- Anarchaeologies: Reading as Misreading by Erin Graff Zivin
What do we talk about when we talk about literature? Even to pose the question suggests that we must somehow end up talking about something other than literature—something that is both more and less than literature. It is less than literature in that, surely, talking about a book is no substitute for reading it. But it is more than literature in that such talk adds to the experience of reading, and enables connections not only to other books but also to other domains: memory, history, politics, philosophy, and so on. Here we encounter both the pitfall and the potential of literary criticism or literary theory (two ways of talking about literature): that they are dependent on, subordinate to, literary texts, at the same time that they also open up paths and connections that enable literature to be more than merely literary, to establish encounters with other fields of thought or experience. Or to put this in terms that overlap with those employed by Erin Graff Zivin in her provocative and thoughtful new book: any “readings” that literary talk (or writing) can offer are always also “misreadings” in that they inevitably miss their mark. Our talk of [End Page 179] literature glances off or is deflected by the texts with which it engages, at the same time as it takes them in new directions, introducing literary concerns or a literary sensibility to other discourses with results that may be simultaneously destabilizing and productive.
Graff Zivin is drawn to such misreadings, and the ways in which they scatter in all directions, both in theory and in practice. In terms of her theoretical agenda, what she proposes is a manifesto for misreading, in its call to refashion the critic as “a thinker constituted in her fidelity to an event of reading as misunderstanding . . . who does not disavow but guards the constitutive error of her own thought” (30). The point of the concept of “anarchaeology” that governs this manifesto is that we should not imagine a text as containing some buried truth or meaning awaiting discovery by those who have the critical tools or acumen to peel back the layers that obscure it. Rather we should welcome “error” in the sense of “errancy” that is digression or displacement, upending our expectations of priority or significance: the past does not necessarily hold the key to the present; we have to be open to an incalculable future, rather than seeking certainties in a mythologized past. This requires what she calls “passivity,” a sort of attentive inattention, a preparedness to be diverted from what seems to be the task at hand.
In practice, then, this is a book that, in some ways, hardly talks about literature at all, preferring instead to read authors who would more obviously be categorized as philosophical or theoretical (Jacques Derrida, Emmanuel Levinas, and Jacques Rancière, above all, but also Latin Americanist thinkers such as Alberto Moreiras, Bruno Bosteels, or Enrique Dussel), albeit always with what Graff Zivin terms a “literary ear” (81), with an interest in what literary studies can contribute to our discussions of politics and ethics, as much as or even more than what politics or ethics might offer our talk of literature. To use her words, she sees this practice as a form of multiple exposure: “I invite the reader to imagine an indisciplined or indisciplinary university, in which literary studies, moribund, would find, in anarchaeo-logical readings, an afterlife through its exposure to other practices and discourses, such as philosophical discourse, and philosophy, moribund, would find an afterlife through its exposure to aesthetic discourse” (17). The question, then, is whether we want to accept this invitation, even if it entails also accepting (in another sense of the word: agreeing) that the best that literary studies and philosophy can now expect are afterlives, a mutual haunting.
It is clear from the language used here that Graff Zivin is issuing more than a mere “invitation.” It is closer to what she herself calls a “demand.” The charge that literary studies and philosophy...