Tuesday, February 13, 2007
Time Out on Lindsay Waters
Fourteen months ago Miriam Burstein expressed some bemusement at an article Lindsay Waters had published in the Chronicle in which he complained about current literary criticism in favor of a return to a deeper concern for aesthetic issues. She concluded by observing that she was “in the somewhat odd position of agreeing with the basic thesis, but disagreeing with large chunks of the execution.” I have a similar reaction to his current piece, Time for Reading, which he opens by asserting: “I want to start a new movement, now.”
I understand that sentiment, but I have little sense that Waters has any useful ideas on which to launch this movement. Early on he asserts:
Is it any surprise that there is now a reading crisis worldwide that affects people at all levels, from preschool to graduate school, the affluent and the poor alike? Don’t assume you are immune, people of higher education. Is it reassuring or frightening to learn that problems that afflict one group actually afflict other groups considered to be as different as night and day? Maybe such a realization is both consoling and discommoding in equal measure. In any case, the reading crisis that is upon us is widespread.
What if we tried to connect the dots? What if we were to ask whether the work that Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak does teaching advanced literary theory to graduate students at Columbia University has something essential to do with the work she does in the Birbhum District of West Bengal to prepare 5-year-olds to read?
Just what is the connection between reading among pre-schoolers and the readings that literature professors extract from literary texts? Both activities involve making sense of texts, but they are otherwise rather different activities. It is by no means obvious to me that there is any useful connection between problems in “advanced literary theory” and the need for more attention to basic literacy among school children. Does he think that, if Spivak were to do something more to his liking in her graduate courses, that it would have useful repercussions in West Bengal? I understand that he’s skeptical about current critical practice—so am I—and that he wants children to read—so do I. I don’t understand the connection he’s making between these two.
Nor am I sure that he does. He goes on to blame problems with the “whole language” movement in primary education on Chomskyian linguistics and to criticize Franco Moretti’s distant reading as a practice in which:
scholars of literature outsource reading of books to lower-level workers. Moretti has a cadre of workers charged with tracking numerically documented aspects of the history of the book, especially details like how many novels were published in Britain in the 18th century. What we need to understand is the system. The professor need not read books at all!
This strikes me as being a rather willfully perverse misreading of Moretti’s project. What he offers instead is that we “explore the values of a methodology that has links to what was once called ‘close reading’ — but that goes beyond close reading in a number of ways that might prove particularly valuable today.” He does not, as far as I can tell, indicate just how he wants to go beyond close reading. Though perhaps all his talk of paying attention to time is what he has in mind here.
He tell us: “In my theory of reading, we have an emotional experience before we come to understand what happened, before we can draw any abstractions out of it. And then our consciousness plays the role of observer, recreating the experience, seeking to understand it, in different ways in different times.” Uh, OK. That’s an idea, but hardly the stuff of theoretical rennovation. He continues:
The role of literature is to mess with time, to establish its own time, its own rhythm. A new agenda for literary studies should open up the time of reading, just as it opens up how the writer establishes his or her rhythm. Instead of rushing by works so fast that we don’t even muss up our hair, we should tarry, attend to the sensuousness of reading, allow ourselves to enter the experience of words.
“Allow ourselves to enter the experience of words”—that’s new? I’m all in favor of thinking about literary experience as temporal experience. But I link time to computation:
When we examine literary forms, we are observing traces of the mind in motion. The study of literary form is to a naturalist criticism as the study of animal form and anatomy is to zoology. Unlike anatomy, however, literary form is not spatial, it is temporal. Literature unfolds in time. That is why I have chosen to consider form under the rubric of computation. Computation is irreducibly temporal.
I then go on to set forth the implications of that conception for practical criticism. Waters has little to offer beyond earnest good wishes. Whatever it is he wants us to do, he doesn’t seem to have any concrete suggestions about how we should do it.
I agree with your criticisms of his use of Spivak and Moretti. I think Moretti actually addressed that question somewhere in our book event, actually.
But I did like his general point in the second half of the essay about the need to read slow, though I’m not sure it’s about rhythm and time so much as getting into a space where reading can be non-instrumental.
You’re also right that it’s nothing new, this idea of letting go of pressing concerns and worldly distractions (i.e., the flickering and beeping of email) to actually read. But the lack of novelty doesn’t bother me—I don’t mind a good homily once in a while.
(As for computation and time, I’ve yet to read your article.)
Lindsey Waters succeeding in making me take more time to read the linked essay by padding it to approximately three times its natural length.
I took him to be saying that lit academics don’t really account for literary form, the subtlties of it, anymore. Which certainly is largely true, at least from where I sit. New work churns lit up as content and for content, but the art of appreciating the making of the work / what it feels like to read it is quickly becoming a lost art.
Whatever what Waters might think the “beyond” to be, for me it is a deeper consideration of the strangeness of the act of reading and writing, why “information” is passed this way and what effect on the “information” it has, etc…
Just for instance, and it’s certainly not the only way to think about it: how might we describe the act (and temporality) of reading vis a vis the act (and temporality) of working, using other media, etc etc etc. Novel / poetry reading makes us aware of its own obsolescence, the obsolescence of its rhythms and pacings.
It is very, very hard to connect the shape of the experience of reading a book with wider cultural / political issues. But it can in fact be done and bears wonderful (if still perhaps ambiguous) fruit when done well.
Yes, Rich, that essay’s been thoroughly fluffed...but I agree with CR, in that attention to literariness is a lost (or disappearing) art. One of the reasons I still read Joyce criticism regularly is that even the most “political” of readings—ahem, Enda Duffy, ahem—still addresses the ability of the prose to countravene its content. There’s nothing like an appreciation for, well, what’s there to be appreciated, frankly.
That said, I’m annoyed with Waters for other reasons, so I didn’t read this essay very charitably.
The problem with saying that the essay is about how “lit academics don’t really account for literary form” is that the essay doesn’t really succeed in its grasp on its literary form. For instance, there’s a paragraph on Moretti that ends with “That is poison” and the next one begins with “What Moretti is advocating sounds precisely like what the doctor should not be ordering”, followed by more repetition. A homily should be short, lively, and varied.
I know that a failure of style should not invalidate a text’s content—but when the text is about reading for style rather than content, somehow it does. What Waters is saying may be unexceptionable, but it doesn’t help to say it in this way.
That is a very silly comment. I triple dare you to explain further the “somehow” in your second to last sentence.
This should be interesting....
Well, yes, it is rather silly. But (jumping off from Joseph’s recent post on whether textual irony is determinable or not) isn’t apparently unintentional irony the most deadly kind? If I wanted to parody someone who was insisting on the necessity of reading carefully and slowly, I might write a padded essay that did not seem to reward careful reading. Then, every time it seemed about to end, I’d have paragraphs starting “The role of literature is to mess with time, to establish its own time, its own rhythm” then “What I am asking myself to do is to step out of the grid of time, to experience works of literature anew. What I am asking you to do is to slow reading down”.
The effect would be to undercut the apparent argument by having a laugh at the reader. If unintentional, the effect would be even worse.
I do think that critics should pay more attention to the subtleties of form. But is Waters really arguing for that?
I’m surprised that Waters didn’t refer to Reuben Brower’s introduction to his edited volume “In Defense of Reading.” That introductory essay is all about “slow reading,” but is much more successful than Waters’s piece at connecting this practice to a larger pedagogy and, indeeed, to a vision of the humanities in modern culture. Brower’s influence on critics like Booth, Alpers, de Man, Poirier, etc. is well known, and I can’t imagine that Waters isn’t aware of it, which leads me to question why he doesn’t just put his cards on the table. I suspect that Waters wants to return to a prior moment in the practice of literary criticism--call it the practice of affective stylistics, for lack of a better term--without being seen as doing so.
Interesting that you should use the term “affective stylistics.” As you may know, Stanley Fish used that phrase for a type of criticism that focussed the reader response as the reader moved through the text from one moment to another. There wasn’t much about affect in the idea, but time certainly was an issue. As a critic he wanted to slow down the reading process so we could follow its twists and turns. As far as I know, he never did much with this idea, as he became interested in interpretive communities and so forth.
Collin’s response to the Waters may be of interest.
"One of the reasons I still read Joyce criticism regularly is that even the most “political” of readings—ahem, Enda Duffy, ahem—still addresses the ability of the prose to countravene its content.”
Of course, it’s just as conceptually complex (and important for practical reasons) to consider “the ability of the prose” to enhance or intensify “its content.” Undertaking this would typically necessitate undertaking the other (a study of contravention) and vice versa.
“There’s nothing like an appreciation for, well, what’s there to be appreciated, frankly.”
Exactly. And so it’s important also to attempt to establish to what practical, or abstract, degree any contravening or intensifying may likely register with/impact any given reader.
Yes, I meant to invoke Fish, who has in print expressed debts both to Booth and Alpers. Fish’s early work--up through Self-Consuming Artifacts at least--does often investigate a reader’s emotional as well as cognitive response to a work of literature. Fish’s claim was that a *response* to such a work depended for its validity upon its issuing from an *ideal* reader, a reader who was able to react in the right way to the text. His difficulty in finding a non-tautological way of defining such a reader led directly to his claim that communities constitute their own criteria for such readers. In other words, Fish pushes the line that the kind of reading Waters wants--as articulated in this essay and his earlier Chronicle piece--leads directly to all the unsatisfactory epistemological conclusions Fish so joyously pronounces in his later works.
I think Bernard Smith’s views, in Forces in Literary Criticism, of T.S. Eliot’s views are valuable when considering direction and focus of literary criticism:
“There was one critic who apparently possessed all the virtues—fine taste, poetic sensitiveness, intellectuality, an experimental inclination. His literary scholarship was beyond dispute, his writing deft and memorable. He was, moreover, a poet of the first rank, which gave his criticism of the art an extraordinary authority. He was universally respected: by Pound, by the later expatriates, by the impressionists of the Dial, by the Hound and Horn group. This critic was T. S. Eliot. His volume of essays, The Sacred Wood, published in 1920, is still considered to be one of the truly distinguished works of esthetic criticism produced in this century…. The reader will note that he is here described in the past tense. His works are many now, but The Sacred Wood alone is a consideration of esthetic problems. In the rest the emphasis is on the esthetic effects of moral and social beliefs. His development is one of the ‘consequences’ touched upon in the following chapter…. (358-359).
“[T.S. Eliot wrote,] ‘There are two and only two finally tenable hypotheses about life: the Catholic and the materialistic [i.e., Marxist]. It is quite possible, of course, that the future may bring neither a Christian nor a materialistic civilization. It is quite possible that the future may be nothing but chaos or torpor. In that event, I am not interested in the future; I am only interested in the two alternatives which seem to me worthier of interest….’
“Eliot chose not only the Catholic hypothesis, but also its political corollaries. His literary opinions were thus given a firm philosophical base to rest upon, and from that fact he drew the reasonable conclusions…[that] ‘Literary criticism should be completed by criticism from a definite ethical and theological standpoint. In so far as in any age there is common agreement on ethical and theological matters, so far can literary criticism be substantive. In ages like our own, in which there is no such common agreement, it is then more necessary for Christian readers to scrutinize their reading, especially of works of imagination, with explicit ethical and theological standards. The ‘greatness’ of literature cannot be determined solely by literary standards; though we must remember that whether it is literature or not can be determined only by literary standards.’
“To this has esthetic criticism at last come—to a realization that non-esthetic criteria are the ultimate tests of value. Whether they be called philosophical, moral, or social criteria, they are still the ideas that men have about the way human beings live together and the way they ought to live. The quest of beauty had become the quest of reality. It had become, in essence, literary criticism as socially conscious and as polemical as the criticism of the Marxists….
“Eliot spoke of alternatives, not of choices…. He believes that one of the alternatives has greater value, is nobler, is in a sense more real, than the other. The question is therefore not simply one of personal taste. It is a question of evidence and reason. But the alternative he favors admits of no evidence and derogates from reason. His philosophy is, in the last analysis, wholly mystical. It is not capable of being tested and verified and improved. The alternative he rejects is, on the other hand, the one that is favored by those who are determined to be as scientific as one can be in a non-physical field.
“The literary criticism of the neo-classicists is a criticism composed of obiter dicta inspired by intangible emotions. The literary criticism of the materialists stands or falls by the findings of the social scientists, psychologists, and historians. Eliot’s alternative involves a revulsion against democracy; the materialists are partisans of democracy. The literary criticism of his school tends to create a literature that will express the sensibilities and experiences of a few fortunate men. The criticism of the opposing school tends to create a literature that will express the ideals and sympathies of those who look forward to the conquest of poverty, ignorance, and inequality—to the material and intellectual elevation of the mass of mankind….” (384-387).
In other words, Fish pushes the line that the kind of reading Waters wants--as articulated in this essay and his earlier Chronicle piece--leads directly to all the unsatisfactory epistemological conclusions Fish so joyously pronounces in his later works.
This is so not necessarily the case. As Bill said, Fish “never did much with this idea, as he became interested in interpretive communities and so forth.” It is the “interpretive communities” issue that leads into the later (I agree) unsatisfactory epistemological conclusions, not the slow reading / affective stylistics itself.
Speaking as someone who was extremely, extremely influenced by a Browerite (above all else - seriously!) undergraduate education, I insist that this mode of reading can be used toward ends vastly different than Fish’s. The short version is to think of the work you do as “empirical,” of course with the complexity that this entails, but not to subsequently get lost in the circularity of the individual vs. ideal reader issue, which prevents, ultimately, useful discussion of the text itself.
Coupling a Browerite reading with materialist and/or historicist approaches is especially useful, if also very very hard. But it can be done. I’m guessing, in the end, that this is the sort of thing LW is ultimately looking for. I definitely do not get the sense that he’s asking for Fishian epistemological circularity.
SEK: per Collin’s response, to wit: “Waters is clearly hostile to Moretti’s work, and in such a case, one might justly assume that such criticism deserves some sort of evidence. In an essay where Waters attacks the notion of distant reading, the apprehension of literary work through the distillation of that work into themes or keywords, the only citation of Moretti’s work that appears is a parenthetical reference to the subtitle of a talk that Moretti delivered in Germany: ‘How to Talk About Literature Without Ever Reading a Single Book.’ Yes, that’s right. A subtitle. The parenthesis is preceded by the mock-horror of Waters’ characterization of Moretti: ‘What we need to understand is the system. The professor need not read books at all!’ Apparently, the critic need not actually attend the talk to know that the subtitle ‘says it all,’ either.”
via 3QD (it’s Baynard not Menard):
“[Pierre Baynard, 52, [who] specialises in the link between literature and psychoanalysis] has become a surprise bestselling author by writing a [url="http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/books/article1334436.ece"]
book[/url] explaining how to wax intellectual about tomes that you have never actually read.”
“Students have used the Prof’s tricks to con tutors for centuries.”
And here I thought the tutors were supposed to con students. (Or to wit them.)
Fish’s account of what happens when you start paying serious attention to what the text is doing to you is, of course, not *necessarily* true. The point is that the “interpretive communities” bit develops *out of* a reflection upon the implications involved in this sort of reading. It does not just come out of left field. There is a deep analogy here to Michaels’s argument about how paying attention to the affective register of language as opposed to its propositional content leads you, directly, to identity-based readings. That is all.
Yes, of course. But it is not the inevitable outcome of this type of work. You made it sound like it here:
In other words, Fish pushes the line that the kind of reading Waters wants--as articulated in this essay and his earlier Chronicle piece--leads directly to all the unsatisfactory epistemological conclusions Fish so joyously pronounces in his later works.
That’s all I was taking issue with. Push Waters a tiny bit and he turns into a Fish. That’s not the only way it can work. You can, for instance, ignore the “interpretive community” as obvious, as pre-instantiated in any instance of described reading etc.
I took no delight in Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees. I thought its methodology was suspect, its results were weak, and its author’s promotional efforts were appallingly successful.
But Waters doesn’t appear to have noticed its flaws and he’s in no position to complain about its success, since all his essay offers is more (and far less suavely managed) self-puffery for the Higher Good.
A plague o’ both their publications. But not o’ their houses, where better work continues to be done by the less well publicized. A couple of weeks ago, I read Bharat Tandon’s Jane Austen and the Morality of Conversation, a fine product of slow re-reading. And I look forward to The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period now that its price has finally dropped below three digits. So long as they’re willing to share the kitchen, dining room, and library, their houses will be fine.
Some uncollected impressions:
Waters is talking mostly about what was, for him, the psychological reality and value of a certain kind of immersion in the text. His terms are familiar to me; I suspect they would be familiar to anyone who has felt the difference between skimming (for example, skimming a critical work for a helpful quote) and spending an afternoon with a book. The places his essay points—to Proust, to Eliot, to Milton, to Leopardi—are helpful, since many of these writers (with the possible exception of Milton) cultivated a slow, ruminative, melancholy style.
My guess is that Henri Bergson, and perhaps neurological studies of “flow states” and the like, would have been ideal citations for Waters.
Waters seems to believe that Moretti’s approach is in conflict with his own. That is not necessarily true; they can simply be parallel, as is the case with many other competing schools of criticism.
I suppose I agree with Waters insofar as I think Moretti’s new work should be classified as history, not as literary criticism.
I don’t think Waters outlines anything resembling a consistent program for change. Perhaps such a project would be impossible, since his essay depends on a subjective experience that cannot assume universality.
Rich, you’re right that essays like these work better if they steer clear of the Victorian moral rhetoric of disease and poison. I’m sure the irony of that rhetoric was quite unintentional, but nonetheless, historically speaking, such attitudes proved entirely compatible with the Industrial Revolution itself.
I’ve just skimmed Waters’ older essay, and Stanley Fish was as much the projenitor of evil as Walter Benn Michaels. It’s thus amusing that he seems to be advocating an approach much like one Fish himself articulated, but never really developed. What I’m wondering is whether or not the diffuse and incoherent nature of this current essay reflects a desire to package a Return to the Past as a Great Leap Forward.
Waters has an essay somewhere--I think in either Diacritics or boundary, you may know where--that amounts to an extended defense of de Man, especially the later de Man of Aesthetic Ideology, where de Man’s famous (and, it appears, ever more influential) “materialist” reading of Kant’s aesthetics is developed. Waters tries to show that de Man was trying to “save” the material--yea, bodily--basis of all aesthetic experience. The claim is that Schiller gets rid of this basis in his reading of Kant in Letters on Aesthetic Education, and that the Kant we’ve inherited is the Schillerian “Idealist” Kant as opposed to the legitimate, radical, “Materialist” one. You get the impression that Waters thinks attention to this essay of de Man’s would constitute a revolution in literary criticism and in aesthetics more generally. I take his more public pieces to be dumbed down, less coherent articulations of this basic claim. Whether he’s right or wrong, of course, I don’t know. People like Simon Jarvis and Peter de Bolla are interested in similar problems, but at a higher level of sophistication than Waters. At least, that’s my impression.
One of the things that struck me about Moretti’s recent writings is a seeming revulsion toward the idea of engagement with texts, as though there was something contaminating about them. And I agree with Waters that that’s not a great mood to encourage.
But I don’t accept the rigid dichotomy both Moretti and Waters offer. The Valve’s own Miriam Burstein is evidence enough that an individual can manage both detached scholarship and engaged reading / interpretation / teaching. One of Collin Brooke’s commenters testifies that revulsion can be instilled by close readers as well as by distant surveyers.
Even theoretically speaking, I don’t buy it. Waters doesn’t clearly distinguish critical work from scholarly work, but I sometimes wonder if any of the humanities can get by entirely on disengagement—sociology, anthropology, history, psychology, and medicine are rife with examples of research gone wrong through overalienation. In her latest post, Burstein points out that sloppy skimming damages statistical studies just as badly as interpretive studies—and, indeed, acceptance of fast-and-loose categorization is one of my major worries about Moretti’s program.
Ray, in his first response to the book event, Moretti said this:
Does this abolish the pleasure of reading literature? No - it just means that between the pleasure and the knowledge of literature [or at least a large part of knowledge] there is no continuity. Knowing is not reading.
I am pretty much willing to take that last assertion—“knowing is not reading”—at face value. The preceding assertion—that there is no continuity between “the pleasure and the knowledge”—ah, that can be as simple or as tricky as we want. It seems to me that this is where we run into your doubts about whether disengagement is possible, even in principle.
The distant reading that Moretti does—especially in the graphs work—would seem to take disengagement as far as possible. But, as you note, that work requires categorization, and the only way texts can be slotted into categories is for someone to read them and assign the categories. I can imagine ways of refining and checking that process—explicit criteria for categories, judging by independent raters—but no real way of getting around the need for human beings to read the texts. However, whatever is going on here, it certainly doesn’t satisfy Waters’ sense of slowed-down reading.
But much of my analytic work is quite different. I look at texts quite closely and make all manner of categorizations and judgments which I then seek to organize as rigorously as possible. How can I claim that, in this process, there is no continuity between pleasure and knowledge?
Let’s consider work I’ve been doing recently on the “Dance of the Hours” episode of Fantasia. As you may recall, this is a ballet sequence where the dancers are all animals: ostriches, hippos, elephants, and alligators. Here’s what I’ve been thinking about:
The basic conceit, of course, is that we have large and ungainly animals performing in an art form that centers on physical grace. But that’s not all that’s going on. From the very beginning we see that these animals have trouble keeping within role. Almost as soon as we see her the lead ostrich yawns, thereby stepping outside her role. When we see the ostrich company, they yawn as well. The ostrich segment ends with them fighting over a bunch of grapes.
So, I’ve spent a lot of time examining that episode for segments where the animals slip out of role, either of their own accord or being forced out. I watch the segment over and over, stopping and starting, slowing things down, stepping through sections frame by frame—that is, literally slowing it down. This process is quite different from simply watching the film; it requires a very intense engagement, but of a rather different sort from that of someone watching the film for pleasure—a difference that might even show up in brain imaging, FWIW. And I have to make a lot of judgments about just what counts as slipping out of role. And it all leads up to the encounter between Ben Ali Gator and Hyacinth Hippo: Are they merely acting out a passion that’s written into the role or is their passion real within the terms of this cartoon?
I don’t have an answer to that question. I’m not even sure what kind of question that is. But it’s quite clear to me that even in formulating the question I have to do a lot more than simply enjoy the cartoon. Can we make knowledge out of this? I’d like to think so.