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.

The Devil’s Party

My continuing devotion to The New York Review of Books probably signifies nothing so much as my being an archaic throwback, born out of sync with my time. In a way, it seems to me that NYRB has become countercultural in part simply by just staying the same. The world has passed it by–who has time, after all, for a thought that requires an argument?–but in so doing I wonder whether we won’t long at last for just its kind of sober and articulate seriousness that tries to comprehend our troubles, tiring finally of the jokey popculturism of the web that seems mostly content to glide glibly along our surfaces, troubles merely another occasion for self display.

NYRB seems to revel in this archaic status, reprinting as it does forgotten masterpieces through its press and classic articles for it’s archives, apparently insisting pugnaciously that literature and thought really do remain news against the ephemera of what passes for the hot things of the moment.

Of course, it does this on the web now too, like everyone else. Most recently I picked up “A Modern Master by Paul de Man”  off the Facebook page that I have “liked.” A good “classic” essay on Borges, though as with a lot of deconstructionists it becomes impossible to know whether I am supposed to appreciate what de Man is saying or the prolix way in which he goes about saying it. And, of course, it’s sometimes hard to know with these guys whether I’m learning something about Borges or about Paul de Man reading Borges. De Man is primarily interested in the thesis that villainy becomes in some sense a poetic and aesthetic principle for Borges, one that he explores and unfolds throughout his career.

It is true that, especially in his earlier works, Borges writes about villains: The collection History of Infamy (Historia universal de la infamia, 1935) contains an engaging gallery of scoundrels. But Borges does not consider infamy primarily as a moral theme; the stories in now way suggest an indictment of society or of human nature or of destiny. Nor do they suggest the lighthearted view of Gide’s Nietzschean hero Lafcadio. Instead, infamy functions here as an aesthetic, formal principle. The fictions literally could not have taken shape but for the presence of villainy at their very heart. Many different worlds are conjured up—cotton plantations along the Mississippi, pirate-infested South seas, the Wild West, the slums of New York, Japanese courts, the Arabian desert, etc.—all of which would be shapeless without the ordering presence of a villain at the center.

A good illustration can be taken from the imaginary essays on literary subjects that Borges was writing at the same time as the History of Infamy. Borrowing the stylistic conventions of scholarly critical writing, the essays read like a combination of Empson, Paulhan, and PMLA, except that they are a great deal more succinct and devious. In an essay on the translations of The Thousand and One Nights, Borges quotes an impressive list of examples showing how translator after translator mercilessly cut, expanded, distorted, and falsified the original in order to make it conform to his own and his audience’s artistic and moral standards. The list, which amounts in fact to a full catalogue of human sins, culminates in the sterling character of Enna Littmann, whose 1923-1928 edition is scrupulously exact: “Incapable, like George Washington, of telling a lie, his work reveals nothing but German candor.” This translation is vastly inferior, in Borges’s eyes, to all others. It lacks the wealth of literary associations that allows the other, villainous translators to give their language depth, suggestiveness, ambiguity—in a word, style. The artist has to wear the mask of the villain or order to create a style.

So far, so good. All of us know that the poet is of the devil’s party and that sin makes for better stories than virtue. It takes some effort to prefer La nouvelle Héloise to Les liaisons dangereuses or, for that matter, to prefer the second part of the Nouvelle Héloise to the first. Borges’s theme of infamy could be just another form of fin-de-siècle aestheticism, a late gasp of romantic agony. Or, perhaps worse, he might be writing out of moral despair as an escape from the trappings of style. But such assumptions go against the grain of a writer whose commitment to style remains unshakable; whatever Borges’s existential anxieties may be, they have little in common with Sartre’s robustly prosaic view of literature, with the earnestness of Camus’s moralism, or with the weighty profundity of German existential thought. Rather, they are the consistent expansion of a purely poetic consciousness to its furthest limits.

The line “the poet is of the devil’s party” stood out to me, even though de Man’s “All of us know” sets it up sniffily as a throwaway line that demarcates the star-bellied sneeches from their know-nothing cousins. In part I think I seized on this line because it suddenly struck me that it really is the case that everyone I’ve know has mostly assumed that poet’s were of the devil’s party. It’s an issue I’ve thought about for a very long time, maybe for as long as I’ve engaged literature. As I wrote in my book, encountering literature has been, for me, always been fraught with the question of whether or not I was encountering the devil’s party in some metaphorical sense or another. From the time my parents forbid me to go to see The Great Gatsby with friends, or the year I was not allowed to read The Catcher in the Rye along with all my classmates. In some longer range and more significant way, this idea goes all the way back to Plato’s restriction of the poet from the Republic in the belief that poets served merely to inflame the passions, the devil’s party for the rationalist Greek. In my literary theory and other classes, I’ve often invoked the authority of Augustine’s notion of the felix peccatum, the happy fall, to suggest the notion that literature depends on the fact of fallenness, the fact of evil. If the poet is not of the devil’s party, he is at least secretly glad–along with all his readers–that the devil had his way if only for a moment.

An unsettling notion, that our pleasures, even our highest intellectual and aesthetic pleasures depend in some deep sense upon our and the world’s brokenness and violence. At the deepest level, I think this speaks to something unsettling about literature and art in general, something that goes beyond the question of offensiveness, and may go deeper than PLato’s concerns with the surface manifestations of inflamed aesthetic passions. Literature–perhaps other arts, but literature especially–unsettles because it depends so thoroughly and obviously and completely on brokenness and struggle and conflict and, yes, sometimes, violence as a condition of its existence. And it is most unsettling in that it makes takes these and makes them pleasurable, moving, beautiful. I think this is unsettling not on the simple level that we feel moralistically that literature shouldn’t do this, but the fact that it does do this has the force of revelation, showing us something about how we are built to experience the world. We exclude the poet from the city walls because by her fictions she shows us the fictions of our virtues.

As tiresome as I often find the deconstructionists–the tendency to find an infinity in a phrase often being nothing more than making a mountain our of a molehill–it still seems to me that this conundrum is something they troubled over endlessly and rightly.

We’re really getting desperate now

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that a man walked into an English class at LeMoyne-Owen College in Memphis Tennessee and robbed 18 students at gunpoint.

Do thieves really have nothing better to do with their time than to rob a bunch of people who are learning how to read and write.  More, these folks will never make any money anyway, as amply demonstrated by their being English majors?

A theoretical side-note.  In my literary theory classes at Duke, I remember fellow students attempting to refute deconstruction by asking, “If someone held you at gunpoint, would you really sit there and deconstruct the gun?”  We may never know, but these students really have the opportunity!  I think the prof should take advantage.  This is one of those infamous “teachable moments,”  by which teachers usually mean “something uncomfortable and really unfortunate just happened, but let’s just turn it in to language!”

“How, John, did you see the gun–as a phenomenon in the moment of its appearance or as sign and symbol of our oppressive political dialectics…No thoughts?…Jane?…Jim…anyone?”

Ethics of Reading

Published the following letter to the editor in this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education. Yes, I am becoming “that guy.” You know, the odd ball, slightly unkempt if not unwashed, who writes letters to the editor. As I think of it, blogging is a bit like letters to the editor on roids. Roid rage and all.


Deconstruction and Reading

To the Editor:

Peter Brooks begins “The Ethics of Reading” (The Chronicle Review, February 8) by noting his dismay at J.M. Coetzee’s association of torture with the reading practices of “the academy of the humanities in its postmodernist phase.” Coetzee’s association is less surprising than Brooks’s shock; the link between reading and violence is nothing new.

The purported existence of links between how we read and ethical corruption or political violence is a commonplace in complaints about contemporary theory. Indeed, the link between reading and moral corruption goes back much further than this, found as it is throughout Western history — especially since Gutenberg. Faust is, after all, nothing if not a reader.

The opening line of Brooks’s essay points to a peculiar construal of both reading and ethics — one that, I think, can be found in a variety of other “ethics of reading” theories, particularly that of J. Hillis Miller. Says Brooks, “I’ve long been invested in the notion that teaching to read literature carefully, seriously, reflectively can be an ethical act.” Reading here seems to be conceived of primarily as a procedure or a technique; rigorously following correct procedures ensures or at least encourages an ethical outcome.

Brooks casts about to find an appropriate place to lay the blame for reading practices that have led to the infamous memo on torture allegedly written by John Yoo. He comes up with inept graduate students, or perhaps just people who didn’t attend Yale: “It must be admitted that the lessons of deconstruction in the wrong hands — less adept than its original practitioners — led to facile untetherings of meaning.” Ironically, he then points to Paul de Man as a practitioner of “essentially ethical” reading in his attempts “to understand how texts mean and how language works.”

To be fair, Brooks is pointing yet further back to Reuben Brower, de Man’s own mentor in the skills of reading. However, I have my doubts that de Man’s close reading skills did much to save him from his own readings of Jewish existence in Europe.

I have no interest in attacking de Man’s character or revisiting his history. But maybe part of the problem is, in fact, how he taught us to imagine reading. Why would we begin to imagine that pursuing a rigorous technique to its endpoint is inherently ethical? Fascists were certainly champions of the rigorous pursuit of techniques and industrious in their pursuit of efficiency.

While the ability to read closely and industriously and with technical proficiency may further the ends of people seeking to do good, it seems just as plausible that the ability to do so can serve the ends of those who seek to do ill. We accept that great artists may not be great people, and that their art may even serve both good and bad ends at the same time. Why should we believe differently about great readers?

Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 54, Issue 26, Page B29