Blog Post

On the Ability to Make Distinctions, or Critique of Critical Reason

Recently, I was browsing the bookstore in United’s terminal, in San Francisco’s international airport, with the aim of picking up a book, any book, of literary criticism for the long flight to Germany.

After roaming the shelves for ten minutes or so, I finally asked the salesperson if they had any literary criticism available in the store. The man looked at me with a mixture of surprise and incomprehension: “what criticism?” Promptly giving up, I opted instead for Oliver Sacks’s wonderful Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain. My enjoyment of the book, however, was marred. How is it, I thought, that an otherwise rather well stocked bookstoreas good as an airport bookstore getsholds no works of literary criticism? After all, it does offer Nietzsche and Tony Judt, Pema Chödrön and Eric Kandel – why then nothing of my field?

Upon my return from Germany, I visited Kepler’s in Menlo Park, a fine, independent bookstore. There, my experience at the airport practically repeated itself. I did find some of Harold Bloom, John Cheever’s biography and Harvard UP’s New Literary History of America, but these exceptions did not change the overall picture substantially: literary and cultural criticism seems to be an undesired book category.

I was surprised, however, to note that Kepler’s does feature two bookcases full of novels that are especially selected and presented for the area’s numerous book clubs. Literature, it seems, is being read and discussed all around us, and all those people doing the reading and discussing must surely be asking similar questions to those explored by my colleagues and myself. So, aren’t they interested in the kind of knowledge and ideas we literary and cultural critics have to offer? Moreover, most literary criticism (the kind that is not hermetically sealed within the impregnable walls of cultish jargon) is accessible to all educated readers, as opposed to specialized books in, say, physics, or biology, which demand a narrower, more technical kind of knowledge to be profitably read and understood. 

Luckily, before leaving Germany on the aforementioned trip, I made a little discovery in the form of a book that kept me busy on the flight west. In the beautiful Berlin Literaturhaus, I purchased Soll und Haben: Fernsehgespräche ((2009), quoted parenthetically). An odd specimen, of the kind you won’t ever find in an airport bookstore, Soll und Haben: Fernsehgespräche is the transcript of conversations between Joseph Vogl, one of the rising stars of Germany’s literary and cultural criticism, and Alexander Kluge, the eminent writer, filmmaker and thinker. While reading the first conversation between the two, “Kritik: Aus Nächster Nähe” (“Critique: In Close Proximity”), it occurred to me that perhaps the reason for the disappearance of literary and cultural criticism from broad view has to do with my and my colleagues’ understanding of what criticism is, or should be about?  Vogl and Kluge's approach to the term Kritik made it clearer to me why some of my favorite scholars were missing from the San Francisco airport bookstore and from Kepler’s bookshelves. 

Kritik, the two agree, has little to do with criticizing a book or an author. Kluge asks rhetorically: “Why would one want to waste time with writing about bad literature anyway?” (12-3) Rather, he notes, Kritik in its classical sense of the Romantic Age—Kant’s Kritik der Urteilskraft, or Kritik der Reinen Vernunft—was not so much about finding fault, but rather a highly developed species of “the positive ability to distinguish (positive Unterscheidungsvermögen)…[to state] what is new” (12). If we think of Kritik as an act, adds Vogl, then it means to hesitate (zögern), to be indecisive (zaudern) (10). The essence of Kritik, Kluge sums up, “is always to marvel, to be astonished” (20).

In other words, Kritik, for Vogl and Kluge has to do with experiential sensing (zögern and zaudern) of what is new. It is concerned with exploring what is different, remarkable and puzzling about cultural/artistic phenomena. Kritik has to do with taking in a novel experience, a context, a circumstance and wondering over its newness. Kritik means considering how a novel, a photograph, a film changes what we see and how we make sense of the world and of ourselves. Kritik means an openness to new descriptions, metaphors, insights and is, thus, a project of enlarging our selves. 

This view of criticism has a North American version as well. Referring to literature in Art as Experience, John Dewey, for example, argues that literature’s “combinations and permutations” have the “power to create a new experience, oftentimes. . . more poignantly felt than that which comes from things themselves.” As Nicholas M. Gaskill notes in his splendid discussion of pragmatist aesthetics (reference below), Dewey prefers to emphasize cultural developments. Dewey writes: 

Some existent material was perceived in the light of relations and possibilities not hitherto realized when the steam engine was invented. But when the imagined possibilities were embodied in a new assemblage of natural materials, the steam engine took its place in nature as an object that has the same physical effects as those belonging to any other physical object.

Within literary aesthetic experience, new configurations of relations between immediately felt ideas, the reader, and her context emerge and take “[their] place in nature.” Each reading of a poem, Dewey insists, “creates something new, something previously not existing in experience.” Literature, Gaskill sums up this pragmatist line of thought, does not present possibilities given in a situation so that they might be assessed in a “thought experiment”; rather, it creates possibilities that might be carried into new situations. “The distinctive sign-structure of a literary work enables it to reconfigure ‘habits of feeling’ and social relations, and its effects reverberate through the individual vital body to the social process of community reconstruction. Yet such reverberations often require the application of a critical capacity, the transference of the literary sign-experience into a different kind of sign-event: the connective, productive domain of the pragmatist critic.”

I found myself thinking of what this way of grasping literary and cultural criticism means as I was reading Joel Burges’s remarks about my recent blog entry, “The Sound of Liberty” ( Here, Joel tells of a recent online review of Avatar he read which “savaged” the movie as an example of “’corporate anti-capitalism’.” According to that reviewer, Avatar is actually, “not an example, but a symptom.” Reacting to my suggestion that recent cinema (including Avatar) and literature displays an interest in the concept and consequences of liberty, Joel goes on to state (and I fully agree): “There is something interesting…to the ideas of re-coordinating liberalism, to re-orienting ourselves towards it as a less zero-sum game than some politicized critics have taught us to play, and to asking how literature and cinema, not to mention televisual and digital technologies, mediate those re-coordinations and re-orientations imaginatively and empirically, intentionally and unpredictably.” He then asks, specifically, “What might it mean to rethink liberalism, both in politics and media?” And, he wonders, what are the new concepts in reading contemporary fiction that you [Amir Eshel] advocate. 

Not having read the particular review to which Joel is referring to puts me at a disadvantage. Nevertheless, in reference to what I take to be its flavor, I would carefully recommend that we do not fall in to the self-aggrandizing mis-apperception (common to our kind), according to which tearing down a film as “corporate anti-capitalism” means that we have just struck a blow for human liberty. Moreover, readings that do nothing but damn whatever substance and value a work actually has in the name of what it doesn’t have (presumably, in this case, an anti-corporate anti-capitalism) are just too predictable, easy, often uninteresting and might be just what Vogl and Kluge describe as a waste of time.

In fact, the latter (negative) understanding criticism has become so common that we stopped paying attention to its peculiarity. For instance, in the scholarship about the two national literatures that I know best– postwar German and post-1948 Hebrew literature – ‘symptomatic criticism’ of this kind is very much the norm. Hordes of critics who study German literature after the Second World War spend most of their energy explaining how a writer or a novel ‘acts out’ rather than ‘works through’ Nazism. Progressive, well-intended scholars of Hebrew literature fill page after page with sophisticated analyses of how a writer like A. B. Yehoshua, for example, merely gives expression to ‘orientalist’ Zionist discourse. In Anglo-American literary criticism we find, for example, the brilliant Walter Benn Michaels who in The Shape of the Signifier discusses Morrison’s Beloved or Spiegelman’s Maus solely as a symptom for our post-1967 and post-1989 age, of a time that has become victim to the illusion that fundamental disagreement about the desired form of our social organization and political institutions has become obsolete.

Since I address ‘symptomatic reading’ in my book in detail I wish to hint here only at what cultural criticism that does not focus exclusively on ‘criticizing’ the work could be. I ask: what if we add to our ‘symptomatic’, ‘systematic’ and ‘analytic’ critical writing on literature and culture a type of criticism that focuses on what is innovative about a movie like Avatar? What would ‘critical writing’ that spends time wondering about a phenomenon rather than rushing to classify it in relation to class, gender, discourse, ‘the sovereign’, biopolitics, etc. look like?  

Incidentally, I don’t happen to regard Avatar as an artistic triumph—its stunning visuals notwithstanding. Nevertheless, it is a work with a clear futural dimension, as well as something to say about colonialism, imperialism and ruthless capitalism. Additionally, it raises questions about the meaning of liberty; questions which might prove politically meaningful. The best indication for the latter, admittedly sweeping claim is what happened in China recently. For reasons one can only speculate about, the authorities have pulled the 2D version of the movie from cinemas. According to commentators, the Chinese government was apparently worried precisely about the futural, political aspect of the film. They were concerned that some viewers would be inspired by the Na'vi’s fight for survival against the rapacious humans and might draw a dangerous analogy between the sympathetic race’s fate with that of the millions Chinese being brutally removed from their homes to make way for property developers.    

Returning for a moment to Oliver Sacks’s book that helped me pass the flight to Europe: I would like to see cultural and literary criticism that we produce recover some of the delight in mystery and the sense of awe that permeates every line of his Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain. What if we concentrated more on re-describing our objects to foreground their distinctiveness, novelties, usefulness, and beauty, rather than busying ourselves with their eloquent liquidation? What if we were to pay more attention to how the works we read create possibilities that might be carried over into new situations? What if made such ways of reading more accessible—would works of criticism then grace a few more bookstore shelves?

See also, Nicholas M. Gaskill, “Experience and Signs: Towards a Pragmatist Literary Criticism,” New Literary History 39 (2008): 165-183.)