1990s. What once felt like a Wild West moment for the academy, of diving into French philosophy or reading bell hooks without a clear sense of what might come next, feels to many today like it is increasingly routine and expected. Those revolutionary upheavals are now doctrinaire, and it isn’t always clear how that squares with either the academy’s promise to produce new knowledge or the internal promises of methods that profess to be revolutionary. I’m planning on writing a longer piece down the road about this issue. But for now, suffice to say: a number of scholars in my field have written manifestos alleging that the new musicology is getting quite old. I’ll give a longer bibliography in that later piece, but for starters, have a glance at James Currie’s “Music After All” or Nicholas Mathew and Mary Ann Smart’s “Elephants in the Music Room.”
Felski’ book is a contribution to the parallel discussion happening in literary studies, one that I like because it has a bit more self-consciousness about the changing character of academic thought. Musicology has been a tad slower in asking about why certain modes of knowledge have prevailed over others, instead focusing on more narrow questions (eg. should we use historical context to describe symphonies or not). Literary studies has more directly asked why we read the sorts of things we read and what we hope to get out of them; the best text I’ve encountered in this realm is Terry Eagleton’s After Theory.
Felski’s text takes the form of a polemic against what she calls suspicion. She argues that the de facto official methodology guiding literary criticism is hermeneutics of suspicion (this phrase should look familiar to readers of Paul Ricoeur). This interpretive strategy is one in which the primary function of the critic is to demystify. That is to say, the critic is regarded as someone who stands before the hardened, impenetrable text and cracks it open, revealing its inner workings and hidden secrets in the process. It is in this sense that texts are regarded with suspicion. Whether they deserve it because ideology clouds the eyes of readers or simply because of their mere status as artworks, it makes no difference. Each projects an understanding of the scholar as one who doubts the surface appearance of the work.
This conflation is important. Both social theory-based critical work (such as feminist, Marxist, etc.) or simply those strategies of intense close reading - I think of musicology’s analytic methods, say topic theory or Schenker - stem from a logic of suspicion. Both the Marxist who believes that a work participates in unconscious ideology and the music theorist who argues that we must formalize our narrative theory before we can really hear the piano chestnut are participating in a world in which texts withhold.
This dovetails with a more historically based claim: suspicion has emerged as a paradigmatic way of thinking in literary studies today. Suspicion is what Felski terms a mood, a style that hovers throughout the academy. Moreover, it is pervasive. It is available in the toolkits of the most senior scholar or the greenest new recruit to a graduate program, and unites a range of practices, methods, and worldviews under the common umbrella of suspicion.
This argument has force. I think it is helpful for calling attention to the fact that a certain set of methods, once disruptive and fringe, have now risen to the top of the heap and become something much more orthodox. I’m not questioning the legitimacy of critique. In fact, my primary training and intellectual orientation is centered on it. But I do think of how in my own schooling (and admittedly, my work), critique functioned very much like a default setting. How many term papers did I dash off at the last minute by groping around for some problematic feature to expose? How many friends then read my work and reminded me that I forgot to supplement my queer theory analysis with one focusing on class? And how many times have we all grimaced through that undertheorized AMS paper, which seemed untroubled by the need to first lay out its critical cards before moving to a discussion of the symphony?
It’s not that I’m suggesting critique should (or shouldn’t) be abandoned, but that in many such instances, a simple question often goes unanswered: who cares? It increasingly feels to me that the limit of critique today isn’t just that it is a commonplace method, but that it has become mere method. That is to say, it is regarded simply as a way of doing scholarship, one that phones in the necessity of doing it that way. So, even as I was eagerly rushing off to produce Marxist readings of this and that, I wasn’t ever really asking whether or not anyone needed me to.
As sympathetic as I am to Felski’s diagnosis, I do depart from her in certain respects. The argument for what should replace our pervasive suspicion hinges on the expansion of the types of interpretation available to critics. I won’t do the full position justice. But, just to gloss it: Why not, Felski asks in her 2008 book Uses of Literature, write from a perspective of enchantment, one driven by those aspects of literature that intoxicate and entrance us? The Limits of Critique expands this plea for broadening our methodological toolkit, calling for alternative strategies of criticism. Essentially, the punch line is that we need to diversify the paradigm.
The more minor of my retorts is that this position downplays the broader, dialectical character of writing in the humanities. Felski expects this sort of objection. She argues that her point isn’t that we solely do critique today, just that it casts a disproportionate shadow on scholarly work. Even granting this, I’m still not quite convinced of the diagnosis. I’ve often thought that the anti-suspicion people (eg. Sedgwick, Latour, etc.) tend to oversell the oppositional character of enchantment/reparative readings, as if the primary reason scholars get into this business is to tear down art.
Hmmmmm… In disciplines like literary studies and musicology, where our starting place is essentially trying to explain why people love the works they love, it feels a little absurd to suggest that enchantment doesn’t continue to structure the field. Most of us got into the business because we loved some composer or pop diva or whatever, and our readers mostly look to us to tell them why they love that composer or diva. Indeed, if I had to posit a dominant – and problematic – assumption about scholarship, it is that we study artworks because we care for artworks.
But I don’t want to do that, really. I would argue that the challenge isn’t actually figuring out which single interpretive strategy is more dominant in contemporary scholarship, but of coming with a cohesive diagnosis that accounts for the diversity of the humanities without reduction. Simply put, I think the position isn’t sufficiently dialectical. That is to say, I think the anti-suspicion camp ignores the interplay between suspicion and affection that guides arts scholarship. I would argue that we today hover between the worship of the artistic object and resentment of it, between the erotic character of art and those aspects of it that are a giant turn off. They stem from the same place. Texts are powerful for scholars, which makes them both dangerous and intellectually desirable. We love music because it enchants us, and resent it when we can’t seem to put our finger on why.
This starts to point at the bigger objection, one that expands the question of “why interpret X way” to a broader one about artistic study as such. As I remarked above, “why Marxist critique a symphony?” is a question I don’t think we have a good answer for. I don’t see a much more persuasive answer hanging around for the question, “why enchant the symphony?” Indeed, the basic thing we need to have a good reason for isn’t suspecting or enchanting, but artistic scholarship in the first place.
This, then, is the real thought I have. Felski’s book offers a deep analytic of suspicion. But I think we need to bring the same analytic force to the hermeneutics in the hermeneutics of suspicion. Simply put, I think that, in calling for new strategies of interpretation, Felski appears to beg the question of interpretation itself. This is a persistent habit among all of us who study the arts (myself included). We assume that art criticism needs no justification, and recast all manner of thought as a form of art criticism. We read Angela Davis, Kant, whoever, and then say, “Exactly! Musicology!” This slippage isn’t always earned. This is my beef with Ricoeur, who said that Marx was one of the three “masters” dominating the “school of suspicion” along with Nietzsche and Freud (Freud and Philosophy, 32). Marxism is not hermeneutic at all, if by that we mean a theory about how to read texts. Justifications for it come entirely from outside the question of how to interpret poets. Abandoning its robust claims about capital and political economy (or parallel claims in support of feminism, critical race theory, even Schenker), new questions have to be asked: What is literary interpretation? And what is it for?
Indeed, we also need to ask: why broaden interpretive strategies, when it isn’t even self-evident that we need any interpretive strategies in the first place? The answer to this question is the determining ground for the choice of what to do. If we interpret because artworks don’t really speak in the same ways we do – a common position in my field, where our object feels so different from language – then critique is not just a form of interpretation but the fundamental nature of interpretation. Perhaps we cannot but regard texts with suspicion, and must wrest hidden messages from them. Alternatively, if art is so saturated by sexist ideology that it can’t but lie to us, I’ll be damned if we don’t need even more suspicious criticism. But instead, perhaps the value of art is in how it needs no suspicious decoding, in which case…
…do we really need critics to explain anything about them all? (I swear, no more rhetorical questions in this essay!). There we start to get at the deep problem. Criticism might not serve much purpose if art doesn’t need to be cracked open like a husk. Indeed, it seems like the last conclusion that might follow from such a realization is that we need to expand our limited analytic toolkit. Far from needing an end to limits, we might simply need an end to criticism.
Of course, the even more devastating issue is that this parallels the looming possibility of the end of art. We might not really need art any more than we need its critics. When our object itself doesn’t necessarily guarantee us the things it once did, it’s definitely uncertain whether or not we should have people who go out and interpret it. If nobody really cares about Shakespeare or Beethoven, do we need literary critics and musicologists to produce close readings of their work, critical or reparative or otherwise? (Sorry, I lied).
There is a long history of trying to answer such questions, dealing with everything from the personal to the social to the methodological dimensions of arts-oriented scholarly work. But what is to be done remains unclear. That, I would argue, is the limit to critique today.