Hermeneutic Construction

by Julie Orlemanski

Literary scholars disagree about lots of things. Part of the work of recent disciplinary reflections and stock-taking has been to trace the contours of these disagreements, using them to map the history of the field and the fault-lines of the present. However, in my considerations here I want to begin not from controversy but from consensus. My premise is that close reading constitutes common ground in literary studies. It acts as a “family resemblance,” helping to define what’s shared among the diverse scholars teaching and writing about literature in higher education.[1] Close reading is not everything that we do—but we all do it at least occasionally, whether in classrooms, job talks, conference presentations, or published articles. This pervasiveness is what marks it out as especially important for my thought here. I take it that implicit in the very generality of the activity is our mutual conviction that close reading is worthwhile, that it is a mode of understanding worth practicing.

In the exhortatory mood characteristic of forums like this one, I would urge us to produce more accounts, from more perspectives, about the modes of understanding and worth that belong to close reading. Why do we do what we do? Given the numerous arguments against close readingagainst its eclecticism, its aestheticism, its relatively incommunicable results, its reinforcement of the canon, and its vexed relation to history and contextwhy do we labor to read, and teach students to read, slowly, attentively, philologically, and speculatively? What are literary studies’ practical epistemologies, or as Bruno Latour would say, our “empirical metaphysics” (51)? My hypothesis is that answers to questions like these are sedimented in disciplinary activity. Doing is a position of knowledgepartial knowledge, but knowledge nonethelessabout what is done and why. While practice never translates smoothly into theory, nor theory neatly into practice, the reflective interchange is full of vitality and seems to me essential to the humanities. Lines in the sand drawn between supposed factions of readingsurface versus symptomatic, for instancedo not account for how much we share. They’re disappointing not because they’re divisive but because they fail to address the riddle that close reading poses to theory, namely, the logic of our practice. Making explicit the models of knowledge immanent in what we do would help to place literary studies within the broader constellation of academic disciplines. It would aid in clarifying the higher-order claims we make and how these claims differ from the generalizations produced by other knowledge-practices.

Giving new accounts of close reading would also be occasion to grapple with the changed circumstances of our contemporary now. I am particularly interested in the status of literary studies in the wake of the “turn away from the linguistic turn.” The “linguistic turn” refers to the widespread influence of structural linguistics in various academic disciplines in the period after World War II. In the humanities and social sciences, structures of language assumed the status of ur-logics for culture and meaning. The analogization of, say, all cultural meaning to language had the effect of bolstering the prestige of literary studies within the matrix of disciplines. Since the late 1990s, however, a consensus has grown that the linguistic turn is over. The post-Saussurean analogy between linguistics, literary reading, and social analysis has broken down. The tendentiousness of the homologization now seems clear: plenty of things do not operate like language (or, to take the poststructuralist tack, do not fail like language fails). In an intellectual climate that seeks to mark language’s limits, how do we give accounts of close reading and literary studies? When not everything is a text, what does it mean that we, as literary scholars, continue to read texts and interpret them?

“Close reading, like motherhood and apple pie, is something we are all in favor of,” Jonathan Culler has quipped recently, “even if what we do when we think we are doing close reading is very different” (20). If there is a “there” there among these differences, in what does it consist? I identify four qualities in our shared practice of close reading: that it is attentive, iterative, eventive, and academic. Which is to say: it entails cognitive intensity (attentive); it presumes rereading (iterative); it happens, being enacted in time by a particular embodied reader with a specific material text (eventive); and, finally, the phrase “close reading” connects this practice to scholarly discourses shaped by the history of modern language departments (academic). What I want to do in the following paragraphs is gesture to an expanded genealogy of close reading, one the extends beyond the circulation of the phrase itself, to link the practice to hermeneutics. This linkage depends upon what I take to be significant homologies between “doing” hermeneutics and our most widespread mode of “doing” literary studies. What it contributes, I hope, is a more robust account of the distances and differences that close reading mediates.

Hermeneutics, as I understand it, is the historically articulated theory and practice of textual interpretation. It is a tradition that by all appearances is coextensive with writing itself: one might pick up its thread with Alexandrian interpreters of Homer’s archaic Greek, or almost two millennia later in the nineteenth-century disciplines of philology and philosophy, or in the present dispensation of the humanities. It has a long record of negotiating the countermanding tendencies of what we might call, on the one hand, the scientific management of linguistic and historical alterity, and, on the other, the phenomenal experience of textualized meaning. It recovers what words meant and then makes them mean anew. These twin projects have a common aim that the Hungarian philologist and literary theorist Peter Szondi describes as the “desire to draw the canonical text… out of its historical remoteness into the present, to make it not only comprehensible but also, as it were, present” (6). The goal of making present, in the present is one that literary studies, I think, shares with hermeneutics. The act of reading pulls a text across distance (whether this distance is defined historically, linguistically, or culturally) to make it a prompt for experience. We think in concert with an artifact that was itself made according to thought. When a text is rendered “as it were, present,” something new transpiresas each performance of a musical score is new, and each production of a play. Hermeneutics is the technical and theoretical discourse of harmonizing texts’ multiple coordinates within the cosmos of textualized meaning. 

What notions are at hand for navigating the multiple coordinates that determine reading? Recently in several dazzling essays, the Sanskrit scholar Sheldon Pollock has set forth conceptual tools for the “discipline of making sense of texts” (398).[2] Pollock “disaggregate[s]” the “three planes of a text’s existence: its moment of genesis; its reception over time; and its presence to my own subjectivity” (410, 399). This distinction allows Pollock to posit criteria for each category of textual significance. “All of these meaningsthe historicist, the commentarial-traditionist and the presentist […] are true: none more or less true than the others,” he writes (408). Yet each dimension of textual truth entails its own grounds for evaluation and judgment. “Critical philology,” as he defines it, moves among the temporalities of textual meaning in a “balancing act” that seeks “to simultaneously respect the scientific value of truth, the pragmatic value of pluralism, and the hermeneutic necessity of asking ‘What possibility does the text give me to understand my own being?’” (410). Pollock’s account of philological meaning, then, is decidedly inclusive. Yet what strikes me as most urgent in his arguments – and why I’ve included them in my bricolaged genealogy of close readingis that this inclusivity is premised on the notion of disciplinary “truths,” on the criteria of validity needed to sustain those truths, and a sense of what stands to be lost if we simply abandon philology’s rigor. Pollock’s recent essays are examples of how metacritical accounts of interpretive practice matter.

In the modern history of hermeneutic thought, the power of a text to link remote positions has been figured most persistently in terms of time. Although writing mediates linguistic, geographic, and cultural alterity, historical difference has come to stand as the sign of all of these. Without accepting all the implications of such a figuration, I nonetheless turn to a tradition that Jacques Rancière has deemed “Romantic poetics,” whose principle he identifies as “the multiplication of the temporalities of art.” Rancière summarizes: “‘romanticizing’ the works of the past means taking them as metamorphic elements […] susceptible to different reactualizations according to new lines of temporality” (143). There is no better spokesman for such an ethos of “Romantic poetics” than the German critic, essayist, and philosopher Walter Benjamin. In concluding my quick conjuration of a hermeneutic genealogy for close reading, I’ll cite two closely related fragments from the so-called “N Convolute” (“On the Theory of Knowledge, Theory of Progress”) in Benjamin’s unfinished Arcades Project. Both describe what emerges when a reader reads, namely, what Benjamin calls the “dialectical image.” In the first of the two fragments, he writes:

It’s not that what is past casts its light on what is present, or what is present its light on what is past; rather, image is that wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation. In other words, image is dialectics at a standstill. For while the relation of the present to the past is a purely temporal, continuous one, the relation of what-has-been to the now is dialectical: is not progression but image, suddenly emergent. Only dialectical images are genuine images (that is, not archaic); and the place where one encounters them is language. [N2a,3]

In the second, related fragment, Benjamin adds,

For the historical index of the images not only says that they belong to a particular time; it says, above all, that they attain to legibility only at a particular time. And, indeed, acceding “to legibility” constitutes a specific critical point in the movement at their interior. Every present day is determined by the images that are synchronic with it: each “now” is the now of a particular recognizability. [N3,1]

He concludes this second fragment claiming, “The image that is read—which is to say, the image in the now of its recognizability—bears to the highest degree the imprint of the perilous critical moment on which all reading is founded” [N3,1].

Benjamin’s notion of readinglike the hermeneutic project of making present, in the present and like close reading itselfis eventive. Something happens in the “flash” between “what-has-been” and “the now.” Yet Benjamin also provides an important corrective to one tendency of hermeneutics, the habit of describing what emerges in reading’s “perilous critical moment” exclusively in terms of recovery, recuperation, and re-cognition. By contrast, the “dialectical image” is disjoint. It is a new construction, “suddenly emergent.” It is almost as if the three dimensions of textual time described by Pollock, rather than meeting in a careful philological “balancing act,” violently snap to grid, “to form a constellation.” What “attain[s] to legibility” bespeaks the historical index of both what is written and the reader’s world, each marking the other in the “now of a particular recognizability.” Admittedly, converting Benjamin’s formulations into techniques of scholarly practice is not straightforward, and I would not want to rush to decide what his “Theory of Knowledge, Theory of Progress” demands at the level of disciplinary method. Nonetheless, the sentences quoted above, I think, articulate something about the practice of attentive, iterative, eventive reading that so many of us carry out: that texts distant from us have something to “say” to us and that this something cannot be known in advance. Indeed, it is constructed in reading.

In place of a conclusion following neatly on from my discussion of hermeneutics, and in the spirit of a pragmatic and occasional document rather than an aesthetic oneI want to end by marking what my account of “We, Reading, Now” has not discussed, namely whether a “suspicious” comportment toward texts is to be commended or condemned, or whether the “new modesty” in literary studies should be celebrated or disdained. One insinuation of the recent critics of “critique” is that “suspicious” readers have overestimated their political efficacy. Delusions of radical grandeur are supposedly evident in individuals’ “charismatic” or “adversarial” styles of scholarship. My own sense of the situation is somewhat different. I agree that literary studies and political activism are not the same thing (though in some situations they may be mutually amplifying). Each attests to a different hierarchy of priorities – for instance, intellectual coherence on the one hand, institutional and material change on the other. The fact that teaching literature is not the shortest route to social justice (and vice versa) attests to the contradictions of a social order in which versions of the highest good are at odds with one another. Yet my further claim would be that there is no proper ethos of scholarship correlative to this disjunction. No correct academic comportment follows on from the non-coincidence of literary studies and politics, nor from the rift between interpretation and justice. It is just as plausible to style oneself “heroic” as “modest,” “charismatic” as “deferential”: they are all modes of making a scholarly life amidst the contradiction between goods, contradictions that no personal style nor attitude can overcome.

A more specific way of putting this would be to say that one cannot get into right relation with the “crisis in the humanities” – or at least one cannot do so from within one’s scholarship. This is clear if one looks at what I take to be two discrete sources of the crisis. The first is the judgment of administrators, trustees, investors, and politicians that the humanities are not profitable within market-driven higher education. Programs are defunded and devalued accordingly. Yet to try to avert this crisis by changing disciplinary practice not only fails but involves us in a project of self-negation. We dissolve the disciplinary claim to specific and self-regulated definitions of knowledge insofar as we directly embrace the priorities of the market. The second source of the “crisis,”  I think, stems from the humanities’ permanent inefficacy in the face of systemic inequalities of wealth and privilege – inequalities that are the conditions of possibility for our classrooms and departments as they currently exist. Walter Benjamin famously crystallized this condition when he wrote, “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” Yet the humanities ought not, and cannot, take on this contradiction at the level of scholarly method, where it certainly cannot be solved. Both the “crisis of profitability” and the “crisis of justice,” as we might call them, demand our attention insofar as we are institutional and political actors, but they do not prescribe how we should teach or study literature.

Yet teach and study literature we do. And I would suggest that we teach and read with a lived responsiveness to the contradictions separating one good from another that is smarter than most of our theorizing about them. I don’t think that this absolves us from the need to theorizeand perhaps one of the tasks left undone in this little essay is to explain the usefulness of theoretical reflection. However, let me conclude provisionally by encouraging us to draw our thought closer to the higher-order claims congealed in the most pervasive of our practices. The quotidian movement from textual experience to disciplinary knowledge has its own cunning, which is worth articulating.


I would like to thank Dalglish Chew, Jonathan Schroeder, Rebekah Sheldon, and Karl Steel for their insightful comments on earlier drafts.

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project. Trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Culler, Jonathan. “The Closeness of Close Reading.” ADE Bulletin 149 (2010): 20–25.

Latour, Bruno. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007.

Pollock, Sheldon. “Philology in Three Dimensions.” postmedieval 5 (2014): 398-413.

Rancière, Jacques. “The Aesthetic Revolution and Its Outcomes.” New Left Review 14 (2002): 133-151.

Szondi, Peter. Introduction to Literary Hermeneutics. Trans. Martha Woodmansee. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995.

[1] Wittgenstein’s idea of “family resemblances” describes what links a group that cannot be delimited by “what is common to all” but rather by “a complicated network of similarities overlapping and crisscrossing” (§65–§67). I have also addressed the topic of close reading in an earlier essay, “Scales of Reading” (Exemplaria 26 (2014): 215-33).

[2] In addition to the essay I cite from here (“Philology in Three Dimensions”), see also Pollock’s “Future Philology? The Fate of a Soft Science in a Hard World” in The Fate of the Disciplines, eds. J. Chandler and A. Davidson Critical Inquiry 35 (2009): 931–961 and his “Introduction,” in World Philology, eds. S. Pollock, B. Elman and K. Chang (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014), 1-24.

Julie Orlemanski's picture
Julie Orlemanski is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Chicago. She is completing a book manuscript entitled “Symptomatic Subjects: Bodies, Signs, and Narratives in Late Medieval England.” Her essays have appeared in Exemplaria, A Handbook of Middle English Studies, Robert Thornton and His Books, and postmedieval. She is beginning work on a new project about prosopopoeia in medieval writing.

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Dalglish Chew, Julie Orlemanski