Thursday, August 24, 2017

Rita Felski on “critique”

On “critique” as a way of reading literature:

Critique proves to be a remarkably efficient and smooth-running machine for registering the limits and insufficiencies of texts. It also offers a yardstick for assessing their value: the extent to which they exemplify its own cardinal virtues of demystifying, subverting, and putting into question. 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. Its conception of the uses and values of literature is simply too thin. . . .

[I]ts overriding concern with questioning motives and exposing wrongdoing (the moral-political drama of detection) results in a mindset — vigilant, wary, mistrustful — that blocks receptivity and inhibits generosity. We are shielded from the risks, but also the rewards, of aesthetic experience.

Rita Felski, The Limits of Critique (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).
If I were a young teacher hoping to inculcate in my students some reverence for works of the imagination, I’d take great heart from this book.

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[My snarky quotation marks around “critique” signal that critique itself is under suspicion here. I think I reached my limit when I heard a graduate student give a paper arguing that Charles Dickens showed “sexist bias.” That was the point, and the student’s condescension toward Dickens was unmistakable. O benighted nineteenth-century fool!]

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