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Critical and Postcritical Reading

Rita Felski, University of Virginia

What is often called “critique” in literary and cultural studies is better described as a hermeneutics of suspicion. Ricoeur’s term offers a fresh slant on current styles of argument, allowing us to recognize the salience of mood (suspicion) and method (an array of well-established techniques for deciphering counter-intuitive and unflattering meanings). Once we face up to these aspects of critique, it becomes harder to sustain any claim for its exceptionalism—its intrinsic superiority vis-à-vis other forms of thinking and writing.

Critique values literature and art only to the extent that they mimic the qualities of critique itself—that is, to engage in skeptical or subversive questioning. And yet works of art do not only subvert, but convert, they do not only inform, but transform--a transformation that is not just a matter of intellectual readjustment but also of emotional realignment. And here critique, which prides itself on the vigilance of its detachment, proves a poor guide to the richness of our aesthetic attachments.

What, then, might a postcritical practice of reading look? How do we develop forms of scholarship more attuned to the affective dimensions of reading and more willing to articulate the positive value of literary works for both academic and lay readers?

John F. Kennedy Institute