Truths from books

by Rob Horning

30 August 2006


Brad DeLong pretty much sums up my experience in graduate school:

I observe that the idea that the best way to understand the political economy of the 1970s is through intensive, group, line-by-line study of an unfinished, inconsistent, and ambiguous text first drafted in the 1850s by a very smart, sometimes far-sighted, but definitely not divine human being—that that idea is already a delusion peculiar to those who were a little too good in school in seeking truths from reading books rather than seeking truths from facts.

He’s talking about reading Marx here, but I applied a similar approach to all the social theories I was exposed to, and to novels and poems as well. It seemed perfectly normal to dissect the words of Deleuze or Bakhtin or Freud to say something about the circumstances that produced Richardson’s novels. The way to support a point you wanted to make was to cleverly interpret the words of some exalted text, not collect more information that bore it out. I chose to study literature probably because I prefered close reading to research and dull fact-finding. Facts? Bah. I would have straight-facedly made the case, borrowed from Mary Poovey that facts were in themselves socially constructed and a recently invented category anyway. And I wrote many a paper speculating on social conditions based on anachronistic readings of old texts. But slowly I began to turn away from this methodology, perhaps because I began reading more widely in other disciplines or perhaps because the winds of academic fashion were blowing a different way. I yearned for rigor and began a project to read all the novels published in England from Clarissa to Burke’s Reflections, imagining the tedium and ascetism of this translated into a devoutly serious studious mission—something that would shift me away from the performative, near improvisional nature of English studies (where it seemed you carried over your arguments by the force of your creativity or the obscurity of your theoretical touchstones) to something more plodding and grounded. It didn’t help. How was I to know that what I was calling the “anxieties generated by incpient capitalism erupting in fictional texts” was not something else entirely, not an anachronism I was imposing? I had already lost the thread when I lost faith in the idea that I could peer into these texts and magically perceive something of the world that produced them by making inituitive interpretive leaps. And it occured to me that it was far more pertinent and vital to try to make sense of the world I lived in rather than one from two centuries ago, and that my interpretive intuitions would be much closer to valid when limited to the contemporary framework, which produced my hidden biases and assumptions in the first place. (Still, if you’d like my analysis of The Memoirs of Miss Sidney Biddulph, just let me know.)

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