Best and Marcus 2009

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Best and Marcus, “Surface Reading: An Introduction”

Shared basis for interdisciplinary exchanges was “acceptance of psychoanalysis and Marxism as metalanguages” — leading to shared “sympotmatic reading”

“Those of us who cut our intellectual teeth on deconstruction, ideology critique, and the hermeneutics of suspicion have often found those demystifying protocols superfluous in an era when images of torture at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere were immediately circulated on the internet; the real-time coverage of Hurricane Katrina showed in ways that required little explication the state’s abandonment of its African American citizens; and many people instantly recognized as lies political statements such as “mission accomplished.””

“Where it had become common for literary scholars to equate their work with political activism, the disasters and triumphs of the last decade have shown that literary criticism alone is not sufficient to effect change. This in turn raises the question of why literary criticism matters if it is not political activism by another name”

Symptomatic reading conflates pairs of oppositions: present/absent, manifest/latent, surface/depth

Eco: symptomatic reading connected to hermetic theory of interpretation

Althusser: using symptomatic reading drawn from Marx

Jameson: interpretation as unmasking; “meaning is the allegorical difference between surface and depth; and the critic restores to the surface the history that the text represses”

“Following the lead of our contributors, we take surface to mean what is evident, perceptible, apprehensible in texts; what is neither hidden nor hiding; what, in the geometrical sense, has length and breadth but no thickness, and therefore covers no depth. A surface is what insists on being looked at rather than what we must train ourselves to see through.”



Embracing surface as AFFECTIVE AND ETHICAL STANCE — “deferring to them [texts] instead of mastering or using them as objects”

Attention to surface as practice of critical description

Surface as the location of patterns that exist within and across texts

Surface as literal meaning

“many of our most powerful critical models see criticism as a practice of freedom by locating autonomy, self-reflexiveness, detachment, and liberatory potential either in the artwork itself or in the valiant labor of the critic. In the former case, a measure of heroism is attributed to the artwork due to its autonomy from ideology; the latter makes the critic a hero who performs interpretive feats of demystification. The surface readers in this volume place noticeably less faith than many other critics in the heroic qualities of art, and they understand their critical activity as something other than wresting truths from the hidden depths of resisting texts.”

New Formalism, Marjorie Levinson: “Immersion in texts frees us from the apathy and instrumentality of capitalism by allowing us to bathe in the artwork’s disinterested purposelessness.”

Jameson: critic as God, transcending blinkered view o humankind

Second half of 20th century, literary criticism marked as a utopian project

“a true openness to all the potentials made available by texts is also prerequisite to an attentiveness that does not reduce them to instrumental means to an end and is the best way to say anything accurate and true about them.”