Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Rise of Surface Reading

Jeffrey Williams in The Chronicle of Higher Education (5 Jan, 2015), midway through the article:
"Reading" as we know it has a relatively short history. Before 1950, literary commentary was more likely to be appreciative than was detailed analysis. Midcentury critics developed a method of "close reading," paying attention to the details of literary works, especially poetry: As biologists studied cells under a microscope, scholars of literature examined literary language, particularly its images and metaphors. With the advent of theory, literary scholars continued that close attention, but reading became more allegorical, finding encoded meanings in texts. In the theory years, you were what your reading was—Marxist, feminist, deconstructionist, queer. It was an era of manifestoes more than mere commentary.
But that's now slipping into the past, and "surface" reading is coming in fashion. Williams dates the change with a 2009 issue of Representations edited by Sharon Marcus and Steven Best. the surface reading they espouse
is a big tent, and the special issue includes essays on the history of the book, a field that focuses on the creation, production, and use of books; renewed attention to basics like literary language and form; sociological description of institutions that mediate literature, like writing programs or book awards; and identifying patterns reflected in literature, like female friendship. They also note that surface reading speaks for those trained in the 1980s and after (Marcus and Best were born in the mid-1960s, so are post-boomers), who are familiar with theory, study noncanonical as well as canonical texts, and might consult anthropological or political theory alongside literature. They don’t dismiss symptomatic reading but state that "now we do things a bit differently than they did back then."
And then she have Moretti:
Moretti, a professor in the humanities and founder of the Literary Lab at Stanford University, pointed out that we study only a minuscule sampling of literary texts from a relatively narrow part of the world. He proposed a "distant" perspective, which initially meant tracking the birth and trajectory of the novel around the world. Since then, his work has drawn on quantitative methods, and the term "distant reading" has come to designate the general drift toward Big Data and "machine reading."
Williams works his way to a conclusion by noting that political criticism was not simply a product of the 60s, but is in fact deeply embedded in criticism.
Indeed, the embrace of politics in academic criticism stems not from the 1960s but the 1930s. In "Thoughts on Being Bibliographed" (1944), Edmund Wilson, often taken as an exemplar of the public intellectual, recalled that after magazines dried up during the Great Depression, critics migrated from journalism to campuses, resulting in "the curious phenomenon—which would have been quite inconceivable in my college days—of young men teaching English or French at the most venerable schools and universities at the same time that they hold radical political opinions and write for ‘advanced’ magazines."
"That created a tension in academic literary studies," he continues, a tension that had been resolved in favor of criticism by the mid-1950s. Are we now witnessing another swing of the pendulum with a new generation of scholars? He doesn't know, though he hopes that criticism won't be thrown entirely under the bus.

I don't know either. But I have a somewhat different view of the current state of intellectual affairs. Surface reading, by all means, but, from what I've seen, the surface readers have a thing or two to learn about literary surfaces, and the distant readers have their own schooling to attend to.

I've got quite a bit to say on this general topic, much of it collected under the headings reading and description, though not everything under those headings is relevant. It seems that things are in flux, and aren't going to settle down any time soon. It's going to take an intellectual generation for this to shake out.

H/t 3QD.

Addendum 1.8.15: This passage is worth noting for its implications:
Perhaps the key difference is politics. Symptomatic reading, usually associated with the sixties’ generation, often assumes that it performs "politics by other means." Best and Marcus point out that such a stance makes the critic a kind of glamorous hero who does work "more akin to activism and labor than to leisure." They propose "a sense of political realism about the revolutionary capacities of both texts and critics."
 It's seems to me that the brittleness and shrillness of symptomatic reading at it's worst stems from the fact the critic really does want to do politics by others means, but at the same time doesn't really believe that literary criticism is an effective political vehicle. Alas, the revolution will not be brought about by earnest literary criticism. So the critic writes in despair of ever being able to effect change. The only thing to hold on to is the critical word, so it's held on to with the desperation of a marooned sailor reaching for the hallucinated sail on the horizon.


  1. The point is that to read the surface right, you've got to understand what's under the surface... Hemingway said something t that effect. It reminds me too of the Protestant return to the literal meaning of the Bible. Surely it's a pity to lose sight of all those moral, allegorical, and anagogic meanings, and of all the ingenuity that went into them? Because a deep reader has got to read the surface as well anyway, there's no avoiding it.

  2. No, in my experience, deep readers don't pay all that much attention to the surface, which tends to be much richer than anything that shows up in deep readings. And all too often what's seen in the depths is what the deep reader puts there.

    But then, I'm not much interested in reading at all. I want to describe. There's a difference. To be a bit polemical, I don't much care what the texts mean, I want to know how they work. I want a semantics as dumb as rocks.