Post-critical Reading and the New Hegelianism

by Matthew Flaherty

When philosophy paints its grey in grey, one form of life has become old, and by means of grey it cannot be rejuvenated, but only known. The owl of Minerva takes its flight only when the shades of night are gathering.

The declining influence of Theory in the humanities can be traced, as with many other such cultural sea-changes, to the moment that an innovative and path-breaking discourse became a routine way of doing business. By the Eighties and Nineties, every graduate student in the United States tacitly understood that anything in literature and criticism that was logocentric, phallocentric, hegemonic, totalizing, binary, identitarian, ideological, reified, homogenized, or transparent was bad, while anything that was heterogeneous, fragmented, undecidable, transgressive, discursive, hybrid, subversive, marginalized, diasporic, decentered, or demystified was good. One wouldn’t want to overstate the agreement during the decades of high theory’s institutionalization, of course: post-structuralist celebrations of undecidability and resistance to binary thought never cohered particularly well with Marxist resistance to reification and the imperative to think totality, for instance.[1] But even if Marxists and post-structuralists voiced their suspicions of literary texts for different reasons, every mainstream school during theory’s reign was united in the belief that responsible reading required such suspicion: the critic still had a heroic role to play by resisting the logocentric, hegemonic, or totalizing closure produced by the literary work, or, in other cases, by explaining how the work itself resisted such closure.  In this environment, it was tacitly accepted that properly critical reading had requirements: whether one was speaking of “philosophy, psychoanalysis, or literature,” one needed to learn, in the words of Evelyn Cobley, “to attribute significance to unacknowledged contradictions, incoherences, and undecidable moments in literary and critical discourses” (Cobley 189).[2]

Dissatisfaction with the practice and vocabulary of symptomatic reading began to take hold in the late Eighties. Scandals such as the revelation of Paul de Man’s Nazi sympathies and the “Sokal Hoax” tarnished the prestige of high theory in English departments, as did various satirical jabs at the style of theory-inflected writing from journals such as Dissent or Philosophy and Literature.[3] In addition to facing challenges from scandal and satire, the practice and vocabulary of symptomatic reading also received resistance from voices who had become theory’s most influential proponents. Although critics including Eve Sedgwick, Judith Butler, and Terry Eagleton were instrumental in bringing vocabularies and practices of theory to a new generation of literary critics, these and others—including Christopher Norris, Harold Bloom, and Frank Lentricchia—all shifted emphasis later in their careers, exploring practices of reading and analysis antithetical to their previous work.[4]  The changing emphasis of former proponents of symptomatic reading added fuel to the growing list of complaints with theory’s legacy for literary study over the decades, culminating most recently in Sharon Marcus and Stephen Best’s influential attack on symptomatic reading in a 2009 issue of Representations.[5]

As dissatisfaction with the rhetoric and practice of symptomatic reading has taken hold in literary studies, a host of alternative directions for the discipline have emerged: New Aestheticism, Formalism, and Materialism; surface, distant, and machine reading; and turns to affect, ethics, and phenomenology name a few of the multiple attempts to imagine modes of reading that challenge what came to be thought of as properly “critical” reading under Theory.[6] In this present “post-critical” moment, where disparate directions for the discipline proliferate, it remains to articulate what, if anything, unifies attempts to move beyond the legacy of critical theory in ways that manage to avoid not only abandoning principles that make literary studies distinctive as a discipline but repeating problems common to symptomatic reading practice. Although recent attempts to conceive of modes of reading in a phenomenological vein have been given different names—including “literary reading” (Peltason, Kuiken et. al, Gallop), “reflective reading” (Felski), “reparative reading” (Sedgwick), reading as “self-creation” (Rorty), reading as “recognition” (Fluck, Simpson), “reading with the grain” (Bewes), dialectical reading (Altieri), “implicative criticism” (Miller), “object-oriented criticism” (Harman), “humanist literary criticism” (Mousley) and “cultural phenomenology” (Connor)—these disparate accounts of reading practice can nevertheless be scrutinized for their articulation of shared principles.[7] I turn now to a brief examination of three principles articulated in recent phenomenological attempts to think a post-critical practice of literary criticism.

First, defenses of post-critical reading prioritize a willingness to actively engage with objects of analysis over the capacity to disinterestedly diagnose them. To the extent that symptomatic criticism depends upon grasping the hidden significance of textual features obscured by a work’s aesthetic structure, the critic’s own evaluative stance to the object of study is given in advance; it thus becomes easier for suspicious critics to point to limitations of a text through routine diagnosis rather than communicating their evaluative stance on the basis of engagement with a work’s aesthetic features. Richard Rorty’s ironist “self-creation,” Eve Sedgwick’s “reparative reading,” Rita Felski’s “reflective reading,” Timothy Peltason’s “literary reading,” Winfried Fluck’s reading for “recognition,” Andy Mousley’s “humanist literary criticism,” and Andrew Miller’s “implicative criticism” are all united in resisting the idea that an evaluative stance of suspicion to literature, or what Rorty calls “knowingness” is more self-aware and sophisticated than other modes of affective engagement with literary works (Achieving Our Country, 126). Of course, this group of critics should not be taken as suggesting that the replacement of negative affective stances with positive ones will necessarily produce superior criticism: a routine criticism that waxes poetic about the greatness of canonical works may be just as disengaging as a routine criticism that exposes their complicity with class-privilege. In order for criticism to count as “implicative” in Andrew Miller’s term, the critic must succeed in articulating how and why and how a given work matters to them in such a way as to facilitate that same evaluative engagement in other readers. Timothy Peltason characterizes this process as the articulation of judgment: a critic’s description of a text must be thick enough to communicate to others their judgments of various questions such as “What is it like to read this novel or poem, to watch this play or movie? How does it work? How well does it work? If it’s good, what is it good at? And what is it good for?” (500).

In addition to promoting responsive judgment rather than routine diagnosis, post-critical reading practices also strive to communicate what makes a text worthy of present attention rather than just what links it to its historical context. The question of why one should read this particular  text and not another is not answered very well by the legacy of theoretical reading practices common both to Marxism and to New Historicism, which view literary objects as afloat in a sea of other cultural artifacts that equally express the contours of a given historical era. If one is looking to find the blind spots or symptoms of a particular cultural formation, it may be just as easy to find them in objects of mass culture as it is in works deemed literary. For Rita Felski, the mode of criticism that views literary texts as merely “one more social text among others” fails to properly account for “the transtemporal movement and affective resonance of particular texts” that continue to provoke responses across generations (“Context Stinks!” 574). By explaining texts as products of a given “economic structure, political ideology, [or] cultural mentality,” a suspicious critic may inflate context at the expense of the text, effectively depriving the artwork of agency (577). While Felski takes issue with the way that contextualizing criticism renders the work of art’s affective resonance a matter of indifference to the critic’s rhetorical engagement, Graham Harman calls attention to the way that over-contextualization renders a work of art’s analytic specificity a matter of indifference to the critic’s explanatory project. For Harman, dissolving texts into ideologies and interests taken to determine them fails to do justice to aspects of individual works that have a weak causal relationship to their economic and political contexts: a form of analysis that views its objects as awash in a flux of ceaselessly determining relations may easily fail to discriminate between those influences essential and inessential to the object’s distinctive qualities (194-195). Harman’s defense of object-oriented literary criticism thus calls for a “death of the culture” to supplement the critical trope of the death of the author out of conviction that contextualizing criticism needs to take greater account of the capacity of works to “absorb and resist their conditions of production” (200, 202).

If post-critical reading invites critics to articulate features that distinguish texts from surrounding contexts, such reading also invites critics to derive concepts structuring their argument from texts themselves, rather than a preexisting conceptual apparatus. Instead of treating texts as occasions for the illustration of predetermined truths about the nature of capital, textuality, or desire, post-critical reading strives to construct its interventions in terms that do justice to the specific engagements invited by particular literary works. Timothy Bewes’s defense of what he calls “reading with the grain” emphasizes the importance of such localized attention by drawing on Paul Riceour’s defense of a hermeneutic of “recollection,” or “restoration,” which refuses to allow a text’s meaning to be either simply predetermined or explained and instead seeks to construct meaning as it emerges from the reading experience (9). By “approach[ing] the text in the absolute confidence of being spoken to,” reading with the grain requires attention to how thoughts internal to the text develop (12). Bewes quotes the advice Deleuze once gave to students in a seminar to describe this posture: “You must let [the author] speak for himself, analyze the frequency of his words, the style of his own obsessions. His thought invents its own coordinates and develops along its own axes” (qtd. in Bewes 25). Bewes’s attempt to read with the grain of particular works coheres closely with Charles Altieri’s Hegelian defense of the sensuousness of literary experience against the utopian political pieties of New Materialism,[8] and also with Steven Connor’s privileging of “cultural phenomenology” against what he calls “the machine of critical theory” (24). Resembling ethnography more than theory, Connor’s cultural phenomenology avoids reducing “the plurality and analytic nonsaturability of cultural experience to common currencies and finalising formulae of all kinds,” seeking to replace readings of “abstract structures, functions and dynamics” with a patient and curious attention to the concrete specificity of cultural objects (24, 18). By allowing one’s own critical analysis to be informed by the specificity of a text’s own thought and expression, Bewes, Altieri, and Connor all champion reading practices that resist explaining the text’s relation to an external order that pre-determines its truth in favor of viewing the truth of a text as that which emerges in the event of reading.

One doesn’t need a metaphysics of history to sense when a form of life with its attendant rituals, pieties, and practices has grown old. Theory’s reign in literature departments has long been past the point when its claims arrived with salutary shock in the profession, disrupting the “complacent universalism” of the New Critics with a bracing examination of the self-division lurking underneath the ostensible unity of literary texts (Wood 28).  A mode of criticism that was historically resonant in the wake of the Vietnam War and that continued to serve as an outlet for political frustrations during the Reagan and Thatcher administrations of the 1980s no longer has the same urgency for contemporary critics. Given our increased distance from these moments of acute political disappointment for leftist political agendas, the temptation to exaggerate the mobilizing powers of literary criticism for political change is perhaps not as strong. So too, in environments of digital overstimulation and “hyper-attention” where the practice of close-reading literature faces increasing skepticism from both students and administrators, literary critics and teachers are in many cases increasingly receptive to practices that accord greater respect to the cultural objects studied.[9] As we have seen here, recent defenses of post-critical phenomenology privilege stances of subjective investment above scientistic detachment, individuating attention above contextualizing deflation, and flexible recollection above rigid abstraction. Given the prescience of Hegelian philosophy about the dangers of positivism, over-contextualization, and abstract negation, along with the explicit invocations of Hegel by Richard Rorty, Timothy Bewes, and Charles Altieri, the recent post-critical shift in literary criticism may fruitfully be characterized as a New Hegelianism. Although interest in Hegel has been on the rise in literature departments since the 1990s and early 2000s through the influence of Slavoj Žižek, Alain Badiou, Charles Taylor, Judith Butler, and Fredric Jameson, among others, the attitudes expressed in New Hegelianism are not new: such attitudes have been associated with literary criticism long before the rise of theory by critics such as Matthew Arnold, Oscar Wilde, Georg Lukacs, T.S. Eliot, Erich Auerbach, and Lionel Trilling. While the current Hegelian direction to literary studies may be drawn from sources present and past, and while its currently welcome correction to commonplaces of symptomatic reading may eventually harden into its own dogmas and pieties, the emergence of a New Hegelianism in literary criticism provides one promising avenue for those coming of age after theory’s reign to make their own contribution to the fickle progress of history in the humanities.

[1] See Fredric Jameson’s “The Ideology of the Text” in The Ideologies of Theory (1988).

[2] My summary of the vocabulary and practices of critical theory borrows from three concise summaries of the rise and fall of Theory in the humanities. See Evelyn Cobley’s “Hard Going After Theory,” English Studies in Canada 30.4 (2004): 188-203; Noah Isenberg’s “Theory Out of Bounds,” Raritan 27.1 (2007): 82-103; and James Wood’s “Textual Harassment,” The New Republic 7 Jun. 2004: 28-35.

[3] The physicist Alan Sokal managed to publish a bogus essay "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity" in a 1996 issue of Social Text, while Brian Morton wrote a satirical essay “How Not to Write for Dissent” for a 1990 issue of Dissent, and Denis Dutton ran the “Bad Writing Contests” of Philosophy and Literature from 1995-1998.

[4] See Eve Sedgwick’s Touching Feeling (2003), Terry Eagleton’s After Theory (2004), and Judith Butler’s Giving an Account of Oneself (2005).

[5] "Surface Reading: An Introduction," Representations 108.1 (2009): 1-21. See also Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels’s critique of theory’s resistance to intentionality in “Against Theory,” Critical Inquiry 8.4 (1982), and John Guillory’s Bourdieuian analysis of theory’s bureaucratization in “Literature After Theory,” Cultural Capital (1995).

[6] On New Aestheticism, see The New Aestheticism. Eds John J. Joughin and Simon Malpas (2003); on New Formalism, see Marjorie Levinson, "What Is New Formalism?" PMLA 122.2 (2007): 558-569; on New Materialism, see Jane Bennett et al., New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics, eds. Diana Coole and Samantha Frost (2010). On “surface reading” see Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus, "Surface Reading: An Introduction," Representations 108.1 (2009): 1-21; on “distant reading,” see Franco Moretti, Distant Reading (2013); on “machine reading” see N. Katherine Hayles, "How We Read: Close, Hyper, Machine," ADE Bulletin 150 (2010): 62-79. On the turn to ethics see Michael Eskin, ‘‘Introduction: The Double ‘Turn’ to Ethics and Literature?,’’ Poetics Today, 25 (2004): 557– 72; on the turn to affect, see Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (2003). This paper offers its own account of texts contributing to the recent turn to phenomenology. For another discussion of phenomenology’s significance to literary studies see Rita Felski, Uses of Literature (2008): 16-20.

[7] See bibliography for citations.

[8] See Altieri, “The Sensuous Dimension of Literary Experience.”

[9] N. Katherine Hayles, "How we read: Close, hyper, machine," ADE Bulletin 150 (2010): 62-79. For other recent defenses of close-reading that emphasize a posture of attentiveness toward literary objects also see Jane Gallop and John Guillory’s contributions to ADE Bulletin 149.

Bibliography of Post-critical Phenomenology

Literary reading

Gallop, Jane. "Close Reading in 2009." ADE Bulletin 149 (2010): 15-19.

Kuiken, Don, David S. Miall, and Shelley Sikora. "Forms of Self-implication in Literary Reading." Poetics Today 25.2 (2004): 171-203.

Peltason, Timothy. “The Uncommon Pursuit.” Literary Imagination 6.3 (2004): 499-515.

Reparative reading

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading.” Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (2003): 123-153.

Reflective reading

Felski, Rita. “After Suspicion.” Profession 2009, no. 1 (2009): 28–35.

Reading as “self-creation”  

Rorty, Richard. “Private Irony and Liberal Hope.” Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989): 73-96.

Reading as “recognition”

Felski, Rita. “Recognition.” Uses of Literature (2008): 23-51.

Fluck, Winfried. "Reading for Recognition." New Literary History 44.1 (2013): 45-67.

Simpson, James. “Cognition is Recognition” in New Literary History 44.1 (2013): 25-44.

 “Reading with the grain”

Bewes, Timothy. “Reading with the Grain: A New World in Literary Criticism.” Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 21.3 (2010): 1-33.

Dialectical reading

Altieri, Charles. “The Sensuous Dimension of Literary Experience: An Alternative to Materialist Theory.” New Literary History 38.1 (2007): 71-98.

Implicative criticism

Miller, Andrew. “Implicative Criticism” in New Literary History 44.3 (2013): 345-360.

Object-oriented criticism

Harman, Graham. “The Well-Wrought Broken Hammer: Object-Oriented Literary Criticism.” New Literary History 43.2 (2012): 183-203.

Humanist literary criticism

Mousley, Andy. "The New Literary Humanism: Towards a Critical Vocabulary." Textual Practice 24.5 (2010): 819-839.

Cultural phenomenology

Connor, Stephen. “CP: or, A Few Don'ts By A Cultural Phenomenologist.” Parallax 5.2 (1999): 17-31.

Matthew Flaherty's picture
Matthew Flaherty, a Doctoral Candidate in the Department of English at Johns Hopkins University, is the author of “Henry James at the Ethical Turn: Vivification and Ironization in The Ambassadors,” which appeared in Nineteenth-Century Literature in 2014. He is now at work on his dissertation, titled ‘‘Many-sided Lives: Opposing Values in the Nineteenth-Century British Novel,’’ which explores how novels by Jane Austen, George Eliot, George Gissing, and Henry James use relations between characters to both privilege and challenge value-schemas.

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