Reading as Resistance to Reading

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Responding to Quote of the Day

Thanks for this, Mike. The quotation and the article in full made me think of Frye’s references to the lamentable disappearance of the old Honour course at the University of Toronto. It would be interesting to know more about that. Perhaps our Southern Pez-dispenser can cough something up for us.

I certainly identified with what the guy was saying about the frayed sense of purpose in the classroom when the discipline itself is so incoherent and uncertain. Interesting he uses the term “secondary considerations” in the quote you provide: what he means of course is what Frye calls secondary concerns. Just a coincidence?

Even in my grad class . . . though maybe “even” isn’t the right adverb, given that, at least in my department, there is a concerted effort to train any spontaneous responses to literature out of our students long before they are in any danger of attending a graduate seminar . . .

I was going to say how predictable it is now that the immediate response by students to an image in a novel or a textual detail or a set of such images or details is to explain or rationalize them by referring, in one way or another, to the world outside the work. (This has always been the case but it is now actively encouraged.) And this centrifugal impulse is usually accompanied by a critical attitude that undermines in a knowing and dismissive, even contemptuous way the author and the work. This is called “critical thinking,” much touted in the last decade or so as one of the great skills that humanities students can bring to their employers. The training that goes into it is analogous to those educational kid’s books which present pictures in which the details are out of place or wrong and the child is supposed to point out all the errors. Please point out, class, the relevant errors in Keat’s “Ode to a Nightingale” . . . Yes, exactly: the Ruth image is indeed a perfect example of the patriarchal aestheticization of exploited female labor . . .

I think part of the explanation for why such a critical approach has caught on is that it is so damn easy to do: it spares the students and more importantly the professors from having to really think critically about what they are reading, since the technique is to short-circuit from the beginning the imaginative energy of the text, the electrical linking, if you like, of one image to another, within the text or in other works of literature.

Let us now criticize famous writers seems to be the general idea: or rather let us “critique” or “problematize” them. Or my favorite: let us “resist” them. The books are no longer being read: they are being resisted, as if a poem were trying to put one over on you, like some sleazy salesman trying to sell you a highly overpriced and shoddy vacuum cleaner.

Reading as resistance: which really means resisting reading. Resist, don’t fall for that image, don’t pick up that theme–you have no idea where it might have been . . . Remember: your soul is in peril of eternal incorrectness.

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5 thoughts on “Reading as Resistance to Reading

  1. Michael Happy

    The appreciative belly laughs you provided me aside, Joe — because you’re right about everything — if I remember correctly, Frye was, publicly at least, relatively serene about the loss of the old Honours program. Alvin Lee once told me that, in the face of widespread outrage over the change, Frye counseled him to be patient, that these sorts of things run in cycles. (Although God and Bob Denham know what he was privately thinking.)

    The worst part of me has always wanted to bellow “I fucking told you so” at the sinecured poobahs who oversee the destruction of what is arguably our most civilizing discipline. But I try to remember that this’ll pass too — eventually. It’s why we do what we do for a small but appreciative audience. We work for a genius whose genius will not be denied. We know our share of students who, having read Frye, never look back because they love literature first. That can happen on just about any scale, and once the house of cards that is now “critical discourse” collapses in on itself, everything is possible. As we don’t seem to have much choice about the eventuality, I’m comforted by the opportunity to gather the deck, give it a good shuffle, and deal out hands where everybody wins.

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  2. Trevor Losh-Johnson

    From a strictly post-undergraduate perspective, Comparative Literature 101 always begins by asking, “what is Literature?” A Philosophy 1 class starts on the same note, beginning with the extreme skepticism of Descartes and them branching outwards, treating the subject’s history as an expanding dialectic- Comparative Literature, in my experience, never got past that first question. What fills the vacuum is what Joe outlines immaculately- deferral, ironic skepticism, and hostility.

    I have known so many talented, sensible people (Austentaciously) who had wanted to study English Literature after high school, no mean feat where I come from, but who were entirely dissuaded after a couple tastes of university study. None of them felt they were learning anything about the kinds of books they enjoyed, and some have developed a condescension towards those who persist in the study. The loss of interested students in university departments is a self-inflicted wound.

    There must certainly be a shift back towards a centripetal, primary concern-oriented study of Literature. And that shift must involve a series of formal principals that extend from primary education into grad school, and account for the spontaneous reactions (near to a hunch, perhaps?) that lead students to pursue the path in the first place. I am the least educated among those who post here, but I have seen this in my own education and in the education of those I have briefly taught. Considering the transformative effects of reading, there must be a return to the evidentiary valuation of hunches over the vocabulary of hostile allegory.

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  3. Jonathan Allan

    I am stuck here trying to consider a way in which these two approaches can work harmoniously together — and I am coming up empty handed. I think there is a slow return to textual-centric approaches to literature and David Damrosch’s “world literature” seems to be a step in that direction — though, I have to admit, I am not certain it is the “right” direction (if such a thing is to exist). I am still not sure how to “battle” either side of this coin especially when I find myself, more often than not, working from the starting point of Comparative Literature — a discipline which spends nearly as much time navel gazing and defending its existence as it does researching. I have taken a resistant approach, I don’t care to defend my theoretical choices (Frye always seems to need a defence in literary studies today) nor do I care to defend the literatures that I study (and since I study romance, I spend as much time reading Jane Austen’s novels as I do reading novels like _Jane Bites Back_ a novel in which Jane Austen is a vampire living in upstate New York or _Vampire Darcy’s Desire_ which is something like _Twilight_ meets _Pride and Prejudice_). It just seems that so much of literary study — national or comparative — spends more time defending itself than it does doing what it claims to do. I would imagine that many of those “defending” the discipline have taken to these “secondary considerations” precisely because these considerations seem defensible, and thus, the literature in which they apparently exist. It is a weak logic, but a logic that nonetheless finds comfort in the space of cultural studies (which slowly but surely seems to be displacing literary studies).

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