Rita Felski on Everyday Aesthetics

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For the new issue of minnesota review, editor Jeffrey Williams invited eighteen literary critics to write critical “credos,” short statements of belief about “the kind of criticism they favored or where they think criticism should go.” All of the credos look very interesting, but I thought readers of this blog would find Rita Felski’s spirited contribution especially engaging. Her piece is entitled “Everyday Aesthetics.” The following is an excerpt from Williams’ introduction to the “credo” section of the issue:

This issue of minnesota review borrows the idea of credos, adapted for our time and place. To be sure, the minnesota review has exhibited, through its history and during my time as editor, a much different leaning than Kenyon Review. It has been more interested in the politics of culture than the wonders of literature. Especially under my editorship, it has focused on the institutions that embed literature rather than the close reading of literary works, and on the state of higher education, particularly academic labor. And it has concerned itself with theory, a pursuit only hinted at in the 1950s. Still, the minnesota review has shared the effort of any literary journal to offer critical commentary to a literate public, as well as to investigate the aim of literary study and the function of criticism.

Credos, like manifestos, should only be allowed one per critic per twenty years. Otherwise, they might be like a perpetual grand opening or going out of business sale. However, I think now is a particularly apt moment for such statements of belief, for a few reasons. First, it seems that criticism is in a holding pattern, and we need to regroup. I do not mean this in the usual way of asking “what’s next?” That question assumes that criticism proceeds in a continuous stream of new and improved products, as if it were its own self-enclosed market system, or as if it were a question of Geist, Thought moving according to its own internal logic. Criticism might have its own internal codes, but it also responds to its environment, and is formed through its interaction with its environment.

I think it’s an especially apt moment because of the shrunken material conditions of criticism. Kenyon Review and many flowers of criticism grew in the enriched soil of the postwar era; now, we are only beginning to understand the consequences of the compression of the humanities and the casualization of the professioriate. In literary studies, as is probably familiar to readers of minnesota review, current MLA statistics report the paring of permanent, tenure-stream faculty down to skeleton staffs, while more than two-thirds of faculty hold adjunct, temporary, insecure jobs. Criticism, like most cerebral activities, flourishes under secure rather than precarious conditions.

. . . . .

This issue gathers eighteen credos. They do not attempt to give a full inventory of the kinds of criticism practiced now, but are admittedly partial, to those concerned with the politics of literature, culture, and higher education. Most of the contributors have been affiliated with the journal as editorial board members, past contributors, or supporters in other ways. I asked them to give a statement of belief of the kind of criticism they favored or where they think criticism should go. The one stricture was that their essays be shorter than normal articles (no longer than ten pages in typescript—a tougher requirement than one might think and on which only a few cheated). The results take a few directions: many reflect on that critic’s history and choices, some advise a turn to a particular mode of criticism, some are more experimental or suggestive, and many address work in academe.

To go to the issue’s table of contents, click here.

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