Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Davide Panagia reviews The Limits of Critique

Rita Felski. The Limits of Critique. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015. 232 pp.

Review by Davide Panagia

22 January 2016

            The Pleasures of Criticism could have been the alternate title to Rita Felski’s provocative The Limits of Critique. In this book Felski traces the cynegetic tendencies (my term, not hers, for the cynical or disillusioning mode) of postwar literary criticism in the West to survey, hunt, and capture meaning in literary works. Those hunting practices are named the hermeneutics of suspicion and much of Felski’s analysis is devoted to unpacking the diagnostic parameters of suspicious reading, its moods and attitudes, and its effects.

           Felski’s is the kind of psychology of epistemes that wants to remind readers why they might want to pick up literary works in the first place: that is, for the sheer pleasure of wanting to play with worlds and their varieties. Like Amanda Anderson’s characterological study of theoretical argument (that Felski cites), the ambition is not only to diagnose the limiting effects of suspicious hermeneutics but also to remind readers that interpretive detection is not the sole response that works invite or, indeed, deserve. For Felski, suspicious reading is cynegetic; it is a mode of tracking meaning as if one were hunting prey. By the end of the nineteenth century cynegetic practices were adapted by police powers for the detection and pursuit of criminals. Police cynegetics concerned itself with “bodies in movement, bodies that escape and that it must catch, bodies that pass by and that it must intercept.”[1] Hence the efficacy of Felski’s adjoining suspicious reading to detective novels throughout, but especially in chapter three. To argue that critique is committed to suspicious reading in the manner in which Felski does means that critique is governed by the impulse to police something like the kernel of a literary unconscious in constant flight. This, in sum, is her story of twentieth-century literary criticism.

           But Felslki wants to offer us a reprieve from the hunt as if to say, “stop chasing and start reading.” Her Latour-inspired reasoning claims an aesthetic work as a nonhuman actant, populated by a diversity of other nonhuman agents that complicate critical suspicion’s reduction of aesthetic pleasure to the pleasure of the hunt for meaning. The issue with Felski’s critique of “Crrritique” regards the professional transformation of aesthetic objects into purposive things and, ceteris paribus, the diminution of criticism to an investigative logic of predation. And her task, enabled by an alliance with actor-network-theory, is to make the claim for the lure of aesthetic objects on their own terms and to accept their lure as a spur to criticism (in whatever form), rather than seeing that lure as merely a testament to an object’s nefarious mesmeric effects.

            The book’s implication is that aesthetic value is not reducible to a psychology of the commodity form, and here I am in sympathy with Felski’s defense of aesthetic experience for its own sake. And I am spurred to want to extend her provocations. For instance, I understand why she names her agent of critique the hermeneutics of suspicion, but I also think it is worth expanding to say that the spatial metaphors of deep reading that accompany such an hermeneutic model are not elements of Karl Marx’s or Friedrich Nietzsche’s influence (pace Felski via Paul Ricoeur). They are Sigmund Freud’s. Marx and Nietzsche remained surface critics; Marx was worried about surface relations of exchange, and Nietzsche extolled the Greek virtue of being superficial out of profundity. But Freud, and the Freudo-Marxism of György Lukács and the Frankfurt school, gave us the depth hermeneutics of “crrritique.”

            No doubt this is too quick an intervention to make here, but it is a point worth raising for future elaboration: If critique remains “a fundamentally interpretive task” (p. 83) this is because the aesthetic object is imagined as having an invisible power that functions like Victor Tausk’s influence machine, an imaginary machine conjured by schizophrenic patients that “serves to persecute the patient and is operated by enemies. . . . The manipulation of the apparatus is likewise obscure, the patient rarely having a clear idea of its operation.”[2] I sense that Felski wants us to dispense with the mood of mysterious purposiveness taken with literary works and with the influence machine apparatus and its moral psychology. Therein lies the book’s greatest and most ambitious provocation: its claim that aesthetic works have nothing to hide and that there is no ghost in the machine. By admitting of this fact we may reacquire the pleasures of criticism.


[1] Grégoire Chamayou, Manhunts: A Philosophical History, (Princeton, N.J., 2012), p. 90.

[2] Victor Tausk, “On the Origin of the ‘Influence Machine’ in Schizophrenia,” Journal of Psychotherapy Practice and Research 1, no. 2 (1992): 185–206