This article argues that contemporary polemics against critical reading, understood as the enduring legacy of “theory” in the humanities, overlook the unusual and generative concept of critique formulated by one of the literary scholars most closely associated with “theory,” the German-born American literary critic Geoffrey Hartman. For Hartman, critique amounts to a thinking that exposes itself to the alterity of the future and thus risks being wrong. Engaging two of Hartman’s essays from the mid-1980s, “The Struggle for the Text” and “Meaning, Error, Text,” the article specifically argues that Hartman derives this concept of critique as thinking that risks error from rabbinic midrash. However, this does not mean that Hartman seeks to “do midrash” himself. To the contrary, what Hartman learns from midrash is that the very structure of linguistic repetition, citation, or imitation forecloses the possibility of absolute fidelity to tradition. In “The Struggle for the Text,” he demonstrates this lesson through subversive readings of Genesis 32 and a fragment from Sigmund Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle; in “Meaning, Error, Text,” Hartman historicizes his hermeneutic in relation to Christian supersession and the Holocaust, claiming ethical and political significance for his “restitution” of midrash as a model of critique.
My thanks to the various colleagues who have read and commented upon earlier drafts of this article over the years, especially Kirsten Collins, James Adam Redfield, Na’ama Rokem, the participants in the 2021 American Academy of Jewish Research seminar convened by Naomi Seidman and Jonathan Boyarin, and the attendees of the 2020–21 sessions of the University of Chicago Jewish Studies Workshop.
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