The Dissertation

Discovering the “Limits of Critique”

There are some people that are upset with the characterization of Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi. The common thing I hear is that Luke just wouldn’t become so cynical; he wouldn’t lose hope; he wouldn’t become a skeptic; he just wouldn’t go that dark. With friends, I point out that I know of people (and they probably do, too) who have done a complete 180 and I’m like “how did they go from that to this?” Life happens. But also I like to think that Luke just gave into the popular mode of hermeneutics of the 20th century: suspicious reading.

I’ve been reading Rita Felski’s The Limits of Critique, and I couldn’t help but think of our old friend Luke. The book was recommended to me by my supervisor, amongst a couple of other readings, because of a comment from one of my dissertation committee members. The comment noted that my critique of online reading group blogs’ posts and comments weren’t critically interesting; that is, my interpretation did not dig into what was being said, didn’t go against the grain and search for other meanings. It took me some time and some discussion with my supervisor, but the comment was largely pointing out that my work was descriptive rather than prescriptive.

So with Heather Love’s essay, “Thin Description, Close Reading” and Felski’s book, I’ve been gathering resources to reassure my committee member (and myself) that descriptive scholarly work is critically interesting, it’s just not the same kind of criticism that appears elsewhere in my dissertation or what is traditionally accepted as proper criticism. As Felski points out, we tend to assume that there is only one kind of criticism:

“The task of the social critic is to reverse the falsifications of everyday thought, to “unconceal” what has been concealed, to bring into daylight what has languished in deep shadow. Meaning can be retrieved only after arduous effort; it must be wrested from the text, rather than gleaned from the text.” (31)

My problem that isn’t a problem is that I’m gleaning. But this kind of criticism does more than that – it’s also an ethical approach to studying peoples’ writings on the internet. The blog posts and comments I study aren’t written like modernist haikus; in many cases, they are written at face-value. To treat these texts with suspicion would put you in a weird power-imbalance; suspiciously reading these comments would turn me into an authority figure that imposes meaning on what is being said. It would cast my approach with distrust:

“In this sense, suspicion is driven by conflicting aims. On the one hand, we distrust someone or something—and are tempted to steer clear of a potential source of danger. On the other hand, we are also compelled to keep a close eye on what bothers us, so as to prepare for the eventuality of an attack. Know thine enemy!” (38)

Luke, as a teacher and leader of school, as someone who knows how to read the signs (he says something similar in the movie), seems to have adopted suspicious reading and fell victim to it. He went beyond reading and interpreting the Jedi texts; he started imposing meanings onto his students and their actions. He thought he knew his enemy. And in a way, his suspicious reading of Ben Solo made him that enemy, eventually. Luke was overcome by what Felski, riffing off Bruno Latour, may call a culture of suspicion:

“When it comes to dealing with urgent social and ecological problems, we are witnessing what looks like an excess of distrust rather than a surplus of belief.” (45)

It’s no wonder that the film ends with a disavowal of suspicion, embracing belief and hope and some canonical book burning instead.

It’s not that suspicious reading is bad, it’s just that it doesn’t always have to be the only proper method of critique. The Limits of Critique, so far, demonstrates there is more than suspicious reading. I’ve yet to finish the book, though I know she proposes an Actor-Network Theory (ANT) model of criticism that I’m interested in.

But until then, I’ll be keeping a good balance 😉 of suspicious reading and thin description.

(Late)Postmodernism, The Dissertation

Revisions, defining terms, and research discoveries during pleasure reading

It’s taken me two weeks, but I think I’ve gotten down the rhythm of this new semester. The semester began early (January 3rd), so prepping for classes was hard when trying to enjoy the one week of the holidays. But I’m caught up, the class has been off to a great start, and I’m addressing comments from a committee member, doing research to address those comments, and doing some additional research and reading.

In my dissertation, I’ve been caught with throwing in “neoliberal” and not defining the term and how it might fit in with my chapter on Wallace and the techno-determinism/libertarianism of the 90’s cyberenthusiasts. It’s funny, when I think about it, how often people joke that academics just throw in neoliberal without defining it or advise against just dropping “neoliberal” in an essay, chapter, etc, but no one, throughout my entire education, has pointed me to resources defining the term, and the nuances of neoliberalism: how it affects race, class, and gender. Instead, I was left with a vague notion of the term and advice that discouraged me from using it (and thus from researching into it).

So I’ve picked up Michael Omi and Howard Winant’s Racial Formation in the United States, specifically their chapter on “Colorblindness, Neoliberalism, and Obama.” I’m also returning to N. Katherine Hayle’s How We Became Posthuman, in which she aligns the disembodiment rhetoric of many cyberenthusiasts with the liberal-individualist possessive individualism (which is rooted in neoliberalism, or so my other research across interviews and articles and good old wikipedia indicate). It’s a start, and it’s helping me articulate some arguments, make some connections, and clarify my understandings of the technoculture of America’s 1990s/2000s. So, it’s about time I finally started doing some digging into this concept and making an effort of concretizing my terms.

And over the break, I read a couple books for pleasure that piqued my interest in the ways that they kinda “line up” thematically. While different in its contents and subject matter, Martha Southgate’s Third Girl From the Left and Jennifer Egan’s Look at Me both share a critical examination of how celebrity culture, hollywood, and the image-based culture of late 20th century America shape conceptions of the self. While I am still reading Look at Me, the protagonist is a model, who gets into an accident and re-emerges from surgery as unrecognizable to other people. Throughout the novel, she identifies the “shadow self” of people, the kind of self that everybody hides from the public view; for the protagonist, everybody lies all of the time, and everybody hides behind an image that they fashion for others to see. So, while still early on, Egan explores the implications of an image-obsessed culture on notions of the self and its relation to others. How deep this will go is yet to be seen, but I’m enjoying the novel so far.

Southgate’s Third From the Left follows three narrative arcs, but the main two arcs are: 1) a black actress that played as an extra in many blaxploitation films and 2) her daughter, and her career path in film and TV industry as a film maker/camera person. I loved this novel, as it demonstrates the ways in which black actors and black filmmakers have to thrive in an industry dominated by white supremacy; how blaxploitation films were dominated by a “white gaze,” as they were filmed and produced by white people (and so the funds went mostly straight to those white people). And the second arc illuminates the systemic difficulties in which black women face in becoming a director. While the novel hints that black male directors are getting jobs, there’s a scene in particular where the woman’s career is harmed by the errors of a black male friend, who went on to become a successful director, whereas she became a cameraperson on Law & Order and had almost given up on filmmaking (the end of the novel is ambiguous). I couldn’t help but think of the recent discussion in regards to the Golden Globes Director category and Natalie Portman’s comment, as well as the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag from a couple years back.

I’m still trying to suss out details and connections, as both these novels are really sticking with me. But I love it when you read two books back to back, and without intending to, they end up sharing something in common, something that you can work with. These books may have started off as just for pleasure, but they may soon become part of my research on American contemporary lit.