Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Reply to Kasey

[for some reason I can't reply to threads on my own blog today. This could get messy.]

I don't see why re-reading something is such a die-hard merit. Some works may be read wonderfully once and meant only to be read once. Or even a half time. Not to be combed through. Perhaps not even read at all.

One of the favorite things I ever wrote was this 300+ page poem called The Secessions (it's in a few places La Petite Zine, Coconut etc) but I've never even tried to publish it because part of what I like about it is that it is utterly unreadable, even for myself, and I like for it just to sit like a big batch on the bottom of a barrel in my office.


Blogger Chris said...

Johannes, you have been ravishingly on the money lately.

10:27 AM  
Blogger Kasey Mohammad said...

I'll buy that.

I still think there's something valid about the concept of a work that "wears thin," whether you measure that wearing-thin against repeated readings or some other extended mode of consideration (most examples of which, I have to say, I would find a way to classify as "reading"). The case of the downright "unreadable" text, however, does complicate the matter.

12:04 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

It's a valid concept, of course. But why is "rereadability" an inherent merit? I could just as easily argue that, given that there are more things to read in this world than there is time to read them, a text which does not offer itself completely on the first reading is obnoxious and committing an evil.

I wouldn't argue that, though, although I think it's reasonable. I would probably argue that, if you are rereading a text, and it is "wearing thin", then it's not the "fault" of the text for being so thin, it is the fault of the reader for misusing the ("disposable"?) text!

Although also, you can never step in the same river twice, and even works that "wear thing" might merit rereadings if reread properly (allowing enough time for the reader to change; think of rediscovering childhood favorites).

Although maybe I'm misunderstanding you, Kasey, as I'm kinda surprised if you're really taking up this line of argument!

12:14 PM  
Blogger Kasey Mohammad said...

Well, I'm basically in agreement with you and Johannes, Chris. I'm just curious whether jettisoning the value of some form of "rereadability" doesn't, in its extreme implications, lead to a jettisoning of the entire idea of the usefulness of evaluative criticism per se. I mean, hey, maybe it does, and yee haw!

12:20 PM  
Blogger mark wallace said...

I'm not sure it's a question so much of better or worse than of the ways in which such texts are valuable. 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.

12:25 PM  
Blogger mark wallace said...

As an example of our not really knowing how to value such things, I think there's almost no such thing as an unreadable text, unless a text was literally so long that a human being had no hope to finish it in a lifetime. What we usually mean by unreadable is something that no one would want to read. How do we value a text that no one would want to read? I don't even think we're talking about texts here that people "can't' read (i.e. they never learned to read or don't know the language, etc) because even people who can't read something always do make a reading of that thing that they're not able to read, even if the reading only consists of "I don't understand." Which as we know is a very common reading of lots of things.

12:35 PM  
Blogger Max said...

I think that, when one is reviewing a "consumable" artifact, one can assume that a fairly common value is going to be its reusability. I don't think that, by making such an argument, however, one is arguing that reusability is an inherently valuable or superior quality ... just one that is individually appealing, and may well be appealing to a large body of spectators.

That said, replay value is one of my key criteria in determining favorite movies. If I can keep going back again and again, and it keeps giving again and again, then obviously it is of higher value than something I just watch once and then basically forget about. Though I can't discount the power of a movie that, on a single viewing, just blows me away, but which I don't particularly feel like watching again ("Pink Flamingos" comes to mind), those movies are few and far between.

12:37 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

Kasey, I don't think even extreme jettisoning of "rereadability" as worthwhile has any implications on evaluative criticism. Then again, I also think evaluative criticism of poetry, in the sense of saying what's "good" or not, is already horse-twaddle. But if you want to play that game, there's no reason why you can't limit yourself to one interaction with the text -- critics in other genres seem to do this all the time!

Max, I think this might have something to do with the meaning of "favorite"? Rather than, say, "best" -- there is something about a favorite (ice cream flavor) that suggests returning to it again and again. But the "best" (ice cream) you ever had might not be something you could have again.

1:40 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Chris --

Well, I also think that reusability of the text should always be a tertiary criticism if it's going to be used at all. For example, i think it would be foolhardy to argue that a text does amazing things, but trash it merely because it doesn't appear to invite several readings. The thing is, I don't think many people actually do this. If anything, they'll have several criticisms and the rereadability criticism will be kind of tacked on as an extra negative (though not a negative that would be damning in and of itself, or as something that is even inherently negative).

Also, I think the best vs. favorite argument kind of intertwines ... I mean, my argument for what makes a "best" movie is likely going to include several criteria that I use to determine my "favorite" movies. And for me, replay value tends to be among them. I think the only way this can be an abhorrent stance is if you completely reject the notion that a one-off experience can be of high value, which I don't, and which I don't think many people do.

2:06 PM  
Blogger Chris said...



Though I do think it's very easy to find people making statements along the line that "X is not a good piece of literature because it can't be reread" -- see the Johannes's other post for two examples!

2:15 PM  
Blogger Max said...

All I'm saying is that I think it's far more common for people to be like "This isn't very good, and also it's got no reuse value." I think that more often than not, this is just shorthand criticism for "lack of depth," just put into more immediate utilitarian terms.

2:53 PM  
Blogger UCOP Killer said...

Well yes, it goes without saying that the only valuable literature is the literature that can't be read, by virtue of it never being written.

It's sort of like the girlfriend I had when I was eleven. She lived in "Canada." Best. Relationship. Ever.

4:49 PM  
Blogger CB said...

This discussion makes me think of Tan Lin's Ambient Stylistics (did this whole project ever wind up in print?) and its claims about poetry, boredom, and repetition: "A poem, like a disco hit, is designed to be immediately forgettable," or poetry "should not be permanent, it should be very impermanent. It should aspire to the interminably pure moment of an interlude."

I'm also struck, Johannes, by the image of your manuscript sitting in the bottom of a drawer. You present it as a figure for the unreadable (or at least un-rereadable), but the fact that it's there, more or less carefully archived, suggests to me a figure for the someday readable (or rereadable). I wonder if the structure(s) of the archive, in this sense, imbue every text with the "virtue" of rereadability? Isn't that the precondition for archiving (however formally) something? And what would it mean to work against this archival imperative, to write a kind of perishable, unarchivable, use-once-and-destroy poem--or at least a poem that aspired to this? (Some of Stein comes close to this for me. Also Andy Warhol's writings, or the work of Ray Johnson.)

4:52 PM  
Blogger Max said...

cb --

To do that is merely to physically demonstrate a tired principle. We are modern people. We already know that "poetry" can be whatever we want it to be. So why this silly impulse constantly to push boundaries that have already been pushed (if only because we already imagine they CAN be pushed)?

I mean, sure, I can sit here and write a one-off poem that I print out, read aloud, burn in the trashcan next to my desk, and immediately delete from my hard drive ... but then again, why the fuck should I? Just to prove that it can be done? Thinking it is all the proof you need.

5:05 PM  
Blogger CB said...


Perhaps I'm not a modern person; I guess I'm not so certain that poetry can be whatever we want it to be. I think our notions of what counts as poetry are delimited by any number of cultural imperatives, and one such imperative seems to me to be the more or less unquestioned idea that poetry is written for posterity (written to be read and potentially reread). I'm curious about how this assumption of an address (at least in part) to posterity shapes how poems are written, and, especially, read.

I wouldn't advocate one try to pursue an anarchival poetics (if that's even possible) in order to prove anything. You're right--to do so would be decidedly unproductive, even silly. (Let's set aside the question of whether or not it would be equally pointless to write a poem, read it aloud, print it up and mail it off to the Paris Review). But it seems that the question of rereading is really all about terms like productivity and the assumptions underlying them (anything can be reread; when we champion a text's rereadability we're really saying we think it would be productive to do so). These assumptions seem worth thinking about to me.

6:28 PM  
Blogger Max said...

cb --

Well, okay. Let me rephrase that. If you don't seek to tailor your writing such that it will definitely be published in elite periodicals or provide you with access to various financially or otherwise beneficial perks of the "industry," then I think it's pretty clear that your poetry can be whatever you want it to be.

If what we're doing here is brainstorming ways in which we can expand the boundaries of that which will allow us to accrue the trappings of success in the po-biz, then yeah, this discussion is relevant. But honestly, I've got to question the moral or ethical value of such an enterprise.

9:07 PM  
Blogger Kasey Mohammad said...

I love that we're tackling the elemental questions of poetics here: should stuff be rereadable or not? Can poetry be whatever you want it to be? If a dog writes a poem in a forest and no one hears it, is it better to have an eleven-year-old girlfriend who lives in Canada than never to have loved at all?

I agree with Max for the most part, but I do think there is a certain kind of text that fairly solicits evaluation which is based in large part on its rereadability. I'm not quite sure how to characterize this category of text. It has something to do with invoking a standard of "depth" (as Max mentions), or "subtlety," or "multilayeredness": the idea that some statements or expressions take on added value by not yielding all their content in a single reading--or not yielding that content in the same way from one reading to the next. There's a principle of surplus at play here, a promise that the product will not only perform its basic function as advertised, but will adapt that function to different contexts. It slices and dices. ("It's a floor wax and a dessert topping," as they say in the old SNL commercial).

One could no doubt develop a theory of "literary value" as running parallel to commodity merchandising along these lines.... Or has someone already? Bourdieu?

9:34 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

To answer your questions, Kasey:

1) Yes, stuff should be rereadable or not.

2) No, poetry can only be whatever you want it to be if you're willing to be a poet.

3) No, eleven years old is below the legal age of consent in Canada.

4) Yes, someone has already.

5) Gesundheit!

9:38 PM  
Blogger CB said...


Last comment, and then I’ll shut up, unless I feel compelled to theorize eleven year old Canadian girlfriends writing poems and burning them in the forest--

I’m uninterested in success in the po-biz (kind of an oxymoronic idea, anyway). Again, regarding the question of rereadability, I’m interested here in the reception of poems more than the writing of them, and how the terms of that reception--however it shifts over time--determine what a poem or a poet is. In this sense, it seems clear to me that a poem is decidedly not whatever the poet wants it to be. Emily Dickinson is an obvious example of a poet who, I think we can agree, didn’t tailor her work for the po-biz, and whose poetry has been shaped by forces beyond her control into something pretty different from what it must have seemed to her. When we read a Dickinson poem that was originally part of a letter, and only later plucked from that context of address; or a poem that was unlineated, scrawled on the back of a grocery list, and set aside, and only later put into lines, abstracted from its material context, and presented in print, a whole set of ideas about what counts as a poem (e.g., rereadability) have been quietly enacted. I think there’s an intense ethical value to thinking about what counts as a poem, or not, and how our archival structures impact these often unspoken values.

9:57 PM  
Blogger Max said...

cb --

I'm still not quite sure how your Dickinson example is really functioning here. My argument is this: if one is entirely unconcerned with reception, and is only concerned with his/her own ideation of "poetry," then a "poem" can be whatever he/she wants it to be. It seems to me that this issue of restriction or limitation of expression is only an issue for the people who sit around worrying that their work isn't accessible enough, or complaining that there isn't room for their work in the "legitimate" world of poetry. Sometimes, if there isn't room for what you do, it's not because poetry itself is limited, but rather because of the poor company you keep, and the poor goals you seek out.

That a poet's work can be torn from its original context or completely reconfigured after death is a completely different issue, I think. It doesn't surprise me that Dickinson was/is "normalized" by scholars. But I'm talking about the "normalization" of oneself. These "limitations" everybody keeps talking about are only limitations inasmuch as they're part (most of the time) of a larger aspirational, careerist industry. If you choose to accept those limitations, or alternately, to gripe about them and play the tortured artist, I think it's an example of flawed values, not an example of poetry's limitations.

10:14 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Very interesting discussion. Unfortunately I lost my Internet connection yesterday so I feel like I'm coming to the party a day late.

I would like to stress that I think Mark's comments are right on: The value system of "re-reading" is based on "nuance" and ambiguity etc. (In difference to oral literatures which stresses memorizability etc).

My interest in texts that do not ask to be re-read is not how they break rules or such per se - but how they ask me to pay attention to different features, actually how they ask me to read in a different mode than "paying attention."

My unreadable book is in fact not entirely archived. A lot of it is in fact perished. A lot of it is in fact unreadable even to myself, was always unreadable to me.

Ray Johnson is one of my favorites and in many ways the piece has a strong correlation (though I didn't think about it until now!) between the perished/perishable pieces and the indeed very archived parts (Johnson had that whole gallery of moticons that he used and reused).

This wasn't done to "demonstrate" anything. It was done as a way to change my relationship to writing, to texts, between my eyes and letters etc.

8:54 AM  
Blogger jane said...

"The value system of "re-reading" is based on "nuance" and ambiguity etc."

Moreover, I think you can add a class problematic onto that: if you think about music — who gets identified with music that is complex, that resists, that you won't hate 28 days later; and who gets identified with ephemeral pop/Top 40 — you quickly discover that the distinction falls strongly along class (and sometimes race) lines.

But that curious problem needs to be thought dialectically, in poetry's status as a commodity. It's quite interesting compared to, say, fiction. What does it mean to "own" a book, not in the sense of having bought it, but in the sense of having possessed its substance? For conventional narrative fiction, this is rather clear: it means to grasp the plot and characters in full — which in turn means there's no call for rereading. This is why detective fiction is the most resold genre — because it can be "owned" in the first place. The customer can clearly extract the value and sell it on. Similarly, the newspaper — all plot — doesn't hold up well.

So books where it is more challenging to own the substance, or to conceive of what that might be — poetry is famous for this, yea? that's why it's "news that stays news" — have some interest for us in ways that aren't simply about nuance and ambiguity in and of themselves but rather may use these and other tactics to resist the completion of ownership.

I'm not saying that's the measure of good poetry. Though I would suggest that this explains some really bad poetry — poetry where the main substance is a moral lesson, for example, which one may "get" and then have gotten what the poem has to offer. The detective fiction of poetry. And that, I fear, is by far the most common form of the use-once-and-destroy poem.

9:15 AM  
Blogger CLAY BANES said...

Then there's the class problematic of which books are valued to be maintained and displayed, whether they've been reread or ever read at all.

11:14 PM  
Blogger Max said...

But, as always, explaining things in terms of class is painting with too broad a brush.

I think there's a perfectly reasonable logic to the value of reusability. If something affects us in a powerful way, we seek to reproduce that effect again and again, because we like or appreciate it for whatever reason. While some may argue that this sensibility is a product of commodity culture, I would argue the opposite. I think it's the reason why commodity culture exists and flourishes. We want to be able to hit the button and make a pellet pop down the chute over and over again, because being able to do that is more convenient than not being able to do it. It's a gratification thing, not a class thing. Pleasure, pleasure, pleasure.

Also, about the music analogy: pop music isn't "disposable" in the way previously mentioned in these comments. The appeal of pop music is, after all, the fact that it's packaged explicitly for reuse. When you buy the album, you're getting "the thing," whereas if you buy a Beethoven CD, you're getting one conductor's interpretation of the music written by Beethoven quite a long time ago. It's not the thing itself. It's not a "true" reproduction. Pop performances are even usually staged to sound as much like the original recording as possible. Sure, people may tire of individual singles quickly, but by that point they've probably heard the single reproduced enough to last a lifetime (hence the obnoxious "I've got the worst song in my head" moments).

And I mean, honestly, when I think about the audience for "disposable pop music," I'm thinking of brainless suburban white kids, who are the primary consumers of all popular music in the U.S., including hip-hop.

12:23 AM  
Blogger mongibeddu said...

"The value system of 're-reading' is based on 'nuance' and ambiguity etc. (In difference to oral literatures which stresses memorizability etc)."

I think you're taking one value system for all of them―and making too stark a distinction between oral and written. Though nuance and ambiguity can certainly be found most anywhere, once you start looking (see, e.g., John Barth's great essay on "Jack and Jill"), these values have little perhaps nothing to do with why most poems were treasured down through history. What you say is probably true if you substitute "re-interpretation" for "re-reading," but in that case I'd want to insist right away that texts that reward re-reading often do so because their meanings hold firm, not because they change. They allow us to have an experience we value each time we read them. This summer, for instance, I re-read the last chapter of C. J. Cherryh's Merchanter's Luck about four times, moved each time by what happens with the characters. Sure, there are many counter-examples, especially for anyone who loves modernist poetry. But it's a warped world view that equates all reading with the reading of something like "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction," which I love, but am not sure is any more likely to withstand re-reading than Whitman's comparatively nuanceless love poems in "Calamus."

I may be wrong, Johannes, but I think your objection to re-reading is really an objection to the culture of Close Reading, a Kenny Goldsmith-like gesture of negation witty within a certain frame of reference. And if that's so, I do dig it (recovering as I am from a New Critical upbringing). But why not labor instead to enlarge the frame?


5:30 AM  
Blogger mark wallace said...

Certainly there's an intriguing slippage here between the terms "re-reading" and "re-interpreting" although I'd find it hard ultimately to distinguish them because it seems difficult to imagine how one could read something without interpreting it. Even if the interpretation was no more than "gosh, I really still love this," to love something still is different from having it loved it the first time, and of course to say "I really love this" seems to me inevitably connected to "I love this because...," and the because is implying even more layers of interpretation.

So for me it's a little difficult to imagine a text "holding firm" in what it means to us, especially since I've likely already forgotten a lot of what it was about by the time I get around to reading it again. Maybe that's just me, but I dunno.

Anything can be re-read (in hell I hope to be forgiven for how many times I read the Cable Movie Guide in a given week, looking for nuances I missed the first time around) so maybe the issue is that re-reading, like the unreadable, does not inhere specifically in the text but in how all the elements of the text relate to the reading practices we take to them. So there are less unreadable or re-readable texts than people who don't want to read them or want to read them again, although those feelings are often based in larger social training about reading and pleasure and value. For instance I feel very strongly that I don't want to read or re-read the California State Tax Codes but I don't think there's anything particularly individual to me about that feeling--and I also think, for instance, that if Steve McCaffery read the California Tax Code to me on stage, the text would become more fascinating, and fast.

Although I agree with Jane about how the "who-done-it" element of detective fiction is key to its one-time-only disposability for most readers, as someone who teaches detective fiction a lot lately (not entirely by choice, but that's another matter), some detective fiction can actually serve as an example of how fascinating re-reading can be. Reading an Agatha Christie novel is a completely different, and fascinating, experience if you already know who's guilty. The attention you take to the text is entirely different, perhaps much more so than with other kinds of books.

7:14 AM  
Blogger jane said...

Ambivalent, as usual, me. This is the second time that Ben and I have mussed in these quarters about close reading.

The rejection of close reading isn't just a Kenny G thing; that in fact is a relatively specific episode in a broader tendency which Ben implicitly endorses here: Franco Moretti's "distant reading"; John Guillory; Charles Bernstein...all in different ways, all less witty than Kenny in different degrees.

I think one common skepticism about this anti-close reading tendency is that it tends, more and less explicitly, to propose a kind of large and abstract understanding which requires finally the imagination of a privileged Archimedean position, and in turn loses the grain of the local, the particular, and thus of the kernels with the density to resist locally the big bad totalizing forces. This is not my own concern, exactly. Totalize away! Do literary history and sociology of literature til the cows come home! Cherish the concept over the execution, the quantitative over the qualitative! All good times to be had.

I do tend to think that one strives to grasp the particular and the systemic and the tension between them especially, and that one loses this possibility by abandoning some version of close reading. It's hard to watch the conversion from quality to quantity (and back), which is a great secret of aesthetics, I think, without attending to the close as well as distant view.

Some version! That doesn't mean New Critical close reading — they didn't invent it, and they didn't ruin for everyone unless everyone lets them. So I guess I would agree with Ben that a) New Critical close reading is to be recovered from, and that b) one has to enlarge one's frame...including one's frame of understanding for what "close reading" is.

It is much bemoaned that English Depts have been taken over by theorists etc etc. And an opposition is often proposed between "theory" and "close reading" of the good ol' New Critical variety, as some sort of traditional value of the study of literature. The irony of this is that I've notice of late that it's the "theorists" making the really bravura close readings — I am thinking of Judy Butler on Antigone, Badiou on Mandelstam, Zizek on a couple different films (these last two in fact should probably devote themselves to close reading — it's what they're best at...)

7:42 AM  
Blogger mark wallace said...

Jane, I'm not sure I follow some of your comments here. I doubt very much that Ben, who has done a great deal of close reading in his life, is advocating the entire rejection of it, or Charles either, for whom the same is true. Not sure about Kenny, but of course the question with him is whether one can always take him to really mean what he is saying. His reversals of accepted binaries are very limited, as far as I'm concerned, even as the provocations they cause do tend to stir things up more than thoroughly reasoned arguments do. Show biz, you know.

I think the issue is more whether a close reading is all one can do with a work of literature, and of course the answer to that is no. For better or worse (and usually for worse, but that's another question), the social effects of texts go beyond the work of critics who are reading them closely. And the other issue is how one applies close reading, broadening it, as you and others have said, to more than just a reading of textual features of conventional literary genres considered in isolation of the social contexts that helped create them, which of course itself is hardly a new idea.

So I guess what I'm asking is this: could you clarify for me what you're seeing as the disagreement (or at least the mussing) between you and Ben?

9:40 AM  
Blogger Max said...

Mark --

I think the problem is that we already KNOW that more can be done with texts, yet "close reading" still seems to be this bogeyman that everybody harps on/resists because of its theoretical attachments, not because of anything wrong with it as an individual framework.

10:38 AM  
Blogger mark wallace said...

Sure, Max. But what are the differences between Jane and Ben here? Jane seems to be asserting them but I can't find them.

11:16 AM  
Blogger jane said...

You may be right — I may have been reading Ben's comments as more antagonistic to close reading practices than he meant them to be, in which case, it'll never happen again until it does.

I probably will keep revisiting my central idea here, which is simply that — contra the insistence of many on both fictive sides — there is no opposition between close reading of poetic form and a nuanced social, political and historical understanding of the text (including its effects et al). They are, rather, inextricable.

12:28 PM  
Blogger Max said...

I propose a theory that utilizes intentionally "shallow" readings of texts, such that one might expose their literal absurdities more effectively.

12:43 PM  
Blogger mongibeddu said...

In a lot of conversations, and this one is no exception, the different points of view begin to melt together, or anyway the differences begin to lose their force, once the key terms become generalized. Obviously, if "gosh, I really still love this" is what's meant by re-interpretation, everything I said is pretty silly. But I meant something a little more narrow: I meant something like "finding meanings in a text that were not apparent before to yourself or others." Of course, human ingenuity being what it is, this can happen with just about any text (and once again I'll point to John Barth's delightful essay on "Jack and Jill"). But some texts are simply more open to that kind of reading practice than others; are more desirable as objects on which to exercise one's hermeneutic ingenuity. It's easier to produce a range of interpretations of a poem by Emily Dickinson than one by Walt Whitman. So one of the things I wanted to say before is that this particular difference between kinds of text, however important or noteworthy, doesn't make it more rewarding to re-read one kind than the other.

And yes, it is certainly possible to re-read Whitman's work and find new and important things to say; and yes, those new things will nominally be new interpretations, insofar as they make reference to the text. But the manner of that reference will almost always seem naive or belletristic or sociological (or whatever fighting word you want to use) when measured against the standard of hermeneutic nicety, hermeneutic rigor. That's why equating re-readability with re-interpretability produces a certain kind of canon. And that's also why I'd rather speak of "reading practices" than "interpretive practices"―it makes it easier to find equal value in different kinds of texts.

Dickinson and Whitman are hardly random examples. I find it deeply interesting that in the forties and fifties Dickinson was the favorite American poet from before modernism for the New Critics (who had no use at all for Whitman), while Whitman was the favorite American poet of all time for the American Studies movement (which had little use for Dickinson, F. O. Matthiessen excepted).

I'm not antagonistic to close reading. Far from it! When I first became serious as a poet, in high school, it was under the tutelage of a teacher trained as a New Critic, and the assumptions underlying that movement, that method, deeply saturated my consciousness, in ways that I'm still trying to understand. Hell, I'm a card carrying New Critic myself: when I was finishing my dissertation, I satisfied an old high school ambition by publishing a close reading in The Explicator. I'd still like to publish a close reading of a language poem in that journal. That way I could say that history repeated itself, the first time as―well, not tragedy, but maybe bittersweet satisfaction; the second time as farce.

What I'm saying about close reading is almost but not quite devil's advocacy: I myself find it more enjoyable and more rewarding to do hermeneutic labor than any other kind of criticism, and I prefer Dickinson to Whitman (though I love both; but if I had to choose it's not even close). Even so, I think it is extremely important to see these preferences as part of a value system, as guided by assumptions, not all of them understood―as expressions of an ideology, if you will. Consequently, I also think it extremely important to imagine other value systems, guided by other assumptions; to imagine what literature would look like from within those other ideologies; to imagine what the world would look like if those other ideologies were the dominant ones.

Hope this isn't too opaque or argumentative, and sorry if I read your responses too quickly and mistook you. Here, I'm really trying to explain myself to myself more than anything else


5:14 PM  
Blogger mark wallace said...

Ben, your account of the new critical idea of interpretation and the kinds of literary objects it privileged is perfectly lucid and doesn't seem argumentative. What's funny is that I thought it was you who in one of your earlier comments had opened the door to the idea that there were other ways of looking at what it meant to interpret, so I thought I was simply running with an idea you had suggested. Which reminds me that another feature of conversation, especially on blogs, is that moment when people realize that we mean different things even by the most basic and supposedly shared terms. I say interpretomato and you say interpretomahto.

I've been thinking about interpretation in such a broad way for several reasons. There's some "can't step in the same river twice" and some Stein-like literalism, but also an underlying social analysis about what we recognize as interpretation or not. Maybe because I teach students who sometimes need work on very basic skills in reading and writing, I've noticed my own tendency, and by extension that of other literary minded people, to think that interpretation really means "good interpretation" or "interpretation according to the developed history of literary interpretation" etc. But one thing I've noticed is that teaching people methods of interpretation is worthwhile not because it's something they don't do but because it's something that they already are doing but may not know. People aren't always aware that they're interpreting the world; they're just as likely to think that they're simply understanding it for what it is--or at least are posturing like they do in order to hide that they don't know what the hell is going on. So I often try to teach literary interpretation as "this is a skill you already use and it can be helpful to be more conscious of how you use it," as opposed to "this is a esoteric skill which you will never 'need in life,' as they say."

8:19 AM  
Blogger mongibeddu said...

Mark, what you say is obviously true: there's no reading without interpretation, even if only in the sense that the brain interprets shapes as letters and groups of letters as words (to privilege alphabetic writing for the moment). It's in this sense that one might say that an OCR reader interprets a capital B as an 8. Things can be narrowed considerably if we use the word "hermeneutics" instead of "interpretation" (one wouldn't say, for example, that an OCR reader engages in hermeneutic activity!), but that is still, obviously, an extremely broad category. And you read me right―I'm all for breadth in this. (For a while I was giving the "Honors" lecture at Orono on Genesis and Exodus, and I would use examples from the Talmud to show that the religious meaning of the Bible is not simply "in" the text, but produced by a reading practice. Needless to say, no one would ever confuse the Babylonian Talmud with The Well-Wrought Urn.) But, even so...

...however varied hermeneutic practices might be, one thing that is still true of all of them, I believe, is that they privilege the "interpretable meaning" of a text (its sense, as distinct from its significance) over all other qualities or characteristics. Those other qualities or characteristics still matter, but they're subservient―used to clarify the sense. So, rephrasing what I've been saying, the question I'm asking might be put this way: if hermeneutics is one kind of critical activity involving interpretation, what other kinds of critical activity involving interpretation might there be that would be better suited to texts in which "sense" is not the privileged element? And to give one answer, certainly not the last: there's poetics. Which isn't to say that poetics and hermeneutics are opposed to one another. They overlap, obviously―or can be brought to bear with equal intensity to the same text—or can be used together in coordination. But to talk about what a text is "doing," pointing occasionally to particular passages as examples, is not the same thing as explaining what it is "saying." And to reiterate what I noted before about the canon of Close Reading: a lot of work is extraordinarily interesting from the point of view of poetics, less so from the point of view of hermeneutics.

Similar things could obviously be said (pace Joshua) about history and hermeneutics or philosophy and hermeneutics. I hope nothing I've written suggests that I think that these perspectives (or the disciplines they serve) should be kept separate!


9:50 AM  
Blogger Jordan said...

> And that's also why I'd rather
> speak of "reading practices" than
> "interpretive practices"―it makes
> it easier to find equal value in
> different kinds of texts.

Ben, I'd substitute comparable for equal.

I note your support for the idea that re-readability as an index of judgment is based not on a work's monolithic permanence but rather on its ability to sustain life (interest).

For most of time criticism has been first and foremost evaluative. And for most of time government has been of the might-makes-right persuasion. This I take it is what Joshua refers to when he says there are structures that demand attention.

While it's possible to evaluate a bicycle as a kind of kaleidoscope by holding it up spokewise to the light, it's a little off.

That said, the bicycle as bicycle is in its own way a fascinating and re-readable instrument.

6:29 AM  
Blogger mongibeddu said...

Right and right, as ever. Substitute "comparable" and "re-ride-able" as needed. BF

6:28 AM  

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