The tasks of critical reading
The modes and conventions of academic critical reading have proliferated during the contemporary period, prompting continuous fusions and flexibilizations. An early pioneering illustration of such eclecticism would be Marxist feminist deconstructive postcolonial cultural criticism—the kind of blended critical approach associated since the 1970s with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. At the same time, various antitheory backlashes have called for returns to the common reader, close reading, and appreciative aesthetic criticism. Such calls have gained renewed momentum in the twenty-first century. Most are shortsighted. Against them I want to define and to defend a minimum program for practicing and teaching critical reading today. This approach blends close reading, ideology critique, and cultural critique with intimate critique and pleasure reading. In this defense, I make no claims for originality, but rather for balance, range, and relevance.
I am motivated to make this statement by recent disturbing articles calling for uncritical, reparative, appreciative, surface, generous, and renewed close reading. None of these are my terms. What they share is both weariness with and growing aversion to ideology and cultural critique, plus a longing for something new and enlivening. Insofar as they promote pleasure reading and close reading, I am sympathetic. Where I have problems is in excluding or deemphasizing ideology and cultural critique, a vexing and untimely tendency especially during our neoliberal era and continuing Great Recession.
I begin this chapter with a consideration of pleasure reading and arguments against critique and then move on to close reading, ideology critique, and cultural critique. I discussed intimate critique in Chapter 1 and revisit it here. I conclude with summary remarks and defense of a broad-based critical reading.
In the case of pleasure reading, two celebrated ethnographic studies—specifically of readers of romance novels by Janice Radway and of tight-knit communities of television fans by Henry Jenkins—illustrate complex systems of interpretive conventions, critical standpoints, and institutional matrices undergirding leisure-based reading (Leitch 2008). Despite opinions about it, pleasure reading is neither simple, nor disengaged, nor uncritical, quite the opposite.
Nevertheless, critics especially academics often consign pleasure reading to the sphere of appreciation, of subjective reading, of uncritical response (Jacobs). In this whole way of categorizing, a revealing system of polar opposites and a structure of feeling operate.
Poles of Reading
According to traditional learned opinion, pleasure reading is uncritical, light, naïve, impressionistic, and subjective. It is characteristically fast moving, crude, entertaining, and amateurish. Conversely, serious reading is critical, sophisticated, rigorous, objective, slow, suspicious, and deep. It is associated with work rather than leisure and with edification not entertainment. Academic taboos have long neatly cordoned off light and uncritical pleasure reading from learned and careful critical reading. Never the twain shall meet.
This standard account contains stereotypes, straw men, and loaded words like “naïve” and “light.” The values engendering this entire concatenation of oppositions derive ostensibly from Enlightenment-era classical philology, official scriptural hermeneutics, and especially modern literary criticism as solidified during the rise of the university and the professions. But contemporary postmodern ethnographies of reading have effectively disrupted these long-standing oppositions (Towheed, Crane, Halsey). Let me illustrate with an example, Radway’s Reading the Romance.
Janice Radway studies 42 lower-middle-class women readers of romance novels living in a Midwestern American suburb (Radway). They are connected through a bookstore and a newsletter. Radway’s ethnography of this reading group subverts the standard bifurcation of reading into critical versus uncritical. She details the protocols of these readers: they read rapidly, often skip to the end, pay no heed to style, ignore critical distance, identify with characters (especially heroines), and care most for plot. They are given to elaborate interpretations of the motivations of male protagonists. They share prescriptive criteria: no violent heroes, no weak heroines, no pornography, no unhappy or uncertain endings. They are voracious readers who occasionally reread favorite works particularly when depressed. For these heterosexual readers, the romance novel is compensatory, illustrating ideal relationships over against the status quo of distracted partners in a world of too much or no employment. While this is a local interpretive community of fans, of appreciative fast readers of popular literature, they are also attentive, steeped in the tradition of contemporary romance and armed with elaborate generic as well as emotional and social criteria. These are hardly uncritical readers focused only on appreciation and surface details.
The spread of academic cultural studies has for decades dignified popular culture and its fandoms, recognizing the sophistication of heterogeneous interpretive communities (Machor and Goldstein). But when it comes to romance and other genres of “pulp literature,” academics themselves still too frequently remain predisposed to superficial and subjective, unsophisticated and interested, that is, uncritical accounts. So let us continue to promote pleasure reading yet without scorn.
Unhappiness with academic critical reading, notably critique, exists today among a growing number of critics. It has prompted an array of articles promoting alternatives. Pioneering the way, Susan Sontag famously declares herself against interpretation in favor of immediate sensuous and non-utilitarian response (Sontag). Her imagined model is primordial ritual activity and magical experience preceding the burdens of consciousness. In the process, any and all critique gets tossed out the window. This is phenomenology in a pure form. For her part, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, late in her career, recommends reparative reading over against so-called paranoid reading (Sedgwick). Updating Paul Ricoeur’s famous observation, she complains that much contemporary reading partakes of the hermeneutics of suspicion, specifically Marxist criticism, psychoanalysis, Nietzschean-style genealogy, feminism, and New Historicism. She sets the hope, pleasure, and contingency of reparative reading, as found in phenomenology, aesthetics, and New Critical formalism, against the purported anxious cynicism, pain avoidance, and demystifying determinism of the above-named “hegemonic” paranoid modes of academic reading. Here pleasure reading, appreciation, and close reading explicitly supplant ideological and cultural critique. Critical enchantment trumps disenchantment. Relief is at hand.
In our new century a growing chorus of critics, like Sedgwick, bemoan critique and propound alternatives. Mark Edmundson calls for a moratorium on “readings” by which he means the application to a literary text of a specialized vocabulary such as Marx’s, Freud’s, or Foucault’s (Edmundson). He wants students and critics to encounter directly and sensitively the author’s view of life, of how to live, of what to do. Interpretation and criticism come afterwards. Appreciative existential openness to the text is a laudable goal. But a bogus sequencing and prioritizing is folded here into a wish for old time simplicity. In the process of reading, criticism and interpretation don’t simply wait upon personal response nor should they.
Yet another alternative is Rita Felski’s neophenomenology. Felski finds problems with the critical detachment, dispassion, and suspicion that she claims characterize the contemporary discipline of academic literary criticism. She foregrounds personal enchantments, which distinguish ordinary as well as academic reading, and that respond to the fundamental question of why a text matters. “Critique needs to be supplemented by generosity, pessimism by hope, negative aesthetics by a sustained reckoning with the communicative, expressive, and world-disclosing aspects of art” (33). This declaration stages a dramatic yet untenable either/or where a both/and choice makes more sense. The mechanical parade of polar oppositions here is startling and unconvincing. Still, Felski’s muted call for balance heads in the right direction retaining critique.1
For his part Michael Warner sympathizes with “uncritical reading,” depicting academic critical reading as specialized and antiquated. “Critical reading is the pious labor of a historically unusual sort of person” (36). It purportedly privileges distance, disengagement, and repudiation while putting a premium on the individuality of the modern enlightened reader. Moreover, notes Warner, it presupposes learning, privacy, and note taking, plus the paged codex as opposed to the continuous scroll of today’s Internet. Warner’s uncritical readers (especially undergraduate students in his literature classes) employ nonacademic protocols. They identify with characters, worship authors, seek information, skim, laugh, and cry. In this context, critical reading of any sort appears rarefied, old-fashioned, very near its end. The problem is that Warner does not credit or examine the protocols of close reading and critique employed by student readers. He assumes they are naïve and out of touch with critical skepticism and naysaying. As I see it, he slips into stereotypes in pitting uncritical against critical reading. In harshly portraying professional critical reading as an ideology, a subculture, and a self-interested ascetic discipline—a direct rival to uncritical reading—Warner ironically exploits the very tools and techniques of critical reading that he bemoans.
The modes of uncritical reading profiled here are characteristically much too thinly conceived in light of ethnographic studies analyzing conventions and practices of pleasure reading. They offer caricatures and lack balance, turning away from critique.2 Students appear infantilized.
Recent calls for “close reading” ring hollow in my ears. Why? To begin with, there are numerous very different modes of such reading. In the absence of specifics, the mantra to “return to close reading” seems to me both unexamined and insincere. If you wonder what modes of close reading I’m referring to, I respond briefly with a list of six variegated well-known examples: Cleanth Brooks’s formalism in The Well Wrought Urn (for instance, his first chapter on John Donne’s “Canonization”); Martin Heidegger’s ontological phenomenology in “Language” (an essay on Georg Trakl’s poem “Winter Evening”); Erich Auerbach’s philology in “Odysseus’ Scar,” the opening chapter of Mimesis contrasting Homer and the Old Testament; Roman Jakobson and Claude Lévi-Strauss’s famous structuralist demonstration article “Charles Baudelaire’s ’Les Chats’”; Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction in “Plato’s Pharmacy”; and Roland Barthes’s poststructuralist semiotics in S/Z (an exhaustive book analyzing Balzac’s story “Sarrasine”). But rather than multiplying further different modes of rigorous close reading, which would be easy enough (Caws; Lentricchia and DuBois), I want to checklist the main protocols and premises of Cleanth Brooks’s formalist style of close reading—long a setter of norms for North American academic critical reading.3 The contrast with Radway’s readers of romance is instructive.
Here are ten key rules of formalist close reading in the New Critical manner of Cleanth Brooks.
1 Select a single short canonical literary text, preferably a lyric poem.
2 Avoid personal emotional response in favor of objectivity.
3 Rule out historical inquiry in preference to stylistic and aesthetic analysis.
4 Carry out multiple retrospective readings.
5 Presuppose the text is intricate and complex, efficient and unified.
6 Subordinate incongruities and conflicts in the interest of overall unity.
7 Show paradox, irony, and ambiguity resolving disunities.
8 Treat the text as impersonal drama and well-made autonomous aesthetic artifact.
9 Focus on patterns of imagery, metaphorical language, and literariness and not, absolutely not, on psychology, morality, sociology, or political economy.
10 Try to be the ideal reader. Given these criteria, we can see why most New Critics
Given these criteria, we can see why most New Critics might consider John Donne a better poet than Walt Whitman. But I don’t want to rehash in depth the relative strengths and weaknesses of this early Cold War highly influential aestheticist reading formation. Nor do I wish to trash Brooks. What interests me in this manual of procedures and these evaluative criteria are stark differences from the critical charter shared by Radway’s romance readers. A reader of romance could subscribe to none of these critical premises, and a New Critical formalist could abide none of the ten protocols earlier specified for romance readers. I could go on here to compare and contrast the many modes of close reading mentioned above, their differences, overlaps, and preferences. Yet I won’t. My aim is not only to call into question the standard system of values associated with the distinction between critical and uncritical reading, but also to suggest the baggage as well as insincerity of vague calls for a return to close reading. There is more to be said about such baggage.
Many contemporary pitches for close reading, first launched in the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s and ramped up in the new century, appear to me to be efforts either to restore the canon of great literary texts, or to undo the “triumph” of theory, or to call us academics away from cultural studies and critique, or all three (see, for example, Patai and Corral discussed in Chapter 2). Moreover, some calls are antiacademic, some anti-intellectual, and others willful vanguardist provocations. Behind old and new campaigns for close reading lie an array of wishes and curses. A few samples will clarify my point. There is the wish to restore the common reader (Teres; Gioia; NEA), which I see as an alluring but mythical figure.4 There is a desire to return to earlier aesthetic analysis and evaluation accompanied frequently by curses on contemporary identity politics, ideology critique, and popular culture gone viral (Ellis). There is widespread unhappiness about and resistance to the ongoing deaestheticizing transformation of literature into a media commodity stripped of its aura and entangled with commercial circuits of entertainment production, distribution, and consumption. There is ambivalent dismay at the growing demand for research productivity within the corporate university; it is this requirement of publish or perish that allegedly lies behind the success of theory, cultural studies, and critique, accounting for the proliferation of contending interpretive communities (Bauerlein). Let me reiterate, the catchphrase “close reading” carries a great deal of baggage. To make sense of it requires consideration of context and motives, which are, not surprisingly, value laden, debatable, and frequently opaque.5 None of my commentary is to deny the value of close reading, which I strongly advocate and practice in my own teaching and research.
The concept of ideology in most contemporary versions operates, as is well-known, on two premises of Marxist theory lately enhanced. Like formalist close reading, it has proven to be an extremely useful heuristic for critical reading and for classroom teaching. Let’s not scrap it. Premise one, human history evolves unevenly through successive modes of production, spanning from tribal hordes, kinship societies, plus despotic and slaveholding societies to feudalism, capitalism, socialism, and communism. Class antagonisms, often repressed, mark each social formation. Starting around 1500 in the West, capitalism has gone through various stages, with postindustrial free-market neoliberal or late capitalism in the ascendency since the 1970s, going global in the 1990s, and intensifying during recent years in the face of severe economic crises. Premise two, the socioeconomic elements of society constitute its infrastructure while cultural spheres compose its superstructure, with both being linked and mediated through continuous horizontal feedback loops. The superstructure encompasses, significantly, family, religion, politics, law, education, unions, technoscience, and culture (Althusser). (This rundown of institutions from Althusser offers a useful checklist for students as well as cultural analysts.) Not incidentally, “culture” here designates crafts, sports, and the arts, high and low, literature included (R. Williams). Each of the superstructural spheres is more or less autonomous while being differentially connected to social totality. (Totalizing here entails linking your self to the social world and its institutions.) In this context, ideology consists of the ideas, beliefs, values, plus worldviews of the dominant groups in society that circulates through the superstructural institutions, including literature and popular culture. Ideology is what often passes for commonsense or doxa (“what everybody knows”). Undergraduate students, however, often mistake ideology as “personal” opinion. But it is just the opposite. This knee-jerk reversal in the interest of programmatic hyper individualism turns out to be a productive issue to pursue in the classroom. One can start a discussion with the claim that individualism is an ideology.
Ideology critique of contemporary film or historical literature, to take two instances, is capable of turning up a great deal about art, culture, and society. Why renounce it? It’s a powerful and essential mode of critical reading. Consider a focus on the family, its definition and major forms, its relations with work and religion, its strengths and weaknesses. A teacher-critic of contemporary discourse can pose a handful of pressing questions with this heuristic in mind. According to cultural documents, how do things stand with, say, the North American family in the context of intensified postindustrial capitalism? Are there any changes of note? In what ways does the family relate to earlier forms and emerging ones? What enhances and what tears apart families now? Is there an ideal family? In recent domestic novels and television dramas, how is the relationship between individualism and family solidarity portrayed? In what ways are things depicted with the extended family and the nuclear family vis-à-vis traditional monogamy, serial monogamy, single-headed households, domestic partnerships, and living alone or in community? However depressing it might be to cast the family as an ideological unit, if you are a parent teaching your children the importance of hard work, self-reliance, and punctuality, you realize you are a spokesperson, a conduit, a carrier for innumerable impersonal norms and values that circulate throughout society and individuals, yourself included. Literature is such a conduit as is social discourse. This cannot and ought not to be denied. Should we scrap such insight in a project of purging ideology critique? Absolutely not.
During recent decades ideology critique has been enhanced with accompanying concepts, most notably hegemony/counterhegemony, commodification, utopia, plus the imaginary à la Louis Althusser, Fredric Jameson, and Slavoj Žižek. As with close reading, there are many different conceptions of ideology critique (Eagleton identifies more than a half dozen). The spread of these newer concepts coincides with the rise and triumph of free-market fundamentalism starting in the 1970s. “It is no accident.” This familiar phrase summons the long-standing rule of thumb for ideology critique “as in the base, so in the superstructure.” As capitalism goes increasingly global enabled by and enabling instantaneous financial and media flows, concepts of hegemony, commodification, a better world, and our imagined relations with reality become illuminating as well as inevitable. Consequently, I can’t envisage teaching or practicing critical reading of literature, popular culture, or social discourse today without employing ideology critique, whether narrowly construed or enhanced. That would be malfeasance. The same goes for close reading in one form or another. These modes of reading are not mutually exclusive.
I see cultural critique, speaking historically, as separable from ideology critique, although other critics and scholars do not (e.g., Ebert; Best and Marcus). There is a bit of confusion surrounding these terms. The postmodern race-class-gender analysis characteristic of cultural critique adds race and gender during the 1960s and thereafter to preexisting modern class analysis dating back to the interwar era, if not earlier. During the closing two decades of the twentieth century, cultural critique, associated with the new social movements of the 1960s, added to race and gender, which stemmed from the civil rights and women’s movements, sexuality and nationality, deriving from LGBTQ movements and ongoing movements against (neo)colonialism. That said, in the Anglophone world many critics fuse modes of critical reading stemming from race and ethnicity studies, postcolonial studies, and queer theory with Marxist as well as psychoanalytic theory. They often call this postmodern blend cultural critique, sometimes ideology critique, or sometimes symptomatic reading.6 Cultural critique is the predominant term today. It is distinguished by its flexibility and openness.
Among the most prominent of many modes of cultural critique is, to take one example, Foucaultian analysis. Michel Foucault depicts critique explicitly as calling into question reigning orders, norms, and institutions (so-called knowledge-power networks), especially of law, morality, and science (Foucault). He does this in the context of desubjugation and self-formation. Judith Butler crisply characterizes Foucaultian cultural critique as at once ethical, aesthetic, and political practice, putting it to good use in her early work of gender demystification (Butler). More recently, Michael Hardt self-consciously adds to Butler’s Foucaultian-style critique an engagé focus on modes of political activism that he extrapolates from the later lectures of Foucault (Hardt). He advocates a militant Foucaultian critique “that has the power to struggle against the life we are given and to make a new life, against this world and for another. Beyond critique’s ability to limit how much and in what way we are governed, this militancy opens up a new form of governance” (34).
Cultural critique, Foucaultian and otherwise, has built into it an egalitarian ethicopolitics. It harbors utopian notions about emancipation, freedom, and a better life (Wiegman). Hardt and Butler bear witness here. Opponents of cultural critique sometimes derisively label it the “victimization thesis,” as if sexism, racism, colonialism, compulsory heterosexuality, and their interlocking dominations and antagonisms were no longer problems. Would it were so. To give up cultural critique strikes me as irresponsible and short-sighted.
It is worth stressing that Foucault does not talk about class, base/superstructure, or ideology. In place of Althusser’s ideological state apparatuses, Foucault documents how modern social institutions develop productive docile bodies using “disciplines.” Among the latter are surveillance, modes of objectification, tables of data and norms, records, hierarchies, examinations, and exercises. Practitioners of cultural critique are frequently, like Foucault, post-Marxist, if only because they do not believe in the ultimate triumph of the proletariat over the bourgeoisie (see, for example, Boltanski). What we have here is the Archie Bunker, hardhat, or Kansas phenomenon. Who today takes seriously the revolutionary radicalism of North American industrial workers? Saying farewell to this working class entails bidding adieu to some orthodox Marxist doctrines. For many critics, patriarchal and racial dominations appear at least as ancient and intractable as class struggle. Not surprisingly, there are practitioners of cultural critique who do not practice ideology critique, strictly speaking. I am not one of them. Rather I find ideology critique and cultural critique supplement one another. Neither one is dispensable. That is a crucial lesson of recent decades, the time of the rise of cultural studies in tandem with the corporate university and globalizing capitalism. In this context, critique usefully foregrounds alternatives and well as problems.
I treat intimate critique as an offshoot of cultural and ideology critique. I argue it merits separate consideration. By intimate critique I mean the analysis of personal emotions and lived experiences linked with everyday social, political, and economic forces and antagonisms. Take, for example, today’s mounting anxieties concerning debt, or panic attacks stemming from multitasking, or insecurity over the spreading disposability of employees as well as resources and goods. Such calamities, large and small, affect me and my family plus friends and co-workers, as I made clear in Chapter 1. These common feelings, however individualized, clue us in to what is really going on (Freedman, Frey, Zauhar). They connect the emotional self to the larger surround of institutions, disciplines, and changing conventions. This is one way of historicizing the moment of reading. And it blends effectively with pleasure reading.7 As a personalized fusion and extension of ideology and cultural critique, intimate critique constitutes an important survival skill for our time.
The tasks of critical reading
Recent critics advocating reparative, appreciative, uncritical, generous, surface, and restored close reading are misguided. Their programs lack balance and are lop-sided. I argue for including multifaceted critique along with close reading while encouraging pleasure reading. Such broadening is a matter of empowerment, arguably advocacy, but not indoctrination (Graff). Critical heuristics, I have found, can turn dogmatic principles into pragmatic tools. Encouraging and teaching pleasure reading for me means disabusing people of the idea that such reading is mindless, simple, or unworthy. Quite the contrary, research shows that personal “light reading” uses intricate sets of interpretive protocols. Close reading in my classrooms, as in many others if today’s leading literature textbooks are any indication, involves stylistic analysis in a formalistic mode rooted in aesthetic appreciation of technique. The New Criticism lives on. My own mantra is technique is a test of sincerity, especially for majors in literature, rhetoric, and cultural studies. I promote units and courses in narrative theory, prosody, history of rhetoric, and stylistics. Along with textual analysis and critical evaluation, I make it a point to celebrate aesthetic beauty and to praise the best of its kind whatever the kind. What most interests me personally in ideology critique is systematic focus both on historical modes of production like globalizing postmodernity and on institutions such as religion, education, and the family vis-à-vis the socioeconomic and political flows, frameworks, and antagonisms of the periods in question. Given today’s intensifying capitalism, it’s untimely to deemphasize or, worse yet, renounce ideology critique. As far as cultural critique, I, like many other critics, continue to find particularly rewarding in the classroom and in research questioning dynamics of race, gender, sexuality, and nationality. How, to take a case in point, do whiteness, femininity, queerness, national identity, and social class play out in 1920s US literary texts, for example, Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Larsen’s Quicksand, O’Neill’s All God’s Chillun Got Wings, Eliot’s The Waste Land, and Hughes’s The Weary Blues? You can teach a course on just such a question, as I have done. There should be no either/or between and among intimate critique, close reading, ideology critique, and cultural critique. But too often there is in recent calls to reclaim critical reading.
I realize that I have skirted an array of key topics related to critical reading today. I am assuming, for example, that infrastructures and circuits of literacy are in place. Here I mean not only primary and secondary schools; SAT, ACT, and other entrance exams; colleges and universities; but also publishers, bookstores (including Amazon.Books), libraries, family reading customs, study of scriptures, plus personal experience and street smarts. Furthermore, I’m not sure where in my account to situate unambiguously Do-It-Yourself reading practices, for instance, of consumer reports, loan documents, how-to guides, self-help manuals, diet books, Wikipedia articles, blogs, and so on. But clearly such reading involves flexible mixtures of interpretive modes.8 It goes without saying, yet I perhaps haven’t stressed it enough, reading is personal and interested, sometimes enchanting, sometimes risky, capable of changing lives for good and ill. It can be dangerous or life saving or both. This is the realm of criticism earlier theorists of reading labeled “response,” often treating it as a distinct subcategory of uncritical reading or confessionalism, one step above superficial browsing. But phenomenologists and reader-response critics thankfully rectified that misapprehension decades ago (Bleich). Today neophenomenologists and others are in the helpful process of reconsidering the personal risks and rewards of reading. Intimate critique has a role here, as does pleasure reading. But such reconsiderations should not pit themselves against or demote critique.
I have not commented on a favorite of mine, namely excessive reading, that is, idiosyncratic, inventive, smart reading, the quirky countersigning commonly associated with Kenneth Burke, Harold Bloom, Jacques Derrida, Judith Butler, Slavoj Žižek, and others. (I examine Derrida as excessive reader in Chapter 6.) The tactics of these singular readers are both emulated and rapidly encapsulated in guidebooks. The latter can be useful for teaching students of literature, media, and culture. These prominent figures raise for fruitful consideration issues of overreading, underreading, and misreading; of meaning, ambiguity, and polysemy; and of the innumerable ways of contextualizing and transcoding works (Davis). As a group and singly, such critics are not immune to criticism, for example, ideology and cultural critique. The premium they put on creativity and wild innovation is in keeping with macho hyper capitalist values and market vanguardism. Excessive reading also fits very comfortably with the imperative of modernist as well as postmodern essay writing to be provocative, a highly esteemed value that often trumps the more conservative classical Enlightenment values of clarity, economy, and elegance, not to mention balance and truth. Insofar as these “deviant” critics have accrued cultural capital, they merit classroom discussion and critical inquiry on several additional counts, particularly assessing the dynamics of the celebrity status assigned to contemporary academostars.
I foresee a range of criticisms of my program for critical reading. It could be claimed, for example, it reduces criticism to a formula. Also it says nothing about proportionality, leaving the balance between close reading and critique unaddressed. It promotes the liberal values of multicultural diversity, critical fusion, and criticism of capitalism. Guilty as charged. Indeed, I recommend in the name of empowerment that students and practitioners use checklists, heuristic formulas, and tried and true techniques. My program deliberately does not assign fractions or percentages to its handful of designated critical methods and approaches, for it invariably comes down to case-by-case decisions. Without question, I remain critical of color- and gender-blind ideologies given the destructive racism, sexism, and heterosexism rampant in our world. Label it piety if you like, but it beats silence as a response. Capitalism has flaws, for example, chronic economic inequalities on evidence not only in everyday life, but also in literature, social discourse, and media. Let’s address its weaknesses and strengths in our criticism. In the interests of pragmatism, flexibility, and broad scope, I advocate open-ended critical fusions. I am against reductionist programs for criticism such as formalist close reading only, exclusive art-for-art’s sake aestheticism, selfless spiritualized phenomenology of unreading, or reader-centered existential phenomenology stripped of critique. They constitute throwbacks to modernist avant-gardism and fantasies of revitalized autonomy in an era when economics and politics enabled by media continue to seep into and reconfigure all spheres of life. Count me out on such nostalgic and defensive campaigns for purification.
Whether we treat ideology critique and close reading, intimate critique and cultural critique as heuristics or as personal articles of faith, I believe that in combining them there is a great deal of responsible work to do for literary and cultural analysts, teachers, and students. Unlike the four levels of patristic interpretation, neither hierarchy nor sequence needs to be adhered to with this hermeneutics blended for survival in our time.
1Compare Catherine Belsey who condemns current academic critique as pious and dogmatic, calling for a return to aesthetic pleasure and textual analysis. Belsey’s sui generis project rests upon a peculiar Lacanian theory of pleasure in which literature (like language) stands in for the unattainable “lost object” (primordial nonlinguistic Real life). What motivates Belsey is an explicit vanguardist search for the new and shocking. This explains why she can depict today’s academic feminist and postcolonial cultural critique as “conformist” and “orthodox” preaching to the converted (27).
For a self-conscious, middle-of-the-road balancing of close reading and ideology critique, see the project of Weinstein and Looby, who acknowledge at the outset of their collection of eighteen essays by diverse hands “the inextricable entanglement of aesthetic and ideological matters and the necessary critical virtue of keeping their dynamic interrelationship in constant play” (7).
2Compare Bruno Latour, who rightly worries about the opportunistic uses of critique by antievolutionists, deniers of climate change, and debunkers of science. However, he does not renounce critique. See also Jacques Rancière’s criticism of left- and right-wing critique, both of which treat the general populace as incapable imbeciles. In mounting his own critique, Rancière defends his long-standing axiom of the equality of anyone with everyone.
3Franco Moretti’s advocacy in Graphs, Maps, Trees and elsewhere of “distant reading” (in explicit opposition to close reading) is a call for the statistical analysis of data concerning sales figures of novelistic subgenres over long historical eras. While I have a few quibbles with this valuable mode of quantitative historical criticism, I am critical when it unnecessarily dismisses both close reading and critique in pursuit of illuminating yet reductive graphs and maps. Moretti is director of the Stanford Literary Lab, a center specializing in quantitative literary analysis. See its online series of pamphlets for examples of distant reading.
4For Harvey Teres, the common reader is a nonacademic who derives aesthetic pleasure from appreciating the craft and beauty in any art form high or low (2). But here commonality and reading are hollowed-out metaphorical concepts. For his part, Dana Gioia offers a perplexing elitist portrait of common readers (his term), a very uncommon well-to-do group, 2% of the population, “our cultural intelligentsia” (Can Poetry Matter?, xviii and 16). In its 2009 report on literary reading, the National Endowment for the Arts treats common reading improbably as a neutral technique used by 113 million American adults. While aggregating massive data, it pays no attention to standpoint, interests, interpretive protocols, aims, or critique. Common literary reading is rendered an insubstantial statistical chimera.
5In her calls for restoring close reading to the center of literary studies in our time of new historicisms and cultural studies, Jane Gallop makes her motives and the context unusually clear. What renders literary studies a professional discipline distinguishable from history and sociology is close reading. To abandon it would be “disciplinary suicide” (“Historicization,” 184). In addition, close reading furthers an “antiauthoritarian pedagogy” (“Historicization,” 185) that empowers students. Gallop’s definition of close reading, however, is thin. It consists of late twentieth-century US New Criticism and de Manian deconstruction unproblematically merged. It focuses both on language not ideas or paraphrases and on odd textual details not presuppositions (“Close Reading,” 16). Clearly, Gallop’s defensive call to close reading constitutes retrenchment in the face of real and growing threats to the humanities.
6In most variants, the term “symptomatic reading” designates the fusion of ideology and cultural critique. See, for example, Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus’s survey of the many positive examples and types of so-called “surface reading” all set over against the bogeyman “symptomatic reading,” which they associate with Marxism (in a Jamesonian register), psychoanalysis, and contemporary cultural critique. Crystal Bartolovich pointedly criticizes this project of surface reading and defends Jameson-style Marxist ideology critique.
In a related article advocating nonjudgmental and generous “eventful” reading over against emotion-laden and identity-based “suspicious” reading, Timothy Bewes contrasts in passing Althusser’s and Jameson’s versions of symptomatic reading (8). He equates most theory with pontification and excoriates it while promoting a singular project of asceticized phenomenology rooted in renunciation of standpoint and self. The via negativa of this radical program of close reading—or unreading—magnifies the terms of the text while erasing the reading subject’s words. It calls for the death of the reader. Like much twenty-first-century neophenomenology, this project exhibits no awareness of its greatest precursor, namely Geneva phenomenology. See also Armstrong’s preliminary integration of the phenomenology of reading with contemporary neuroscience.
7Alan Jacobs mounts a nuanced and spirited defense of pleasure reading, but he omits consideration of critique, which he relegates to one sentence in his penultimate paragraph (149—150).
8Compare “To be literate requires awareness of the parameters of engaging with books: slow, careful, often linear experiences that rely upon investments of attention, time, and money into words (that is, unless one skims, borrows, or Goggles the book). Meanwhile, Internet reading customs are consolidating around a different set of norms: quick, scattered, linked, multiple engagements with words, sounds, images, and design” (Juhasz). The protocols and conventions of Internet reading require ethnographic study (compare Radway). Juhasz simplifies here using a phalanx of the same old polar opposites in her hyped-up starkly binary account. In addition, she portrays literate reading as an investment more costly than Internet reading. But this observation strikes me as blinkered superficial accounting. See Baron for a more judicious account.