Digressions

A copy of my manifesto for the humanities, which was supposed to be a provocative piece and contributed to Durham University’s conversation on the crisis in humanities, held within the Centre for Humanities Innovation, is here. (Inspired in part by Walter Benjamin’s and Gershom Scholem’s satirical conception of the University of Muri (Acta Muriensa) – near Bern, where Benjamin wrote his doctoral dissertation.)

 

“I have sometimes heard of an Iliad in a nutshell; but it hath been my fortune to have much oftener seen a nutshell in an Iliad”

(Jonathan Swift, ‘A Digression in Praise of Digressions’ in A Tale of a Tub, 1704)

“Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine;—they are the life, the soul of reading!”

“In a word, my work is digressive, and it is progressive too.”

(Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, 1759-67)

“Dissemination would propose a certain theory – to be followed, also, as a marching order quite ancient in its form – of digression

(Jacques Derrida, Dissemination, 1972)

“All reflection involves both Narcissus and Hermes”

(Ali Smith, Artful, 2012).

“One of my creative writing teachers once said to me that the digressions in a piece of writing are the most interesting parts. If you create an essay-in-fragments, you never really have time to digress.”

(Steve Fellner, On Fragmentation, 2013)

Literature vs. / and Theory

At the close of 2012, I came across an academic book that we can genuinely say was controversial on publication. It is of broad enough scope to still be of relevance today, well beyond a decade after it was printed. Of Mark Edmundson’s Literature against philosophy, Plato to Derrida (Cambridge: CUP, 1995), Paul M. Hedeen wrote in the journal Philosophy and Literature that ‘a voice as sweet and civil as [this] is enough to make the molars ache’ (1996, 20.2, p. 538). David Simpson, by contrast, declared in Modern Language Quarterly that ‘for all its apparent effort at respectful debate and its rhetoric of good faith, the book is both sketchy and tetchy’ (1998, 59.1, p. 135). According to Edmundson, to theorize literature is equal to ultimately demeaning it, subordinating literature to a higher form of philosophical thought. That is to say, applying an intellectual discipline (such as philosophy, psychology or cultural history) to the act of literary interpretation apparently imposes a conceptual rigidity on a resistant object of free creativity, thereby emasculating great authors – especially those of Romanticism – and, simultaneously, sterilizing the ideas of the critic. Towards the end of his monograph, Edmundson formulates his vision for literary study thus: ‘The literature department ought to be where the disciplines go to die. Or at least be made more flexible, modest and humane.’ (p. 229)

When people have told me, both inside and outside the academy, that they are against the application of analytical theory and instead favour appreciating literature, three thoughts have come to mind. I want to peg them onto the above quotation from Edmundson, because I find it so intriguing.

First, Edmundson’s book seems to assume that a discipline is worked out prior to being adopted for the specific task of reading literature. That’s not always true; but even if it holds in a particular instance, it does not mean that a discipline remains solid once it is applied to the protean domain of the literary. All disciplines are somehow emergent; they constantly undergo revision. Why not permit literature to be a part of that process? In my view, it’s only the unimaginative thinkers and readers who seek to impose a theory, unquestioningly and unrefined, on a literary work. In other words, when we use theory imaginatively for reading literature, we need not only read literature through a theoretical lens. We can read theory through literary glasses, too. If theory can tell us something about literature, literature can tell us something about theory. The two do not have to exist in a state of contest; there is the potential for complementarity.

Second, Edmundson appears to work from the premise that when we adopt a certain theoretical slant, we are consequential. If I am a Freudian, I’ll apply a Freudian reading to each text I read; if I deconstruct, I’ll become reductive in repeating this approach on every text I encounter. That is not necessarily the case. One stance on theory might be to say that literature, in its resistance to definition, allows us to be eclectic: some texts might suggest certain theoretical paradigms, while others demand alternative modes of reading. Meaningful and powerful results stem from such idiosyncratic syntheses. Edmundson’s above formulation, in fact, could be interpreted to open up this possibility: the sheer variety of literary forms demands a flexibility of theoretical knowledge. As a postgraduate literary critic, I consider myself a theorist, but not a systematic one. I am not aiming for a coherent description of Literature in general, but I try to elucidate particular literary phenomena and certain formal, historical, or cultural problems in doing so.

Third, of course it is right that an academic should read with integrity. To apply a theory simply because it is fashionable, or politically opportune, where it does not fit the evidence is disingenuous. But what does it mean to say that reading naïve of theory is to interpret literature in a more ‘humane’ way? Edmundson believes that we should attend more to how literature affects us as human beings, how it causes us to look at, and understand, ourselves. To suggest, however, that rational reflection cannot help us in this endeavour is as perverse as to claim that irrationality can be disposed of. I think we need both. When reading literature, we might be overcome with feeling, but we can also benefit from informed contemplation (besides, literature keys into rational faculties, too). This brings me back to my first point: that literature is in my view best appreciated and theorized.

The literature department, then, should not be where disciplines come to die. It’s where they go to find a vibrant partner – if not for life, then for the duration of a text.

Close or counter reading? 

It is a truism that literary historians, theorists and cultural critics all read texts. What, though, is close reading, and who lays
claim to it? Over the past few months, a graduate student, a postdoctoral researcher and a professor each separately summed up their professional activity to me as close reading. This was baffling, since there was otherwise little commonality between them. It seemed to me that close reading was somehow set up as a counter-concept. It can be a defensive gesture: we read ‘closely’ and therefore, so goes our implicit argument, more carefully than those who think and write differently about literature than us.

It would be spurious to say that close reading is employed as an opposing mode of interpretation to theory: close reading is defended – and attacked – within theory itself, without necessarily referring to an anti- or a-theoretical school. For example, Eve Sedgwick defends a critically informed kind of close reading as productive of ‘weak’ theory and formative of what she terms ‘nonce taxonomies’, an allegedly less authoritarian and more open-minded approach to interpretation than that represented by ‘strong’, ‘paranoid’ theory. Isobel Armstrong attacks Stanley Fish – by any account a theorist – for the ‘textual harassment’ of his close reading. And Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht understands the invention of close reading as central to the establishment of theoretical discourse on literature (the New Criticism was, in a broad sense, also theory); he seeks to rejuvenate this by returning, within theory, to an alternative way of reading: appreciation of the aesthetic, or ‘presence’.

Attacks on – or my brief interest here – defences of close reading as a practice are all too often tantamount to employing an empty concept in a rhetorical struggle about what it is we’re actually doing when we write about Author X. On the one hand, close reading seems to be defended as a practice that returns to the material under consideration. It apparently allows us to get away from theory that is reductive in its generalizations, which produce top-down analyses of literature. This defence itself depends on an approach that is, in a scientific sense, reductionist: phenomena can be reduced to the sum of their parts, each of which we can examine in detail. The resulting reading adds to our ‘stock of knowledge’, implying that we have noticed something, discussed it, and written an explanation that completes a small stage in an ongoing project that wants to understand our literary world. In this model, close reading is defended as a form of successful closure to a research question.

The opposing rhetorical gesture to closing down is opening up. Thus, close reading is also defended by some of those whom we might associate with the grand theorists. They counter the attack that ‘reading closely’ results in scholars describing what they purport to explain with the defence that they do not attempt to approximate the textual vision of some idealized naked eye. Close reading for certain theorists means that we read attentively at a local level, which opens up the possibility for broader theory in the first place. We always read through some kind of lens, and by changing the text and switching our glasses, we come to new perspectives which we can then extrapolate. This model defends close reading by presenting it as being about thinking big from the ground up.

To me, neither defence is especially useful if it is deployed in the abstract. As I’ve already said, we all read, so the ‘reading’ half of close reading tritely applies to all of our enterprises. To a greater or lesser extent, we are all close readers. Moreover, ‘close’ is in my view not a helpful term when used in isolation, for two reasons. First, whether or not we believe in ‘objective truth’, we all rely on at least some extent of academic consensus. I think we would all agree that sometimes we over-interpret texts; we occasionally read too much into them. In other words, there is broad agreement that, whatever our approach to reading our source material, at some point we have to stop. Close reading therefore necessarily implies some sort of boundary delimiting the claims that we can derive from words on a page, but rarely do defences explicitly define where a text ends (or begins) in a meaningful enough way that would enable us to gauge our proximity. Close reading is rarely presented as  indexical; it’s all too often aspatial. The second, related reason is that close reading as a concept becomes meaningful in the context of an actual argument: studies will often introduce a broad claim, or present a bird’s eye view of a field, and then zoom in with a close reading or two. Or they might construct their scholarly argument the other way around. But no matter: in both cases, close reading is merely understood as  the complement to wider generalization within the same academic work.

Of course, there’s an irony inherent in my whole objection. I’ve just created a simplistic division in order to criticize those who talk about their close reading practice oppositionally, as a shorthand defence, for what they do as literary scholars. Nevertheless, the question of what a close reader actually is confused and intrigued me this summer.

[A more academic discussion, by others, is here.]

Seattle, Syllabi, Schiller:

While in Seattle this January, I wandered over to the Central Library, designed by Rem Koolhaas. Architecturally it’s impressive, and sociologically it’s fun, too. As with many fine public libraries in the US, it’s a place where on weekdays the retired go to read, the homeless go to wash, and travellers go to check in for their flights online. In the Seattle room on the top floor, I came across the annual reports and catalogues of courses for the ‘University of Washington Territory’, from 1888 onwards. I got distracted reading them. Students who took the ‘scientific’ pathway at Washington at the turn of the nineteenth century underwent two semesters of German: three language units and one on the William Tell legend, culminating in study of Schiller. There are three points here that I find especially intriguing.

First, today there’s a fashion for a method of foreign language learning whereby the teacher speaks in the target language as much as possible. Those people who think, as I did, that this idea first emerged in the twentieth century are apparently not quite right: the early course descriptions talk of a ‘natural method’ in which use of English is banned from the classroom. Like today’s ‘communicative’ approaches, the ‘natural method’ is intended to be of practical use. But practical here means, as the descriptions from especially 1890 onwards make clear, the ability to think critically about literature. This is because it is assumed that German linguistic structures equal a German medium of thought, a way of thinking that is apparently different from our own (and I appreciate that such linguistic relativity is not unusual for the late nineteenth century).

Second, this ‘natural method’, which is said to be superior to traditional methods of learning, nevertheless entails 96 hours of explicit grammar teaching! Perhaps this didn’t seem so contradictory to contemporaries as it might do to us today, since English lessons presumably also had native grammar exercises as an integral part at that time.  I should like to now track down the grammars and textbooks mentioned in the catalogues (yet another project for the back burner). However, this claim is also amusing for another reason: 96 hours of grammar are required to appreciate German literature, but the literary course option is restricted to simply one unit – on Tell,  and this focuses to a large extent on one play by Friedrich Schiller. The examination papers for the same time period sat by students at the University of Oxford, which are stored in the Taylor Library, indicate a similar emphasis on language learning, as a skill that is supposedly for the purpose of its application in reading literature. The earliest Oxford entrance and finals exams for German typically present the candidate with a daunting passage for translation, but then a frankly ridiculous literary essay question such as ‘discuss a book you have recently read in German’…

If we remain with this comparison of Oxford’s and Washington’s German departments just before 1900, we come to my third point. Whereas the syllabus in Washington was dominated by reading of Schiller, with Goethe as secondary, in Oxford it appears to have been the other way around. I wonder whether the courses at these universities were typical of those offered in other institutions of their respective countries, and whether Schiller was generally more popular, or on the whole considered more important in the American university than in England. In 2010, I heard a lecture by Jeffrey L. High of California State University at Long Beach, given at the University of Virginia. His paper, ‘Thomas Jefferson, Friedrich Schiller, and the German Age of Happiness’ had the thesis – as I remember it – that Schiller was the German playwright who was thought most appropriate for the American context in the time of revolution. Perhaps he was also the playwright thought most suitable for establishing German as a subject in the independent American university? 

Post: Germanic Studies, School of Languages and Cultures
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