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On the Impossibility of Naive Reading

The recent New York Times Opinionator column by Robert Pippin, “In Defense of Naive Reading”, has had me thinking for the last week or so. I knew I wanted to respond right away, but I wasn’t sure how, exactly; there’s an awful lot in the post that I’m quite sympathetic to, and yet something in it rubbed me exactly the wrong way.

Part of the irritation arises from the degree to which the humanities as they’ve been studied for the last several decades are under attack. Again. (Including from within.) Pippin himself begins with the culture wars of the 1980s, a grim reminder of the repeated cycles within which academic practices within the humanities, and particularly within literary studies, come under scrutiny, especially in times of economic crisis. There’s no doubt a degree of “here we go again” in my annoyed response.

But there’s more to it than that, because I think there’s more at work in Pippin’s critique than any kind of simple attack on those silly humanists. “In Defense of Naive Reading” bears deep connections to a proliferating set of arguments calling for a revaluation of amateur experiences of literary reading, arguments for which I have a tremendous amount of sympathy; Ted Striphas’s The Late Age of Print: Everyday Book Culture from Consumerism to Control and Jim Collins’s Bring on the Books for Everybody: How Literary Culture Became Popular Culture are two of the most thoughtful texts in this category. Even more broadly, however, Pippin’s argument connects to the anti-institutional “outta my way, prof!” rallying cry of Anya Kamenetz’s DIY U and YouTube’s An Open Letter to Educators. And it’s a precariously fine line from valorizing extra-academic reading experiences to dismissing scholarly work on literary subjects as wasteful, pointless, and worthy of elimination.

So I find myself in the somewhat perplexing position of wanting to make a strong argument on behalf of public engagement with the materials of humanities research, and especially literature, while at the same time defending the importance of scholarship in the field, including that scholarship that involves a kind of discourse of the sort that might exclude the uninitiated. I want to defend the kind of close reading that Pippin celebrates, but I also want to defend the theory that he dismisses. The question, of course, is how to do both of these things at once, which then turns into a larger question: What is the function of literary scholarship, and how does it inform or distinguish itself from reading-in-general?

A key aspect of literary scholarship, and the part that perhaps most informs what goes on in the literature classroom, has to do with making what seems to be obvious instead appear strange, to require the reader to step back from something that seems familiar and look at it from a new angle. The point is less to get the reader to think in some particular different way about the object than it is to get her to think differently about her own perspective with respect to that object.

And the key aspect of that endeavor is getting her to recognize that she has a perspective in the first place, one that is, by definition, non-neutral. And it’s this that makes me most want to argue with Pippin: not that I want to dismiss or displace the close, careful wrangling with primary texts, but instead to insist that no such reading can ever be naive, except in a not-so-faintly pejorative sense.

Every reading presupposes a theory, even where that theory is about the transparency of representation or about the existence of a text with defined borders. “Close reading” isn’t just careful reading with attention to detail; it’s a theoretical argument about where a text’s meaning is to be found, how it can be understood, and, perhaps most importantly, who is responsible for having put it there.

In that sense, the refusal of theory is not just a refusal of difficulty or abstruseness, but instead a refusal to lay perspective bare, or even to admit that there is perspective involved in the reading process in the first place. And lest it need be said: the admission of perspective in the reading process is not a slippery slope to some mythical anything-goes mode of postmodernist free-for-all. There is still evidence, analysis, and argument required in defending any particular interpretation of a text. But the point is that there is no singular, correct, perspective-free interpretation of a text.

In that sense, the value of literary theory has been in helping scholars and students tease out not how to read, but how they do read, how a lifetime of encounters with particular kinds of representations train us to understand future texts. And, not incidentally, to help students think about other potential readings, and what they might reveal about the default positions of our culture.

The challenge for literary scholars, I would argue, is not to return to the kind of naive, untheorized reading that Pippin seems to espouse, but instead to find ways to express the significance of theoretical insights to a wider audience. That is to say that we should neither dig in our heels on the issue of difficulty, nor give up the kinds of work that we have taken on, but instead that we need to find better ways to convey — to our students, of course, but even more importantly to the reading public at large — why the work we do matters, and why the ways that we do that work matter as well.

In a time of crisis such as we now face, dismissing that public as anti-intellectual would be an enormous mistake — but so would be giving up on the kinds of rigor that much theoretical discourse can produce. The trick lies in finding ways to bring a broader audience into our arguments, and finding ways to make those arguments that demonstrate to that audience why they should care about them, and about the future of our fields.

[P.S.: Just as I finish this, I see that my friend and colleague Kevin Dettmar has posted about the same article. Great minds, etc.]


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