The Hidden Foundations of Critical Reading

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Publication BookChapter
Title The Hidden Foundations of Critical Reading
Author(s) Persson, Magnus
Date 2016
Editor(s) Rothbauer, Paulette M.; Skjerdingstad, Kjell Ivar; McKechnie, Lynne (E.F.); Oterholm, Knut
English abstract
What do we actually know about the reading experiences taking place within literary studies? And what can we know? Despite the growing academic interest in real readers, literary scholars are a category of readers whose reading experiences we know very little about. This is somewhat paradoxical both because of the importance and impact of scholarly writing on new generations of readers and teachers, and because of the massive documentation available in terms of articles containing interpretations, often called readings, of literary works. These ‘readings’ present implicit models of how the reading of literature should be exercised. Even though these models can look very different in terms of ideological and theoretical orientation, most of them are united by an ideal of critical reading. Furthermore, critical reading is often considered to be ‘owned’ by the academy (Warner 2004) and is explicitly or implicitly contrasted to ordinary readers’ reading. Guillory (2000) claims for example that, due to the theory boom, the relation between these two categories of readers can be described as a gap which has increasingly widened since the 1960’s. Professional critical reading is characterized by distance, requires hard work and rejects reading for pleasure. Lay reading, on the other hand, valorizes immersion, identification and pleasure. Another way to describe the gap is as a difference between studying and (just) reading literature. The question is, however, if such a dichotomy doesn’t obscure as much as it reveals (Persson 2011). In light of the ‘affective turn’, and the growing interest in the emotional, bodily and sensual aspects of reading, the doxa of critical reading has, in its turn, been subject to critique by several scholars (Gallop 2004; Sedgwick 2003). But the outcome of this critique should not be a simple inversion of the hierarchy between critical and pleasurable reading. Much more interesting is to try and get a grip on the underlying motives and assumptions of critical reading. This way of reading has indeed its own kinds of pleasure, as Felski (2011) suggests. In my article I will try to identify some of the hidden foundations of critical reading. One hypothesis is that the first of these is the reading experience itself. In articles by literary scholars the reading experience is often invisible and taken for granted, despite the fact that it is the fundamental prerequisite for the written interpretation that is postulated to be the final result of the experience. The second hidden foundation concerns the doxa of distance. How is this distance constructed rhetorically and stylistically? The third hidden foundation is that critical reading is done voluntarily and has its own (not openly acknowledged) pleasures and rewards. Which desires motivate critical reading? Can traces of these be found in the works of the literary scholars, and, if so, how? I will try to describe and analyze these hidden foundations in a couple of texts by prominent theorists Fredric Jameson and bell hooks. Both scholars take their starting point in an agenda of radical political change, which ought to imply that the tensions between the critical and the (politically) passionate should be particularly interesting and revealing. The main purpose of my article is, in short, to try and get somewhat nearer to what characterizes the critical reading experience.
Publisher Wilfrid Laurier University Press
Host/Issue Plotting the Reading Experience : Theory, Practice, Politics
ISBN 978-1-77112-172-9
Pages 19-36
Language eng (iso)
Subject(s) critical reading
literary studies
ordinary reading
Fredric Jameson
bell hooks
Humanities/Social Sciences
Research Subject Categories::HUMANITIES and RELIGION
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