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.

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