Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Fate of Reading and Theory

This is one part of a longer piece. That longer piece may not, however, actually get written. So I’m posting this now. In this post I treat word use – reading, theory – not as mere terminology, but as telltale clues about the nature of the underlying conceptual matrix (aka paradigm or episteme).
For as long as I can remember I’ve at least noticed, and have often been irritated by, the practice of literary critics to use the word “reading” to cover two somewhat different though related practices. There is the ordinary business of reading, familiar to any literate person. And there is more or less professionalized activity of creating written interpretations of literary and sometimes non-literary texts. There is no difficulty in using “interpret” in the second instance – and talking of an interpretation rather than a reading – and we do this often enough. But we don’t do so always and consistently.

It has always seemed to me that there is a bit of willfulness in using that one word, “reading”, in those two ways where that willfulness is insisting that the two things are the same, rather than one word being used in two different ways. But then Geoffrey Hartman, who seemed almost tortured by the strain of that insistence (cf. Geoffrey Hartman on Reading) did once draw a line in the sand (The Fate of Reading, 1975, p. 271):
I wonder, finally, whether the very concept of reading is not in jeopardy. Pedagogically, of course, we still respond to those who call for improved reading skills; but to describe most semiological or structural analyses of poetry as a "reading" extends the term almost beyond recognition.
He went on to observe, “modern ‘rithmatics’—semiotics, linguistics, and technical structuralism—are not the solution. They widen, if anything, the rift between reading and writing” (p. 272).

Quite so. But what would Hartman say to distant reading, which places an obtrusive computer-mediated apparatus between the critic and the text/s? Whatever it is, it is not reading in the sense over which Hartman agonized.

Whatever it is, we seem quite comfortable with that usage–though not always comfortable with the activities it designates–and have even coined a companion term: machinic reading. Is it that we have now become some comfortable with computers, and perhaps so discomfited with ourselves, that we are willing to drop the distinction between us? Or is it that the notion of reading has become so emptied of significance that sure, why not? Distant reading, machinic reading, it’s all reading as long as literary critics do it. Because that’s what literary critics do, read texts.

And so we arrive at all the forms of reading catalogued in Shawna Ross’s recent review, In Praise of Overstating the Case: A review of Franco Moretti, Distant Reading (DHQ: Digital Humanities Quarterly, volume 8, No. 1: 2014):
Even distant reading does not work by not reading: more accurately, Moretti means selective reading (reading only the titles, only the first paragraphs, or scanning for certain patterns), delegated reading (recruiting his graduate students), or mediated reading (using search tools to generate statistics and charts). Furthermore, though Moretti uses DH to generate grand systems of literature, these methods can also be used to return to the text — particularly if we link them to the "surface reading" of Heather Love, Stephen Best, and Sharon Marcus, as seen in the special issue of Representations devoted to it and by Love’s "Close but not Deep" [Love 2010]. Best and Marcus’s introduction links new strands in literary criticism (including DH, actor-network theory, and new approaches in narratology) as evidence of an emerging preference for descriptions of "the complexity of literary surfaces" instead of a psychoanalytically, historically, or politically inflected "symptomatic" method that "assumes that a text’s truest meaning lies in what it does not say" [Best and Marcus 2009, 1].
Meanwhile, the term “literary theory” changed its valence. When I first encountered it the term meant theory about literature as an object of study. That’s what it was in Wellek and Warren, Theory of Literature. Here is literature as a phenomenon, and here are the ways we can think about it in terms of biography, psychology, society, ideas, the other arts, sound (euphony, rhythm, and meter), style, image and myth, narrative modes, genres, evaluation, and history.

Under pressure from structuralism, deconstruction, and the multitudes of post-structuralist isms “literary theory” came to mean in a different way. No longer was it theory about literature. It had become the use of theories about the mind, society, and the world as tools for showing what literature revealed about mind, society, and the world. Even as this reconstructed literary theory (often truncated and capitalized to Theory) bore the marks of severe self-consciousness in a way it ceased to be about literature at all. Rather, it was about the mind, society, and the world.

And that, of course, is what literature itself is about: mind, society, and the world. And so, just as interpretation has collapsed into reading, so theory has collapsed into literature. If you will, theory is that mode of reading that elides the differences between critic and author, between text and world.

How far can this process go? Or has it hit bottom?

What I’m getting at is this: Jean Piaget offered and account of cognitive development in which later stages arose from earlier through a process he called reflective abstraction. I this process structures that had organized thinking at stage N now, at stage N+1, become the objects of thought for the new stage (and N+1 will in turn be eclipsed by N+2).

Most, but not all, of Piaget’s theorizing was about cognitive development from infancy though childhood to adulthood. Piaget also examined some forms of thinking in long historical context (see his short book, Genetic Epistemology), and found reflective abstraction going on there as well. Thus he saw newer forms of mathematics (e.g. topology) as more powerful and flexible abstractions over older forms (e.g. geometry).

What if reflective abstraction operates in ALL spheres of thought?

I think it does. And I believe that the current situation in literary criticism represents the outer limits of a stage of conceptualization that has its roots in the early 20th Century. That mode of thought began turning back on itself in the 1960s and has now gone as far as it can go.

If literary criticism is to advance any farther it is going to have to undergo something like a Hegelian Aufhebung. I’m thinking that the digital humanities may be the catalyst for this.

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