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Criticism After Critique: Aesthetics, Literature, and the Political.

Criticism After Critique: Aesthetics, Literature, and the Political, ed. Jeffrey R. Di Leo (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014). 229 pp.

This important and timely collection of eleven essays, with an introduction by Jeffrey R. Di Leo and an afterword by R. M. Berry, should be of considerable interest to anyone concerned about the future viability and vitality of academic literary studies. Rethinking the relation of philosophical-political value to aesthetic signification and appreciation, the collection engages very basic questions, such as how literary criticism can escape anachronism or provinciality in the current intellectual climate, what sorts of readings and pedagogical practices follow from renewed attention to aesthetic aspects of literature, and what place remains for "literary studies" within institutional landscapes oriented ever more emphatically toward technocratic-corporate models.

Beginning "from at least the birth of the high theory of the 1970s," Di Leo notes, "critique has been widely regarded as the bedrock of the humanities" (2), but critique itself--ranging from Frankfurt school "unmasking" of ideology encoded in entertainment industry products to post-structuralism-inspired "political" readings of art's naturalizing of illicit power relations--has recently come under challenge as being (a) naive and politically ineffectual, (b) itself inflexible, repetitive, and dogmatic, and (c) unable to sustain an account of the aesthetic that justifies specific, in-depth study of literature and the others arts. Indeed, the idea that critique may undo ideological mystification assumes that ideology aspires to truth-value and rationalism, but Zizek's 1989 argument that people enjoy ideological consistency for its own sake is supported by abundant evidence that ideology is impervious to critique even as it absorbs critique's techniques. In a world where Nietzsche's claim that there is no truth, only interpretations, has become Fox News editorial policy, the notion that rational appeals to truth will undermine ideology seems both old-fashioned and child-like in its simplicity. Moreover, citing Bruno Latour's argument that Jean Baudrillard's "reading" of 9/11 simply repeats his own earlier claims and interpretative moves, Di Leo raises the prospect that critique has "run its course" (3), has become a "mechanical" formalism "that responds more or less the same way of any and all new events," and so is incapable of non-reductive engagement with aesthetic works and their nuances. He thus poses to his contributors a set of pointed questions: "What does sustained theoretical research and discussion look like when the notion of critique is under attack? ... What, if anything, is the political project of literary and cultural criticism after critique?"

As should be expected, individual essays are diversely focused and offer a variety of perspectives. David M. Shumway anchors Zizek's critique of critique in Kant's critique of reason and argues that "fundamental conflict between the text as object of critique and the text as bearer of knowledge or wisdom cannot be overcome within the humanities" (21). Sue-Im Lee points out that defense of emergent, previously marginalized literature evokes the same value of "Good Writing" that defenses of canonical "masterpieces" also deploy. Discussing the "first-person nature of critical judgments" (71), Robert Chodat delineates how Rorty and Cavell theorize literatures provocation of personal attestation, "sticking out one's neck" (85), as qualifying conceptualizations drift toward totalizing self-certainty. Christian Moraru argues for a "planetarity" rather than "global" (103) perspective as a corrective to "Western-oriented" (102) postmodern paradigms. Noting how tensions "between humanist aspirations to the universal and a politics of radical difference" and "between modernist affirmations of literature's power and cultural studies' insistence on the literary as just one form of discourse that is falsely elevated and fetishized above others" (118) vitiate postcolonial theory, Nicole Simek reads projections of "ironic utopias" (124) in Caribbean fiction as escaping from either/or impasses. Hassan Melehy uses Derrida's critique of Foucault to problematize periodization and Zahi Zalloua uses Zizek's observation that "ideology is not all" to argue that "critique is not all," that while "critique's perpetual negativity ... energizes literary criticism," critique itself is "never full immune from the pull of hermeneutical gratification" (150). Three essays on Jacques Ranciere, by Allen Dunn, Alan Singer, and Brian O'Keeffe, explicate Ranciere's critique of critique and assess the viability of his theorizing of the aesthetic as an alternative, while R. M. Berry's "Afterward" points out that criticism's "resurgence today ... owes much to the dissatisfaction of emergent groups with political critique's relegation of aesthetic judgment to merely dependent status" (211).

In a major essay, Charles Altieri draws upon Wittgenstein's distinction between "acts of description that carry truth values and acts of description that display states of mind and feeling" (45) to argue that, as the term "humanities" is both vague and carries elitist associations, the "tripartite scheme of disciplines" (46) should be rethought and renamed: science should be "the domain of description," social science the realm of "policy," and humanities "the large domain of expressive activity" or "display." Because "[djisplay consists of actions that strive to be recognized by their particularity rather than their argumentative capacity ..., [recognition of expressive particularity requires that audiences be willing and capable of fleshing out the possible significance of these actions by developing appropriate responses that engage and respect that particularity" (46-47). Altieri effectively describes the kind of "appreciation" whose valuing is the justification and aim of much undergraduate teaching of literature, which he would make central to a criticism that neither "instrumentalizes" (48) literature as material for critique nor defends the aesthetic through appeal to an ethics of otherness or singularity, which he associate with Derek Attridge, among others.

While Altieri is certainly right that vague, abstract evocations of otherness or singularity are not the same as appreciative engagements with a work's specific aesthetic texture, and while his account of appreciation as "an effort to identify provisionally with the expressive agent so that one can imagine what it would be like to be involved in the forces and pressures that the work embodies" (50-51) has rich implications for both pedagogy and criticism, the either/or relationship he sets up between himself and Attridge might more fruitfully be thought in terms of both/and. Without some abstract dispositional/philosophical receptivity to what is other, one is unlikely to get to specific appreciations. So Mr. Darcy's mind must be hospitable to female intelligence and wit in the abstract before he can become increasingly appreciative of its specific embodiments in Elizabeth Bennet.

Criticism After Critique opens an important discussion, but is hardly exhaustive. For example, there is no engagement with the explosion of work on aesthetics coming from cognitive literary theory and allied fields. Still, both the particular arguments and the overall thrust of the volume crystalize the current moment in intellectual history and how it bears upon literature's fate in the academy and beyond.


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Author:Wehrs, Don
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2014
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