115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Thrill is Never Gone: The Politics of Pleasure and the Pleasure of Politics

Barry Sarchett, Colorado College

The recent skepticism directed against the political ambitions and claims of  “critique” in cultural studies, historicist, and materialist approaches has occasioned reconsiderations of aesthetic value and close reading.  This paper analyzes Laura Mulvey’s 1972 article “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” in order to claim that political critique of pleasure is necessarily constituted by the very aesthetic impulses it seeks to exclude.


The Thrill is Never Gone: The Politics of Pleasure and the Pleasure of Politics

Barry Sarchett

Colorado College


            It appears we are in the midst of what Jeffery Williams calls “The New Modesty” in literary criticism and theory wherein the political hopes and ambitions of various strands of cultural studies and historicism have been subjected to skeptical inquiry.  Thus forms of “surface reading”—a catch-all term from Best and Marcus’s notorious 2009 Representations article that seems to mean everything from a “new formalism” to big-data-driven distance reading—are supposedly changing the critical landscape.   Another branch of the New Modesty issues from Bruno Latour’s influential article “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam?” (2004) and his further development of Actor Network Theory, most notably appropriated by Heather Love’s “Close But Not Deep: Literary Ethics and the Descriptive Turn” (2010) and Rita Felski’s recent book The Limits of Critique (2015). 

All these projects as well as others not mentioned here, demand a reappraisal of the ambitious politically emancipatory claims of classical cultural studies as influenced by psychoanalysis, Marxism, structuralism, and poststructuralism.  While I find all of them instructive, their dissatisfaction with by now routinized forms of “transgressive” political critique or the “hermeneutics of suspicion” are not new: various forms of resistance to the dismissal of aesthetic pleasure have routinely surfaced since the early 1990s and have, in my experience, had very little effect on most scholarship.  Instead, I want to suggest that we have never left the realm of aesthetic pleasure that politically-inflected criticism and theory has done so much to delegitimize.  In fact, it has simply been sublimated into the political turn itself.  My paper takes a founding text of cultural studies, Laura Mulvey’s ubiquitous 1972 article “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, as a case in point.  Through a decidedly deconstructive analysis, I claim not only that the repression of aesthetic pleasure will always return, but that such a return is constitutive of political critique itself, and that Felski’s latest work confirms this theoretical claim.

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