‘Changing How We Write Is Not Going to Solve the Hiring Crisis’

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Christopher Tyree For The Chronicle

By Len Gutkin

The University of Virginia English professor Rita Felski had been a well-known name for going on three decades when The Limits of Critique (2015) made her ubiquitous — an inevitable ally, or foil, in every ambitious argument about the state of literary criticism. Limits attacked what Felski saw as a reflexively paranoid style in scholarship; it endorsed instead a “postcritical” approach, one that would resist “opposing thought to emotion or divorcing intellectual rigor from affective attachment.” (Full disclosure: I reviewed Limits when it came out.)

Whether you agreed or disagreed with Felski’s larger arguments, her book set the terms for debate in the field. In 2017, PMLA ran a special cluster of responses; this year, ELH published an essay by David Kurnick devoted in part to quarreling with Felski.

Now, Felski has a new book, Hooked, just out from the University of Chicago Press. In it, she expands on some of the territory she previously staked out: How is it that readers become entangled with works of art? I talked with Felski about aesthetic attachments, the role of “appreciation” in her larger theory, the relationship between sociology and literary scholarship, and what’s next for her.

“Scholarship,” you write in Hooked, “is not just a matter of content but also of mood, of tone, of intellectual style.” Is it fair to say that beginning with The Limits of Critique, you’ve been principally concerned with those things: style and tone and, more, what one might call “ethos”?

I wouldn’t say that they are my principal concern — I’m also very interested in ideas and argument — but they do intrigue me, partly because they are so often neglected. My thinking on these issues in Hooked was helped by David Scott’s reflections on style and voice in his recent book on Stuart Hall.

The Limits of Critique is rather different to my other books in focusing on what I call the critical moods of literary scholarship. And I return to these issues briefly in Hooked. For the most part, however, style and tone are relevant to my writing on a more practical level. My first two books were written in very conventional academic prose. Starting with Literature After Feminism  (2003), I’ve been trying to write differently.

The Limits of Critique  came out when literary studies in the United States was in the midst of a hiring crisis, which has only worsened. It strikes me that that gives your recent work some of its urgency.

Yes, we are certainly in a period of stock-taking in literary studies; see the recent books by Toril Moi, Joseph North, Timothy Aubry, and Caroline Levine.

Of course, changing how we write about literature is not going to resolve the hiring crisis, which is steered by economic and political assaults on universities that are largely beyond our immediate control — though we must certainly fight back vigorously. One can acknowledge this fact while also pointing out that literary scholars could do a much better job of explaining the value of what we do to the broader public.

Things are beginning to change, though. A lot of younger scholars are now also writing for venues like Public Books or The Chronicle Review or LARB. Because they’re speaking to larger and more varied audiences, they’re not restricted to the kind of writing that’s the norm for a tenure book. And there’s now a greater willingness to acknowledge one’s enjoyment of a novel or a film — and to reflect on the varied and complex reasons for such enjoyment — without rushing to label it as either conservative or subversive. There are other, more interesting adjectives.

Let’s talk about “enjoyment” and its cognates. The key term in Hooked is “attachment.” What makes “attachment” different from “appreciation”?

“Attachment” is a much broader concept. I use it in a quite simple or literal sense to refer to a tie. Ties can take many different forms. They can be emotional or intellectual or political or institutional.  So appreciation is one kind of attachment, but there are many others. The claim of the book is that attachment is unavoidable — that we’re always tied in some way.

That doesn’t mean we can’t criticize or distance ourselves. But we detach from one thing because we’re more attached to something else. There’s always some kind of tie, some kind of relation. In Hooked I disagree with the view that there is an opposition in literary studies between those who love literature and those who are critical and detached. What we’re actually talking about are different kinds of ties. On the one hand, attachment to literary works, which critics share with nonacademic readers. And on the other hand, attachments to methods or theories — identifying as a formalist or a Foucauldian — which are often all-important to academics but of no interest to ordinary readers.

So there’s a distinction between attachment to works and attachment to methods. But in either case, attachment itself is a capacious category. What are some modalities of attachment?

There are many different modalities, but in Hooked  I’m thinking about what’s usually called aesthetic experience. I’m trying to reframe aesthetic experience through the idea of attachment, as having both a personal and a transpersonal dimension.

Aesthetic experiences are mediated by a bunch of factors, some predictable, others less so — your social background, temperament, the books you happened to read in high school. At the same time, these experiences can feel intensely immediate. You are struck by a certain novel or film or painting; you temporarily forget everything else; you’re caught up in a way that feels intense and powerful. The argument of Hooked is that we need to reckon with both of these factors — the mediation and the sense of immediacy — without allowing one to cancel out the other.

I talk about three kinds of attachment in the book, though they are obviously not the only ones. There is identification. What does it mean to identify with characters in fiction — or, indeed, with famous critical theorists? Attunement is a bit different from identification, because it’s related to a sense of “being on the same wavelength.” It happens at a subliminal level and is hard to account for. Here I was inspired by Zadie Smith’s essay on Joni Mitchell. And finally I consider interpretation. This may seem counterintuitive, because we often think of interpretation as being opposed to attachment. And yet, through the act of interpreting, you connect to a literary work and also to the theory or method you are using. You write an article about a novel or a poem, and a tie is created. You discuss it in the classroom and form bonds — intellectual, institutional, emotional — with the work and your students via the work.

So it’s not valenced. Polemical repudiation is also an attachment.

Exactly. One of my students wrote a wonderful essay last semester about hate-watching. Relations to art works can certainly involve distaste or ambivalence. This might mean being critical of them in an intellectual or political sense, but sometimes it’s just a matter of distaste, or even gut-level loathing. These too are forms of attachment, of a negative kind.

The opposite of attachment is a lack of interest, apathy, indifference — not being aware of the object at all.

Literary studies is seeing a renewed interest in aesthetic judgment. Hooked  cites one of the scholars associated with this, Timothy Aubry. Michael Clune is another. Sianne Ngai is perhaps the most famous. Where do you see yourself in relation to those scholars, if we think of them as a coherent group?

I’m not sure they form a coherent group, but you’re right that there’s an increasing interest in questions of aesthetic value and judgment.

Aesthetics is one of my own main concerns, and I’ve written about value in the past, in relation to feminism and cultural studies. I used to get into arguments with colleagues who thought we should give up value judgments altogether because they’re hierarchical and elitist. But as people who have written about value point out — Barbara Herrnstein Smith and Steven Connor, for example — evaluation is inescapable. Faced with an infinite variety of possibilities and options, we are called on to choose. We cannot help but orient ourselves to what we think of as better, versus what we think of as worse.

When it comes to aesthetic experience, however, there is no single set of criteria by which to evaluate works of art. To borrow a phrase from John Frow, there are different regimes of value: People like works of art for many different reasons. I’m not sure that literary scholars engage adequately with these reasons. That may sound like an odd thing to say, given that there’s now much more attention paid to popular culture and politics in literary studies. But in academic contexts, this often gets routed back into the language of paradox or irony or ambiguity — the same formalist literary values that dominated in the middle of the last century.

Sociology gives your work a way of thinking about the many kinds of relation that people have to works of art. Where does Pierre Bourdieu come in for you? You seem openly skeptical of him in Hooked.

“Skeptical” is perhaps a bit too strong. I teach Bourdieu regularly and think everyone should read him. But I find it odd that in literary studies he’s often taken as the last word rather than just one word. The sociology of culture includes many criticisms of Bourdieu by, say, Jeffrey Alexander and Howard Becker in the U.S., Bernard Lahire in France, and Tia DeNora in England. Bourdieu is important in developing a systematic account of the relations between art and the social world. But precisely because it’s so systematic, it leaves little room for unpredictability and variation and surprise.

Of course there are relationships between taste and class, but they’re less rigid and less predictable than Bourdieu makes out. A point often made is that Bourdieu’s own statistics in Distinction often don’t support his theoretical claims very well. Yes, professors or bank managers are more likely to listen to classical music than other groups, but the correlation is not very strong. Most professors or bank managers listen to rock music, along with everyone else.

And Bourdieu’s account of the reasons why people engage with art is too limited and reductive. It’s certainly important to acknowledge the role of cultural capital. But improving one’s social status is hardly the only reason that people read novels or visit art galleries.

Recent work in the sociology of art and culture is paying much more attention to the attachments people have to art works — and taking those attachments seriously, rather than trying to demystify them.

The late Michael Silverstein, in a review of Bourdieu, calls Bourdieu’s reliance on the idea of “capital” and “markets” “an at best flat-footed metaphor.”

Right. Though, speaking as someone who came from a lower-middle-class background and took some time to learn the codes of academic life, I’m very much aware that cultural capital exists! But there are also many other things going on in our engagement with art.

Bruno Latour is the animating sociological presence in much of your recent work. How does Latour’s actor-network theory differ from the strong, even ossifying, “contextualism” that is an object of your criticism?

One key difference is that ANT is interested in connections across time. It’s trying to move away from the idea of history as a box: the belief that the ultimate meaning of a literary work lies in the historical moment in which it appears. So in that sense, it pushes back against the still very strong emphasis on periodization in English departments. I should say, however, that there’s a lot of work in literary studies that I see as having affinities with ANT, even though it doesn’t draw on its language or mention Latour. I look at a bunch of examples in Hooked, including Ann Rigney’s wonderful book on the afterlives of Walter Scott.

Actor-network theory focuses on specific phenomena and traces the connections between them — and it expects to be surprised by what it finds out. It’s opposed to what Latour would call theoretical shortcuts, where you start off from a pre-existing theory and then interpret all your examples to confirm your theory. I see ANT as having quite a few similarities to British cultural studies. In both instances there’s an emphasis on contingency. There is no inherent politics to a text, but a range of possibilities, depending on which audiences it hooks up with, what kinds of interest it speaks to. What a novel means at one period of time could be quite different from what it means at another. What it means for one group of readers can be quite different from what it means for another. So if you’re interested in the political effects of literature, it’s not enough to do a close reading and link it up to some quotes from Marx or Foucault. You have to engage in empirical research — you have to follow the actors, as Latour would say.

Tell me about your next book.

I’m now writing about the contemporary Frankfurt School, drawing out affinities between some of its ideas and the current rethinking of critique in literary studies. This work offers a number of affirmative concepts that are helpful in trying to clarify the value of literature and literary studies. I’ve been writing, for example, about resonance, recognition, and disclosure.

This new book feels like a return home for me. When I did my Ph.D. in Australia, I was trained in the Frankfurt School, in the orbit of students of Lukács who had moved to Melbourne. And in my first book I was trying to rethink feminist criticism by linking it to this tradition and siding with Habermas against Adorno. So it’s been interesting to revisit these issues. And another reason for this new project is to try to revive a conversation between literary studies and the social sciences that’s pretty much ground to a halt.

For example, I’m intrigued by the lopsided reception of German theory. Literary critics are often familiar with the first-generation Frankfurt School — Adorno, Benjamin, maybe Lukács or Bloch. But almost a century has passed. Several generations of scholars have criticized this early work and gone in different directions. Yet this newer scholarship has not made its way into literary studies. There’s been no uptake of Axel Honneth or Hartmut Rosa or Rahel Jaeggi or Robin Celikates — all major figures in contemporary Frankfurt School thought. Habermas gets addressed a bit but not much.

Doesn’t Habermas have a lot of currency, for early Americanists for instance?

His work on the public sphere, yes, which was taken up by Michael Warner and quite a few others, including myself. That was a very early book, though — his Habilitationsschrift, I believe. But Theory of Communicative Action? Or The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity? Or the later work? Hardly at all.

I should point out, though, that the lack of interest goes both ways. One reason the contemporary Frankfurt School gets no attention from literary critics is that it pays no attention to literature! Compared to Adorno or Benjamin, for example, Habermas has very little to say. Things are not much better with the following generation, who are talking to other political theorists or sociologists. And when they do mention literature, they tend to do so in limited ways. A novel is hauled in to illustrate or confirm a prior theoretical argument.

This is a way of using theory that I strongly disagree with. I am not trying to apply the present-day Frankfurt School to literature. Rather, I want to remix the relationship between literature and theory, to connect them in different ways. I see what I’m doing as an exercise in translation. Can I borrow certain ideas and use them to ends that are different from what they were intended for? As the quote goes, to translate is also to betray.

Len Gutkin is an associate editor at The Chronicle Review. His first book, Dandyism: Forming Fiction From Modernism to the Present, was published in February 2020 by the University of Virginia Press.

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