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Thursday, March 4, 2010

Ideological Critique

How does my idea of receptivity, or being open to the great products of the human intelligence, relate to the notions of ideological critique? A dominant mode in my field over the past half-century or so says that we should not just accept literature as it is, but rather subject it to the most thorough critique for its ideological presuppositions. Its sexism, homophobia, racism, elitism, classism--its indifference to the ecosystem.

This critique can be performed at the level of the individual work, or at the level of literature itself as an institution. Either way, it sets up the literary critic, basically, as the adversary of the work. In the first case, almost no literary work, except one written in very recent times, will conform to the critic's own ideology. This is true not only of very blatant cases that are discussed over and over again, like The Merchant of Venice or Ezra Pound, but even of seemingly more innocuous works. Furthermore, if we see literature itself as ideologically questionable, the adversarial role becomes inherent to literary criticism, no matter what the particular work.

Of course, the converse of this mode is the search for literary works that can be championed for their ideological subversiveness, and the claims often made that a work that seems progressive really ain't, and that a work that seems conservative really is progressive--you know the drill.

Now I don't really oppose ideological critique per se:-- it might surprise you to know. My stance is that nothing in the critic's receptivity entails any abdication of any ethical responsibility. The critic will explore his or her resistance to the products of human intelligence, whether the source of resistance is aesthetic or political. Some of the best work will emerge where resistance is the strongest, in fact. I really believe in Kenneth Burke's notion of using everything you know.

Where I have the problem is in making ideological critique the main vehicle for expressing resistance--at the expense of receptivity. The adversarial relation shuts down a certain receptivity by seeing resistance, not as something to be struggled with, but as the goal.


Anonymous said...

Jonathan, I think you'd be interested in Rita Felski's work on this topic, which she calls "suspicious criticism."


Jonathan said...

Yes, thanks. There's an essay by her about that in that same issue of Profession from which i quoted the Gerald Graff the other day.