Rita Felski’s The Limits of Critique, like her Uses of Literature, is admirably clear and accessible but the former is aimed primarily at an academic audience. I don’t have, nor wish to acquire an insider’s perspective of recent debates in American academic cliques about the use of theory (as in poststructuralist theories – no longer given the capital T).
I do however subscribe to the importance of theory in its most general sense as offering a way of interpreting the social world, particularly its shaping around gender and class, and theory as critique, that is, as an analytical framework to understand how sociopolitical divisions are constructed and maintained in literature, visual arts, language, culture and our psychic processes.
I’m strictly a dilettante theorist unpicking what I can from reading theoretical work, and resist a fair amount because it is often difficult or deliberately obscure. Although The Limits of Critique is written for the academy, it is neither exclusive nor forbidding, and offers riches aplenty for rigorous readers of serious literature (even within the first 50 pages). I’ll undoubtedly have more to say about the book as I read on.
The following fragment interested me with its implication, if I understood correctly, that theory is informed and fashioned by literature to the same degree that Kundera contends that philosophy is shaped by literary works.
Rather than being innocent victims of suspicion, literary works are active instigators and perpetrators of it. That we have learned to read between the lines has everything to do with the devices deployed in modern works of art: unreliable narrators, conflicting viewpoints, fragmented narratives, and metafictional devices that alert readers to the ways in which words conceal rather than reveal. Reading Kafka is more than enough to make one paranoid; the texts of Beckett anticipate many of the tenets of poststructuralism. Suspicious readers are preceded and often schooled by suspicious writers. Indeed, much of what has counted as theory in recent decades riffs off, revises, and extends the classic themes of literary and artistic modernism.