- Reading, Constraint, and Freedom
literary theory, literary criticism, critical method, Eighteenth-Century Studies
When a speaker in Richard Cromwell’s Parliament says, “All government is founded in property, else the poor must rule it,” there is not much point in being sophisticated about him.—J. G. A. Pocock, “Authority and Property”1
Transparency is not what archival collections are known for and the Dutch colonial archives in which this book plunges are no exception.—Ann Laura Stoler, Along the Archival Grain2
Let me make my position on Stephen Marcus and Sharon Best’s introduction to their special issue of Representations clear: I believe these critics argue about the way we read, but even more importantly about the way we should read, without being appropriately self-reflexive or critical about their agendas (this is of course what they claim is the problem with the critics of whom they are suspicious!). They want us to disavow our hermeneutics of suspicion because such a hermeneutics claims legitimacy by acting in the name of a critical freedom to read the artwork against its own protocols, and sometimes to do so in the name of larger cultural or historical “truths” obscured or supplanted by the glossy seductions of art. They would rather have us attend to the artwork with “minimal critical agency.” Perhaps I should, in the interest of surface reading, repeat their words: they exhort us to perform “work that attends as much to the complexities of the critic’s position as to those of the artwork, but seeks to occupy a paradoxical space of minimal critical agency.”3 So critics should spend time attending to the complexities in their own positions—I thought this is what the theoretical turn in literary studies was all about—while also minimizing their critical agency. OK—so what should we do differently?
They offer two options: first, turn to computers and other forms of machine intelligence, for they will allow us to “bypass” critical subjectivity and produce [End Page 129] “more accurate knowledge about texts.” Computational methods will allow us to become more “potent describers, anatomizers, taxonomists,” and thus to “bypass the selectivity and evaluative energy that have been considered the hallmarks of good criticism, in order to attain what has almost become taboo in literary studies: objectivity, validity, truth.”4 Second, be like Anne-Lise François (who I’m afraid I have not read) and think of literary criticism as an act of bearing witness to the capacity of the artwork to bear witness to the constraints of existence.5 I have long thought that the elucidation of such witnessing was the sine qua non of a critical hermeneutics, and that convincing criticism must adequately describe the concerns, textures, and form of the artwork it reads. But then they hint at why they think their protocols of “surface reading” are different from such full description: we mustn’t read literature “for models of how to overcome constraint,” they write, or “to register the difference between our critical freedom and the limits placed on others.”6
Reading this, I tried hard to think of any text that does not contain within itself inklings, or in some cases coruscating visions, of a future different from the present it describes—that is, even texts whose primary business it is to detail, slowly and attentively, how the constraints of daily existence always make available their own sense of how those constraints might be lightened. This might seem a risible example, but it should make my point: in John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728), when Lockit welcomes Macheath to Newgate, he sells him a lighter pair of fetters than the standard-issue ones, and recommends these constraints in the following terms: “Do but examine them, sir. Never was better work. How genteelly they are made! They will fit as easy as a glove, and the nicest man in England might not be ashamed to wear them. If I had the best gentleman in the land in my custody, I could not equip him more handsomely.”7 We can linger on Lockit’s salesmanly celebration of these fetters, but do we then not note...