“Attunement” was a catchword with the first-year students from the University of Virginia who decided to spend the semester abroad in the fall of 2019. We were in London, exploring how and why we became attached (or didn’t) to works of art we encountered during our time there. At first, our discussions fell flat. “I don’t know why I liked A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Globe. I just did!”; “the Antony Gormley exhibit made me kind of uncomfortable, I can’t explain it.” The students cited their lack of knowledge about Shakespeare, sculptures and “high art” as reasons for their hesitancy to put more words to their fuzzy and befuddling aesthetic experiences.
I shifted our discussion to music, a medium I knew they were more comfortable talking about. They put on their headphones and played their favorite song. The objective was simple: write down anything that comes to mind as you listen. “What kind of things are you looking for?” was the first and only question. “Anything,” I replied. Their pages were soon overflowing with feelings, memories, reflections on a song’s beat, frustrations with a singer’s biography, political ideals, gratitude for what a parent had taught them. The consensus was that none of them had realized that “all of this” was involved in their responses to art.
My students began to understand that attunement means attention to particulars—to individual ties, to feelings, to personal history, to the people who surround them. Some of them associated their affinity for street art in Shoreditch with accessibility: it was free, outside and with enough variety to attract most people’s taste. What kind of community does this type of art foster, they wondered, as opposed to art behind security checkpoints, glass doors and admission fees? An inclusive one, somebody suggested. For one student, a woman of color from a lower-middle-class family who often felt that the theater and the ballet had not been designed (or priced) with her in mind, the mural of linked hands offset by a rainbow of colors told her, you are welcome; you contribute.
The artworks they encountered suddenly became sources of knowledge, their individual responses to them sources of insight. Perhaps the most powerful shared experience for the class was Olafur Eliasson’s “In Real Life” installation at the Tate Modern. The room set in darkness and filled with fog made them nervous; the mirrored ceiling disoriented them; the twists and turns throughout the installation overwhelmed them. Only when one student entered the final room, where quotations from scholars on the limits of perception and the nature of experience framed pictures of natural disasters, could he see how his feelings related to the climate crisis—to the need for us, as he put it, to alter our perception of the world in order to save it. Other students, initially confused by this final room’s connection to the rest of the installation, met his revelation with a resounding “Oh!”
The modus operandi of my class was what has become known as “postcritique.” Understanding postcritique begins with understanding what has been the dominant mode of interpretation in literary studies for many decades: critique. Critique involves giving an account of a text that is not the account the text would give of itself. The novel or story or poem, from this perspective, is never really about what it says it’s about. Nor is it, often, about what a non-academic reader would think it’s about. Only the critic, trained in theoretical inquiry, can unmask the social hierarchies latent in the artwork. That female character, a practitioner of critique might argue, can’t see that she is imprisoned within, not breaking free from, patriarchal structures. In turn, the reader can’t see that by identifying with this character, he is reinforcing rather than opposing these structures.
Critique has always been seen as more than a method of interpretation. It is also, for many, an important political project that is responsible for the advancement of feminism, anticapitalism, posthumanism, postcolonialism and critical race studies, among much else. Scholars attached to critique are often suspicious of postcritique because they see it as antithetical to their political aims. To focus on ordinary or “naïve” reactions to works of art is, for them, to separate criticism from its political responsibility. In fact, if you insist that works of art reveal things to us, that everyday experiences are worth taking seriously, and that attending to our aesthetic attachments can enrich our scholarly interpretations, then you may be, according to practitioners of critique, reactionary.
But postcritique, as the students in my class learned, doesn’t mean turning away from politics. In The Limits of Critique (2015), the book credited with setting postcritique’s agenda, Rita Felski asks us to “place ourselves in front of the text, reflecting on what it unfurls, calls forth, makes possible.” Reflecting on what a text unfurls could mean the political or ideological commitments the text reveals to us, for example. Far from being apolitical, postcritique makes it possible to examine not only how art reveals the ties that bind us to old hierarchies, but also how art can facilitate the building of new ties.
We can learn a lot about why literature matters, I think, by attending to fictional characters’ affective attachments, their nonverbal modes of expression and how they dispose themselves to other characters. When I arrived at graduate school, however, my interest in such themes wasn’t encouraged. “Remember characters aren’t real people,” a professor said in response to a paper idea. “Characters are really only read as historical devices, narrative actants, and psychological symptoms,” another offered. I started to feel as if my concerns weren’t serious enough for a dissertation. Then I met Rita Felski, who would become my dissertation adviser. At the time, she was finishing up her contribution to Character: Three Inquiries in Literary Studies (2019), which also includes essays from Amanda Anderson and Toril Moi, as well as her recently published Hooked: Art and Attachment (2020). Both books offered validation: Character analyzes the value of attending to the affective and ethical dimensions of characters; Hooked articulates how our aesthetic attachments can be sources of scholarly value.
To take characters seriously, to treat artworks as having an agency of their own is, for the most fervent champions of critique, politically regressive in at least two ways. First, to adopt a method of interpretation that gives our feelings and positive attachments so much weight is to “abandon” politically, culturally and socially engaged criticism for sunshine and happiness. Second, to focus on the question of method at all is to be complicit in prevailing injustices. In her review of Hooked for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Sheila Liming depicts postcritique as a movement whose investment in how we conduct criticism causes it to ignore the bleak conditions under which we are forced to produce criticism. The problems facing literary critics, she argues, are not internal but external; the proper focus of criticism today should not be other critics, but the neoliberal university and the forces that support it.
As a Ph.D. student subjected to egregious labor conditions and a grim career outlook, I’m well aware of the abysmal material conditions that plague the humanities. But this awareness doesn’t mean I think these conditions should excuse a lack of regard for those whose views on the purpose of literary criticism are different from my own. Central to the project of Felski and others who have presented alternatives to critique, like Toril Moi, is the importance of attuning ourselves to the plurality of factors that go into our experience of art. Yet responses to their work, heavy on scathing statements and ruthless rebuttals, often don’t even attempt to evaluate their projects on their own terms.
In his response to Moi’s Revolution of the Ordinary (2017), for example, the literary scholar Henry Staten spends more time discussing how he interprets Wittgenstein than how Moi does. The result is a compendium of complaints “about” Moi’s project that has nothing to do with Moi’s project. (This happens in a forum on a book about why we need to be more responsive to other people’s ways of reading and seeing!) Liming, in her review of Hooked, describes Felski’s use of ordinary words like “scission,” “cuts across,” “severs,” “stabs,” “pulverizes” and “pries apart” as comprising “an inventory of abuse.” Her primary aim, it seems, is to invalidate postcritique by painting abuse as its brand. Yet one need only look at the context in which these words appear to see that Felski uses them to explore supposed sources of fracture, to highlight the transformative potential of aesthetic experience, to propose alternative vocabularies for analyzing works of art and to illuminate how our attachments intersect. Seemingly unmoved by Felski’s call to widen the scope of literary interpretation, Sangeeta Ray, the president of the American Comparative Literature Association (ACLA), endorsed Liming’s review by noting, on Twitter, that she found Hooked “incredibly aggravating, very conservative, dismissive and not worth discussing, actually.”
There is no denying that institutional austerity in academia has sharpened the competition for jobs and resources, and this precarity is sometimes blamed for the tone of derision that dominates the debate over postcritique. But an exclusive focus on material conditions can also be a way of denying responsibility for what we do still control. As journal editors, conference organizers, university press reviewers and dissertation committee members, the power to decide what counts as a contribution, what counts as furthering the discipline and what counts as valuable engagement with each other’s scholarship remains in our own hands. This means that it matters when we publish and celebrate essays that make no attempt to give a fair account of the author’s argument, such as by taking another’s words out of context and making assumptions about the intentions behind them. It sends the message that it is acceptable to superficially engage with a peer’s work for the sake of elevating your own. It also suggests that the goal of criticism is to perpetuate a cycle of destruction, that it’s a game with winners and losers (the most destructive response “wins”) rather than shared inquiry.
It also matters when tenured scholars assume that precarious ones care only about material conditions. “I’ve been very heartened by the responses from graduate students and assistant professors,” Felski wrote in 2017 in a response to a forum on The Limits of Critique. “Some of these scholars are already doing what I gesture toward in the book’s final pages: trying out different vocabularies and experimenting with other ways of reading and writing.” I’m one of these graduate students. I have also witnessed how such methods enrich students’ classroom experiences. Yet I am repeatedly told—especially by those safe within the comforts of tenure—that identifying problems with how we conduct criticism means I must be disinvested from more important political and institutional battles.
What if the attitudinal problems within our discipline are part of what prevents us from collectively combatting those material conditions? Those who vilify critics of critique, after all, are not bravely repelling outsiders who threaten to undermine the authority of literary studies; they are fighting against practitioners and colleagues. Their dismissiveness takes us back to the goals of postcritique. What might literary studies gain if we allow ourselves to be moved not just by a text but also by another person’s interpretation of it? How might exhibiting responsiveness and receptivity to each other’s work strengthen the rigor and power of the arguments against a position, and put an end to the cycle of destruction? How might we connect our individual attachments in order to collectively show why our discipline matters?
Practicing acknowledgment is a way of creating a community that champions plurality and inclusivity, that emphasizes building up rather than tearing down and that sees critique and its alternatives not as adversaries but as allies. It involves approaching a person, a situation, a work of art with responsiveness, the willingness to “put ourselves in” what philosopher Stanley Cavell calls “their present.” How is their way of seeing different than my own? is a question we might ask. How am I being changed by this encounter?
I find such questions at the heart of alternatives to critique. “Literature helps to bridge the separation between human beings,” writes Moi in Revolution of the Ordinary. “Immersed in your text, I can see what you see, but without losing myself, without becoming you.” I attempt to follow Moi’s framework when I engage criticism by other scholars. For example, when writing a section of my dissertation on Lily Briscoe’s struggles for recognition in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, I turned to feminist critics to understand how they read Lily as a product of her patriarchal environs and as a subject who fights to wrest herself free from its chains. Yet these political questions can also raise affective and aesthetic questions: What role does Lily’s particular emotional state—the worry and shame, the fear and stultification she experiences—play in her attempts to turn her intellectual vision into compelling art? Because the feminist critics have attuned me to the broader systems of oppression at work in Woolf’s text, I’m able to show how particular affective states can illuminate the effects of those systems on individuals. The political, affective and aesthetic, I suggest, are not incompatible but mutually enriching.
Practicing acknowledgment does not mean doing away with disagreement, with objection or even with critique, but it does mean changing their terms. By this I mean seeing interpretation as an act of what Felski calls “cocreation and composition—a practice of thinking and feeling with, rather than against, a text.” Here, Felski is specifically referring to critics’ engagement with literary texts. I would suggest that we can also think and feel with, rather than against, one another’s interpretations as scholars. If againstness is the defining feature of our criticism at present—the defining feature of our literary community—prioritizing acknowledgment has the potential to reorient us. Instead of defining ourselves in opposition to those whose ideas do not resemble our own, we can allow their visions to help illuminate what we don’t yet understand. Our shared attachment to literature and criticism, then, would connect us, even amidst the differences between the works we each value and our different approaches to them.
Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World (2014), which I write about in my dissertation, provides a vivid example of how critique can cohabitate with postcritique. The novel is about Harriet Burden, a fictional artist who masquerades as a series of male artists for her tripart installation. Hustvedt uncovers the hidden sexism at work in reviews of Burden’s work, but she also expresses dismay at those who fail to attend to the affective force of their aesthetic experience. She recognizes that to account for the agency art has in people’s lives—what motivates it; what feelings and actions it inspires; what it makes possible—requires doing more than revealing how the art world is complicit in patriarchy.
Harriet’s installations are a cacophonic bundle of confusion that disorient and reorient viewers at every turn. They demand movements—kneeling, bending, twisting and turning—that force viewers to confront the dirt, grime and trash that litter the installations’ floors, the proliferating scenes of everyday life (a messy bathroom, a girl in her bedroom, a living room with a portrait on the wall) and the suffocating heat of some of the rooms. One installation is a maze filled with windows that look out at a collection of nearly identical objects and film sequences, causing viewers to feel as if they’re always returning to the maze’s beginning. Viewers rarely realize on their own that the barely visible cracks on the walls provide the clues for escaping. As one of the characters put it, “Harry had cleverly designed an art object that forced people to pay attention to it because if they didn’t, they’d never get out of the blasted thing.”
The form of the novel challenges Hustvedt’s readers to pay attention in a similar way. It includes chapters told from the perspective of various characters: those who disdain Harriet; those who love her; those who misunderstand her; those who don’t believe that she is the artist behind these installations; art reviewers and gallery owners; friends; family; therapists; an aura reader; Harriet herself. Chapters overflow with clashing and conflicting reflections on Bakhtin and Butler, phenomenology and psychoanalysis, politics and prose, artworks and artists. Through its tangle of perspectives, the novel suggests that attachments of all kinds have the capacity to sustain us, that a plurality of perspectives enriches rather than impoverishes interpretation. At the heart of the novel, then, is not the question to critique or not to critique? but the question how can aesthetic experience inspire new modes of relation?
Before that autumn in London, I had struggled—thanks largely to my own stubbornness—to understand what it meant to be moved by another person’s interpretation. Then I found myself moved by my students’ papers for the course, where they confronted their distaste for the kitsch that filled Baker Street or the sense of peace they felt walking through the center of Oxford; their anger and sadness after watching When the Crows Visit, an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts, at the Kiln Theatre; their disagreements over what Zadie Smith’s “circle of attention” in “The Embassy of Cambodia” captured. Using some of the tenets of postcritique as our guide, we learned how our individual experiences with art could collectively enrich our interpretations. Even more important, we learned to see each revelation, each instance of surprise, each effort to make sense of our fuzzy and befuddling aesthetic experiences as another opportunity to enter into someone else’s world, to let ourselves “be imaginatively absorbed by” 22 different—and sometimes contrasting—visions. We became tied to each other because of our individual ties to works of art—because of our willingness to think and feel with one another. It was a community, we realized, that could sustain us, the kind of community that was worth fighting for.
Image credit: Olafur Eliasson at the Tate Modern, Alexandre Dulaunoy (CC / BY Flickr)