Of Method and Social Form: Response to Matt Flaherty's "Post-critical Reading and the New Hegelianism" at the Stanford Arcade
In this series of entries, I'm posting fuller versions of my responses to the essays in "We, Reading, Now", a colloquium convened by Dalglish Chew and Julie Orlemanski at the Stanford Arcade. This post is a response to Matt Flaherty's "Post-Critical Reading and the New Hegelianism." You can read Matt's post (and my original comment) here; I've changed a few things and added some pictures and links in this fuller version.
I’m impressed by the range and taxonomic power of Matt's essay, and I’ll follow Dalglish and Patrick in praising its survey of the state of the field on these matters of critique and anti-critique. All of this is useful in the extreme. And I’ve already swiped that bibliography!
I remain somewhat confused, though, about how this post imagines literary-critical method to relate to historical processes more broadly -- a point which I take to be the central one, if we’re thinking about genealogies of the so-called postcritical. (A term I contest.) The italicized paragraph below is for me where the rubber hits the road, since it is where the various methodological phenomena Matt has inventoried are explained causally -- or sort of.
I say sort of because we here move through several phases (I’m tempted to call them “moments”) in what stands in for a historicizing explanation of cause -- an explanation, I mean, of a process by which critical reading has been slowly and inevitably replaced -- it would seem “naturally”-- by its various opposites. How does Matt think we became “postcritical”? And what does he think about it?
One doesn’t need a metaphysics of history to sense when a form of life with its attendant rituals, pieties, and practices has grown old. Theory’s reign in literature departments has long been past the point when its claims arrived with salutary shock in the profession, disrupting the “complacent universalism” of the New Critics with a bracing examination of the self-division lurking underneath the ostensible unity of literary texts (Wood 28). A mode of criticism that was historically resonant in the wake of the Vietnam War and that continued to serve as an outlet for political frustrations during the Reagan and Thatcher administrations of the 1980s no longer has the same urgency for contemporary critics. Given our increased distance from these moments of acute political disappointment for leftist political agendas, the temptation to exaggerate the mobilizing powers of literary criticism for political change is perhaps not as strong. So too, in an environment of digital overstimulation and “hyper-attention” where the practice of close-reading literature faces increasing skepticism from both students and administrators, literary critics and teachers are in many cases increasingly receptive to practices that accord greater respect to the cultural objects studied.
The paragraph switches among historical explanations and remains strangely neutral in its description of them. The first explanation suggests that radical positions ossify inevitably into dogma, and are defused by this potentially endless cycle of domestication. This is a formal explanation since any idea, no matter its content, would presumably suffer the same cycle of radicalism-turned-commonsense. Okay.
But a second explanation is more particular, since it claims that “theory” or “critical reading” (the essay uses these interchangeably) emerged in a political environment in which critique was more urgently required than the present, a time disappointing to “leftist political agendas.” The claim seems to be that such “agendas” -- what does Matt think of them?-- are no longer necessary now, or that the demands of left critiques have been sufficiently accomplished as to have dissipated the demand itself. This is problematic in the extreme, for if, in the current moment, we have become less inclined to “mobilize the powers of literary criticism for political change” we should be asking ourselves why, and in whose interest that is done. Whether we measure in hyperviolent foreign wars, domestic terror and the expansion of the incarceration state, or the systematic redistribution of wealth toward the rich along racialized axes, the Reagan and Thatcher eras were superseded by ones equally deserving of critical attention. And if the problem is that dissent has slowed down, then why? Critique of the political order is arguably more urgently required when its obscenity has become so natural that even very intelligent readers of the contemporary situation cannot see it at all.
[I]f, in the current moment, we have become less inclined to “mobilize the powers of literary criticism for political change” we should be asking ourselves why, and in whose interest that is done.
Finally, the essay offers the explanation that critical reading has been superseded because our forms of attention have shifted such that close attention to literary texts doesn’t come naturally to “both students and administrators.” Two lines down, “teachers” are added to this list, but it seems to me that teachers should be working not alongside by against any cultural drift that would flatten all the world’s genres and styles into mere content.
The story told here is of depoliticization and universalizing consensus, of increasing impatience with difficult texts and difficulty in general. What I'm saying is that insofar as this historical narrative is true -- and I’m not sure it is-- it must not be neutrally accepted as historically inevitable, as it is here, but vigorously contested.
That’s a claim about values, not facts, so others might disagree. But there is also a methodological problem here, one having to do with causality itself. Far from being natural processes of historical succession --part of the “metaphysics of history” that is ghostly present here even in its rhetorically negated form-- these social developments are human-made and for that reason subject to change. It strikes me as ironic somehow that Matt’s revival of a “New Hegelianism” would open itself so fully to the same chastisement Marx offered the Young Hegelians, in “Theses on Feuerbach” and The German Ideology. As is well known, Marx’s effort in those texts is to counter the idealist notion that history can be understood as “cycles of ideas,” concepts “rising and falling,” or even “forms of life” (Matt’s term) being born, growing old, and dying. Ideas don’t cause change but result from it. The willed activity of individual human beings, aggregated in institutions, and born into conditions not of their own devising (Marx’s phrase): it’s these that produce the illusion of the idealist oscillations suggested in the term “the history of ideas.”
The stakes of this distinction between idealist and materialist methods became uncomfortably clear for me in Matt’s final citation of “the fickle progress of the humanities.” Probably just a rhetorical flourish, the phrase nevertheless set off alarms for me. It's wholly compatible with the idealist logic of methodological "turns," and the essay seems to embrace the so-called postcritical as an advance on now-outdated methods (the "post" helpfully informs you that history has left them behind).
But the idea of a progressively perfecting humanities is unlikely to resonate with the armies of unemployed adjuncts, defunded graduate students, and otherwise casualized academic laborers whose material experiences together make up (part of) the conditions of possibility for doing humanities now. Their concrete experiences -- and our own, if we’re not among them already-- should stand as the starting point for understanding any historical sequence of methodological ideas, "progress[ive]" or not, by which old theories are superseded by new.
UPDATE 5/18/15 Matt has responded to my response at the Arcade website, here.
Nathan K. Hensley
Here's where I'll paste fragments of readings, ideas, and questions.