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The Return of the Past to Literary Studies | JHIBlog

by guest contributor Michael Duffy

Todays literary scholars have it easier returning to the history of their discipline. In the past, we just told the discipline to move forward without looking back. Paul de Man could call what he was doing a Return to Philology, and no one asked about that verb. When Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick recommended reparative reading be substituted for paranoid criticism, the reasons she gave were ethical and political; she assumed rather than articulated a historical background and a disciplinary context. Now, the sense that discipline should nitpick less and love literature moreor curate, rather than critique its objectsgets a broader historical treatment, looking to the eighteenth century for changes in reading practices that would make such a move possible. Scholars look for antecedents to contemporary trends, and they are skeptical about ahistorical generalizations about the state of the field.

From The Gender of Modernism: A Critical Anthology. Bonnie Kime Scott and Mary Lynn Broe, eds. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990: 10.

There exists an exception to this trend, however. Digital humanists have a greater curiosity than most about what literary study was and is. That return to philology becomes philology in a new key, and we actually look at the 19th century philologists to articulate how we can do their work digitally. But when literary scholars, following their lead, suggest that literature departments move from close reading to digital methods of data-analysiswhat Franco Moretti calls distant readingthey often dont show how this has anything to do with the historical context of criticism. In some vague way, its just the next thing to be done.

As it always has been done. Because talk like this returns us to an eraroughly the 80s and 90swhere people used to talk playfully about changes in critical fashion. When the history itself, when actually told, is if anything just another controversy to be taught. Now the language is grimmer: people think of adopting digital methods in terms of shifts in what was and is marketable. But the purpose is the same. No one is supposed to have to know anything about that troubling question of what criticism was.

From Franco Moretti, Graphs, Maps, Trees. New York: Verso, 2007.

When someone addresses what the new distant reading supposedly jettisons, people rightly perk up their ears. Barbara Herrnstein Smith did just that last Wednesday in the Heyman Centers lecture series on method in the humanities. Her lecture What Was Close Reading? aimed to qualify this general sense that digital, positivistic, distant methods are just the next big thing to displace a present that doesnt really have a past.

It is quite the task. The idea of close reading itself has proven crucial to the sense of the historical mission of the discipline in the absence of deeper histories about its people and their ideas, aims, and goals. For Moretti, for instance, close reading is just what English does and has always done since replacing philology. The activitysometimes called slow reading, and focusing on the patient analysis of individual texts, and often opposed to the philological tasks involved in composing a definitive version of a text and investigating questions of its textual historyrelates vaguely to the spirit of biblical study in Morettis account, to the idea that the purpose of literary study is to create interpretations of a very few texts. Many literary scholars aspiring to make an argument for the digital now agree.Close reading is all too wishy-washy, too unscientific. Where we thought we could learn about an object by looking at it closely, we now see we can get a better view through macroanalysis.

Critic William Empson (1950)

But when you look back at it, as Herrnstein Smith suggested we do, close reading was hardly looking close at things just for interpretations sake. Debates around its emergence, she emphasized, actually prefigure and even anticipate many of the debates now being had about the place of these positivistic and digital and scientific methods in the humanities. Its no accident that I.A. Richards himself wrote a series of lectures called Poetry and Science (which he later, in a very proto-deconstructionist move, retitled Poetries and Sciences). This was not because close reading indeed suggested a scientific aim, but because it used (like digital scholarship) techniques which experimented with poetry like it was a fixed object, and not a tradition or a set of printed words. William Empsons Seven Types of Ambiguity is like a playground for close textual attention. Cleanth Brooks The Well Wrought Urn experiments with the shapes and tensions closely discernable in poetry on nearly every page. Poetry is in the petri dish. The critiques of the New Criticism (as it came to be called) were the critiques of young upstarts wanting to fiddle around with new tools. Techniques that offered precisely a kind of experimental repeatability: students could try out this attention too, and everyone could compare results. To many this was ludicrous. John Crow Ransoms Criticism, Inc. (1937) was written in support of this sort of thing; but the title was edgy because it understood arguments against close reading were the same being levied against industrial science. The classic charge against the New Critics, that they overlooked the historical context of a texta charge that is brought back in Morettis sense that looking at one text closely leads to practices that exclude much of the totality of literary productionwas a charge against putting poetry under a microscope.

Does this mean that currently distant reading is just one new science replacing an old one? In a way, yes, Herrnstein Smith conceded. But the better way to take this is that science never works except through techniques. The larger point, however, that there is a history to be recovered here (rather than generalized about). That in various ways close reading put itself forth as a new technology is a reading unable to be thought except by going back and looking at its history. Herrnstein Smith not only challenged the superficially digital to get serious about their professed alliances with the new style, but also urged real digital literary scholars to consider the dearth of long-term narratives they must explain and debate their current situation. They might try and learn from historians of technology and media, for instance, to regard close reading as something which was, in the past, possibly akin to ways in which we now think of distant reading. More fundamentally, though, they might simply have a sense of the past, that basic orientation that makes possible historical inquiry. Listeners found their own claims about digital humanities meeting a moment in a remote age, where other people were claiming things that seemed similar. Staging these similarities dramatized a form of basic historical sympathy towards past literary scholarship which seems, finally, to be returning.

Michael Duffy received his M.A. in English Literature from Princeton University. He researches British intellectual life at the turn of the twentieth century and is working on a history of British and American literary criticism.

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