Culture Magazine

How to Notice Things in Texts, Or The Key to the Treasure Really Is the Treasure

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
Working, as I do, at some remove from the world of academic literary criticism, I don’t have a very sure sense of how things are, “boots on the ground” so to speak. A lot of grumbling about this and that – adjunctification, MOOCs, have we lost our intellectual way? to the barricades, comrades! – but I can’t really know.
One bit stream tells me that “close reading” is a lost critical art, or at least it’s dying. Another bit stream wants it back. I have no idea how to read those digital tea leaves, but I am sure that “close reading” (that wretched and misleading phrase) is important.
There are patterns in literary texts that betoken and betray deep operating patterns of the human kind. It is important that we learn to see them. I would argue that at this point in our ongoing collective conceptual development learning to spot the patterns is MORE important than how we account for them. The explanatory schemes we’ve come up with so far are rather shaky and must be replaced. With what, that’s not clear.
J. Hillis Miller on Burke and Derrida
In his minnesota review interview, J. Hillis Miller spoke of his intellectual debt to Kenneth Burke:
Burke was very important for me because of the notion that the work of literature is a way for the author (I wouldn't use this anymore) to attempt to work through a difficult or insoluble impasse or problem. So it's a symbolic action in the sense that it symbolically attempts to resolve some kind of aporia. This idea motivated my reading of Dickens. If someone said, "I don't want to read Derrida," I still would say, "Read Kenneth Burke."
Burke, for that epoch, was the best psychoanalytic critic in the United States, and also the best Marxist critic. The theory of symbolic action presupposes that the aporia that you're stuck with most likely has to do both with a family or a sexual situation, and with a social class impasse. It still seems to me that works for Dickens. It gives you a set of questions to ask.
Later on:
I learned a lot from myth criticism [referring to Northrup Frye], especially the way little details in a Shakespeare play can link up to indicate an "underthought" of reference to some myth or other. It was something I had learned in a different way from Burke. Burke came to Harvard when I was a graduate student and gave a lecture about indexing. What he was talking about was how you read. I had never heard anybody talk about this. He said what you do is notice things that recur in the text, though perhaps in some unostentatious way. If something appears four or five times in the same text, you think it's probably important. That leads you on a kind of hermeneutical circle: you ask questions, you come back to the text and get some answers, and you go around, and pretty soon you may have a reading.
There we have it, noticing patterns in texts. Or rather, noticing symptoms (as in symptomatic reading?) What’s “behind” them?
And now Derrida:
Derrida is, among other things, a very great literary critic—essays on Shakespeare, on Blanchot's récits, on Joyce, and many others, even remarks on Proust in a seminar. Derrida is a literary critic of very great distinction.
Why? Because he noticed patterns. Referring to a passage in Remembrance of Things Past:
What Derrida did that I never would have thought of was to notice that the whole passage is based on words in pris: apprendre, comprendre, prendre. Those words are perfectly translatable, but lose their play on pris—I understood: j'ai compris. Derrida noticed these words and their recurrence in a way that helps you to understand the way the passage is put together and the meaning it has. Derrida was a genius in doing that sort of reading. That's why Derrida for me is even more important for his way of reading than for his invention of big concepts like différance.
His way of reading. A very telling remark.
Scott Eric Kaufman on Freud
Scott Eric Kaufman was student of Miller’s at UCal Irvine, a colleague of mine at The Valve and he also blogged at Acephalous (and has since gone on to other venues). Back in 2006 he makes this observation (my boldface):
Notice how my interlocutor granted me the argumentative edge—Freud and Lacan are pseudoscience—but then tried to sneak it in the backdoor by claiming that, removed of its baggage, psychoanalysis can still produce interesting readings of literature. I could almost find the strong form of that particular argument convincing: i.e. that since Freud explicated works of literature and Lacan translated those explications into structural linguistics, the insights generated by psychoanalytic theory are fundamentally literary. Had that argument surfaced, I would have had problems side-stepping it (for reasons I'll return to shortly).
My friend's initial concession denuded psychoanalytic theory of its inherent explanatory power. No longer could the truth-claims of psychoanalytic theory justify the interpretative moves made through it. The justification becomes something more literary—something like "generative of interesting readings"—but it also lost its purchase, in that it is no longer descriptive of a cognitive process.
But in what sense is it psychoanalytic theory that generates the reading?
Sure, it provides the terms in which one rationalizes a pattern one has spotted in the text, but how do you spot those patterns? Did you follow a recipe from The Dummies’ Guide to Psychoanalytic Literary Criticism? I don’t think so. I’d guess that before you ever coughed up a psychoanalytic reading you’d read any number of other psychoanalytic readings, perhaps of literary texts, but perhaps of dream transcriptions, or post-facto notes from analytic sessions. You saw others pick up on patterns of a certain kind and trained yourself to pick up on patterns in the same way.
The psychoanalytic theory? That’s what you use to convince yourself that those patterns are real, that you’re not making them up out of your own mind.
What would happen if we continue to pick up on those patterns, noticing them, describing them, thinking about them, but thinking about them in other than psychoanalytic terms.
Toss the old models.
Dream up new ones.
Neural Weather (Slight Return)
As I was writing defense of psychoanalytic thought, Neural Weather, I would ask myself, Just what psychoanalytic ideas are important? What’s the minimum tool set? I decided not to hazard an answer. But I think the minimum tool set is pretty spare. What’s more important is the set of exemplary readings, for that’s where you learn how to notice things in texts.

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