In the hopes of interrogating this question, the Philological Laboratory housed within the Friedrich Schlegel Graduate School of Literary Studies at Freie Universität Berlin hosted an international conference inviting a number of esteemed literary scholars from June 27th to 29th .
A report by Maidah Khalid
Along with a number of local academics, professors, researchers and students, the invited scholars gathered at the Indiana University Europe Gateway in Kreuzberg to debate and discuss the question of what it means to critique poetically and why it matters in the first place. Prior to the conference, all invited speakers were provided a guiding quote by Friedrich Schlegel, who in his 1798 review of Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, contended that poetic critique “will present anew what has been presented; it will wish to shape once again what has already been shaped; [the poetic critic] will complete the work, rejuvenate and refashion it.” Taking cue from Schlegel’s quote, the various speakers offered their own thoughts, often building upon and sometimes taking a radical departure from Schlegel’s treatment of the term.
Needless to say, this animating question, far from being isolated, is intimately tied to a whole host of theoretical and political issues. Does poetic critique signify a unique scholarly mood or does it gesture towards a more concrete practice that can be replicated and transferred pedagogically? Why is it increasingly deemed to be of pressing importance in the current academic milieu? If poetic critique, as Dr. Michel Chaouli, who leads the Philological Laboratory, indicated in the opening remarks, is more than merely another form of critique of critique and instead implies re-fashioning a particular work of art and taking the risk of creating something new in that interaction, then what possibilities does this re-fashioning open up and what (if any) are the political implications of such an approach to the artwork? Does it harbor certain (perhaps disciplinary) limitations? And does it, in any profound way, re-define the ontological status of both the artwork and the critic? Moreover, if poetic critique, as Friedrich Schlegel describes it, really is a matter of presenting “anew” what has already been presented, then isn’t all critique poetic in some sense, thereby rendering the category, at best, insignificant, and at worst, inoperable? These and many other related themes animated much of the conversation at the conference.
Often in opposition to a purportedly “dominant” academic approach that trains critics to grasp and dominate the artwork, participants mulled over a plethora of interrelated terms, expressions, and ways of attending to the poetic in poetic critique and the kind of relationship that it garners between the critic and the artwork. In his talk titled “Acts of Critical Humility,” Stephen Best for instance distinguished poetic criticism as that which, rather than exposing or erasing the work of art, conspires with it. He further described it as form of interpretation that rather than adding something new, works to simply disclose relationships that underpin the unity of the work. At one point, he also distinguished between poetic critique and poetic criticism, describing the former as immodest, overtly political, and aggressively attempting to change the world, while the latter as modest, emphasizing textual analysis, and hoping to bring about change one reader at a time. For Best, conspiring and imitating while remaining de-coupled from the political now necessitates a critical posture that far from grasping, rests on a practice of learned submission, humility, and complicity towards and with the work. In the same vein, and once again in somewhat of a departure from Schlegel, the notion of imitation was also central to Jeff Dolven’s understanding of poetic critique. In his talk titled “Poetry, Critique, Imitation,” Dolven underscored the importance of a pedagogy of modelling and conformity that such imitation necessitates and argued that the poetic thus implies a form of receptive knowledge that closes the distances between the critic and the work – it worksfrom the inside, and works towards mimetic exacerbation. Towards the end of his talk, he made the case that a “model criticism” taken up by a “free and cultivated person” is by definition never complete, rather encapsulating both critique and imitation.
In addition to the notions of imitation and repetition highlighted above, poetic critique was also at different points discussed in terms of attachment, inwardness, and closeness. Similar to Dolven’s conceptualization, Bettine Menke for instance, in her talk titled “Theater as Critical Praxis. Gesture and Citabilty,” dealt with the question of poetic critique by claiming that it was akin to a “delighting cognition” that operates inside the performance rather than functioning from the outside. However, while operating inside rather than being determined in advance and from the outside, Menke nonetheless maintained the significance of distance within theater playing that ultimately allows for the “setting apart of acting” and makes the split and doubling work possible. Similarly, Jonathan Elmer in his talk “On Not forcing the Question: Criticism and Playing Along” also argued that poetic critique is analogous to participating within a child’s play during which the critic – instead of incessant, probing questioning – avoids interrogation and simply plays along, almost losing him or herself in the narrative plot. In line with this direction, towards the end of her talk, Yi-Ping Ong also contended that poetic critique should be thought in terms of an embodied practice rather than a theoretical standpoint that has to be articulated. Finally, again closely related to these preceding standpoints, Alexander García Düttmann introduced the notion of “echo” in his treatment of poetic critique. For García Düttmann, the terminology of the echo served well in thinking through the topic because it points to that which both captures and reproduces, and importantly comes from the outside. In his scheme, poetic critique is the ability to identify this echo, or as he described it at one point in his talk, it is “the echo of the echo.”
These interconnected yet disparate ways of conceptualizing a poetic posture towards the work of art raised a number of different questions, not the least regarding the political implications of such a “playing along” and “learned submission.” Some of these concerns were most directly raised by Walter Benn Michaels who asked whether such an approach leads to political quietism, and whether it only opens possibilities for a limited, neo-liberal understanding of equality, closing the space for an engagement with the economic constraints brought about by capitalist structures that operate outside the domain of our vision and representation. Additionally, building upon the literature on de-colonial ecologies, Amanda Goldstein in her talk “Relief Poetry and Material Revenge: The Other Darwin” further raised the question of politics by asking what, if any, are the political purposes of a critique that undoes ontological hierarchies and ascribes agency to the work of art and by extension to the non-human, and what really is the impact of such subversion. In the final sessions, Sharon Marcus further tried to re-conceptualize the central question of the conference, arguing that perhaps it is more useful not to focus on a new definition of critique as such, but rather on a new description of the work of art – one that treats it, not as original, self-enclosed, singular and unique creations, but as copies, as reliefs, as backgrounds, as collective endeavors, as a process (one in which the critic also participates).
Closing the conference in the final session along with Marcus, Chaouli summarized the various approaches and proposed terms brought together over the course of the three days, and while there wasn’t a consensus regarding the precise meaning, urgency or status of poetic critique as such (indeed most speakers employed the term in their own unique framework), he nonetheless identified some major overlapping themes. Indeed, as Chaouli highlighted, most speakers were ultimately (and perhaps implicitly) concerned with the relationship of art to politics, art and ontology, art and history, and finally art and the critic’s unique orientation or mood. Ultimately, there was a shared sense that regardless of how these proposed directions generate and bring to the fore latent possibilities, and needless to say, close others, it was nonetheless clear that the artwork in addition to being grasped and dissected, also calls for, and perhaps desperately desires, the more gentle touch of the poetic in all its various meanings.
Maidah Khalid is currently a PhD student in the Religious Studies department at Indiana University. Her research centers on the historical development of medieval Islamicate sciences and literary genres and also encompasses issues of the sociology of the book, religious hermeneutics and critical theory.