In “Surface Reading: An Introduction,” Sharon Marcus and Stephen Best question the relation between literary criticism and political activism. Best and Marcus advocate for a turn away from what Paul Ricoeur in Freud and Philosophy describes as the “hermeneutics of suspicion,” a term for practices of reading that derive their origins from the works of Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud (Ricoeur 356). They suggest that paranoid or symptomatic reading—modes of reading inclined to disclose the text’s mysteries, depths, or latent truths—are not well-equipped to grapple with a political climate that requires no “demystifying protocol” to read structures of domination and violence (Best and Marcus, 2). They describe symptomatic reading as “a mode of interpretation that assumes that a text’s truest meaning lies in what it does not say, describes textual surfaces as superfluous, and seeks to unmask hidden meanings. For symptomatic readers, texts possess meanings that are veiled, latent, all but absent if it were not for their irrepressible and recurring symptoms” (1) Surface reading, they suggest,  “broadens the scope of critique to include the kinds of interpretive activity that seek to understand the complexity of literary surfaces—surfaces that have been rendered invisible by symptomatic reading” (1).

According to them, literary scholars can no longer “equate their work with political activism” at a time when domination is no longer veiled or hidden; it is overt, present, on the surface (2). Best and Marcus propose practices of surface reading as an alternative to the paranoid and symptomatic variety of criticism. Tending to the surface of the text rather than plumbing its depth, they claim, marks an “affective and ethical” political stance (10).

In foregrounding the affective and ethical component of surface reading as its political potential, Best and Marcus follow in the stead of Eve Sedgwick’s influential essay, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You.” Sedgwick too champions a move way from paranoid reading, citing the overt nature of contemporary political discourse. For Sedgwick, reading in the paranoid mode no longer results in any political purchase. Instead she makes a case for reparative reading, a disposition that is more invested in a politics of care and repair, rather than one of expose and dispose. Bruno Latour’s “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern” too echoes the critical and political concerns put forth by Sedgwick. Latour frames his inquiry with a volley of questions, one of which is: “Is it really the task of the humanities to add deconstruction to destruction” (Latour 225)? 

Best and Marcus’s conception of surface reading, Sedgwick’s reparative stance, and Latour’s polemic have become central to current debates about the ways in which we read. Contemplating closely the relation between criticism and activism, these “method wars” advocate a “postcritical turn” seeks to either substitute or bolster the modes of reading inherited from Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche. It is imperative to note how these “method wars” take on board the politics of postcolonial theory. How does the postcritical turn relate to the discussions and debates within the postcolonial field?

To begin with, it is important to recognize that postcolonial studies is preoccupied with the relation between activism and criticism. Such a concern for the double implication between criticism and activism surfaces most notably in the debates on essentialism. Even as postcolonial theory charges itself with the task of dismantling imperial and colonial structures of power and domination, it does not do so at the cost of reifying the third-world subject. Edward Said, for instance, lays bare the ways in which the Occident constructs the Orient through epistemological, imperial, and literary means. But he does not suggest that there is an authentic, real Orient that exists outside of the framework that the West creates. Most notably, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak in her work on the subaltern, refuses to construct a stable and singular subject on which to anchor a liberal praxis. Rather, as she argues in her translator’s preface to “Draupadi,” the scholar must acknowledge her complicity with her object of criticism (Spivak 3) (See Mahsweta Devi). In “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Spivak counters the charge of French intellectuals Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze that the subaltern classes can finally speak for themselves, thereby recusing the role of the intellectual (See Representation). With an emphatic “no!” to the question she poses in the essay’s title, Spivak argues that the scholar cannot render her participation transparent in mediating the figure of the subaltern (See Subaltern Studies). The work of criticism is necessary, but impossible. Rephrased to fit the frame of contemporary method wars, we can say that Spivak remains suspicious of terminology that insists on the transparency of the surface.

Even as Spivak’s work precedes this postcritical turn, it remains crucial to the way in which present debates understand the role of the postcolonial critic. In the introduction to Critique and Postcritique, a summation of the recent debates about reading, theory, and criticism, Rita Felski and Elizabeth Anker discuss how choice of method impacts postcolonial studies. They claim that the highly self-reflexive mode of inquiry under the hermeneutics of suspicion restricts the postcolonial critic to literary texts that share their critical propensity. They support their claim by pointing to the field’s preoccupation with texts that “wrote back” to the empire (Anker and Felski 9) (See Postcolonial Novel). Such a self-reflexive mode thus limits the field of possibilities that a different method could potentially explore.

Anker and Felski further identify the debilitating effects of self-reflexivity on the politics of postcolonial landscapes. They claim that the poststructuralist inclination in the works of Homi Bhabha and Spivak imbues them with an “overwhelming mood of self-doubt” and a “vigilant self-scrutiny,” a critical posture that is forever suspicious of its own implication in its object of criticism (9). Felski and Anker cite from Spivak’s preface to A Critique of Postcolonial Reason to indicate how she urges postcolonial critics to “look around the corner, to see ourselves as others would see us” (Spivak xii-xiii). According to them, the constant self-doubt of the critical position abets a mode of “political inaction” (Anker and Felski 9). The paranoid mode, they argue, disables rather than enables politics. They draw on Jacques Rancière’s The Emancipated Spectator to suggest that the paranoid revelation of structures of domination alone is no longer adept at dismantling them (Rancière 40). For Rancière, “left-wing melancholy” only helps us recognize the persistence of and make peace with the dominant modes of power. Felski and Anker thus preface the collection of essays in Critique and Postcritique with a consideration of how literary criticism must respond to the present political climate.

It is important to note that the postcritical stance in turn has been accused of political inaction. Felski and Anker admit that the turn away from theoretical modes of inquiry has been called an “ominous sign of defeatism,” a refusal by intellectuals to “embrace the role of the gadflies” (Anker and Felski 18). But they refute such a charge by claiming that the postcritical turn can also be identified as an “active and purposeful response” to current exigencies, both within and outside academe (18). They maintain that this turn can help “forge stronger links between intellectual life and the nonacademic world” (19).

Works Cited

  • Anker, Elizabeth S, and Rita Felski. “Introduction.” Critique and Postcritique. Duke University Press, 2017.
  • Best, Stephen, and Sharon Marcus. “Surface Reading: An Introduction.” Representations, vol. 108, no. 1, 2009, pp. 1–21.
  • Latour, Bruno. “Has Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern.” Critical Inquiry 30 (Winter 2004). 225-248.
  • Rancière, Jacques. The Emancipated Spectator. Verso, 2008.
  • Ricoeur, Paul. Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation. Yale University Press, 1977. 
  • Said, Edward. Orientalism. Pantheon Books, 1978.
  • Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You.” Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. Duke University Press, 2003.
  • Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. A Critique of Postcolonial Reason. Harvard University Press, 1999.
  • — “Can the Subaltern Speak.” Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. C. Nelson and L. Grossberg, eds. Macmillan Education, 1988. 271-313.
  • — “Draupadi: Translator’s Preface.” Breast Stories by Mahasweta Devi. Seagull Books, 1997.

Author: Ishanika Sharma, August 2020
Last Edited: August 2020

Write A Comment