Skip to Content

Solidarity, Failure, and the Role of the Critic

«Back To Seminars

Organizer: Anthony Alessandrini

Co-Organizer: Anna Bernard

Contact the Seminar Organizers

In The World, The Text, and the Critic (1983), Edward Said famously asserted: “The history of thought, to say nothing of political movements, is extravagantly illustrative of how the dictum ‘solidarity before criticism’ means the end of criticism. I take criticism so seriously as to believe that, even in the very midst of battle in which one is unmistakably on one side against another, there should be criticism, because there must be critical consciousness if there are to be issues, problems, values, even lives to be fought for.” Said was responding to the theory wars of the 1970s and ‘80s, not offering an account of the critic’s role in movement politics. Yet his insistence that criticism and solidarity are both at odds with one another and mutually contingent raises key questions for literary and cultural critics who are concerned with the relationship between literature and political movements, as well as those who think of their own work as an act of political solidarity.
The risk that Said identifies here is a risk of failure: a risk that solidarity will fail because it is insufficiently self-critical, and that criticism will fail because its practitioners put solidarity above critical consciousness. But there is another way of formulating this relationship, which is that failure is constitutive of both solidarity and criticism, because both are active and open-ended processes that seek to learn from failure and move forward.
This seminar sets out to investigate the relationship between solidarity, failure, and criticism in relation to historical and contemporary political movements, with a particular interest in the “failed”/ongoing anti-colonial, anti-capitalist, and anti-racist struggles of the 20th and 21st centuries. It will consider the roles that literary and cultural texts play in consolidating, challenging, and critically reviewing movement politics, and ask whether there are particular kinds of insights or skills that literary critics can contribute to the theory and practice of solidarity.
Topics and questions might include, but are not limited to: Can solidarity fail? What might “successful” or “failed” forms of solidarity look like? How do we measure success? Can difficulty and disappointment be productive? What roles do cultural and literary texts play, either in providing accounts of solidarity, helping to define new modes of solidarity, or revising existing modes? Can solidarity fail thanks to too much (or too little) criticism? Can the role of the critic include standing in solidarity? Is the move towards “postcritique” a move towards, or away from, modes of solidarity? Should the move away from “comradeship” and towards “allyship” in some contemporary political movements be mirrored in literary and cultural criticism?

«Back To Seminars