Discipline and Parse: The Politics of Close Reading

By Bruce RobbinsMay 14, 2017

Discipline and Parse: The Politics of Close Reading

Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History by Joseph North

WHEN I WAS A FRESHMAN in college in 1967, I took a full-year course in what turned out to be called “close reading.” I had no idea what close reading was, and no one explained. Sitting in the classroom was an unnerving experience. We had random poems or little chunks of prose thrown down in front of us. We were given the authors’ names, but nothing about who they were or when or why the texts had been written. The point of this, it seemed, was to screen out everything except the words on the page. Our task was not to decipher what was going on, narratively, in the passages (that was supposed to be easy) but to figure out what was really going on. What was the tone of voice, exactly? Didn’t it change … there? Was the speaker playing hard to get, threatening, flirting, just being an asshole? How was the beloved supposed to respond? Did the ending get the would-be couple to a new place, a new emotional balance of power? If so, how were we supposed to feel about it?

I felt lost, but one practical lesson emerged right away. Appearances to the contrary, the words on the page were not the only thing that counted. The kids who had already had sex, a group which had its distinguishing marks and to which I was grimly aware I did not belong, were at a definite advantage in answering the sorts of questions we were being asked. Mulling over the C+ I received on my first paper, I realized that close reading had something to do with life, and that I needed more practice in both areas. My desire to have sex fused imperceptibly with my desire to do better on the next paper, which may have been even stronger. I did have sex. My papers got better. I became a close reader.

The next year, in a different course, a TA informed me that close reading was considered a questionable method, perhaps even an outdated one, because it ignored historical context. I was taking history courses at the same time. The idea that I was guilty of disrespect for history had not occurred to me. And maybe, after all, I wasn’t.


Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History, Joseph North’s bold, lively, engagingly polemical account of academic literary criticism in the Anglo-American world, centers on the late 1960s, which is to say the period when I took those courses. At the time, going to anti–Vietnam War demonstrations didn’t seem to have anything to do with reading Wordsworth poems. North thinks it did.

The broad strokes of his narrative are familiar enough, at least to literature professors. As everyone knows, the radicals of 1968, when they turned their attention to the university, insisted that academic attention be paid to race, gender, sexuality, colonialism, and other measures of historically inflicted injury. In literary criticism, these were contexts that had been missing from the everyday practice of interpretation. Moving into the ’70s and ’80s, it became obvious to much or most of the discipline that to read a work of past literature without asking what sort of society the work emerged from was as reprehensible, in its way, as ignoring those who were currently suffering injustice all around you. This is how close reading, little by little, went out of fashion — a momentous shift that, like so much else that later came to be associated with the ’60s, I was somehow living through but not really registering.

Most of the academics who advocated for historicism thought of themselves as radicalizing an apolitical or even crypto-conservative discipline. In North’s view, though, this gets the story backward. The politicization of the discipline that seemed to follow the eclipse of close reading was actually its depoliticization. In the period that began in the late 1970s “and continues through to the present,” North writes, “the project of ‘criticism’ was rejected as necessarily elitist, dehistoricizing, depoliticizing, and so forth; the idea of the ‘aesthetic’ was rejected as necessarily Kantian, idealist, and universalizing.” Yet

it was in fact quite wrong to reject the project of criticism as if its motivating concept, the aesthetic, could only ever be thought through in idealist terms. What was being elided here was the fact that modern disciplinary criticism had been founded on an aesthetics of just the opposite kind. In our own period, this historical amnesia has allowed a programmatic retreat from the critical project of intervening in the culture, back toward the project of analyzing the culture, without any mandate for intervention.

The newer style of interpretation recognized context, oppression, and injustice, yes, but it also masked a movement away from “criticism” and toward what North calls “scholarship.” Criticism, as he sees it, aspires to intervene in social life. Scholarship, as he sees it, is knowledge-production that has no such aspiration. Scholarship gets off on interpreting the world but can’t be bothered to do anything non-scholarly to change it. Since close reading, as North sees it, was a way of changing the world, if only reader by reader, what looked like a lurch to the left was actually a subtle move to the right.

For North, the production of analytic knowledge about the past, whatever its political motives, amounts to complacent non-interference. It’s a way of comfortably inhabiting a present that we ought to see, ethically speaking, as unfit for human habitation, hence requiring us to get up from our desks to do something about. North does not ask who was or wasn’t on the picket line in the late 1960s. He is characteristically generous with the critics and scholars he profiles, always ready to find intellectual and political virtues in them. But what is going to be talked about in his book is the scandal of his classification itself: the fact that certain paragons of the academic left — Raymond Williams, Fredric Jameson, and Terry Eagleton among them — are here relegated to the category of scholars rather than critics. Even more heretically, North questions whether these writers, all crucial figures in the historicist canon, belong on the left at all. “Though the turn to the historicist/contextualist paradigm has generally been understood as a local victory for the left over the elitisms of mid-century criticism, this has been largely an error,” North writes. “In fact, it is better to say that the opposite is true: in its most salient aspects, the turn to the current paradigm in the late 1970s and early 1980s was symptomatic of the wider retreat of the left in the neoliberal period and was thus a small part of the more general victory of the right.”


North’s book, then, is a defense of “criticism” and an attack on “scholarship,” but reading him it’s considerably easier to see what criticism is not than what it is. It is not, as one might have expected it would be, simply “the aesthetic.” North tells the story of how the rising historical/contextual school rejected the beautiful in the Kantian or idealist sense: disinterested, detached from messy human purposes and particularities, hence purportedly universal. But this is not the version of the aesthetic that North defends. He can see why idealism’s aesthetics came to look like a willful blindness to the experiences and circumstances of particular, often seriously disadvantaged social groups. He does not pretend that everyone should feel the same things, in the face of literature, as the so-called “normal” or universal reader does. Criticism-as-close-reading, for North, must be described on the contrary as materialist.

I would like to be able to say that the word “materialist” is a magical solution to North’s problems, or ours. But I can’t. It’s not self-evident, for example, where he stands, finally, on the universality of aesthetic experience. If his version of close reading is materialist, does that make it less universalistic, which is to say less coercive from the point of view of disadvantaged groups who might want to hold onto their right to a particular experience and sensibility? If so, how? Deprived of its claim to generalizability, on the other hand, close reading might sound like a raucous Kaffeeklatsch of irreconcilable subjectivities or like one hand clapping. How do you make a discipline out of that? The same question is raised by, say, Foucault’s model of self-cultivating selves, which purports to transmute life into art without any generalizable norms. These are literary variants of problems the left has been struggling with for some time. Materialism, the banner North marches under, cannot resolve them.

The one clear thing materialism means to North is that literature is wonderful not because it is miraculously exempt from self-interested functionality but, on the contrary, because it is useful. As soon as putting a text into its historical context became a widely accepted test of disciplinary rigor, calls began to arise for a return to the aesthetic. Most often they were modeled on Kant. But why, North asks, must we be morally horrified, as Kant was, by any taint of the purposeful or self-interested or utilitarian? Why does the aesthetic need to be anti-instrumental in order to be valuable? Why not see it, on the contrary, as capable of helping us sort out our human values and purposes precisely because it is so decisively and inextricably entangled in those values and purposes?

This view has had any number of champions; think of Stendhal on beauty as a promise of happiness, or Kenneth Burke on literature as equipment for living. But in North’s take on the history of criticism, it is most usefully represented by I. A. Richards — who, along with William Empson and F. R. Leavis, exemplifies the interventionist, materialist criticism North endorses. Richards, it turns out, was the man behind my freshman experience of close reading. Four decades earlier, he had experimented on students of literature at Cambridge. He took the dates and authors’ names off the texts he handed out so as to see how far they could get, in their commentaries on the poems, without leaning on those crutches. The answer was, not far. Practical Criticism, the book where Richards described the hilarious results of that famous experiment, is the key source text for the practice of close reading. It is also, for North, the single most significant point of origin for the modern discipline of literary criticism.

So how did close readers like Richards and his disciples Empson and Leavis get pushed out of the picture? In the United Kingdom, Leavis, who was more of an institution builder, became the most famous and controversial figure. As North tells the story — and it’s a surprisingly gripping one — the sins of which Leavis was accused, and which North concedes, allowed those who came after to dismiss Richards’s more positive heritage. At his best, Leavis insisted on Richards’s position that the close critical study of literature was essential to democracy; it was about “what is shareable in […] experience” and “what is therefore at least potentially common to all.” Unfortunately, close reading came to be associated instead with Leavis’s heavy-handed ranking of great, greater, greatest, and not-so-great authors and his elitist conviction that modernity was a techno-commercial wasteland where only he and his disciples kept the flame of true greatness alive.

In the United States, meanwhile, close reading became associated with another set of nostalgics, the Southern Agrarians — again, critics taking their stand against industrial modernity, which they blamed for bringing Old Dixie down. What was presented to me as the “New Criticism” had been shaped by their sociopolitical values: they projected an idealized organic society from the pre–Civil War South onto the Text, which thus had to be treated as sacred, omniscient, infinitely rich in intertwined meanings. Literature for them was religion by another name, a place for a taken-for-granted reverence and fervor that were lacking elsewhere in society. The disguised religiosity was certainly one reason why close reading seemed so attractive to me at the time.

In North’s view, however, my classroom experience could have been just as powerful without the hidden theological baggage. “Richards and Empson were both left-liberals with occasional radical leanings, rather than conservatives; both were internationalists rather than localists in the manner of Leavis or, differently, the New Critics; and both were secular or atheist rather than religious,” he writes. In short, they had none of that romantic/reactionary nostalgia that has since proved so tempting to the discipline. They knew how much of the past was not organic unity but blatant injustice that had not yet become conscious of itself. Practical Criticism did not offer literature as a sort of surrogate for the past, a resplendent refuge from the present. It simply helped people to figure out what they were doing and feeling right now, to put some order in their messy lives and messy commitments. It proposed that criticism become practical. As North puts it,

[F]ar from trying, in proto-New Critical fashion, to strip works of their contexts in order to encourage a close attention to literary language “for its own sake,” Richards is in fact trying to find the most rigorous and precise way he can to put works of literature into a productive relation with their contexts of reception.

Context of reception means you, the reader, in your here and now. Close reading is historical — but historical in the sense that it intervenes in the lives of its readers, situated, as they always are, in time.

North’s materialist understanding of close reading is not totally unprecedented. The idea of an ongoing conversation between literature’s context of reception (the present) and its context of production (the past) overlaps for example with Hans-Georg Gadamer’s hermeneutic circle, which has always had its fans in the discipline. North is not especially interested either in intellectual precedents or in theorizing the regularly observed miracle by which literature reaches out across the periods, grabbing you where you sit and turning you upside down. He wants people to get back in the habit of acknowledging that this happens, but he doesn’t reflect on what it says about history that it happens — that history is not all about change, but also about things that change much more slowly and even, sometimes, change hardly at all. In other words, you are not refusing to be historical if you agree that literature is, among all the other things it is, transhistorical.


Justifying a present-day mission by going back to past greatness is a disciplinary habit that North himself has not quite broken, and he could have written an equally convincing version of this book without claiming Richards as the discipline’s Neglected Founder. Witness the Leavisian tone North strikes when he speaks of “a longer history of resistance to the economic, political, and cultural systems that prevent us from cultivating deeper modes of life.” I’m not sure he really wants to accept the burden of explaining what “deeper modes of life” are or why the ones we’ve got are supposedly shallower. As a polemicist rather than a historian, North is saying merely that he is fed up with being told “what the text has to teach us about histories and cultures” and wants us to focus instead on what it has to teach us about ourselves. Fair enough, though the project of knowing ourselves could hardly avoid leading us back through a certain amount of history.

For better or worse, the project of knowing ourselves, individually and collectively, is what North mostly means by politics. He does not spend much time on politics in a more conventional sense. This is a bit strange in a book that styles itself a political history, even a concise one, but perhaps it is better so. However you feel about activism, there is no imaginable dispensation under which literature departments would train students in leafleting or organizing demonstrations. Criticism in the time of I. A. Richards was not activist in the strikes-and-barricades sense, and a rousing up-and-at-’em is not what North finds in the two contemporary critics who, in his view, have come closest to breaking with the historical/contextual paradigm, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and D. A. Miller.

Sedgwick’s “reparative” reading is both utilitarian and, from North’s viewpoint, historical or contextual in the proper sense. You can only set about repairing that which is broken, and that which is broken at any given moment is historically determined. Sedgwick is also credited with political timing so accurate as to be almost undisciplinary. She was one of the few to realize how crazy it was to come out against liberalism and the social welfare state, as the acolytes of Foucault did (including Miller) in the period of Reagan, when the institutions by which liberalism was supposed to be exercising its sinister pastoral care for its subjects were being dismantled. If Power didn’t need them, then maybe we didn’t have to worry about them after all.

Miller, who gets roughly as many pages as Richards himself, comes across in North’s virtuoso reading as a deeply personal reader of Jane Austen. He talks, that is, about what reading Austen has meant in his own life. But in doing so, he is also trying and failing, as North sees it, to do what the discipline of literary criticism demands of him: to speak impersonally, that is, about what Austen means in general. Here it looks like North wants criticism to be more personal. But could a discipline require minimum displays of personality? North admires the personal in Miller, but would he like self-expression so much if everybody had to do it, if self-display or uncensored gut-spilling of one sort or another were the core competences the discipline claimed to teach? I think the real moral for him is that Miller’s failure is actually disciplinary success. In other words, the best criticism is the kind that struggles, as Miller’s does, to satisfy the conflicting but non-negotiable imperatives of being both personal and impersonal at the same time, writing about literature while writing about oneself and also writing for others. It’s a kind of democratic allegory.

When I ask myself why I do what I do for a living, I tend to fall back on the kind of Kantian aesthetics that North sees as hopelessly old-fashioned: the pointing out of something beautiful as an appeal for the agreement of others, yet an appeal that asks them to look at it in a disinterested way. According to this theory, what happens in a classroom, as students and instructor give a text their unusually close and more or less undivided attention, is an experiment in political community-building, a testing out of the terms on which we might or might not be able to agree with each other about how life is and how we ought to feel about it. The detour through the disinterested is, finally, socially useful. I’m not sure this belief marks any progress whatsoever beyond what I learned in those formative months when I was first exposed to close reading. It’s not a revolutionary creed. Most ways of earning a paycheck aren’t. But when it works, it’s a thing of beauty.


Bruce Robbins is Old Dominion Foundation Professor of the Humanities at Columbia University.

LARB Contributor

Bruce Robbins is Old Dominion Foundation Professor of the Humanities in the department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. His books include Perpetual War: Cosmopolitanism from the Viewpoint of Violence (2012), Upward Mobility and the Common Good (2007), Feeling Global: Internationalism in Distress (1999), and The Servant's Hand: English Fiction from Below (1986). His essays have appeared in n+1, The Nation, Public Books, and the London Review of Books. He is also the director of a documentary, Some of My Best Friends Are Zionists, available at bestfriendsfilm.com.


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