Thursday, January 26, 2012

For Idiosyncratic Reading

This is an autobiographical  brief on behalf of the academic as autodidact.  Since I was an undergraduate English Major, literary criticism has been defined as a certain practice of reading: close (as opposed to far--the New Critics); professional (as opposed to amateur--Said, Fish, Garber); competent (as opposed to incompetent--J. Culler, Structuralist Poetics; Roger Chartier), and technical versus thematic (De Man); slow versus fast (Brower; Garber); intensive (Deleuze); and rigorous (as opposed to flaccid--Guillory).   Neil Hertz was one of the few, perhaps the only critic to ask what reading involved, where to draw the line, what was a reading took far, and what was a reading that permitted itself to stop.  De Man's technical reading practice was written off as a new formalism in the late 1980s (forgetting that de Man had written an essay entitled "Return to Philology" and his colleague G. Hartman had written book entitled Beyond Formalism), and the various returns of formalism in the past decade have been concerned to accommodate historicism, not deconstruction.   I had the good fortune to meet De Man, hear Derrida and Foucault lecture and be taught by brilliant close readers of literature as an undergrad (Greenblatt, Booth) and grad school (Michaels, Fish, Booth, Adelman) and, in the last eight and a half years the opportunity to teach whatever I want however I want to do.  I have followed out a kind of Hertzian and Ronellian trajectory with respect to De Man,  understanding technical readings to be subject to break down, as all technologies (writing machines) are.  I have been able to learn by doing, teaching courses on literature of historical periods in which I have published zip and taught  literature and philosophy in translation and written originally in languages in which I am "technically" semi-competent.  I can read only read, in Schiller's terms, as a sentimental as opposed to naive reader.  Even if I watch a bad action film, I pay attention to the editing, lighting, etc.  I cannot watch a film like Jams Cameron's Avatar because I think every shot is formally atrocious.  When I read a novel I've known about since I was 18 but still have never read, like The Magic Mountain, I may start reading without a pencil, but by 20 pages in, I've picked up the pencil and started taking notes.  My "professional" reading habits take hold as I erin to appreciate how interesting the work of literature is.  My increasingly idiosyncratic departures allow me to random access read the novel.  So I read the gramophone chapter first, then the one on seances after it first.   Then I read about the first 60 pages.  Then I read the X-ray chapter.  Then I went back to the gramophone chapter and saw that it explicitly recalls the X-Ray chapter. Now I am reading the novel in a traditional linear fashion though I keep rereading parts I've already read as I've started taking notes.  I end up going to the library (on campus and online) researching areas I find interesting.  I can get up to speed fairly quickly (learn the history of criticism on a given work and writer), though I read literature and philosophy both because I have always wanted to read it and the thanatological clock is ticking and because theorists and philosophers I admire like De Man, Derrida, Heidegger, Ronell, Rickels, and Kittler can't be read without reading what they have written about.  I have nothing against the notion of a canon or of literary history.  I just feel free to wander off from my "professional" field as I respond to call of hospitable academics who sometimes work outside their field.  I just wish tenure meant one could be free to do peripatetic criticism, if they wish, as I am free to do at UF.    

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