Critical Immodesty and Other Grammars for Aesthetic Agency

by Tyler Bradway

What is it that aesthetic objects can do? The recent turn away from the hermeneutics of suspicion makes room for new and exciting answers to this question. Bracketing the masterful critic, who claims to speak the truth of a text, post-critical methods of reading promise to apprehend the forces of aesthetic objects in their own terms. By granting that aesthetic surfaces speak in a different language than literary criticism, post-critical reading permits us to broaden the aesthetic forms that count as “critical” and the ways in which critique functions through aesthetic form. Yet in its narrow conception of political critique, post-critical reading currently overlooks the political forces and effects that aesthetic objects marshal through their surfaces. Rather than give up on the concept of critique, then, I call for new grammars of aesthetic agency, ones that more expansively account for the critical and creative forces that aesthetic objects harness to press back against the impasses of their contemporary moment.

My choice of the term “agency” to describe these aesthetic forces is intended to complicate the claim that post-critical reading must lead to a “new modesty” in literary criticism. This narrative appears in Jeffrey J. Williams’s recent essay in the Chronicle. Following Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus, Williams claims that the past four decades of literary critics have immodestly inflated their claims to political agency. Williams locates this immodesty in the ethos of an “outsize ego” and a methodological comportment of being “seers who uncovered the special significance of texts, or warriors who critiqued society.” Against the modest critic, Williams conjures the specter of the “heroic critic.” This critic claims to “know” more than her objects of study, and she equates her “excavation” of hidden knowledge with “political activism” itself. By contrast, the modest critic will not egotistically proclaim the radical political value of her critical labor, and she will approach the objects of criticism with measured humility.

If the heroic critic is dying, I suspect few will attend her funeral. There is an undeniable and pervasive cynicism in the profession about the value and effects of literary criticism. To scholars and students alike, it seems absurd to defend the political agency of criticism, given the social and ecological devastations of neoliberalism, the declining prestige and funding of the humanities, the shrinking readership for literary criticism, and the growing class stratification of the profession. It is not surprising that modest methodologies would appeal when so many of us are feeling unheroic.

I share the sense that we face extraordinary challenges as scholars, teachers, and human beings. Yet precisely because of these challenges, I am circumspect about the recourse of post-critical reading to the specter of heroism as the dominant metaphor to represent the critical agency of literary criticism and its aesthetic objects. First, this rhetoric tends to overlook post-structural criticism’s complex re-conception of subjective and social agency beyond the binary of liberation and repression. For example, my field (queer studies) is deeply indebted to Judith Butler’s argument that “agency” emerges as a consequence of the discursive norms and power relations that condition the social intelligibility of the subject. There is little ground in queer studies for understanding agency as heroic freedom or critical mastery, and the rejection of liberal and utopian theories of political agency has given rise to a nuanced rethinking of social belonging, ethical responsibility, and political transformation. Second, Best and Marcus’s personification of political critique in the figure of the “hero” narrowly equates political agency with the liberal subject. Indeed, Best and Marcus repeatedly note that symptomatic reading is infused by ideologies of freedom, autonomy, self-reflection, and critical distance. While I agree with their challenge to these terms, I break with their mapping of only these ideologies onto the politics of aesthetics. For example, they critique political criticism for its identification of “heroic texts” and its attribution of “heroism to the artwork due to its autonomy from ideology” (13). In equating the politics of aesthetics with the ideology of heroism, Best and Marcus foreclose a broader conception of how aesthetic surfaces are engaged in social and political critique.

Best and Marcus’ definition of aesthetic agency is also curiously detached from the contemporary situation faced by artists and authors in postmodernity, in which aesthetic autonomy is impossible. As Fredric Jameson once noted, all forces of cultural resistance, even “overtly political interventions,” fail to achieve distance from the market and its insatiable commodification of cultural objects (49). Of course, critique still operates in the absence of autonomy. Yet the tolerance of radical, offensive, and even disgusting art has become, in Sianne Ngai’s words, “an index of its sociopolitical ineffectuality—in particular, its ineffectuality as a mechanism for dissent and change” (342, original emphasis). In contemporary fiction by Jennifer Egan, J.M. Coetzee, Kathy Acker, and Don DeLillo, to name just a few examples, one finds a searching and desperate confrontation with the diminishing social and political utility of aesthetics. Again and again, writers confront the question: What social agency—what critical forces—can art possibly muster when it has been so fully subsumed within consumer capitalism and other dominant schemes of power?

My turn to the post-critical was sparked by this question, along with my fear that we might be unable to hear the answers offered by artists, authors, and their work. While I remain deeply invested in post-structural methods of reading, particularly those inherited from deconstruction and psychoanalysis, I became concerned that these methods possess a restricted grammar for apprehending the agencies of aesthetic objects. I turned to affect theory in the hope that its conceptions of force and becoming could offer more expansive models for thinking about embodied and material agency. Performativity, as conceived by Butler and her followers, offered a rich discourse for understanding agency as the subversion of norms, the shattering of subjects, and the demystification of essentialist ontology. Yet it seemed to lack an idiom for creation, for affirmation, for the production of new forms of life, for the imagination of new relations and durable forms of being and belonging. (To be sure, some versions of affect theory also lack such an idiom). When performative agency is privileged as the sole index of critical agency, it can produce ironically predictable readings of literary aesthetics: moments of subversion or disruption are characterized as critical; moments of affirmation or stability fall to the margins as uncritical or, worse, politically retrograde. This is why my recent essays on Eve Sedgwick and Jeanette Winterson expand the idiom of queer critique to include affective relations such as care, happiness, and exuberance. I see these writers reclaiming purportedly sentimental and naive affective relations from the encroachments of neoliberalism and the meager circuits of social belonging charted by consumerism and homo-normativity. Their work seems queerly uncritical, precisely because the investment in fantasy, pleasure, and eroticism cuts against the restricted grammar for locating political agency in the affective relations of the aesthetic.

The post-critical, and the turn to surface reading, offers an alternative way of thinking about the critical potential of such texts. In Best and Marcus’ words, “a true openness to all the potentials made available by texts is also a prerequisite to an attentiveness that does not reduce them to instrumental means to an end” (16). In my view, this openness suspends the assumption that a text’s potentials will be recognizable to the interpretative methods that we use to read them. At the same time, an openness to “all potentials” must also include the new modes of critical agency that aesthetic surfaces bring into being. These agencies may not always be legible in the terms that post-structural criticism has valued (subversion, shattering, disruption, negation). This is because the aesthetic offers its own distinct creative forces for dreaming up new relations between aesthetic objects and their social worlds.

To read these forces as “agency” requires a hermeneutic but not necessarily a hermeneutic of suspicion. To elaborate this hermeneutic, we might first suspend the temporal narrative in which critique occurs after the production of art. This narrative reifies the aesthetic surface as pure prior to an act of critical reading, and it also tends to conceive of “critical reading” as a practice undertaken by an institutionally located and legitimated literary scholar.[1] What if, instead, we could perceive the aesthetic as coming-into-being through critical relations? What if the so-called “critical reader” trails behind this prior act of critical engagement with the social world? By reversing the moment of critique, we might begin to do justice to the aesthetic surface as a medium of creative and critical agency.[2] Surface reading, in this configuration, would work to render the dialogic and dynamic torsions between aesthetic surfaces and their social contexts. My understanding of this torsion draws on Elizabeth Freeman’s claim that aesthetic style “neither transcends nor subsumes culture but pries it open a bit, rearranges or reconstitutes its elements, providing glimpses of an otherwise-being that is unrealizable as street activism or as blueprint for the future” (xix). When we conflate aesthetic agency with instrumentalism (blueprints or street activism), we miss this “otherwise-being” that cannot promise social transformation but can preserve, and provoke, its potentiality.

Of course, the restricted grammar for aesthetic agency converges with the restricted legibility of political agency in postmodernity. For my generation, the past decade has given rise to so many fascinating and frustrating, exciting and disappointing experiments in politics, including the radical (anti-Iraq war activism, the Occupy movement), the liberal (the Obama elections, the marriage equality movement), and the as-yet unclear (the creation of new political communities, subjects, and discourses within social media). I tend to hear mostly cynicism among academic publics about these developments rather than cautious optimism, curiosity, openness, or even exuberant experimentation. To be sure, the ruses of power are ever-present, and despair often seems warranted, especially if we are waiting for decisive and obviously radical breaks. But it is not guaranteed that the alternatives are inherently uncritical or that they lack potentials for becoming. After all, Sedgwick’s looking beyond the hermeneutics of suspicion arose, in part, from her desire to find “middle ranges of agency that offer space for effectual creativity and change” (13). Between hegemony and subversion, between ideological complicity and pure liberation, Sedgwick sought new grammars for agency—including aesthetic agency—that would keep faith with the need for otherwise-being in a heteronormative world.[3] Sedgwick’s compelling portrait of reparative nurturance in the face of a culture “inadequate or inimical” to queer flourishing is just one of so many versions of critical agency yet to be written (149).

As this collective writing emerges, I hope that post-critical modesty will not remain in an uncontested binary with critical immodesty. If we think of immodesty in terms of the “heroic critic,” then perhaps modesty is warranted. Yet there are surely other, stranger, more perverse forms of immodesty that do not conform to the egotistical and masterful critic. For example, we might think of Michel Foucault. Although depicted as the poster-child of suspicion, late-Foucault stressed the necessity of affirmation and cultural creation. Foucault characterized gay cultures as “creative force[s]” (164) engaged in epistemological, political, and social invention, and he endorsed sadomasochistic cultures for teaching us that “we can produce pleasure with very odd things…in very unusual situations” and this production of “new possibilities for pleasure…[is] a kind of creation, a creative enterprise” (165). Foucault’s call to “create culture” and to “realize cultural creations” was, in part, a challenge to the emergent identity politics of the lesbian and gay movement (164). Thus, he stressed: “I don’t know what we would do to form these creations, and I don’t know what forms these creations would take.” Foucault’s hesitancy to provide an index for a “gay aesthetic” is not modest; it is critical. He contends that queer cultural creation must not reproduce the heteronormative law of identity, and his demurral holds open the possibility for these becomings to flourish, instruct, provoke, and create something unrecognizable within the current scheme of aesthetic interpretation. This is an immodest modesty or, perhaps, a modest guise for an immodest dream. After all, immodesty is not only heroic; it can be abject and indecent, brazenly refusing to satisfy the dictates of decency, decorum, and good behavior. Rather than shove aside and silence with the sanction of knowing better, the immodest critic might beckon and beg for more, experimenting to see what might still be possible, making room so that others can join in.

In a post-critical moment, can we immodestly dream up new models for the aesthetic and its attendant critical forces? What if, following Foucault, aesthetics is less like criticism and more like sex? We would have to grant that aesthetics are “odd things” that produce pleasure in unusual situations; and we would have to suppose that aesthetic pleasures, like sexual pleasures, create immodest and unforeseen possibilities for becoming and belonging. The aesthetic, like sex, may not be equivalent to political agency, but it is no less creative, no less related to power, no less open to fostering otherwise-being. Must it be immodest to want a grammar for aesthetic agency that can perceive the forces of critique and creation in their loving and agonistic entanglements?

Works Cited:

Best, Stephen and Sharon Marcus. “Surface Reading: An Introduction.” Representations 108 (Fall 2009): 1-21.

Cusset, François. French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States. Trans. Jeff Fort. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.

Foucault, Michel. “Sex, Power, and the Politics of Identity.” Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth. Ed. Paul Rabinow. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: The New Press, 1997. 163-73.

Freeman, Elizabeth. Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories. Durham and London: Duke UP, 2010.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham and London: Duke UP, 1991.

Ngai, Sianne. Ugly Feelings. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2007.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. Durham and London: Duke UP, 2003.

Williams, Jeffrey J. “The New Modesty in Literary Criticism.” 5 Jan. 2015. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Web. <>.

[1] In this respect, I share Francois Cusset’s affirmation of the “felicitous acts of betrayal, the productive changes of sense” that occur when critical theory migrates across cultural zones and is remixed, redefined, and reconceived by non-authorized readers (336).

[2] For a related approach in “The Way We Read Now” issue, see Christopher Nealon’s essay “Reading on the Left.” In my field, the critical and political work of queer aesthetics has recently become a central focus of concern. See, for example, the work of José Esteban Muñoz, Elizabeth Freeman, Michael Snediker, Karen Tongson, Kevin Ohi, and Aliyyah Abdur-Rahman.

[3] For some, my use of “grammar” may be too reminiscent of the linguistic turn, but I do not claim that aesthetic agencies would operate on a model of language. Following Sedgwick’s interest in texture and materiality, I want to stress that these agencies must also include the non-discursive, the non-linguistic, and the non-conscious. I am also inspired by Gilles Deleuze’s and Félix Guattari’s understanding of linguistic grammar as a rhizomatic assemblage in continuous variation. Given this conception of grammar-in-becoming, criticism requires an attention to the immanent configurations of force that aesthetic objects articulate through their pragmatic constructions of new expressive modes.

Tyler Bradway

Tyler Bradway is Assistant Professor of English at the State University of New York at Cortland. His essays and reviews have appeared in journals such as GLQ: A Journal of Gay and Lesbian Studies, Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature, Postmodern Culture, and symplokē. His current book project, “Uncritically Queer: The Politics of Bad Reading in Queer Experimental Literature,” traces the history of affectively infused reading practices in queer experimental aesthetics from Stonewall to the present. He can be reached at

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