Distanced and Close Reading in literary study: Metaphors for love

I am old enough now to begin sentences with the phrase “I am old enough…”  Seriously, though, I am old enough now to feel like I have lived through one revolution, into a new orthodoxy, and now the experience of a new revolution in literary studies.  In the ongoing debates I hear about the digital humanities versus whatever other kind of humanities happens to be at hand, I keep having this vertiginous sense of deja vu, as if I’m hearing the same arguments I heard two decades ago, but transformed in to a key just different enough that I can’t tell whether today’s debates are mere variations on a theme or some genuinely new frame of discourse.

The song that I think is remaining the same is the divide between the proponents of what gets called “distanced reading,”  which in some hands is a shorthand for all things digital humanities (if it’s digital, it must be distanced as compared to the human touch of paper, ink, and typewriters–how the industrial period came to be the sign and symbol of all thing human and intimate I am not entirely clear), and close reading which is somehow taken to be THE form of intimate human contact with the text.

This division is exemplified in Stanley Fish’s recent essay on the digital humanities in the New York times, an argument that has the usual whiff of caustic Fishian insight leavened with what I take to be a genuine if wary respect for what he sees in the practices of distanced reading.  Nevertheless, for Fish, it is finally close reading that is genuinely the work of the humane critic devoted to intimacy with the text:

But whatever vision of the digital humanities is proclaimed, it will have little place for the likes of me and for the kind of criticism I practice: a criticism that narrows meaning to the significances designed by an author, a criticism that generalizes from a text as small as half a line, a criticism that insists on the distinction between the true and the false, between what is relevant and what is noise, between what is serious and what is mere play. Nothing ludic in what I do or try to do. I have a lot to answer for.

Ironically, in an earlier period it was Fish and precisely this kind of close reading (as practiced by deconstructionists) that was descried for its lack of seriousness, for the way it removed literature from the realm of human involvement and into the play of mere textuality .  By contrast, the distanced readers in those days imagined themselves as defenders of humanity (or, since humanism was a dirty word, at least the defender of the poor, the downtrodden, the miserable, the huddled masses).  Historicism read widely and broadly in the name of discourse, and proclaimed itself a liberating project, ferreting out the hidden political underbelly in a multitude of texts and considering literary criticism to be an act of responsible justice-seeking over and against the decadent jouissance-seekers of post-structuralism.

A recent blog by Alex Reid takes up this same criticism of what he describes as the Close Reading industry, arguing for the ways digitization can free us from the tyranny of the industrialized close reader:

In the composition classroom, the widgets on the belt are student papers. If computers can read like people it’s because we have trained people to read like computers. The real question we should be asking ourselves is why are we working in this widget factory? And FYC essays are perhaps the best real world instantiation of the widget, the fictional product, produced merely as a generic example of production. They never leave the warehouse, never get shipped to market, and are never used for anything except test runs on the factory floor. 

In an earlier period, it was again the close-readers who were accused of being mechanistic, dry, and scientific as putatively more humanistic readers accused New Critics of an unfeeling scientism in their formalist attitude toward the text, cutting out every human affect in the quest for a serious and scientific study of literature.

I wonder at root, whether this is the controlling metaphor, the key to which all our tunes in literary and cultural studies are played, a quest for the human that is not merely scientific, and yet an unrepressed desire for the authority of the scientist to say things with security, to wear the mantle of authority that our culture apparently only believes a statistical method can endow.

It is probably a mark against my character that I tend to be a both/and pragmatist as a thinker.  I do not buy the notion that distanced reading is inconsequential, or some how less about truth or less serious than the close rhetorical readings that Fish invokes.  At the same time, I am not too given to the euphoric and pugnacious challenges that can sometimes characterize digital humanities responses to the regnant forms of literary criticism.  At their best, Fishian forms of close reading are endowed not simply with acute attention, but with attention that seems to give birth to a form of wisdom that only attentiveness and close examination can provide, the kind of insistent close reading that led Gerard Manley Hopkins to seek the “inscape” of individual instances beyond categories, rather than simply the ways in which individuals fit into the vast landscapes popular in his post-romantic period.

I was reminded of this need to attend to the close properties of the individual use of language again in a recent article on Chaucer in the Chronicle. The writer attends to the detail of Chaucer’s language in a way that seems to reveal something important about the ways in which we are human.

translating Chaucer is like translating any other foreign language: The words are different from one language to the next. And then comes the third category, the most fascinating and the most aggravating because it is the trickiest: the false cognates, words that look like they should mean what they do in Modern English, but don’t. False cognates are especially aggravating, and fascinating when they carry their Middle and Modern English meanings simultaneously. These are exciting moments, when we see, through a kind of linguistic time-lapse photography, Chaucer’s language on its way to becoming our own.

In Middle English, for instance, countrefete means “to counterfeit,” as in “to fake,” but it also has the more flattering meaning of “to imitate.” Corage has not only the Modern English sense of bravery but also, frequently, overtones of sexual energy, desire, or potency. Corage takes its roots from the word coeur, or “heart,” and transplants them slightly southward. The same is true for solas, or “solace.” The “comfort,” “satisfaction,” or “pleasure” it entails is often sexual.

Lust might seem to pose no problem for the modern reader. Yet in the 14th century, the word, spelled as it is today, could mean any kind of desire or pleasure, though around that time it was beginning to carry a sexual connotation, too. And lest it seem as if false cognates always involve sex, take sely, or “silly.” It most often means “blessed” or “innocent,” as well as “pitiful” and “hapless,” but “foolish” was making its way in there, too.

A sentence like “The sely man felte for luste for solas” could mean “The pitiful man felt desire for comfort.” It could just as likely mean: “The foolish man felt lust for sex.” In Chaucer’s hands, it could mean both at once.

Chaucer was fully aware of the slipperiness of language. He delights in it; he makes his artistic capital from it. He is an inveterate punster. The Wife of Bath, for example, repeatedly puns on the word queynte (eventually the Modern English “quaint”). In the 14th century, the word means not only “curious” or “fascinating” but also the curious part of her female anatomy that most fascinates her five husbands. What’s more, the slipperiness of language gives Chaucer the tools to form his famous irony and ambiguity. If the way-too-pretty Prioress is “nat undergrowe” (“not undergrown”), how big is she?

(via Instapaper)

 These kinds of particularities of language are the worthy objects of our attention as literary scholars.  At the same time,  I do not think we need say that distanced reading plays no role in our understanding of such peculiarities.  A Chaucer project on the order of the Homer Multi-text, might actually deepen and multiply our understanding of Chaucer’s slipperiness and originality.  At the same time, vast database-driven analyses of every text written within a hundred years of Chaucer might allow us to discover the kinds of linguistic sources he was drawing on and manipulating anew for his own purposes, they might show us new creativities we had not imagined, or they might show us things we had taken to be unique were fairly common stock and trade.
These kinds of knowledges could not be derived from a contest between methods, but only from a reading marked by attentiveness, skill and desire, one willing to draw on any resource to understand what one wishes to know, which used to be a metaphor for love.

3 thoughts on “Distanced and Close Reading in literary study: Metaphors for love

    • I’m not sure if this is escapable or not, at least within the academy. The scientific forms of knowing have such force–something that really might be called hegemonic–it’s not clear that literary scholars could escape the insistent urge to be scientific. There’s some interesting stuff on this in Geoffrey Harpham’s book on the Humanities. I’m in the midst of reading it and hope to blog some on it in the not too distant future.

  1. Pingback: What is the Digital Humanities and Where can I get some of it? | Read, Write, Now

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