Close Reading Redux

Michael Bérubé has a post on that Judith Halberstam article about the putative death of English. Remember that article? The one I had so much innocent fun with last month? Actually (now I look) two sessions of innocent fun – because I wasn’t able to fit all my ridicule and venom into one comment of reasonable length.

Much of my venom was directed at the characterization of close reading as ‘elitist’ – remember that?

But, while Spivak’s investment in the “close reading” and formalism betrays the elitist investments of her proposals for reinvention, I urge a consideration of non-elitist forms of knowledge production upon the otherwise brilliant formulations of The Death of a Discipline. If the close reading represents a commitment to a set of interpretive skills associated with a very particular history of ideas and a very narrow set of literatures, the plot summary indicates a much wider commitments to knowledge production, high and low.

I frothed and gnashed at that – so I’m pleased (though, like the Elephant’s Child, not at all astonished) to see Michael disagreeing too.

When I first read this, I said softly to myself, “no no no no no no no no.” But since that’s not a sufficient argument, let me supplement it by saying that close reading is not, in fact, elitist. Although it was once applied to a particular history of ideas and a very narrow set of literatures, it is not forever tainted by that association. Hey, you can’t use that—don’t you know that Cleanth Brooks once used that on John Donne?


In the right hands (ours, naturally), close reading is a good thing, and we ought to keep on doing it, not least because it remains one of our best defenses against the lies and slander of our attackers. And we should make it clear—much clearer than we have to date—that close readings (or, if you like, skills in advanced literacy) are precisely what English departments have to offer. They’re our distinct product line; they’re what we sell people—and even better, they’re a product that just doesn’t wear out. Once you know how to do one, you can do more of ‘em. And you don’t have to confine yourself to literary works, either. You can go right ahead and do close readings of any kind of “text” whatsoever, in the most expansive sense of that most expansive word.

Exactly. Which is pretty much what N&C is for – close readings of various bits of wool and fluff and dancing around in The Meeja, books, and similar textual-type environments. That was the basic idea of N&C from the beginning: a place to do close readings. I could probably even find the email I sent to my colleague sometime in September 2002 when we were inventing the whole site, saying something along the lines of ‘How about a place to do close readings of whatever comes along?’ And that’s odd, because it happens that in the course of an, ahem, a discussion of a past conversation, PM provided a link to N&C for July 2004 which I read bits of with surprise and interest, as if I’d never seen any of it before (how I wish we had an archive for N&C, but it is Forbidden) – including this one, which is about, precisely, Close Reading – it’s even titled that. But I was going to do this post (this one, the one I’m doing now) talking about close reading, before I saw that one. Apparently there’s some kind of magnetic field shortly after the summer solstice that causes me to write a post about close reading and its connection to Notes and Comment. This is how I said it last year.

And that reminded me, in an almost nostalgic, sentimental way, of the beginning of N&C. In September or October 2002, when we were thinking about and discussing what to include on B&W, what features to add. It reminded me that we didn’t exactly think of N&C as a blog, at first, or even as a blog-like thing. The original idea was that we needed a place to do close readings of nonsense. Sort of Leavisite lit-crit examination of manipulative rhetoric, fancy footwork, evasive tactics, subject-changing, translation, that sort of thing. That was the first thought. I don’t even remember how we got from there to a bloggish sort of thing – whether we just realized, well, that sounds like a blog, or we actually decided, well let’s make it a bloggish sort of thing while we’re at it, since we might as well.

Then I got from there to a close (well, close-ish) reading of the term ‘race’ – which I mention by way of pointing out that close reading (as Michael also points out) is not some artsy-fartsy elitist snob’s night out, it’s a very damn useful and basic activity. If you don’t do it the Patrick Henry colleges and the Bill O’Reillys can just run roughshod all over you merely by throwing around words like ‘spiritual’ or ‘values’ or – listen closely, now – ‘elitist.’

Which of course raises the question, what’s the difference? What is a blog or a blog-like thing, and how does it or would it differ from a place to do close readings of other people’s rhetoric? That’s an interesting question, and I don’t know the answer. It’s not unlike the question ‘What does the word ‘race’ mean, and is it a word that refers to something real that exists in the world, or is it a word that refers to a human idea about or description of something that exists in the real world?’ Then again it’s not all that much like the question, since blogs are clearly a human invention, whereas the word ‘race’ purports to name something in the world, though whether it actually does that or only purports to has been much debated in human history. And then again, again, the question of what a blog is doesn’t matter much, whereas the question of what race means, if anything, has massive implications. People have been slaughtered in wholesale lots on the basis of the reality of that word, which seems unlikely in the case of blogs.

Michael closes with a promise of more fun in the future.

Hey! This post is already too damn long. I was going to proceed from here to do a close reading of Mark Bauerlein’s essay on “Theory’s Empire,” recently posted at Butterflies and Wheels, but I think I’ll give you all a break for once. Stay tuned for John McGowan’s Thursday Guest Post tomorrow, and I’ll be back on Friday with an arbitary but fun value judgment. The close reading of Bauerlein will just have to wait until after the weekend.

That’s the thing about close reading, once you get started it’s hard to stop, and posts get long and longer.

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