Monday, December 20, 2010

D.A. Miller's "Too Close Reading"

      And now for something different. In a recent Critical Inquiry essay, superstar Victorianist D.A. Miller sketches a new method of reading called “too close reading.” This hyper-focused reading short-circuits the traditional hermeneutics of New Criticism’s close reading, opting instead to comport itself towards textual elements at such a scale that they can no longer relate organically to higher levels of meaning. Accordingly, TCR involves two things: first, it rejects the close reading project and telos of offering a ‘reading’ or ‘interpretation of ‘the work as a whole’”; second, it seeks to both “bring out” a text’s “shadowy and even shady quality” and to measure “a text’s drive to futility” (“Hitchcock’s Hidden Pictures” 126). TCR performs these two tasks in order “to create— discreetly, for the true initiates—an alternative universe in which the celebrated storytelling, suspense, and entertainment of the manifest style all get derailed” (127).
            With TCR Miller gives us a horizonless method of reading. By focusing on textual aspects that not only fly below the radar of traditional close reading but also on those aspects that fundamentally dissolve a text’s telos or meaning, Miller sketches something not only very close to what I call gestic reading but also something that shares a lot in common with Object Oriented Philosophy. TCG obliterates all relational horizons (character, meaning, plot, theme), an approach inherently object-oriented because it seeks to sever a textual object from all its relations, thereby getting to the point of a text’s shadowy and shady withdrawnness. Thus, TCR marks out a text’s withdrawnness, its “secret style” (121).
Since his first book, The Novel and the Police, “secret” has never meant for Miller inscrutability; rather a secret is always an “open” secret, something hidden but nevertheless ultimately visible or knowable. Thus, in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train Miller locates marks of a secret style in the “hidden” appearances of Hitchcock himself: the director’s face on a book held by Bruno, a copy of Hitchcock’s Suspense Stories resting under Guy’s feet. These appearances may be hidden insofar as they are not readily perceivable, but they are nevertheless absolutely visible.
What is this secret style if not the mark of an object’s withdrawing from intelligibility? If a real object is never fully visible or knowable, then there must remain something marking the threshold across which the real object withdraws. For Miller, this threshold is located in a text’s secret style, which is, above all, composed of all those nondiegetic textual objects pointing to the shadowy and shady withdrawal of a real object.
         The philosophical scope of TCR should be overly apparent. By rejecting New Criticism’s “close reading,” TCR participates in a seemingly widespread trend in contemporary theory and philosophy: overthrowing correlationist tendencies. After all, the genealogy of close reading goes directly back to the Kantian divide between humans and external reality lying at the heart of correlationism. Close reading is, above all, a mastery of this divide: the reading subject becomes such only through an inclusive exclusion of everything it deems as not itself, namely the “text.” Thus the close reading relation is that stretching between a human subject (reader) and a non-human object (book). The reading subject evidences his mastery (aka his “subjecthood”) by manipulating the components of the textual object into a coherent whole. It is no wonder that close reading is central to the liberal humanist subject-forming project – hence all that bunk about a good reader making a good citizen (Sure being able to tell that Glenn Beck is full of shit will make you more critically “conscious,” but that doesn’t make you  better citizen. It only means you aren’t a Beckerhead and more that you than likely suffer from what Morton calls “beautiful soul syndrome.”).
         TCR tosses all of this philosophical and political baggage into the garbage heap and opts instead for a method paying no heed to the human-nonhuman divide. As Miller claims, TCR is too close not only in its hermeneutic focus, but also because of the intense intimacy it engenders between reader and text. This intimacy consists of a sort of vicarious contact that director and viewer, text and reader enter into: “the dream of touching Hitchcock— of probing his secret parts— had become indistinguishable from the nightmare of being touched by him, of being likewise deeply probed. English used to have a word for this horror: thrilling; it meant penetrating or piercing” (128-129). The thrilling point of exchange between the touching of the reader and the touching of the text is secret style. Thus, this nondiegetic style not only marks a real object’s withdrawal, but also serves as that which can mediate between the text and the reader’s real objectness. In this crucial regard secret style is gestically located on the threshold between the text and the reader, a threshold across which forces of vicarious contact ferry themselves.

1 comment:

theworldoutsidemypocket said...

I really appreciate Miller's attempt to move away from the separation between a reader and text. Too often, critics give the reader too much agency, and the text seems to be left helpless and subject to our authority. I recently read a piece by D.A. Miller, Narrative and Its Discontents, for class. He mentions non-narratable equilibriums, or traditions that communities (in Middlemarch) have and seek to uphold. While we never learn explicitly what those conventions are, the Middlemarch residents narrate the differences that challenge their everyday ways of living. Thus, I wonder if we can use the concept of a narratability to think about Miller's new mode of reading, which calls for a more intimate relationship between the text and reader. Does his new method of interpretation prevent the reader from narrating inconsistencies found within the text? Does it homogenize the text and the reader so that some of the information the text contains becomes unavailable? I wonder, then, how Kermode might think about the new types of 'secrets' Miller proposes: