- “You Have to Read First”
“You have to read first”: Is it surprising that the injunction is Jacques Lacan’s? If psychoanalysis is one way of taking the time to see if things can be made meaningful—not a bad description of some corners of literary studies, either—then Lacan’s invitation to forestall understanding in favor of textual engagement sounds perfectly apt. Reading “in no way obliges you to understand” (65). Surely not. You have to read first.
Paradoxically, the pull of premature understanding—the evasion of reading—affects a strong part of our professional gravity. “The need to present fields as advancing (and one’s own work as advancing a field)” is, as Nancy Glazener writes in Literature in the Making, her sweeping and sensitive institutional history of literature in the US, an invitation to “trend spotting and trend claiming” (194). For Glazener, this is part of the familiar way that disciplinary formation “can routinize and standardize intellectual work in a way that merely manages intellectual questions” (193). Thinking with Glazener and Lacan, it shouldn’t surprise us suspicious readers that mere question management afflicts those concepts or problems close to the core of a discipline, or to which every practitioner holds some felt special attachment. And within literary studies, reading is quite naturally the very heart of the matter, or maybe the navel of our collective dream. It is a practice, yes, and it should be a matter for critical and historical inquiry; but “reading” is also an open, multivalent word, touching everything and therefore hardly amenable to sustained analysis in that general form. Perhaps as a question or proper problematic reading is, like an oneiric center, unfathomable, not because we can’t analyze it if we decompose it into its parts (basic literacy, embodied practice of using a text, style of interpretation, mode of writing, and so on), but because the whole point is that it stands at once for both too many and not enough things. Praising a [End Page 142] critic’s reading of the text is so much more satisfying—and not only because of the mystification—than praising an interpretation could ever be.
Perhaps, therefore, it is the overdetermination of the term itself that demands analysis. If so, then only an account of reading that comprehends it at several levels can provide something like understanding. “As yet we understand very little about how we read,” Jonathan Culler wrote some 30 years ago (265). This statement is true enough today, too, but was Culler posing that real intellectual query—am I writing it, and are you reading it—as a Wissenschaftler, committed to finding out, or like a lover sighing at the very question? From which side, exactly, does Garrett Stewart insist, in his astonishing account of literary language in terms of the master trope of syllepsis, that “language is happening” (225)? Is it the same side from which Michael C. Cohen reminds us that maybe “reading a poem” isn’t “necessarily the proper way to use it” (10)? Are we obliged to decide which side we are on, even now, long after literature itself became, according to Deidre Shauna Lynch, “a love object” (59)?
If you answer more or less on the side of science, you are not alone. As long ago as 1983, Franco Moretti was challenging the truism that “literary historians do not manage to be ‘real’ historians because they deal with an imaginary object” (18). Moretti observed that literary scholars were demoted by association with ideology; they had been conflated with their object of study, which, indeed, demanded a rearticulation (perhaps even reconfiguration) as a “sociology of symbolic forms” and therefore a part of the “total history of society” (19). The call for a falsifiable criticism need not in itself...