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.
Objects, Will, Resistance: Thoughts on Tyler Bradway's "Critical Immodesty and Other Grammars for Aesthetic Agency" at the Stanford Arcade
The following is a response to Tyler Bradway's fabulous post at the Stanford Arcade, which appears as part of the "We, Reading, Now" colloquium convened by Dalglish Chew and Julie Orlemanski. Tyler's post is here, and everybody in the world should read it. The below was posted as a comment on the blog page, but I've changed a few things and added some links in this fuller version.
UPDATE! Tyler has responded (brilliantly) to my comments at the Arcade website, here.
This is a fabulous post, one whose arguments about agency and objects I’ve been turning over in my mind since I first read it. This time, it had me writing YES and HOORAY in the margins, even as it pushed me to think harder about my own teaching and writing and about where, in those critical practices, I locate agency. Does “resistance” or “critique” or “social commentary” come from the reading/writing/teaching subject (me, Nathan) or the read object (Jane Eyre, say, or Clarel, or Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management)? Does oppositional or counternormative energy derive from inside or outside the mind of the (heroic?) critic typing up blog posts like this one?
These are provocative questions, and I’m enchanted by Tyler’s claim that current trends in so-called post-critical reading “overloo[k] the political forces and effects that aesthetic objects marshal through their surfaces”; this twist on surface- or object-oriented methods wants to account for “the critical and creative forces that aesthetic objects harness to press back against the impasses of their contemporary moment.”
I love this. Of course, one way to understand this claim about “how aesthetic surfaces are engaged in social and political critique” is the noncontroversial, even banal one -- to say that literary works are themselves political. It’s in this sense that North and South or “The Cry of the Children” is political because it has directly political content: they’re about the horrors of industrialization. But I don’t think this is what Tyler’s after in this provocative and generative post. (Of course, distinctions between “directly” and “indirectly” political works hinge not just on the old Marxist dichotomy of form and content, but also on the fascinating problem of “aboutness” as such: the question of what something is "about," what is “obvious” in it, to whom it is obvious, and by what epistemological mechanisms it is considered to be so.)
Tyler doesn’t take this detective-story question head-on, but instead asks what is, to me, a yet more consequential question: “What social agency,” he asks, “what critical forces…can art possibly muster when it has been so fully subsumed within consumer capitalism and other dominant schemes of power?” Beautifully framed here, this agon between insurgent “forces” and “social agenc[ies]” and “dominant schemes of power,” is, in a way, a canonical one, and no less engaging for that. It is, for example, the question around which Adorno and Horkheimer build their still-mindblowing “Culture Industry” essay, and since I recently taught that text, I found it fascinating
to see how Adorno and Horkheimer look in light of Bradway. One thing to note is that Tyler’s emphasis on the variable affects texts can produce --happiness and fun being some of them-- seems way more cheerful & enabling than A/H’s hilariously persistent glumness. (Remember the parts that **make fun** of laughter?!) Anyway: in one of the few glints of hope emanating from that somber essay, A/H hint at how fully commodified cultural forms might nevertheless resist or oppose their conditions of emergence. “The moment in the work of art by which it transcends reality,” they say,
cannot … be severed from style; that moment, however, does not consist in achieved harmony, in the questionable unity of form and content, inner and outer, individual and society, but in those traits in which the discrepancy emerges, in the necessary failure of the passionate striving for identity. (DE 103)
What A/H note is that artworks themselves do not have agency or “will,” in the sense of a singular or ontologically unified purposiveness; rather they are internally divided, at war with themselves; there are “moment[s] in the work of art” -- “traits” inside them -- that introduce rupture or suspension into the same work’s own efforts to secure closure or self-identity. These aberrant or discordant elements are the ruptures by which cultural objects avoid inertly recapitulating the world and instead (in an extraordinary term) “transcen[d]” it. Despite the prejudicially modernist flavor of all this, the instances of internal disruption or immanent critique A/H describe here resonate, for me, with the “queer cultural creation” Tyler calls for. That's because these counternormative or unscripted moments are new -- excessive, I mean, to the inputs that produced them-- and for that reason unpredictable in their effects. They are possibility itself.
I agree totally with Tyler that one way to reinvigorate current discussions of what literary studies accomplish is to think more explicitly about this capacity for art to conceive of the new: art imagines new worlds, introduces virtual possibilities that can become actual -- and not just (as A/H remind us) at the level of content. Formal analysis can show how even the most determined or coopted works have cracks and fissures through which gleams of a new world might issue.
One way to reinvigorate current discussions of what literary studies accomplish is to think more explicitly about this capacity for art to conceive of the new.
I take this internally-divided capacity of objects to be one way of understanding Tyler’s brilliantly-pitched call to move away from critique in its negative sense, and toward “an idiom for creation, for affirmation, for the production of new forms of life, for the imagination of new relations and durable forms of being and belonging.” YES and HOORAY, was what I wrote in my margin next to that line.
But again following Adorno -- am I showing my hand here?-- my final question has to do with the tendency of Tyler’s essay to call this “agency” and to locate this capacity in objects themselves, whether on their "surface" (as TB says) or elsewhere "in" them. I’ve been reading Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter, and there as in other “object-oriented” projects I’ve read, I find the insistence on the agency or purposiveness of objects to be a kind of fantasy; much as we desire to escape the dialectical situation of subjects and objects and find refuge in the world of objects "themselves," I remain unconvinced that we can do so. (Adorno describes in Negative Dialectics how the urgent and necessary critique of identity thinking "grop[es] for the preponderance of the object," and construes as its ideal the immolation of the subject in favor of what we might dare call an object-oriented mode. Unfortunately, Adorno notes, subjects and objects are forever entangled, and "[t]he object's preponderance is solely attainable for subjective reflection, and for reflection on the subject" (ND 185).) I don't love everything Adorno says, but here it seems like he's on to something.
In my own work I’ve thought about this desire to let objects speak (which I share!) through the trope prosopopaeia, whereby, via rhetorical trope, human qualities like agency can be *ascribed* to nonhuman members of the object world. The question partially concerns what we construe the term “object” to mean, of course --and where we draw the boundaries between those and "subjects." But when Tyler refers to the “new modes of critical agency that aesthetic surfaces bring into being,” I think he is talking more about how we apprehend those surfaces rather than the surfaces themselves -- that is, how we read them. Do the critical agencies of objects inhere in them as objects, or are these energies brought into being, conjured, or actualized in the encounter between object and reader, it and us?
Adorno, Theodor. Negative Dialectics. E.B. Ashton, trans. New York: Continuum, 2007. Print.
Adorno, Theodor and Max Horkheimer. Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments. Edmund Jephcott, trans. Palo Alto: Stanford UP, 2002. Print.
Bradway, Tyler. "Critical Immodesty and Other Grammars for Aesthetic Agency." Stanford Arcade, March 16, 2015. Web.
Nathan K. Hensley
Here's where I'll paste fragments of readings, ideas, and questions.