Thursday, January 4, 2018

Signs of the pending apocalypse/implosion in academic literary criticism

I just posted the following as a tweet stream on Twitter:
Signs of the lit crit apocalypse/implosion, #1) 2011: Andrew Goldstone asks: "Just what is that infamous thing, a close reading?" He is not impressed. 1/5 #mla18

Lit crit apocalypse #2) 2015: What Was “Close Reading”?: A Century of Method in Literary Studies, a talk by Barbara Herrnstein Smith to young digital humanists. 1 + 2 = Close reading no longer assumed = close reading is conceptually dead. 2/5 #mla18

Lit crit apocalypse #3) 2015: Attridge and Staton, The Craft of Poetry: Dialogues on Minimal Interpretation, revive close reading because the craft is being lost and propose "dialogical poetics" with no intention or obvious institutional means of actual dialog. 3/5 #mla18

Lit crit apocalypse #4) 2015: Caroline Levine's Forms wins Lowell Prize. Intro asserts that literature is made of language & that language has it's own force; but DOESN'T examine language. Only a literary critic! 4/5 #mla18

Lit crit apocalypse #5) 2016: Representations special issue on description. Marcus, Love, and Best talk about "Building a Better Description". No evidence that anyone is actually interested in DOING better descriptions. It's just talk. Theory. 5/5 #mla18
So-called "close reading" is generally regarded as the intellectual core and foundation of interpretive literary criticism. Now it is a thing held up for examination, a conceptual object. Smith, of course, thinks highly of it; no matter. What's important is that she has turned it into an object, as Goldstone has done, albeit in a different way. Of course, the profession doesn't quite realize that one of its core skills is toast, and will certainly try to stave off that realization as long as possible.

How long will the new descriptivists be able to talk of description without actually doing it?


  1. “performs” what it “describes.”

    "Perhaps you and others with more experience in interdisciplinary work have a clearer sense of whether anyone outside of an English or Comp Lit or possibly language dept. would dream of "doing a close reading"?"

    Made me laugh, with drama the goal of 'close reading' is very clear. You know exactly what you have to do and where the instruction is found.

    In terms of how outside subjects may view English lit. here I think Monty Python's "The Ministry of Silly Walks"
    has it covered.

  2. As an actor, Jeb, you have a sense of interpreting or reading a text which, alas, is foreign to most literary critics, despite the fact that (Elizabethan) drama is at the canonical heart of the disciplines. Whatever an actor may do to prepare a role, it all 'disappears' into voice, gestures, movement, make-up, and costume, it all disappears into performance. Critical 'close reading' isn't subject to that kind of discipline.

  3. One of the only lessons I can find in print on the way I was taught is a basic diagram, triangle with three points. Mind/ body/ voice

    Any alteration in one will effect the other two. Basic acting class 1.a. I think it may have been on the board for the first lesson.

    Second lesson, pour over a script looking for detail that will make the difference and sync everything together.

    Detail, detail and then more minute detail is the key to the castle.