Monday, December 21, 2015

Attridge and Staten 1: What is Minimal Reading?

A professor of mine from graduate school, Charlie Altieri, just suggest I might like:
Dereck Attridge and Henry Staten, The Craft of Poetry: Dialogues on Minimal Interpretation, Routledge 2015.
I’ve ordered it and plan, provisionally at least, to blog my way through it. The first chapter, however, was published online in 2008:
Dereck Attridge and Henry Staten, “Reading for the Obvious: A Conversation”, World Picture 2, Autumn 2008,
So I don’t have to wait for the book to arrive before I begin commentary.

I figure this first chapter is good for two blog posts. In this first one I’ll comment on observations they’ve made about what they’re calling “minimal reading”. In the second post I’ll extend some of the observations they’ve made about their example text, William Blake’s, The Sick Rose.

I apologize ahead of time if my comments seem a bit picky. I have a great deal of sympathy for minimal reading as its austerity brings it close to my own hobbyhorse, the description of form. But there is a difference in emphasis and, ultimately I suspect, direction. I want to bring that out.

The article seems to be an actual dialogue, undertaken through email. Thus I will be indicating who said what by using their initials. Occasionally there is an ellipsis in their text, indicated in the usual way. In those cases where I introduce an ellipsis into a quoted passage I’ll indicated that by enclosing the ellipsis dots by angle brackets, thus: […].

It’s Not About The Critic’s Ingenuity

Late in the dialogue Henry Staten observes:
[…] I’ve found that most good poems (including The Waste Land, as Eliot himself belatedly realized) don’t need a great deal of the associational icing that we literary critics bring to them. Their power can be reconstituted from the ground up, out of the common language and common experience, together with a quite minimal and general cultural literacy.
To that I would add that the profession has come to regard that “associational icing” as comfortably ensconced in the Great Big Always-Already, as though people have been interpreting literary texts since the dawn of time and that such interpretation is an inherent aspect of literary culture. I’ve quoted a few passages illustrating that assumption in a recent post, Literary Criticism and Spiritual Crisis (?) [1]. The assumption, of course, is wrong. Interpretation only became common practice after WWII and even then there was a battle over it. Thus you have J. Hillis Miller giving an interview where he says his teachers at Harvard in the early 1950s couldn’t give a decent reading of a poem [2].

Now let’s go to the beginning of the article, with Derek Attridge writing to Staten:
As you know, I’ve been trying for a while to articulate an understanding of the literary critic’s task which rests on a notion of responsibility, derived in large part from Derrida and Levinas, or, more accurately, Derrida’s recasting of Levinas’s thought, one aspect of which is an emphasis on the importance of what I’ve called variously a “literal” or “weak” reading. That is to say, I’ve become increasingly troubled by the effects of the enormous power inherent in the techniques of literary criticism at our disposal today […] The result of this rich set of critical resources is that any literary work, whether or not it is a significant achievement in the history of literature, and whether or not it evokes a strong response in the critic, can be accorded a lengthy commentary claiming importance for it. What is worse, the most basic norms of careful reading are sometimes ignored in the rush to say what is ingenious or different. (The model of the critical institution whereby the critic feels obliged to claim that his or her interpretation trumps all previous interpretations is clearly part of the problem here, and beyond this the institutional pressure to accumulate publications or move up the ladder.) We may be teaching our students to write clever interpretations without teaching them how to read...
I agree with the spirit, but I’ve got some problems with specific details. It’s not clear to me just what kind of restriction Staten has in mind when he, quite correctly, points out that we’re got the tools to write commentary on any literary work regardless of cultural significance or personal resonance. In my pose as a Martian, which I asserted in my recent open letter to Charlie Altieri [3], everything human is foreign to me and thus I do not assign a priori privilege to any set of texts, artifacts, or practices, though I recognize that earthlings make such distinctions and I have examined so-called canonical texts, some with considerable care.

But if you look around New Savanna you’ll find lots of material on non-canonical texts as well. I’ve got posts on two texts by H. Rider Haggard, King Solomon’s Mines and Alan Quatermain [4], some on manga (Japanese graphic novels) by Osamu Tezuka [5], a great deal of commentary on animation (Disney, Warner Brothers, Miyazaki, and others [6]). However, I do not for the most part call on that large repertoire of critical techniques in this commentary. Almost all of it is in the spirit of weak reading. I’m interested in attending to what is obviously – though in some cases finding the obvious is not easy – there, rather than looking for “hidden” meanings.

And there is the fact that they talk of literal or weak “reading”. I’d prefer to talk of analysis or description as “reading”, considered as an activity expressed in writing about texts, implies continuity with “reading”, considered simply as reading texts without any overt expression beyond eye movement, page turning, a bit of fidgeting now and then, perhaps a laugh or a groan or a sigh, maybe a trip to the fridge for some munchies or a beer. This is a relatively minor matter, but I just want to hammer home the point that explicitly interpreting a text, even in a minimal way, all but requires explicit instruction and practice and that doing it well requires several years of instruction. The ability to craft coherent interpretations does not follow automatically from knowledge of word meanings, appropriate tropes, conventions and other cultural knowledge.

Now Henry Staten replies to Attridge:
I think that yours is a very needed project, and that no one is better qualified than you to undertake it because of your marvelous knowledge of the history of English literature and in particular of English meter—knowledge few literary critics can approach (certainly not me). My own work on this kind of reading has convinced me that it must be “dialogical”: if something is obvious, then it must be so not just to me but to others as well, if not initially, then with a bit of pointing out. (Caveat: if someone takes it as axiomatic that everything in a text is always up for interpretive grabs, this person will resist all such pointing out. The interlocutor must be open to the possibility that there can be general—not universal— agreement, across ideological divides, on certain features of the text, and willing to take such agreement, when and if it happens, as pointing to something significant about the text.) So I think a dialogue between us on a specific poem is a very good way to approach the question of the obvious.
I quite agree with the caveat. Michael Bérubé has made a similar point in defending Wolfgang Iser against Stanley Fish:
It would have been possible, in other words, to contest Fish’s reading of Iser […] by acknowledging that all forms of reading are interpretive but that some involve the kind of low-level, relatively uncontestable cognitive acts we engage in whenever we interpret the letter “e” as the letter “e,” and some involve the kind of high level, exceptionally specific and complex textual manipulations, transformations and reconfigurations involved whenever someone publishes something like S/Z – or Surprised by Sin. [7]
I note that Rita Felski has recently been exploring the applicability of Bruno Latour to the humanities in general and one of her themes is how Latour emphasizes the negotiated nature of social relations and the translation of meaning from one person to another. As for my own hobbyhorse, the description of form, what I imagine eventually is that the profession will agree on the formal features of texts and that agreement will take the form of a handbook detailing those features just as biologists long ago arrived at ways of agreeing on the descriptive attributes of life forms. Such agreement obviously has to be negotiated among peers [9].

It’s About Techne

Moreover, we must agree to the rules of the game (continuing with Staten):
Of course nothing is indisputable or obvious unless the parties involved share some presuppositions about the nature of the enterprise. What emerges from the preceding discussion is, I think, that finding anything obvious in a poem depends on our willingness to look at the poem at the level of how it works, how it’s put together (which I call its techne), rather than at the level of meaning. Poems are made of words, and words have meanings; but there’s meaning that’s pretty much on the surface of the words and then there’s deeper meanings. When you speak of the erotic scenario that erupts at the end of the poem you are taking it at face value, not digging into it; and we need to restrict ourselves to this sort of “minimal meaning” to trace the manifest features of the poem.
Yes, by all means, techne, that’s what I’m after. How are texts made? How do they work? What do they (ask us to) do (in our hearts and minds)?

Finally, back to Attridge:
I also agree with the difficulty of countering (even in oneself) a far-fetched meaning that has presented itself–as you say, “once you have a hypothesis in your head you can always invent clever ways in which to make the parallel fit (regardless of how far out it may be).” So what we need are techniques of disabusing ourselves–and perhaps others–of these unnecessary elaborations. We need to stop congratulating each other on producing ever more ingenious interpretations, as if originality and out-of-the-wayness were guarantees of rightness.
I agree on the need for explicit techniques of analysis and description (to use my preferred terminology). It is not enough to have a good heart and a strong will. We need specific and explicit techniques.

For example, over a decade ago I was corresponding the late Mary Douglas, the great anthropologist, and she got me interested in ring-composition. In the small it is a rhetorical figure known as chiasmus, but in the large it can structure narratives of considerable scope. She’d already written books in which she’d examined ring-composition in two books of the Old TestamentLeviticus and Numbers – and she eventually wrote a short book on ring-composition in general [10]. In that book she set out seven specific criteria for identifying ring-composition. I’ve written a working paper in which I’ve applied those criteria to four texts, “Kubla Khan”, Metropolis (a Tezuka manga), Heart of Darkness, and Apocalypse Now [11].

The features she identifies are formal features. You can recognize them with only minimal reading, in Attridge and Staten’s sense. You aren’t looking for things hidden; you aren’t using the conceptual and allegorical tropes of psychoanalysis, deconstruction, feminism, Marxism, etc. to identify elements in the pattern. However, the pattern is not necessarily an obvious one. In a number of cases – including several not discussed in that working paper – I had been working on the text for some time before I suspected that it might be a ring-composition. Once that had happened, however, Douglas’s checklist told me what to look for [12].

That leads to an obvious question: what things do Attridge and Staten look for in their analysis? Can we prepare a list? I hesitate to promise or even hint that that’s what I intend to so. Mostly I want to look at what they say about the poems and see if I can add something to that. Anything beyond that is icing on the cake.


[1] William Benzon, Literary Criticism and Spiritual Crisis (?), New Savanna, blog post, December 2, 2015,

[2] Jeffrey J. Williams, “Bellwether: An Interview with J. Hillis Miller”, the minnesota review, Winter/Spring 2009, 2009 (71-72): 25-46; doi:10.1215/00265667-2009-71-72-25,

[3] William Benzon, Literary Studies from a Martian Point of View: An Open Letter to Charlie Altieri, New Savanna, blog post, December 17, 2015,

[4] This link will retrieve both Rider Haggard posts:

[5] This link will retrieve the posts where I discuss Tezuka:

The posts devoted entirely to his own texts will be near the bottom of the list.

[6] This link will take you to my almost 200 posts on animation, many of them quite detailed:

[7] Michael Bérubé , “There is Nothing Inside the Text, or, Why No One’s Heard of Wolfgang Iser”, Postmodern Sophistry: Stanley Fish and the Critical Enterprise, edited by Gary A. Olson and Lynn Worsham (SUNY, 2004), pp. 11-26.

[8] Rita Felski, Doing the Humanities (with Bruno Latour), Given at the “Recomposing the Humanities with Bruno Latour" Conference, University of Virginia, September 18, 2015,

[9] I’ve compiled a working paper on Contrad’s Heart of Darkness where a great deal of what I say is descriptive or analytic in nature; I am not, for the most part, looking for hidden meanings. It contains an appendix where I discuss the idea of a Heart of Darkness handbook and suggest just which aspects of the work I’ve done seem reading for inclusion in such a thing, provided of course that they are vetted by scholars sympathetic to the project. See William Benzon, Heart of Darkness: Qualitative and Quantitative Analysis on Several Scales, Working Paper, version 2, 2015,

[10] Mary Douglas, Thinking in Circles: An Essay in Ring Composition. Yale University Press, 2007.

[11] William Benzon, Ring Composition: Some Notes on a Particular Literary Morphology, Working Paper, 2014,

[12] I’ve done quite a bit of work on ring-composition. My open letter to Charlie Altieri, note 3 above, contains links to most of it.

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