against close reading

Close reading is often touted as the offering sacrificed at the alters of both short attention spans and the digital humanities (though for probably different reasons). Take for example this piece in The New Rambler by Jonathan Freedman which is ostensibly a review of Moretti’s Distant Reading but manages to hit many of the commonplaces on the subject of digital literacy, including laments about declining numbers of English majors: “fed on a diet of instant messages and twitter feeds, [students today] seem to be worldlier than students past—than I and my generation were—but to find nuance, complexity, or just plain length of literary texts less to their liking than we did.” But it’s not just students, it’s colleagues as well: the distant and surface readers, for example.

In the end though, Freedman’s argument is less against distant reading than it is for close reading: “distant reading doesn’t just have a guilty, complicitous secret-sharer relation to soi-disant close reading: it depends on it.  Drawing on the techniques of intrinsic analysis of literary texts becomes all the more necessary if we are to keep from drowning in the sea of undifferentiated and undifferentiable data.” And as far as I can tell, the distant and surface readers do not really make arguments against close reading in principle. They may critique particular close reading methods in order to argue for the value of their own methods, but that’s a different matter.

So I’ll take up the task of arguing against close reading, just so there’s actually an argument that defenders of close reading can push up against if they want.

I don’t want to make this a specifically literary argument. Yes, “close reading” is a term that we get from New Criticism, so it has terminological roots in literary studies, but it’s come a long way from then. The symptomatic readings of poststructuralism, cultural studies, and so on are all close reading practices, even though they are quite unlike the intrinsic interpretive methods of New Criticism (relying on the text itself). As Katherine Hayles argues in How We Think,

close reading justifies the discipline’s continued existence in the academy, as well as the monies spent to support literature faculty and departments. More broadly, close reading in this view constitutes the major part of the cultural capital that literary studies relies on to prove its worth to society

To borrow an old cattle industry slogan, close reading is “what’s for dinner” in English Studies. And we have made a meal of it. Whether we’ve made a dog’s dinner of it is another matter. Regardless, in the contemporary moment, and certainly for the 2 decades or so I’ve been in the discipline, close reading has also been a central feature of rhetoric. All one has to do is think of the attention to student writing to see that, but it is also characteristic of the way many rhetoricians go about their own scholarship. So what I say here about close reading applies across English Studies.

Now, while I have just said that close reading is a wide-ranging practice, it is still one that is specific to print texts and culture. And, of course it is not just a reading practice, because if it were, how would we know we did it? It’s also a writing/communicating practice. That is, I’d think of close reading as a set of genres of print textual analysis.

The key question, from my perspective, is how these genres operate in a digital media ecology. I wouldn’t want to say that they don’t operate, because people still produce close readings, and I wouldn’t want to gainsay their claim that they do so. Instead, my point is that close reading can no longer operate as it once did. From the early days of the web, across computers and writing research and beyond, it was already clear that multimedia and hyperlinks shifted rhetorical/reading experience. But it has become much clearer in the era of high speed internet, mobile media, and big data, that text just isn’t what it once was. It doesn’t produce meaning or other rhetorical effects in the same way.

Besides that, reading and writing are so much more obviously and immediately two-way streets. As you read, you are being read. As you write, you are being written. Is that an “always already” condition? Maybe, but it certainly has specific implications for digital media ecologies. What does it mean to read your Facebook status feed closely when what is being offered to you has been produced by algorithmic procedures that take account of your own activities in ways that you are not consciously aware? Even if you’re going to read some pre-Internet text (as we often do), you’re still reading it in a digital media ecology. Again, it’s not that one can’t do close reading. It’s that close reading can’t work the same way. Maybe close reading just comes to me that we study something, that we pay attention to it, rather than indicating any particular method or strategy for studying, but that would seem to miss the point. For me, close reading rests on a particular set of assumptions about how text is produced and how it connects with readers, not only in terms of one particular text and one particular reader, but also the whole constellation of texts and readers: i.e., a print media ecology.

Arguing “against close reading” then is not an argument to say that we should stop paying close attention to texts. If anything, it’s an argument that we should pay closer attention to the ways in which the operation of text is shifting.

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