Sunday, November 14, 2021

Rita Felski’s Uses of Literature: A Short Summary

Rita Felski’s Uses of Literature suggests the ways literature can be fruitfully read and enjoyed both inside and outside the literature classroom. The opening of Felski’s Uses of Literature resonates much of what Elaine Showalter and Bruns have said in their Teaching Literature and Why Literature? respectively to justify the existence of literature as a discipline. When the natural and social sciences enjoy a sort of monopoly on knowledge, “how do scholars of literature make a case for the value of what we do?, Felski asks. What follows next in the introduction is a quest for the answer to this question. Felski does not quickly jump in to blame anyone “for its (literature) own state of malaise” (2). She politely disagrees with those who say that ‘The rise of theory led to the death of literature, as works of art were buried under an avalanche of sociological sermons and portentous French prose” (2). But at the same time, she cannot accept the too much socio-centric and theoretical turn in literary scholarship. “Critical reading”, which she calls “the holy grail of literary studies” (3) has been overlooked by the literary theory that “has taught us that attending to the work itself is not a critical preference but a practical impossibility, that reading relies on a complex weave of presuppositions, expectations, and unconscious pre-judgments, that meaning and value are always assigned by someone, somewhere” (3). This deterministic attitude of literary theory has in fact made literature subordinary and now “the literary text is hauled in to confirm what the critic already knows, to illustrate what has been adjudicated in other arenas” (8). Moreover, most readers including the students of literature “have no interest in the fine points of literary history” (11) and “are still expected to find their own way into a literary work, not to parrot the interpretations of others” (11). All these seem to Felski’s spirited defence of the critical reading.

Felski argues for the readers’ engagement with ordinary motives of reading, which she explains drawing a parallel between phenomenology and engaged reading (17). Felski’s new-phenomenological approach to text consists of four modes of textual engagement: recognition, enchantment, knowledge and shock. Towards the close of the introduction, Felski calls for a compromise between the literary theory and critical reading saying that “there is no reason why our readings cannot blend analysis and attachment, criticism and love” (23). Thus, she has taken a middle course that combines “a willingness to suspect with an eagerness to listen” (22). I think Felski has not spoken specifically about anything for poetry. But she has mentioned poetry in many a place to talk about literature in general.