Best and Marcus

Assigned: Best, Stephen and Sharon Marcus. From “Surface Reading: An Introduction” (2605-19). Also read the editors’ introduction (2603-05).

From “Surface Reading: An Introduction” (2009)

Reading “The Way We Read Now”

1. On 2606-08 (“The title of this special issue…”), what assumptions do Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus initially ascribe to themselves and their fellow journal issue contributors with regard to the kind of reading they were trained to practice as literary critics who earned their doctorates after 1983? What assumptions, as well, did they make about the political relevance and significance of their “symptomatic reading[s]” (2606) of literary and other texts? How and why, according to Best and Marcus, have those assumptions changed since the 1980s and 1990s?

Symptomatic Reading

2. On 2608-09 (“All of the contributors to this…”), Best and Marcus explain that symptomatic readers construe complicated literary and other texts as “symbolic” (2608). What does this term imply about the nature of those texts, and what “three pairs of oppositions” (2608) do symptomatic readers often posit and use as they go about making their interpretations? What do Best and Marcus identify as the “notion underlying all forms of symptomatic reading” (2609 top), and what brief history of this central notion do they provide before moving on to the nineteenth-century theorists Freud and Marx?

3. On 2609-10 (“The nineteenth-century roots of…”), how do Best and Marcus describe the influence of Sigmund Freud on the development of what would come to be called “symptomatic reading” (2609)? How did Freud read texts and patient histories in a way that posited something of deep significance below their surface meaning? What did philosopher Paul Ricoeur apparently mean by his term “hermeneutics of suspicion” (2609) in connection to Freud’s way of interpreting texts, dreams, and so forth?

4. On 2610-11 (“In The Political Unconscious…”), Best and Marcus refer to Louis Althusser (Leitch 1282-1311) and to Fredric Jameson’s important book The Political Unconscious (1981; see Leitch 1731-71) by way of explaining the particular ways in which Marxist critics practice symptomatic reading. How does Jameson, in particular, regard the act of interpreting the deeper meanings in a given text? What is the goal of doing so? What does he apparently think of those who, to adapt an idea from Oscar Wilde’s Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, refuse to “go beneath the surface” and “read the symbol”?

Surface Reading

5. On 2611-12 (“Surface looms large in the vocabulary…”), Best and Marcus suggest that contemporary “surface” readers mean something fundamentally different by the term “surface” than do readers who are of the “symptomatic” persuasion. How so—how is the surface of a text something other than merely the level we need to get beyond so we can fully understand the text? Best and Marcus name the first three of six types of surface reading, labeling them “Surface as materiality”; “Surface as the intricate verbal structure of literary language” (2611); and “Embrace of the surface as an affective and ethical stance” (2612). What is involved in each of these three types of surface interpretation? In what sense, regarding the second type, does the doctrine of “formalism” (2612) turn out to be an ally of surface reading’s premises? With respect to the third type, how is this type strongly rooted both in the reader’s pleasurable experiences with texts and with a certain “ethics of reading,” a sense of fidelity to a given text’s particularities of structure, vocabulary, and other apparent features?

6. On 2613-15 (“To these we would add…”), Best and Marcus discuss three additional methods of surface reading: “Attention to surface as a practice of critical description”; “Surface as the location of patterns that exist within and across texts”; and “Surface as literal meaning.” Provide a brief description of what is entailed by each, and go into additional detail on at least one of them, discussing its goals and a few examples as provided by the authors. Finally, how do Best and Marcus encapsulate the aim of all three methods by way of reference to a remark made by Michel Foucault during an interview (2615)? In what sense do these “surface” methods perhaps capture the complexity and ambiguity of texts in ways that “symptomatic” readings miss?

Freedom in Attentiveness

7. On 2615-19 (“If criticism is not the excavation…”), Best and Marcus point out that current trends in the twenty-first century locate a realm of “freedom” (2615; autonomy, liberation, etc.) either in the text itself or in the work of a heroic critic who brings into full view the text’s supposedly hidden significance. Those who prefer “surface” readings, they say, put very little faith in either assumption and don’t believe that art and criticism are capable of fixing politics or redeeming society. What, then, do Best and Marcus, along with other “surface” readers, take to be the valid goals of surface reading? In responding, consider their praise for computer-based literary research as well as their mention of Anne-Lise François’ “minimal agency” criticism, the lesson of Poe’s story “The Purloined Letter,” and Bruno Latour’s trenchant remarks in “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam?” (2616-19; for Latour, see Leitch 2111-36).

8. General question: In 1984, rock band The Talking Heads made a concert film titled, Stop Making Sense. Surface-reading advocates Sharon Marcus and Stephen Best don’t go that far in their 2009 essay “Surface Reading: An Introduction,” but they certainly offer a pointed critique of long-dominant brands of criticism (psychoanalytic and Marxist in particular) that insist upon diving into the depths of literary texts to haul up the treasures they claim to find there. Instead, Marcus and Best emphasize the value of staying at or near the “surface” of literary texts. On the whole, are you sympathetic to their interest in shifting the focus from depth-oriented readings to surface-directed readings? Why or why not?

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake