It may be that my perspective on this question is skewed by the fact that I have primarily edited book reviews, first for Twentieth-Century Literature and now as Comics and Graphic Novel Editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books. With reviews, the problem is inevitably, on some level, to accurately describe the object in front of oneself. But I think there’s something to be said for always making such description, at least in the first instance, one’s problem. When I wrote my book on the comic book series Watchmen, my first step was simply to sit with the series for a while and—here I was aided by working with what was for me an unfamiliar medium—think about what made it different from a novel. Of course, one’s object need not be a discrete work. One of the best models for such description is Michel Foucault, whose focus was large systems or orders of thought that defied conventional accounts.
This is the Foucault who, before neoliberalism had fully emerged, so accurately traced its lineaments that Daniel Zamora and others have argued that he was not describing, but promoting. One can also learn a lot about how to describe from essayists like Montaigne and Thoreau.
It may seem like I’m repeating the claim of proponents of surface reading that our job as critics is primarily to describe. But I want to make clear that this is not the case. Anyone who is familiar with my own preoccupations and symptomatic readings can easily see them in my Watchmen book. But I think the book is better because of those moments when I was in the weeds and really thought that Watchmen overturned what I thought I thought. If I think that aesthetics, in the broad sense, should always precede politics or other non-aesthetic concerns, it’s to preserve such moments of clarifying doubt. And so in general, I’m opposed to surface reading for the same reason that I’m opposed to all prescriptive programs of criticism. There’s nothing more common in the history of criticism than for a truly great counter-intuitive reading—Foucault’s argument that the Victorians were obsessed with sex, or Ken Warren’s claim that African American literature is a particular, historically bound formation that has run its course—to become the new program, and thereby subtly or not so subtly to efface evidence that doesn’t accord with it. I care much less about the methodology through which you arrive at your claims than that those claims—so long as they’re convincing—surprise me. [End Page 42]
ANDREW HOBEREK is a Professor in the English Department at University of Missouri. He is the author of Considering Watchmen: Poetics, Property, Politics (2015) and The Twilights of the Middle Class: PostWorld War II American Fiction and White-Collar Work (2005); he also served as editor of The Cambridge Companion to John F. Kennedy and has published a wide range of articles relating to his research interests in twentieth-century American literature and literary and cultural theory.