Tuesday, March 16, 2010


I've been thinking about a recent post on the different Heideggers out there, and wondering which one is my own. I think I first read him in my sophomore year of college--a few essays in Basic Writings (intro to Being and Time, "Origin of the Work of Art," and, strangely, I remember reading "The End of Philosophy"). Then I got into philosophy of mind, which is what really led me to phenomenology. I then took a great course with Arthur Melnick on Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, and I think really started getting interested in him there. Melnick writes a lot on Kant, but he's into phenomenology, so I had a very good introduction. But, of course, Heidegger the first time through is never enough to get him: right now I think there are many, many things I don't get, and I never quite understand people who dismiss him quickly. He's not one of those writers you can get by just understanding a few "moves:" even though he'll get repetitive sometimes, what's at stake in the best works is certainly deep, rich thinking about all sorts of things that need in turn to be thought through more as problems than as indifferent content. Regardless, the year after college (having graduated early to save money) I reread Being and Time and that was when I really got some sense of it and moreover got really into it. Melnick had focused a lot on the second part of the book, actually, so I was in a good position to grasp a lot of that stuff. But I think at that time I also read the Introduction to Metaphysics, and for some reason (I think I was also reading Aristotle more seriously than I did in school, maybe that was why) that really got me going. I think I then reread the first part once more. Then I did some later things:  the writings on technics, the lectures on identity and time and being, but also the great books on Nietzsche, What Is Called Thinking… After that, I was on my way, picking up some of the earlier seminars as I went.

Reflecting on it, I don't quite know how to categorize this Heidegger. It is certainly not a theory-Heidegger. Though I've always been interested in Derrida, I was always more interested in him through the phenomenological tradition, I think, and I am only now actually figuring out how that has even given me quite a different Derrida than is usually found near literature departments (with some important exceptions like Spivak and Butler, who understand him to be much more political, like I do)--let alone Heidegger. With the latter, I've never really been into either his language for its own sake or his writings on art (or language--I'm actually only getting around to the stuff on language now), though I do think Derrida's attention to the actual language is great and useful. That attention alone is probably not a good way into Heidegger (certainly Derrida didn't just use that, though some of his lit-dept. buddies conveniently forget this fact), or is probably only a good way into several general issues (death, everydayness, dwellings) that end in an overpoliticized dismissal that makes Zizek's consideration seem quite thorough (though it isn't so bad). Then again, there are good considerations out there in less de Manian literary theoretical work (it isn't good to speak as if the majority of people involved in literary or critical theory in the US were deconstructionist--or even that the majority of people in literature departments even had or have theoretical interests).

If anything, I might have a more "American" sort of Heidegger. Certainly it isn't quite as "practice"-oriented as Dreyfus, though I don't at all understand the sort of anathema Dreyfus provokes in some people: except for the fact that he produces followers with very narrow conceptions of what might be going on in the works, I don't find anything really too egregious in his interpretation itself.  I shouldn't downplay the effect of the interpretation though: it's a real problem (as is clear if you have ever talked to a real follower of Dreyfus, as I did in college) given that the state of Heidegger scholarship in America was so sketchy for so long, and he and a few others were so dominant in it. But overall I find Dreyfus helpful, if you take his work as an interpretation and really set it beside the rest of Heidegger's stuff (starting with Division II of Being and Time). Furthermore I find it really helpful in countering some of that overzealousness (or whatever you want to call it) we find amongst some Heideggerians, who overestimate works like the Contributions to Philosophy (I love that Graham Harman continually insists that it's really not that great of a work--because it isn't).

Back to the point though, which was that I never quite went as far as Dreyfus myself, even though my Heidegger was more "American," partly because Melnick in particular really did approach Being and Time with Kantian questions in mind about space and time, translated into Husserlian concerns. My first view on the thing ended up having a weird sort of Husserlian flavor to it, then (even though I had read only a little Husserl and would only really read him after college--and still, like many many people, haven't done enough, though I like him a lot), and I think that's stuck with me. That's not entirely enough to get me near the base-line Continental reading, even--and there's no way that puts me in any position to even try and figure out the fourfold. But it has kept my mind open and I think makes me see what Dreyfus does as a very good and very patient illustration of Heidegger--along with a series of knockdown considerations of AI and a great opening up of cognitive questions and questions about motility which are still dear to me.

I'm still trying to think of someone's work with a Heidegger that is much closer to mine. I was tempted to cite Jonathan Lear's book on Radical Hope, which I think is just one of the most interesting, well-written, and fascinating pieces of philosophy that has been produced in recent years (it's a breeze to read, you should check it out if you haven't). Though my main concerns were never ethical (indeed I always try to avoid ethics whenever I can--except Lear's work is always so fascinating I had to pick this up), this appropriation of Heidegger is still interested in worldhood in a serious way. And even though Lear is concerned mostly about what gives practices their coherence, the main question of the book--what happens in when a culture is facing destruction and is destroyed--places this on a background that is still a bit more global than Dreyfus.

That's still not right though: these Division II issues aren't quite at all like the late stuff--there's something qualitatively different about a focus that remains on the latter (or really grasps the latter) and the one that sticks with the former, even though they are of course all related (I'm don't mean to give any significance to any "turn"). I can't think of other figures though without going too far the other way. I guess I can just conclude that at bottom my Heidegger is quite American, though not irredeemably so (I actually enjoy the Heidegger of someone like Bernard Stiegler too--I think it's the history of being that is probably where my focus lies, with my eye on practices). But then again this isn't entirely a fault--though it should indeed be accounted for. Indeed, the whole reason I brought this up was because the underlying point (Paul's underlying point, in the post that got me thinking about this stuff) is actually the most important thing: you'll get a different Heidegger depending on who you learned it from and how you studied him. There are a few very distinct Heideggers out there, and it is actually quite hard to get around any one take on him that you have inherited. This is partly because, of course, the material is difficult, and partly because of fashion. But mostly it is because Heidegger isn't just messing around: he's got a lot of very deep issues he's bringing up and you have to return to him again and again to work them out. Once you do, it's easy to coast. But what's really interesting is precisely then coming back and trying to work through those issues differently, and if you're more cognizant of what Heidegger you have, this will be easier and probably much more surprising, fascinating, enlightening.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Close reading, in class

I might be willing to vigorously advocate a switch over to distant reading as the basic form of professional literary critical work (though even then I see distance and closeness on a spectrum, while many just want to trash close and, worse, symptomatic reading altogether for something wholly innocuous), but when it comes down to what to teach it has become clearer and clearer to me that close reading is the way to go. Retracing complicated character interactions in novels or dealing with their plots does indeed require something more distant (you just can't get at these things without paraphrase, and that's not a heresy at all), but there just isn't anything that brings you into the way language is working like close reading does. There are lots of ways to teach this though, and paper writing is a great time to deploy your full arsenal. I've been fiddling around with some sort of basic introduction to close reading in paper writing to hand out, alongside all sorts of other materials and explanations and presentations and examples. Here is what I came up with:

Composing a paper for a literature class is a strange thing: it often requires much more subtle argumentation than work for classes in other disciplines, even though its job is primarily to do the work that, in these disciplines, comes before any actual arguing—interpretation, or the amassing of various textual material and the extraction of meaning from that material. But this is easily explained. Because the points to be argued are ultimately about the text itself under consideration, however much they may also be points about other less textual issues (society, philosophical issues, etc.), you don’t argue anything by any other means than interpretation itself. So because the point is an interpretive one, not only do you have to argue a point, but you also have to do this by arguing only about the interpretation necessary to make that point.

The analytical tool you use in order to produce such an argument about interpretation or interpretive argument is what we call close reading. Close reading is a technique common to many types of interpretation (religious or philological, for example), but its modern form was perfected at Cambridge and various U.S. universities in the 1920s and 1930s as an alternative to the techniques of evaluative and historical criticism (subsequently historical criticism would also integrate close reading, and close reading would also integrate—to some degree—the demands of evaluation). It is based on certain theories of language, but its aims are primarily practical, and so it takes the form of a procedure: in your argument, isolate a passage from the text that concretizes or exemplifies your point, and then proceed to pull out of that passage specific words, phrases, or formal or rhetorical features (meter, rhyme, metaphor, metonymy, pun, parallelism, anaphora, etc.—which you don’t have to name, but should try to notice) and show how these make your point for you.

We still use this procedure today because it is flexible enough to accommodate a broad argument that might range over several texts or even authors (you don’t have to close read all the time, though you can continually use it to show your point is about texts rather than a broader phenomenon), but also objective enough to allow us to establish whether the argument is indeed about the text (or whether it is a misreading of the words and the way they are working). On the latter point, this is why we call such interpretive arguments, once they are established, readings: others can read what you read in the text, because in some sense close reading does not just provide evidence but also helps to reproduce the acts of attention necessary for your point to become visible as the evidence itself.

But calling the finished interpretive argument a reading also means that the argument is present in more than one passage, or has ramifications upon the text as a whole. Now, while several close readings strung together indeed are the ideal form of an interpretive argument, one or two good ones, together with acute acts of paraphrase, descriptions of character interactions or relationships, or indeed small quotations (all of which should be cited) will work as well. Close reading doesn’t have to involve a lot of pomp, where a big block of text is analyzed and pulled apart to no end, but can also just be the continual citation of small but important phrases that—again—make your point for you in linguistic work which you can describe.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

All good things...

I think I'm probably going to end this blog pretty soon. Not now, but soon.