Weak reading

by Rob Horning

20 March 2009


In a footnote to a post at The Valve about “weak reading,” English professor Rohan Maitzen adds a footnote that well sums up the problem with academic literary criticism. It’s a bit long, possibly longer than the post itself, but it warrants quoting in full

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.

The point here, I think, is that you don’t really need Barchester Towers to write that historical study of pickles, which is more interesting than Trollope, in a way. What more is there to understand about Barchester Towers? Why privilege it? Why not say Barchester Towers (which by the way is a very funny book worth reading) is intrinsically irrelevant to pickles, rather than vice versa? As objects for historical study, Trollope is no more important an object than pickles are. It’s just that most universities don’t have a food studies department, whereas they do have literature departments.

What are the reasons for that? Part of the point of having English departments, the argument goes, was to codify national greatness. This is especially obvious in classes dealing with American writers, which often adopt the theme of American exceptionalism as an important point of class discussion. Literature classes also serve as lectures in secular moralism, with English professors resolving ethical problems in texts to show both how the authors were deep, insightful souls and we the readers have become nearly as deep and insightful by reading those authors carefully. I find that dubious. In the main body of the post, Maitzen quotes from this exchange between scholars Derek Attridge and Henry Staten about this kind of reading.

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.

Somewhere Pierre Macherey is groaning. In A Theory of Literary Production, he argued that we should read for what texts specifically can’t say. The point of analysis is to determine what conditions make the work and its reception possible. “The real critical question is not: What is literature? (What does one do when one writes, or reads?) The question is: What kind of necessity determines the work? What is it really made from? The critical question should concern the material being used and the implements so employed.”

That’s a bit extreme, but Attridge and Staten veer in the wrong direction, I think, when they suggest one can define the “literary” for its own sake, as a transcendent quality worthy of study rather than a political tactic. Deeming something to be literature is only interesting in so far as we know what that dignified status accomplishes for those involved in articulating it. In itself, who cares what is literary?

As much as I am inclined to agree with Attridge and Staten and find clever counterintuitive, beside-the-point analyses of tangential elements in texts tiresome, their definition of “weak reading” has problems, some of which Maitzen points out. Namely, as she writes, that “a text’s own ‘theme’ is rarely obvious” and what is obvious to any given reader is “very much a result of one’s experience and preparation.” These differences in preparation and experience measure a specific kind of cultural capital—and bringing up poems presents an occasion for those with greater experience to realize that capital. In discussions about literature (another term that presents definitional problems, to say the least), literature professors get to dictate (for once) what is “truly important.”

What’s at stake for literature professors is maintaining control over the definition of what counts as literature, and maintaining the authority to impose that definition—the source of their capital—on everyone else. They tend to disguise this by maintaining that a concern for literature is a concern for the deep soundings of the human spirit—hence their tendency to generate ersatz moral philosophy. The pickle-centric sort of readings of texts go half the way toward dispensing with literature qua literature, but they still nod to the necessity of a literary occasion for launching into a study of material culture. But in these cases, the literary occasion serves as an excuse for doing history or anthropology without the same sort of rigor that historians and anthropologists might require from one another. This drives literary studies into further disrepute in the academy, which only then intensifies the calls from within the discipline for a return to a concern for “literature” to redeem the field. It devolves into what appears from the outside to be a racket, a self-protective fog of vague language and unfalsifiable assertions about “literariness,” which justifies the continued existence of literary scholars within universities which have become corporatized, instrumentalist.

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