Scratching the skin (rather than…)

Meg Samuelson, a literary theorist from UCT, made an interesting statement at the recent Rhodes University English Department symposium on nostalgia in Southern African literature. At the same time as declaring herself to be a theorist immersed in feminist and psychoanalytic techniques for dissecting literature, she remarked that perhaps it was time to abandon deep excavations of texts for hidden ideological meanings and pay attention to “reading on the surface”.

Meg Samuelson.jpg

Samuelson was dealing with Zoe Wicomb’s book October (a story about an academic living in a sort of exile in Glasgow who returns to Namaqualand, which of course has powerful parallels with Wicomb’s own life) and suggested that in this book Wicomb (the astute theorist of literature as well as award-winning author) was “asking us to read differently to Mercia [the English professor character in the book], differently to our discipline. To read on the surface [as one does a photograph or screen] and ask ‘what is it [the text] laying bare for us?”

This meant moving away as students of the text from “digging down into repressed depths” and to realise that the surface was still “confounding and not superficial”.

Samuelson went further: “Excavation went cold in the the postapartheid, post-cold war moment.” She tied this to nostalgia by saying that while apartheid made nostalgia for home a strong possibility for exiles (like Wicomb and her character), the postapartheid era “takes away home”.

Samuelson used as her references for this idea an edition of the journal Representations which focused on reading on the surface (volume 108 of 2009). In the introduction to this special edition the editors Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus point out that for a long time the idea (promoted by Fredric Jameson) that “the most interesting aspect of a text is what it represses” (p3) guided how to read literature. This method, “symptomatic reading”, is one of “revealing truths” and the editors point out the very long history of this idea in critical thinking and in literary criticism. But great political upheaval — 9/11, the Iraq invasion, Abu Ghraib, disasters and also an increasing attention to the object-nature of books and texts, and pervasive social media, has changed the way we read and even the way the hyper-conscious among us read.

Samuelson asked what if instead of approaching the text suspiciously we approach it with susceptibility and allowed ourselves to see what that kind of reading produced?

Intrigued, I let myself follow Samuelson’s invitation and started to do the kind of internet searching that takes one right down the rabbit hole, with wonderful surprises and quite delightful finds:

Sarah NuttallFirstly, it reintroduced me to Sarah Nuttall’s piece “The rise of the surface: questions for reading and criticism in South Africa” (in the book Print, Text and Book Cultures in South Africa, edited by Andrew van der Vlies; a blog post by her on the subject can be found on Slipnet). Nuttall asks whether this overly-rigorous (my words not hers) method of text dissection is suitable or even makes sense with the kinds of writing now coming out of South Africa in the post-apartheid era (never mind the rest of the world). What this kind of critique does seem to do is denigrate the kind of writing that emerging black South Africans are producing as not real literature, when some very important things are being said but said on the surface, blatantly, directly, clearly. In response to Best and Marcus, and Samuelson, who think we live in a now politics demanding a different kind of critique and analysis, Nuttall also points out that apartheid was a system of both hidden depths and crude surfaces and so reading the surfaces of the texts of the past is also helpful (as she has done with Gordimer’s literary work and Kentridge’s art).

Then the search led me to wonderful Michael Warner (of Publics and Counterpublics) whose opening paragraph from “Uncritical reading” (in Polemic: Critical or Uncritical edited by Jane Gallop) I’m going to reproduce here:

“Students who come to my literature classes, I find, read in all the ways they aren’t supposed to. They identify with characters. They fall in love with authors. They mime what they take to be authorised sentiment. They stock themselves with material for showing off. or for performing class membership. They shop around among taste-publics, venturing into social worlds of fanhood and geekdom. They warm with pride over the national heritage. They thrill at the exotic and take reassurance in the familiar. They condemn as boring what they don’t already recognise. They look for representations that will remediate stigma by giving them “positive self-images”. They cultivate reverence and piety. They try to anticipate what the teacher wants, and sometimes to one-up the other students. They grope for the cliches that they are sure the text comes down to. Their attention wanders; they skim; they skip around. They mark pages with pink and yellow highlighters. They get caught up in suspense. They laugh; they cry. They get aroused (and stay quiet about it in class). They lose themselves in books, distracting themselves from everything else, especially homework like the reading I assign.


“My work is cut out for me. My job is to teach them critical reading, but all these modes of their actual reading-and one could list countless more-will tend to be classified as uncritical reading. What does it mean to teach critical reading, as opposed to all other kinds of reading? Are there any other kinds that can or should be taught?” (page 13).

Exactly. My colleagues say plaintively: “Students don’t read.” They do. They just don’t read the way we want them to, and we don’t know how to teach them to give up the ways they do read, because our attitude is that they have to forsake bad reading to become good, critical readers.

The other interesting idea that the proponents of surface reading take on is the “hermeneutics of suspicion” proposed by Paul Ricoeur. I first encountered this idea when I did an honours course in feminist theology with the (now) UKZN School of Theology in Pietermaritzburg. It was such a helpful mind-posture to adopt, and added to the idea of “reading against the grain”, was liberatory when it came to dealing with historical, canonical and biblical texts stuck in a past of misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia and white supremacy. Texts could speak into our era helped along by clever hermeneutical work. But the downside is that one gets into a frame of thinking and analysis that is always seeking the grand form of power at work, assuming its monolithic, consummate nature.

Ann StolerAnn Stoler, whose book Along the Archival Grain deals with the colonial records of the Dutch in Indonesia shows that the obvious, on the skin statements of confusion, lack of cohesion and anxiety are just as much a reality of the regime as the stolid, dirigist attempts to control and cohere everything. She also remarks that the “hidden” is sometimes missing from records simply because it was so well known and accepted in daily use that it “goes without saying”.

Best and Marcus say that seeking the repressed unconscious within texts is only possible because we’ve allowed ourselves to agree that two “metalanguages” — Marxism and psychoanalysis — explain societies and individuals and their motives and actions and words. They point out that another theorist, Foucault, has entered our analytical and political projects and introduced other ways of seeking meaning, in Foucault Live: Interviews he says he aims “to make visible what is invisible only because it’s too much on the surface of things”.

And that’s probably the point. It’s not an either or, but a both and. Digging deep for meaning and maintaining a suspicious critical stance have their role and place. But surfaces contain meaning too and paying attention allows us to understand complexity and to respect inconsistency.





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