Thursday, February 26, 2009


The prime obstacle in general education is a feeling of helplessness before the unintelligible. Every problem is new to the mind which first meets it and is baffling until he can recognize in it something which he has met and dealt with already. The all important difference between the mind which can clear itself by thought and the mind which remains bewildered and can proceed only by burying the difficulty in a formula--retained, at best, by mere rote memory--is in this power to recognize the new problem as, in part, an old conquest. Language, with its inexhaustible duplications (which here are duplicities), ceaselessly presents to us the old as thought it were new, familiar ideas in novel disguises, understood distinctions as fresh opportunities for confusion, already assimilated combinations as unforeseeable conjunctions. The teacher meets with all this whenever he reads anything which stretches his intelligence; the pupil meets with it all the time, and if he is being well taught he should be expecting it and enjoying the sense of increasing power that his progressive mastery of it can afford. For this growth in power is, fundamentally, the vitalizing incentive with which education builds.
-I.A. Richards, Interpretation in Teaching, 4

Friday, February 20, 2009

Practical criticism and the sociologist

I just love Raymond Williams. Here's his description of Lucian Goldmann confronting literary scholars at Cambridge, and then his short history of the problems of practical criticism--with Leavis as (and I think he's right about this) the villain:

...I would give it about fifteen minutes, as Goldmann began to describe his own methodology, for that crushing quotation to be brought out from Lawrence:‘We judge a work of art by its effect on our sincere and vital emotion, and nothing else. All the critical twiddle-twaddle about style and form, all this pseudo-scientific classifying and analysing of books in an imitation-botanical fashion, is mere impertinence and mostly dull jargon.’ So no methodology here, thank you; only sincere and vital emotion. But who decides the sincerity and vitality? If you need to ask that you couldn’t begin to understand the answer. People decide it, in themselves and in an active and collaborative critical process.
But which people, in what social relationships, with each other and with others? That, at whatever risk of damnation, is the necessary question of the sociologist. Practical criticism is vulnerable at several points: in its hardening into an apparently objective method which is based, even defiantly, on subjective principles; in its isolation of texts from contexts; in its contemplative aspects, which have often made it hostile to new literary work. But all these weaknesses are most apparent, we say, when it is badly done: well or badly being again an internal criterion. In fact, however, all these weaknesses, or potential weaknesses, follow from the specific social situation of its practitioners. The real answer to that question—which people, in what social relationships?—was, as we all know, precise and even principled: the informed critical minority. What began as the most general kind of claim, a visibly human process centred on the apparently absolute qualities of sincerity and vitality, ended, under real pressures, as a self-defining group. But then, because the critical activity was real, very different social relations—a sense of isolation from the main currents of a civilisation in which sincerity and vitality were being limited or destroyed, an implacable opposition to all the agents of this limitation or destruction—emerged and forced a generalization of the original position.

-"Literature and Sociology," Culture and Materialism, 17-18 (and here at the New Left Review).

It is on the basis of this history that he proceeds to, very clearly, put the problem to the sociologist: in Britain--but I wonder whether this has some similar significance here in America now--one has to confront the fact that "it is from this," this practical criticism, "paradoxically, that much of the English work in literary sociology has come" (18). In other words, literary sociology must also transform the academic society (which is not the same, for Williams, as the discipline or institution) in order to be able to do its work. This does not mean revolution--which the theorists here in the 80's tried to bring about--but first and foremost a change in vocabulary that will allow method and theory to enter into critical practice (as I tried to bring out of Williams in the last post). First and foremost, there is the change in what actually gets described: not the actual but the possible. Using Goldmann, he outlines this view:

Most sociology of literature, Goldmann then argues, is concerned with the relatively apparent relations between ordinary literature and actual consciousness: relations which show themselves at the level of content, or in conventional elaboration of its common illusions. The new sociology of literature—that of genetic structuralism—will be concerned with the more fundamental relations of possible consciousness, for it is at the centre of his case that the greatest literary works are precisely those which realize a world-view at its most coherent and most adequate, its highest possible level. We should not then mainly study peripheral relations: correspondences of content and background; overt social relations between writers and readers. We should study, in the greatest literature, the organizing categories, the essential structures, which give such works their unity, their specific aesthetic character, their strictly literary quality; and which at the same time reveal to us the maximum possible consciousness of the social group—in real terms, the social class—which finally created them, in and through their individual authors.
-"Literature and Sociology," 23-24.

Ultimately, however (and a bit against Goldmann), Williams says that we cannot even think of what gets realized and revealed to the sociologist as a consciousness: first and foremost, "we need to reconsider the idea of consciousness itself" (24). Rather, what is more important is the ability of the structure, the organizing categories, to then actualize themselves. Where are the points in this structure that are more capable of producing the work than others? This is why he introduces his notion of "structures of feeling:" by making the structure one of feeling (which, as I always stress, should almost be taken in the tactile sense of "feeling:" what we are talking about here is bodily, material), what one does is then think more in terms of the structure and sees its productive possibilities not at all in terms of the actual. One thinks the ideality of the structure in a more differentiated way (one thinks its productive capacity more purely) by attributing to it this odd (and not necessarily conscious) aspect of "feeling." One adds to it a certain width, a breadth, not unlike Bourdieu.

Raymond Williams on Britain and America

An amazing characterization of Raymond Williams of the American intellectual space, which is too often just summed up under the vague term "democratic." If Williams too succumbs to the cliché of American intellectual space as democratic, he at least gives us a few new adjectives in his comparison of America to Cambridge that have the potential to make people more precise about what this entails:

I think many people have now noticed the long-term effects of the specific social situation of British intellectuals: a situation which is changing but with certain continuing effects. In humane studies, at least, and with mixed results, British thinkers and writers are continually pulled back towards ordinary language: not only in certain rhythms and in choices of words, but also in a manner of exposition which can be called unsystematic but which also represents an unusual consciousness of an immediate audience: a sharing and equalstanding community, to which it is equally possible to defer or to reach out. I believe that there are many positive aspects of this habitual manner, but I am just as sure that the negative aspects are serious: a willingness to share, or at least not too explicitly to challenge, the consciousness of the group of which the thinker and writer—his description as intellectual raises the precise point—is willingly or unwillingly but still practically a member. And while this group, for so long, and of course especially in places like Cambridge, was in effect and detail a privileged and at times a ruling class, this pull towards ordinary language was often, is often, a pull towards current consciousness: a framing of ideas within certain polite but definite limits...
[And then] there was American work: in what appeared the same language but outside this particular English consensus. Theory, or at least system, seemed attractively available. And most American intellectuals, for good or ill, seemed not to have shared this particular integration with a non-intellectual class. Complaints that a man explaining his life’s work, in as precise a way as he could, was not instantly comprehensible, in a clubbable way, to someone who had just happened to drop in from his labour or leisure elsewhere, seemed less often to arise.

-"Literature and Sociology," in Culture and Materialism (also available here).

In other words, what Williams sees here is a disjunction between the ordinary or "common" vocabulary of British intellectuals and the commoners themselves. British intellectuals, he is saying, maintain the fiction that their work is pragmatic because it is put in a certain language. What this does is only highlight how specialized and intellectual they are. So the ordinary language is 1) not the plain speak of common people in the first place, and 2) actually coopts whatever is connected to the commoners (or non-intellectuals) to produce intellectual cliques. In other words, people pretend to be relevant but they aren't: all that is produced is a "consensus," which, like consensus in politics, is most of the time merely an agreement that doesn't really get anything done, being just for show. So it isn't surprising that the non-intellectual comes into a lecture and says what he does: the actual language of the people (whether good or not) confronts the fiction of the British intellectual's "ordinary language," which, in the meantime, merely serves to hinder or hold back thoughts that only a more technical vocabulary could get at. The word "integration" here is used both satirically and as a genuine criticism of America though: it is the name for this fiction of the British intellectuals, but it is also a name for the more genuine disparity between intellectuals and the American people.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Theory FAIL

[In a certain type of literary criticism] there is simply the conviction that the facts exist in their own self-evident shape and that disagreements are to be resolved by referring the respective parties to the facts as they really are. In the view that I have been urging, however, disagreements cannot be resolved by reference to the facts, because the facts emerge only in the context of some point of view. It follows, then, that disagreements must occur between those who hold (or are held by) different points of view, and what is at stake in a disagreement is the right to specify what the facts can hereafter be said to be. Disagreements are not settled by the facts, but are the means by which the facts are settled...
-"What Makes an Interpretation Acceptable?" in Is There a Text in This Class?, 338.

What's wrong with these assertions by Stanley Fish? Disagreements are indeed not settled by the facts, but are the means by which the facts are settled--I have no problem with that. But is this the same thing as saying that what is at stake in a disagreement is the right to specify what the facts can hereafter be said to be?
I don't think so. Why? Disagreements in critical activity concerning the facts of a text may be the means by which we actually produce the facts that we are referring to in our disagreement. All this outlines is a process by which the facts--indeed the texts themselves that are under consideration--are produced or constructed by the effort of referring to them as evidence for one's criticism, rather than just pre-existing elements that are simply taken up. Facts, in other words, are not cited or pointed to from the outside, from a position that is not also complicit in setting them up, in construing them, in arranging them--in short, in producing them themselves.
But this does not mean that what a disagreement is about in being a disagreement about the facts is the right to produce these facts. Facts can be produced, rather than be pre-existing things, but this claim alone does not prove that any contestation about the facts can't still be about those facts themselves. And even if it isn't about the facts themselves, but about the process by which the production of a fact goes about its business, this again does not prove that the contestation contests the right of the process to proceed as it does. The process of producing a fact--of citing it as evidence, in the sense we've elaborated alongside (and in agreement with) Fish--is not the same thing as the assertion of a right or an authority to produce. In fact, this process could even produce an assertion of the authority of this process itself, and it still would not mean that the process itself was an assertion of its right.
It is the slippage between these two things that will allow Fish to appear (if you take him seriously) to take apart countless numbers of critics, groups, institutions, or basically just anyone or anything he wants to appear to destroy over his long career (he still does it). If he kept to himself, as he does in his best work, that would be fine, but it is the need to force the slippage here onto others that is wrong, because it is done so easily and can sound legitimate if it is voiced with enough authority (and Fish doesn't lack that). All Fish has to do is claim that your reference to a text is also an assertion of your right to refer to that text--and then treat this claim as if it means that your reference to a text is precisely the same thing as your assertion of your right. So he can move on two levels, grabbing people who are merely referring to a text or pointing out a fact, and then, by saying that they are claiming something more than this (to which they will probably admit merely because they are trying to account for unforeseen possibilities of what they say--though it doesn't really matter for Fish either way), and then gobble them up by proceeding as if this act of claiming more is precisely that of asserting a right to claim something more.
And asserting this right is, for Fish, always a question that can be settled by referring to whether these people (whoever they are) do have this right or not--that is, by referring to what their "job" stipulates, such that they are either "doing their job" or "doing something other than their job" (claiming a right that actually is the right of someone else). In the case of critics, asserting this right will be a question of whether a critic is demonstrating "competence"--that horribly vague term--such that she or he can be considered the member of a community of people who are supposed to possess the right she or he is claiming: a particular community of critics.
And what exactly is the "competence" of this community? Nothing other than the way that they claim the right that they appear to possess. The "competence," then, of an interpretive community is really a non-concept, or (what is better) a tautology, even if, as Fish will always claim, it is composed of a "set of practices," and--what's more--this is so even if we can indeed enumerate various practices that critics actually engage in. For in reality, this "set of practices" can really mean anything (any collection of practices), so long as they together are seen by Fish as demonstrating this "competence;" in other words, so long as they constitute the precise ways in which a community, appearing to possess a right, claims the right it appears to possess--or, put more simply and more accurately, the way a community, appearing to possess a right, appears to possess a right.
Notice, then, that this way that a certain community of critics will claim a right--their demonstration of "competence"--is not at all the same thing as their all having a similar way of producing or referring to the text (put differently, their way of having this similarity is precisely the practice that Fish can't account for). They can produce the text or refer to it in a particular way, but have a way of asserting their rights (if we really think that rights are asserted) that is different than this process of production. If Fish blurs the distinction between producing a text and claiming the right to produce a text, he also blurs the distinction in the opposite way: that is, between claiming the right to produce a text and producing the text. As we can see, the entire concept of an "interpretive community," with its insistence on "competence" and "practices," is constructed to do this work in the opposite direction.
This all occurs, though, because of that first move: taking the act of producing the text or facts that one is referring to--that is, taking these facts not as pre-existent before this reference--as the assertion of a right to produce those facts. In other words, it is seeing the act of not taking facts as pre-existent as a something that is (and this is the crucial part) "irreducibly interpretive," as Fish in the essay we are considering (but it is wherever he talks of "right") will go on to say ("text, context and interpretation all emerge together, as a consequence of a gesture (the declaration of belief) that is irreducibly interpretive," 340). In other words, the assertion of a right to (or--they are the same for Fish--the declaration of belief that one can) construe or produce a text in a certain way is the very same thing as the act of construal itself because this assertion (or belief) itself is interpretive. Claiming a right and what one does in the act or gesture are both interpretive acts.
But, I would object, this remains a really, really impoverished concept of what the assertion of a right or the declaration of a belief actually is, or in what they consist. "Irreducibly interpretive" here means that at some point, all that this assertion of a right or a belief consists in is in being the same as the procedures by which we refer to a fact. But wouldn't admitting the reference itself to a fact is distinguished from the assertion of a right be precisely that which allows for a rich assertion of right or belief? Indeed, Fish is claiming that insofar as we maintain that there is anything there to which we are pointing or referencing, we have a belief or are asserting a right. But isn't this belief--the belief that we are indeed pointing to something--a different sort of belief than a belief about something, or a claim to a right concerning something? To deny this difference is to say that something more like the expectation of the success of an action is the same thing as a profession of faith. All that a belief like this would be about would be that it is a belief about something. And this is just absurd, because if this were the case it would precisely require the revaluation both of belief (or the assertion of right) and the act of reference not merely in terms of each other, which would still presuppose their difference. And this Fish adamantly refuses to do (in precisely making them both merely the display of "competence," or an "interpretive community" at work). It seems clear to me that we can and probably must distinguish the procedure of interpretation from the assertion of a right to interpret, rather than, like, Fish, trick people into thinking we are using their sense of these words by entertaining their difference and then trying to expose them as fools by suddenly using them interchangeably.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Best of... Derrida and Heidegger

I have a quite a few posts on Derrida and Heidegger here: I thought that I might want to highlight some of the more important ones for anyone who wants to understand what the two are up to. I don't mean to sound like an expert, but I do want to provide material for anyone who might find some particular formulation here helpful.

First, Heidegger:
"Negativity, Repetition, and das Geschehen das Daseins:" what was for me (in writing it) an enlightening analysis of what Heidegger means by historicity and that enigmatic word in Being and Time, "repetition." I try to show that repetition here differs from the operation of the Aufhebung of Hegel.
"Building, dwelling, thinking...:" a close analysis of what is going on in "Building, Dwelling, Thinking," so we can understand the sort of linguistic work that is going on in Heidegger--what drives him to compose the way he does.

Then, three between Heidegger and Derrida:
"Time and Derrida:" a pretty clear distinction between time in Derrida and time in Heidegger (which can be calculated only non-properly or inauthentically). In Derrida we have a time that is to be calculated, but also flows confusedly (backwards as well, which, I maintain, is an unthinkable thought). This makes history seem very different.
"Derrida, Heidegger, Nietzsche, Sex," which looks at Heidegger and Derrida and their very different Nietzsches.
"Derrida on Heidegger and technics:" I read a little piece Derrida wrote on Heidegger, outlining one of his reservations in terms of Heidegger's conception of technics: Derrida thinks there need to be some changes in order for the technical and for the machine to be thought--despite the power and innovation behind one of Heidegger's most unique analyses.

Last, Derrida:
"'By specifying 'If there is one,' recurrently:'" where I relate what Derrida is saying to Heidegger's economy of the same and Ereignis (enowning)--I recommend to anyone wanting to connect the two this way, by the way, that they read the little essay "Identity and Difference," in the small volume of the same name. Much will become clear. (One word of warning, though: this is not the only way to read Derrida.)
"Reading like Derrida, continued:" useful for the list at the bottom on what the text "is." I was trying to resist the notion that Derrida just close reads texts of philosophy.
"A few thoughts on 'Circumfession:'" I outline pretty clearly the problem of testimony in Derrida, illuminating perhaps how he conceives topics we would subsume under the name "ethical."
"Hesitancies:" My criticisms of Spivak's Derrida. I'd let up now a bit on the use of phase "desire for presence:" I do think Spivak misunderstands this phase, but I now see more of the necessity behind Derrida's use of it.
"Derridian dialectic:" I attempt to show that Derrida doesn't strictly oppose the dialectic. I would say now that he precisely tries to make it possible (which means making it impossible as such).

(I might also note that in "Criticizing (unlike) Derrida," I have what I think is a helpful formulation regarding Derrida and Foucault: it might be possible to see Derrida, not Foucault, as a thinker of institutions, and Foucault as a thinker of writing and texts. I don't really believe that wholly, but I think it's a neat way to begin to articulate reservations about Derrida, as well as begin to appreciate the strategic quality of his work: most notably the immense privileges that he bestows upon certain institutions and the immense criticisms that he levies upon others--though they are often also the same institution. Examples: psychoanalysis on the one hand, Marxism on the other. Derrida truly believes that psychoanalysis as an institution has a huge potential. Why? Because it is, as an institution, one of those that most tries to account for the violence involved in institution in the first place. This is why he will be fed up with those who take the institution of psychoanalysis--the notion that it exists or everybody knows what they mean by it and, most significantly, by its concepts--for granted: these people are erasing the instability, the ambiguity of its work of institution--what makes it, as an institution, radically resist being done with the problems of instituting or establishing itself. Marxism: here is an institution that also has a similar potential for radical resistance. However, it is also, more than psychoanalysis, taken for granted. The difference between how Derrida treats psychoanalysis--which, make no mistake, is very congenial--and Marxism--which is more reserved, more critical--indicates what are strategic decisions on his part and constitute his effort to be a thinker of institutions.)

Writing together

A central topic of my dissertation:

I've wondered whether one general reason for some of the hostility toward the book is simply the fact that there are two writers, because people want you to disagree about things, and take different positions. So they try to disentangle inseparable elements and identify who did what. But since each of us, like anyone else, is already various people, it gets rather crowded.
-Gilles Deleuze, "Letter to a Harsh Critic," in Negotiations

Together, Felix and I would have made a good Sumo wrestler.
-Deleuze again, "Letter to Uno: How Félix and I Worked Together," in Two Regimes of Madness

What is a text that has been written together? In other words, neither a text that has been joint-authored, nor a text that has is a communal text, authored by the community? The status of this object seems elusive, at least from the way that we normally go about citing things. Witness even Derrida, in the video of his course that I posted a while ago, who is always as scrupulous as possible about names when there are any out there (a fact that, by the way, contradicts much that is stupidly said about him being the author of the death of the author--he in fact questions this complacent notion very thoroughly throughout his career, in particular in Dissemination). Here cites Deleuze within the joint texts (and I know of perhaps no better examples) of Anti-Oedipus and Thousand Plateaus. That is, he cites Deleuze alone within a work that is written together with Félix Guattari. Obviously, this makes sense: he wants to link what is said in those texts with what Deleuze alone writes in Difference and Repetition. He wants to look at Deleuze's share in this text. But of course the question remains (and I think the comment on the sumo wrestler above also shows it remains for Deleuze as well, though differently) whether these texts are shared out in this particular manner, taking place as they do more than one author (or rather, writer-function, emission), and whether in fact they can ever be linked with the texts of a single or singular name. (Derrida risks saying yes, and for good reasons, I think [but what were they exactly?]. But these reasons are specific and inadequate in the area that they perhaps make possible: the area we are interrogating here.)
The task then is to account for a text that is more than one, that is joint-authored and yet, also, at the same time, disjoins any act of joining (any togetherness) that is related to authorship, to the emitting source.

Friday, February 13, 2009

"A co-operative technique of enquiry:" I.A. Richards

I.A. Richards, in Coleridge on Imagination, on taking some of Coleridge's ideas about critical method (as applied to literature) and furthering their development "into a cooperative technique of enquiry that may become entitled to be named a science" (all emphases are mine unless noted):

A large part of the subject matter of these enquiries is the behavior of words in poetry, and many people, by training, must resent any suggestion that this should be treated by a science. I may anticipate here to point out that one of Coleridge's clearest and most certain principles preserves the autonomy both of the poetry and the critic. "Could a rule be given from without [Coleridge's emphasis], poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art." None the less, a further development of Coleridge's method would fundamentally change current conceptions of the relation of Poetry to Life, and with this the contemporary tone of criticism. I do not mean that it would become more solemn or more acrimonious. Instead it would be more experimental and less self-assertive.
Most evaluative criticism is not statement or even attempted statement. It is either suasion, which is politics, or it is social communication. As social communion (in a lecture, for example) it is a method of preparing the scene and conducting the occasion, of maintaining the civilizing convention that things are well, of inducing a a reassured, easy and decorously receptive mood. It is a stream of gestures or ceremonies, a spirit calming and mildly stimulating ritual. If nothing happens, if nothing is said or nothing done, it is not the ritual that we should blame.
Experienced critics know this, more or less; though they do not often proclaim it so frankly as Professor Garrod at p. 158 of his Poetry and Life: "More than any other of the literary kinds, criticism approximates to a social [Garrod's emphasis] art--and this may be why the poets are unsuccessful in it. It is one of the most natural things in the world to discuss a book or a poem--far more natural than to write one. It is one of the most obvious of social acts or behaviors, but, like any other social act it perishes in the defect of those qualities which make a man interesting."
It perishes as one kind of social act, certainly; but has criticism no purposes beyond these? Are poetry and life only related so? Are there not other kinds of social acts, the invention of the radio valve [the vaccum tube] for example?

-Coleridge on Imagination, xxiii-iv.

It is a bit tough to reconstruct what Richards means here, because he moves quickly is pretty oblique--as usual. But it shows some interesting assumptions that he has. While Richards is usually the whipping boy for a sort of criticism that is disconnected from social activity, what we see here is that Richards was actually trying to expand and refine the social tendencies of criticism that were in place already.
In characterizing this criticism, and particularly its work of evaluation, he is thinking primarily of his old colleagues at Cambridge (England), now that he is safely ensconced at Harvard. These were professors who pontificated about the pure aesthetic pleasure of works, asking students how much more one certainly liked Shakespeare more than stodgy Pope (one can find a good--if polemical,--summary in the collected edition of the Leavises' Scrutiny). In other words, the evaluative aspect of criticism was the product of criticism being a little boys club, where people got together and liked books in conversation. One could talk about the worth of poetry or prose only in the most abstract and least specific way: with reference to personal experience and with a view to showing that one, like the rest of the group that is discussing the piece, is refined or cultivated.
So this is why he goes on to say that most criticism is not a statement about what is criticized. It is usually a way of maintaining decorum, like what one does at a party: you say that you liked that author but found him a bit tedious in some parts, and that is the end of your critical activity. What Richards wants to do is introduce this social tendency, this drive to talk about a work in this gossipy way, precisely into something that requires thinking and specificity about the work. This will actually produce a statement about the work.
But what is interesting then is that this statement is precisely not something performed by the isolated academic: it comes right out of a sort of social situation already there, as a new cooperative technique of inquiry. In fact, it is the disruption of the social situation that exists through the refinement of this social situation into a technique. This is so to the extent that, modified thus, the new social activity allows one to see that polite discourse in a classroom isn't the only kind of social activity--thus the reference to invention at the end of this excerpt. The lecture hall is brought back out to the world--not directly as a form of activism (as Leavis would have it), but as a recognition of the specificity of the particular communal act going on in the class (and not the perpetuation of it being taken for granted).

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

What to say about a poem: Wimsatt and explication

Below is a little paper I wrote for a class where we were discussing W.K. Wimsatt's "What to Say About a Poem," in his excellent collection Hateful Contraries. What I say about Wimsatt's notion of legitimacy should fit somewhat with what I have recently be saying about the function of close reading in the last few posts:

“What to Say About a Poem” begins by repeating its title, with a period (“What to say about a poem.” In Hateful Contraries, 215), as if to emphasize the particular oddness of the phrase: the way that it hovers between being a question, uttered perhaps almost in desperation (“What to say?!”), and a being a directive or prescriptive statement (“This is what to say…”). As if, in other words, saying something about a poem were a problem and at the same time an activity to which Wimsatt can confidently give some direction, can lend some advice as to the manner in which it should proceed. It is no mistake that these two tones, these two ways of articulating “What to say about a poem” coexist here, because I think it is clear that for Wimsatt it can only be understood when problem and prescription are in it together, when one is heard through the other, as implying the other. For Wimsatt, that is, one can only know what to say about a poem and the manner in which one should say it precisely by understanding how saying anything specific about a poem is essentially problematic, is what introduces the need of clarification or explication of the unclear or difficult into the experience of the poem as art. In other words, one can only know the way a remark on a poem or text should be directed—one can only know that this is what to say—insofar as this remark comes out of an experience that is never assured that it isn’t perhaps inferior to the uncomplicated enjoyment of art on the one hand, or a confident, scientific approach (proceeding in a technical, methodologically pure way) which could in fact say just about anything scientific it wanted to about the art since it merely translates whatever it wants to claim into technical terms. It is not that these other experiences are bad: they just don’t create a problem about what to say about a poem. What to say about a poem, in other words, will always be—like the structure of the phrase itself—a problem requiring clarification.
Thus Wimsatt, in the first paragraph of the essay, will show that interpreters must question whether they should have a solely scientific or “shop interest” in the text, as well as question why there is something to be said about it as an object and not as a mere thing to be consumed. He does this obliquely, of course, as if he were just introducing the topic of the essay by noting that “our professional preoccupation as teachers, scholars, critics, sometimes conceals from us the fact that our kind of interest in poems is after all a very special thing—a vocational or shop interest,” or that “poems, a cultivated person might suppose, are made to be read and enjoyed” (215). But remarks like these also situate the place of the true interpreter already as well as their activity or “what they do with [the poem]”—which, as he goes on to say “is the problem of the essay,” (215) the problem that is what to say about a poem. In other words, Wimsatt is already outlining the place of true interpretation as situation between two temptations, temptations of interpretation that the notion of true interpretation that he eventually develops—interpretation as explication or explicitation—will directly try and resist: the temptation to fall back into a sort of interpretation that just takes the text as something to be enjoyed for what it is, and therefore as something totally self-evident in its meaning, already explicit, and the temptation to criticize while having no relation to the text as something one also experiences, to reduce it to an object that has no other purpose in its world than to be interpreted by an unproblematic technical procedure—which again takes the text as self-evident in its meaning, as already explicit (it just means what the technical language of poetics says it means). Both of these temptations are ones of thinking of interpretation as something which can assuredly address the text, and not something that introduces a problem or difficulty into saying anything about the text.
This is why his Wimsatt’s question is so basic to begin with: why do anything more with the text than just experience it? “If I read a poem and enjoy it, why should I then proceed to dwell on it as an object about which something deliberate and elaborate has to be said…?” The answer is not just that the immediate experience of a poem or text is wrong and needs some critical or interpretive activity to unlock it (this would be merely substituting one unproblematic notion for another). The answer is that to just read and enjoy the poem presupposes an assured notion of what one can say about it: nothing much more than “oohs” and “aahs,” in this case. This assurance may be fine in this case if all one is out to do is enjoy the poem. But if one does want to say anything about it at all, one has to see that saying something about it will not be an assured effort: one will be confronted with the possibility that one will not know what one can legitimately claim regarding the text.
And this is a significant step in problematizing the experience of the text, because then it means that one is not just confronting some self-evident text (whether it is self-evident in being something to be enjoyed, or self-evident in only being the object of a technical critical vocabulary that will be able to completely decipher it). One is rather confronting a text that is not at all self-evident, that is not really meaningful if one just takes it explicitly. In other words, one is confronting a text that is implicitly meaningful, as Wimsatt will say. And this means it is meaningful in such a way that the process of interpretation will have to demonstrate the legitimacy of its claims without entirely knowing what constitutes this legitimacy beforehand. If what is said about a poem is said about something that is not presumed to be explicit, to be clearly visible, but which needs to be made visible precisely through this process of saying something, then one will not know whether what it ends up saying will be legitimized by what is made explicit. In other words, because one has to go beyond what is already explicit to what is not self-evident—because one has to give up what the experience of the text can see or feel about it, and on the other hand, what a specialized critical methodology can say about a text (which still takes the text as self-evident for criticism, even if what it says surpasses the self-evidence of experience)—because one has to get beyond all explicitness, one must actually create the legitimacy of what one then says (the terms by which it is to be considered correct or incorrect and the reasons and assumptions that made one go to the implicit in the first place). Only then can one conceivably have an something to say that is genuinely not legitimate or incorrect, because what will be made explicit about the implicit will not match up with the terms by which one went beyond the self-evident in the first place. In other words, only then will what one says also have to be articulated alongside the reasons why one says it; or only then will the reasons why one says something, the terms in which it thinks it is legitimate, not remain something that the critic takes as given—given either by the experience of the text or by alleged purity of one’s method.
Wimsatt calls this process explicitation or explication, and contrasts it with description, which remains at the level of what is already explicit about the text. It is the former (explicitation) that is not assured, and that constitutes the real beginning of genuine interpretive activity for him, while the latter (description) remains either with the pure enjoyment or consumption of the text or with the mere technical method that, in truth, can be applied to any text and does not say anything that one does not already know about it. To use a different formulation which Wimsatt develops in an earlier essay (“Explication as Criticism,” in The Verbal Icon, 235-253; 237), the task of interpretation is to move beyond explicating the explicit—which would still be description—and into explicating the implicit—which would be genuine explication or explicitation. If one reads Wimsatt quickly, explicitation really can be seen quite unproblematically as just the process of taking what is not self-evident about the poem as what one points out about it, as what one says about it. But a closer look shows that what is involved with this is also the adoption of a particular critical posture which sees its task as a problem and therefore as an ethical demand to make concrete the assumptions one is making about the legitimacy of anything that one will have to say. This is why description can remain useful and interesting, but ultimately does nothing more than outlines the possibilities for real interpretation: it helpfully directs attention to the surface of the text (“we hereby succeed in turning the attention of the class to the poem, to the surface,” 222), showing its parts and relations (224), but this only is useful in order to go beyond the surface (“they may begin to suspect the whole of this surface,” Wimsatt continues), to not take the text itself or one’s approach to it as self-evident. This is what explicitation or explication, the explication of the implicit, really entails for him.

Monday, February 9, 2009

The cultivation of irony

In my last post I was basically saying, underneath it all, that one of the most important things literary criticism can do is serve as the chief locus for the cultivation of irony (by which I mean, very broadly speaking, the general experience of things as having more than one meaning, or saying something different than what they say--which can mean, even more generally, possessing a little distance from the sincerity and literalness of what one says when one says it). But this presupposes something else: that the cultivation of irony itself is one of the foremost ethical demands in our society. And I pretty much firmly believe this: one of the big things we have seen in the last thirty or so years, after the rise of a certain theoretical criticism that privileged irony (and was the expression of a more ironic attitude in America as a whole, after the 60's), is that irony is actually something that is very hard to sustain.
Year after year, we keep hearing that the end of irony has come, and this announces not so much that irony is dead, but that our ability to sustain it and its constant demand to achieve a little healthy distance from a situation is something we've grown very tired of and would rather just put away. The last few years indeed have seen a huge preference for wholesome, dangerously serious discourses that people can just consume and be done with: Republican patriot rhetoric of the Bush years and (to a lesser extent, especially when it is seen as the rising up of a minority which brings irony back into it) the Obama rhetoric. What happens then is not so much that we get a set of people with staunch beliefs that won't talk to each other (fundamentalism) but that when these people do indeed talk to each other they lose the ability to also actually express what these beliefs entail: in short, they paradoxically lose their ability to demand something of the other person--especially without being backhanded or resentful (slavish, in Nietzsche's sense) in doing so. (This talking together, I should note, also happens much more often than those who too quickly make belief into fundamentalism would like to think--Stanley Fish being one of them, however much he seems to champion "belief").
So sustaining irony, keeping one's commitment to it, making it something that is cultivated (and indeed this is a most Nietzschian task--cultivating that which precisely and as such resists cultivation) and able to reassert itself steadily--this is what we in reality need more of, precisely after the 80's and such (also because it is so present not just in elite circles, but, more generally wherever there is this belief that I'm talking about). For what I'm saying is that what we see in our being tired of irony is really a growing ability to take irony as serious--which is counterproductive and in fact dangerous because it exploits irony while attacking it (Republicans have increasingly become masters of this--but also theorists, as we'll see). In other words, this doesn't take irony seriously as irony, but transforms irony into seriousness. It folds back what was a difference into precisely the discourse that it has achieved its distance from (unlike the folding back of close reading that I talked about).
In criticism, this manifests itself in the horrible move that is precisely that folding back of the speaker into the position from which he speaks, so as to show how he is complicit in what he speaks about (its a trademark of serious discourse that it takes things--here, even the mechanism of turning irony into seriousness--too literally). This is generally a very de Manian and deconstructionist-Marxist move, but it can happen everywhere (so Fish will fold back a speaker into his disciplinary position, which will always contradict whatever the speaker says). You know what I'm talking about. So in a class the other day we were discussing Derrida and political activism, and someone said that Derrida's discourse, which questions the possibility of activism rather than engages in it pure and simple was a nice thing, but could only happen because Derrida himself was a comfy professor, without any need to get in the streets and fight. What makes Derrida radical as concerns activism can therefore only be accomplished by being someone who doesn't need to know a thing about activism. You see what's going on--besides the remark being false (as the professor pointed out). The sort of ironic position of Derrida (who I'm just using as an example), which is to take up activism by questioning its possibility in the first place, is folded precisely back into a secure and stable notion of what activism is, and, as a result, what happens is that one takes Derrida's ironic position as a serious position. What is the result of this move? You expose the person as a hypocrite! Ooh, interesting--but pointless, because what you see is that they are still hypocrites only on your terms, which are precisely terms that have no sense of irony.
I hope it's clear that I'm not talking so much about Derrida here, but that something that needs to be understood in terms of irony is understood in terms of seriousness--which of course will expose the irony as contradictory, complicit, and hypocritical, because it precisely resists the notion (and practices) of serious discourse. Frankly, a better example is Frederic Jameson, who always, always takes an ironic discourse in terms of how serious it is. The noble thing about Jameson--and the thing that really makes his mode of meta-critique something to keep, rather than, like so many other instances of this same move, something that should be totally, remorselessly, given up--is that he does not do this in order to expose or show anyone to be a hypocrite. That has to be kept in mind--one really can't understand Jameson without knowing this (and I think many of these serious people--Spivak is one of them, cf. her remarks on Jameson on her Critique of Postcolonial Reason--read him this way and find in him confirmation of what they do). It is indeed what makes his discourse deserve the name of a dialectic. But the thing is that the move he makes to bring this about is something that essentially, as it is constituted, does not need to be deployed with these aims: this is evident in precisely the sorts of misreadings it often produces--which work in the context of the books he is writing, but which as readings totally misrepresent whoever they are talking about. So he reads what Deleuze and Guattari say about anti-hermeneutics as precisely something hermeneutical. This would be fine perhaps if it acknowledged the irony of what D&G say, but the mode of the folding back, of the establishment of complicity, does not allow Jameson to do this. So we get what D&G say as something without the possibility of irony, as something that is totally serious, which will in fact ensure the success of the move of folding back that Jameson effectuates:

From the present perspective... Deleuze and Guattari's proposal for an antiinterpretive method (which they call schizo-analysis) can equally well be grasped as a new hermeneutic in its own right. It is striking and noteworthy that most of the antiinterpretive positions enumerated... have felt the need to project new "methods" of this kind.
-The Political Unconscious, 23, note 7

This may be right, but you see that what is lost is any force that the quotes around "method" can have: the putting in abeyance of this term, which precisely seeks to account for the ironic status that any hermeneutic would indeed have in D&G, is a totally empty gesture. This is because it already takes their standpoint as complicit in an interpretive enterprise--in short, as serious. It's done simply to be accurate (consistent to a model that is already interpreted as a serious model, as something that needs consistency). The gesture that irony uses perhaps most--the putting in quotes--is turned itself into something serious. This you will find all throughout recent theoretical discourse, and it contributes, I think, to the real shabbiness and real nonpertinence that theory in particular is suffering from. (A look at this in particular would have really proved my point, since it is this sort of gesture of folding back and complicity condensed: its like seriousness-from-concentrate.) A whole generation of theorists puts things in quotes seriously--and that this is so announces such a gigantic failure of theory in particular to live up to what its possibilities were that it should concern itself henceforth with the sole task of annihilating (by the invention of new pedagogical tools) this little move that establishes complicity everywhere it appears and reestablishing the force behind the quotation marks. But this entails our discipline generally recognizing that these possibilities, however, were not the sole province of theory, but are ones that reach across the whole of literary criticism, and have their foundation in the possibility of cultivating irony.
(I should mention a merit of irony: that it isn't self-consciousness. This is what makes it, actually, very compatible with belief. But at the same time it opens up belief to self-consciousness. It is as if irony is a sort of middle-ground between the reflexiveness of self-consciousness on the one hand and shame on the other. But it's significant that current theorists of trauma and shame--Sedgwick, Leys, others--don't move towards irony: it seems that they want to in fact kill off irony and self-consciousness in the same gesture, which is establishing a very serious discourse which can account for ironic self-distance in terms of unreasoned violence and affect. This might be interesting, but it conveniently forgets that irony also implies an affective state of perplexity, frustration, and embarrassment that is not unlike shame. It might be more important for them--for both genuinely ethical and facetiously moralistic reasons--to keep the focus on serious violence.)
(I should also note that my mention of Marxism specifically above is a bit bitter, no doubt. But this is because Marxism is perhaps the most gravely serious and moralistic of discourses in the academy. Nevertheless, what is interesting is that it also contains the most condensed form of the move of folding-back a speaker into the position he speaks from. This is precisely why Jameson does it: he is a Marxist. And what this means then is that Marxism has the most to gain from cultivating its irony. Please don't take my remarks above as a blatant call to throw away Marxism, then: in fact, this is what many in the academy are doing. Rather, we need to cultivate a distance to Marxism as Marxists: what I would call for here then is a resurgence of the role of Marxism in the academy, but precisely one that learns how to make this move that it makes into the ironic principle of its operation and not its mere tool for resentment. An ironic Marxism: that would be the most profitable element in the work to cultivate irony, and it should be a part of our future.)

Sunday, February 8, 2009

"L'accent compte:" Displacing the text, continued

I forgot to mention the crucial experience that really, for me, forms the essence of close reading and underlies my willingness to characterize it as a displacement of the text, as I remarked a few days ago. Or, perhaps to put it in a better way, there is a singular function that close reading can set to work which is of the utmost value and brings about what I call the displacement or the delay in communication that actually constitutes the text.
This function is one of allowing an ever so slight, but extremely crucial shift in the tone of a sentence (say), such that this sentence can be read in more than one way. The easiest and most simple example I can give is sarcasm:

That's a really nice job you did there.

There are basically two widely different meanings here depending on whether I read the sentence as sarcastic or not. And it isn't so much that these meanings inhere in the sentence itself (in the language and in linguistic convention), although its phrasing contains their possibilities. It is really that reading actuates these possibilities and actually constitutes the sentence depending on how it proceeds: if I read it as sarcastic, the word "job" loses some of its ability to signify an actual job, and becomes more idiomatic, less referential, and (appropriately) wider in scope (it can weirdly refer to more things, in losing its referentiality). The word "there" changes in a similar way. You can see then--despite this being a poor example--the work of tone. I.A. Richards defines tone usefully as the way that one communicates a sentence to another: it is for him "the speaker's [or writer's] attitude towards his audience," as he says in Practical Criticism. Notice that this is very far from something line intention: it is closer to the sort of general directedness of the sentence itself, such that one would rather speak of the intention of the sentence.
The point though, is that the function of close reading is to show that there is never merely one intention to our sentence. Or, since the work of reading actually brings out more of these intentions as it proceeds to consider or discuss the sentence, we can say that the function of close reading is actually to make possible the multiple tones with which something might be understood. It both shows that there are multiple intentions, multiple ways something can be said, but it also makes possible, by accessing tone or the possibilities of tone (which perhaps would not then be reducible to the tonal possibilities inherent in the language itself) the existence of these different ways beside each other, ranged out as it were before us. The work of close reading would then be to fold them back into the sentence as more and more of these ways are proffered in discussion. This would be the work of delay and displacement which actually--in resisting totalizing the text--actually constitutes it, which I talked about before.
This all sounds complex, but it's actually what is going on in any good close reading of a text--or at least this is my claim. It is a function that has produced many great readings over the years.
De Man in particular saw this, I think, but he made a very big mistake in his formulation of it. For indeed, one could describe more rigorously and more broadly this tonal function that I am describing in de Man's incisive terms as language's capability for irony (it's no mistake we started with sarcasm): it is basically the introduction of a sentence's difference from itself in terms of meaning (it would be a difference, then, that itself is irreducible to meaning). But de Man thought that there could be an assured process by which the proliferation of irony could be directed or somewhat contained: he therefore made this irony, this tonal function, also coextensive with the role of figurative language (which operated allegorically), such that the shifts in tone that we are talking about here would be seen as the work of the specifically figurative work of language itself. While this isn't inaccurate, characterizing it as figurative restores the intentions here that reading brings out back into language itself--or at least I think it had this effect for those who approached literature in a de Manian way: they would not see what they were doing as the work of reading but rather as a work of language. And this makes a big difference, because it really does presuppose an assured amount of this proliferation. You start talking about (or citing theories of) figuration, and are concerned less with opening up more irony or more intentions of the sentence and negotiating the process of folding them back into where they came--i.e. delaying the formation of a totalizing meaning or anything like the same meaning that would thereby (just by virtue of being the same) account for all these differences. (It should be obvious that implied in all this is a critique of de Man's conception of allegory.)
Someone who knew this even better was Derrida: this is why he will call his reading, occasionally, a double reading (or writing), a reading with redoubled effort. Reading a sentence of Derrida, which can usually be read at least in two ways--not just with the puns (this is precisely a totalizing reading, which sees theses in what he says) but more significantly with two hugely different tones--will bring out more the experience that I hint at above with my example. Regardless, the point is that the real function of close reading is a work that proceeds when you read something more than one way--and try to account for this in reading it further (in, that is, another way, never totally the same). In other words, it is trying to account for what Derrida himself notes in a very revealing sentence from Of Grammatology (52; 34 in English): "L'accent compte," the tone counts.
I should note, as a footnote--but an important one--that it is significant that, though we employed it in our example, we don't have to use the sentence in saying that this is the function of reading. In short, it doesn't matter whether it is on the level of the sentence, the paragraph, or the chapter, even of the work or set of works that this operation can proceed: close reading, then, because it would find its essence in this experience which I describe here and not in any notion of establishing a total textual object, would not necessarily be "close" in the way that we think of it. It would rather be an effect of a type of communication which is reading, and could have this effect on multiple levels, so long as experienced this odd tonal shift, or multiple intention, that we are talking about here. This would need elaboration, but I'm actually pretty confident that this is the case if we based close reading rigorously on this function here.
Also, I should note that if this ironic or tonal function is the center of closer reading, then something like S/Z would not be a close reading. That work proceeds by multiplying connotations. Occasionally they produce this function. But most of the time they range themselves alongside the work and do not allow you to hear the sentence differently. So while it pays very very intense attention to the text, this would preclude it from being a close reading.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Writerly texts and the poet-critic

The genius of that famous distinction Barthes makes in S/Z (which I am now finally getting around to), between the readerly and writerly text is that it challenges the old transit that existed and still (*shudder*) exists between the writer and the critic, famously typified in the poet-critics of Modernism.
Obviously this type or figure is too often assumed to be stable (and also to only belong to Modernism) and indeed thoroughly reflect the practices of Eliot and Pound, for example, when there are many differences between what we mean by the poet-critic and the activity of these poet-critics (and my colleague Evan is doing a lot to investigate this whole area--I should mention the mere fact that I.A. Richards went to Eliot for advice on whether he should continue teaching at Cambridge as a critic or go abroad, teaching high-school students and embarking upon the project of promulgating Basic English, and the fact that Eliot said Richards should go for the latter, is enough to demolish a lot of what we assume about Eliot as poet-critic). I refer to this figure however because (whether he exists or not) he still serves as a sort of weird model for a lot of critical activity going on even today. In short, the role of a lot of criticism is to try and hide--and yet preserve (that is, displace in the Freudian sense)--the desire to write in the manner of the authors we read. It isn't so much a primary-secondary text problem (critics don't want to be secondary) as what Barthes says it really is: a problem of production (the powerful force of a writer, the force behind writing) being mistaken for consumption.
The writerly text is a text that, when read, makes the reading act productive: it actually writes the text that it is reading--that is, loosely speaking, constitutes it. It is a lot similar to what I was calling the work of constitution and displacement that close reading should be doing--and I will write more about this soon, to elucidate more what I was talking about (and also the ways that my conception of this rewriting and constituting is, ultimately, very different than Barthes', though it shares a lot of his emphasis: I'd risk saying that, in the end, you can't call S/Z a close reading, if we interpret this in my privileged sense of the term). Reading produces the text, then. It is not responding to something that is already there: reading is creating precisely that which one reads.
Now, as it stands, this is precisely the illusion that the critic, desiring to be a poet-critic, worships. He thinks that the act of interpretation is one of production tout court, and therefore can flout philological rigor, disciplinary rules, etc., because it is shares in a certain power that those who can discern it in authors' texts can also wield. One sees that this is really a reactive stance, in the Nietzschian sense (and Nietzsche is all over S/Z): it is really a freedom that works out of frustration, carving a little imaginary nook for itself out of the prison that is the world. But what Barthes recognizes is that this desire to produce, to write, means nothing unless it is contrasted with consumption of texts, with the consumption-text, which is what he calls the readerly text. The readerly text is one that is already constituted before the act of reading: it is a totality which one can approach and then throw away when one is done with it.
The point is that the introduction of consumption makes one rethink what one means by production--and in a way that shows that the desire to be a poet-critic (now, that is--I'm not talking about Eliot et. al.) is not a desire to produce but to consume. In fact, it is the desire to consume in such a way that it passes itself off as production: one could rightly say that the only thing it produces is the notion that it, as an act of consumption, is production (this is obviously a Nietzschian logic which Barthes is following whereby something's lie is always more creative, and more "true," than its truth-claim: this is how Nietzsche can--and to recognize this is of the utmost importance for anyone studying Nietzsche--actually like Kant and Christianity at times, as odd as that sounds). The point though is that the poet-critic-desire desires not really to write in the manner of the poet or author, but actually wants to be consumed like they are: he interprets the power of their writing to be precisely a power over consumption, over creating a totality (that people can enjoy and then throw away). One sees that this is a capitalist configuration through and through: not only in the large sense, but down in the nitty gritty aspects of what labor is conceived as (and this would be the sort of French Nietzsche-Marx Marxism of Barthes, a particularly interesting strand that runs from Bataille and Klossowski through Blanchot to Deleuze).
What then gets revealed is that the writerly text is not just a text that makes the reading act productive in any old sense of this word: it is an act that makes the productive act escape all reappropriation into consumption. "Creation" in the sentence above ("it is creating precisely that which one reads") becomes construing, dispersing, relaying, since this is creation in a Nietzschian sense: it does not at all become a matter of creation in an aesthetic sort of manner (copying the author's ability to produce a vague type of pleasure and beauty which never needs to be specified or determined, it is so "pure"). So if the reading of the writerly text (or the writing of the writerly text, for they are the same thing) is faithful to itself, it will in this way--and only in this way--write in the manner of the poet or author himself.
Here, finally, is Barthes explaining this distinction, on the second page of the amazing book:

What evaluation finds is precisely this value: what can be written (rewritten) today: the writerly. Why is the writerly our value? Because the goal of literary work (of literature as work) is to make the reader no longer a consumer, but a producer of a text. Our literature is characterized by the pitiless divorce which the literary institution maintains between the producer of the text and its user, between its owner and its customer, between its author and its reader. This reader is thereby plunged into a kind of idleness--he is intransitive; he is, in short, serious: instead of functioning himself, instead of gaining access to the magic of the signifier, to the pleasure of writing, he is left with no more than the poor freedom either to accept or reject the text: reading is nothing more than a referendum. Opposite the writerly text, then, is its countervalue, its negative, reactive value: what can be read, but not written: the readerly. We call any readerly text a classic text.
-S/Z, 4.

So in the end what Barthes accomplishes is not the dissolution of the desire of the critic to be a poet-critic, but a refinement of what being a poet-critic, a writerly reader, means. In short, he formalizes it, and shows that it cannot remain just a vague desire motivating one's critical work: if one is serious about this desire, one has to be willing to leap into it such that its productive act cannot be reappropriated by its sort of reactive, frustrated side (and this means making it all the more rigorous--not reckless--in whatever institutional habits it has to go against, so that in the end it should also refine and transform the institution, rather than engage in anti-institutional nihilism). So if literary criticism is hounded by the ugly desire to be like the authors it reads--this doesn't have to be as disgusting as it sounds, or as it (*shiver*) actually still is. One can refine this impulse, or rather force it to finally take itself seriously. Perhaps the Yale School knew this: I'm thinking of some remarks of Paul de Man and Geoffrey Hartman, as well as J. Hillis Miller. But overall the failures of theory are very obviously coextensive with letting this active desire become reactive (and, especially, nihilist as regards the institution)--as so many crappy theory articles can prove.
(A final note: though the bad transit between the critic and the author via the poet-critic is accomplished by this sense of production as consumption, this bad idea of production is also fostered by the idea of the author-in-isolation and reading-in-isolation. If one thinks of this situation of production differently, another attack against this bad transit is possible: this will be the matter of my dissertation, I think, so you can hear much more about this in posts to come!)

Monday, February 2, 2009

Close reading: displacing the text

There are two ways to conceive of close reading. First, you become a textualist. This involves presupposing that people have no proper understanding of what they are reading until they read it again, closely. The work of close reading is then one that confronts the ignorant with the text--the text itself. Deploying the text in this way, making the reader confront it, is then what allows them to properly read. This construes the text, then, as a constituted thing, as something gathered together, however much one would like to assert that it is composed of differences or differentials. And it advantageously makes this thing equivalent to a proper understanding: upon perceiving this thing, you will have understood. This is advantageous because then you can say (perhaps even verify) that a reader had not read the text. All you have to do is make her say to you what she has read: if it does not correspond to (or at least come close to) what is now called the text, you either know or do not know whether she understood it.
Many people take I.A. Richards to be referring to this mode when he talks about the goal of reading closely being communication: something is communicated when it is understood properly and ignorance is overcome. But then there is the second way, which seems often to be more like what he means. This way presupposes that people already have an understanding of the text. The work of close reading then is not to confront someone with the object that is the text, since they already have a conception of that text. The work of close reading is, rather, to bring out that conception and actually constitute a text together with another person (or a class). A reader will say what she reads, and then this will be something that will alter the text that the rest of the class has established. In other words, she will say that a word means something to her, and this specification of meaning will alter the way the word has already been read. The word will then be taken back into the working model of the text that the class is constituting, either confirming it or forcing it to change or be displaced. So the text is not a constituted thing, but is something that is the result or effect of this work of constitution. This text then can be open to more or less displacement, depending on how much the work of constitution goes on. In the end, though, you are left with a text, and it will be equivalent to the success of a communciation or the readers' understanding. This process is also open to the textualism of the first mode of close reading we outlined. But if anything it tries to take it into account: the work of close reading is actually the work of displacing any particular constituted text, never letting it wholly confront you as a thing. This also opens up the text to research, which can help with the work of constitution along the way: in short, the work of reading is more of a detour than a work of confrontation, perception, squinting closer and closer until the thing itself is seen. For Richards, it takes over the work of the old philology, which was to construe a text and establish an authoritative version: it does this work, but with the understanding rather than material books, which again tend to make this work fall into textualism. In this sense, it also should be mentioned that the model for text for Richards was advertisements and signs, not books. Seeing a massive consumer culture up ahead (and to an extent already thoroughly established for his generation), he divined that reading would be more and more of a part of how we get around in the world, of how we relate to others--and less a thing that proceeded alone and with an old book in one's hands. The capacity or ability to displace the text together in conversation, rather than silently intuit its proper version--almost to the extent that you and others would effectively be rewriting it together (Barthes in S/Z very much stresses writing as reading in this way)--this was what he often wanted to cultivate.