If you were paying attention to academic Twitter last week, especially those precincts occupied by scholars of literature, you might have noticed a several-day-long flare-up over questions of interpretation and critique. (Search “method wars” and you’ll see what I mean.) Although occasioned by recent arguments around the work of Rita Felski — most immediately, a defense of her “postcritique” in The Point and a critique of it in the Los Angeles Review of Books — this debate deserves to be seen in a wider view, encompassing not only Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s 1997 essay “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading” but also a traditionof essays on literary criticism’s relationship to “philology,” including especially Edward Said’s “The Return to Philology” (in Humanism and Democratic Criticism, 2004) and Frances Ferguson’s “Philology, Literature, Style” (2013).

Ferguson’s essay lays out one version of what’s at stake. As she explains, philology as developed in the 18th century involved the learned study of ancient texts — especially Homeric and biblical — with the aim of establishing textual integrity, authorial history, and so on. Who really wrote the Odyssey and when? How did the text as it has been transmitted to us get assembled? Are there text-internal evidences of its originally oral provenance?

But, as Ferguson explains, the philological impulse to infer truths about a text on the basis of a close study of its linguistic elements — for instance, to deduce Homer’s original orality from the prosody of the Odyssey — produced in modern criticism an entirely different kind of interpretation. Think of Adorno perceiving a response to capitalist society in lyric poetry, or Said reading Mansfield Park in terms of empire and slavery. For such critics, Ferguson says, “texts come to include both the things that they explicitly refer to and the things on which they are silent.” These are some of the sorts of things meant by “critique.”

One subset of criticism fitting Ferguson’s description is queer theory, about which David Kurnick writes eloquently in this week’sReview. I spoke with Kurnick about his essay, literary criticism now, and Twitter. Scroll on for more.

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A Conversation with David Kurnick

I spoke with the Rutgers English scholar and author of “Queer Theory and Literary Criticism’s Melodramas” about his recent article, the difference between teaching and criticism, and the virtues and viciousness of Twitter. Here’s some of that conversation.

You point out that the central dichotomy established by Eve Sedgwick’s “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading” can often seem tendentious. So what do you think accounts for its enormous resonance, both when it was published and later? It has sort of eclipsed her other work.

That it eclipsed her earlier work is totally true, and kind of unfortunate. The essay characterized queer theory, including her own work, as involving a kind of necessary revolutionary excess that now we could dial back. At the end of her life she wrote about getting less interested in queer stuff. But because she was such a powerful intellect, it could seem like her own disinterest represented a larger cultural or intellectual exhaustion. I thought that was a strange move. This will sound crazy, but sometimes I do think the whole thing was overdetermined by homophobia — as if everyone, even a lot of queer academics, felt a little relieved that this person who had made us all think we couldn’t ignore gay topics and gay sex was telling us that we could finally stop thinking about it.

The good thing about that essay is that it called criticism to account: Do you really believe the things you say, she was asking, or do you just like to say them? There was a vernacular, truth-telling quality to that. One knows what she means. But I think she was talking about a dreary professional habitus that you can inhabit no matter what your method is. Her essay has been really successful, but it hasn’t banished predictable, routinized criticism, or made critics generally more generous and open.

That essay also allowed her to be consumed as an icon instead of a writer. She’s an incredible writer, an incredible critic — which is to say she’s messy, complicated, and interpretable. But she’s not that paraphrasable, and that essay had a regrettably paraphrasable title.

I wonder if part of the problem is that some of the methods conversations are imprecise at the level of their description of a method. That’s something Jonathan Kramnick is trying to correct for in his recent Critical Inquiry piece: If we’re going to talk about method all the time, let’s monitor the coherence of our propositions a bit.

Yes. It hits the road in the classroom, though — there we all know what it is that we do. One can try to be rigorous about describing it, in the Kramnickian way, but that’s really hard. There’s a kind of black-boxing of that everyday work of the profession when we talk about “method.”

A lot of our accounts of what the profession is like seem to depend on a kind of cartoonish transfer, in which we translate what someone says as a critic into an image of that person in the classroom — a martinet wagging their finger, denouncing and monitoring. But I don’t think anyone really believes that the literature classroom is this desiccated, punitive place.

Your essay diagnoses a kind of unconscious investment in melodrama on the part of some of the post-critique folk. It occurs to me that you could call the passion, not to say the vitriol, that these method disputes seem to inspire — especially on Twitter — “melodramatic.” Pretend I know nothing about these debates: How would you explain to me why people on both sides get so angry on Twitter?

I wish I knew. My best guess is that it’s a reflection of the devaluing of the profession and of our political impotence — and of our impotence to defend our expertise, which can feel really intimate, a kind of “intimate denegation,” in Sedgwick’s phrase. We’re existentially on the line, and it feels that way.

I’m not on Twitter as a tweeter. I go through periods of intense lurking, and then I have to get away from it because it freaks me out too much. In this essay, I wanted to be able to disagree, but with respect — to play out some genuinely mixed feelings. The room for that is less available now. Twitter isn’t a great space for holding ambivalence, obviously. The format tends to melodramatize disagreement. A lot of literary critics are really good at Twitter, for the maybe obvious reason that a lot of them are good at shaping words. But it’s probably not the best genre for us.

On the other hand, I’ve been introduced to really interesting critics on Twitter. The academy isn’t reproducing itself, so there’s critical and interpretive energy there that the academy isn’t accommodating, and there’s a kind of guild energy or appetite — the spilled guild. It’s spilled onto Twitter.


  • “In her nonfiction, too, Didion managed to repurpose her ingrained sense of futility — so long the license for a shrug and head shake, and the basis for dubious claims — as a genuine tool of critical analysis.” At The New Statesman, Leo Robson on Joan Didion.
  • “We might describe bad cancel culture as a vulnerability within the normative practices of securing poetic justice … But there’s a special vulnerability nowadays, combining with various platforms that algorithmically reward bad faith.” That’s Nan Da, talking about her n+1 essay “Disambiguation, A Tragedy,” which was recently the occasion for a conversation between Da and two other literary critics: Jane Hu and Elaine Auyoung.

I’m always hoping to hear from you — write to opinion@chronicle.com.

Len Gutkin