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Ideology critical spinal reflex

For a Ruthless Critique of All That Exists. Literature in an Era of Capitalist Realism
Forfatter: Robert T. Tally jr.
Forlag: Zer0 Books 2022, (USA)
LITERATURE / Criticism in literary studies is only a special case of criticism in society in general.


Robert T. Tally Jr. (b. 1969), professor of English at Texas State University, has written a small pamphlet which attempts to strike a blow for a critical literary scholarship.

Tally unleashes on an opponent. His main enemy is The Limits of Critique (2015), written by Rita Felski (b. 1956), professor of English at the University of Virginia and former editor of the journal New Literary History. His own pamphlet is dedicated to the Marxist literary researcher and cultural theorist Fredric Jameson (b. 1934), for whom Tally has also written an introduction here (Jameson received the Norwegian Holberg prize in 2008).

Is a debate about literary theory at the English institutes in the USA of interest outside the ranks of the specialists? Since the debate is an example of a wider cultural phenomenon, the answer is an unqualified yes. The subjective turn in autofiction's self-disclosures has spread to non-fiction, where authors unashamedly write their "own" Norwegian history through "cherry picking". Literary scholars such as Rita Felski swim with the current and have launched a subjectivist, "post-critical" perspective that Tally describes as follows:

"The individual subject's self-created identity alone constitutes the desired authority on which any reading rests. Appreciation, connection and feeling effectively replace the overlapping activities of analysis, assessment and interpretation (also known as criticism), which attempt to highlight the larger and more general effects of the text.” (35).

Pierre Ballouhey (Fancia)-Satire Parietale

The post-critical readings

Tally points out that the subjective turn takes on a populist rhetoric. But when one's own opinion is made the yardstick, the result is still elitist. Subjectivism confuses the individual with what is universal. When the immediate reading experience and the post-critical modes of reading believe that ideological mystifications are no longer something to care about, "it can be a sure sign that ideology is operating at full strength". (43).

Tally points out that society is characterized by consumer capitalism and our life world colonized by the media. Neoliberalism celebrates individualistic subjectivity in the form of branding and entrepreneurship. Promoting the individualistic reading experience is like saying: Why read the old tired critical theory, "when you could be enjoying the poolside comforts and sunshine"? (90).

Nevertheless, Tally involuntarily shows that the skepticism of the critique of ideology has a point when he all too quickly links the subjective turn to "an ideological system which imagines that markets operate efficiently, almost without the need for human actors or joint efforts. It is not a long leap from letting the lyrics speak for themselves to letting the market be free to do its thing.” (52)

Turning the university's literature studies into a cozy class where students can wallow in emotions and expose their enthusiasm for the "presence" and the "everyday" in the texts, will not strengthen the critical level in society.

Rita Felski is written off as a neoliberalist, "in league with neoliberal practices" (53), since she strikes a blow for the subjective experience of the texts. But this seems more like a spinal reflex than thoughtful criticism on Tally's part. Does relaxing with a novel make you a market liberal?

Somewhere Tally defines ideology as perceiving the socially created as natural. Felski defends the natural against the hermeneutics of suspicion and consequently becomes ideological (58). But to "criticize everything", as the title of Tally's book proclaims, is impossible. Felski therefore has a point by pointing out the limits of criticism. We cannot criticize everything because we simply do not notice it – we automatically relate to situations, people and events. It takes a lot of effort to see something from the outside or from a distance.

Criticism in literary studies is only a special case of criticism in society at large. Because you cannot criticize everything, you have to prioritize what you will use your critical powers on. Tally's main point is correct: Criticism of ideology is more important than ever, less and less can be accepted immediately: The politicians wrap the truth in rhetoric from the communications agencies, while authoritarian leaders like Trump and Putin lie openly. One does not need to be paranoid or have heard of the "hemeutics of suspicion" to suspect Putin of not telling the truth when he pretends to "denazify" Ukraine. What should enthusiastic surface readers fluttering between literary works like excited butterflies face this situation? Turning the university's literature studies into a cozy class where students can wallow in emotions and expose their enthusiasm for the "presence" and the "everyday" in the texts, will not strengthen the critical level in society. 

The weaknesses of Felski

Rita Felski brings together such diverse thinkers as Marx, Nietzsche and Freud under the label "the hermeneutics of suspicion", a term originating from the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur. These thinkers do not take the surface for granted, but go deeper to explain economics, morality and psychological problems. For Felski, their method is based on a kind of psychological "suspicion". This means that she is arguing with a straw man for a long time. All sciences go beyond the apparent to understand or explain phenomena. The sun rises and sets every day, everyone can see that! At first science showed that this is a deception, as it is the other way around: the Earth orbits the Sun! This discovery is exemplary of what science does.

Today, politicians insert the truth into rhetoric from the communications agencies, while authoritarian leaders such as Trump and Putin lie openly.

Felski has nothing interesting to say about these three representatives of the hermeneutics of suspicion she highlights. Marx spoke sparingly about literature. And to the point of boredom in the literary analysis, statements about the "victory of realism" in Balzac have been made, or juggled with concepts such as use and exchange value and commodity fetishism, as well as class analysis and ideology. In order to meet input such as Felski's, a debate is needed, among other things, about how far economic categories go when it comes to criticizing literature ideologically.

Such reflections are unfortunately not to be found in Tally, who, despite the fact that his basic perspective is welcome, nevertheless involuntarily demonstrates why perspectives such as Felski's gain followers.

Eivind Tjønneland
Eivind Tjønneland
Historian of ideas and author. Regular critic in MODERN TIMES. (Former professor of literature at the University of Bergen.)

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