U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Reading and Intellectual History

The following is a guest post by William Fine.

One of the things we can do with written texts is read them, but how, and to what end?  For some, “close reading” of historical texts is virtually a defining feature of intellectual history.  Does this mean getting at what the text “says,” or reading between the lines for what it doesn’t or is unable to say, or wouldn’t if it could —  a “surface”  or a “symptomatic reading?”  I had seen reference to the latter in connection with Althusser and Jameson, but wasn’t aware of a sort of movement to articulate alternatives under the term “surface reading.”

Perhaps the upcoming conference on “close reading” noted by Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn is part of a “turn” to surface;  maybe Rivka Maizlish’s piece on “’Reading Too Much Into This’” could be seen as impatience with symptomatic reading.

What started this little study for me was encountering Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus, “Surface Reading: An Introduction” in Representations  Fall 2009. Most articles in the issue began as papers at a 2008 conference, which in turn came out of a 2006 seminar of the American Comparative Literature Association on the 25th anniversary of Jameson’s The Political Unconscious, which “popularized symptomatic reading among U.S. literary critics.” [2]  Contributors to the journal issue develop various alternatives, more or less distant from it.Best and Marcus, along with Heather Love, are taking the show on the road at upcoming events some bloggers might want to attend, and report back on — at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education  and Human Development at NYU they will address “Surface Reading/Machine Reading: New Approaches to Texts and Text Data,” March 11; at the Penn Humanities Forum they will discuss “New Ways of Reading – Histories of Surface Reading,” March 13.

Let me begin with a couple of general observations.  First, Best and Marcus’ “Introduction”  is not exactly a manifesto, but it describes two “schools of thought” with complex histories and current expressions and hybrid forms.  They are not cohesive, exclusive paradigms that, like a fork in the road demanding possibly irrevocable choice: here at most is a ragged turn, not a decisive temporal break. They intend “neither a polemic against nor a postmortem of symptomatic reading.” [3]

Second, they identify themselves as a group of literary scholars taught in the ‘80s and ‘90s to interpret through the interdisciplinary “metalanguages” of Marxism and psychoanalysis, viewing meaning as “hidden, repressed, deep, and in need of detection and disclosure by an interpreter.”   “Now,” though, they find themselves in a different historical moment, “drawn to modes of reading that attend to the surfaces of texts rather than plumb their depths” [1] —  partly because in the Bush era of Iraq War, Abu Ghraib and Katrina, “so much seems to be on the surface.”

“’If everything were transparent, then no ideology would be possible, and no domination either,” wrote Fredric Jameson in 1981, explaining why interpretation could never operate on the assumption that “the text means just what it says’ …. [This] now has a nostalgic, even utopian ring to it. Those of us who cut our intellectual teeth on deconstruction, ideology critique, and the hermeneutics of suspicion have often found those demystifying protocols superfluous.” [2]

As domination becomes more blatant, more in your face, they turn “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…that literary criticism alone is…sufficient to effect change.”  [This post-revolutionary deflation following an impossible revolution reminds one of Gitlin’s slightly different point on the politics of the English Department.]   The pressing question becomes “why literary criticism matters if it is not political activism by another name.” [2]

Symptomatic reading is performed by the active critic armed with a theory, freer and more knowing than the text, who can turn surface disguise into disclosure, demystifying master codes.  As Jameson believed, “the critic does not literally produce the text, but does produce whatever in it is related to truth.” [15] * The core assumption is that

“a text’s truest meaning lies in what it does not say, [it] describes textual surfaces as superfluous, and seeks to unmask hidden meanings …veiled, latent, all but absent if it were not for their irrepressible and recurring symptoms…. [B]y disclosing the absent cause that structures the text’s inclusions and exclusions, the critic restores to the surface the deep history that the text represses.” [1, 3]

Surface reading is both a practice and an ethic, an act of recovery that brings into sight “the complexity of literary surfaces…rendered invisible by symptomatic reading.”  [10, 1]  Surface is that which is “evident, perceptible, apprehensible in texts… is neither hidden nor hiding…insists on being looked at rather than what we must train ourselves to see through.” [9]  It includes attention of the “materiality” of texts, such as histories of the book, and is associated with the “New Formalism,” which recalls the old New Criticism.

The heroic figure of the critic or theorist is succeeded by the receptive facilitator who lets the text speak for itself and is true to its words, attentive to surface linguistic complexity and aware that “attentiveness to the artwork [is] itself a kind of freedom.” [16] There’s a stepping out or back that seeks to restore, to purify the text of extrinsic political and theoretical  purposes,  including the politics of identity and authenticity.  They quote Charles Altieri’s almost touching description of the “ideal of being able not to worry about performing the self so that one can pursue potentials within the range of ongoing practices that are blocked by worries about identity and authenticity… to enjoy what and where one is without having to produce any supplemental claims that promise some ‘significance’ not immediately evident.” [16] **

It seems generally true that we think through conceptual metaphors, but sometimes it’s difficult to unpack them analytically, or discern how they play out in practice or application.  It remains unclear to me exactly what the surface and depth of texts are, where one starts and the other stops, how texts can speak for themselves without an interpretive frame,  ie, a theory of some sort, etc.  I wonder as well how these models might be used.  Are they timeless forms of “reading,” descriptions as well as prescriptions;  could we categorize readers in different places and times in this way?  How useful might they be as optics for intellectual history?

Next I want to offer some observations on how the distinction between  Symptomatic Reading  /  Surface Reading might be taken — mistakenly, in most cases — to parallel or overlap closely with  other distinctions with which we work. Hopefully others will want to flesh these out, add different ones, or offer criticisms.

—   Context / Text –  or, Text / Context –  Surface may be associated with the text, and contextualism with symptomatic reading.  Surface reading in the form of the New Formalism attends mostly to the text itself and is reluctant to proceed “from text to context,”  recalling the New Criticism, “which insisted that the key to understanding a text’s meaning lay within the text itself, particularly in its formal properties.” [10]

But Best and Marcus also link surface reading with discovering “patterns that exist within and across texts” [italics removed], as in “narratology, thematic criticism, genre criticism, and discourse analysis,” which makes the critic more like a taxonomist than a deep diver, attending “to what is present rather than privilege what is absent.” But their illustrations seem at odds with how a symptomatist might explore context in showing how ideology is diffuse, embedded in the moments of everyday life. [11-12]

In a 2004 article, Fredric Jameson wrote that “literary criticism is or should be a theoretical kind of symptomatology.  Literary forms and cultural forms in general are the most concrete symptoms we have of what is at work in that absent thing called the social.”  [“Symptoms of Theory or Symptoms for Theory?” Critical Inquiry, 407]

Yet Bruce Holsinger makes the point that context, like text, can be shallow or deep —

“The matter and make-up of historical context can at times be glaringly apparent on the surface of a text, at other times hidden in plain sight, at still others recoverable only after considerable thought and theorizing — making it very difficult for the critic to say whether she is studying the surface or the symptom. The notion that reading for the surface frees us from reading for context does some damage to both sides of the equation.”   [“’Historical Context’ in Historical Context:  Surface, Depth, and Making of the Text,”  NLH  Autumn 2011, 611]

—   New Formalism / New Historicism –  In an article cited by Best and Marcus, Marjorie Levinson points out that New Formalists differ in how they understand “the conception, role, and importance of form in new historicism.”  …  Some see historicism  as consistent with a new attention to aesthetic form, while others do not. [Levinson, “What Is New Formalism?” PMLA March 2007, 559]  Again, no straightforward parallel. To further complicate matters, some argue that there are significant affinities between the New Criticism and Derridean deconstruction.

—   Theory / Description of  Facts  – As we’ve seen, Best and Marcus associate symptomatic reading with theory, and surface reading with “critical description,” which they nonetheless hope can be the basis for a critique of ideology and the status quo. There’s something reassuring in the idea that texts are self-mediating, happy to give up their truths.  At the end they refer to Bruno Latour’s plea for the reconstitution of facts in the aftermath of rampant constructionism, though for Latour it means neither a return to modernist realism, nor the absence of theory.   ***

—   Deep Hermeneutics  /  Machine Intelligence  –  Near the end of the article, the authors suggest that computers have some of the same virtues as the critic who has struggled in the mire of  “critical subjectivity.”

“Where the heroic critic corrects the text, a nonheroic critic might aim instead to correct for her critical subjectivity, by using machines to bypass it, in the hopes that doing so will produce more accurate knowledge about texts….Computers are weak interpreters but potent describers, anatomizers, taxonomists.” [17]

Here their critical turn converges with a sort of technological utopianism — both sustained by a recovered faith in plain facts.  At this juncture, attentiveness and a willingness to let texts speak for themselves take on a different, perhaps sinister implication :  what the machine can’t do, it happens, is what we’ve despaired of doing anyway.

—   Elitism /  Reception Theory   –  Symptomatic reading is linked throughout to the obscure knowledge acquired by the godlike critic, while surface reading comes across as less difficult,  though often demanding, and so implicitly more available in the democracy of all readers.  A surface approach is also seen to be more descriptive, less evaluative; and perhaps sits better with reception, often understood through spatial, ie, horizontal,  metaphors.  ****

Best and Marcus’ discussion of the interrelated aspects of a change in models of reading might be explored as part of a still-developing historiography of various recent “turns,” including the turn from “theory.” How these developments may have reshaped the practice of history still isn’t clear, but some have observed a return to the seemingly straightforward project of getting the facts right,  historical description, and putting the turns safely into the past — all of which might be seen as a retreat from interdisciplinarity.  The partial “turn” to a surface approach might have an affinity with these seeming trends.

The article also reflects the somehow related theme of an end or at least partial relaxation of identity politics, the need to produce and interpret texts through and in terms of subject positions such as race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.  [See **]  Best and Marcus seem as eager as Altieri to be able to let go of “worries about identity and authenticity.” At the same time, it seems that the very heart of their project is to construct a new critical identity, including new techniques and practices, with their existential and political justifications.

This helps account for an admirable feature of their essay, the candor with which they tell the story of their [generational?] move from symptomatic to surface reading, in a richly contextualized, multi-dimensional way, as the effects of their training play out under changed political and cultural conditions, as they adapt by working toward an alternative way of thinking responsive to newer intellectual trends and the need to maintain a coherent and meaningful sense of self and vocation. They are good historicizers, and fairly persuasive advocates. In a real sense, the article performs its own credo, disarming the symptomatic reader by the forthrightness of a text that seems to tell all, to put it all out there.

Notes –

*  Best and Marcus indicate that symptomatic reading is much older and larger than its Freudian tag suggests, going back, for example, to Plato and the Gnostics.  Professor Wiki uses the term in her article on “Critical Reading,” which  is sometimes a placeholder for the liberal arts “component” of undergraduate education.  In the Representations issue, Mary Crane does a symptomatic reading that draws on cognitive theory, not on Marxism or psychoanalysis.

**  Best and Marcus note that Jameson influenced Eve Sedgwick and Toni Morison in the 90s, and “both showed that one could read a text’s silences, gaps, style, tone, and imagery as symptoms of the queerness or race absent only apparently from its pages.”  [6] Anne Cheng, one of the contributors more removed from Jameson, “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 hidden depths is the desire to restore and make visible the authenticity veiled by spectacle.” [9]  Sharon Marcus’ notion of  “just reading” suggests that close relations between women shouldn’t be seen as invariably a symptom of a lesbian relationship.  [12]

***  In a puzzling move, after drawing on Latour’s ideas on facts and the “assembling” of knowledge, Best and Marcus go on to say that both forms of reading aim at “assembly”  in Latour’s sense, and that both seek “a more complete view of reality.”  [19] Duncan Kennedy, in “Knowledge and the Political: Bruno Latour’s  Political Epistemology,” Cultural Critique 74, Winter 2010, explores Latour’s parallels between reception and the creation of scientific knowledge.

**** Katherine Harloe, in “Can Political Theory Provide a Model for Reception,”  Cultural Critique 74, Winter 2010, compares Arendt’s agora with interactions associated with reception.

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Very interesting. Does Susan Sontag (and her appropriation of Roland Barthes, the erotics of the text, all that) not come up at all in this discussion?

    Similarly, it seems as though the idea that literary criticism would be essentially pedagogy–the education of certain kinds of subjects, or readers–seems absent? This was after all an important part of the discussion about “reading too much.”

  2. Thank you for this post and the links. I am of a different (and likely younger) generation than many of the contributors to _Representations_ who are currently offering alternatives to “symptomatic reading.” Like them, I have found, especially in the graduate seminars that I have taken, that a purely “symptomatic reading” is not appropriate for all situations, as “not all situations require…subtle ingenuity.” However, it seems to me that, as Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus comment about their own intellectual trajectory, an entire generation of humanities scholars were trained to value various kinds of “symptomatic readings”-to read “against the grain,” if you will. I wonder how much this situation is changing and, if it is, how historians will deploy these different ways of reading. Does anyone have a sense of the current situation in the field of United States Intellectual History?

  3. Bill-Beautiful piece. Thanks for calling attention to this essay by Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus, which I also found thought-provoking, together with your take on it. I hadn’t heard of “surface reading,” and was skeptical at the sound of it, thinking it might be trying to eschew depth in some way, but because of your introduction, I was curious about and open to the connection with close reading. I’m not (yet, anyway) convinced that their calling the set of practices they list “surface” reading, as an antidote to “symptomatic” reading, is the most apt nomenclature, but the concept is intriguing and the prospect of readings of all these and other varieties is an exciting one. And although such an antidote might be refreshing and sorely needed because of recent trends, we could perhaps also imagine a way of reading, or hearing, a text that is sensitive to eloquent silences of different kinds at the same time as being attuned to what is actually being said–listening for hidden depths and surfaces all at once. No matter what the style or type of approach, it is also no doubt the quality of a particular ear, with the unique range of notes, nuances of tone, and the other things it can pick up, that results in a reading that deepens understanding, feels complete or satisfying, and even sometimes rings true.

  4. Eric and Gregory, thanks to you both for the stimulating comments.

    Eric – You’re right that Best and Marcus refer to Sontag’s “Against Interpretation” in their “embrace of the surface,” to her view that interpretation, especially that associated with Marxism and psychoanalysis, destroys the aesthetic value of the text, its “pure, untranslatable, sensuous immediacy,” as she put it. [Best and Marcus, 10] …

    Like Sontag, they aren’t ready to give up either interpretation of any sort, or the mimetic function of art [and see Fred Rush, “Appreciating Susan Sontag,” Philosophy and Literature 33, 2009] But I’m not sure where their position leads, toward a new aestheticism perhaps, or the sovereignty of reception, how these might be entailed with one another, or how these developments may impact intellectual history. Does surface reading lead us into possibly new, fruitful forms of historical inquiry, or push in a different direction? I don’t know.

    I thought the discussion around Rivka’s post was full of insightful remarks, but I’m just less interested in how to teach intellectual history than what it might be in the first place. Yet, as a teacher of undergraduates for forty years — though mostly in sociology, not intellectual history — I was often frustrated by the virtually automatic and unshakeable distinction they seemed to make between enjoyment and analysis, between the warmth of their utterly presentist, subjective responses to texts, and what they saw as cold analysis — a very romantic notion after all, ala Wordsworth’s “we murder to dissect.” [I know, complaining doesn’t work, but that’s another story.]

    True, there’s a need to balance students’ and our enjoyment of texts with analysis, and not to neglect the former as we rush past or through the work in search of symptoms. At the same time, I don’t think we should give up the idea that the richest, most complete experience of a text comes through and along with analysis.

    To go at it from another angle, it seems to me that analysis shouldn’t somehow get identified with historicizing/contextualizing, since part of its value is that it connects us through the mediation of the text to the experience of others in its time. Our experience can on occasion be a sort of re-experiencing through others. In other words, I agree with Rivka — but we shouldn’t reify the distinction between contextualizing or analyzing, and an open spirit of readiness to “listen and…be moved.” I don’t see them in opposition, unless we perhaps go too far, ala Benjamin, in insisting on closeness and accessibility.

    Gregory – The questions you raise are just the ones that sparked my interest in the work on reading. I’m glad you brought in Gumbrecht in commenting on Rivka’s post, and his comparison of auratic reading with reading as an “oscillation between losing and regaining intellectual control or orientation” is intriguing.

    A couple of years ago I read his “Presence Achieved in Language (with Special Attention Given to the Presence of the Past),” [History and Theory 45, 3, 2006] Perhaps his notion that the “presence” of things from the past can be accomplished through poetic language is another way of making the point I tried to make above.

    I’ve been reading Klein’s book, so naturally turned there after thinking about both your comments, and located two references to Benjamin’s notion of “aura,” both in chapter five on memory as a sort of “reenchantment” that combines the postmodern critique with archaic notions of religion, spirituality, etc. [125, 131] Klein is very suspicious of this post-secular turn, to me with good reason.

    In taking another look at Benjamin’s essay, I noticed that he accounts for the auratic quality of art not over against, but in terms of its embeddedness in a historical context of tradition and ritual, which is just what makes it distant from us, and gives it its aura — it’s part of a different world, distant from ours. At least that’s what he seems to be saying.

    The whole essay of course is organized around distinctions between tradition and modernity standard in the age of Marx, Weber, and Simmel. By the second paragraph, he’s already cited Marx’s distinction between substructure and superstructure. Somewhat later, he writes:

    “The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced. Since the historical testimony rests on the authenticity, the former, too, is jeopardized by reproduction when substantive duration ceases to matter. And what is really jeopardized when the historical testimony is affected is the authority of the object…the aura of the work of art. This is a symptomatic process whose significance points beyond the realm of art.”

    He goes on to describe the art for art’s sake movement as a reaction to this modernization process, as a sort of “negative theology.”

  5. Elisabeth – Thanks very much. Actually, neither term seems felicitous, since the one connotes superficial and the other Freudianism in some form. Maybe “textualist” and “structural” would be better, but they’ve got problems too I guess. Anyhow, no point in closing the barn door now.

    I like your suggestion that silences don’t have to be symptoms of/or repressions. In terms of my response to Eric and Gregory, perhaps they can include — or point us toward — the traces of others in the world, say, of the poem or novel.

    Mostly, I’m glad you seem to share my sense of the importance of the discussion Best and Marcus turn us on to for intellectual history.

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