a review of Rita Felski’s The Limits of Critique
“Why is it”, Felski asks near the start of her book, “that critics are so quick off the mark to interrogate, unmask, expose, subvert, unravel, demystify, take issue, and take umbrage?” Why, in other words, do we so frequently presuppose that literary texts must be skeptically questioned, that their appearances are deceptive, and that they mean something more, or other, than what they say? A Marxist critic might “interrogate” a novel to tease out its ideological function; the way it projects, perhaps unwittingly, imaginary solutions to social contradictions. A feminist critic might unmask its reinforcement of (or, conversely, resistance to) patriarchal norms; and a postcolonial critic might expose its awareness of colonial oppression, even if that awareness exists only between the lines, as a “dead silence” (to recall Edward Said’s influential reading of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park). For Felski, the family resemblance between such differently motivated approaches lies in their common ethos of “critique”—a distrustful, disenchanted, and sometimes condemnatory stance, fixated on literature’s relation to “overbearing and oppressive social forces”, convinced of the “radicalism” of revealing such relations, and intolerant of alternative aims, insisting that “whatever is not critical must therefore be uncritical”. On this account, “critique” has less to do with the intellectual content of particular critical theories than with their varying investments in an implicit conception of the critic’s role. Although Felski doesn’t use the term, her real subject is what the sociologist Neil Gross would call an “intellectual self-concept”; a story which intellectuals tell themselves about themselves.