Critical Correctness: Some literary scholars would like to escape politics

Bruce Robbins in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

On April 7, 2003, less than three weeks into America’s invasion of Iraq, Bruno Latour worried aloud, in a lecture at Stanford, that scholars and intellectuals had themselves become too combative. Under the circumstances, he asked, did it really help to take official accounts of reality as an enemy, aiming to expose the prejudice and ideology hidden behind supposedly objective facts? “Is it really the task of the humanities to add deconstruction to destruction?,” he wondered.

Latour’s name for this project of distrust was “critique.” Critique in his somewhat eccentric, “suspicion of everything” sense was not in fact what most progressive scholars and intellectuals thought of themselves as doing, whether in opposition to the war in Iraq or in general. When Latour’s lecture came out the following year under the title “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?,” it was an extremely influential bit of theater. Latour had made his career as a critic of science and purveyor of an all-purpose distrust. “I myself have spent some time in the past trying to show ‘the lack of scientific certainty’ inherent in the construction of facts,” he confessed in the essay. “Is it enough to say that we did not really mean what we said?” A famous intellectual revolutionary now seemed to be renouncing the revolution, and to many it seemed that the revolution itself was over. A number of other scholars came forward to testify that they too had had it up to here with critique. Postcritique was born.

In literary criticism, this much-discussed phenomenon has various labels: In addition to postcritique, it goes by “surface reading,” “distant reading,” “description,” and “the new formalism.” In a 2015 Chronicle Review essay, Jeffrey J. Williams summed these trends up as the field’s “new modesty.” “Literary critics have become more subdued,” Williams wrote, “adopting methods with less grand speculation, more empirical study, and more use of statistics or other data. They aim to read, describe, and mine data rather than make ‘interventions’ of world-historical importance.”

More here.