A Call for Critique

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Bree Newsome taking down the Confederate Flag in Columbia, South Carolina. Image attribution: Bree Newsome.

By Spencer Jackson, The University of Queensland

The Centre for the History of Emotions at The University of Queensland is hosting a series of public lectures over the course of 2016 on the question of critique. To many, this may seem like a dreary beginning. Why, you might ask, do we need yet another return to critique? Well, because in literary and art criticism today – in Australia, the United States and Britain – there is an increasing tendency for critics to assume a stance of political neutrality and scholarly objectivity in their work. More and more critics are rejecting the heavy-handed theory-driven interpretations of the 1970s, 80s and 90s in favour of a form of criticism that hinges on the neo-positivist assumption that the subjectivity of the present-day living and breathing critic is not a problem, that the affective position of a critic within a specific historical, cultural and political moment does not matter. Scholars increasingly act as if they have an unmediated and absolute relationship with their objects of study; that is, as if interpretation itself is not necessary. This neo-positivist turn does nothing to save us from the absurdities of our high theory past; in fact, this post- or a-critical movement only replaces one form of dogmatism with another. We no longer have to turn to French men to learn the truth of art and literature; now, we only have to look directly at objects, whose objective reality will speak through us and give us our new absolute answers.

In her recent book The Limits of Critique (2015), Rita Felski implores scholars of the arts to do three key things: become more connected to their publics, pay greater attention to the emotional experience of reading and recognise the power of art to create as well as destroy.[1] I second this call, but I reject Felski’s claim that we have entered a ‘post-critical’ age primarily because such declarations only lend further legitimacy to the a-political turn in contemporary criticism.[2] In the talk I gave as an introduction to our series, I argued for a re-vitalisation of the critical tradition and suggested that this is the best means for combatting a trend that promises to make art and literary scholarship even more irrelevant, even more disconnected from the public than it ever was in the heyday of high theory. Moving from Kant to Arendt to Foucault, I argued for the centrality of aesthetics to a political understanding of the critical tradition and contended that Kant’s writing on schöne Kunst – fine or beautiful art – ought to be at the centre of how we think of critique because it is only here that Kant develops a theory of critique that combines both negative limitation and world-altering action.

On 13 May 2016, Professor Anne Maxwell from The University of Melbourne gave a talk on the place of critique in colonial women’s photography, and on 17 June, Paolo Magagnoli of The University of Queensland will be speaking on the politics of the recent Asian-Pacific art triennial at the Brisbane Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA). In the second semester of this year, Vivasvan Soni, Professor of Romantic Literature at Northwestern University, will be our keynote speaker for a one-day symposium on the theme of critique and judgment in the arts. Vivasvan’s Mourning Happiness: Narrative and the Politics of Modernity won the 2010 MLA Prize for a First Book. He will be speaking to us on the topic of his next book, which focuses on the role that eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European literature and philosophy played in what he describes as the decline of judgment: the transition from an earlier and richer conception of judgment as an aesthetic, political and collective exercise to modernity’s thinner notion of judgment as an object of mere individual taste. If anyone is interested in participating in this symposium, please do contact me as we would love to have many scholars from the Centre for the History of Emotions involved.

Pope,+RotLI would like to turn now to an example of a contemporary work in a-criticism: Jonathan Kramnick’s Actions to Objects from Hobbes to Richardson (2010), one of the best recent books in eighteenth-century literary studies, and yet one that also exemplifies the limitations of current a-critical trends.[3] Kramnick masterfully demonstrates the way that eighteenth-century literature, ranging from Pope’s ‘Rape of the Locke’ (1712) to Richardson’s Clarissa (1747–1748), can be read as a reflection of Hobbes’ and Locke’s radical materialist philosophies in which humans appear as mere objects caught in a chain of causal relations. Kramnick justifies his focus with the following:

I am inclined to tilt the applecart rather than hold it in place. So where the predominant model has favored the growth of inwardness, sympathy, and subjectivity, I tend (again) to favor things external, like the elemental parts of matter or the chains of causes or the forms of contract.[4]

One can classify Kramnick’s work as part of a new formalist trend in literary studies, and I have chosen it because I think it illustrates the real dogmatism at the heart of both contemporary formalism and historicism. One might ask what emotional commitments, what present-day social and political problems, have prompted Kramnick to argue that eighteenth-century literature tends to treat human subjects as objects. And since Kramnick likely would dismiss this question as ‘presentism’, one would then have to ask how Kramnick has overcome the limitations of space, time and human subjectivity in order to achieve a miraculously unmediated and absolute connection to his period of study. We of course know this is not true, that implicit in Kramnick’s arguments are a series of normative judgments that respond to issues in eighteenth-century Britain as well as in Kramnick’s own twenty-first-century American present. It is essential that we begin to make these decisions a part of our studies.

In my own dissertation and now book project, I focus on the role that eighteenth-century literature played in constructing a modern sense of inwardness, sympathy and subjectivity because I believe that the history that separates me from this literature matters; I am interested in the kind of individual that eighteenth-century British literature helped to create because it was not the radically materialist idea of the human as an object that became a key ideological weapon for the British Empire and its American successor.

My project began while I was reading for my graduate field exams in 2009, and I noticed similarities between seventeenth- and eighteenth-century British literature and the rhetoric I had encountered as an activist organising from 2001 to 2004 against the American-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. During the early years of the so-called War on Terror, politicians from the United States, Britain and Australia made frequent use of a kind of Western theology that equates humanity with a specific individualised form of subjectivity and a specific model of time as something that is everywhere the same and always governed by progress. So the individual and history as progress: let’s look at some examples of this Western theology at work, beginning with John Howard speaking in the aftermath of the attacks of 11 September 2001:

Bin Laden’s hatred for the United States, and for a world system built on individual freedom, religious tolerance, democracy, and the international free flow of commerce, is non-negotiable. These virtues of the modern world are an affront to bin Laden, and an obstacle to his objectives.[5]

And we can look at a quote from Hillary Clinton speaking in 2003:

We need a tough-minded, muscular foreign and defense policy, one that not only respects our allies and seeks new friends as it strikes at known enemies … The consequences of unilateralism, isolationism and overtly expressed preemptive defense, I think, are severe. We will end up with fewer nations, fewer intelligence services and fewer law enforcement personnel internationally helping to protect us against attacks, fewer nations helping to counterattack when we are struck, and less leverage in advancing democracy, freedom, open markets and other values that we believe elevate the people of the world even as they protect our people here at home.[6]

Okay, we can see that Clinton is urging all the so-called civilised nations, that is, those predominantly white European capitalist countries, to come together to ensure that the modern gospel of free markets, democracy and individual rights are taken, as Joseph Conrad might say, to those ‘dark places of the earth’. The fact that this is a real theology with real religious belief behind it helps to explain why these wars happened; I do not think that economic or political self-interest alone can explain them. These wars were fought on behalf of a modern Western faith.

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Image: The King as Christ, Frontispiece, Eikon Basilike, 1648.

My project is an argument that this at once political and theological idea of the West as the chosen vehicle for global salvation has its roots in a British national theology that eighteenth-century literature played a key role in constructing. My study opens with John Dryden’s panegyrics to the seventeenth-century king, Charles II, and I do this in order to argue that the origins of the individual that will become associated with the novel can be found in Dryden’s image of the king as a mortal body endowed with immortal political value. I move from the nationalist poetry of Pope and Dryden to domestic novels, with their stories of typically female protagonists negotiating the drama of courtship and marriage, because I think that these novels best exemplify the way that eighteenth-century literature democratises the political subjectivity once reserved for kings. These novels depict the behaviour of their largely female heroines as politically essential; the virtue of these young women is vital to the salvation of Britain, and yet they are women and thus alienated from voting or sitting in parliament. So why are they so important? Because the subjectivity that they learn to exercise in these novels is the glue that holds together the new sense of Britain as a chosen nation made up of self-governing Western individuals.

If my project stopped here, however, if all it did were show that British novels are not secular, that they create a theological notion of the nation and the individual, then it would remain critical in the purely ‘negative’ sense that Felski and Bruno Latour have rightly rejected. It would be to follow theorists such as Gil Anidjar and Giorgio Agamben, who have unmasked the key institutions of Western modernity as Christianity in new form, but have failed to say what this new understanding of Western modernity makes possible. To get past this critical morass, I argue that the theological foundation of the eighteenth-century British individual has ambivalent political effects; it is a form of both subjection and potential emancipation.

Fragonard,_The_ReaderThe final two chapters of my project focus on two domestic novels, Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (1747–1748) and Maria Edgeworth’s The Absentee (1812), that feature characters who use the internalised sovereignty at the heart of the modern novelistic subject as a means of resistance. The eponymous heroine of Richardson’s tale and Larry the Irish carriage driver of Edgeworth’s offer the following lesson: if modern Anglo individuals re-theologise the secularised political authority they carry, they can use it as the foundation for something other than Western imperialism. For a contemporary example that resonates with the legacy of Clarissa and Larry, I would like to turn to the African-American activist and filmmaker, Bree Newsome, who, nine months ago, climbed a flagpole in front of the South Carolina State House in order to take down the Confederate flag that the state of South Carolina still flies along with 11 other States. From atop her flagpole, Newsome cried, ‘You come against me with hatred and oppression and violence. I come against you in the name of God. This flag comes down today!’[7]

I am not a believer myself but in my project I strive to give credence to the role that religion plays in eighteenth-century literature as a source of authority, not only for an ascendant British Empire, but also for those who resist it. In 2001, I co-founded a network of college anti-war groups that organised a public three-day fast on campuses around the United States in opposition to the War in Afghanistan, and some of our staunchest allies were inter-faith groups made up of Christians, Hindus, Muslims and Jews, who did not think that responding to 11 September with more bombs was the answer. In the midst of academic debates over secularism, I think it’s helpful for people to consider the fact that actual left-wing organising in much of the world inevitably means working with people of faith.

And on this note, in conclusion, I would like to reiterate Rita Felski’s call for critics of the arts to make more connections between their work and the broader public. I think a key step in doing this is remembering another point of Felski’s, namely, that scholars must start to recognise that the experience of art begins with ‘pleasure, absorption, or entrancement’.[8] Felski would not put it this way, but what she describes is an interpretative and political problem; it is a call for us not to abandon critique, but to do it better. Coming to academia by way of activism, I personally have been struck by the tendency for left-wing academics to present their arguments as so hyperbolically ‘radical’, so pure, that they are for all intents and purposes entirely apolitical: they have no easily understood bearing on contemporary struggles. To critique art is to become engrossed by it and the world it reflects; in a certain sense, it is to become complicit. And when we make a judgement, we thus do so of the work, the world and our-selves. Scholars of the arts have the capacity to contribute something desperately needed in contemporary politics, and that is the imagination necessary to formulate new ideas and new narratives. We are specialists of novelty, of works that have opposed and re-made their worlds, and what we therefore can do like few others is imagine how to re-make this one.

Spencer Jackson is a CHE Postdoctoral Research Fellow based at The University of Queensland. He was awarded a PhD in Comparative Literature from UCLA in 2012, and specialises in long eighteenth-century British literature and twentieth-century French philosophy.

[1] Rita Felski, The Limits of Critique (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), p. 24.

[2] Felski, The Limits of Critique, p. 181.

[3] Jonathan Kramnick, Actions to Objects from Hobbes to Richardson (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010).

[4] Kramnick, Actions to Objects, p. 11.

[5] ‘We Are Allied With A Just Cause: Howard’, AustralianPolitics.com, 25 October 2001: http://australianpolitics.com/news/2001/01-10-25.shtml.

[6] ‘Remarks by Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’, Council on Foreign Relations, 15 December 2003: http://www.cfr.org/iraq/remarks-senator-hillary-rodham-clinton-transcript/p6600.

[7] ‘“This Flag Comes Down Today”: Bree Newsome Scales SC Capitol Flagpole, Takes Down Confederate Flag’, Democracy Now!, 3 July 2015: http://www.democracynow.org/2015/7/3/this_flag_comes_down_today_bree.

[8] Felski, The Limits of Critique, p. 180.

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