Weak Reading; or, That’s Not What It’s About

A while back Dan Green posted a link to this interesting exchange between Derek Attridge and Henry Staten. I’m attracted by the idea of “weak” or “minimal” reading they discuss, because it seems related to my own reservations about some tendencies of academic literary criticism. Here’s an excerpt from Attridge’s introduction:

I’ve been trying for a while to articulate an understanding of the literary critic’s task which rests on a notion of responsibility, derived in large part from Derrida and Levinas, or, more accurately, Derrida’s recasting of Levinas’s thought, one aspect of which is an emphasis on the importance of what I’ve called variously a “literal” or “weak” reading. That is to say, I’ve become increasingly troubled by the effects of the enormous power inherent in the techniques of literary criticism at our disposal today, including techniques of formal analysis, ideology critique, allusion hunting, genetic tracing, historical contextualization, and biographical research. . . .

The notion that it is smarter to read “against the grain” rather than to do what one can to respond accurately and affirmatively to the singularity of the work can compound this disregard of what is truly important. This is not to say that the use of literary works as illustrations of historical conditions or ideological formations (including abhorrent ones) is invalid or reprehensible; just that to do so is not to treat the works in question as literature. . . .

I’m not (yet) familiar with the other work in which Attridge develops this notion of critical responsibility or the value (or even obligation) of responding “accurately and affirmatively to the singularity of the work.” But so far it sounds as if his work would help me articulate my own dissatisfaction with the often sizable gap between what literary texts themselves are primarily concerned with–the conversation they are consciously having with their readers–and what we talk about when we talk about them in our criticism. (I discuss this concern briefly, and a bit flippantly, here in the context of a classic deconstructive reading of Middlemarch, and here in a discussion of Denis Donoghue’s The Practice of Reading, to give a couple of examples, and I’ve pointed to James Wood and Edward Dowden as critics who can [though, in Wood’s case, may not always] exemplify what it means to focus on what is “truly important” by the standards of the text itself.) At stake, I think, is the issue a friend with a library science background has told me is called in his world, perhaps unofficially, “aboutness.” In determining the appropriate way to catalogue a book, a decision must be made (note the bureaucratic passive voice) regarding its central identity or “aboutness”: where it belongs depends on what is it ultimately about. Another useful concept might be what Henry James called the author’s “donnee,” or Donoghue simply calls the text’s “theme”–though Donoghue emphasizes that at issue is the text’s theme, not the critic’s (he protests, regarding recent criticism of Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan,” that “Yeats is not allowed to have his theme: he must be writing about something else”). Often, when hearing or reading examples of recent critical analysis, I find myself thinking, “very clever, but that’s not what the book is about!”* So at least initially, I like the idea of rigorously minimal reading.

But a ‘weak reading’ movement would run into trouble pretty quickly, because a text’s own “theme” is rarely obvious–which is the challenge Attridge and Staten confront in the bulk of their discussion. They attempt a ‘minimal’ reading of Blake’s “The Sick Rose”; Attridge proposes “talking about what [they] take to be obvious (as well as what a concern with the obvious makes possible and perhaps what it excludes),” to which Staten adds the clarification (or qualification) that “if something is obvious, then it must be so not just to me but to others as well, if not initially, then with a bit of pointing out.” But, as every English professor knows, the devil is in the details: what’s obvious is very much a result of one’s experience and preparation. Attridge and Staten seem to have put themselves at a disadvantage in this experiment by starting with a poem that is, as Staten says, “a very un-obvious poem.” Really, the only obvious thing about it to me is precisely its overt reaching at symbolic resonance. The moves in their attempt to fix some stably obvious points certainly demonstrate that weak reading requires considerable effort:

DA: Now you may say that to read the rose as a symbol of beauty, perfection, etc. is to leave the surface, and the garden plant, and therefore the realm of the obvious, to enter the depths about which there cannot be general agreement.

HS: Yes.

DA: But don’t these connotations constitute an aspect of the generally agreed meaning of the word rose? Or perhaps we need to distinguish between the obvious and the more recherché aspects of the word’s symbolic force. Of the associations I mentioned, beauty, perfection and love are surely not much less general than the literal botanical meaning.HS: There are many associations that a word like “rose” can potentially arouse; but which of these associations are in fact activated within a specific poem, in a way that we actually need to bring out in order to get the bold, sharp outlines of the poem’s action? Perfection doesn’t seem to me to play a significant role in the major dynamic of “The Sick Rose”—a dynamic you’ve described so well—and therefore I would say this meaning is not saliently activated here (certainly not at the level of what is or can become obvious). The rose is sick, and sickness doesn’t attack perfection as such, it attacks health. Beauty is no doubt there in some way, since flowers in general have this connotation; but even beauty plays no direct role in the drama of the poem; “bed of crimson joy” suggests a kind of exuberant organic vitality in the rose more than it does its beauty. The drama foregrounds the joyous vitality of the rose, on the one hand, and its vulnerability to the worm, on the other hand; and in this connection the associative resonance would be, rather, with the softness of rose petals, so easily crushed, don’t you think? I don’t claim that this association is obvious; it’s a bit in the background. But it’s more directly linked to the manifest action of the poem than are beauty or perfection.

I wonder if their work would have been easier or harder if they had chosen a more literal example for their case study.

*One phenomenon with which anyone in literary studies is certainly familiar, for instance, is the interpretive strategy by which something seemingly incidental in the text is seized upon and ‘discovered’ to have great interpretive significance–usually because it can be read symptomatically, helping turn the text, as Attridge says, into an “illustration[] of historical conditions or ideological formations.”Here’s a mildly parodic (but fairly accurate) example of how it works. Suppose the text is a 19th-century realist novel–say, Barchester Towers, which I happen to be reading now. Imagine there’s a scene with a dinner party at which pickles are served. Now, the immediate action of Barchester Towers has everything to do with the internecine rivalries of English clergyman and the moral and social crises flowing from them, and nothing to do with pickles, but now that we have noticed the pickles, it becomes irresistible to follow up on them. Lo and behold, nobody has done pickles yet (though I could give you quite a list of what has been done). So we produce a pickled reading. What are the cultural implications of pickles? Who could afford them, and who could not? Were pickling techniques perhaps learned abroad, maybe in the chutney-producing regions of the eastern empire? Or maybe pickling was once a cottage industry and has now been industrialized. We learn all about these issues and make that jar on the table resonate with all the socio-economic and cultural meanings we have uncovered. Though the pickles seemed so incidental, now we realize how much work they are doing, sitting there on the table. (Who among us has not heard or read or written umpteen versions of this paper?) And perhaps we are right to bring this out–after all, for whatever known or felt reason, Trollope saw fit to put pickles there and not, say, oysters or potatoes. But do we really understand more about Barchester Towers, or just more about pickles–not in themselves, but as symptoms of industrialism, colonialism, or bourgeois taste in condiments? It’s not that our pickle paper might not be interesting or, indeed, accurate in all the conclusions it draws about the symptomatic or semiotic or other significance of the pickles. But it’s hard not to feel somehow that such an analysis misses the point of the book and thus has a certain intrinsic irrelevance.

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