- The Suspicious Reader Surprised, Or, What I Learned from “Surface Reading
literary theory, literary criticism, critical method, Eighteenth-Century Studies
My first question to ask Sharon Marcus and Stephen Best, after reading their polemical introduction to the 2009 special issue of Representations advocating “surface reading,” is what is the surface of a text and how does one distinguish it from what the authors characterize as depth? Marcus and Best point towards a number of critical methods as surface reading, ranging from book history and cognitive approaches to technologically supported quantitative analyses, but I remain unclear as to what the object of study might be and how it might differ from what I am looking at when I, a die-hard historical materialist, create interpretations. Of course, the adjective “surface” pertains more to what we do with texts than the texts themselves, but in a time when digitization has changed the material form as well as broadened the accessibility of print from the eighteenth century, the literal physicality of texts is not, as David Brewer and others have shown us, a matter to be taken for granted.1
But I am being a bit disingenuous. “Surface” modifies “reading” rather than indicating a feature of the texts we study, and it seems to imply for Best and Marcus a kind of innocence, a neutral engagement with texts on their own terms, as it were. Given that the first lesson I teach students in introductory literature classes is that no reading is innocent, all are driven by concepts we bring to the text (whether or not they are formal, systematic theories), I have my suspicions, and in having them fall into just the category of reader that our authors seem to be asking us not to be. Marcus and Best are scholars whose work has taught us much, so I want to learn from their polemic even though I have suspicions (and intend to keep them).
Again, in my introductory literature classes, while I teach my students to be aware of the concepts they bring to texts, I also teach them that evidence matters; and it is the use of evidence that distinguishes an expert interpretation from an amateur response to a text. I teach them how to articulate their responses so as to be aware of the ideas they bring to the text. I expand their repertoire [End Page 139] of ideas by teaching them a canon of theoretical approaches: formalism, structuralism, post-structuralism, psychoanalysis, Marxist materialism and Foucauldian historicism, feminism, and post-colonial theory. Then the pedal hits the metal: I ask them to read eighteenth-century British literary texts, both canonical and obscure, that I have chosen because I see them as having something to say on topics that the theory has brought into class discussions. There is nothing that is neutral or innocent, then, about the process by which I teach students to create interpretations, and I admit to training suspicious readers with agendas. Given that I write the syllabus, these agendas usually bear some relationship—contentious or conformist—to my own.
And yet, somehow in the process, I share something with Best and Marcus’s advocacy of an ethical and professional stance of questioning “symptomatic” readings as overly suspicious and agenda-driven. Three decades of reading and writing criticism and history that speak to feminist, Marxist, lesbian, gay, and queer agendas, and the sometimes broader, sometimes narrower politics of that collection of agendas that get labeled cultural studies, have worn away the sharpness of my pain in those “gotcha” moments when the text is caught out as conducing to somebody’s oppression, as well as eroding my pleasure in those moments when the text subverts that oppression. I feel a desire to learn something new, to be surprised by what I see in a text, to feel the shock of cultural and political unfamiliarity. Theoretically speaking, while I still want to know where I am starting from when I create an interpretation, I would rather not know where I am going. Some of the best work in eighteenth-century studies that I have recently read seems very clear about its theoretical premises, but the...