Readers and Scholars

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 That having been said, scholars also have some talents that we might bring to social reading projects, not least helping general-interest readers discover the peculiar pleasures of the critical. If scholars could find ways to involve the public not just in what we read or how we read but also why we read the ways we read, we might be able to encourage greater understanding of and interest in the kinds of learning that goes on in our fields. Too many us have had the experience of having someone—a student, a family member, a friend—tell us, sometimes pityingly and nearly always with frustration, that we’re “reading too much into” something, or that we’re taking all the joy out of some cultural experience. Academic pleasures are no doubt different, for confirmation of which one might look to Roland Barthes, whose notions of the pleasure of the text seem to bear more rupture, unsettlement, loss, struggle, and even combat than they do the kinds of absorption that are conventionally associated with enjoyment: “what I enjoy in a narrative,” Barthes confides, “is not directly its content or even its structure, but rather the abrasions I impose upon the fine surface” (11-12). The relationship of scholar to text may bear traces of the sadistic, but in these abrasions—or perhaps inscriptions—there is the potential for great pleasure.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 As in Barthes’s case, some of that pleasure derives from mastery, from control, from transforming the text that is being read into the reader’s own response. And sometimes the sense of mastery derives from uncovering that which the text does not want uncovered, the dirty little secrets that lurk beneath its surface. This highly rewarding mode of academic reading is associated with what Paul Ricoeur famously called the “hermeneutics of suspicion,” a mode of interpretation that seeks out the buried truths of representation. Scholars including Sedgwick and Felski have explored the ways that this mode can result in a reading experience that blurs pleasure and pain. For Sedgwick, suspicion easily devolves into paranoia, a mode that bears a deep “aversion to surprise” and that finally “cements the intimacy between paranoia and knowledge per se” (130). The problem is of course that what the paranoid knows is mostly the stuff of paranoia itself: the reader caught up in paranoid knowledge is trapped by its “practice of disavowing its affective motive and force and masquerading as the very stuff of truth” (138). Felski, rather than focusing on the pain of paranoia, instead points to the role of guilt in driving scholars’ suspicious reading practices: “Only by acting like detectives—interrogating and cross-examining the texts of culture—can we avoid being mistaken for criminals (those accused of political quietism, active complicity, or worse” (118). Critique thus becomes a means by which scholars declare their innocence, separating themselves from the guilty culture by which they are surrounded.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Paranoia and guilt are of course extremes; most scholarly reading practices do not so closely approach the pathological. But if those extremes tell us something about the ways that scholars read, they might also lead us to ask whether they are implicated in scholars’ alienation from the broader reading public. If our ways of reading seem joyless to general readers, might there be ways for us to demonstrate where their pleasures lie? Felski notes that we do not, by and large, feel joyless about our work, but we are routinely called upon to perform a particular kind of critical detachment in the service of seriousness. This seriousness is often held to be opposed to enthusiasm; too much enthusiasm—not just among critics, but among novelists as well, as Emma Straub discovered when she became the leading example in Jacob Silverman’s “Against Enthusiasm”—and one runs the risk of being thought overly nice, shallow, and part of a “mutual admiration society” having “a chilling effect on literary culture” (Silverman). Straub herself went on to celebrate her enthusiasm in part by noting that she is not a critic, but Felski suggests that opposing “critical detachment and amateur enthusiasm” in the ways that both Silverman and Straub inadvertently do “fails to do justice to the mixed motives and complicated passions that drive academic argument” (152). Our relationships with the texts we study are often fraught, but perhaps in surfacing the care that we bring to our critical work, we might better demonstrate why that work inspires us, and we might encourage others to join us in the project.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 But again, I want to emphasize that I do not think that critique per se is necessarily the problem that Felski projects, or that the turn to an embrace of surfaces is necessarily the solution that Best and Marcus suggest. Rather, the problem is the internalized competitive structures of contemporary life—structures nowhere more in evidence than within the university—that lead us to adopt the critical, and even the pugilistic, as the primary mode in which we engage with our work, demonstrating our dominance over both the materials that we study and the ways that those who’ve gone before us have studied them. The solution, if we are to find one, is likely to lie in an ethical, caring embrace of our more positive enthusiasms for the materials we study. Such enthusiasm feels dangerous, however; we run the risk of being taken for the weak, superficial, or even ideologically complicit reader Jameson decried. Enthusiasm feels unprofessional, surfacing a dangerous association with the amateur; Lynch, as discussed earlier, has explored at length the risks involved in requiring scholars to perform their love of literature, as that enthusiasm threatens to deprofessionalize the field and devalue the labor that goes into it. And yet, as Catherine Stimpson has argued, our concern with professionalization has become disordered; while we “humanists tell truth to power and tell truths about power, we disregard the balancing activity of serving as witnesses for the humanities and their affirmations. We are embarrassed by or frightened of or skeptical about or ironic about the humanities as the place where we—whether we are professional humanists or not—demonstrate our loves—our loves of authors, of texts, of the imagination in action, of wisdom.” The result is all too clear: “if we do not love our work, why should anyone else care?” (Stimpson).

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 3 What readers love about reading, and the impact that it can have on their lives, is relatively clear: reading of a wide range of types has the power to open us to other perspectives, to other experiences, to other lives, to create a connection between our private selves and the public sphere. Reading imaginative literature can help encourage the development, however preliminary, of the kind of intersubjective understanding necessary to the creation and sustenance of difficult structures of community. Contemporary literary criticism, like the forms of reading that take place in many fields across university campuses, has much to offer to that process—not least, deepening identification and sympathy into more complex, more ethically engaged forms of empathy and generosity—but only if that criticism can engage the same communities of readers. For scholars to begin to forge connections with those readers, we must be willing to demonstrate our love for our work, to open our reading processes to others, to invite them into open exchange with us, to show them how and why we approach our fields. Creating an environment in which the public might begin to care about our work demands that we do at least some of that work in public—the subject of the next chapter.

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