English 554 - Close Reading and its Discontents

Winter Quarter

English 554A - Winter 2014
Close Reading and Its Discontents
MW, 9:30-11:20, SLN 13913
Gillian Harkins

Indeed, it is the oddest thing about language, whose history is full of odd things (and one of the oddest facts about human development) that so few people have sat down to reflect systematically about meaning.  -- I.A. Richards, Practical Criticism: A Study of Literary Judgment (1930)

I have been asked by the editor to write on the New Critics, but to engage to do such an essay is very much like embarking on the hunting of the Snark. The New Critic, like the Snark, is a very elusive beast. Everybody talks about him: there is now rather general agreement about his bestial character; but few could give an accurate anatomical description of him.  -- Cleanth Brooks, “The New Criticism” The Sewanee Review 87.4 (Fall 1979)

I guess the sad truth is that no one really thinks (if they ever did) that English as a discipline poses a real threat to the status quo. The Culture Wars of the 1980s and 1990s led some of us to believe that the end of the canon, the end of seemingly objective appraisals of “aesthetic complexity” through close readings, the end of the representation of the culture of white males as culture per se, meant that some major battles in the politics of representation had been won. -- Judith Halberstam, “The Death of English” Inside Higher Education (May 9, 2005)

The place to move in the double bind is the classroom. The MLA has a hand there. Help us change the long-standing views of language teaching, culture teaching. Unleash them from their place on the totem pole and from identity, from religion: change their institutional structural position. -- Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Close Reading,” PMLA 121.5 (October 2006)

“How to do a Close Reading”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=adXdTXEzmzE    -- Eberlywritingcenter, “How to do a Close Reading” Youtube.com (uploaded March 7, 2011)

This class introduces graduate students to the history of “close reading” as concept and practice. We will survey twentieth century debates about language and interpretation with a focus on textual analysis and the professionalization of academic literary criticism. We will take the rise of English departments as our central focus, but we will certainly discuss its relation to other language and literature departments, to Area Studies, to Comparative Literature, to Cultural Studies, and to Ethnic and Gender/Women/Sexuality Studies. The goal of this course is to survey changing professional “theories” of textual analysis – including practical criticism, formalism, new criticism, deconstruction, and post-structuralism – while also considering those practices of textual analysis that bear strange or subtle relations to these theories. We will make sure to cover hermeneutic, critical, creative, poetic, narrative, descriptive, and reparative practices.

In other words, this is a class on both theory and method. We will review theories and practices that have been central to professionalizing trends in academic institutions: theory has often been associated with the status and value of “research” in the literary humanities, while practice has often been associated with the status and value of “teaching” literature, specifically in undergraduate pedagogy. We will pay close attention to the changing relationships between theories and practices of textual analysis as we work through the materials. The epigraphs preview our trajectory through professionalization and institutionalization, with the final Youtube clip serving as a reminder that “close reading” remains alive and well in undergraduate pedagogy even as professional critique describes its death and zombie-like shuffle through the undergraduate classroom as a kind of uncanny afterlife.

Course Requirements: one in-class presentation on a work of criticism; a critical notebook practicing academic note-taking for future use; one final paper of 13-15 pages treating at least two critical methods and practicing a “close reading” on a text of your choosing.