Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Isn't close reading illustrating merely a philosophical relation between form and content?

Le gai savoir philosophy, literature, art, and other things i'm up to and working on, in cambridge, california, new york, princeton, and wherever else i may be Tuesday, December 4, 2007 To literary critics and philosophers, from critical theorists
We get assaulted a lot for being critical theorists. We get assaulted by people who study literature, and by people who study philosophy:
  • why aren't we doing the tasks of just one or the other?
  • Why can't we stay at the level of the text and read, or go elsewhere and think and be philosophers?

Going into a literature or philosophy classroom and engaging people as a critical theorist immediately produces a sort of crisis (especially in the latter). You see people asking themselves,

  • "what does this abstraction have to do with literature?" or
  • "what does this particular reading have to do with philosophy?"
  • It would be better if we simply went away, wouldn't it?

It might even make our work more rigorous: you see, many among us love that crisis just for the sake of it being a crisis--we tend to be a little ostentatious in our thinking, in our reading, because we cite both of you. So you say, thinking needs to be done by thinkers, reading by readers.

  • But can thinking ever completely distinguish itself from reading?

We aren't asking this question: you ask it.

Philosophers, you ask it in the structure of your discipline, in how you write articles (you read and comment on a philosopher), in how you teach a class ("the readings for this week are"), in how you contradict each other ("X misreads Carnap in saying X"), in how you assert ("One must read X in this way"). You ask it in the figure of Heidegger, you ask it in the figure of Wittgenstein, you ask it, perhaps most directly, in the figure of Jacques Derrida (in fact, this is all he means by "text"). You come to us in these figures: we didn't make them do it. You ask it most forcefully when you use an example from a literary text--what philosopher has not done this, if only to illustrate something? When you do this, you gesture in our direction and you ask us how you can do this. We do not ask this question.
Literary critics, you ask it whenever you read, even when you "close read," as you call it: isn't close reading illustrating merely a philosophical relation between form and content? When you close read, you are not merely presuming a connection there between the two, you are demonstrating it, thinking through the question of its validity in a situation, and thus thinking like a philosopher as you read. So you, too, gesture in our direction because you ask us how you can do this. You come to us and ask it in the figure of Samuel Johnson, of Samuel Coleridge, Matthew Arnold, Cleanth Brooks, and Stephen Greenblatt. We do not ask this question.
Can thinking ever be dissociated from reading? This question you put to us, that you burden us with, that you distract us from our work to answer (maybe we should just ignore you), this question can indeed be answered by us.
And not just by answering it in the negative. Critical theory is not a discipline founded only on the premise that there are no differences between thinking and reading. It doesn't just open up in the hole in your discipline, in the problem you have yet to resolve. If this were the case, what legitimacy could you have as a discipline if you could have let this question be posed, if you could have let us exist? We are not just composed of you two. We are more than just you (we are also history, various cultural studies, law, economics, and other disciplines). Nor are we just interdisciplinarity itself. We don't rise and fall with any discipline--only, perhaps, with the people in them.
In fact, we answer in the positive: yes, there is a difference between thinking and reading. And we articulate the contours of this difference--that is to say, not merely comparatively. Critical theory is perhaps most concretely this emphatic yes. But you had to come to us to ask it: you could not merely read, or merely think. Indeed, and this is the heart of the matter, we may answer these questions you come to us to ask because we are you already.
You can't believe this. In fact, you protest against this almost every day. You come to us and ask these questions and then go behind our backs and say that you answered them yourself. You say, you can illustrate this thought merely as a philosopher, or read this text merely as a literary critic. But what remains undeniable is that you have retained a trace of us. You are us when you think or when you read. So to wish us to go away is to wish yourself to go away, to renounce reading if you are a literary critic or reader, to renounce thinking if you are a philosopher or thinker. Thinking needs to be done by thinkers, reading by readers, you say. But if you say this more than just to protest, if you actually enact it and think or read according to its rule, you have given up on your respective task. Posted by Mike at 6:27 PM What is written about: , , 1 comments: Mike said... P.S. I am not "we," here. -MJ December 4, 2007 11:14 PM Post a Comment

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