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date: 08 May 2021

Critiquelocked

  • Charlie BlakeCharlie BlakeUniversity of Brighton School of Humanities

Summary

From its emergence and early evolution in and through the writings of Immanuel Kant, Ludwig Feuerbach, and Karl Marx, critique established its parameters very early on as both porous and dynamic. Critique has always been, in this sense, mutable, directed, and both multidisciplinary and transdisciplinary, and this very fluidity and flexibility of its processes are possibly among the central reasons for its continuous relevance even when it has been dismantled, rebuffed, and attacked for embodying traits, from gender bias to Eurocentrism to neuro-normativity, that seem to indicate the very opposite of that flexibility. Indeed, once it is examined closely as an apparatus, the mechanism of critique will invariably reveal itself as having always contained the tools for its own opposition and even the tools for its own destruction. Critique has in this way always implied both its generality as a form and autocritique as an essential part of its process. For the past two centuries this general, self-reflective, and self-dismantling quality has led to its constant reinvention and re-adaptation by a wide range of thinkers and writers and across a broad range of disciplines.

In the case of literature and literary theory, its role can often best be grasped as that of a meta-discourse in which the nature and purpose of literary criticism is shadowed, reflected upon, and performed. From this perspective, from the 18th-century origins of critique in its gestation in the fields of theology and literary criticism to its formalization by Kant, the literary expression of critique has always been bound up with debates over the function of literary texts, their history, their production, their consumption, and their critical evaluation. In the early 21st century, having evolved from its beginnings through and alongside various forms of anticritique in the 20th century, critique now finds itself in an age that favors some variant or other of postcritique. It remains to be seen whether this tendency, which suggests its obsolescence and superseding, marks the end of critique as some would wish or merely its latest metamorphosis and diversification in response to the multivalent pressures of digital acceleration and ecological crisis. Whatever path or paths contemporary judgment on this question may follow, critique as the name of a series of techniques and operations guided by a desire for certain ends is likely to remain one of the most consistent ways of surveying any particular field of intellectual endeavor and the relations between adjacent or even divergent fields in terms of their commonalities and differences. As Kant and Voltaire understood so well of their own age, modernity is characterized in the first instance by its will to criticism and then by the systematic criticism of the conditions for that criticism. By the same token now in late or post- or neo-modernity, if contemporary conversations about literature and its pleasures, challenges, study, and criticism require an overview, then some version of critique or its legacy will undoubtedly still come into play.

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