"We learned to invest these sites with fascination and love"
In the process of thinking through the so-called post-critical turn in literary studies, I've found myself drawn back to my own intellectual formation during the culture wars of the late 1990s -- I graduated from Vassar College with an English degree in 1999, when the NYRB blazed with headlines like "THE DEATH OF LITERATURE" and the dissolution of the Duke English Department under Stanley Fish was big news; I finished graduate school (at Duke, bizarrely) in 2009, and stuck around for another year -- long enough to note that it was the beginning of a new and very different era in institutionalized literary study. The new austerity, or the long contraction, or whatever. I'm working on a post for the Stanford Arcade on some of these thoughts, but I've recently been reading Mark Edmundson's collection from this period (1993, to be exact about it), Wild Orchids and Trotsky: Messages from American Universities. The volume includes interviews or essays from many of the major players in the culture wars: Frank Lentricchia, Harold Bloom, Eve Sedgwick, and others. In the context of the more recent debates over the protocols and ethics of literary reading, these essays make for fascinating reading -- particularly fascinating for appearing all together, as a kind of core sample of literary-political thinking, c. 1993. I may write about more of the essays -- Bloom's amazingly strange interview, by turns brilliant and deranged, is particularly fascinating. But for now I'll make a plug for the contribution by his student -- his student!-- Eve Sedgwick. Sedgwick's stunning contribution, "Queer and Now," should be required reading for anyone wanting to take a historical perspective on debates about so-called "surface reading." It speaks of demands, needs, passions, discernment, and love. She refers to "ardent reading." A few highlights:
"I think that for many of us in childhood the ability to attach intently to a few cultural objects -- objects of high or popular culture or both, objects whose meaning seemed mysterious, excessive, or oblique in relation to the codes most readily available to us -- became a prime resource for survival. We needed for there to be sites where meanings didn't line up tidily with one another, and we learned to invest these sites with fascination and love." (242)
"For me, this strong formalist investment didn't imply (as formalism is generally taken to imply) an evacuation of interest from the passional, the imagistic, the ethical dimensions of the texts, but quite the contrary: The need I brought to books and poems was hardly to be circumscribed, and I felt I knew I would have to struggle to wrest from them sustaining news of the world, ideas, myself, and (in various senses) my kind. [...] At any rate, becoming a perverse reader was never a matter of my condescension to texts, rather of the surplus charge of my trust in them to remain powerful, refractory, and exemplary. And this doesn't seem an unusual way for ardent reading to function in relation to queer experience" (242).