Return of the Repressed

You may remember, I had to bring my loving look at the work of Judith Halberstam to a premature close the other day, because I’d gone on and on and on about it and was still less than halfway through, and the day was over and darkness was beginning to creep over the land, and I had things to do, and the bailiff was at the door, and the orphans were calling for their soup, and the rain was coming in the roof –

So I had to stop. But it troubled me. I have to tell you, honest readers, it troubled me. I felt I had left my work half-done. I felt I had left a duty unfulfilled. I felt there was a wrong crying out to be righted, or at least complained about, and I had abandoned the field. I had left my post, I had dropped the reins, I had wandered off while the fire still smouldered. And it haunted me. Down the nights and down the days, the thought of that misbegotten article has pursued me, wailing like a demon lover – ‘Remember meeeeeeee.’

Okay that’s a little exaggerated. I have had one or two other things to do lately, that have driven the thought of Halberstam from my mind for entire minutes. But still…there were one or two things I still wanted to mumble over. The matter of close reading, for instance, which as Chris Williams pointed out I really should have taken the time to be rude about. I mean, if you’re going to be rude, you might as well be thorough about it.

Spivak argues that comparative literature and area studies, like certain forms of anthropology, constitute a colonial legacy in terms of the circulation of knowledge and that in order to confront and replace such a legacy, we have to reconstitute the form and the content of knowledge production. The argument is typically elliptical but powerful and timely. Surprisingly, however, Spivak does not see the reorganization of the humanities as part and parcel of the rise of cultural studies, queer studies and ethnic studies; indeed, she tends to cast these interdisciplinary rubrics as part of the problem. For example, in an unfortunate move designed to recognize and hold on to the importance of the “close reading,” Spivak designates “close reading” as a usable skill in the new comparative field she envisions and she prefers it to another kind of intellectual labor that, in her opinion, has come to be associated with the entirely “unrigorous” fields of ethnic and cultural studies, namely “plot summary.”

Oh, no – she doesn’t, does she? Really? She designates close reading (or “close reading”) as a usable skill? Well god damn, Ethel, what the sam hill does she want to go saying a thing like that for? Close reading?? What the hell kind of usable skill is that? Far reading, that’s the skilled kind. Good old-fashioned interdisciplinary reconstituted reorganized distant reading, that’s the kind of skill we want in this here brave new world of multiinter studies. Sigh. I mean, it’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? Do we have to spell it out? Close reading means having to be accurate, and pay attention, and talk about what is on the page as opposed to what we want to talk about. That’s no good! We want distant reading so that we can just say any old thing and get tenure for it and be the head of a department. I mean, excuse me, Gayatri, but, like, duh.

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.

Yeah. High and low. That’s it. Close reading is an elitist investment, because of what I just said – it means having to pay attention, and look carefully, and think, and elitist shit like that. Plot summary on the other hand is anti-elitist and it’s wide instead of narrow (narrow bad, narrow like elitist, narrow bad and investment-related, narrow beady-eyed and cruel and wrong), on account of how anybody can do it without having to work very hard or think much. In short, it’s easy. Which is good. It’s easy to teach, easy to do, easy to stop doing, easy all around. Therefore, obviously, it’s right-on and progressive and a blow against hegemonic discourse and narrow old elitist close-reading comparative literature English canonical reactionary Eurocentric evilness. I feel better already.

We must imagine new categories of jobs: not Victorian Studies but studies of “Empire and Culture,” not 19th century American or English literature but “popular literatures of the Americas” or “modern print culture,” not romanticism but “the poetries of industrialization.” Or something.

I love that ‘Or something.’ Oh, right – or something. Good move, in an article. ‘Hey, I have an idea!’ ‘Yes?’ ‘Yes! It’s – um – something.’ ‘Great! Can you let me have 2000 words by next week?’

Let’s rename the interdisciplines within which we, and our students, work (Culture and Politics Program, World Literature, Global Cultures, Transnational American Culture) and let’s insist upon a wide range of language study at a moment when the United States is actively imposing monolingualism on an increasingly heterogeneous, multilingual population

Hey, kids! Let’s rename the interdisciplines! I bet we can use Mr Henderson’s old barn, and there’s a big trunk full of clothes in the attic, and Sally can play the piano, and we all know how to sing. Let’s rename the interdisciplines and pretend we’re teaching history and politics – the people in the history and political science departments will be so thrilled. And let’s insist upon a wide range of language study! You know, like the kind they teach in all those language departments, only – um – er – more interdisciplinary!

Okay, I’ve done more than enough again. I was going to say a few words about her writing. About how remarkably, staggeringly bad it is – and she an English teacher (however under protest and with keen desires to rename her department the Electrical Engineering Department). Look at the length and absence of punctuation of many of the sentences – what are called in the mincingly technical language of old-style close-readingy elitist English departments, ‘run-on sentences,’ aka train wrecks. I was going to say a few words along those lines, but night is creeping over the land again, and I must away. Maybe Judith Halberstam will have a brain wave in the night, and decide to become a greengrocer. One can always hope.

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