I was an undergraduate at Cambridge at an interesting moment in the history of the university’s curriculum in English literature. When I matriculated in 1993, more than ten years had elapsed since the Leavisites had failed to promote Colin MacCabe due to his teaching of “structuralism.” Things had changed. The year before I arrived, the university (controversially) awarded Jacques Derrida an honorary degree. Critical theory was now at the heart of the venerable and compulsory Part I course for English majors on The History and Theory of Literary Criticism.
As first-year students, we read one landmark critical essay a week, working our way through David Lodge’s anthology Modern Criticism and Theory. It was a relentless pace: Saussure, Jakobson, Lacan, Derrida, Foucault, Barthes, Kristeva, Cixous, Spivak, and so on. Mostly we were nonplussed, baffled, confused; but, somewhere along the way, we learned how to read symptomatically, how to unmask a text’s covert ideological structures whether through a Marxist, feminist, or post-colonial lens. I relished my new tools and wielded them both boldly and clumsily (an unfortunate combination), confident that identifying the binary oppositions at work in any given text would compel it to give up its secrets. My Shakespeare supervisor responded to my stab at a poststructuralist reading of Troilus and Cressida with the following assessment: “a good essay is sometimes struggling to get out from under your chosen idiom. I don’t object to that particular critical idiom, but you need to be, demonstrably, 101% in charge of it …” Ouch.
But that was only half the story. Equally integral to my undergraduate reading was the weekly practice of “practical criticism,” or “prac crit” as we called it, the exercise developed by I. A. Richards and practiced, perhaps most influentially, by his student William Empson, of minutely analyzing an anonymous literary text. I don’t recall that we were told much about how the two domains—theory and practical criticism—related to one another. I do recall that when, on a couple of occasions I tried to apply one of the theoretical frameworks in a prac crit essay, my efforts met with a distinctly frosty reception. Consider my prac crit supervisor’s response to my Barthesian take on Sir Philip Sidney: “There are some interesting points in your essay. However it is more of a treatise on aesthetics than a piece of practical criticism … Try not to be distracted by the philosophy ….”
We wrote our prac crit essays fast, in about an hour, in longhand, so as to simulate the exam conditions in which we would eventually have to demonstrate this skill.
I came to dread the weekly prac crit much as one might dread the weekly undertaking of some intensely strenuous physical exercise. For me, practical criticism proceeded in a predictable series of stages. First was the ritualistic slow reading and marking of the text, almost always a grainy, off-kilter photocopy; next came the intense scrutiny of the page now scrawled with bubbles, arrows, underlines, and cryptic musings in hopes that some interpretative opening would disclose itself; there would be a couple of false starts, possible ways in that turned into dead ends; then would come the inevitable period of despair, accompanied by hair-twisting and staring into space, as a pattern failed to emerge. Finally, at about the forty minute mark, almost too late, would come the discovery of a thread, and with it a glimpse of the shape of the essay through which the thread could be followed; then, and only then, came the writing, which had to be done fast but also carefully because there could be no rewriting.
Both reading literary theory and undertaking “practical criticism” involve, in my experience, teetering on the brink of seeing a pattern. It is unnerving but also exhilarating. It is an experience that recalls—as I imagine it, for I can’t remember it myself—the experience of first learning to read. When my son was learning to read he would try to read the road signs as we would drive past. But by the time he had sounded out half a word, we would have passed the sign. He knew enough to know that there were words, words, everywhere, but he didn’t know enough to be able decipher them. I told him that, soon, he wouldn’t have that problem; in fact, soon, he wouldn’t be able to help but read the words on the signs.
The experience of reading theory, and also of reading “practically,” as I was trained to do, involves some of that same sensation of being on the brink of something new and revelatory. As Donald Barthelme observes, difficulty is inevitable if what you “are looking for is the as-yet unspeakable, the as-yet unspoken” (15). The sensation of being on the cusp of “getting” it—whatever “it” might be—was one I sought out in grad school, almost perversely. A case in point was the Comp Lit seminar I took that was entirely devoted to Lacan’s seventh seminar, a class in which I was completely out of my depth. Likewise was the modern dance class I took that same year in which I stretched my body into unfamiliar shapes, over and over again. “Pick up your ass, Kareem!” my teacher, Claire Mallardi, would yell at me as I attempted to jeté across the room.
I don’t think that in the English language we possess a good vocabulary for talking about the pleasures of readerly discomfort and difficulty: the feeling that one part of ourselves leaps ahead while another part lags behind. In our current moment, the metaphors we use to evoke literary critique as opposed to reading for pleasure are quite distinct: the former is “digging down” or “standing back” (Felski 7); the latter is captivation, transport, immersion. In the former the reader is in control. In the latter the text acts upon the reader. But, most often, I find that the reading experiences I’ve most relished in the academy are not accurately captured by either set of metaphors; the most interesting reading experiences, are, rather, ones in which agency is at once exercised and abdicated.
The emphasis we place on the labor involved in reading critically echoes a dominant idiom in eighteenth-century natural philosophy, what Lorraine Daston calls “the stony way of observation and experiment” (10). This rhetoric has become, for us, emblematic of the Enlightenment: when Bruno Latour reprimands critique for undermining Enlightenment truth claims, he re-affirms the familiar identification of the Enlightenment with rationality and empirical observation. What is often overlooked, however, is that this language of matters of fact and the dogged labor necessary to amass them is only one Enlightenment idiom.
Also thriving in the eighteenth century is a well-developed idiom of unknowing, a rich vocabulary for describing the various forms incomprehension may take—from wonder—theorized by Adam Smith as an uncomfortable suspension that precedes the perception of any new object—to what Anahid Nersessian calls nescience, “a posture of openness toward that object such that the object may be granted the chance to be exemplary of nothing” (8). If one value of literary language is its creation of “a space of bewilderment … that is potentially critical,” then we find in eighteenth-century literature helpful ways of describing the under-theorized experience of not, or not yet, getting it (Nealon 869).
The way I read now is inevitably shaped, for better or worse, by my Cambridge training: by the formalist assumptions that underwrite practical criticism as well as by the capital “T” Theory that forever changed my understanding of how words meant. My undergraduate immersion in both critical theory and practical criticism taught me that unknowing could be both a theoretical position and a formal commitment to the object. There was something about the intensity with which we sped through twentieth-century literary criticism that, far from casting theory as a monolithic explanatory system, instead emphasized the variety and historical contingency of the ways of reading gathered under its auspices. To recognize the historical contingency of the critical idioms we were being taught was also to strive to become attentive to the object on its own terms.
I haven’t taken modern dance in a long time, and I strongly suspect that my jeté hasn’t improved in the intervening years. While reading now I often hear the words of my former dance teacher echoing in my head, perhaps because, for me, the experience of reading still often feels like I’m leaping forward and lagging behind at the same time.
Barthelme, Donald. 1997. “Not-Knowing.” In Not Knowing: The Essays and Interviews of Donald Barthelme. Ed. Kim Herzinger. New York: Random House. 11-24.
Daston, Lorraine. 2009. “The Persistent Dream of the Blank Screen.” (Paper delivered at the Center for Cultural Studies at the University of Santa Cruz). 1-21.
Felski, Rita. 2013. “Digging Down and Standing Back.” English Language Notes. 51.2: 7-23.
Latour, Bruno. 2004. “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?” Critical Inquiry 30.2: 225-48.
Nealon, Christopher, “The Poetic Case.” Critical Inquiry 33.4: 865-886.
Nersessian, Anahid. 2014. “The Nescient Century, or, On Being an Instance of Nothing in the Enlightenment.” (Paper delivered at Southern California Eighteenth-Century Group meeting). 1-30.