Thursday, May 21, 2015

Job Talk: Close Reading in the Anthropocene

Monday just past I gave a job talk at the University of Melbourne on close reading and the Anthropocene. The talk is fairly specific to the occasion: I was asked to talk about my research in poetry and modernism, and how that would inform my teaching in these two areas. Unfortunately for me, I didn't get the job. But I thought the talk might be of interest to some readers in any case. I'd say feel free to rip this off if you think you can use any of it for your own purposes (your own job talk perhaps), but given that it didn't work for me I'm not sure that I should really advise doing that. If you have any thoughts or comments in response, I'd be keen to hear them. The text of the talk follows:


The task I’ve been given suggests a clear sequence of topics, of first describing my current research in modernism and poetry, and then of showing how my teaching draws on that research. But the route I want to take is a little different, because I conceive of the relationship between teaching and research as dialectical, a two-way street. That is to say, my teaching informs my research, as well as the other way around. In my job talk here two and a half years ago, I supported this view through an historical account of the origins of the research university in Germany around 1800, when new organizational forms were devised to institutionalize this dialectical relationship between research and teaching. Today, I want to advance that argument forward in time to the years immediately following World War One, when the study of English literature was first established within universities as a discipline. What allowed English to mount institutionally recognizable claims for the autonomy, assessability and so reproducibility of the specific modes of knowledge it created was a series of pedagogical, discursive, and methodological innovations. Primary amongst these was close reading, which transformed literary criticism from a past-time of cultured gentlemen into an academic discipline undertaken by trained professionals (Gallop). English, I want to argue, was a modernist formation based on practices of close reading—practices that have since remained, despite a long history of contestation, as the indispensable foundation for its institutional legitimacy.

There are three parts to my talk. I begin by describing how I teach close reading of poetry, linking the techniques I use back to this inaugural modernist moment. I then look at some recent challenges to the continuing primacy of close reading in the discipline. Here, I want to offer a defense of close reading in the Anthropocene, the Anthropocene being the rubric within which I now conceive of all of my research. Then finally, I want to return to modernism, to suggest that modernism’s actuality resides most powerfully today in its sense that literature exists at once inside and outside of history. Close reading operationalizes this historical paradox: it puts it to work. This is how I justify my commitment to close reading in both research and teaching amidst the new challenges it faces in our present disciplinary conjuncture.

Teaching poetry makes you think hard about poetry: it teaches you about poetry. One of the things I’ve learned teaching poetry here is that I love doing it. I sneak extra poetry onto the syllabus in my subjects, and I look forward most eagerly to the weeks on poetry, because it is in these that my students seem most energized, and where I most often see new understanding light up in their faces. I get regular complaints from students, specific to the weeks on poetry, that the tutorials are not long enough. And yet all we do in these tutorials, generally, is read a single poem: all we do is close reading, reading in slow motion, working through my eight-step program for teaching close poetic analysis.

I won’t detail all the steps now, but it is worth noting that some of them are very concrete: step two: read the poem aloud—and others more conceptual: step five: look for moments of poetic self-reference and self-description. This step, by the way, is one place where my teaching and research currently converge very directly. A particular focus of my research at present is on descriptions of natural landscapes that double as poetic self-descriptions. Take the famous opening lines of T.S. Eliot’s “Prufrock”:

Let us go then, you and I,

When the evening is spread out against the sky

Like a patient etherized upon a table.

As well as a description of an evening sky, this etherized patient is of course also a metaphoric description of the poem itself, prone, spread out against the page. The anaesthetic medical atmosphere of ether links the natural atmosphere of evening sky to the aesthetic atmosphere generated by the poem. Poetry, Eliot writes in his 1919 essay “Tradition and the individual talent,” takes contradictory experiences that lie at the threshold of communicability and, in his words, “unites them in an atmosphere.” Step 5: look for poetic self-reference.

Along with these eight steps, I also teach two guiding interpretative principles: first, assume the poem knows something that you don’t, an idea akin to Donald Davidson’s philosophical principle of charity, and one aimed at preventing any prematurely demystifying reading of the text; and second, poetic forms have social meanings. This second principle is in tension with the first, in that it reconnects purely immanent textual interpretation to historical knowledge. Thinking about how these two principles intersect in individual cases is one practical way I introduce into the classroom the paradoxical claim that literature is both inside and outside history. Together, my eight steps and two principles make up my formula for teaching close reading; and, like any methodological formula, this one is only valuable because, while it starts simply, it can later be complicated; complicated at the level of each step, and also of the sequence as a whole; complicated, indeed, infinitely. Step 8: repeat the steps in a different order.

I first lecture on my eight steps and two principles—using a lecture style I now know to call, having studied it in my Grad. Cert of University Teaching, “the flipped classroom.” And then in tutorials we simply select a poem—the students pick—and work through the steps together. All we do over the hour, in other words, is read the text collectively. It is very simple, and yet, for me, this has been without question the best teaching I have done over the last two years. These are the classes that have most visibly lifted the quality of my students’ assessable work: you can see it in their essays. These are the classes that have delivered moments of greatest pedagogical intensity, and that have most effectively awakened my students to the interpretative challenges and potentials of literary works of art.

In a sense, the steps are unimportant in themselves, a philosopical ladder to be discarded once you’ve climbed it. They are ultimately only a means for the cultivation of a specific quality of attention, for training a set of cognitive skills involved in noticing small textual details, but also, and crucially, in noticing the full significance of what has been noticed; a way to make observation systematic, fine-grained and reflective. Close reading begins with the realisation that we haven’t properly understood what we’ve read, and that the text is not what we thought it was. This orients close reading to the discovery of something new in the text; it helps us to register something that we did not previously know was there. And that is how reading generates new knowledge, how reading becomes learning: through us coming to know something we did not know before, about something we thought we knew very well. Close reading is then a practice that strongly resembles specifically modernist poetic techniques of defamiliarisation and estrangement. Like modernist literature, its strategy for arriving at the new involves fracturing pre-existing conventions and expectations. And there is in fact a very intimate historical relationship between modernist literature and the practice of close reading. For it is no coincidence that high literary modernism and the disciplinary foundation of English took place at the same time. The methods I use to teach close reading, for instance, draw directly on those of practical criticism, developed by I.A. Richards at Cambridge through the 1920s. And Richards was not only heavily influenced by the criticism and poetics of writers like T.S. Eliot: Eliot also happened to be a student, a member of the class, that Richards used in 1927 as his experimental laboratory for developing his theory and pedagogy of close reading. The literary innovations of Eliot and others—Laura Riding, Virginia Woolf—constituted the indispensable matrix for generating the methods of analysis, argumentation and pedagogy that then licensed English’s entry as a discipline into the modern university.

My turn to close reading in teaching, and my revisionist return to Richards and to this foundational modernist moment for English as a discipline, have been inspired partly by what I have seen my students to lack. Put very simply: they know how to write essays, but they do not know how to read poems. But my interest in the history of close reading has also been driven by methodological conclusions I have reached in writing my book on the poetics of atmospheric history, and in my current project on aesthetics in the Anthropocene. What I try to cultivate in my students by teaching close reading are qualities of conceptual flexibility and interpretative creativity in acts of criticism; I try to give them, in other words, a sense of the stakes involved in reading understood as the actualization of the poem in the present; a sense, that is, of taking responsibility for the fact that the poem only exists as it is read; that its interpretation in the present is a necessary and ineliminable component of its ontological construction, for an unread poem is not a poem. Close reading then makes unavoidable a confrontation with the complex temporality of poetry. Close reading pushes you up against the paradoxical temporality of the literary artwork, of its dual location on the one hand in its past moment of inscription, and on the other in its shifting, indeed vanishing, moments of reception in the present. For me, literary studies speaks most urgently to our present, which I understand as the Anthropocene, through staging, in acts of close reading, this confrontation with the temporal paradox of the literary artwork.

I will cover the Anthropocene quickly, given that it is discussed in my reading sample. In April, I was at a panel on the Anthropocene at the American Comparative Literature Association in which an editor of SubStance, a prestigious journal in literary studies and critical theory, asked the question: what is the point of close reading in the Anthropocene? In my paper the following day, I tried to give an answer, which will be published in a collection titled “Reading the Anthropocene: Literary History in Geological Times.” That title suggests some of the force to this question about close reading in the Anthropocene, for the Anthropocene concept erases any stable boundary between human and natural history. It collapses literary history into geological time. And this potentially throws into disarray our conventional understandings of “what it means to read the past: to define an archive, to posit causality, to name a period or epoch, to narrate stories about continuity and change” (Oak & Menely). The Anthropocene disrupts our conventional periodisations of literary history, periods like modernism, for instance, because it fundamentally destabilizes the historical narratives that have traditionally underwritten them. It requires “literary studies to test its methods anew, by asking whether the symbolic domain can index a historicity that exceeds social relations and encompasses planetary flows of energy and matter” (Oak & Menely). And this is where I see close reading, and literary studies more generally, to stage a critical intervention in this emerging new transdisciplinary field of knowledge. Because if one problem the Anthropocene poses to our current disciplinary formation is that involved in thinking together two irreconcilable orders of time, of holding human and non-human temporalities together in the same thought, then close reading provides a possible model for undertaking this apparently impossible cognitive task.

In a talk he gave here in February this year, the art theorist Hal Foster described artworks as time machines. Artworks, he suggested, warp temporal sequence; they collapse distant historical moments into one another, translocating the present into otherwise unrecoverable pasts. This is actually a very modernist idea—as might be expected, perhaps, from an editor of the journal October—and one that modernism theorized most comprehensively in terms of literary artworks. In “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” for instance Eliot defines tradition as what he calls “historical sense,” the sense of history. But this is not only a sense of history as the otherness of the past. To the contrary, Eliot writes:

The historical sense involves a perception not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of literature…has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. This historical sense…is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together.

Literature, in other words, exists in human time, but it also exists in a different time from that of human beings. Even though literature is a product, a manifestation or expression of human societies, it is also structured according to a very different set of principles and operates with other chronologies from those that govern the history of human societies. This is the paradox of literary history—a paradox already suggested in the different senses of time implicit in each of the terms that phrase conjoins, “literary” and “history”—and it is a paradox that can be set in motion and made conceptually generative through acts of close reading. And as a result, close reading figures potential ways to apprehend the complex temporality of history in the Anthropocene, of the simultaneous coexistence of non-synchronous orders of time.

Close reading in the Anthropocene is then where I locate the actuality of modernism today. We tend to think that time’s arrow runs in only one direction: that the flow of time is irreversible; that effects always follow causes, and never the other way around. One mind-bending implication of Eliot’s sense of history is that, when it comes to literature, these conventional views are in fact false, and that in literature causality is also retrospective: that the past can be altered by the present. New works of art—new ways of reading—change the literature of the past at the level of their ontological construction. The literature of the past is never stable, because it is always mutating, shifting, under the pressure of contemporary work and contemporary reception. In Eliot’s words: “What happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it… [They] are modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them.”

One methodological implication of this idea that new literature changes the literature of the past is that we should read the poetry of past historical periods in the light shed on it by the most contemporary poems of our time. And that is because it is these works which are transfiguring those past artworks most powerfully, most pervasively. A poem—or indeed the text of Eliot’s own essay—for all the fact that it is now one hundred years old, is never settled, is never fully stable, is never, in a sense, finished, which is why it can still be illuminated in our present in ways that are no less true for all the inevitable failure of the essay’s author, and its now long-dead first readers, to have anticipated them. This means that the past is there, before us, open to challenge and to radical acts of rewriting, allowing hitherto unsuspected counter-voices and alternative viewpoints to come to the fore. I use this method in teaching, and also in my research, as you will have seen in my writing sample. And the literature of the past is changed not only by new literature, but also, as I argued there, by a much wider set of transformations in the discursive universe within which literature exists: transformations in media, in communicative practices, in social relations, in forms of cognitive apprehension and so on: transformations, for instance, like that entailed by the entry of the Anthropocene concept into the public sphere. This is one way in which the second methodological principle I teach my students plays out, the idea that poetic forms have social meanings, which entails that changes in social meaning change the meaning of past poetic forms.

I have told this story about the modernist actuality of poetry via Richards and Eliot and close reading, but it is a story that could also be told through other intersections of literary modernism and literary studies: of surrealism and its influence on the critical methods of Walter Benjamin, for instance; or through the protocols we have of Peter Szondi’s teaching of the poems of Paul Celan; or indeed, in terms of Marx’s discussion in the Grundrisse of reading Homer in modernity, the best index for him of what he calls the uneven development of history, or what we might call, following a later modernist philosopher, the simultaneity of the non-simultaneous. But my main point would be much the same, even developed via these alternative and more insistently materialist genealogies. This is my point: we can address the problems and challenges that ecological knowledge now poses to our structures of historical knowledge by returning to modernism and its account of the paradoxical temporality of the literary artwork. This is how I understand my teaching and research to fit together dialectically in terms of poetry and modernism. It is how I defend the legitimacy of my research and teaching as intellectual and material practices in the Anthropocene.