The Uses of Literature by Rita Felski: A Positive Aesthetic

Sometimes reading outside your field can be so very helpful to work in your field. I was greatly helped by this book on literature by Rita Felski. Her joy at reading and the way in which she holds together personal and transformative engagement with literature and scholarly engagement with the same is quite wonderful. I found the book instructive to me as a reader of the Bible and theologian. I wrote a brief review for Good Reads, which I share below.

In Uses of Literature, Rita Felski, professor of literary criticism at University of Virginia, explores the simple fact that engagements with literature change people’s lives. Students come to the formal study of literature often because they have been enchanted by the way art and literature change things, re-contextualize and alter experience of the world.

The book maintains an argument with contemporary interpretative tendency to conflate critical reading to suspicious reading with its heavily freighted explanatory frameworks and distanced analytic. A feminist theorist herself, she challenges the dogmas and defaults of contemporary critical theory – feminist, marxist, historicist, post-structuralist and post-colonial. She argues that what they hold in common is ‘the discourse of disenchantment’ which ‘reiterates and reinforces the very condition that it describes, sinking us ever deeper into the void of a dispiriting, self-corroding skepticism’ (58).

The book is a manifesto which builds on growing discontent among cultural and literary critics who sense that dialogue with literature has given way to ‘permanent diagnosis’ assigning ‘all value to the act of reading (and the reader) and none to the objects read’ (3). I found that comment so helpful in the light of some programs for biblical and theological interpretation that so foreground the world of the reader, his or her own autobiography and their context , that the actual text of the bible and its interpretation seems secondary. Felski wants to recover the way texts can ‘bite back’ (7) in the process of interpretation. Following Marjorie Perloff, Felski argues for respect of an artwork’s view of the world rather than ‘treating it as a confirmation of our own pet theories’ (5).

The book roughs out a positive aesthetic which, while appreciative of the language of interrogation of texts combines ‘analysis and attachment, critique and love’ (22). The question the book asks and answers in the affirmative is this: “Is it possible to discuss the value of literature without falling into truisms and platitudes, sentimentality and Schwarmerei?”

Uses of literature is divided into four chapters: recognition, enchantment, knowledge and shock. And each is a consideration of the act of reading under these rubric. Felski draws on a broad repertoire of examples to illustrate the power of what is read to resonate, enchant, propose and dis/re-disorient the reader.

The chapter on enchantment is particularly powerful. She pushes back against reductive ‘contextual’ reading, which almost always dissolves texts into the circumstances of origin (She has an essay entitled: Context Stinks!). She beautifully describes how texts have a power to recontextualize the reader. “If we are entirely caught up in a text, we can no longer place it in a context because it is the context, imperiously dictating the terms of its reception. We are held in a condition of absorption . . . transfixed and immobilized by the work and rendered unable to frame, contextualize or judge’ (57). The world of the text becomes the world the reader inhabits so everything gets a new frame of reference. Christians have talked about Bible reading that way (Eric Auerbach noted this same dynamic in bible reading in his Mimesis). The affective and absorbing aspects of reading are featured here in a manner that connects with recent interest in beauty as a way of reorienting critical conversation. The chapter concludes with a defense of enchantment against the main charges of delusion and disablement. Felski knows the charges of pietism and naiveté that will follow on her proposal. She challenges the view that only through’ critical distance’ we get at the truth of things. ’Once we face up to the limits of demystification as a critical method and a theoretical ideal, once we relinquish the modern dogma that our lives should be thoroughly disenchanted, we can truly begin to engage the affective and absorptive, the sensual and somatic qualities of aesthetic experience’ (76).

The final chapter on ‘shock’ explores the power of texts to resonate across time. Here the argument engages historicism, ‘synchonic historicism.’ Felski argues that literary meaning isn’t limited to a flash and that texts have power to resonate across time. Shock is difficult in our time, since moderns and postmoderns have institutionalized shock, we are ‘shockaholics.’ Nevertheless, she makes the case that texts are always ticking. ‘We might think of such texts as time travelers, incendiary bombs packed with an explosive force that unleashes itself long after the moment of manufacture’ (115). She deploys the German term ‘Nachtraglichkeit‘ – afterwardness – to capture the sense that texts are not embedded once and for all in the circumstances of their production, but ‘diffused across a temporal medium’ (119). She doesn’t say it but here I was thinking Holy Spirit and Scripture.

In a particularly interesting passage, especially for someone like me who interprets the two testaments of the Christian bible, she explores the power of retrospective reading. Felski offers language which I think makes explicit what Christians, beginning with the New Testament writers, have done with first testament interpretation. Because there is lag-time between an occurrence and its resonance, meaning can be ‘washed forward into the future rather than anchored in one defining moment. . . . Retrospection recreates the past even as it retrieves it, in a mutual contamination and co-mingling of different times’ (119). Beautifully said.

My appreciation for the book was three-fold:

1) I just loved Felski’s articulation of a mode of interpretation which is able to receive the otherness of a text, rather than simply to use the text as a confirmation of a heavily freighted suspicion. Her direction to the work of Eve Sedgwick (‘Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading: or, You’re so Paranoid, you Probably Think This Essay is About You’) – who characterized suspicious hermeneutics as ‘paranoid’ was instructive. Felski points to more recent literary scholarship which troubles suspicion as self-defeating and inhibits actual engagement with texts. One of her main points is that suspicious reading (paranoia) is a strong theory, in the sense that very often it can’t do anything other than prove the assumptions with which it begins. Hold to strong Freudian, post-colonial or other post-modern species of suspicion and the text just becomes an instance of what I already think.

2) I found some great help for the work of biblical interpretation here. Biblical interpretation sometimes suffers from the same malaise as interpretative theory more generally with its heavy investments in suspicious orientations of one sort or another. This piece with its’ attention to how texts ( and here I am thinking about the Bible) recontextualize the reader by recognition, enchantment, proposal of a world and shock, was very helpful. Her suspicion of suspicion helps break-up the current interpretative monopoly; and

3) while a technical book, it is beautifully written and draws the reader into a whole constellation of wonderful texts. Her engagement with the Kiss of the Spider Woman by Manuel Puig to illustrate how narrative worlds can draw us out of safe ‘scholarly’ engagement into life-changing reading is wonderful.