Intellectual Interests

Michel Chaouli

I am interested in the ways philosophical questions gain new form in aesthetic experience. What modes of thinking and of feeling become available to us when we encounter works of art? Which modes, in turn, are inhibited or foreclosed? The texts I am drawn to come mostly from the German literary and philosophical archive, and mainly from the eighteenth century onwards.

The book I am writing emerges from the idea (an intuition, really) that to be adequate to the experience of art, criticism must itself be practiced poetically. What does it mean to do criticism poetically? In poetic criticism, I—the critic—and the object about which I speak and write—the novel, the film, the painting, the historical episode, or any other significant configuration—are of the same basic makeup. I do not hold before me an alien object standing in need of decipherment. Rather, I know that a phrase in the novel or the gesture in the film would have no claim on me if I were unable to hear in it a call that stirs me. If it is true that I recognize in poetry (like in everything that holds significance for me) a mode of being that I know from myself, then I must face this poetry unencumbered by the armaments with which my discipline equips me. I open myself to it. I am as exposed and vulnerable as poetry itself. 

When I encounter poetry with poetry, I always do two things at once then. I speak about an object, but I also inevitably speak about myself. The first stands at the center of our disciplinary attention; the second is almost entirely occluded. But in every piece of criticism, what is also at stake besides the object is the critic. And to say the critic is at stake means that my “personal experiences” fail to be sufficient to the encounter with the poetic work. The known markers of my identity cannot serve as guardrails for this encounter. Rather, a true vulnerability to poetry becomes possible through what T.S. Eliot has called “a continual extinction of personality,” for only then can the particularity of an experience be transmuted into the mark of a general significance. 

For now entitled "The Shape of Poetic Criticism," my book aims to show this, and by “show” I mean two things. I aim to show, first, in the sense that I argue for the validity of these ideas. To do so, I will draw on the writings of a range of thinkers—Friedrich Schlegel, Emerson, and Eliot, Benjamin, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Iris Murdoch, and Roland Barthes—to make a case for the historical breadth and conceptual depth of the idea of poetic criticism. Yet I also aim to show the truth of these ideas in the sense in which showing is contrasted with telling. I seek to reveal the force of these ideas, and the best way of doing so is by putting them into action. If the book is to be successful, it must practice what it preaches. In its own modest way, it means to change the tone in academic writing. (An early version of this line of thinking can be found in my article “Criticism and Style” (PDF), published in NLH in 2013.) 

Finding ways of thinking and writing that are alive to both poetic and philosophical dimensions has motivated my work for several decades. My books The Laboratory of Poetry and Thinking With Kant's Critique of Judgment are ways of engaging this challenge. It is at the heart of the work of the Center for Theoretical Inquiry in the Humanities, which a friend and I founded in 2009 and which I have directed since 2012. The work of a new research project at the Free University of Berlin, "The Philological Laboratory: Models of Criticism Beyond Critique," which I direct as an Einstein Visiting Fellow from 2018 till 2020, aims to give these questions historical depth and conceptual texture.

Another book (on hold for the moment) is entitled Touch and Taste: Embodied Cognition and the Emergence of Aesthetics. It examines how various currents of European thought, from antiquity through the twentieth-century (with an emphasis on eighteenth-century aesthetic theories), imagine the senses and how these conceptions of the senses relate to ways cognition is thought to work. A description of the project can be found here. Part of a chapter examining the idea of skin through a discussion of the Laocoon debate was published separately (PDF).

Another area I am interested in relates to media history and media theory, especially the digital media. I am particularly interested in how fiction—and our understanding of fiction—might change under pressure from the computer and the internet. Thus one article pursues the question of why computer-based literature (often called hyperfiction) fails to interest readers, myself included (PDF). There I examine the concept of interactivity and the asymmetry that seems to be required in artistic communication. Another article, published in German, imagines an e-book reader I would love to try: a device that would play literature the way a stereo plays music (PDF).

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