Christen Hammock | Epilogue 1/13: Are we doing justice with the text?

By Christen Hammock

Our first seminar, Critique 1/13: In Search of a Method, posed the question whether there is a right or wrong way to read critical theory texts, and in the discussion, I was immediately struck by how personal and emotional the language was that we used to discuss our relationship to these texts. Are we abusing or doing violence to the text? Are we manipulating the text?  I was also struck by the metaphors of body and space: Can we use these texts to nourish us? Can we return to the text and encounter it?

Bernard Harcourt had admonished us in The Illusion of Influence to avoid anthropomorphizing the oeuvre of any individual writer as a coherent whole or the authors themselves. But in an effort to follow Harcourt’s suggestions in Illusion, it seems that we almost transferred our urge to anthropomorphize onto the abstract notion of a “text” instead. And I felt some contradiction between Harcourt’s opening suggestion that we imagine our seminar as a space of “brutalist architecture” and the discussion that followed. Will it be possible for readers to take what’s useful and coldly leave the rest behind?

It’s intriguing to me that the urge to engage with these texts person-to-person is so strong that it spills out of our language. Given that these configurations of our relationship to the text are metaphorical, it would be interesting to explore how other metaphors might be implicitly guiding or informing our work in the seminar.

The only metaphor that drew significant attention as metaphor was the universally-dissatisfying-but-unavoidable toolbox. I actually like the “toolbox” metaphor, although I understand why, as Harcourt argued, there are no concrete “tools” in any given piece of writing that preexist our own use. Although Amy Allen also “put pressure” on the toolbox, I think it fits quite well with her argument that, while there might not be a single right way to read a text, there certainly could be wrong ways. You can use a pair of pliers to cut, twist, or grip, but you can’t use a hammer to perform brain surgery. I wonder if, perhaps, the resistance to the “toolbox” metaphor was less intellectual than emotional.

In part, I wonder that because of my own deep emotional attachment to many of these texts. I’m reading some of the texts featured in this year’s 13/13 for the first time, but others—especially Foucault and Said’s Orientalism—introduced me to theory and helped me see the world in a new way as an undergraduate. Although I’d never read Foucault’s essays on Nietzsche, I (like many English majors) fell in love with that destabilizing feeling that comes with realizing that many scientific and political “givens” (e.g., mental illness, or incarceration) are constructed and reproduced. The emotional result of reading these texts for the first time can go in different directions: towards nihilism and complacency (i.e., there’s no meaning to anything, so what’s the point?) or towards an expansive notion of what’s possible (i.e., nothing has to be the way it is, so why not imagine other realities?). In some sense, when I read and revisit texts now, I’m still chasing that feeling of seeing the world anew.

I wonder about the role nostalgia might play in our seminars this year. Postmodernist scholars, in particular, have traditionally been rather unkind to nostalgia, treating it as a necessarily static, conservative, nationalist force. Jameson describes nostalgia as a “desperate attempt to appropriate a missing past” that cannibalizes and brackets the past until we’re “le[ft] . . . with nothing but texts.”[1] Linda Hutcheon aligns nostalgia with patriarchal forces, arguing that “feminism has “no tendency toward nostalgia, no illusion of a golden age in the past” because the “narratives of nostalgia—from the Bible onward—are male stories, Oedipal stories which are alienating to women (who usually remain at home like Penelope, while men wander the world and risk getting homesick).”[2] This is certainly one way that nostalgia works—see, e.g., MAGA hats and romanticization of the 1950s.

But I think the actual mechanism of nostalgia could be rehabilitated in more neutral terms—as form rather than substance. Nostalgia often works by imaginatively transforming things from the way they were to the way we want them to have been, but there’s no reason why it can’t work another way. Couldn’t nostalgia’s transformative power be used critically? I think what I’m arguing is that a kind of critical nostalgia might provide a framework for revisiting texts in a way that is productive rather than just deconstructive. As we revisit, perhaps we can put our deep attachment to these texts to use, to remember the imaginative power of our original encounters, not necessarily as a tool or weapon, but as a guiding ethos for our seminars this year and for imagining the future.

One potential way of articulating our relationship with these texts was asking whether we are doing justice to the text? This discussion was partially framed as one of legitimacy. In particular, Axel Honneth suggested a number of “legitimate” ways to read texts: philologically, ideologically, dialogically, and instrumentally. Of course, as a law student in the age of a Supreme Court that includes multiple men who have had credible allegations of sexual assault and harassment levelled against them, the idea of legal legitimacy—often grounded in how much a text can be stretched and removed from its historical context without compromising institutional power—looms large in my mind. Legitimacy, though, assumes that there’s an audience for our reading of any particular text; an audience that can accept or reject our assumptions and orientation.

I don’t think we owe anything in particular to the texts that we read (even if we feel like we do), so I’m not sure I feel an obligation to do justice to the writings of Foucault or Nietzsche. I do, however, feel revulsion at the idea of these texts being used to propel what I consider to be fundamentally un-just approaches to the world, e.g., alt-right politics. I suggest a slight prepositional shift, in the spirit of Bernard Harcourt’s Hadron collider of praxis and theory: Are we doing justice with the text? This won’t provide universally satisfying answers, but if our commitments to praxis must be individualized, as Harcourt suggests, I don’t think it needs to.


[1] Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism at 17.

[2] Linda Hutcheon, Irony, Nostalgia, and the Postmodern at 4.