(Part 1 here.)

Having some kind of term like the “uncoercive rearrangement of desires” seems to me to be a necessary antidote to the kinds of binaries that kept arising during the “WTLA?” panel. This is especially true as it relates to the panel’s discussion of Rita Felski’s 2009 Profession article, “After Suspicion.” Jonathan Culler and Jean Howard both invoked this article as an example of a kind of insufficiently critical reading, an encouragement of enchantment in the place of suspicion. Suffice it to say that Felski herself was in the audience and got the Q&A kicked off by saying, something to the effect of, “I teach literary theory. I don’t teach enchantment.” I took a look at “After Suspicion” a few days after the panel, and was surprised by how uncontroversial I found it—if anything, it seemed like a really important step in blending critical reading with what I guess we could call affective responses—while also interrogating those affective attachments to texts. I’m not yet sure I’m on board with everything she says—I admit, for instance, to feeling a certain inchoate resistance when I read about “a desire to build better bridges between theory and common sense” (31), but I think there’s something very valuable in stressing “the irreducible complexity of everyday structures of experience” (31) and I think this is what a lot of people not in literary fields would include under the rubric of “critical reading”—even though it’s not exactly what we  mean when we talk about critical reading.

The following passage from Felski gets at something important about this project:

To be sure, such approaches carry a modicum of risk. Some students will need reminding that their devotion to Jane Austen or their passion for Jonathan Frantzen [sic] is a puzzle for investigation, not a cause for self-congratulation. Phenomenology seeks to make the familiar newly surprising through the scrupulousness of its attention, exposing the strangeness of the self-evident. It calls not for complacency or confession but for strenuous reflection on how aesthetic devices speak to and help shape selves. (32)

…so, explain to me again how this isn’t critical reading, writ large? The non-complacency thing seems to be especially important here, an acknowledgement—at least an implicit one—that things change, that desires get rearranged in ways that are both coerced and uncoerced.

More broadly, though I’m not sure that we (at least those of us who don’t teach at Ivy League schools) can assume that all of our students are coming into literature classes with literary attachments in the first place—more and more I get the sense that people don’t know how to read even uncritically (or they have already chosen not to). At least in my experience, the real debate isn’t between a narrowly-defined critical reading and its others but between reading and consumption. Consumption here would designate something far less engaged than reading for the plot or reading because you identify with the main character—it’s something much more cursory, sometimes more purely utilitarian….

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