Just reading

So I just read Sharon Marcus’s book Between Women. Which is great, and you should all read it: it’s about (different kinds of) relationships between middle-class women in Victorian England – mother-daughter relationships, same-age friendships, sexual relationships, marriages. I found it really energizing to read; it’s like her readings release new energies from the texts and materials she uses, by re-organizing and re-channeling their… their libidinal economies, I guess, the flows and exchanges of desire and erotic energy in and between them. Two things I especially enjoyed about it were

(1) the way she talks about the centrality of f-f friendships to “the marriage plot” in the Victorian novel, which reminds me of a thing I noticed in the many, many hundreds of chicklit novels I read over the last 5-10 years: it takes the labour of at least two (heterosexual) women to make a romantic m/f relationship function. (This is not what Marcus says about the Victorian period, but it’s remarkable when you look at chicklit in that light: Sharon and Jude and Bridget in Bridget Jones’s Diary spend immeasurable time and energy drinking Chardonnay and doing the emotional work to keep all their relationships functioning, while their male partners are… I don’t know, probably working late at the office and earning giant sums of money).

(2) the way she manages to remap the landscape of gender and desire in the Victorian period by jettisoning the assumption (formulated by second-wave feminism and a hugely important insight for the twentieth century) that f-f relationships must always be in opposition to m/f ones. And the picture we get of the way erotic desire travels through Victorian middle-class society, and the way masculinity and femininity were done, is fabulous. Her discussion of Pip (in Great Expectations) as a ‘dildo’ (rather than a phallus) is a particularly brilliant example of the way in which she follows her insights through with logical and historical rigour, even when they lead to sexually unlikely-looking places, but you’ll have to read the book to get the full impact of it.

But none of this was what I was going to talk about! What I was going to talk about was Marcus’s idea of ‘just reading’, which I think has already been taken up enthusiastically by literary scholars and with good reason. Marcus has also co-edited a really good special issue of the journal Representations on a related concept, ‘Surface Reading’ (here on JSTOR, but you’ll need institutional access): both ‘just reading’ and ‘surface reading’ are about refusing to see texts as symptoms of (for example) ideology, cultural anxieties, authorial neurosis, etc., but instead thinking of texts as organizing and producing their own meanings (to paraphrase my PhD student Evan, one of the main people I talk to about reading).

Here’s what Marcus says about just reading (p.75):

I invoke the word “just” in its many senses. Just reading strives to be adequate to a text conceived as complex and ample rather than as diminished by, or reduced to, what it has had to repress. Just reading accounts for what is in the text without construing presence as absence or affirmation as negation. Finally, just reading recognizes that interpretation is inevitable – even when attending to the givens of a text, we are always only – or just – constructing a reading.

I like this a lot, and I think it succeeds in negotiating a tension which has been increasingly present for me over the last few years. Let’s see if I can articulate it:

What I learned in my postgraduate degrees
Reading is active, creative, productive; as Derrida says in Plato’s Pharmacy, we read by “adding a thread” (our own knowledge, our own experience, our own fantasies, desires, investments) to a text. There is no reading that is not like this: the idea of reading as construing a “correct” meaning is always ideologically loaded and usually backed not by intellectual rigour but by the power of an institution.

Then I taught intermediate Latin and first-year English Literature for seven years
– Texts are valuable because they contain things we don’t already know; they can reconfigure our knowledge, our experience, our fantasies, desires, and investments. ALSO and FURTHERMORE, imperio is not a gerund, and the fourteenth-century poem Pearl was not influenced by the thought of John Calvin (1509-1564).

… But then, Pearl may not have been influenced by Calvin, but can I imagine a brilliant sf story where Calvin goes back in time and writes Pearl and the story makes me see something else in Pearl? Yes, I can (probably I expect it would be by Le Guin, or maybe Piercy). There is no reading so wrong that it doesn’t have the potential to reveal something – or, as the amazing Sheldon Pollock puts it, “no reading is incorrect in its historical existence“.

So the tension I was talking about, which I feel perhaps most acutely in my teaching practice, is the tension between (1) the fact that all readings are processes of decoding texts with the resources to hand, and there is no single “correct” reading to evaluate the others by; and (2) the fact that there are certain practices, techniques, knowledges which I believe we can impart to our students to make them better readers: more able to understand what the text is saying. Lack of grammatical knowledge is a fairly clear example, where one of the dimensions by which language means on a literal, or almost-literal, level, is lost when a reader doesn’t have the same understanding of grammar or syntax: but there’s sort of a sliding scale from vocabulary/dictionary definitions, through grammar and syntax, through to “higher-level” interpretative operations – I mean, I don’t think you can get round this tension by appealing to a “literal level” of a text which can be read correctly, and then an “interpretation” which is plural, subjective, etc.

And I am increasingly interested in the second half of this equation – what we think we’re doing when we teach literary reading/critical reading techniques; what knowledges and skills we are imparting. Because I feel like we are equipping our students with the skills to rescue meanings and ideas that would otherwise be lost, not because the physical texts no longer existed, but because the capacity to read them would be gone. And, just like that mythical Amazonian plant that contains the cure for cancer, one of those texts that we can no longer read might be what we need to cure the ideological and conceptual ills of our world.

AND YET, most of the critical/pedagogical tools we have for thinking about, and teaching, reading in this way, are very traditionalist, and conceptualize the text as the bearer of a “correct” meaning. So, in conclusion and after this long and very pleasurable ramble, the idea of a “just” reading seems to me to be potentially very enabling: a way for me to teach my students to read “what the text says”, “just what is in the text”, without having to base that in a theoretical position that I just can’t accept.

More on this soon, with some thoughts on the philologist and the amateur as opposed-yet-connected figures of the reader.

Hello, by the way. I know I haven’t been around for a while, and maybe at some point I’ll talk about why.

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