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Darkness Visible: The Contingency of Critique

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Rooney’s analysis begins with the observation that surprise is one consistently cited value of the turn to postcritique in contemporary literary studies. On the postcritical account, critique is a grimly predictable indictment of literature and culture more broadly. Critique is not only suspicious, but we know its dogmatic postures too well: it is incapable of and even hostile toward surprise. Rooney’s argument takes the (almost) diametrically opposed view. She claims that surprise, in the form of “contingency,” is fundamental to critique or “symptomatic reading.” The indispensable place of contingency in symptomatic reading emerges from its stress on the impossibility of self-authorship and its oxymoronically “originary” practice of the otherness of reading, the contingent encounter with the text and its “impure” mediations: linguistic, ideological, aesthetic, political.

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  1. 1.

    Johnson, “Lesbian Spectacles,” 162.

  2. 2.

    Johnson, 157.

  3. 3.

    Johnson, 157.

  4. 4.

    Johnson, 157.

  5. 5.

    Johnson, 157.

  6. 6.

    Johnson, 157.

  7. 7.

    Johnson, “Nothing Fails Like Success,” 15.

  8. 8.

    Johnson, “Lesbian Spectacles,” 163.

  9. 9.

    Johnson, 164.

  10. 10.

    Johnson, 164.

  11. 11.

    Johnson, “Nothing Fails Like Success,” 11.

  12. 12.

    Johnson, “Nothing Fails Like Success,” 15.

  13. 13.

    A contradiction in terms (a logical error) is not an oxymoron, and oxymoron is not a comically contradictory locution such as “giant shrimp,” which depends not on the disjunction between the gigantic and the shrimpy but on the pun on shrimp. The shrimp of the giant shrimp is not the sweet of the bittersweet.

  14. 14.

    Milton, Paradise Lost, ll. 51–53. Hereafter cited parenthetically in text.

  15. 15.

    These terms are not synonymous; symptomatic reading is one form of critique.

  16. 16.

    I touch upon the argument about description, its possibilities and/or impossibility, politics and ethical import, below.

  17. 17.

    This may be true in some respect across disciplines but is explicit for literary critics.

  18. 18.

    Reading debates resonate across the academy and beyond: arguments about alternative facts, confirmation bias, and fake news raise the question that dogs popular culture, music and cinema, political theory, philosophy, and cognitive science: what is it to read? These more-than-disciplinary debates are heterogeneous; their terms contentious and unfixed; they are political, intellectual, academic, popular, aesthetic, and personal. Questions of reading shape new formalism and science studies, genre and affect theory, flat ontologies, new materialisms, and speculative realism, along with traditions that draw on (or refuse) the idiom of critique, whether in a Kantian frame or critical race, feminist, Marxist, queer or postcolonial theories, canons, and vernaculars.

  19. 19.

    Tanoukhi, “Surprise Me,” 1428–29.

  20. 20.

    Tanoukhi, 1426.

  21. 21.

    Tanoukhi, 1427.

  22. 22.

    Tanoukhi, 1429.

  23. 23.

    The reasons for this are not easily untangled. They may have more to do with the history of particular instantiations of critique, both as insistent thematizations of critical thought in academic arenas that were deeply familiar and in the reiteration of urgent critical interpretations, whose gestures were also widely disseminated, than with critique. Unresolved tensions between humanities research and its pedagogy may also be in play, which could illuminate prominent references to students in postcritique. I consider avatars of surprise in Rooney, “Symptomatic,” 141–44.

  24. 24.

    Quoted in Tanoukhi, “Surprise Me,” 1432.

  25. 25.

    Tanoukhi, 1432. I cannot do justice to Tanoukhi’s rich argument here. Johnson’s concern that strong theory may fall victim to institutionalization echoes Tomkins’s warning about the “ongoing central assembly.”

  26. 26.

    This is a topic for a lengthier analysis examining the disciplinary differences among postcritical interventions. Disciplines grounded in canons that bear ideological weight (and what canon does not?) have a more complicated relation to postcritique than disciplines—or other fields—where “progress” is understood as moving beyond outdated (historical) formulations, replacing them with new materials.

  27. 27.

    Brown, “Untimeliness and Punctuality,” 16.

  28. 28.

    Althusser and Balibar, Reading Capital, 192.

  29. 29.

    Macherey, Theory of Literary Production, 53.

  30. 30.

    Latour, “Critique,” 231.

  31. 31.

    Latour, 228.

  32. 32.

    Sedgwick, “Reparative Reading,” 139–40.

  33. 33.

    Latour, “Critique,” 225.

  34. 34.

    Best and Marcus, “Surface Reading,” 17.

  35. 35.

    Sedgwick, “Reparative Reading,” 150.

  36. 36.

    Felski, Limits of Critique, 186–88.

  37. 37.

    Best and Marcus, “Surface Reading,” 11.

  38. 38.

    Best and Marcus, 16.

  39. 39.

    Althusser and Balibar, Reading Capital, 22.

  40. 40.

    See Rooney, “Symptomatic Reading,” 137–40.

  41. 41.

    These might be traced to responses to period specific developments or even unique critical histories in literary studies.

  42. 42.

    Althusser and Balibar, Reading Capital, 45.

  43. 43.

    Althusser and Balibar, 16.

  44. 44.

    Althusser and Balibar, 16.

  45. 45.

    Tanoukhi, “Surprise Me,” 1428.

  46. 46.

    Quoted in Pippa, “The Necessity of Contingency,” 17.

  47. 47.

    Althusser, “Underground Current,” 193.

  48. 48.

    Althusser and Balibar, Reading Capital, 115.

  49. 49.

    Althusser, “Underground Current,” 188.

  50. 50.

    See Hall, “Problem of Ideology.”

  51. 51.

    Althusser and Balibar, Reading Capital, 44.

  52. 52.

    Althusser and Balibar, 44.

  53. 53.

    Althusser and Balibar, 44.

  54. 54.

    Althusser, “Underground Current,” 195.

  55. 55.

    Althusser, 188.

  56. 56.

    Brown, “Untimeliness and Punctuality,” 4.

  57. 57.

    Althusser and Balibar, Reading Capital, 18.

  58. 58.

    Althusser, “Underground Current,” 115.

  59. 59.

    Althusser, 188.

  60. 60.

    Althusser, 194.

  61. 61.

    Althusser, 174.

  62. 62.

    Althusser, 187.

  63. 63.

    I consider how the historical possibility of reversal is caught up in the figure of antiphrasis and the notion of the “opposition” in another essay, “The Opposite of Theory.”

  64. 64.

    Balibar, “Infinite Contradiction,” 144.

  65. 65.

    Balibar, 145–46.

  66. 66.

    Althusser, “Underground Current,” 193.

  67. 67.

    Balibar, “Infinite Contradiction,” 146.

  68. 68.

    Balibar, 144.

  69. 69.

    Williams, Keywords, 113.

  70. 70.

    Althusser and Balibar, Reading Capital, 21, 143, 23, 26, 22.

  71. 71.

    Althusser, “Underground Current,” 167.

  72. 72.

    Fish, “Why Milton Matters,” 3.


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Rooney, E. (2021). Darkness Visible: The Contingency of Critique. In: Sridhar, A., Hosseini, M.A., Attridge, D. (eds) The Work of Reading. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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