Friday, October 7, 2016

On Learning to “Read” a Text – But what’s next?

From my notes, an out-take from Signposts for a Naturalist Criticism, which I've edited a bit.
When Moretti talks of “distant reading” he is using “reading” in a special sense that arose in literary studies during the late 60s and early 70s. The word had come to mean more than simply to read the text, one word, sentence, and paragraph after another until the end. It had come to imply a conscious and deliberate act of interpretation one that ultimately finds its expression an article written and published for one professional peers. In that strenuous sense of the word, most of us do not and have never really read Rushdie, Dickens, Dante, or Murasaki. Reading in this sense blurs the distinction between author and critic, critic and the text, the text and theorizing about the text. Thus when Moretti advocates “distant” reading he is advocating an intellectual procedure that once again establishes the boundary between author and critic and extricates the critic from the nether reaches of authorial mentation. In invoking the need for “fewer elements, hence a sharper sense of their overall interconnection” Moretti asserts that achieving such distance requires specific methods.

Not so long before it had been thought that such a distance required no more than an act of will. In the “Polemical Introduction” to his well-known Anatomy of Criticism, Northrup Frye asserts (pp. 27-28):
The reading of literature should, like prayer in the Gospels, step out of the talking world of criticism into the private and secret presence of literature. Otherwise the reading will not be a genuine literary experience, but a mere reflection of critical conventions, memories, and prejudices. The presence of incommunicable experienced in center of criticism will always keep criticism as art, as long as the critic recognized that criticism comes out of it but cannot be built on it.
Thus, for Frye, there was a clear distinction between simple reading and interpretive or critical reading. Yet he would not have penned those words if that distinction was not already so problematic that it had to be asserted at some length in his polemical introduction.

A page later Frye reiterates the need for that polemical introduction when he says (p. 29) “The strong emotional repugnance felt by many critics toward any form of schematism in poetics is again the result of a failure to distinguish criticism as a body of knowledge from the direct experience of literature, where every act is unique, and classification has no place.” That is to say, Frye is making the distinction because he wants to anatomize literature itself – not criticism as his book title says – and he is guarding against those who claim that such activity destroys literature. It doesn’t destroy literature, Frye says, because the experience of literature is one thing, while thinking about literature, classifying its forms and techniques, analyzing its themes, and delineating its styles, is quite something else again.

However obvious Frye’s distinction may seem, in one way or another that distinction has engendered enormous discussion, though not necessarily directed at Frye, for others both before and after have made such a distinction. One way to “read” what has been happening in literary studies over the past three decades or so is that the profession has been attempting to make a further distinction within “criticism as a body of knowledge” between … what and what?

The answer to that question is by no means obvious. It is one of those questions where there is a matter of mere semantics at issue, and a matter of substance. It’s the substance, of course, that’s important, and elusive.

Non-Professional Literary Knowledge

I would like to start with a digression into my own literary experience so that I can sharpen up Frye’s distinction a bit. When I was in my middle teens I picked up a copy of Howard Fast's historical novel Spartacus (I don't remember whether this was before or after I had seen the movie). It was a rather long book, but, as I recall, I read it in a single session that took me through the night. No doubt my mind was making all sorts of inferences while I was reading. When I was done I no doubt had some recollection of the story and could recount it, or fragments of it, and could answer questions about it. But I could not have done anything approaching an acceptable “reading” or “interpretation” of the book. I simply did not know how to do that.

Let us take that experience as an example of direct experience, the kind Frye rather tendentiously likens to “prayer in the Gospels.” It has been claimed in various discussions that such experience is somehow “innocent,” but I make no such claim. I was and am a product of my culture, and of my personal biology and history, and that certainly had a determining role in that experience. The Darwinians would no doubt point out that there was and is something nontrivially universal in nature, and I take their point. I only observe that we are a long way from being prepared to take on the relationship between biology and culture in literary experience. I only wish to establish a basic sense of reading while at the same relieving it of some of the moral burden with which Frye invests it.

I am pretty sure I discussed the book with my friends, but I do not recall any of those conversations. I discussed many books with friends, but also movies and TV shows. That’s what I did, that’s what people do. None of these discussions exhibit would be suitable as the professional work of academic literary scholars, but they are part of the life-blood of literary culture. Through these discussions we share our experiences and views, not only of literature and movies and TV programs, but of life in general. Such discussions are what allowed an austere documentary about the mating habits of Antarctic penguins to become a “sleeper” hit in the summer of 2005 (March of the Penguins). People liked the movie, told their friends, the friends saw the movie, liked it, told their friends, and so forth.

Yet, though such discussions are not of professional quality, I want to assert that their existence gives us the other term of Frye’s distinction. These discussions are not themselves the direct experience of literature, obviously, but they do constitute a “body of knowledge” about literature, movies, stories, albeit an informal body of knowledge. We might then think of the written work of professionals, whether journalist reviewers and commentators, or scholars, as being an elaboration and refinement of those informal observations and judgments.

Becoming Pro

Acquiring the skills of a professional takes time and practice. Just how much time and what kind of practiced varies, of course, from one person to another, and also depends on what kind of professional one seeks to become. One has to learn how to write about literature. Having immediate experience is not enough.

Myself, it took me two or three years of college experience to become fluent in writing 10-page papers containing good readings of individual texts. When I began college I was pretty much at the mercy of the last interpretation I had read (or had heard in lecture). I simply did not have a conceptual ”space” in which I could arrange and compare two or three readings and make judgments about their relative merits regardless of the order in which I read them. Even when I had built up such a space I found it easier to have someone else “break open” the text for me by providing a reading (which I consumed either through lecture or reading). Once I had encountered one or two readings I could then reason about the text on my own, applying my knowledge of psychology, philosophy, and whatever else to the job.

That is to say, I had to learn how to produce interpretations, aka readings. I began by imitating the strategies of my teachers and of the scholars and critics I had read. In this way I acquired a large collection of critical tactics and strategies which I could apply to the texts. Some of these moves may be uninformed by any explicit theory while others are explicitly derived from some philosophical, psychological, or social scientific body of thought.

I did my undergraduate work at The Johns Hopkins University in the middle and late 1960s. Though I graduated with a degree in philosophy, I was more interested in literature and had taken more courses in literary subjects, many of them from Dr. Richard Macksey who, more than any other single individual, was responsible for bringing the French intellectual avant-garde to America. Macksey was a student of comparative literature, of film, and the first head of the new Humanities Center, formed at Hopkins to foster interdisciplinary work in the humanities and reaching into the social sciences.

Like almost all literary scholars of the time, he had been trained in and was thoroughly conversant with the so-called New Criticism, though it was hardly new by then. With its roots in the work of I. A. Richards and T. S. Eliot in the first quarter of the 20th century, by the third quarter it had become the standard mode of literary analysis in the Anglo-American academy. The New Critics regarded the text as a quasi-autonomous engine of meaning to be understood without recourse to historical context or authorial intention. They specialized in “close” reading, particularly of poetry, but of drama and novels as well; the New Critics were not theoreticians, neither of literature nor of critical method and philosophy.

They were intensely interested in language and how it worked. And they insisted that literary language worked in special ways, ways that resisted paraphrase. They sought to show how the text worked by teasing out irony, implications and ambiguities, by tracing patterns of imagery, by demonstrating multiple meanings, and by showing how the text yoked the various strands of meaning into a coherent form. These critics were naturalists of texts in the sense that they were more interested in description and analysis than in developing over-arching theories.

But, if we think of them as naturalists – which is, I believe, unfair, as that is not what they were trying to be – we must judge them to have been poor naturalists. For their close readings rarely agreed. There was little accumulation of knowledge. The New Criticism was beginning to look more and more like the genteel amateurism which it was reacting against. This was no way to create an intellectually respectable academic discipline.

And so they began thinking about method: Just what is it we are doing when we read a text? How do we justify our conclusions? Are philosophy, psychology, and linguistics relevant to our work?

And that’s when all hell broke loose. The storm was gathering in by the mid-1960s but it didn’t become a category 5 intellectual hurricane until a decade or so later, when feminism, African-American studies, and so forth entered the mix. That gave us the critical world we’ve had for the last half-century: Theory and critique, new historicism, and cultural studies.

What’s next? I, of course, have some thoughts about that. But there’s no need to go into that in this post. They’re all over this blog.

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