I am slowly recovering from the biennial meeting of the New Chaucer Society held just this past week in Portland, Oregon (22-26 July 2012), where I participated in a really invigorating seminar session organized by Ruth Evans on the Descriptive Turn in literary studies, which brought together myself, Julie Orlemanski, Sarah Stanbury, Carolynn Van Dyke, and Ardis Butterfield to discuss some of the key texts of the recent discussions and debates over new reading modes and flatter ontologies within the humanities, and here is how Ruth framed the session itself:
Originally coined by the French intellectual historian Francois Dosse, the “descriptive turn” refers to practices of “flat reading” in the social sciences, practices that reject the traditional humanist categories of experience, consciousness, depth, and motivation in favour of close observation of human subjects and attention to description rather than interpretation. In the words of Bruno Latour, in Reassembling the Social, “No scholar should find humiliating the task of sticking to description.” At issue is a question of responsibility: of doing justice to human subjects by refusing to impose on them the interpretation of the critic (and, yes, of course, this cannot easily be avoided).
Although descriptive reading is a form of “surface” reading, I do not want the session simply to repeat the terms of the recent forum in Representations 108 (2009) on “surface” vs. “symptomatic” reading. Rather I would like us to address various questions about our discipline and about Chaucer studies in particular. What might it mean to sacrifice richness of interpretation for descriptive models? To replace deep reading with descriptive close reading? What might be the gains and what the losses? What are the continuities as well as the breaks with the political (“symptomatic”) readings of the 80s and 90s? And how might we think about questions of interdisciplinarity — about the intersection of literary studies/medieval studies with other disciplines (medical humanities immediately comes to mind), intersections that might be crucial for the continued visibility and even viability of our own discipline, given an institutional context in which the humanities are undergoing severe defunding?
In proposing this session I am not asking that medieval studies perform its own turn in the direction of descriptive and documentary practices. I want us rather to think hard about what constitutes the cornerstone of the discipline of English: close reading. In part, I am conscious of the fact that very few of the contributors to the inaugural issue of postmedieval (on the topic: “when did we become post/human?”) took up the question of what close reading might mean in a post/human world. I am also conscious of the various challenges that have recently been posed to historicism within medieval studies, challenges that also touch on issues of close reading. And I am also conscious of the ways in which medievalists have responded to “symptomatic” readings by a turn not to description but to affect (but are they necessarily opposed?). Love’s outlining of the issues facing the discipline seems to me to be particularly acute. As she argues, “Disengaging from the operations of close reading promises a more fundamental rethinking of the grounds of the discipline than earlier challenges to the human subject, the canon, or the referential capacities of language.”
The essays for discussion in the seminar were:
- Heather Love, “Close, But Not Deep: Literary Ethics and the Descriptive Turn,” New Literary History 41 (2010): 371-391.
- John Frow, “On Midlevel Concepts,” New Literary History 41 (2010): 237-252.
- Simon Gaunt, “A Martyr to Love: Sacrificial Desire in the Poetry of Bernart de Ventadorn,” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 31 (2001): 477-506.
All of the presentations framed really interesting and provocative ways of responding to Ruth’s framing of the discussion, and I decided to mainly respond to Heather Love’s essay from a kind of object-oriented & speculative realism perspective. Here is an *expanded* version of the presentation I made:
Some Celestial Nourishment: A New Commentariat
The image of the carnival is meant as a reminder that the world is far more bizarre than we usually remember: philosophy is above all else an exile amidst strangeness and surprise.
~Graham Harman, Guerilla Metaphysics
First, let’s get a big question out of the way: what is literature good for? I honestly don’t know anymore — I mean, it’s good for lots of things or nothing at all, depending on who you ask, and I’m not talking about academics. For some it’s just a bunch of lies people make up to amuse themselves and has no social value, and you do it (read, that is) if you have the time, oh . . . lucky you, I mean, some of us are working real jobs in the real world and save our spare time for more practical pursuits like playing Angry Birds on our iPhones, but, whatever, cuz I don’t read. For others, literature enriches our lives and thus the world: literature builds character and enlightens and ennobles its readers who become more wise and humane and whatever through reading, although Tolstoy’s story about the wealthy woman who weeps in the theater while her carriage driver shivers in the cold outside should give us pause on that one. Some people just like to read, but don’t necessarily want to talk about “Literature.” Some people go on and on about how it changes history, or reveals experience and truth. I’m not saying any of this is true or not true — it’s just what people say and think. Among other things.
For the first time in my life, as a teacher, I’m starting to feel scared, and occasionally hopeless, about what to tell my students about why they should want to read literature, how it matters, what you can do with it, what it does to and for you, how it poses important questions that never cease to be meaningful even when irresolvable, how it makes life more pleasurable, thickens one’s experience of the world and one’s own life, etc.[1. For along while now, I have relied heavily on two books especially for helping me to make these cases: Annie Dillard, Living By Fiction (New York: Harper & Row, 1982) and Milan Kundera, The Curtain: An Essay in Seven Parts (New York: Harper Perennial, 2007). There are many books pitched at a general audience that discuss the values and pleasures of reading literature, but these two have been mainstays for me.] I teach at a university where most of my students, and especially those at the M.A. level, are working more than one job, have children, are overwhelmed by debts, are tired and exhausted and stressed and thinking all the time about what’s going to happen to them after they finish their courses, which means they can’t actually fully concentrate on those course, and even worse, they can’t enjoy themselves — they can’t enjoy reading. What I’m saying is, they’re not having fun and they’re losing heart. In the past two to three years especially, my M.A. courses have turned into counseling sessions for a kind of severe group depression. I’m worrying a lot these days about the shrinking of my students’ horizons, financially and otherwise, but even more so about the fact that literature often does not enchant them: it’s a job, like everything else in their lives. When I was their age, I chose to major in English because it was fun and I liked it and I never thought for one moment I needed more reasons than that. In other words, desire led me to certain texts and it still does. In short, without desire, which is all about propulsion, there is no future, and yes, I know desire can also be scary and pathological, I’m not stupid, but we need to talk more about desire, enjoyment, and enchantment and how the humanities must attend to those.[2. On this point, especially, see Jane Bennett, The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings, and Ethics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001) and L.O. Aranye Fradenburg, Sacrifice Your Love: Psychoanalysis, Historicism, Chaucer (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002), especially Chap. 1 and the Epilogue, and “Group Time: Catastrophe, Periodicity, Survival,” in Karen Newman, Jay Clayton, and Marianne Hirsch, eds., Time and the Literary (New York: Routledge, 2002), 211–38.]
I do not think it is wise any more to argue for either the usefulness or uselessness of literature and literary studies, when instead, we could simply argue for the meaningfulness of literature, or, following the thinking of Annie Dillard, for the ways in which the art object “presents to us, in a stilled and enduring context, a model of previously unarticulated or unavailable relationships among ideas and materials.”[3. Dillard, Living By Fiction, 184.] The study and teaching of literature has something to do with textual “events” of ontological presencing,[4. Here, I find the too little known French philosopher Claude Romano’s “evential hermeneutics” increasingly exciting and helpful for reconfiguring the experience of reading as an “event” or “eventiality” (in Romano’s terms) which requires an advenant (the one to whom the ontic “event” comes, or is assigned — in this case, a reader, a person, a hermeneut) who is “constitutively open to events” and whose “intrinsic possibilities” are reconfigured in the act of reading. As Martin Jay has written of Romano’s thinking,
Romano provide(s) a fine-grained phenomenological analysis of the event as opposed to a mere happening or occurrence. Developing what he calls an “evential hermeneutics,” he argues that there is a link between “event” and “advent,” which in French also invokes the future (“avenir”). Advent, moreover, must be understood in connection with the unforetold adventure that it spawns. Rather than instances of a static ontology, events cum advents are more like what Nietzsche called “lightning flashes,” which are radical breaks in the status quo. They happen without intentionality or preparation, befalling us rather than being caused by us.
See Claude Romano, Event and World, trans. Shane Mackinlay (New York: Fordham University Press, 2009).] and to articulate what this presencing might be and how it matters in relation to issues of sentience, subjectivity, sociality (co-existence, if you like), and well-being (of human and nonhuman creatures and actants; more largely, of world and worlding) might be the real work of the humanities, but what we should likely aim for in our defenses of this idea is something like Stephen White’s “weak ontology,” where our deepest commitments can be seen to be both “fundamentally important and contestable.”[5. Stephen D. White, Sustaining Affirmation: The Strengths of Weak Ontology in Political Theory (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000).] The idea, too, would not be to argue for the kinds of positive effects the study of literature might have on particular persons’ lives or the world more largely (we don’t want a “morality” of literature — that is both banal and possibly evil), but rather to keep affirming that literature possesses ontological weight — it takes up real space in the world, has existence — and the job of literary interpretation is important because, again following Dillard, it helps us “to extend the boundaries of sense and meaning.” You see, it’s possible that the universe has no meaning whatsoever (if, by “meaning,” we mean something like providential origins and ends, a master-plan, whathaveyou), or perhaps has too much of it (system-crashing meaning overload = chaos), and literature professors are part of a diminishing tribe who are felicitously clinging to the ideas that:
1) meaning must be conveyed — literally, carried and borne somewhere (which is also a form of care, and one hopes, of endless transfigurations conducive to personal and more collective sustenance);
2) some meanings are better than others and worth arguing over, endlessly even; and
3) the reservoir of any meaning or sense in a culture is in its arts.
I think what I’m also saying here is: we need more, and not less, meaning. We need not just one world, but a whole cosmos of possible worlds. We need speculation, both in the sense of mining (analytic critique) and also of creative wondering, or as W.G. Sebald once described his writing practice, of “adhering to an exact historical perspective, patiently engraving and linking together disparate things in the manner of a still life” so as to “understand the invisible connections that determine our lives.”[6. W.G. Sebald, Campo Santo, trans. Anthea Bell (New York: Modern Library, 2005).]
As much as I love and respect the work of Heather Love, I am not in agreement with her argument that we should turn away from hermeneutic reading models that value the “richness” and “singularity” of individual texts, or that we should refuse the “ethical charisma of the literary translator or messenger.”[7. Heather Love, “Close, but Not Deep: Literary Ethics and the Descriptive Turn,” New Literary History 41.2 (2010): 374 |371–91|. I would also like to point out here that disagreeing with Love about how a documentarian, microsociological, and flat descriptive “turn” might be the best way for literary studies and English departments to form alliances within the university that could possibly strengthen our institutional position while also helping us to better attend to “reality,” at the same time, I share her enthusiasms completely with all of the new “sociologies on literature,” which include work on history of the book, analytical bibliography, new media studies, and the tools of the digital humanities, just to name some. I think we should be fostering every possible avenue that opens up new models for reading and interpretation and also collaboration with scholars in other disciplines, but I am not overly fond of prescriptives for reading in one particular way that supposedly better secures our place within the university of the future, supposedly better attends to “reality” (whatever the hell that is), and which also means giving up practices and ways of thinking that are supposedly too “humanist” or supposedly outmoded somehow (we shouldn’t cling too tightly to our methodologies just because “we’ve always done it this way” — that would be intellectually regressive, and potentially suicidal — but at the same time, we should not just be a “service” discipline to other disciplines; id est, I don’t want to hear any more defenses or proposals for literary studies that are pitched as, “we’ll survive when we can convince other fields how useful we are to them”). I think what we need now are new critical post/humanisms (emphasis on the plural) in which, yes, the “human” must of necessity be somewhat de-centered, and a more capacious and “baggy” set of interpretive and descriptive practices emerge for understanding the world and everything in it more systemically and in more complex ways, but at the same time, the “human” remains, importantly, as a special vector for creative acts of thinking and feeling in ways that would contribute to a more general well-being. On my further thinking on new critical post/humanisms, see Eileen A. Joy and Christine Neufeld, “A Confession of Faith: Notes Toward a New Humanism,” Journal of Narrative Theory 37.2 (2007): 161–90.] I actually think spending until the end of eternity investigating the specialness of the “literary” and what it can do in and for the world should be one of the primary labors of our discipline, and that means, yes, I believe in the singularity of literature and also in the ways in which the contemplation of and commentary upon its rich Otherness is a valuable ethical practice.>[8. So, for example, I am in agreement with Derek Attridge that the “occurrence” of the artwork is “a particular kind of event” that has important implications in the ethical realm, albeit literature “does not serve a political or moral program”; nevertheless, it has effects, these effects can never be fully rationally accounted for nor fully instrumentalized, and thus literary works possess a certain valuable alterity or Otherness, such that thinking about the “literary” allows us to think more deeply about how the Otherness that enters culture through “invention” reshapes the cultural sphere and introduces new realities into our world that we otherwise would never see not be able to grasp (understand). The value of these new realities (or truths) can likely never be measured or mapped, but continuing to always think about our relation to them means there is “no permanent settling of norms and habits.” In short, we need inventiveness, the “novel,” and openness to change, and that is the domain of the literary. For Attridge, the attempt “to do justice to literary works as events, welcoming alterity, countersigning the singular signature of the artist, inventively responding to invention, combined with a suspicion of all those terms that constitute the work as an object, is the best way to enhance the chances of achieving a vital critical practice”: Derek Attridge, The Singularity of Literature (London: Routledge, 2004), 137. Much in sympathy with this viewpoint, I believe is the current thinking of Aranye Fradenburg: see especially her recent essay “Living Chaucer,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 33 (2011): 41–64.] If texts are not singular and rich, and we have to shuck our charisma (what little we have, ethical or otherwise), and if “documentation” is to be valued over empathetic witness, as Love also argues, well, I just lost my desire for this. I fell out of love. On the other hand, I totally agree with Love (and others) that we’re facing some amazing opportunities right now to fundamentally rethink the grounds of our discipline, especially as regards different modes of reading (from close to distant, human to machine, and everything inbetween) and as regards creative collaborations with other disciplines (the medical humanities comes to mind, as does cognitive literary studies, new media studies, the digital humanities, speculative realism, and so on), and I personally want to advocate for the value of the so-called “descriptive turn,” but not in the way Love suggests by going for “thin” and “flat” instead of “thick” and “deep.”[9. I would like to point out here (again) that I actually admire Love’s project to work on new, microsociological methods for reading/describing/interpreting literary texts (and thus also social-historical realities), especially as she does so in order to re-interrogate our discipline at the structural (and not just the methodological) level, and also because she, like me and many others, wants to displace or at least disturb the overly human-centered values that often inform our reading practices, even when we are claiming to be post-human. But I also see her call to resist or leave behind (or temporarily set aside) a so-called depth hermeneutics as simply too austere for my own pursuits of the literary text and the literary as a mode of thought, and I think “richness” can be reclaimed in truly post-humanist, speculative realist modes of thought. I can’t emphasize enough, however, how much I believe that the university serves as one place in which experimentation itself, period, must be valued and fostered, and therefore I am not against Love’s project (ridiculous!), so much as I would urge her to reconsider some of her own terms, especially “singular,” “richness,” and “ethical exemplarity,” as not necessarily negative.]
Speaking of which, let’s first begin, however, by not framing this discussion as “surface” versus “symptomatic” reading or “flat” description versus “depth” hermeneutics or humanist versus post-humanist critique (as if we have to choose one or the other, as if these methodologies are somehow monolithic enough to mean only one type of reading practice to be enthusiastically embraced or junked). And let’s try to resist having pedantic arguments about how there’s no such thing as objective description without interpretation and vice versa, or how symptoms are always already on the surface (so surfaces are too cluttered all the time to be described “flatly” or “thinly”), and oh, by the way, no one can agree (from Euclid forward) what a surface actually is (so everything is always already “deep”), and flat ontologies are ethically and politically suspect because they assume everything is exactly the same without distinction, and on and on. Many of these arguments stem from a lack of generosity to other thinkers who — guess what? — are actually trying to make our lives and careers within the university more interesting, maybe even more humane (and this is why I also actually want Love to do what she is doing, but not prescriptively). I only mention this to say something like: this is the humanities, we think in here, and that means anything is possible (there’s nothing groovier in this universe than brain power, human or otherwise). Don’t throw false binaries at me or tell me what to do: you do what you want to do and I’ll do what I want to do and that’s called freedom and that’s also something the humanities should be safe-guarding. So, please excuse this little excursus, but I’ve never liked Occam’s razor. I think we should be making things more, and not less, complicated. We should be attending to the pluralism of our approaches, making them and the texts we study more ample and voluptuous, richer, and more strange like the pearls that were in Alonso’s eyes as his magical body sunk into the deep of Shakespeare’s ocean.
So this brings me to the subject of attention, and to what I hope could be descriptive reading modes as forms of attention (which would also be a type of care) to texts that are singular and rich in order to try to capture the traces of the strange voluptuosity and singular (and unique) tendencies of textual objects (but without mystifying texts and/or risking some kind of new “sanctity” or “theology” of texts). And yes, with Love, and many others working today on models of thinking and reading in which the human is displaced as the primary center of our attention, I’m very interested in working on ways to see what happens when I start looking for things in texts that don’t typically get observed because they don’t easily correspond or answer to traditionally humanist questions and concerns. And I’m intrigued to see what happens when I work to recognize better how inhuman and weird texts and their figures are when I recall that through a magical process called lying to myself I turn a small, rectangular object filled with black marks called a book into a world teeming with persons, animals, mountains, buildings, butterflies, continents, weather, cashmere sweaters, beer bottles, baseball teams, streetcars, crannied walls, centipedes, magical acts of transfiguration, and so on. And the idea might then be, not to necessarily “make sense” of a literary text and its figures (human and otherwise) — to humanistically re-boot the narrative by always referring it to the Real (context, historical or otherwise, for example, or human psychology) — but to better render the chatter and noise, the gestures and movements, the appearances and disappearances of the weird worlds that are compressed in books, and to see better how these teeming pseudo-worlds are part of my brain already, hard-wired into the black box of a kind of co-implicate, enworlded subjectivity in which it is difficult to trace the edges between “self” and “Other.” This would be a reading practice that would multiply and thicken a text’s sentient reality and might be described as a commentary that seeks to open and not close a text’s possible “signatures.” Let’s maybe “get medieval” now and use the humanities as a base station for a new commentariat, a kind of monastic beehive of scribblers and scriveners seeking to build a vibrant archive for what Ian Bogost has termed an “alien phenomenology,” where medievalists would be the slow tuning-recording devices and panexperientialists of a retro-future.[10. See Ian Bogost, Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012), where he writes that the task of philosophy today, and cultural studies more generally, is to speculate creatively, a kind of “benighted meandering in an exotic world of utterly incomprehensible objects,” and where our task would be to “amplify the black noise of objects to make the resonant frequencies of the stuffs inside them hum in credibly satisfying ways.” I borrow the term “panexperentialism” from David Ray Griffin, Unsnarling the World Knot: Consciousness, Freedom, and the Mind-Body Problem (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), which he describes as a “nondualistic interactionism” that allows for humans to have mind-bodies shaped by experience and spontaneity.]
I think this is akin to where Eve Sedgwick was headed in her work on the ontologically intermediate “queer little gods”[11. Sedgwick borrowed the phrase “queer little gods” from the poetry of C.P. Cavafy, and especially his poem, “The Footsteps.” See Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Michael D. Snediker, “Queer Little Gods: A Conversation,” The Massachusetts Review 49.1-2 (2008): 209–11 [194–218]. See also Eve Kosofsky, The Weather in Proust, ed. Jonathan Goldberg (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011).] in Proust’s novels — nymphs and dyads and other little “tutelary spirits” — but also other ontologically intermediate forces, such as the weather, or a character whose body is also a barometer, miniaturized water fountains, and so on, in order to have new ways to explore self-world relations that would take better account of the chaos and complexity of those relations, and of the world itself. In her essay, “The Weather in Proust,” Sedgwick writes,
For Proust, the ultimate guarantee of the vitality of art is the ability to surprise — that is, to manifest an agency distinct from either its creator or consumer. “It pre-exists us” is one of the ways he describes the autonomy of the work, and only for that reason is it able to offer “celestial nourishment” to our true self.
For Sedgwick, Proust’s work offers access to a psychology of “surprise and refreshment,” and this is, in a sense, a “mystical” world (one that believes in resurrections, for example, and ghosts), but it is one that emphasizes the “transformative powers of the faculties of attention and perception.” Aesthetics may constitute a domain of illusions, but these illusions posses their own material reality and are co-sentient with us. As Timothy Morton has written, the existence of an object is irreducibly a matter of coexistence.[12. See Timothy Morton, The Ecological Thought (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010) and also “Objects as Temporary Autonomous Zones,” continent. 1.3 (2011): 149–55.]
How to better reckon this state of affairs in our encounters with texts, which are also events that “pre-exist” us in the way Proust believed? And at the same time as we might work toward better reckoning these weird “realities” (and this is why it’s important now to also talk about how object-oriented ontology and speculative realism might help us to do that, in addition to the Latourian and Erving Goffmanesque microsociological approaches Love favors), we also need to be enchanted with those weird realities. Literature is the realm of enchantment, or as the poet Milosz described it, a “tanglewood”: a “refuge that is strange and complex, somewhat embarrassing, and yet a valuable source of spiritual interiority for those who suffer in the midst of history” (and for “spiritual,” substitute “magical,” or “sustaining”). Instead of seeing the future of the humanities, and of literary and medieval studies in particular, as tied to how other disciplines might need us to learn how to read and describe reality, or how we need them to understand the “real world” or social “realities” better, I think we should get deeply weirder on our own, singular corpus (which is also at the same time an adventure into realism), while also engaging in acts of temporary strategic maneuvers into other disciplines to poach stuff that is cool, and then altering and twisting it however we want if we think it will help us to amplify what Graham Harman calls the “allure” of objects (in our case, literary texts), which I think is very similar to Sedgwick’s “queer little gods,” and which Harman also describes as a “fleeting kiss”: neither the deep reality of the object itself, which is always partially hidden from us (call this history, or interiority), nor merely its surfaces (what “appears” before us, as a sort of shifting series of spatio-temporal facades), but “a special and intermittent experience in which the intimate bond between a thing’s unity and its plurality of notes somehow partially disintegrates,” almost as if in our hands.[13. This definition of Harman’s allure comes from the online “Dictionary of Concepts for Graham Harman’s Object-Oriented Philosophy,” available here: http://avoidingthe void.wordpress.com/dictionary-of-concepts-for-graham-harmans-object-oriented-philosophy-draft-work-in-progress/. Harman himself explains allure as the “mechanism by which objects are split apart from their traits even as these traits remain inseparable from their objects. Above all else, it seemed to be aesthetic experience that splits the atoms of the world and puts their particles on display.” Further, objects do not “confront each other directly, but only brush up against one another’s notes, like shadow governments communicating through encryptions or messenger-birds. . . . When we say that one object encounters another, what this means is that it makes contact with strife between the unitary reality and specific notes of its neighbor.” Allure is important, because it “is that furnace or steel mill of the world where notes are converted into objects. The engine of change within the world is the shifty ambivalence of notes, which both belong to objects and are capable of breaking free as objects in their own right. Allure invites us toward another level of reality (the unified object) and also gives us the means to get there (the notes that belong to both our current level and the distant one). It puts its objects at a subterranean distance, converts the notes of those objects into objects in their own right, and rearranges the landscape of what we take seriously” (Graham Harman, Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things [Chicago: Open Court, 2011], 174, 179).]We are the handlers and clerks of this disintegrating allure.