- Play and the Politics of Reading: The Social Uses of Modernist Form
When I was an editor at an interdisciplinary law and humanities journal, I would often read submissions arguing that literature humanizes lawyers, making them into better people. The other editors and I never accepted these pieces—their argument does not hold. There is no sure syllabus for humanizing anyone. Still, I, and many of my fellow editors, had a soft spot for these articles. We loved literature too, and many of us were shaped by our reading in profound ways. But no single syllabus can guarantee the kind of transformation that so many of us have experienced.
What is it, then, that reading does? What special things might readers know about the worlds of law, politics, and ethics? Anyone who cares about reading retains some sense of play, but this hardly seems the pragmatic point in political discourse. There is the play of leaving oneself behind, the play of discovering a kindred spirit, of putting on another persona, and of holding on to one's sense of self even as a text seems to threaten or question it. Paul B. Armstrong's new book suggests that these great pleasures of reading are central to reading's use and, indeed, constitute the special contribution that literary criticism might make to politics.
Armstrong's Play and the Politics of Reading begins theoretically; proceeds through readings of texts by James, Conrad, Forster, and Joyce; and concludes with suggestions for curricular reform. His chapter on Edward Said in the opening theoretical section focuses on the memoir Out of Place, using it to show that "Said is a hybrid from the very beginning . . . in contrast to the monolithic assertion of identification with 'the Oriental subject'" in Said's early criticism. Unlike some, Armstrong is not interested in attacking Said for inauthenticity [End Page 651] (since his self-identification as Palestinian hides other facts like his Christian upbringing, his American citizenship, his boyhood in Egypt, and his equal facility with English and Arabic) (44). Armstrong writes pragmatically, generously, and playfully about the difficulties of such a person finding an authoritative voice that is not also a self-betrayal.
The chapters on Conrad are among the book's best and are best read in tandem. The first argues that, in dramatizing failures to communicate across racial and cultural differences in Heart of Darkness, Under Western Eyes, and The Secret Agent, Conrad reaches forward to future readers, inviting us to help create the very kinds of community that his characters seek but cannot find. Discussing Chinua Achebe's crucial identification of racism in Conrad, Armstrong argues that "Achebe's very act of writing back to Conrad is already anticipated by the text" because the text's structure "calls for future criticism of . . . the absence of reciprocity it displays." For Armstrong, Achebe identifies a powerful fact about the text (it is racist), but that fact does not decrease our interest in reading the text because the text also shows signs of trying to think beyond its own historical moment: "Marlow indicts the closed-mindedness of nondialogical encounters with otherness" even as he duplicates them (77). Conrad's struggle to think past the limitations of his own historical moment on race contrasts sharply with his attitude to women in Chance, the subject of the book's second Conrad chapter. Ultimately, Armstrong judges that Conrad does not play fair in Chance; instead, he "labels women without allowing for a response" and "botches the signals about how to classify Marlow's tone" (96, 102).
When he turns from Conrad to Forster, Armstrong continues his interest in the communities created by the play between reader and narrator. While the fragile communities of Forster's books are bounded by class, religious, and racial barriers, the compact between reader and narrator opens a possibility of "relatedness that preserves and encourages difference" (124). Armstrong imagines reading as a place in which "the reciprocity of playing together does not collapse our differences" (125). For him, Forster's novel...