The books in my head(er image) 2: The Limits of Critique

This is the second in a series of posts about the books that have helped to get me to where I am today, namely starting a DPhil in theology. The first covered J. R. R. Tolkien’s Tree and Leaf, an unusual book by the writer who has had perhaps the most influence on my imagination of anyone. Other books, less well-rooted in my heart, indeed encountered by chance and bought on a whim, have nonetheless had a profound effect on my thinking.

Critique proves to be a remarkably efficient and smooth-running machine for registering the limits and insufficiencies of texts… It is conspicuously silent, however, on the many other reasons why we are drawn to works of art: aesthetic pleasure, increased self-understanding, moral reflection, perceptual reinvigoration, ecstatic self-loss, emotional consolation, or heightened sensation — to name just a few. (The Limits of Critique, p.188)

The Limits of Critique, by Rita Felski

If there is one book that is directly responsible for getting me on the road back to graduate school it is The Limits of Critique. At the end of my undergraduate degree in English, I found myself disappointed by the literary conversation in academia. I had settled on an English major because of a lifelong fascination (OK, obsession) with stories: how they work, why some take root in the public imagination and others don’t, how they move us, how they show us parts of ourselves that we didn’t know about before. By the end of my four years at Dartmouth, however, I had discovered that for the most part, these questions were not being asked in English departments.  Instead, literary studies had expanded into cultural studies, using literature as the medium of investigation, and the methods employed were what Felski and others have called “symptomatic reading.”

The concern in this mode of literary analysis is to demonstrate how the text manifests symptoms of a variety of cultural and societal distresses our dysfunctions.  Symptomatic readings are engaged to show how a text undercuts itself and undermines, legitimates, or otherwise manifests a particular set of concerns. Such concerns include the economic (championed by Marxist readings), gendered (pioneered by feminist readings), and specifically oppressive (addressed by schools such as queer and postcolonial studies). Being made to study these modes of analysis in my undergraduate courses went lightyears towards breaking me out of the white, upper-middle class, bourgeois life that had led me to those very classrooms. I continue to be challenged by scholars in all of these traditions.

These discourses are vital to the welfare of society and offer a needed corrective to generations of straight, white men dictating the terms of literary discourse. They continue to form and inform my work. But they did not go very far in helping me to answer the questions that continued to burn in my imagination: how do stories work? Why do people read some books and not others? What makes a book great? Disheartened, I gave up on literary studies and followed my other passion into seminary. At the very least, theologians seemed to be taking stories seriously on their own terms because many theologians are interested in how stories work on readers and participants in the narratives certain stories describe. Thank goodness I did, or I wouldn’t be here now. Indeed in the great web of serendipity, coming to seminary in Berkeley introduced me to one of the country’s finest bookstores. Years after turning my back on a dream of doctoral work in literature, I found myself browsing the shelves of City Lights Books in San Francisco, and I happened upon The Limits of Critique and my heart was strangely warmed.

In this short book, Felski aims directly at the state of literary studies in the academy. In the end, The Limits of Critique is a plea for sanity in the study of literature and an argument in the vital battle to advance the value of the study of the humanities.

Most pointedly, Felski aims her analysis at symptomatic reading. A published feminist literary critic and professor of English at the University of Virginia, Felski had begun to find herself dissatisfied with the state of literary studies and offers The Limits of Critique as the beginning of a conversation about what is keeping the study of literature so bound up in its own internal conversation and why such privilege has been conferred on a style of reading that seems to treat the work under consideration with such disdain. The concern of symptomatic reading is always to get “under” or “behind” or “beyond” a text in order to see what it is “really up to.” Borrowing from another of my favorite thinkers on language and meaning, Paul Ricoeur, Felski begins to experiment with leaving behind the “hermeneutics of suspicion” that characterizes symptomatic reading, and adopting a “hermeneutic of generosity” that is interested in what the text is trying to do and concerns itself with the dynamics of the text itself and the text’s relationship to its history, context, and readership.

That anyone in the world of literary studies was taking these ideas seriously struck me as profoundly exciting: serious scholars are asking questions not unlike my own! It was around this time that I began to have some sense that there might be a place for me in the academic study of literature, meaning, imagination, and narrative. It is no secret that the academy has its own trends and fashions. Perhaps The Limits of Critique heralds a shift in fashion, back toward narrative and the power of fiction on its own terms.

Felski concludes Limits with a gesture towards the Actor-Network Theory (ANT) of Bruno Latour which attempts to situate art (among other things) within a series or web of relationships. I am looking forward to learning more about Latour’s thought as it might help me understand how imagination and works of fiction relate to people of faith and help them to interpret their experience and make sense of the world and their faith.