ENGL 430/582 A1: Studies in Method: Reading and Critique

M. Litwack

What is it to read? In this seminar, we will track multiple responses to this question, with a particular emphasis on current debates within and beyond English Studies concerning the status of reading and its relationship to critique.

In the past decade, we have witnessed a groundswell of discontent with the alleged privilege afforded to critique as a method of reading and as a political practice. Some have expressed their exhaustion with critique on affective or ethical grounds. Critique, it is said, exhibits a ruthless aggressivity toward its objects and an aversion to the surprises, the contingencies, and the pleasures of reading itself. Others, like Bruno Latour, have suggested not only that "critique has run out of steam," but that critique's persistent skepticism and its penchant for demystification have been complicit with pernicious efforts to "debunk" climate science. In the place of critique, today we thus witness a proliferation of alternative protocols of reading-described, for example, through idioms including reparation, restoration, care, curation, and concern-that seek to reorient our encounters with texts, with archives, and with the world.

Against this backdrop, our seminar will consider some foundational statements on reading methods within literary and cultural studies; explore the contested relationships among reading, ethics, and politics; and assess incongruous efforts to parse the differences between the activities of reading and critique. We will also consider the institutional and geopolitical conditions of critique's emergence and contemporary articulation. Under what conditions is critique possible, or even desirable? Is critique an antinomian practice in the contemporary university or, alternatively, does the university require critique, including the critique of the university itself? Must critique, as Talal Asad and Saba Mahmood have each asked, necessarily be a secular activity, one that is predicated on the disavowal of repertoires of embodied practice and knowledge, as well as epistemologies based upon belief, faith, inheritance, and a responsibility to the given? Can a politics of reading do without critique, negativity, or negation? What about affirmation, joy, and love? How should we read the reinvigorated turn to problems of reading today?

Taking up these and other issues, our seminar will engage a breadth of historical and contemporary discourses surrounding the questions of reading and critique, and evaluate the divergent accounts of method, knowledge, determination, subjectivity, relationality, and agency that these discourses advance. Throughout, we will be particularly concerned with the intellectual and methodological stakes of these accounts for what it means to read and to study in our times.

Required texts

Louis Althusser et al., Reading Capital

Talal Asad et al., Is Critique Secular?

Course packet with readings in Stephen Michael Best, Barbara Christian, Kandice Chuh, David Eng, Rita Felski, Roderick Ferguson, Michel Foucault, Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, Saidiya Hartman, Barbara Johnson, Immanuel Kant, Bruno Latour, Heather Love, Lisa Lowe, Karl Marx, Benjamin Noys, Deborah Miranda, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Gayatri Spivak, Robyn Wiegman, etc.