Editor's Choice

Weak reading

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.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less
3

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less
9

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image