Stephen Best & Sharon Marcus, “Surface Reading”

2009

“ABSTRACT In the text-based disciplines, psychoanalysis and Marxism have had a major influence on how we read, and this has been expressed most consistently in the practice of symptomatic reading, a mode of interpretation that assumes that a text’s truest meaning lies in what it does not say, describes textual surfaces as superfluous, and seeks to unmask hidden meanings. For symptomatic readers, texts possess meanings that are veiled, latent, all but absent if it were not for their irrepressible and recurring symptoms. Noting the recent trend away from ideological demystification, this essay proposes various modes of “surface reading” that together strive to accurately depict the truth to which a text bears wit- ness. Surface reading broadens the scope of critique to include the kinds of interpretive activity that seek to understand the complexity of literary surfaces—surfaces that have been rendered invisible by symptomatic reading.”

Best and Marcus begin by explaining the history of the piece, stemming mainly from the intellectual work of scholars in English & Comp Lit who have completed their PhDs in the 1980s and after:

“As literary critics, we were trained to equate reading with interpretation: with assigning a meaning to a text… we take for granted that the texts we read and interpret include canonical and non-canonical literary works. We also feel licensed to study objects other than literary ones, using paradigms draw from anthropology, history, and political theory, which themselves borrowed from literary criticism an emphasis on close reading and interpretation after the linguistic turn of the 1970s” 1.

“One factor enabling exchanges between disciplines in the 1970s and 1980s was the acceptance of psychoanalysis and Marxism as metalanguages. It was not just any idea of interpretation that circulated among the disciplines, but a specific type that took meaning to be hidden, repressed, deep, and in need of detection and disclosure by an interpreter. This ‘way’ of interpreting went by the name of ‘symptomatic reading’…[we] became attached to the power it gave to the act of interpreting, and find it hard to let go of the belief that texts and their readers have an unconscious” 1.

“What about now? In the last decade or so, we have been drawn to modes of reading that attend to the surfaces of texts rather than plumb their depths. Perhaps this is because, at the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, so much seems to be on the surface” 1-2.

Contrary to Jameson’s “paranoid” 1981 assertion that ideology does not manifest transparently and that the text does not “mean just what it says,” the first decade of the 21st century has immediately circulated images of Abu Ghraib, the abandonment of the victims of Hurricane Katrina, and the simplifying rhetoric of the Bush era.

“We find ourselves the heirs of Michel Foucault, skeptical about the very possibility of radical freedom and dubious that literature or its criticism can explain our oppression or provide the keys to our liberation. Where it had become common for literary scholars to equate their work with political activism, the disasters and triumphs of the last decade have shown that literary criticism alone is not sufficient to effect change” 2.

So why does lit crit matter? The issue plans “to perform a self-assessment, to survey the present – the deictic ‘now’ carrying with it a note of urgency. It connotes change” 2. Many of the essays are from a conference celebrating the 25th anniversary of Jameson’s The Political Unconscious, “the book that popularized symptomatic reading among U.S. literary critics” 3. In committing those pieces to print, Best and Marcus ask that the authors consider “what alternatives to symptomatic reading currently shape their work, and how those alternatives might pose new ways of reading” 3. The emphasis is on nascent ways of reading that do not cancel out prior models, but have significant overlap in their modes of invention, like “Swann’s way, which initially appears separate from the Guermantes way but turns out to be connected to it at key points’ 3. Best & Marcus define symptomatic reading:

“Broadly speaking, this practice encompasses an interpretive method that argues that the most interesting aspect of a text is what it represses, and that, as Fredric Jameson argued, interpretation should therefore seek “a latent meaning behind a manifest one” (60). The interpreter “rewrite[s] the surface categories of a text in the stronger language of a more funda- mental interpretive code” (60) and reveals truths that “remain unrealized in the surface of the text” (48). As the letter of invitation to the 2008 con- ference put it, symptomatic reading asserts that “what a text means lies in what it does not say, which can then be used to rewrite the text in terms of a master code. By disclosing the absent cause that structures the text’s inclu- sions and exclusions, the critic restores to the surface the deep history that the text represses”” 3.

“When symptomatic readers focus on elements present in the text, they construe them as symbolic of something latent or concealed; for example, a queer symptomatic reading might interpret the closet, or ghosts, as surface signs of the deep truth of a homosexuality that cannot be overtly depicted. Symptomatic readings also often locate outright absences, gaps, and ellipses in texts, and then ask what those absences mean, what forces create them, and how they signify the questions that motivate the text, but that the text itself cannot articulate” 3.

For Best & Marcus, this often entails conflation, particularly of present/absent, manifest/latent, and surface/depth 3. These three sets of terms are incompatible in that

“What is absent is simply not there; what is latent is present but invisible, unrecognized either because it is concealed or because it is undeveloped; what is deep is fully present and thus theoretically visible, but is positioned so far down, in, or back relative to a viewer, or is so completely covered by an opaque surface, that it can only be detected by an extreme degree of penetration or insight. The different connotations of manifest and surface are especially significant. The surface is associated with the superficial and deceptive, with what can be perceived without close examination and, implicitly, would turn out to be false upon closer scrutiny. The manifest has more positive connotations, as what is truthful, obvious, and clearly revealed” 4.

Best & Marcus explain that the “veiled” nature of such readings stretches, according to Umberto Eco, back to the Gnostics of the 2nd century CE, who pushed against the Greek philosophical belief of “reason as noncontradiction” to “posi[t] truth as secret, deep, and mysterious, and language as inadequate to meaning” 4. (This seems particularly apt for interpreting modernist texts, where a crisis in language & representation results in specific kinds of repression and experimentation that would benefit from such analysis.) However, even Plato acknowledges that truth is “recessive,” or is not evidenced directly by sensual experience 4.

In the 19th century, Marx’s exploration of ideology and Freud’s fixation with the unconscious deepened (pun intended) this paradigm 4. As Carlo Ginzburg writes of Freud, “infenitesimal traces permit the comprehension of a deeper, otherwise unattainable reality” 4. (Think about how this FAILS in Nabokov and Pynchon.) For Best & Marcus, “those traces are clues, symptoms, details on the surface that indicate the form and content of hidden depths to the trained and intuitive interpreter” 4. The authors cite Ricoeur, whose essay on Freud connects such modes of reading almost explicitly to the literary through the vehicle of “symbolic language,” or that which “means something other than what is said… to interpret is to understand a double meaning” 4-5. (vs. what if the surface means or symbolizes accurately or at least metonymically?) This has less to do with symbol as “revealed meaning” than “the demystification of illusion,” making “the hermeneutics of suspicion… a general property of literary criticism even for those who did not adhere strictly to psychoanalysis” 5.

Best & Marcus also explain how Marxist writers contributed to this mode of reading, namely Althusser, who mimicked what he saw as Marx’s own reading mode, which “divulges the undivulged event in the text it reads, and in the same movement relates it to a different text, present as a necessary absence in the first” 5. By making “lacunae perceptible,” Althusser “assumes that texts are shaped by questions they do not themselves pose and contain symptoms that hep interpreters articulate those questions, which lie outside texts as their absent causes” 6. This is opposed to the “religious phantasm of epiphanic transparency” in Althusser’s words, a move against the synecdoche of logos, where “each part immediately expresses the whole and there is no split between manifest and latent meaning” 6. (I guess what I would like to think about is some kind of combinatory system – a reading of the “heaps of fragments” Jameson identifies as both surface and content, or surfaces as content, conglomerated and faceted together sans suture.) Ironically, Althusser’s opposition to religious understanding, similar to Derrida’s “critique of truth as presence,” is rooted in the Gnostic belief that the truth is “too complex to describe” 5.

For Jameson, Best & Marcus point out, “only weak descriptive, empirical, ideologically complicit readers attend to the surface of the text” 5. The “strong” critic, on the other hand, “rewrite[s] narrative in terms of master codes, disclosing its status as ideology, as an imaginary resolution of real contradictions” 5. If for Althusser, the text is shaped by absences of many kinds, for Jameson, the absence is always history, and interpretation always an “‘unmasking’; meaning is the allegorical difference between surface and depth; and the critic restores to the surface the history that the text represses” 5. Jameson actually phrases this as the “semantic enrichment and enlargement of the inert givens and materials of a particular text” (!) 5. (This seems oddly immaterial!) Best & Marcus almost comically acknowledge the way that this “presented professional literary criticism as a strenuous and heroic endeavor, one more akin to activism and labor than to leisure, and therefore fully deserving of renumeration” 5-6. (Truth.) Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet (1991) and Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992) are prime examples, setting trends for how sexuality and race would be theorized in the nineties, through “silences, gaps, style, tone, and imagery as symptoms… absent only apparently” 6.

Moving forward, Best & Marcus divide their contributors into those who wish to vary, supplement, or critique symptomatic reading. At either end of the spectrum are:

“Those who want to continue using some version of symptomatic reading differ from one another in the degree of their willingness to stay inside texts, in contrast to Jameson’s prac- tice of moving beyond the text and across several interpretive “horizons” to reach frameworks too vast and abstracted to achieve direct textual expression (75). Those who take the greatest distance from symptomatic reading do so either to be less resisting, masterful readers or as part of a larger pro- ject of attending to the material life of books and thus to the many things done to and by books that do not involve reading at all. Almost all our contributors also seize on the surface/depth distinction so central to symptomatic interpretation in order to articulate what is new about the way we read now” 6.

Mary Crane’s “Surface, Depth, and the Spatial Imaginary” considers the metaphors of surface and depth that Jameson himself employs in The Political Unconscious, considering the unconscious not as repression, but rapidity, vis a vis cognitive science 6. If Jameson sees history as “the dialectical conflict between freedom and necessity,” for Crane, these contradictions are not hidden but manifest 6. Moreover, Jameson’s “figurations of surface – as sediment, disguise, exoskeleton, and horizon” are incompatible 7. Does the reader expose the surface by removing it, or “exrete” it like “a carapace”? 7. In finding contradictions in Jameson’s work itself, Crane seeks not to view them as “the veiled operations of history,” but instead as the “spatial imaginary” – “an effect of how cognition works” 7.

Margaret Cohen’s “Narratology in the Archive of Literature” claims Jameson has a narrow selection of genres, making him overvalue symptomatic reading. If Jameson wants to gesture to “the horizon,” to “invisible levels of structural causality that only the critic can make visible,” Cohen “conceives of a horizon as a legible set of points one can use to navigate within a literary field” 7. The horizon for Cohen consists of the historical context of works, which often illuminates its seemingly illegible surfaces, thus seeing Lord Jim not as “sublime prose,” but in the epistemological framework of maritime writing, with its emphasis on “information, navigation, and practical reason” 7.

Christopher Nealon’s “Reading on the Left” suggests that Jameson and other Marxists like Badiou, Agamben, and Negri see matter as having priority over human action, while existentialists like Sartre “believe that human action has priority over matter” 7. All share an interest in whether the political is imposed on the literary or inherent in it 8. For Nealon, poetry in particular “enacts the struggle between matter and human action rather than the victory of one over the other,” finding “the conflict between freedom and capitalism already present in poetry, which ceaselessly configures and reconfigures matter” 8. The politics are in the poem, rather than brought or plumbed by the critic, so that “the surface of the poem can thus contain its own hermeneutic; hermeneutics is not what critics do to the poem, since interpretation is happening in the poem” 8. In sum, the critic need only register the poem, not sauce it in theory, since “the very literariness of poetry emerges from bids for freedom internal to capitalism, not from revolutionary breaks with it” 8.

Leah Price’s “From The History of a Book to a ‘History of the Book'” explores going “beyond the act of reading itself” 8. She focuses on the materiality of the book – how it is used, exchanged, etc., rather than actually read. (This makes me think of Foer’s and Shteyngart’s obsessiveness about the materiality of the book.) Through what she calls “it-narratives,” stories of how objects move between hands, she emphasizes “the literal surface of books, often missed in a hasty desire to plumb the depths of texts” and reconsiders “the classic opposition between the inert surface of things and the vibrant depths of persons” and revealing a more vibrant objecthood than normally considered 8.

Anne Cheng’s “Skins, Tattoos, and Susceptibility” “urges that we replace suspicion and critical mastery with a susceptibility that could undo the dichotomy between subject and object” 8. (This makes me think of the MLA 2014 “Vulnerabilities” theme, as well as The Master as a film that questions what reading and mastery mean in “face-to-face” contact.) For Cheng, “we can never separate surface from depth” because “underneath surface there is only more surface,” so that she advocates instead for a

“mutual pedagogy of erotics” in which the critic inhabits and is inhabited by what she studies, and embraces the loss of critical certainty and the gain in intimacy that result. Cheng sees a hermeneutics of suspicion as allied with a politics of identity, since what often motivates the reading of the surface as a symptom of hid- den depths is the desire to restore and make visible the authenticity veiled by spectacle. She suggests that we replace the symptom, which depends on the contrast between surface and depth, with a constellation of multiple surfaces understood as concealing nothing. The essay itself does this by juxtaposing multiple representations of surfaces: Adolf Loos’s writings on architectural cladding, the facade of a house he designed for Josephine Baker, and Baker’s photographic presentation of her body, especially its skin. If critics fasten their attention on these surfaces, she argues, they can see how the modern and the primitivist exist on a single plane. The streamlined modernist surface associated with white masculine subjects merges with the black woman’s skin, marked by ascriptions of nudity on the one hand and over- adornment on the other. Though skin and the facade are marked by sex and race, they are thus also sites where racial and sexual distinctions break down” 8-9.

Surface becomes, in this volume, less “a layer that conceals, as clothing does skin, or encloses, as a building’s facade does its interior,” than “what is evident, perceptible, apprehensible in texts; what is neither hidden nor hiding; what, in the geometrical sense, has length and breadth but no thickness, and therefore covers no depth. A surface is what insists on being looked at rather than what we must train ourselves to see through” 9. The authors suggest 3 old and 3 new modes of such reading:

OLD

• surface as materiality – the history of the book, cognitive reading, bibliography, histories of reading and circulation linking producers, sellers, and users, the material workings of the brain (readers imitate Scarry’s idea of “the material conditions” structuring perception by “picturing one surface passing in front of another, since surfaces are easier to imagine than three-dimensional objects) 9-10. (This reminds me of The Master again, but also of Jonathan Crary’s reading of the stereoscope and the uneasiness of 3D.) For Scarry, the literary arts infuse our imagination, and we latch onto that which we can imagine to pin down the rest – flowers, for example, are “the surfaces on which the images will get made,” she writes 10.

• surface as the intricate verbal structure of literary language – related to New Formalism (Samuel Otter here), this form of reading moves slowly from text to context, and is “a valorization of surface reading as willed, sustained proximity to the text” 10. This hearkens back to I.A. Richards’ idea that the craft of reading and writing about literature entails a careful attendance to its formal properties 10.

embrace of the surface as an affective and ethical stance – “accepting texts, deferring to them instead of mastering or using them as objects,” this approach “refuses the depth model of truth, which dismisses surfaces as inessentail and deceptive. An early and influential statement of this approach was Susan Sontag’s ‘Against Interpretation’ (1966), which argued that interpreters do not disclose the text’s true meaning but alter it” 10. Critics, for Sontag should “show what it is,” rather than “show what it means” 10. “Sontag’s manifesto against the model of interpretation drawn from Freud and Marx refused the notion that meaning and content define the work of art and proposed that we set aside the theory of mimesis in favor of the experience of art in its ‘pure, untranslatable, sensuous immediacy,’ a stance that she also called ‘an erotics of art'” 10. For Best & Marcus, “such an erotics can take the form of attending to the text, or to one’s affective responses to it” 10. This is tied also to Sedgwick’s “reparative reading,” Timothy Bewes’ “reading with the grain,” and Jane Gallop on the ethics of close reading 11.

NEW

attention to surface as a practice of critical description – “texts can reveal their own truths because they mediate themselves” 11. Criticism thus becomes the more “modest” project of “indicat[ing] what the text says about itself” 11. Not the same as de Man’s “void” separating poetic intent and reality, this approach is nevertheless intrigued by the idea of the text’s “foreknowledge” of its own critique 11. (Is this reparative of Jameson’s bravado about theory and its overinflated place in the 80s? An attempt to place art on its pedestal? A theoretical incarnation of the New Sincerity?) Here, “depth is continuous with surface and is thus an effect of immanence” 11.

• surface as the location of patterns that exist within and across texts – “this notion includes narratology, thematic criticism, genre criticism, and discourse analysis. Symptomatic reading looks for patterns in order to break free of and reach beyond them to a deep truth too abstract to be visible or even locatable in a single text [mentions Jameson’s rectangles of ideology]… to move toward what lies outside them. Surface readers, by contrast, find value in the rectangles themselves and locate narrative structures and abstract patterns on the surface, as aggregates of what is manifest in multiple texts as cognitively latent but semantically continuous with an individual text’s presented meaning… the critic becomes an anatomist breaking down texts or discourses into their components, or a taxonomist arranging and categorizing texts into larger groups… into new forms but nonetheless attend[ing] to what is present rather than privileg[ing] what is absent” 11. (See Clifford Siskin on realism and media history, and Marc Angenot on “the prevailing sayable,” where “what defines ideology is its dispersal, and to understand it we must chart its extent as a commonplace worldview, not expose its falsity” 12). (This seems relevant to my issues with Marxist critique reproducing the same utopian strategies rather than looking at texts as they are.)

• surface as literal meaning – “What Sharon Marcus has called ‘just reading'” – like “female friendship in Victorian novels, which has often been read as a cover story for an other wise unspeakable desire between women… female friends rarely lose their centrality in novels with marriage plots, but critics have overlooked this out of an insistence on reading female friendship as something other than it is… Taking friendship in novels to signify friendship is thus not mere tautology; it highlights something true and visible on the text’s surface that symptomatic reading had ironically rendered invisible” 12. (This seems relevant to my beef with Judith Butler – what of the rest of performance, constituted by actual sexual desire and material reality, versus an idealized revolution of performance?) This is also like Ann Stoler’s argument for the never-concealed violence of imperialism or Benjamin Kahan’s argument that celibacy is simply sex that is not there, rather than necessarily repressed homosexuality 12. (Again, how this works with overtly queer texts, ironically understudied by queer theorists.)

Such “literal readings… take texts at face value” 12. For Stephen Best, this also connects to the “impossible speech” of slaves believing themselves freed – speech that “oscillates between loyalty and insurgency, speech and paraphrase, fact and prophecy, confession and coercion, and in that sense reflects back to us the deeply felt uncertainty of the enslaved” 12. (I love the use of “reflects” here, itself a “superficial” figuration). Such superficial uncertainty relates to Tamarkin’s argument about the American love of class and caste – as a fascination both with deference and with hard-won independence 13.

Foucault himself spoke in an interview of the archive not as “relations that are secret, hidden, more silent, or deeper than consciousness” but “the relations on the very surface of discourse” that would “make visible what is invisible only because it’s too much on the surface of things” 13. (This reminds me of the end of History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, where he imagines sex and power similarly.) For Best & Marcus, “just reading sees ghosts as presences, not absences, and lets ghosts be ghosts, instead of saying what they are ghosts of” 13. (Like uncertainty in Beloved, according to Serpell and repetition.) So what now? What does surface reading afford us?

“Can surface reading be anything other than a tacit endorsement of the status quo, the academic version of resignation’s latest mantra, “It is what it is”? These questions are especially urgent because many of our most powerful critical models see criticism as a prac- tice of freedom by locating autonomy, self-reflexiveness, detachment, and liberatory potential either in the artwork itself or in the valiant labor of the critic. In the former case, a measure of heroism is attributed to the artwork due to its autonomy from ideology; the latter makes the critic a hero who performs interpretive feats of demystification. The surface readers in this volume place noticeably less faith than many other critics in the heroic qualities of art, and they understand their critical activity as something other than wresting truths from the hidden depths of resisting texts” 13.

What modes of reading lie between the “two poles of critical freedom? 13. The New Formalists like Marjorie Levinson are on one side, reasserting the primacy of the freedom that “lies in asethetic objects and aesthetic play” – the agency of the text 13. This is opposed to New Historicism’s “attacks on literary form” 14.

“In this essentially modernist view of art as a locus of critical autonomy, reading becomes what Levinson calls “learned submission,” which is not as submissive as it sounds, because in submitting to the artwork, we come to share its freedom, by experiencing “the deep challenge that the artwork poses to ideology, or to the flat- tening, routinizing, absorptive effects associated with ideological regimes.” Immersion in texts frees us from the apathy and instrumentality of capitalism by allowing us to bathe in the artwork’s disinterested purposelessness” 14.

(I am more interested in a less passive reader, and in the mental construction of texts collaboratively in space and time.) Levinson herself acknowledges that this approach sees the work’s “sovereignty over itself,” rather than “dialectically, as an expression of struggles with its historical conditions and limits” 14. This approach maps well onto Adorno’s work; in “Commitment” he claims that art resists solely by being art, even with a gun to the head 14. Though detachment is never complete, the bid to detach offers for Adorno “instructions for the praxis they refrain from: the production of life lived as it ought to be” 14. (Once again, a didactic Marxist formulation of art.) Adorno thus advocates for mimesis between critic and object, without the necessity of Kantian distance or disinterestedness. (Recall Byatt’s “religion of Wallace Stevens”!)

On the other hand are the critics “who believe that the text is a mystification and that the critic must therefore distance himself from it by adopting a point of view at variance with its optic… freedom emerges from an agon with the ideological text” 15. Jameson’s Political Unconscious epitomizes this, as it “posits the Marxist critic as heroic in his or her own right, wrestling to free the truth hidden in the depths of the text” 15. Here the agency of the critic, and not the text, is emphasized, and Mary Crane even points out this “penetration” of the “exoskeleton” to drag up “massy and dripping” “a historical ideology” 15. Thus the critic is author because free in his interpretation 15. Best & Marcus find in Jameson an Augustinian transcendence, though it is humanist rather than deifying. For Crane,

“Just as historical facts have only limited validity for Augustine, whose master code was Christianity, non-Marxist codes have only “sectoral validity” for Jameson, who overtly takes as his mission the task of rewriting texts in terms of a master code (10). Similarly, “always historicize” is a transhistorical imperative whose temporality matches the eternity Augustine ascribed to God. Where Augustine viewed God as the best author, Jameson sees the critic as the best author, and it is Jameson’s transcendent faith in his critical values that allows him to insist, contra the poststructuralist critics whom he debates in his first chapter, “On Interpretation,” that we must interpret texts and posit their meanings (58). Though Jameson distances himself from deconstructionists in this regard, his foundational belief in Marxism corre- sponds to their foundational belief in antifoundationalism, a belief that poses an irreconcilable contradiction for their thought” 15.

I find Best & Marcus’ approach, in the end, the most stimulating. “At our most speculative and exploratory, we want to ask what it might mean to stay close to our objects of study, without citing as our reason for doing so a belief that those objects encapsulate freedom” 15. This comes partly from “a sense of political realism about the revolutionary capacities of both texts and critics,” and from “doubts about whether we could ever attain the heightened perspicacity that would allow us to see fully beyond ideology” 16. This bespeaks a more neutral stance about the potential of art – less as a “project of freedom” with utopian potential and more as an experience in a “landscap[e] neither utopian nor dystopian” 16. For example,

“Cohen is interested in the world of work and information that unfolds on ships, but stops short of the suggestion that we generalize from life at sea to life itself; Nealon does not take his central poet to task for her interest in fashion and other phenomena that mimic the antic pace of the commodity’s life and death in capitalism; Cheng recognizes that Baker’s composition of herself as modern was inseparable from her objectification of herself as primitive” 16.

“Surface reading, which strives to describe texts accurately, might easily be dismissed as politically quietist, too willing to accept things as they are. We want to reclaim from this tradition the accent on immersion in texts (with-out paranoia or suspicion about their merit or value), for we understand that attentiveness to the artwork as itself a kind of freedom. This strikes an ideal expressed most succinctly by Charles Altieri: “an ideal of being able not to worry about performing the self… to enjoy what and where one is without having to produce any supplemental claims that promise some ‘sig-nificance’ not immediately evident.” To some ears this might sound like a desire to be free from having a political agenda that determines in advance how we interpret texts, and in some respects it is exactly that. We think, however, that a true openness to all the potentials made available by texts is also prerequisite to an attentiveness that does not reduce them to instrumental means to an end and is the best way to say anything accurate and true about them” 16.

All this is opposed to the critic’s freedom being circumscribed as the adversary of the text, against the idea of “the text’s deceptive, ideological surface,” this entails “a paradoxical space of minimal critical agency” 17. Best & Marcus highlight the turn to machine intelligence (to “correct for [the critic’s] subjectivity, by using machines to bypass it”), since “computers are weak interpreters but potent describers” 17. Objectivity has become “taboo” in literary studies, they claim, but why? This approach would expand literary criticism, aiming to analyze in new ways what is unique about the cultural products we create, versus the sciences, which focus on “pr0cesses beyond our creation and control” 17. (This sounds like a sociological or anthropological approach? Ties back to the article’s opening? Not sure I buy it wholesale.) Another mode of thinking would entail “minimal agency” a la Anne-Lise Francois, “complaisance without hope,” or “bearing witness to the given” 17-18. (Think also of Terada’s “looking away”?)

“Instead of turning to literature for models of how to overcome constraint, or for a right way to live under capital, or to register the difference between our critical freedom and the limits placed on others, we are interested in how to register the ways that constraints structure existence as much as breaking free of them does. The neutrality of description is thus not neutrality about the constraints themselves, which we may find ourselves moved to deplore, but neutrality about the existences entwined with them, which we would like to be able to recognize without judging” 18.

Surface reading is slow and requires attention: “As much as our objects of study may conceal the structures that give rise to them, they also wear them on their sleeves; that the moments that arrest us in texts need not be considered symptoms, whose true cause exists on another plane of reality, but can themselves indicate important and overlooked truths” – think of Poe’s “Purloined Letter,” hidden in plain sight from “detectives who look past the surface in order to root out what is underneath it” 18.  Perhaps criticism lacks “the power to confer freedom,” but if it is to “challenge the state of things,” it must not produce distorted portrayals 18. If we can never set aside the biases in our responses, we can at least “describe them accurately,” and our subjectivity sometimes does and sometimes does not help us read more clearly 18. Best & Marcus close with a question from Bruno Latour on conservatives and global warming: if we spent a long time looking for “the real prejudices behind the appearance of objective statements, do we now have to reveal the real objective and incontrovertible facts hidden behind the illusion of prejudices?… [the critic] is not the one who debunks, but the one who assembles” 19. In this sense, both psychoanalysis and Marxism remain valuable to surface reading, even as it poses a mode of reading that moves away from them as well.

 

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