- Why We Do (or Don’t) Argue About the Way We Read
literary theory, literary criticism, critical method, Eighteenth-Century Studies
Debates about how we read—and whether we should read at or below the surface of things—are, in our field, nothing new. Take, for example, the eighteenth-century anxiety surrounding how to read people: on one hand we have the predominance of physiognomy and the popularity of the so-called “type” character. On the other hand we have anxieties about hypocrisy and the eighteenth-century fanaticism for masquerade. While the former scenarios ask readers to find personhood on the surface, the latter scenarios send readers searching for personhood beneath a mask. In the eighteenth century, the locus of personal identity shifts between the superficial and the buried, and while I’m not going to rehearse these shifts or their causation here, I do want to suggest that they make us well suited to understand the current, disciplinary debates about reading.
So far, this is a disciplinary anxiety that seems to have passed us by. One of the questions motivating this particular “critical conversation” had to do with why this debate about reading hasn’t yet garnered the attention or input of our subfield. The question “why do we argue about the way we read?” morphed for us into “why don’t we (Eighteenth-Century Studies folks) argue about the way we read?” Are we, as we’ve been accused of being in the past, again behind the theoretical times? As I hope my opening suggests, I want argue the exact opposite: perhaps this debate hasn’t impacted our field as strongly as it has others because the terms of the debate are already so ingrained in us, already so familiar.
But let me make these terms explicit. This forum targets the recent interest in surface reading, a theoretical response to more familiar modes of so-called “symptomatic” or “suspicious” literary criticism. These latter modes of reading, according to critics such as Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus, pitch texts as repressive and readers as paranoid.1 In symptomatic readings, we are trained to believe that what we see is not what we get; textual elements code for a deep, [End Page 125] unspoken history that the critic, through aggressive acts of interpretation, restores. To argue against this mode of reading is thus to argue against habitual paranoia and deep-seated suspicion; it is to suggest, optimistically, that we can and should take the world as it is. Indeed, one of Best and Marcus’s implications is that our entrenched culture of symptomatic reading has made us forget to read literally: surfaces have become invisible in our search for depth.
Still, the habits of symptomatic reading, and the anxieties that accompany it, are hard to shake. If surface reading restores to prominence a now-occluded surface, it also, simultaneously, performs the same interpretative work that last century’s symptomatic reading did: it renders visible that which readers no longer see. Arguments about how we read thus remain anxious arguments, motivated by the fear that our current forms of analysis obscure, or fail to illuminate, certain information. Best and Marcus suggest that we must read differently in order to resist the ideological paranoia exemplified by traditional (Freudian or Marxist) strategies of interpretation. At the same time, they are deeply anxious, paranoid even, about what they see to be a growing discrepancy between the reading habits of critics, and the reading materials presented to critics by the world. We must read differently, they suggest, because the world we read has become different: more overt, more superficial. This suggestion leads to the anxiety that both motivates and undermines surface reading: if the ideologies of our contemporary political climate are so overt, then where does this leave criticism? What does the literary critic do? Surface reading is at once the new answer to this problem, and the new problem itself. As Best and Marcus put it, “if criticism is not the excavation of hidden truths, what can it add to our experience of texts?”2
Before I try to answer their question, I want to complicate the motivations that...