Revisiting an old idea – Self-reflexive (feminist) literary criticism

The idea of reflexivity reminds us that we change the objects that we study. I was familiar with this idea in the field of ethnography where the work of James Clifford, George Marcus, Ruth Behar, Clifford Geertz and others advocated for a new way of writing anthropology that was more aware of the role of the anthropologist-ethnographer in producing meaning and understanding about the culture(s) and people(s) that were being studied.

Yet it seems to me that in the literary criticism I read today that there is little evidence of self-reflexivity and the role of the critic in shaping the way in which texts are received and understood. There is little recognition, in other words, of the unspoken politics of literary criticism.

In Sexual/Textual Politics Toril Moi, writing about the early ‘images of women’ criticism, notes that the idea that criticism is not neutral is a basic tenet of feminist criticism and describes the practice of providing an autobiographical introduction setting out the critic’s position. Moi concludes her brief discussion of this practice writing about what she sees as Simone de Beauvoir’s lengthy autobiographical digression in The Second Sex: ‘This kind of narcissistic delving into one’s own self can only caricature the valuable point of principle made by feminist critics: that no criticism is neutral, and that we therefore have a responsibility to make our positions reasonably apparent to our readers. Whether this is necessarily always best done through autobiographical statements about the critic’s emotional and personal life is a more debatable point’ (Sexual/Textual Politics p43).

I recognise that lengthy autobiographical introductions  could be seen as self-serving and as allowing the critic to eclipse the text. However, I am concerned that by opting to state the point of principle without doing anything about it is equally problematic. Doing nothing, maintaining the self-effacing appearance of objectivity and/or neutrality is more likely to result in the politics of criticism remaining unacknowledged, unquestioned and unchallenged. It helps to perpetuate myths about the fixed, singular meanings of a text whose secrets can only be unlocked by an expert reader and in turn to unequal relationships between readers.

In The Emancipated Spectator Rancière proposes a community of  ‘narrators and translators’  where each member constructs their own ‘unique intellectual adventure that makes her similar to all the rest in as much as this adventure is not like any other’ (Loc 243). The role of the researcher (and the artist) is to ‘construct the stages where the manifestation and effect of their skills are exhibited’ (Loc 319). Surely, though, if this manifestation is to be truly egalitarian then the critic’s position ought to be acknowledged. The question is: how?


On the reflexive turn in anthropology/ethnography see: James Clifford and George E. Marcus, Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986).

Toril Moi, Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory (London: Routledge, 2002)

Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator (London: Verso, 2009)

Author: Dr Sarah Bowskill

Lecturer in Latin American Studies. Expertise in Mexican literary and digital cultural studies. Interested in the politics surrounding the reception, distribution and circulation of literature and cultural production particularly relating to gender studies.

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