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Criticism and Attachment in the Neoliberal University

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This chapter looks at the recent turn to form and sensibility in literary studies in relation to the neoliberal value system imposed on the humanities by the contemporary university and the economic demand for forms of affective labor. Hosseini argues that the current rush for methodological innovation cannot reverse the declining status of the humanities, without first addressing the operating axioms of “outputs” and “market skills.” Taking “postcritique” as a case study, he provides a critique of Rita Felski’s and Bruno Latour’s affective stance and its ideological underpinnings. He concludes that a turn to “sensibility” must not prevent a radical reimagination of how the contemporary university functions—a task which requires addressing the day-to-day practice of academic work and organizing for structural institutional reform.

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  • DOI: 10.1007/978-3-030-71139-9_3
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  1. 1.

    Felski, Limits of Critique, 188.

  2. 2.

    See Latour, “Critique.”

  3. 3.

    “Future of the University”; transcribed from a video recording of the event available on YouTube.

  4. 4.

    See “Grad Student Unionization.”

  5. 5.

    Quoted in “Grad Student Unionization.”

  6. 6.

    Quoted in Robin, “When Professors Oppose.”

  7. 7.

    Elsewhere in this volume, William Rasch provides an intriguing genealogy of the term “vocation” and its relevance for the future of the humanities.

  8. 8.

    Gusterson, “Change Academic Publishing.”

  9. 9.

    Ronan McDonald argues that “the renewed openness to the ‘literary’ is actually a sharpening of disciplinary focus and indeed social effect, not because it is a capitulation to a managerial university and neo-liberal ideology but rather because it affords the discipline better equipment to defend its province” (“Critique and Anti-Critique,” 366).

  10. 10.

    Felski, Limits of Critique, 188.

  11. 11.

    Felski, 172.

  12. 12.

    Felski, 17.

  13. 13.

    Felski, 117.

  14. 14.

    Felski, 192.

  15. 15.

    A word coined by Christopher Castiglia, used also by Anker and Felski, to refer to the “disposition” of critique as “a combination of suspicion, self-confidence, and indignation” (Castiglia, “Critiquiness,” 79).

  16. 16.

    Felski, Limits of Critique, 192–93. Emphasis mine.

  17. 17.

    Felski, 5.

  18. 18.

    Felski, 6.

  19. 19.

    Although, as Doug Battersby argues elsewhere in this volume, polemicizing alone cannot transform literary studies.

  20. 20.

    Anker and Felski, “Introduction,” 8.

  21. 21.

    Felski, “Postcritical Reading,” 5–6.

  22. 22.

    Felski, Limits of Critique, 83.

  23. 23.

    Orwell, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, 123.

  24. 24.

    Felski, Limits of Critique, 106.

  25. 25.

    Kant, Metaphysics of Morals, 236.

  26. 26.

    Felski, Limits of Critique, 119.

  27. 27.

    Quoted in Felski, 146.

  28. 28.

    Felski, 3.

  29. 29.

    Davies, Humanism, 6.

  30. 30.

    Davies, 130–31.

  31. 31.

    Felski, Limits of Critique, 21.

  32. 32.

    Hulme, Speculations, 26.

  33. 33.

    Hulme, 132.

  34. 34.

    Felski, Limits of Critique, 192. Emphasis mine.

  35. 35.

    Felski, “Latour and Literary Studies,” 740.

  36. 36.

    Latour, “Critique,” 232. Emphasis mine. Latour suggests that the humanities need to cultivate a “realist attitude” and a new empiricism which deals not only with matters of facts, as did the (now) insufficient empiricism of the Enlightenment, but with “all that is given in experience.”

  37. 37.

    Hulme, Speculations, 96.

  38. 38.

    Hulme, 25.

  39. 39.

    Felski, Limits of Critique, 9.

  40. 40.

    Felski, 16.

  41. 41.

    North, Literary Criticism, 1–3.

  42. 42.

    North, 11–12.

  43. 43.

    North, 20.

  44. 44.

    North, 211.

  45. 45.

    North, 211.

  46. 46.

    Felski, “Postcritical Reading,” 5.

  47. 47.

    “Criticism,” for North, is “a programmatic commitment to using works of literature for the cultivation of aesthetic sensibility, with the goal of more general cultural and political change” (North, Literary Criticism, 3).

  48. 48.

    Anker and Felski, “Introduction,” 9.

  49. 49.

    Felski, Limits of Critique, 12.

  50. 50.

    Latour, “Critique,” 231.

  51. 51.

    Latour, 228.

  52. 52.

    Latour, 240.

  53. 53.

    I agree with North that “making broader alliances with the left outside the discipline” is a vital for reforming the literary studies, because a movement for reform within literary studies will ultimately depend on “a more general forward movement” (North, Literary Criticism, 211).

  54. 54.

    See Harvey, “Neoliberalism Is a Political Project.”

  55. 55.

    Robbins, “Fashion Conscious Phenomenon,” 5.

  56. 56.

    Harvey, “Neoliberalism Is a Political Project.”

  57. 57.

    In the times of COVID-19, the faculty union at Rutgers University has set an example of how the true communities around higher education—teachers, researchers, service workers, students, and the host cities—can come together and effectively organize themselves to fight the managerial class for a more democratic administration of the university. See Wolfson, “Beyond the Neoliberal University.”

  58. 58.

    A simple search on the web with “theoretical physics” or “pure mathematics” in combination with “crisis” will pull up numerous articles.


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This essay is dedicated to H. Gustav Klaus (1944–2020), former Chair of Literature of the British Isles at the University of Rostock and a devoted scholar of working-class literature. Gustav was a true humanist in that he acted on the values which he studied and believed in, even when what could be achieved was as small as a fair treatment of an assistant or a cost-free interlibrary loan service for students.

I am very grateful to Derek Attridge, Anjali Katta, Benjamin Kohlmann, and Anirudh Sridhar for their insightful suggestions and comments on the text.

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Correspondence to Mir Ali Hosseini .

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Hosseini, M.A. (2021). Criticism and Attachment in the Neoliberal University. In: Sridhar, A., Hosseini, M.A., Attridge, D. (eds) The Work of Reading. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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