Not Just Anybody

Terry Eagleton

  • The Limits of Critique by Rita Felski
    Chicago, 238 pp, £17.00, October 2015, ISBN 978 0 226 29403 2

The title of this book has an odd ring to it, since in Kantian philosophy the notion of critique is closely bound up with the setting of limits, distinguishing what a form of inquiry may legitimately address from what is off-bounds to it. Rita Felski’s bold, stylish new study, however, is about critique in the less specialised sense of critical analysis. It is not a work about the limits of setting limits but a critical view of the idea of critique, or at least of a certain widely accepted version of it. Felski finds this version churlish and mean-spirited, and the reader is likely to end up feeling that she has a point.

The critical approach she has in mind is a form of what Paul Ricoeur calls the hermeneutics of suspicion. On this view, the task of critique is to dig out hidden meanings and concealed contradictions in a text, scanning it for those symptomatic points at which it falters, deadlocks, disrupts its own logic or threatens to come apart at the seams. The critical act is one of unmasking and demystification, confronting the work like a seasoned cop browbeating a shifty suspect. Artefacts are not to be trusted but deciphered. Their habit is to disguise truth rather than disclose it. The aim of critique, as the philosopher Pierre Macherey remarked, is to know the work as it cannot know itself. Like most of us, works of literature are rather more spiritually dishevelled than they care to appear, and the task of critique is to lay bare their blindspots and ambiguities. In demonstrating how their projects come unstuck, or how they end up subverting their own claims, critique shows up their unity (a sacred critical doctrine from Aristotle to Northrop Frye) as something of a sham. It also has an interest in demonstrating how a poem or novel, whatever it may think it’s up to, is unwittingly complicit with political power.

What, however, if critique itself were plagued by contradictions? For one thing, its epistemology seems to be at odds with its politics. In assuming a position of superior knowledge to the work of art, it sits uneasily with the egalitarian sensibility of most of its practitioners. Hierarchies may be undone in the artwork itself, but they remain firmly in place in the relation between artwork and critic. For another thing, there is a smack of the Enlightenment about this approach, which is not a view of the world most of its adherents greet with acclaim. It is the task of the Aufklärer to bring truth to the befuddled, self-deluded masses, whose surrogate in the case of critique is the self-blinded literary text. In contemporary critique, however, good old-fashioned Enlightenment terms like truth, fact and objectivity are generally draped in self-righteous scare quotes, to indicate that the author is far too sophisticated to accept unreservedly that Dorking is in Surrey or that men really do oppress women. By what standard, then, is the literary work self-deceived? And why do postmodern writers make it so exasperatingly difficult to say that Tony Blair really did hoodwink the British public over Iraq?

There is a form of literary critique that takes this problem on board, though Felski’s book does not address this head-on. For disciples of the late Yale critic Paul de Man, there is a sense in which the work of literature has always pre-empted or second-guessed the demystificatory work of the critic. The text turns out to be smarter than its commentators, whose own insights depend on a certain ineradicable blindness. The closest one can come to the truth is a knowledge of one’s self-deception. In fact, there is a sense in which the work of art is actually an allegory of its own (mis)reading, as well as a source of resistance to any attempt to master it. To grasp this truth, however, requires the teaching of a Master, who in his refusal to make definitive truth claims is all the more insulated from criticism, and thus all the more authoritative.

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