(Re)Reading Close Reading

This past spring I found myself rereading the introduction to The Literature Workshop by Sheridan Blau. The book describes a “pedagogical awakening” he experienced, early in his teaching career, when he realized that as long as he was “engaged in the task of teaching [students] what my efforts to construct meaning had yielded for me, all I could do was show them what I had learned” (2). The paradox in Blau’s anecdote is that “as long as teachers are teaching, students are not going to learn, because the kind of experience teachers have that enable them to learn what they have to teach is the experience that students need to have, if they are to be the ones who learn” (2–3). Decades of empirical research into patterns of instruction and experiences of students in the classroom affirm “that insofar as instructors teach interpretations to students, they are not enabling those students to learn either how to acquire a valid and accurate experience of a literary text or how to produce such interpretations for themselves” (“How” 270). The persistence of this pedagogical challenge suggests that disciplinary debates about reading are less engaged with the assumptions about inquiry that structure the shared classroom experiences of teachers and students.

The exception are debates about close reading, especially when centered around interpretation, that engage the challenges students face with complex literary works. But although close reading is concerned with interpretation, Barbara Hernstein Smith reminds us, “the New Critics—certainly the first generation of them—were concerned less with establishing the meaning of a text than with understanding its operative machinery” (60). Jonathan Culler underscores that for the New Critics, the work of close reading was not “primarily to resolve difficulties but above all to describe them, to elucidate their source and implications” (“Closeness” 22). Culler suggests that even today, “close reading need not involve detailed interpretation of literary passages (though there is plenty of that around in close reading, especially when the texts in question are difficult to understand), but especially attention to how meaning is produced or conveyed.” Indeed hermeneutics (in contrast to poetics) is most often privileged in academic settings—whether as a preferred method for teaching reading in secondary or post-secondary institutions. Students are encouraged to generate “readings” of texts to demonstrate evidence of competency, critical literacy, and literary sophistication. A general term, as Peter Middleton puts it, “for a heterogeneous and largely unorganized set of practices and assumptions” (5), close reading remains the name for an organized framework of assumptions and practices.

This framework of assumptions and practices is useful in exploring some of the ways close reading has been used in the disciplinary work of interpretation. This association of close reading with interpretation has determined how we think about not only reading but literary and cultural transmission. More recently, close reading has been debated in critical studies concerned with both the radical discontinuity between past and present ways of thinking about nature, “the end of nature,” and in studies preoccupied with scales of time, for instance, in Jonathan Sachs’ concern with “temporal dissonance” (317) in Romantic writing, the “paradoxical temporality” David Farrier explores in Anthropocene poetics (6)—or what I am calling in an essay I wrote this past spring, “close reading the end of time.”1 As it propagates new vocabularies for reading in the Anthropocene, this critical discourse is testing the strengths and the limits of close reading while grappling with the fragility of disciplinary formations in the humanities.

In the forthcoming essay, to be published in a book of essays by Routledge press, I suggest that the future of close reading depends on a deeper questioning of the protocols of scholarly reading if not the hermetic institutional structures that reward particular ways of reading. The promise of close reading in the Anthropocene, I argue, begins in accepting the limited social value of demonstrative reading and embracing the constitutive power of close reading as a collective pedagogical practice.

In the editorial process, we decided to drop a brief summary of close reading. I include the brief summary below as it may be useful for other readers and writers.

A Brief History of Close Reading

The history of close reading makes visible complex theoretical and practical questions that preoccupy a disciplinary field organized around the study and interpretation of texts. Close reading took shape during the formation of English studies and contributed to the rise of literary criticism during the first half of the twentieth century. A concern with aesthetic theory and practical criticism informed the applications of close reading for a range of pedagogical, disciplinary, and institutional initiatives—most notably changing the subject matter of English from language to literature and the method of study from scholarship to criticism. The New Critics consolidated the field, explains Catherine Gallagher, “they promised to integrate English studies, overcoming the disjunction between graduate and undergraduate curricula, between specialized knowledge and general educational service; and they promised simultaneously to differentiate English even more sharply from its neighboring disciplines” (135). Close reading proved an effective method for teaching an expanding population of postsecondary students as well. It “benefited from being eminently teachable,” Andrew DuBois argues, “and the entrenchment of its methods, first in universities and then in secondary schools, attests to the amenability of that practice to practitioners of varying sophistication” (2). It is therefore not surprising that general principles and protocols for close reading are ubiquitous both in literacy instruction in K-12 curricula and in college-level courses in reading, writing, and literacy.

The general principles and practical protocols of close reading proved indispensable to both the rise of criticism as well as the need for a specialized practice for scholarship in the rapidly expanding field of literary studies. When “literary studies broadened into cultural studies,” Jane Gallop explains, “it was precisely through the power of this move to close-read nonliterary texts” (183). The result, N. Katherine Hayles observes, was that the “expansion into diverse textual realms meant that literature was no longer the de facto center of the field” (“How” 63). Scholars in literary and cultural studies “found a replacement in close reading, the one thing virtually all literary scholars know how to do well and agree is important.” However, in the professional debates about reading that followed—what it is, and what it is for—it is striking that the debates did not depend on knowing exactly what close reading entailed. Literary scholars “generally think they know what is meant by close reading,” Hayles points out, “but, looked at more closely, it proves not so easy to define or exemplify” (ADE 64). Though Smith makes the case that close reading has actually been exemplified in a number of ways, “from a New Critic unraveling Shakespearian puns in the 1930s to a Marxist scholar exposing the political unconscious of Victorian novels in the 1980s or, today, a first-grader ‘analyzing’ a book by Dr. Seuss in accord with the directives of the American national Common Core Curriculum” (57). Smith adds that the “texts varied from presumed literary masterpieces to works of popular culture and documents of manifest oppression; the discourses that directed their examination varied from Christian humanism to structuralist linguistics to queer theory; and the spirit in which they were examined.” Thus considered in retrospect, across the twentieth century, “whatever the mood, motive, or materials, if one was teaching literature or doing literary criticism in the Anglo-American literary academy, one was likely to be reading at least some individual texts closely” (58). These exemplifications of close reading—as well as the various moods, motives, and materials of literary scholars—demonstrate the persistence and adaptability of close reading.2

At the same time, according to Miranda Hickman, skepticism about the values of particular critics, and their institutional and cultural work, led the New Criticism (and close reading), to be “regarded as superseded in literary studies” and to be dismissed “as emblematic of the apolitical, ahistorical practices of the discipline that had to be overcome through the revolutions in theory, historical scholarship, and politically engaged criticism of the last four decades” (vii). Catherine Devereux, elaborating this association, adds that within “an academic discipline that itself foundationally and pervasively reproduced a system of social and political inequity, then, the New Criticism and its practice of close reading came to be understood as instruments for maintaining that system” (219).3 This understanding was reinforced by a rejection of the literary, and the associated formalist practice of close reading that, while expedient, made it difficult to assess the contributions of New Criticism to the educational project of literacy and as well as critical reflection on the purposes and values of literary and cultural studies.4

It is fair to wonder, then, whether a (re)turn to close reading as a shared practice may be useful, as it was for the New Critics in the early twentieth-century, in furthering the disciplinary preoccupations of scholars in the twenty-first century. For if a return to close reading is associated with what Devereux calls the “exclusionary, and deeply biased notion of the literary and of the discipline” of the New Critics—and close reading is associated with formalist readings of decontextualized aesthetic objects—then it may be time to move along. But for Devereaux, “if literature is not to be differentiated from any other kind of cultural production, the point of a discipline whose purpose is the study of literature becomes unclear (224). Indeed, as it turns out, the perennial debates over the inheritance of close reading are most often about the legacy and coherence of literary studies, the literary practices of reading and writing, and the critical and philosophical problems these practices quite naturally raise across the humanities and social sciences.

Notes

1. The encounter is between human time (at its end) and deep time. I am also thinking here of Bruno Latour’s description of the present condition in An Inquiry into Modes of Existence: An Anthropology of the Moderns, in which he elaborates “an entirely new situation: behind us, attachments; ahead of us, ever more attachments. . . . End of modernization. End of story. Time to start over.” Latour goes on to say that “‘Gaia,’ the ‘Anthropocene’ era, the precise name hardly matters.” The point is cancelling “forever of the fundamental distinction between Nature and Society by means of which they were establishing their system of coordinates, one step at a time. Starting from this event, everything has become more complicated for them” (10).

2. John Guillory makes a distinction, however, between close reading and reading closely, in “Close Reading: Prologue and Epilogue.” Close reading “as a modern academic practice” does not mean the same thing as “reading closely, which arguably describes many different practices of reading from antiquity to the modern era” (8). The literature on close reading as an academic practice is extensive. Lentricchia and DuBois argue that “paying attention to the literary text in and of itself may or may not seem a given; at any rate, it is a notion which, whether or not necessary in the collective mind of our critical era, seems nonetheless natural to scholarship” (4). Examples include Jane Gallop, “The Historicization of Literary Study and the Fate of Close Reading Profession” and “Close Reading in 2009”; John Guillory, “Close Reading: Prologue and Epilogue”; and Jonathan Culler, “The Closeness of Close Reading.” Also see Paul de Man’s account of Ruben Brower’s influence at Harvard in the 1950s ‘‘Students,’’ writes de Man, “were not to say anything that was not derived from the text they were considering. They were not to make any statements that they could not sup- port by a specific use of language that actually occurred in the text. They were asked, in other words, to begin by reading texts closely as texts and not to move at once into the general context of human experience or history. Much more humbly or modestly, they were to start out from the bafflement that such singular turns of tone, phrase, and figure were bound to produce in readers attentive enough to notice them and honest enough not to hide their non-understanding behind the screen of received ideas that often passes, in literary instruction, for humanistic knowledge” (23).

3. Devereux’s description of the fate of New Criticism appears in “‘A Kind of Dual Attentiveness’: Close Reading after the New Criticism,” in which she explains that in some of the “late-twentieth-century debates about the destructive implications for English studies of race theory, feminist critique, postcolonialism, queer, class, cultural, and popular culture studies, close reading came to be represented by scholars outside the theory camp as the whipping boy of various leftist agendas” (331). The New Criticism’s “role in an unequal workplace had to be assessed, and its effects on the discipline had to be addressed. Also see Jane Gallop, who writes, “The time was ripe for . . . a course correction: ahistoricism had been persuasively linked to sexism, racism, and elitism; attacks on the canon had called into question the notion of timeless works; literary studies had been ahistorical for too long” (181).

4 Brenkman, “Extreme Criticism,” provides a polemical account. For a more generous reassessment of New Criticism, see Miranda B. Hickman and John D. McIntyre, Rereading the New Criticism. They write in their “Preface” that the strategy of the New Critics “in order to establish the distinctness of the literary–critical endeavor also contributed to this widespread understanding of their criticism as dismissing what was beyond the text: they turned decisively away from approaches in the field of English that focused on literary history, read literature for philosophical insights, or appraised literature through overtly moral criteria.” As Hickman and McIntyre explain, their polemical move “to define and legitimize criticism during an era when criticism was widely regarded as a slight endeavor that ‘anyone could do—often suggested that the work of these other approaches was less worthwhile than that of literary criticism. But according to New Critics such as Ransom and Brooks, New Critical distinctions between the ‘work itself’ and what lay beyond it, and between criticism and other kinds of work with respect to literature, never implied that commentary that engaged extratextual matters was without value, nor that they themselves ignored such matters altogether” (26).

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