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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Weak Reading; or, That’s Not What It’s About

Posted by Rohan Maitzen on 03/17/09 at 08:57 PM

A while back Dan Green posted a link to this interesting exchange between Derek Attridge and Henry Staten. I’m attracted by the idea of “weak” or “minimal” reading they discuss, because it seems related to my own reservations about some tendencies of academic literary criticism. Here’s an excerpt from Attridge’s introduction:

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, including techniques of formal analysis, ideology critique, allusion hunting, genetic tracing, historical contextualization, and biographical research. . . .

The notion that it is smarter to read “against the grain” rather than to do what one can to respond accurately and affirmatively to the singularity of the work can compound this disregard of what is truly important. This is not to say that the use of literary works as illustrations of historical conditions or ideological formations (including abhorrent ones) is invalid or reprehensible; just that to do so is not to treat the works in question as literature. . . .

I’m not (yet) familiar with the other work in which Attridge develops this notion of critical responsibility or the value (or even obligation) of responding “accurately and affirmatively to the singularity of the work.” But so far it sounds as if his work would help me articulate my own dissatisfaction with the often sizable gap between what literary texts themselves are primarily concerned with--the conversation they are consciously having with their readers--and what we talk about when we talk about them in our criticism. At stake, I think, is the issue a friend with a library science background has told me is called in his world, perhaps unofficially, “aboutness.” In determining the appropriate way to catalogue a book, a decision must be made (note the bureaucratic passive voice) regarding its central identity or “aboutness”: where it belongs depends on what is it ultimately about.  Another useful concept might be what Henry James called the author’s “donnee," or Denis Donoghue simply calls the text’s “theme"--though Donoghue emphasizes that at issue is the text’s theme, not the critic’s (in The Practice of Reading he protests, regarding recent criticism of Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan,” that “Yeats is not allowed to have his theme: he must be writing about something else"). Often, when hearing or reading examples of recent critical analysis, I find myself thinking, “very clever, but that’s not what the book is about!"* So at least initially, I like the idea of rigorously minimal reading.

But a ‘weak reading’ movement would run into trouble pretty quickly, because a text’s own “theme” is rarely obvious--which is the challenge Attridge and Staten confront in the bulk of their discussion. They attempt a ‘minimal’ reading of Blake’s “The Sick Rose”; Attridge proposes “talking about what [they] take to be obvious (as well as what a concern with the obvious makes possible and perhaps what it excludes),” to which Staten adds the clarification (or qualification) that “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.” But, as every English professor knows, the devil is in the details: what’s obvious is very much a result of one’s experience and preparation. Attridge and Staten seem to have put themselves at a disadvantage in this experiment by starting with a poem that is, as Staten says, “a very un-obvious poem.” Really, the only obvious thing about it to me is precisely its overt reaching at symbolic resonance. The moves in their attempt to fix some stably obvious points certainly demonstrate that weak reading requires considerable effort:

DA: Now you may say that to read the rose as a symbol of beauty, perfection, etc. is to leave the surface, and the garden plant, and therefore the realm of the obvious, to enter the depths about which there cannot be general agreement.

HS:  Yes.

DA:  But don’t these connotations constitute an aspect of the generally agreed meaning of the word rose? Or perhaps we need to distinguish between the obvious and the more recherché aspects of the word’s symbolic force. Of the associations I mentioned, beauty, perfection and love are surely not much less general than the literal botanical meaning.HS: There are many associations that a word like “rose” can potentially arouse; but which of these associations are in fact activated within a specific poem, in a way that we actually need to bring out in order to get the bold, sharp outlines of the poem’s action? Perfection doesn’t seem to me to play a significant role in the major dynamic of “The Sick Rose”—a dynamic you’ve described so well—and therefore I would say this meaning is not saliently activated here (certainly not at the level of what is or can become obvious). The rose is sick, and sickness doesn’t attack perfection as such, it attacks health. Beauty is no doubt there in some way, since flowers in general have this connotation; but even beauty plays no direct role in the drama of the poem; “bed of crimson joy” suggests a kind of exuberant organic vitality in the rose more than it does its beauty. The drama foregrounds the joyous vitality of the rose, on the one hand, and its vulnerability to the worm, on the other hand; and in this connection the associative resonance would be, rather, with the softness of rose petals, so easily crushed, don’t you think? I don’t claim that this association is obvious; it’s a bit in the background. But it’s more directly linked to the manifest action of the poem than are beauty or perfection.

I wonder if their work would have been easier or harder if they had chosen a more literal example for their case study.

*One phenomenon with which anyone in literary studies is certainly familiar, for instance, is the interpretive strategy by which something seemingly incidental in the text is seized upon and ‘discovered’ to have great interpretive significance--usually because it can be read symptomatically, helping turn the text, as Attridge says, into an “illustration[] of historical conditions or ideological formations."Here’s a mildly parodic (but fairly accurate) example of how it works. Suppose the text is a 19th-century realist novel--say, Barchester Towers, which I happen to be reading now. Imagine there’s a scene with a dinner party at which pickles are served. Now, the immediate action of Barchester Towers has everything to do with the internecine rivalries of English clergyman and the moral and social crises flowing from them, and nothing to do with pickles, but now that we have noticed the pickles, it becomes irresistible to follow up on them. Lo and behold, nobody has done pickles yet (though I could give you quite a list of what has been done). So we produce a pickled reading. What are the cultural implications of pickles? Who could afford them, and who could not? Were pickling techniques perhaps learned abroad, maybe in the chutney-producing regions of the eastern empire? Or maybe pickling was once a cottage industry and has now been industrialized. We learn all about these issues and make that jar on the table resonate with all the socio-economic and cultural meanings we have uncovered. Though the pickles seemed so incidental, now we realize how much work they are doing, sitting there on the table. (Who among us has not heard or read or written umpteen versions of this paper?) And perhaps we are right to bring this out--after all, for whatever known or felt reason, Trollope saw fit to put pickles there and not, say, oysters or potatoes. But do we really understand more about Barchester Towers, or just more about pickles--not in themselves, but as symptoms of industrialism, colonialism, or bourgeois taste in condiments? It’s not that our pickle paper might not be interesting or, indeed, accurate in all the conclusions it draws about the symptomatic or semiotic or other significance of the pickles. But it’s hard not to feel somehow that such an analysis misses the point of the book and thus has a certain intrinsic irrelevance.


I think discussing microscopy in reference to that particular poem adds a new wrinkle to the venereal disease angle.

By Jonathan Goodwin on 03/17/09 at 10:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

That approach would seem to leave literary criticism exactly where it was before:  arguments about what the text is really about.  Take the example of The Tempest being about colonialism.  For people who have made this argument, that’s what the work is about on a very literal level.  Interpreting a work against the grain often involves seeing what’s in plain sight--a kind of purloined letter approach.  Then the question would be, what prevents us from seeing what’s there on a literal level, or from following the very obvious metaphorical path the work is setting out for us?  Blake’s poem is very easy--until you start comparing your sense of it with someone else’s and see you can’t agree on anything.

By on 03/17/09 at 10:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

See Attridge’s The Singularity of Literature (2004) for his work in developing this approach/argument. I’ve not actually read that book, so none of what I have to say about the issues raised here can be taken as a comment on Attridge’s arguments per se.

Two immediate problems come to mind when trying to talk, in a “post-theory” context, about reading/interpreting Literature as distinct from doing other things with Literature, and they can be encapsulated by the following two series of “theoretical” questions: (1) what is the text? what are its limits? what kind of unity, if any, does it possess? etc., etc.; and (2) from where/what does “aboutness” come? what/who “gives” a text its “aboutness”? and (or) where does “aboutness” reside? how may it be located? and are the possible forms of “aboutness” that may be articulated to Literature limitless or rather defined by certain regularities?

It seems to me that the attempt to distinguish between “theoretical” readings and more “straightforwardly critical” readings (perhaps what Attridge refers to as “weak” readings) comes out of an anxiety about the supposed “facts” that theory has (1) annulled the distinctions between literature and non-literature; and (2) handed over the authority to determine meaning to “the reader” (hence “the critic") as such. Faced by the (imagined?) widespread acceptance, if not cogency, of these arguments, “proper” literary critics are forced to find some other way to justify/defend their work and (thereby) to differentiate between the literary reading and the non-literary reading.

My problem with this move is that I don’t see “theory” as having done either of the two things that it is imagined to have done. It has not annulled distinctions, but rather given/found in them a different ontological (i.e. non-ontological) character; and it hasn’t handed the power to determine meaning over to the reader/critic but has rather seen it as dispersed across a more complex array of mechanisms and agencies.

As an unabashed “theorist”, I think it’s a mistake to define the Singularity of Literature in terms of an “aboutness” that resides within the book. That, as Jonathan suggests, amounts to a return to an old(er) form of literary criticism (though I’m not suggesting that it’s a mistake simply because it would amount to such a return). I’d also be very surprised if that’s quite what Attridge is trying to articulate—he’s far too familiar with the arguments of literary theory (Derrida in particular) to make that claim, I think (but again, I don’t know for sure).

But where does this leave us? How can one begin to account for the Singularity of Literature, if it does not take the form of an “aboutness” that is contained within “the book”? Let’s take the “pickles” reading that Rohan gives us. It is, as Rohan admits, a parodic example, but if it is “representative” it is perhaps merely representative of some arguments that some people have made, rather than representative of the problem we are engaging with. “Theory” authorises the pickles reading, we can presume, because it allows that we don’t need to consider the work as a whole (in its unity) and because it authorises us to take any fragment and to relate it to all kinds of non-literary contexts in order to generate all manner of insights. But does it really tell us more about Barchester Towers—i.e. the whole from which the fragment was taken? The presumption here, then, is that the literary reading (weak reading, or whatever) does consider the whole work, and that its mode of reading thus gets at an aboutness that does not depend on being related to a context that is beyond the work itself.

To what extent, though, does/can the literary reading—understood here as one that seeks to say what the work (the whole) is about—grasp the whole of the work? How many interpretations interpret every single word of the work, for example, and show how each word (each syntagmatic and paradigmatic choice and syntactical choice, each transition and juxtaposition, etc., etc.) relates to, indeed, constitutes its aboutness? It seems that from the beginning the literary reading is required to deem some elements of the text especially significant and others as insignificant. That kind of reading is, moreover, forced to decide exactly what counts as the first and the last word of the work: does the work begin with the first word of the first chapter, or does it begin with the title? does it include the contents page or the publishing information on the verso of the title page? is the first edition the work, or is it the revised edition that has the “typos” fixed? etc. etc.

To decide any of these questions concerning both the significance and even the very materiality of the book one must appeal to a specific concept and a set of institutional practices of literature that are not contained “within” the work itself—they are not contained within the work itself, because they are the very means by which the limits of “the work” may be identified. Hence, the “aboutness” of a text is not simply a property of the work. Literary criticism has never been able to talk simply of what the work is about because it has always in some way defined the “aboutness” through reference to concepts of, e.g., the work, the author, humanity/human nature, edification, character, narrative, voice, etc., etc.. To that list of concepts that may (must) be appealed to in the course of determining what the book is about we could also add those from an “opposing” tradition of criticism: the unconscious, patriarchy, capitalism, the social and historical context, culture, desire, power, the other, and so on.

And I think that gives us a clue to what I suspect (hope) Attridge is imagining when he refers to the Singularity of Literature. The Singularity of Literature does not reside in “the work”, and it is indeed annulled whenever Literature is either reduced to the status of “the work” or used as means to illustrate a point about cultural/historical conditions, power, etc. (In a sense, the argument is that treating Literature as a “work” also seeks to use it as a means to illustrate a point about humanity, say.)

I take the Singularity of Literature to be rather the becoming/appearance of Literature as unprecedented (kind of), as an exception (kind of), as unexpected (kind of)—hence as irreducible to an expression of any of those things (including human nature) that it is thought to be an expression of. Further, to be Literature, of course, it must be read, which means (1) that the Singularity of Literature does not manifest as an object ("the work") but as an event; and (2) any “work” of Literature may manifest in or as a multitude of Singularities. And so the choice is not between “reading” literature and “doing something” with literature, but rather between whether one’s reading/doing amounts to a repetition/application of a rule or an attempt to generate a singularity.

By on 03/18/09 at 01:59 AM | Permanent link to this comment

You might want to take a look at David Bordwell’s Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema, which is an examination of the cognitive strategies film critics use to ferret out the meanings hidden in films. Before and after that analysis Bordwell argues that films don’t have meanings “hidden” in them - how could they? where is there to hide? - and that what we need is a historical poetics of cinema. As to what that poetics is like, presumably you can find that in his (many) other books (which I’ve not read), but also in posts at his blog:


By Bill Benzon on 03/18/09 at 07:47 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve just started reading The Singularity of Literature. Attridge begins by developing some generalizations about what he calls “instrumentalism” in criticism: “What I have in mind could be crudely summarized as the treating of a text (or other cultural artifact) as a means to a predetermined end: coming to the object with the hope or the assumption that it can be instrumental in furthering an existing project, and responding to it in such a way as to test, or even produce, that usefulness.”

He acknowledges that protests against such approaches often have a backwards-looking quality, but, interestingly (because, as Rob says, he is very theory-conscious) he does not take this as grounds for dismissal:

The success—in both the intrinsic and the market sense—of the worthwhile and important studies in this instrumental mode has had another effect (not necessarily an intended one, and admittedly one which has operated in concert with a number of other forces): the diminishing of careful attention to the specificity of the literary within the textual domain, and to the uniqueness of each literary object. Most extended complaints about this change have come from commentators who are nostalgic for a time “before theory”—a time, that is, when the governing theoretical and ideological assumptions of literary study went largely unacknowledged and unexamined—and who yearn for a “simpler” critical style based on a love of literature and of individual works. This nostalgia and yearning are not simply to be dismissed: as an understandable reaction, they are a significant reflection of the state of affairs I am delineating, and my aim in this book is to find a more cogently articulated framework within which to account for, and perhaps rearticulate, these feelings and needs.

Here’s one more quotation indicative of his program (though still, as this is still from the introduction, fairly vague about the practice that should follow from it):

What is needed, therefore, to complement the instrumentalist achievements of recent criticism and to build on the lasting, if partial, insights of the aesthetic tradition is a mode of attention to the specificity and singularity of literary writing as it manifests itself through the deployment of form (a term which will require redefinition), as well as to the unpredictability of literary accomplishment that seems connected with that deployment—an approach that at the same time fully acknowledges the problematic status of all claims to universality, self-presence, and historical transcendence. This would not, I hasten to add, be a mode of criticism that had no connection with questions of politics or ethics (this would hardly be possible), or that portrayed literature as without value or effects in the world; my quarrel with what I am terming instrumentalism is that it judges the literary work according to a pre-existing scheme of values, on a utilitarian model that reflects a primary interest somewhere other than in literature.

I recently read a definition of ‘post-colonial reading’ that seems to me exemplary of the instrumentalism he describes, or at least of dealing in predetermined judgments, as the approach itself assumes its conclusions from the start, before any ‘singularities’ of a text are considered:

[a form of reading which] demonstrates the extent to which the text contradicts its own underlying assumptions . . . and reveals its (often unwitting) colonialist ideologies and processes (from Post-Colonial Studies: the Key Concepts, ed. Bill Ashcroft and Helen Tiffin)

By Rohan Maitzen on 03/18/09 at 08:11 AM | Permanent link to this comment

As other commenters (and Rohan himself) has said, this is one of those ideas that seem like common sense until you get into the implications of it.

For instance, Rohan’s snideness about the pickle example—"Lo and behold, nobody has done pickles yet"—seems fair at first, since we’re all ruefully familiar with work that has searched a little too hard for any available niche.  At the same time, is it not relevant that no one has done pickles (or whatever) yet, since presumably we’re all supposed to be finding new things to say about these texts?  It’s unclear to me what specific work would be produced by Attridge’s method, which seems ideal for teaching (I think it’s what a lot of us are already doing) but not very fertile for new critical work.

Similarly, the description of “post-colonial reading” that Rohan quotes at the end of his last comment certainly does seem instrumentalist: since the “colonialist ideologies and processes” can happen “unwittingly,” there’s a potential for heads-I-win-tails-you-lose criticism here.  At the same time, just because this line can be abused does not mean it is not based in real phenomena.  I have just finished writing on Kipling’s Kim, which clearly believes itself to be (among other things) an argument about the diversity and equality of the British Empire, but just as clearly (as Edward Said and others have argued) betrays Kipling’s sense of British administrative superiority, and Britain’s right to rule India based on that superiority.  Low-hanging fruit, maybe, but would Attridge agree that this is an accurate and important reading of Kim?  Maybe he would, but he should know that the nostalgic form of criticism he defends was denying or explaining away Kim’s imperialism at least up to the mid-1980s, on the same holistic grounds he seems to endorse here.

I don’t want to give Attridge a hard time, but his hand-wringing about the direction of criticism—he is “increasingly troubled"—seems anachronistic, not because he’s looking back to an older kind of criticism—I love that stuff—but because these debates have been going on for more than thirty years.

By tomemos on 03/18/09 at 08:51 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Let me offer an example. Here’s a long essay I wrote about “Kubla Khan." Up until the section “Low Down and Abstract” it is largely descriptive and analytical and gives more attention to the particularities of the text than any other account of the poem that I’m aware of, way more. But as an interpretation, it’s rather weak. I say little or nothing about who or what Kubla is or represents, nor the wailing woman, the ancient voices, the fountain, the damsel with a dulcimer, etc. It’s definitely not a trip down nostalgia lane — there’s too much analytic equipment for that. But it’s not an interpretation in the usual sense; it doesn’t ferret out hidden or implicit meanings. It’s something else.

That’s what we need, something else. And we create it example by example, not by ginning up some grand theory of what that something else might look like.

(Anyone who’s interesting in reading the essay should email me. I’ll send you a PDF that’s a bit more readable than the online text.)

By Bill Benzon on 03/18/09 at 09:36 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill, I look forward to reading the essay—but, like “The Sick Rose,” “Kublai Khan” is an extremely slippery poem, very un-literal (it’s a vision, after all).  I’d be curious to see what Attridgean criticism of narrative would look like, maybe just because that’s my field.

I also think the term “hidden meanings,” which you’ve come back to a couple of times, is a misnomer.  As Jonathan Mayhew says above, these meanings are not “hidden"—they just aren’t seen by everyone, and literature’s ability to produce different readings is part of what makes it worth studying in the first place.  I know as well as anyone the temptation to say, exasperatedly, that we all know what the work is “really about,” but on inspection we find that that impulse is largely based on a desire to push complicating details to the side, not on some greater insight into the true meanings of the text.

Which is obviously not to say that all readings or projects are equally valid—I worry that my comment above might be taken to say that anything an academic writes is okay if he or she can get paid for it, which wasn’t my intention.  But a dismissal of “hidden meanings” or “reading against the grain,” and a belief that one is obligated to “respond affirmatively” to the work, ends up being as distorting as the opposite extreme.

By tomemos on 03/18/09 at 10:07 AM | Permanent link to this comment

. . . literature’s ability to produce different readings is part of what makes it worth studying in the first place.

That’s the cliche, yes. I no longer believe it. Those readings are all post-facto creations conducted according to various more or less informal sets of “rules” – that’s what Bordwell examines. But there’s no particularly good reason to believe than any of the readings have much to do with how people understand texts. These techniques of reading are mostly 20th century creations. Were Shakespeare’s texts meaningless before modern interpretive strategies were invented? Of course not. Yet we are so invested in this business of interpretation that we talk as though there is no reading or even literature itself without these techniques. Put thus, the notion seems absurd. But that’s how the profession seems to function.

We really do need to figure something else. We can’t go back. That’s what I find so disappointing about so-called Darwinian criticism. In practice, it just goes back and dresses up old criticism in new terminology.

As for narrative, though I don’t know the literature well, it does seem to me that a lot of narratology is moving in a descriptive and analytic direction and has been doing so for quite awhile.

By Bill Benzon on 03/18/09 at 10:33 AM | Permanent link to this comment


“we are so invested in this business of interpretation that we talk as though there is no reading or even literature itself without these techniques.”

This is a straw man.

As someone interested in narratology, I certainly agree with your last point—but it seems to me that narratology is potentially just as prone to the “instrumentalism” that Attridge is complaining about.  At its least useful, narratological criticism can just consist of applying the same old terms (fabula, etc.) to one text after another.  And it also—at its most useful—involves a lot of the same “search for problems” which Attridge (and you, it seems like) decry.

I agree with you about evolutionary theory repackaging old critical techniques in “new” (actually obsolete) scientific language.  On the other hand, watch out for the beam in your eye, as an uncharitable interlocutor would say that you’re doing the same thing: basically talking about good ol’ formalism, but with a cognitive spin.

By tomemos on 03/18/09 at 10:45 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I wonder if the economic exigencies of the profession lead budding literary scholars to value certain types of interpretation over others.

When I was an English undergrad I knew a few professors who would have been happy to spend most of their time teaching those books that they valued and doing ‘weak’ readings (although I admit I’m not precisely sure what that entails), but who needed to publish for their career’s sake and found Pickle Analyses a useful tool for the purpose.

At any rate, I am now studying the Classics and I notice a marked difference both in the type of scholarship that my professors publish and in their attitude towards the texts themselves.  Perhaps because there is still work to be done at the level of reconstructing texts and figuring out the metrical pattern of such and such a poem, there doesn’t seem to be as much in the way of ‘instrumental’ literary criticism. 

While there are scholars who work to uncover the “underlying assumptions” regarding, say, Greek women or ‘the barbarian’ that are embedded in the Oresteia (and that’s important work), most of my professors exhibit both a sense of reverence for the text (a legacy of the earlier style of literary criticism?) that was often completely missing in the English department, as well a real interest in their own research (beyond what it can do to advance their careers.

There has certainly been a historical reluctance in the field to admit to the blatant misogyny etc. in the texts, and that’s pretty gross. But it still seems on the measure like a good thing that my professors don’t feel the need to hide their love of Homer or Plato when they are doing research.

By on 03/18/09 at 10:47 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Tomemos, of course it’s a strawman. But it’s a strawman that’s implicit in much of our professional discourse. As long as it’s only implicit it’s fine and dandy. Make it explicit and it becomes, as I said, “absurd” or, as you say, a “straw man.” But it’s still there, this sense that literary culture really needs our interpretations, could not get along without our readings, leaving the question of just how literary culture ever managed to survive and thrive before the 20th century creation of the professorate.

As for narratology and the search for problems, let me suggest an analogy to the natural history of life forms (aka biology). Until the 20th century much of that work was largely descriptive, simply describing life-forms and life-ways and cataloguing them. Dull stuff, not rocket science. But it’s what Darwin built his theories on and what he spent much of his time doing. Darwin’s precursors had to figure out how to make those descriptions, what to include, what to exclude. (Foucault talks about this in The Order of Things, Ch. 5, and Brian Ogilvie has written a book on it, The Science of Describing: Natural History in Renaissance Europe).

Well, we have to figure out how to describe literary works, what things to exclude and what to include. The problem with that as an intellectual program is twofold: 1) On the one hand, we think we already know how to do this. 2) On the other hand, it’s not sexy and exciting, doesn’t allow you to wrestle with deep truths and conflicts in each and every article and book. On the first, I’m pretty much convinced that we do have more to learn and on the second, we can still do that, but not as the central activity. We’ve got more foundational work to do.

. . . watch out for the beam in your eye, as an uncharitable interlocutor would say that you’re doing the same thing: basically talking about good ol’ formalism, but with a cognitive spin.

Of course, that’s how the game is played. We’re all spinning. Turn turn turn.

Note, however, that good ol’ formalism wasn’t really about examining the formal properties of individual works. It was a philosophical stance that allowed the critic to isolate the text from all biographical, historical, psychological and social context and examine it as a self-contained bearer-of-meaning. I actually look at the form of “Kubla Khan” and have quite a bit to say about it. And in the last third of the essay ("Low Down and Abstract” to the end) I do speculate about underlying psychology. But that’s not what I’m emphasizing here.

By Bill Benzon on 03/18/09 at 12:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m increasingly stupid.  Thus, for me, interpretation basically comes down to two questions about artistic ends and means:

1.  What goals is the author trying to accomplish?
2.  How is the author trying to accomplish those goals?

These questions rest on two assumptions:

1.  Authors are engaged in a purposeful activity in the act of writing.
2.  Authors draw on or create various means to accomplish their purposes via language.

(I’ll add that the great mystery of literary greatness comes down, for me, to these two questions: is the purpose worth the trouble, and are the means chosen the most effective to accomplish the purpose?

If interpretation engages the first two questions, theory engages the above two assumptions, while criticism, properly speaking, engages the two questions about greatness (or goodness).

So if you ask why and how Kipling has Kim do such and such an action, you’re in the realm of interpretation.  If you ask how do we know why and how Kipling has Kim do such and such an action, you’re in the realm of theory.  And if you ask was it good that Kipling has Kim do such and such an action, then you’re doing (aesthetic or moral or political) criticism. 

A good literary scholar or teacher should be doing all of the above work.  The wars over literature are too often just about people who do one section of the work complaining that everyone should do that section of the work. 

It’s a stupid way of looking at things, but as my diss adviser once told me, sometimes it’s best to be a little stupid.

By on 03/18/09 at 06:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

At the same time, is it not relevant that no one has done pickles (or whatever) yet, since presumably we’re all supposed to be finding new things to say about these texts?  It’s unclear to me what specific work would be produced by Attridge’s method, which seems ideal for teaching (I think it’s what a lot of us are already doing) but not very fertile for new critical work.

Sorry about the lag in responding here (I had to go to work and stuff). Maybe, as some commenters have suggested, all we do here is go back around a familiar circle. But to focus for now on the bit I’ve quoted from tomemos@8:51 (which is related to Cruss’s remark about “economic exigencies"), I’d say, “relevant” to the scholar is not the same as relevant to the work--even though I realize this is an uneasy distinction. You back away (@10:07) from implying that what counts is generating publishable stuff, but that’s what accounts for the array of “work that has searched a little too hard for any available niche” that, as you say, we are all ruefully aware of. That an activity is necessary for professional reasons does not of course rule out its interest or integrity, but the causation and dependency should be clearly the other way around, shouldn’t it? That is, we should need to do this work because it is intellectually (historically, culturally, etc.) important, revelatory, informative; the profession exists to support this endeavour--not the other way around.

I’m still not sure that Attridge’s own project can be characterized as “nostalgic,” but I haven’t been able to read further so far today. Like Bill (though for rather different reasons, or at least from a different context) I think “we do need to figure something else"--not, perhaps, exclusively, but in tandem. I don’t buy the analysis offered in, for instance, The Death of the Critic, with its emphasis on a return to “evaluation,” but (as I’ve written about here before) I do wonder about our professional complacency about being so alienated from or irrelevant to the wider reading public.

Also, just for the record, it’s “herself” etc. (It’s a common and understandable confusion.)

By Rohan Maitzen on 03/18/09 at 08:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Those readings are all post-facto creations conducted according to various more or less informal sets of “rules” – that’s what Bordwell examines. But there’s no particularly good reason to believe than any of the readings have much to do with how people understand texts.

This critique of professional literary interpretation on the basis that it is conducted according to rules seems to presume that non-professional literary interpretation—or simply “reading”—does not itself consist in post-facto creation conducted according to various more or less informal sets of “rules”. I’m not convinced that that is necessarily the case, but at any rate there’s a more significant issue here. Presumably, by “people”, Bill, you mean “ordinary folk”, non-professional critics, since it would be a very strained argument indeed to suggest that a professional critic’s reading had nothing to do with how that professional critic understood the text. But the only professional forms of criticism that claims or pretends to be offering readings that accord with how “people” understand texts are good ol’ new criticism and literary appreciationism. All the “theoretical” forms of criticism—as far as I’m aware—understand themselves to be aiming at an interpretation that is precisely not like how “people” understand texts. So exactly what kind of an objection is being made when you argue that “there’s no particularly good reason to believe than any of the [professional critical] readings have much to do with how people understand texts”?

There’s an old morality operating in that kind of objection—a romantic affirmation of the common and the intuitive against the specialist and the technical. I don’t see why the “value” of literature, or literature itself, can’t incorporate what “professional” critics make of literature. By all means, cognitive scientists have every right to seek out what “ordinary” people are doing or thinking when they read literature, but I don’t see how that negates the possible worth or intellectual insights of professional criticism. Moreover, good luck to those cognitive critics, and even to Bordwell’s program of developing an historical poetics, because they’re going to need it. I’m very sympathetic to the notion of a historical poetics (indeed, I think that terms describes much of what I think a lot of the “theoretical” interpretations I’ve read is doing), but in a world in which Literature is practiced—i.e. written, published, circulated, censored, read, dissected, burnt, taught, loved, suffered, snubbed, overlooked, translated, plagiarised, rewritten, recited, and much more—within and across a diversity of cultural contexts (national, institutional, religious, domestic, etc.) a historical poetics amounts just as much to a professional reception and use of literature (or cinema) as any of the other “theoretical” approaches. Or is literature (film, whatever) only for people who have the time and leisure to immerse themselves in the entire history of the medium?

By on 03/18/09 at 09:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

All the “theoretical” forms of criticism—as far as I’m aware—understand themselves to be aiming at an interpretation that is precisely not like how “people” understand texts.

I understand. And, to me, that implies that this professional activity misses the boat on how most of literary culture actually functions. Now, if Shakespeare’s poems and plays, for example, are just cultural frills, of no real importance in society past and present, then who cares? But if literary texts are somehow essential to society, then a criticism that misses the boat is a pretty sorry criticism, no?

So exactly what kind of an objection is being made when you argue that “there’s no particularly good reason to believe than any of the [professional critical] readings have much to do with how people understand texts”?

That it doesn’t tell us how and why literature functions in society?

There’s an old morality operating in that kind of objection—a romantic affirmation of the common and the intuitive against the specialist and the technical.

Not at all. If you look at what I actually do as a practical critic, in that essay on “Kubla Khan” for example, or (rather differently) in this essay on narrative, you’ll see that I’m quite happy with specialist and technical ideas. I’m not writing a brief for the simple words of simple folk. I’m writing a brief for a different kind of specialist discourse, a different kind of intellectual technique.

By Bill Benzon on 03/18/09 at 10:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

how and why literature functions in society

Okay. See, this is what has been missing thus far: an explicit statement of the purpose of literary studies as an academic and/or professional discipline. Much of the debate over what is/isn’t literature and how it should/shouldn’t be interpreted or studied, etc. is actually a debate over the intellectual and/or social purpose of literary studies. In one sense, that’s a trivially obvious statement, yet the debate rarely ever occurs at that level. Rather, different critics oppose different theories/methods/attitudes to others as though they are more adequate to a goal that is left unstated and presumed as obvious and consensual.

Me, I’m something of a pluralist on the question of literary studies’ purpose (though a “postmodern” pluralist, one who recognises that conflict and inconsistency are not only inevitable, but necessary and desirable, if plurality is to continue to expand). So, I don’t have any in-principle problem with pursuing literary studies in order to see how and why literature functions in society. I do have a problem, however, with attempts to set that as the overriding purpose of literary studies, and hence as the ground for assessing the validity, legitimacy, or utility of different approaches to the study of literature. I think there are possible goals for literary studies, and I don’t think that any one of them necessarily encompasses or overrides the others. (I should also add that I think that many post-colonial, marxist, new-historicist etc. engagements with literature in fact do contribute to an explanation of how and why literature functions in society, i.e. precisely through their focus on the institutional conditions to literary culture and its reproduction.)

The fact (or, perhaps, mere possibility) that literary studies has many possible purposes and that different approaches operate in the name of different purposes leads, in turn, to a question: how can critiques of given analytical techniques, approaches, etc. be received in such a way that they are understood as undertaken in the name of an overriding purpose for literary studies?

By on 03/19/09 at 12:39 AM | Permanent link to this comment

*be received in such a way that they are NOT understood as undertaken in the name of an overriding purpose for literary studies?

By on 03/19/09 at 01:10 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"I should also add that I think that many post-colonial, marxist, new-historicist etc. engagements with literature in fact do contribute to an explanation of how and why literature functions in society, i.e. precisely through their focus on the institutional conditions to literary culture and its reproduction.”

I wanted to call attention to this, because it’s an important point.  Bill seems to be conflating “the way people understand texts” with “the way literature functions in society.” But in fact literature, and all forms of culture, can function on us (including Ph.Ds) in ways we’re not immediately conscious of.  If that weren’t true, we would have to suppose that political campaigns, advertisements, and popular movies and TV shows only function on us on a conscious level.  (I know this is not what cognitive science would say, but it seems to be what Bill is saying, “wittingly or unwittingly.")

Oh, and Rohan, sorry about using the wrong pronoun!  What’s really embarrassing is that I think I knew that at one point, but clearly it didn’t stick…

By tomemos on 03/19/09 at 01:23 AM | Permanent link to this comment

. . . only function on us on a conscious level.

No, tomemos, that’s not what I’m saying, wittingly or unwittingly.

By Bill Benzon on 03/19/09 at 07:16 AM | Permanent link to this comment

This debate seems connected (at least Rohan’s strands of it) to Mark Bauerlein’s paper on the uselessness of humanities research and the disengagement students have as a result of it (reported here at the IHE with a link to the original paper):


(and as a side note, although I’m interested in his arguments against research, I remain completely unconvinced about his bits about disengaged students. Who goes to hang fawningly on their professors to ask them about the meaning of literature? Even when I had amazing profs as an undergrad, I did most of my “engagement” back in the dorms with fellow students, up till 3 in the morning talking literature and the meaning of life and dissecting what happened in lecture that day. I thought that was the _point_ of college!)

Although I disagree with much about Bauerlein’s argument, I do admit that teaching is cyclical whereas research has to be linear and progressive, and that this creates problems for literary scholars. Every year you get a new crop of undergraduates and you can do a very good job of teaching them just by handing them _Midsummer Night’s Dream_ and saying, hey, this is about pastoral and the escape from the city to the country, or whatever.

But _no one_ would ever get published now by simply writing a lovely summary of the themes of _Midsummer Night’s Dream_ or _Barchester Towers_ ---- it has been done already, and research has to always progress, always produce something that’s not only new but tops the previous research. This is why I quit being a Shakespearean my first semester of grad school --- it seemed impossibly pointless to try and read everything that had been written on Shakespeare and then come up with something nobody had said about him before. And yet, this is what we all have to do if we want a job!

That is why I was positively hurt by the pickling parody --- I still work on highly canonical, fully researched authors, and that is exactly the way I was trained to write and research; I would be thrilled to come up with as good an argument as that and make the pickles “resonate” with all the cultural work they are doing because if I wrote an article about Barchester Towers and my whole point was that it was about social rivalries it would not only be rejected but laughed out of the room!

Since the answer given to every single failed job aspirant is to publish, publish more and faster, this trend in criticism you attack is not going to change without transforming the economic structures of the academy that underlie it.

By Sisyphus on 03/21/09 at 12:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

research has to always progress, always produce something that’s not only new but tops the previous research

“Tops” is an interesting word here--as is your earlier word “progressive.” The implication might be that more recent analyses of Barchester Towers are better than those that have come before. I wonder: do we think that about literary research, that it is in fact moving the frontiers of knowledge forward in the same way that scientific research is? Maybe it is more that new readings supplement (complicate, amplify) than displace earlier ones. Or maybe newer ones are just different--in which case it isn’t really a “linear” process, is it? I don’t think I said that the research is “useless.” And I too work by the pickled model, though I try (perhaps we all do) to find a version of it that I feel finds a new route to something central to the text’s own major interests, problematic as those might be to narrowly define.

We had an interesting class discussion recently that seemed an example of this, on “Goblin Market.” A student presented a summary of an article (which I haven’t actually read) that interpreted the poem in light of concerns about adulteration and contamination in food in the 1850s--lead and copper and so on being used to artificially enhance the products to make them more appealing to consumers. While I can lots of ways to attach “GM” to this problem (clearly, the fruit Laura eats is ‘contaminated,’ she has what resemble symptoms of lead poisoning, etc.), the whole idea has a critical artifice to me: though perhaps CR drew on familiar tropes or images related to literal tainted food, I don’t think the poem is in any way about that.

I completely take your point about the need to transform assumptions and structures in the academy...not just jobs but tenure and promotion depend on production and measures are increasingly quantitative. Here in Canada, for instance, the major granting councils that support research keep trying to move to “consistent” evaluation methods for applications that erase the differences between the sciences and the humanities, making quantity (and pace) of publication predominant. Though I too disagree with some of what Bauerlein says (especially with his central point about the relationship between research and student engagement), the information he compiles about how our publications are (or, as he points out, aren’t) read, including by us, is worth trying to think and talk about.

By Rohan Maitzen on 03/24/09 at 08:26 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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