In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • The Turn Away from Marxism, or Why We Read the Way We Read Now
  • Charles Sumner (bio)

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The title of this essay refers to a 2009 special issue of Representations—The Way We Read Now—coedited by Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus. In the introduction to the issue, the editors focus on new methods of criticism that “attend to the surfaces of texts rather than plumb their depths,” a practice that they call “surface reading.”1 As they argue, surface reading is designed to challenge the critical hegemony of “symptomatic reading,” a Marxist and psychoanalytic mode of interpretation that “took meaning to be hidden, repressed, deep, and in need of detection and disclosure by an interpreter.”2 But whereas Best and Marcus describe how surface reading is practiced, they never ask why it is gaining favor. They provide a mere surface reading of various examples of surface reading, a descriptive taxonomy that issues in a form of positivism and thereby demonstrates the interpretive limitation of their literary critical program.

Still, Best and Marcus enunciate a number of important themes taken up by other critics in a general turn away from Marxism. Reacting against the Left’s apparent disregard for aesthetic pleasure and appreciation, critics increasingly valorize the affective powers of literature that distinguish it, and art more generally, from putatively extra-aesthetic modes of expression. Thus Teresa Ebert sees in contemporary cultural criticism a renewed interest in the category of the concrete, but one which jettisons politico-economic concerns and instead defends “the singular, the sensuous, and the affective” in order to establish what she calls “a delectable materiality.”3 Similarly, Marjorie Levinson has identified a Kantian strain of New Formalism which posits a sharp division “between history and art, discourse and literature, with form . . . the prerogative of art.”4 In turn, the move to isolate this prerogative indicates concern about “the transformation of literary studies into sociohistorical study over the past twenty years.”5 Further still, Bill Brown conceives “thing theory” as a move beyond Marx when arguing that, in Capital, “however aesthetically ambitious his account of the commodity may be, the aesthetics of the commodity itself are utterly beside the point.”6 And to return to surface reading, Best and Marcus worry contamination of the aesthetic by rejecting the psychoanalytic and Marxist “metalanguages,” which, they assert, enabled interdisciplinary exchange in the 1970s and 1980s.7

This essay joins close analyses of surface reading and of thing theory because, in their efforts to move beyond or relinquish psychoanalytic and Marxist approaches to literary and cultural studies, they inadvertently demonstrate a continuing and urgent need for these very approaches. This urgency can be registered in the fundamental nature of a problem encountered by both surface reading and thing theory, namely how to determine what the surface of an object or text is without first understanding the “deep history” of its production. Best and Marcus eschew this history because, they argue, the legacy of symptomatic reading conditions critics to overvalue history at the expense of attention to textual surfaces. Reacting against this tendency, they take “surface” as a given and self-identical category, a move that proves especially problematic in their reading of media productions that by definition mediate manifest surface content. This assumption of a given and self-identical surface also impoverishes Brown’s interpretation of literary representations of commodities, the aesthetic effects of which depend on erasing any trace [End Page 27] and awareness of production history. In simply accepting this erasure, Brown ends up reading not commodities cum artworks but tokens of ideology masquerading as art. Surface reading and thing theory thus raise a number of questions pertinent to all readers of literature, and not just to those with particular theoretical loyalties: What, exactly, is the surface of a literary text, or, for that matter, of any sort of cultural text or object? Can we distinguish different types of surfaces? And, if so, how can we reconcile the experience of pleasure with an act of interpretation which, in the process of distinguishing various types of aesthetic surfaces, endangers whatever pleasure they might yield?

I will try to show that we can answer these questions if...