Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Close Reading

There were many good points made in response to my post about re-reading and close reading.

The first thing I want to say is that with close-reading I both do and do not mean something more specific than a lot of the commentators. I tend to see it as a New Critical model: the idea of a delineated text (usually a single poem, a single novel etc) which works more or less organically (every piece plays a part, no noise in art, by "reading" we uncover how the parts work together).

According to this model, Zizek is not doing close readings. He tends to find bits and pieces from various texts and string them together to show his Hegelian-Lacanian theories. In the process he uncovers great "readings" of texts (Lynch, Hitchcock etc), but the texts are part of the Symbolic Order, not an organic and enclosed work.

But I must admit that sometimes "close reading" also means something wider to me - something like a hermeneutic attitude towards art.

Key point (from Mark Wallace): "In other words we all know why the re-readable text is considered valuable; its nuances etc etc lead to new pleasures and insights. But how do we value texts that don't work that way? As concept? In performance? If we like them, what is it about them that we like? Those issues aren't talked about as much and so answers to them don't always leap immediately to hand."

This largely sums up my feelings. The close-reading leads to a pressure on literary techniques in an autonomous text (usually a single poem and I think that's important). Based on this obsessive close reading of texts, you get writers who emphasize these techniques, who try to create a reading experience that will involve re-reading, inexhaustablility being a goal.

A lot of the stuff I read is by and about Dada and this kind of art really shows the limitations of the close-reading model. Benjamin was very early on a very astute reader of Dada, seeing in their work something of the "distraction" of modernity, and a tactile, "ballistic" aesthetic. And in his split between distraction and "contemplative space" I think we get something of the problem of close readings (in fact Reginald Shepherd totally misread Benjamin for his own purposes a while back, finding in Benjamin a call to return to the bourgeoise contemplative space).

Having finished my paper on Aase Berg's "Antibody" and the Welfare State's Body, I am now turning to a couple of papers I'm supposed to write about Finland Swedish Dadaist Henry Parland. You can do close-readings of his work (the imagery is occasionally quite intricate), but I am trying to use the model of ready-mades and translations to develop a more distracted reading of this self-consciously "disposable book" (about the "clearance sale" of western culture). Parland doesn't aim for re-readability or nuance (similar in some ways to Warhol in the 50s and 60s).

Another point that Dada makes: if you look at a lot of the writing of the Zurich Dada, it looks kind of incomprehensible or lacking. But it was part of an "event": Huelsenbeck playing "jazz" on his tin drum while reciting his fantastic prayers, Hugo Ball wearing a magic bishop outfit while reciting his poems, or perhaps more fundamentally, an aesthetic so engaged with its time and place. A close reading of any isolated text is not going to do us any good. This "writing" asks us to do a different sort of reading.

Perhaps the best example: the limitations of Katherine Hayles's book on electronic writing (see my entry below some time ago). Her close reading of electronic text allows her basically only to see innovation in programming - programs that do different things with texts, narrative etc. It does not allow her to see what I think of as a much more lively and radical innovation - Tao Lin's strangely rhizomatic blog, which has built up a quite sizeable community of participants, and to which his books (such as the one I published) seem like traces or relics.

I could go on and on about texts that don't make sense in a close-reading paradigm. Perhaps the most obvious is Artaud with his rants (or his early anti-language, pro-body aesthetic of cruelty). Any text that seeks to provoke, ritualize or offend, rather than craft a poetic experience, will usually not make sense in close-readings.


Blogger Max said...

Close reading is just one of many ways of looking at any text. Obviously, if close reading is the only method you use, you lose the opportunity to reap the benefits that may result from seeing texts in different ways. I'm not sure, however, that even if a text "resists" close reading, this means that close reading is not a valid or useful way of looking at the text (for one, how are we to know the text is "resistant" unless we push on it a bit?).

Also, I don't think close reading implies anything in particular about how a text will ultimately be interpreted. A close reading will TEND to say "within the text" (i.e. looking for themes, word associations, etc), but I don't think it MUST do that. As always, I think any possible gripe with close reading will have more to do with the inclusivity/exclusivity of the close reading practitioner than it does with the actual practice of close reading. If you think that close reading is the only valid way to interpret the text, then you're an idiot. If you accept that there are many valid ways of looking at texts, of which close reading is only one, then you're not.

9:37 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

I think the term "close reading" was invented by IA Richards. So it's not just "close" + "reading." Further "close" brings in a whole metaphorical register about texts - that they are deep and need to be read closely. I disagree with that entire idea of the text.

Also, I think you have an idealized idea that we can somehow pick and choose our weapons. But I think the space from which we pick and choose is largely determined by the tradition of close reading.

10:30 AM  
Blogger Max said...

Johannes --

The simple act of close reading does not imply that a text NEEDS to be read closely. It's not a quality inherent to the practice itself. For this to be true, the practitioner would have to believe it to be true. I'm not working from any one intellectual's definition here. I'm working from a generalized idea of "close reading," in which one focuses very closely on the word or sentence level of a text (in any number of ways), rather than, say, a broad thematic level, or an intertextual associative level.

Also, we CAN pick and choose our weapons (though I'm not sure the weapon metaphor is really all that appropriate). A lot of people like to think we can't, but that's because they thrive on opposition, and therefore need to create bogeymen who repress their sensibilities, even though nobody is repressing shit.

10:43 AM  
Blogger K. Silem Mohammad said...

While acknowledging and agreeing with what you say about the need to distinguish the specific New Critical application of Close Reading (which I put in caps to distinguish it as such) from just plain old close reading (as in "did you give that report a close reading, or just skim it?"), I still wonder about your assertion that the term "close" always implies textual depth. Isn't the metaphor rather one of distance? And isn't that a fair thing to say about any text, that there is always some distance between it and the reader that can be analyzed, even if it cannot always be bridged?

And looked at in this way, isn't it possible to imagine methods of Close Reading (I've reinserted the caps in order to indicate an emphasis on specialized techniques, though not necessarily those of the New Critics) that could be used profitably to look at Artaud, or Dada, or Tao Lin, or whoever? I realize you already gesture at such a possibility in your more recent post on Artaud, but I think we can look at what Zizek does in this light as well. I think (as does Anne Boyer, who was discussing this with me a couple of days ago) that Zizek is absolutely performing Close Readings: and I think a sizeable percentage of contemporary readers would agree that this is what they are, regardless of whether or not they posit the texts they address as "organic and enclosed works" (as you say, they don't). They are Close Readings because they isolate details, demonstrate sometimes obscure relations of those details to other details, and create out of the multiple relations of details a framework for approaching the text that would otherwise be more difficult to apprehend or access.

I have to say, I don't understand why you think that any "text that seeks to provoke, ritualize, or offend, rather than craft a poetic experience, will usually not make sense in close readings." For one thing, I can't see the necessity of that phrase "rather than" in this claim. Is it even possible to ensure non-poeticity through provocation, ritualization, or offensiveness? What process would such a stripping-away of poetic qualities entail? How could it ever be shown to be successful? How can a text ever be made immune to Close Reading? Wouldn't that mean, essentially, the obliteration of its status as text per se, since part of what we mean by "text" is "something that one can read"? And if one can read something at all, isn't it always possible to inch ... just a little ... bit ... closer?

10:57 AM  
Blogger Max said...

Well if Johannes is talking only about the New Critic Bible's definition of "close reading," then yeah, I agree wholeheartedly with him. But hasn't this bogeyman been rung up a billion times before? If we're not talking about a broader, more lay definition of "close reading," then what is the point? Okay, the New Critics suck. Big whoop.

11:54 AM  
Blogger konrad said...

I think it's important to note that while we have no record of things like Huelsenbeck's drumming, and only a picture of Ball's getup (and his description of the trance he was in), that nowadays people are producing "event-texts" where the record is available for such "close reading."

Steve Evans' Lipstick of Noise posts is an effort at this kind of close reading of a performance-record.

Not only does the availability of this record allow for close readings of a performance text, but the pieces themselves are readings of their non-verbal elements, which adds a dimension to the idea of a 'reading.'

My question is, would you consider that a reading takes place when a parallel text is produced?

I don't mean an interpretation, but a text written against another object (ekphrastically), specifically to be married to that object in presentation (not traditional ekphrasis, which is more of an "occasional text," i.e. the famous Ode to a Grecian Urn). The derivation of the novel text (the 'interpretation" or "reading") does not take place in a separate realm from the original text.

If you would allow that use of "reading," then what place does it have in your array of types of reading, Close Reading, to follow Kasey's convention, or Zizek-style creative readings, or whatever.

I guess i'm trying to get at the possibility of readings that do not divert interpretation into another discourse, but rather stay within the discourse realm of the original. This is a question of types of criticism, and ultimately how the artist is a critic.

A comment box may not be the place where these thoughts can be made cogent. But FWIW.


1:40 PM  
Blogger jane said...

I appreciate (and second) much of Kasey's note. But I'm not actually sure he makes the case strongly enough. Here's for me the pivotal passage in his note:

They are Close Readings because they isolate details, demonstrate sometimes obscure relations of those details to other details, and create out of the multiple relations of details a framework for approaching the text that would otherwise be more difficult to apprehend or access.

I would actually argue that close reading should be understood not as a way to beter grasp the autonomous text, but as a way to test the text against the world. By which I mean this: to "isolate details, demonstrate sometimes obscure relations of those details to other details, and create out of the multiple relations of details a framework" is a necessary step in thinking structurally about the work's attunement to the world, history, lived experience. I don't mean Levi-Strauss/Saussure structuralism, but simply the dialectical relation of parts and wholes: the synchronic situation both of the poem and of social existence. Poems have structures; social relations have structures; close reading thinks both of these at once.

It is exactly via this close reading's attention to structuration that we can resist the temptation to narrativize and to moralize — to derive stories and meanings from poems. Poems, as it happens, are extraordinarily well-equipped to get at non-narrative, non-tendentious experiences of the world — this is indeed one hallmark of that avant-garde beloved by Johannes and me too with which I would hope to keep faith. "Shallow" or "distant" readings has an actual history, and does indeed tend toward sociology of the arts, and away from poetics.

The attempt to find forms adequate to history is what renders poems not simply aesthetic nor merely opinion but as a mediation between the aesthetic and the social situation. I don't mind thinking about that characteristic of poetry, and that thought is all I mean by "close reading." I take it as a political necessity regarding poetics.

2:21 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


I think most close reading practices going on are still largely New Critical. It's not a bogeyman. You're not paying attention.

5:07 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


Good point about distance vs depth.

I absolutely think there are ways of expanding reading practices to include Artaud etc. That's what I think we need to think about. But I'm not sure they would be "close" readings.

Your distance metaphor brings up something essential about Zizek. His readings are almost always "distancing," not "closing." Often he takes mundane pieces - pieces we might not have felt very far away from and then he makes them strange.

He always says/writes "I think we can venture a more interesting, less obvious interpretation" and then comes up with something brilliant and totally unexpected. Doesn't he distance us from the film?

Also, his method of interpretation almost strikes me as Brechtian. For example, he often refers to characters by the names of the actors.

5:17 PM  
Blogger K. Silem Mohammad said...

But Johannes, when you say that "most close reading practices going on are still largely New Critical," do you mean by that that these practices are undertaken with the same objectives (demonstrating organic unity, etc. etc.), or simply that they use techniques which were developed in part by the New Critics? Because if it's the latter, is that in itself a problem? If you ask me, once you pare away some of the weird Christian or pseudo-Christian outer casing that the New Critics labored under, you're often left with some very sound and useful methodology. Of course I can't just take the exact structure of an analysis that Cleanth Brooks performs on a Wordsworthian sonnet and apply it Kenny Goldsmith's Traffic. And I would agree with you that there are some readings out there that make mistakes not unlike that.

For example, I think Marjorie Perloff, as strong a critic as she is in many ways, slips into an old-fashioned mode at times when she tries to do close readings, and it's a mode that doesn't serve her or the texts she looks at well. (I'm thinking most immediately of some of her discussions of O'Hara in Poet Among Painters, which admittedly is an early work, but I could drag out more recent examples.) Same thing with Ron Silliman: I'm with him in his appreciation for Robert Grenier's Sentences, for example, but when he tries to talk about them as though they were little Imagist miniatures, it doesn't work for me. So I know what you mean about a certain kind of outdated close-reading approach.

A large part of the problem as I see it, however, has more to do with the conclusions one attempts to reach with close reading than with the reading strategy itself. Or, more accurately, it involves a sort of "tampering" with the strategy in order to arrive at those conclusions rather than a rigorous adherence to the strategy's appropriate application in a given case.

This has been going on ever since close reading was first instantiated as a critical and pedagogical model: bad college essays (as well as critical texts by scholars who ought to know better) are full of "rigged" close readings. Those are the real issue, I think.

Someone might reply that they feel all close readings in the New Critical vein are rigged in this way, that the metaphysical underpinnings are always going to interfere with any attempt to extrapolate an "objective" method from them. But that smacks to me of the same kind of magical thinking that it attributes to the New Critics: as though a hermeneutic technique could be "infected" by the ideological beliefs of the person who devised it. I can use a switchblade to repair my glasses; this doesn't make me complicit in the type of violence switchblades were designed for.

5:36 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Though perhaps this is just an argument over words. I am perfectly willing to say Zizek is close reading, but then close reading is something more interesting than I had in mind - a mode that I think is highly prevalent (yes, Max).

5:36 PM  
Blogger K. Silem Mohammad said...

Johannes, that last comment of mine went up before I had seen your reply to my previous comment. Just to avoid any confusion.

5:37 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Johannes --

Yes, it is a bogeyman, because I'm sitting here making an argument for close reading and you're either saying (a) that I'm not talking about the right kind of "close reading" (i.e. the New Critical kind) or (b) any kind of "close reading"-like gesture is inherently New Critical. Maybe you're saying both at the same time.

But I still don't see how you've demonstrated the latter part of that argument. You seem to be saying that performing a "close reading" immediately presupposes that a text MUST be "closely read," but all I see in the act is a practitioner WANTING to use that interpretive lens, for any number of possible reasons (one of which could be that he/she is a New Critic, but many others of which may have nothing at all to do with New Criticism).

5:41 PM  

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