Sora Nostra Lillian Frances   

Working the Word

As a university student in English, I was never assigned, or even encouraged, or even suggested to read the Bible. Except that, now that the post is done, I've remembered that I was assigned the Bible, twice: once to read Esther, and once to read Judith. So this whole essay begins with a lie. Still not a lot, but, oops. Yet scholars of English readily acknowledge that it is in Biblical scholarship that my discipline has its origins. I am here not referring to a direct line of disciplinary succession, as though English as a discipline developed directly out of Biblical scholarship. What I mean is that, insofar as English is a discipline of close reading, its debt is to the scholarship of Scripture. It is the method, not the institution, which is shared.

Insofar as English is not a discipline of close reading, it does not share the same provenance. Close reading refers to a specific method, of careful attention to the form and content of a text, an ethics of attention to its exact details, used to expand the text's capacity to communicate, to convey information to the reader, beyond its plain and cursory meaning. But not all English is close reading. Symptomatic reading, in which one looks to the text's omissions and contradictions with an eye to the historical-material situation which produces them, is a child of close reading and thus of the Bible, but owes enough to Marx and Freud that we might as well give them credit for it. Surface reading, which reacts against close reading and pays attention to what is interesting about the plain meaning of the text, might be seen to have a disenchanted secular streak—though then again, it might also just be Southern Baptist.

But distant reading really might have the best claim not to originate in the Biblical scholarship at all. Distant reading operates through a kind of production line, usually facilitated by code, which takes in a large amount of text and gathers statistical information about them to come to empirical conclusions. Advocates of distant reading including a professor I've had the privilege to hear speak in person, Richard So will often point to the Biblical origins of close reading disparagingly. "It does not make sense," they opine, "to treat the bulk of human cultural production—old newspapers, mass market novels, fanfictions, tweets, etc.—with a level of care developed for religious exegesis." This pragmatism is, of course, impossible to argue with. Distant reading seems to me to be the first method in English which truly catches up to the capitalist system of production, to the soberness of a disenchanted life and the commodification of culture. It causes me to wonder whether symptomatic reading could really be considered a communist method, if communism belongs to a later stage than capitalism, and distant reading had not yet been invented. This essay will come off harsh against distant reading, but this characterization isn't meant to be derogatory. I'm considering writing another post about what I really sympathize with about it.

The narrative of distant reading is that, in the beginning, we close read the Bible. Early Christians exercised themselves in allegory, developing a careful but creative hermeneutics for approaching the received canon of Scripture in order to elaborate the revelation they possessed, delving into the incarnation of God, the redemption of humankind, and the ethics of love. The Talmudists likewise elaborated Scripture through Midrash and Gemara, allowing it to become an inexhaustible wellspring of divinity, of the development of holy law and of the repair and blessing of the world. It would be legitimate to consider Rashi to be a king of sorts among close readers, opening the Tanakh and the Talmud through careful attention that no close reader can help but admire.

From the Bible, we derived the notion of the canon, as the texts it is legitimate to close read. Later Protestant debates over the status of the Deuterocanon speak to this notion. While Martin Luther and the other Reformers thought the Apocrypha were useful to read as instructions for life, they denied they could be used in the development of doctrine—which is, in effect, to limit the importance of conclusions reached through close reading them. There is always a sense with close reading that one must only close read a text with something of worth to say, which finds its root in the concept that an exegete should only apply their labours to a text which is in fact divinely inspired.

But even during the cultural ascendance of Christianity in Europe, a secular canon developed alongside Scripture. The Classics, drawing from Greek and Roman literature and philosophy, acquired a status of authoritative instruction—though in fact, given how Greek philosophy and early Christianity and Judaism were bound up together, perhaps this other canon might be felt to have always existed. If the Bible was the Book, Aristotle was the Philosopher, and so each had a position of authority from which to speak, which means it was worth understanding. Close reading could thus be legitimately applied with him as well.

Reminiscent of the Anglican schism from the old Roman church, English as a discipline developed from a break with the ancient authority of Classics. Throwing out philology designed for the appreciation of ancient texts shortly around the time of the First World War, it developed the concept of an English canon, consisting of the great works of the English language. Like the Church of England, this canon proved useful in patriotic identity and in colonial instruction. But again, like the Church of England, the decision to schism away and form one's own canon opens the question of why someone else ought not to do the same. English consequently became a natural battle ground for the canon wars, where politically radical rearticulations of the canon threw the entire concept into a state of uncertainty.

Distant reading, then, steps in where the concept of the canon reaches its obvious breaking points. Not everything can possibly be a viable authority; that is not a practical way of going about life; it is not a practical way of going about scholarship. Close reading is not authoritative in itself, but borrows from other authorities, and only by addressing an authoritative canon can it be held to be of value. From a Marxist perspective, this might be articulated as so: the labour of close reading is only valorized if it produces a commodity appropriate to some human use-value, and so if there is no desire for the object of close reading to be closely read, the labour is frittered away. Distant reading provides an approach which, in theory, offers access to knowledge without reliance on a canon, whose analysis is equally desirable—if not more so!—when practiced on texts thought to be without importance as on texts felt to be of Scriptural importance. Close readers often react to this method as though it has no soul. But distant readers might justly retort that close readers have no sense.

Distant reading is one method of eschewing the canon. Another, in a different direction, is psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis serves as a haven for some English students of close literature to ply their trade without having to hawk the English canon, because the psychoanalytic market is self-asserting. Psychoanalytic close reading analyzes, not the canon, but the individual, and addresses their analysis to the same, in essence becoming a close reader for hire. Here the division between close and symptomatic reading becomes blurry, but ever since the majesty of Freud has slipped into remission, and the self-assurance of psychoanalytic theory has been shattered, I believe there has been a move to treat psychoanalytic theory as a tool of use in approaching the analysand in themself rather than an objective standard to be judged against. This is how close reading uses theory.

I believe that the appeal of contemporary psychoanalysis is essentially an ethical one. There is a certain similarity between CBT as a common standard in psychological treatment and distant reading: each is oriented toward the accomplishment of pragmatic aims, operating by taking complex thought and declaring it to have nothing of real value to say. Psychoanalysis, like close reading, goes in the opposite direction: it takes each individual's thoughts, even their dreams, which are now considered to be of generally very limited significance by mainstream psychology, as an opportunity for almost unlimited discussion. Psychoanalysis, when it is guided by a spirit of humility, would rather eschew scientific credibility or even the accomplishment of psychology's functional objectives often linked to social functioning in a manner which is rather convenient for capitalist socity than to eschew the depth of significance of human life. Contemporary close reading, which persists despite having long since lost most of its socially recognized value with the ongoing death of English Studies, has the same ethical outlook.

Yet in both cases, this outlook is at its heart a professional outlook. Psychoanalysts and English professors prefer to be paid, and while their canons and methods may cut against the grain of their day and age, they are nevertheless specific. In both cases, the ethics of close reading is crucial but nevertheless circumscribed. This is because distant reading is, ultimately, right in the claim that unmitigated close reading is utterly impractical. Treating any scripture one finds as Scripture, with all the ethical consequences thereof, is absurd. It may be one thing to, with symptomatic reading, assert that any text is political and can be politically and historically situated, and people regularly do! It is not impossible, or even difficult if one knows how to look, to find history written all over one's box of cereal. But while "always historicize!" is practicable, "always divinize!" is a task of unfathomable weight. It is a promise of madness.

But maddening claims have been made before, especially through the virtue of religion. Spinoza defines the virtue of religion as referring to "whatsoever we desire and do, whereof we are the cause in so far as we possess the idea of God, or know God" Book IV, Prop. XXXVII, Scholium I. Given that God is absolutely infinite, and provides a foundation of eternal joy which allows one to divest from the fear of death, it is possible for religion to make ethical demands not possible outside of it. Two cases of this approach spring to mind, of Christian and of Jewish provenance respectively. On the Christian side, the move of Jesus of Nazareth to simplify Mosaic law changed it from involving a host of commandments which it is possible to follow faithfully to a duality of commandments which are completely impractical without continuous divine assistance. To turn to God actively in every moment with every fiber of one's being, and to love one's enemy even to the extent of giving everything one has up to the point of death, are absurd demands which do not compromise with the ways of this world, because not doing so is exactly their objective. On the Jewish side, Walter Benjamin's theology of divine violence in Critique of Violence is predicated in the description of God's violence as not punishing but destroying entire, not enforcing through mutilation but sanctifying through annihilation, is based on a refusal to compromise with the world. His advocacy for the general strike without demands, which can only end by bringing history to a halt in a moment of intransigent consumption, is necessarily religiously motivated. It works on the world because its source is prior to all worldliness, and infinitely exceeds it, and as such, redeems it.

Because I am by nature an immoderate person as my mother likes to say; I take as mantras Cate Le Bon's "Moderation / I can't have it / I don't want it / I wanna touch it" and Anne Sexton's "Saints have no moderation, / nor do poets, / just exuberance" I have a great deal of sympathy for the ethics of extremity, and wish I followed them more tenaciously (as is their nature). As such, I have considered frequently whether it would be possible to pursue close reading as an ethics without bounds. Would it be worth it to approach each word as the Word, not in the sense of it having doctrinal authority, but in the sense of it having unfathomable ethical weight? At least, would it be worth approaching the words of any given person as having that weight? If so, it would need (by virtue of its very extremity) to have a religious justification, for which the best I have is Walter Benjamin's "On the Concept of History." Approached with a level of attention which is willing to reach a point "where thinking suddenly halts in a constellation overflowing with tensions," it may be possible to treat "every second [as] the narrow gate, through which the Messiah could enter." My second best argument would be a corruption of Spinoza's maxim that love is joy accompanied by the knowledge of its cause. Bearing in mind that every moment is an instance of the unfathomable intellectual love of God which is the source of all being, there may be an occasion for runaway contemplation, for love abounds in the perfection of knowledge as much as in the increase of joy.

Both of these arguments, however, have a critical weakness in their potential for projection. In academia, I have found close reading can become an occasion for the abandonment of ethics, creating an occasion for a kind of textual ventriloquism in which one says what one wishes to say through a canonical vehicle. To generalize this practice through runaway close reading would be vile, an act of total ethical irresponsibility. The attribution of significance in excess of plain meaning devolves into solipcism and grandstanding unless it bears an ethical responsibility to its source not to make it say anything monstrous. On the parallel register of Biblical close reading, I would admit to having Calvin in mind here.

This statement might offend Deleuze, whose project he describes as being based on "buggering" and impregnating his sources with a monstrous child which is nevertheless theirs which, as an analogy, I am a little uncomfortable with, because its connotation is half rape and half sodomy, both used apparently for shock value. The Deleuzian objection may be that what is crucial in a close reading is to make one's subject do something, to hook it into a new productive apparatus, or in Spinozist-Fisherian terms, increase its powers of existence at the risk of making it a shoggoth. I have some sympathies with that argument, but can't say I've enjoyed being on the other end of it. For example, Deleuze and Guattari's appropriation of "homosexuality" and of "becoming-woman" in Capitalism and Schizophrenia are interesting, but divest pretty well completely from their real-world objects in the case of becoming-woman this bothers me minimally, but I've never quite managed to stop being annoyed by the suggestion in Anti-Oedipus that the theoretical peculiarities of homosexuality are most present in heterosexuality because one's inner opposite-sex "particles" address themselves to the other. Deleuze's influence on Spinoza scholarship, for another case, has deeply frustrated me in how it has retroactively obscured the ways in which he does not equate God and nature. Despite my love for Deleuze, these cases of the "buggery" method have not left me confident that it fits the formula I would like it to, which would be "joy, accompanied by the knowledge of its cause."

What I do agree with, in Deleuze, is that a close reading should always seek to perfect the subject's powers of existence. This process should occur in a spirit of Spinozist love which recognizes that, in the perfection of the other, one is oneself perfected. A loving close reading must aim at ensuring the other's freedom of expression, because freedom is perfection is the power to express one's essence. If this love is practiced in extremis, it must then address itself to the neglected word, the word of mass production which distant reading takes as without ethical value, and by reading bring out the strangled seed at its core. I am here sympathetic to symptomatic reading, which would historicize and politicize the word, an aim which is without a doubt crucial for full expression. But I believe the core of a close reading is to follow the trajectory of Luke 19:37–40: "And as he is coming nigh now, at the descent of the mount of the Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began rejoicing to praise God with a great voice for all the mighty works they had seen, saying, 'blessed is he who is coming, a king in the name of the Lord; peace in heaven, and glory in the highest.' And certain of the Pharisees from the multitude said unto him, 'Teacher, rebuke thy disciples;' and he answering said to them, 'I say to you, that, if these shall be silent, the stones will cry out!'"

To seek the testimony of the stones when the disciples are silent, and to find in them a language which urgently seeks its expression, whose expression is not tenable and so does not negotiate with the empty time of the world, is at the heart of the project of finding, in words without status, joy and the knowledge of its cause. I am here sympathetic to Auden's conception of the poet, whom he charges, when "intellectual disgrace / stares from every human face", to "make a vinyard of the curse," to "sing human unsuccess / in a rapture of distress," to, "in the prison of his days, teach the free man how to praise." Although "poetry makes nothing happen," it nevertheless "survives, / a way of happening, a mouth." Close reading can only act to lend a mouth to the other—a mouth with which, perhaps, to find a source of joy which does not go along with the prison of days, which is worthy of adoration.

Here, at last, I am drawn again to think of Francis of Assisi. Being a man of ethical extremity, who really did eventually follow the command of his religion to sell everything he owned and follow his God, he appears to have been drawn in the end to the type of close reading I am describing here. "Laudes creaturarum" is at its core an attempt to give to all the creatures of creation an opportunity to praise according to their nature as Francis observes it, and so to participate in a collective joy and reparation of existence. The fact that it was possibly dictated when he was blind and sickly, and was only sung in full for the first time on his deathbed, only reaffirms that this love is not one which goes along with empty and deathly time, but which overthrows it. By the standard of Benjamin's "On Language as Such and the Language of Man," in which the task of human language is to convey all the languages of things to the glory of God, and in so doing apply oneself to the love and perfection of creation, Francis is someone who fulfills the project of human language to the extent a fallen human can be expected to. Close reading might hold itself to a similar standard.

All this to say: maybe there is some benefit in allowing a sentence of a post on fedi, or a fanfiction, or a scrap of newspaper, or an unread blog post, or an off-handed comment, to serve as a narrow gate and as a source of rejoicing. And if close reading can apply itself to this task, then I believe that is not contrary to the spirit of its Biblical origins for going beyond the canon, but is rather the fulfillment of an extreme ethic of holy love which implicates itself in the perfection of all things. And while this project is entirely impractical, one need only apprehend in just one statement of no canonical value the strivings of joy. One need only do this, and one pardons what is otherwise the Sodom of our inhospitable language.