One of the key skills I try to impart and model as a tutor of literary studies is close-reading technique; looking closely at a text and slowing down and magnifying its linguistic features, so that the smallest of effects can be examined and interpreted, considered and held still, enabling a looking under and around its features. By drawing new lines between a set of minute effects a reader can begin to lever a text open to produce or discover how its formal characteristics force themselves on its significations: how form and meaning entwine and ramify.
Close-reading—slowing, magnifying, seeking depth in and layers of meaning—is to some extent a secularization of biblical study where allegorical meanings and revelation are slowly extracted through opening oneself to the Word. Close-reading privileges the individual text, a solitary reading, poetry, and the transformation of interpretation through repeated encounters with and reflections on the text.
Such skills aim at practising the self as an ethical subject. This technique of self-government (I’m leaning here on Ian Hunter’s notion of English as governmentality) marshals the recognition of formal effects in the text to serve the building of an aesthetically complex ethical position within a specific milieu. The goal of the close-reading is a practice of self which, however much it is ideally solitary, is learnt and supervised in the social scene of the classroom and the tutorial. The sociality of the induction into these techniques points to the institutional and disciplinary frameworks upon which the student uses to climb up or down into the ethical self that the lecturer, writer or tutor is conducting them towards. The various forms of post-colonial literary close-reading techniques, are often modelled as the means into taking up ethical positions on nationalism, racial, ethnicity, empire, history, reconciliation and so on. The recent emergence of so-called animal studies has its close-reading literary component, too. The self that practices close-readings of texts which seek through an engagement with levels of such texts’ formal features to locate an ethical position on ‘animals’ (I put this term in inverted commas because I like Timothy Morton‘s substitute term for animals: strange strangers), is similarly a self seeking reconciliation within a milieu where food, environment, extinction, ecology and so on become the rationalities within and through which the self is to be governed.
Recently, there has been a move away from the practices of close-reading. This shift has been brought about by a sense that the psychoanalytic model, in which a deeper allegorical meaning—whether this be one of liberatory pleasure or contradiction—could be uncovered and made available to an ethical-political movement or project, has been narrowly fixated on individual texts and has proven inadequate to the materiality of a literary history interested in what and how people were reading, rather than focused on new close-readings of singular texts. This shift away from literary close-reading towards the type of materialism and empiricism sought in such re-emergent and new studies as history of the book, publishing histories, and data analysis, can be understood as a consequence of the repositioning of literariness—literary value, English as governmentality—within cultural and historical sociology.
An interesting development in the shift away from close-reading is of course Franco Moretti’s practice of distant reading. Although this term encompasses a range of practices, all of which might not be worthy of the term distant, the key characteristics of Moretti’s project are the visual presentation of data sets, such as bar graphs of the rise and fall of novel sub-genres over centuries, and a model of history taken from Darwin’s theory of evolution. Moretti is interested in both the rise and fall of species of literary form over long periods of time and in the emergence of morphological innovations, such as free-indirect-discourse. Ultimately, his interest in Darwinising literary history is aimed at positioning it alongside, or as a way into, historical sociology. Literary value thus becomes a contingent social institution that can itself be studied historically (as Bourdieu does in The Rules of Art); literary form and literary product are thereby not the means to an exemplary ethical-aesthetics but provide one way among many into an historical sociology.
But does this recent shift away from close-reading into the new empiricism spell the end for the slow, magnifying allegorical reading practices that dominated not only the New Criticism but also Theory’s various branches? I don’t think so. And my reasons for maintaining that close-reading skills are still valuable, although they need to be accompanied by distant reading and new empirical methods, are based on the demands of the present and the possibility that these might be met, even in some minor way, by literary product. In particular, I think that the conjuncture of political and ecological forces acting on the Darwinian turn in Moretti’s practices of literary history are also calling out for literary texts which narrativise and give form to a thinking together of individual human experience and history (which is the forte of novels and poetry), species experience and history and natural experience and history. I am taking my cues here from Dipesh Chakrabarty’s recent essay on historical practice in the face of climate change, where Chakrabarty argues that once you accept anthropogenic climate change and the force of human activity on climate, you will be ready to periodise the current condition of the earth as the anthropocene. Moving on from the holocene, the anthropocene is when human species activity is no longer simply performed on the earth as though on a natural, enduring stage, but is reshaping the stage in fundamental ways we can’t predict the consequences of.
Chakrabarty’s essay is a set of reflections on the consequences of such conclusions for history and historical understanding. He argues that once you accept these two propositions, the boundary between human and natural history collapses. He also claims that the history of capital is necessary but not sufficient for explaining climate change and what might be done to mitigate or control it. Most significantly for the discussion of literary history and close-reading advanced above is Chakrabarty’s lament for the lack of a way of breaching the lacuna or gap between the experiential historical understanding that most human history and, I would argue, literary narrative offers us, and the ‘sublime’ time-frames and scope of species history: a history which is tied, now, to geological phenomena and time.
This gap is, as Chakrabarty observes in his essay, one that has urgent political consequences. Climate scientists convinced of AGW (anthropogenic global warming), who are specialists in so-called natural history, have yet to find a popular cultural form through which their explanations can work alongside and with the phenomenological experience that is the basis of human understanding. In the language of Hans Gadamer’s hermeneutics, Chakrabarty argues that historical understanding comes from relating our individual experience to that of others, whereas historical explanation arises from empirical and quantitative data. In terms of the urgent problem of climate change, interpretation and explanation are incommensurable and thus responses to climate change are open to dissembling and populist denial. To take one example, our quotidian experience is of weather rather than climate (which, as Tim Morton explains, is a derivative of weather in the same manner that acceleration if a derivative of velocity), so when the daily experience of weather points to no serious change, people are inclined to treat climate science sceptically. Another problem is that the tone of urgency cannot match the slower durations of climate change, leading people to dismiss climate science as alarmist.
I think these problems of the distinction between understanding and explanation and incommensurable histories and experiences in the face of climate change, have a homologue in the current shifts in practices of close- and distant-reading in literary studies. The search for and practices of a new empiricism in literary studies are driven perhaps by a drive toward historical explanation: a seeking out of the forces and matter that shaped reading, book industry and book culture. There is in some new empiricism a sense that the scales of literary studies have been so heavily tipped toward the politics of textuality and close-reading in the twentieth century that such practices can be left aside and surmounted without overbalancing the other way. But I think it is the pressure of the present in literary studies that calls for close reading. The literary imagination might be moribund, but if no one is reading its contemporary instances closely, how would we know?
This post is going somewhere! And that is towards the next post in which I’m going to apply some of Chakrabarty’s ideas to Andrew McGahan’s latest novel Wonders of a Godless World. My claim in this reading will be that the novel is an interesting attempt to bridge the gaps between human individual, human species and geological time. How successful this attempt is I’m still working through, but I think McGahan’s novel can be read through Chakrabarty’s recent essay so as to think both texts in interesting ways. In particular, I’m interested in trying on the notions of the geological sublime in relation to Wonders.