Reading for the Moment

by Eric Eisner

In literary studies we often present the discipline’s history as a kind of timeline along which we place texts that stand as landmarks, or maybe signposts announcing “turns” on the long and winding road to the present: the linguistic turn, the cultural turn, the turn to ethics, the affective turn, and so on — now, perhaps, the post-critical turn. Since the Representations special issue “The Way We Read Now” emerged from panels marking the 25th anniversary of the publication of The Political Unconscious, it’s little surprise Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus’s influential introduction to the issue takes this form, with Jameson’s 1981 text presented as a synechdoche for a decades-long “moment” characterized, in Best and Marcus’s account, by the dominance of a particular mode of reading—“symptomatic”—and an attendant critical posture—masterful, suspicious, heroic.[1] It used to be, goes their story, that critics were out to demystify and demolish, reading to uncover concealed depths; now, we read modestly, descriptively, and resourcefully, attending to the object as in itself it really “just” is.  The unusually powerful rhetorical impact of their essay arises in part from the startling efficiency with which they divide reading “now” from the embarrassing excesses of the heyday of critique, back “then.” This narrative is relentlessly homogenizing: the rubric “symptomatic reading” conflates, as has been widely observed, quite distinct critical methodologies, so that various kinds of historicism, cultural studies, psychoanalytic criticism, and so on get lumped as one, and other methodologies, notably deconstruction, wash out of the history.[2] The Political Unconscious appears as a period piece, an exemplar of a bygone era’s self-indulgence and overkill—something like literary criticism’s “Stairway to Heaven.” But despite its unusually sweeping gestures, Best and Marcus’s piece follows a structure typical of the way we habitually talk about disciplinary change, no matter our methodological commitments: we map such change in terms of as a series of discrete and successive “moments,” each dominated by a particular critical mode whose prestige and power is followed by a quick drop or slow fade into obsolescence, as the mode becomes routinized and apparently exhausted.[3] The poles between which the disciplinary pendulum swings, in these accounts, may be variable—you can have your “history” vs. “form,” your “New Criticism” vs. “theory,” your “literature” vs. “cultural studies,” as now your “critique” vs. the “post-critical,” and so on —but the shape remains the same: a periodizing narrative, outlining a disciplinary trajectory unfolding in a kind of mythic time of the discipline.[4]

Like periodizing narratives generally, these generalizing versions of disciplinary history can have their uses—they help articulate differences and patterns—but by their very form, they can also limit our ability to take stock of change, or to imagine change beyond the swapping of one “moment” for the next. Assigned the burden of representing its past moment, the “dated” text is inert and powerless in the present.[5] We could use alternative ways of talking about disciplinary change, more attentive to the shifts and divergences, the weird time lags and overlaps that really structure how we read and teach and write and talk. It is hard to see in many of our narratives of disciplinary history, that is, the far more dispersed, heterogeneous, recursive, multiply-conditioned temporalities of our actual reading and writing (and teaching and publishing). Certainly, beginning with my first encounter with literary and cultural criticism as an undergraduate in the theory-mad early 90s, my own shifting relation to the impulses connected to various critical “moments” is much more aptly characterized in terms of errancy, recursiveness, and Nachträglichkeit than in terms of any straightforward narrative. While my work over the past few years on literary fandom and poetic transmission shares in the “post-critical” interest in modes of readerly intimacy and attachment and in the ways texts “travel” outside periodizing logics (Felski “Context” 580), for example, I’ve at the same time found myself increasingly returning to critique as a vital mode, not least because the literary texts I am most interested in writing about seem to me themselves to operate in the mode of critique. What if our accounts of the way we read “now,” as well as our narratives of the discipline’s history, were to set out not from a catalog of eras or turns, but instead from the more particularized, more fluid temporalities I’ve begun to describe?

The temporality I have in mind here can be exemplified not by dates of publication of landmark texts, then, but rather by the messier, less clearly bounded time of the text’s gestation process and its potential life in the discipline: the years (maybe many, many years) of writing, revising, reformulating; the different occasions shaping parts of the writing and the venues in which it appears in different forms over time; the conversations and encounters that inform the writing, on different continents perhaps, perhaps across departments or disciplines, and the parallel conversations going on in the discipline perhaps without the writer’s awareness; the lag time between writing and publication; the way a book is absorbed by others and inspires responses, sometimes soon, sometimes many years down the road-- if anyone reads it, that is. This is the familiar stuff of our everyday professional lives, recognized in the acknowledgements sections of our books but more often than not airbrushed out of the books themselves. It’s on view to disorienting effect in the occasional work like Leslie Scalapino’s “performance work/talk/essay” “Disbelief” (2010), a dizzyingly complex meditation on the tense of writing and “being in events” that both revisits and undoes the poet’s sense of her own early-80s writing from the standpoint of her present writing. Or think of the page-blanketing footnotes and self-interruptions that dramatize the torque of time’s passage in Gayatri Spivak’s Critique of Postcolonial Reason (1999), calling attention to the theoretical and historical changes she encounters as she works on the manuscript from the Cold War mid-80s to the post-Soviet late 90s. Keeping such temporalities in view as we think about where the discipline has been and where it is going may make it harder to present a clean picture of a disciplinary “moment” or to offer a confident view of the road forward, but it may deliver a more usable version of the discipline’s past and a wider sense of its possible futures.[6]

Taking the ordinary temporality of our scholarly lives as a figure for reading operates against what Jane Gallop has called the “monumentalization of theory,” and encourages instead our treating theory as “a persistent ongoing practice in time” (Gallop 25). Rather than seeing critical or theoretical texts simply as the crystallized expression of the doxa of a “moment,” reading from this perspective allows that these texts might return different answers to our questions than we expect, or might lead us to ask questions not yet posed. It sees critical practice as essentially both experimental and provisional  — a provisionality connected also to its openness to the activity of future readers, who, as Ellen Rooney observes, go on “weaving even the most rigorous, stark and adamant assertions into new and never to be final forms” (113). From this point of view, there is no reason to imagine critical methodologies as possibly synthetic, no reason they need take the form of a unifying solution (for example, to the perceived antimony of history and form). Emphasizing the recursivity of methodological thinking as opposed to narratives of progress and obsolescence, we get a view of disciplinary history not as settled history we already know, but as a collection of loose ends we might rebraid into new strands of thinking, activating unused potential for the present.

To move from the figural to a more literal level, starting out in this fashion from the everyday temporalities of reading, writing, and teaching is also one way to begin to answer Lorraine Daston’s call for “an epistemology based upon the practices of humanists, on what they do” (363). Rachel Buurma and Laura Heffernan’s work on actual classroom practices seems to me exemplary in this regard.[7] Turning to the archival record of what happened in the classrooms of critics such as Cleanth Brooks and Edmund Wilson, Buurma and Heffernan seek to produce “a new topography of the everyday life of our disciplinary practices” by looking at “the downtimes in the classroom hour, the tangents of discussion, the undertheorized moments of interpretation or historical conjecture, and the value bestowed simply by paying attention, finding in them a set of paths not so much not taken, as never mapped” (116). In a different vein, Deidre Lynch ‘s recent Loving Literature  (which explicitly takes up Daston’s call) looks at the history of arrangements of work and pleasure, labor and feeling, around literary reading, and asks how it came to be that the boundaries between our personal and professional lives—our work time and our “downtime”—have a porousness unique among professions. These disciplinary histories are pitched not to the codification of a single history that would explain how we got where we are and forecast where we are going, but to a shifting of our professional self-understanding.

Attending to the time of reading in this sense means also thinking about the limits on that time, its interruptions and distractions. The way we read now? Too often, it’s hurriedly and not nearly enough, pressed for time, between classes and meetings and the rest of life. Behind the pendulum-swing narratives of the rise and fall of various methodologies within the discipline often runs another, parallel story, about the changing fortunes of the discipline as a whole viewed from a wider, extra-disciplinary perspective, and about the continued hits literature departments have taken in enrollments, funding, and prestige within and beyond the university.[8] Sunny and forward-looking, Best and Marcus’s account of “surface reading” spares little room explicitly to address worries about the pressures on the discipline, but the trope has become so familiar they hardly need to; Jeffrey Williams’s Chronicle piece describing the “new modesty in literary criticism” (with “surface reading” as Exhibit A) connects the dots directly, linking the “new modesty” to the contrast between the discipline’s present sense of precarity and the overreach of the “theory era.” The sociological story about the changing situation of the discipline within the university and the culture at large and the history-of-ideas story about turns within the discipline tend to slip and slide in relation to one another, as they are brought into implicit or explicit conjunction. In other words, we repeatedly translate questions about the situation of English within the system of disciplines, or questions about its relation to what is “outside” it, into narratives about a contest between methodologies taking place within departments of literature. This wavering between intra- and extra-disciplinary narratives makes it all too easy to pretend to be talking about the one when we are really talking about the other; it blurs cause-and-effect relations, so that it can appear not only that methodological aims are reducible to sociological terms but that methodology has structural consequences. This is illusory: as Jennifer Ruth points out, “the hermeneutics of suspicion cannot be blamed […] for administrators’ penchant for phasing out tenure lines in the humanities” (117).[9]

By setting the “way we read now” in the context of a tug-of-war between poles internal to the discipline, the intradisciplinary narratives we often generate in what Felski calls “the current climate of retrospection” (218) appear to make the whole thing a family affair, and so give out that our fate as a discipline is to a large degree in our own hands. The psychoanalytic take on this would be that the “new modesty” in literary criticism asserts itself as a reality principle, monitoring and reasserting the boundaries of a disciplinary ego against the threat of the dissolution of that identity.[10] In a situation where the discipline seems to many to have lost consensus about its object and direction, where some worry it is on the ropes, what such apparently coherent narratives of disciplinary history offer, of course, is a kind of wish fulfillment, a fantasy of continuity, boundedness, and autonomy (the obverse, mirror image of the fantasy of power attributed to literary criticism’s supposedly expansionist, imperialist mode of the 70s and 80s). Strangely, though, this more disciplined (in several senses) attitude asserts itself by taking disciplinary identity itself as a given. For example: it is significant that all of the contributors to the Representations special issue are located in departments of English (or in a few cases, English and Comp. Lit.), but also meaningful that this fact is observed in the first paragraph of the introduction and then summarily dropped. Similarly, a minor tempest broke out on the VICTORIA-L listserv recently when the members of the newly formed V21 collective posted a manifesto advocating a “post-historicist” direction for Victorian Studies, inviting responses to the manifesto on their website but restricting that invitiation to scholars in literature. When historians who saw themselves as having a stake in Victorian Studies as a traditionally multidisciplinary enterprise voiced their objections, the ensuing dust-up exposed the way the question of disciplinarity could not be posed within the problematic of the manifesto itself, because the “field”—as both a disciplinary and period-based formation—was exactly what was being already assumed as a defining term.

My intention is not to weigh in here for or against “interdisciplinarity;” rather, what I want to point out is how the narrative of the movement from one “moment” to another—symptomatic reading to surface reading, historicism to post-historicism, critical to post-critical, suspicious to reparative—allows one to hold the field or discipline as the steady frame for these changes over time, yet to keep the problem of framing itself out of view. The insistence on some kinds of limits (for example, limits to the imagination of critical agency) can simultaneously bracket the question of other kinds of limits (for example, the question of literature’s limit). It may be true that now we do things a little bit differently than we did back then, as Best and Marcus suggest, but, from another point of view, we also just keep on doing things, if a little differently. Slogans announcing challenges to critical routines proliferate, yet even as these challenges offer a valuable opportunity to rethink the usefulness of certain critical moves or habits, the isolation of one form of supposed routinization can allow critical programs to naturalize other disciplinary protocols, including the institutional frame of the discipline itself, and foreclose the imagination of other transformations. What’s set aside are not only questions about how to specify the relation of our reading practice to its material conditions, and these to the conditions of some larger present, but also questions about the institution of literature and its institutionalization in the discipline and the university, about the very idea of its “transmission.” These are questions about “the possibility of knowing—and therefore teaching—what is called literature” that, Peggy Kamuf writes, “go to the very border along which an institution, here the university, sets itself off from some outside”  (7, 4).

We have, however, a wide array of resources we can mobilize in keeping such questions “live.” Deconstruction and Marxist critical theory remain in my view powerful strategies not only for thinking about the work of literary form but also for thinking through relations among the concept of discipline, the scene of teaching, and institutions of reading in terms of what Kamuf calls their “historicality,” “by which is meant both that they have been bequeathed to us by a specific history […] and that whatever stabilized forms they may assume in the present remain open to the transformations of a future” (4). I think we have a lot still to gain from local attention to the diversity of everyday practices and settings through which English literature has been transmitted as an object of knowledge, within and outside the university. Giving us more than colorful historical detail, this work can help us see the disciplinary protocols we take for granted as newly strange, and help us see our reading practices as mediated by multiple, divergent histories, across multiple sites, rather than a single tradition or line of development. For me, this kind of work intersects productively with new studies of reception focusing less on tracking the changing meanings or values assigned texts—less on genealogies of influence or interpretative acts—and more on the practices (habits of thought or body) mediating the transmission of texts, or on the concept of transmission itself.[11] And this research can also be placed in dialogue with a phenomenology of reading attentive to the desires, attachments and investments at play in the encounter with textual objects, taking the scene of reading not as strictly self-enclosed, but rather as the site of collisions as well as identifications between the intimate and the social (those produced as we read, but also those that happen in the moments around reading, as when, say, overheard conversations or street noise blend with one’s reading).[12]

The moment of reading in this sense opens out on the one hand to the dailiness with which it is contiguous, and on the other hand to the multiplicity of individual and collective histories that structure it, including the long histories of reading practices and of genres. Reading in this sense can be in active relation to multiple “moments” of very different temporal scale, more or less tied to reading’s date (e.g., “Romanticism,” “the moment of Occupy,” “the post-critical moment”): think, for example, of Eve Sedgwick’s reflection in Tendencies on the time-specific “now”—the “moment of queer,” for which she takes the 1992 New York City gay pride parade as emblematic—and her affirmation of “queer” as a “continuing moment” and “immemorial current” (Sedgwick xi-xii).[13]  Here, instead of worrying about drawing or erasing boundaries between the work and its historical context, or between the domains of knowledge claimed by one discipline or another, what’s at issue are the unstable, contingent yet productive borders delimiting the moment of reading, and the subjectivity at work there, from whatever outside. This boundary is what the poet Lyn Hejinian fruitfully names “a dilemma:” “not an edge but a conjunction,” “a border under pressure of doubt” (339-340).

Collectively, these approaches contribute to a criticism that apprehends the “now” of the reading it performs—and its relation to a “moment” it might inhabit, continue, dissent from or help create—not as something already known or fully knowable, but as itself a moving object of analysis continually to be rethought. They cast the disciplinary narratives we spin as crucially open to change.



Bell, David F. “A moratorium on suspicion?” PMLA 117:3 (May 2002) 487-90.

Best, Stephen and Sharon Marcus. “Surface Reading: An Introduction.” Representations 108:1 (2009) 1-21.

Buurma, Rachel Sagner and Laura Heffernan. “The Common Reader and the Archival Classroom: Disciplinary History for the Twenty-first Century.” New Literary History 43 (2012) 113-135.

Chew, Dalglish. “We Have Never Been Critical.” We, Reading, Now. Colloquy curated by Dalglish Chew and Julie Orlemanski. Arcade.

Dale, Leigh, Jennifer McDonnell, and Marshall Brown, eds. Lessons from the Past: The History of Academic English. MLQ 75:2 (2014).

Daston, Lorraine. “Whither Critical Inquiry?” 30:2 (Winter 2004) 361-364.

Felski, Rita. “After Suspicion.” Profession (2009): 28-35.

——. “Context Stinks!” New Literary History 42:4 (2011) 573-591.

Gallop, Jane. The Deaths of the Author: Reading and Writing in Time. Durham and London: Duke UP, 2011.

——. “The Historicization of Literary Studies and the Fate of Close Reading.” Profession (2007) 181-186.

Goode, Mike. “Blakespotting.” PMLA 121:3 (May 2006) 769-786.

Goodlad, Lauren M. E. The Geopolitical Aesthetic: Realism, Sovereignty, and Transnational Experience. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2015.

Hejinian, Lyn. The Language of Inquiry. Berkeley: U of California Press, 2000.

Johnson, Barbara. The Feminist Difference: Literature, Psychoanalysis, Race, Gender. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1998.

Kamuf, Peggy. The Division of Literature: Or The University in Deconstruction. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1997.

Latour, Bruno. “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern.” Critical Inquiry 30 (Winter 2004) 225-248.

Lesjak, Carolyn. “Reading Dialectically.” Criticism 55:2 (Spring 2013) 233-277.

Levine, Caroline. “Strategic Formalism: Toward a New Method in Cultural Studies.” Victorian Studies 48: 4 (Summer 2006) 625-657.

Loesberg, Jonathan. “Cultural Studies, Victorian Studies, and Formalism.” Victorian  Literature and Culture (1999) 537-544.

Lynch, Deidre. Loving Literature: A Cultural History. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2015.

Mitchell, W. J. T. “The Commitment to Form; Or, Still Crazy after All These Years.” PMLA 118:2 (321-5) 2003.

Poovey, Mary. “The Twenty-First-Century University and the Market: What Price Economic Viability?” differences 12:1 (Spring 2001) 1-16.

——. “Beyond the Current Impasse in Literary Studies.” American Literary History 11 (1999): 355-77.

Price, Leah. How to Do Things With Books in Victorian Britain. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2012.

Robson, Catherine. Heart Beats: Everyday Life and the Memorized Poem. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2012.

Rooney, Ellen. “Live Free or Describe: The Reading Effect and the Persistence of Form.” Differences 21:3 (2010) 112-139.

Ruth, Jennifer. Novel Professions: Interested Disinterest and the Making of the Professional in the Victorian Novel. Columbus, OH: Ohio State UP, 2006.

Scalapino, Leslie. “Disbelief.” Jacket 40 (2010).

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Tendencies. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1993.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1999.

V21 Collective. Manifesto of the V21 Collective: Ten Theses. 2015.

Weed, Elizabeth. “The Way We Read Now.” History of the Present  2:1 (Spring 2012) 95-106.

Williams, Jeffrey. “The New Modesty in Literary Criticism.” Chronicle of Higher Education. Jan. 5, 2015.




[1] For responses to Best and Marcus, see Goodlad, Lesjak, Rooney and Weed.

[2] That Best and Marcus have psychoanalysis and Marxism stand in this way for a whole range of critical traditions suggests the real target is the notion of an unconscious, political or otherwise. Deconstruction disappears in Best and Marcus’s account perhaps in part because it is most directly incompatible with their story about criticism’s privileging of hidden depths over surfaces (it deconstructs that opposition) and because the deconstructive ethics of attention, especially as exemplified in the later Derrida, seems like a forerunner of “post-critical” reading, rather than an example of a hermeneutics of suspicion. Lauren Goodlad makes a parallel point about the continuity between poststructuralism and “the ethical responsibility to attend to the object of one’s critique” emphasized in “surface reading” and allied approaches (273).

[3] You can claim that the critical attitude you want to critique is obsolete, or you can critique the way the approach you want to advance has been deemed obsolete. In a 2003 PMLA essay, W.J.T. Mitchell playfully, and cleverly, casts his ability to believe that form still matters despite its evident “historical obsolescence” as an example of Adornian (political) “commitment” (322). Here is an example of the way claims that form or formalists are “obsolete” have accompanied the high visibility of “form” as a catch-word: by 2009, for Best and Marcus, it’s a supposedly anti-formalist critique that’s obsolete.  In Jane Gallop’s 2007 Profession article “The Historicization of Literary Studies and the Fate of Close Reading,” it is the alleged dominance of a highly routinized historicism that threatens close reading (held up as a kind of disciplinary constant) with obsolescence.

[4] Dalglish Chew, in his essay for this colloquy, similarly observes that “efforts to invent new methods of reading tend to characterize their originality by reorganizing the recent history of literary criticism according to discontinuous paradigms” (Chew).

[5] Goodlad points out the strangeness of the way both Best and Marcus and Rita Felski, in “Suspicious Minds,” tie what they claim is a still-persistent critical mentality to texts from the 80s. The effect in each case is to emphasize the way they see criticism as stuck in dated routines, running glosses on the same master scripts, but as Goodlad notes, this also suggests some distance between the target of their argument and the present critical landscape (269-70).

[6] I recognize that the move I’m making here, from the mythic to the everyday and the straightforward to the messy, repeats a gesture common to much work associated with the “post-critical” (though it is also here, as it is there, a move with obvious Marxist and poststructuralist pedigree). For this characterization of the “post-critical” with an emphasis on temporal messiness, see Rita Felski’s “Context Stinks!”

[7] See also the essays in the 2014 special issue of MLQ, Lessons from the Past: The History of Academic English.

[8] On these structural issues and their reflection in talk about the discipline, see Poovey, “Twenty-first” and “Beyond,” and the exceptionally lucid discussion in Ruth 114-121. 

[9] Accounts of the supposed failure of critique tend to minimize and exaggerate its effect at the same time: “criticism was deluded to think it made anything happen,” say the critics of critique, “and plus, now look at what critique’s done to the discipline!” There are two common types of this argument, easy to find on newspaper editorial pages: one that postmodern or poststructuralist suspicion and/or relativism have infected the general public with a worrying willingness to ignore fact and science, because there’s no such thing anymore as truth; another, that the rise of theory and of “suspicious” reading correlates in some causal way with declines in enrollment.  Bruno Latour makes a striking version of the former claim (“of course conspiracy theories are an absurd deformation of our own arguments, but….these are own weapons nonetheless”[230]). David Bell makes a very explicit, if entirely anecdotal and unpersuasive, version of the latter claim.

[10] Jonathan Loesberg’s 1999 essay uses the metaphor of disciplinary “enclosure” explicitly in arguing that a period of disciplinary expansion needs to be followed by a “voluntary askesis” exercised through a return to “aesthetic formalism” (541). So, there is an analogy drawn between the desired disciplinary coherence and the apparent coherence of the form imagined as its object (i.e., form as enclosure). Lesjak summarizes the trend I am discussing, pointing to methodological proposals such as Caroline Levine’s “strategic formalism” as examples: “The overarching message seems to be: scale back, pare down, small aims met are better than grand ones unrealized, reclaim our disciplinary territory and hold on to it” (237).

[11] Many different scholars, working in very different modes, are doing exciting research in this area, including, to take just a few examples, Catherine Robson, Mike Goode, and Leah Price.

[12] I’m thinking here most directly of Eve Sedgwick’s reflection on the scene of reading in these terms, for example in “Queer and Now” from Tendencies, and the line of work in queer studies influenced by Sedgwick. Rita Felski has thought through the potential of a new phenomenology of reading in productive and provocative ways. In a different tradition but in interestingly overlapping ways, a phenomenology of reading is also central to Hejinian’s poetics.

[13] Gallop’s Deaths of the Author thoughtfully discusses Sedgwick’s thinking about the “moment” of reading and writing in relation to Spivak’s.

Eric Eisner's picture
Eric Eisner is Associate Professor of English at George Mason University. He is the author of Nineteenth-Century Poetry and Literary Celebrity (Palgrave, 2009) and the editor of the Romantic Circles Praxis volume Romantic Fandom (2011). He is currently working on a book provisionally titled Some Melodious Plot, on Keats and contemporary American experimental poetics. His 2013 Wordsworth Circle essay “Disaster Poetics,” on Keats, Mark Levine and Lyn Hejinian, was drawn from this project.

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