Wednesday, October 30, 2013

On criticism, presupposition, reading, and "reading"

In yesterday's post I said in passing that L. Timmel Duchamp's essay "Something Rich and Strange: Karen Joy Fowler's 'What I Didn't See'" (in Daughters of Earth) "could be said to be about, at least in part, the issues" I was discussing in that post. After some fruitful twitter-talks (particularly with the eternally interested and interesting Niall Harrison, to whom immense gratitude) and some reflection, I realize now that this statement might be confusing (and is certainly muddled as it stands, in part because I was writing in the wake of my self-suppressed longer review, which contained a great deal more detail).

After all in a lot of ways what I was complaining about there was a tendency among sf critics to focus on "genre" and sf-at-large rather than the individual story that's right in front of their faces, and Duchamp's essay is precisely about sf at large, what makes a story sf, who has the right (or the knowledge) to say what is sf and what isn't, and how what we know already from other stories affects our understanding of the story in front of us, specifically as all these issues relate to women, feminism, and the pasts and presents of women's and feminist sf. Collective, general issues to be sure!

The difference, I think, is that where so much of the sf criticism I have problems with arrives at any given story already possessing a set of theories, classification schemes, and presuppositions, ready to slot the story into its predetermined place at a moment's notice,* Duchamp (or so it seems to me) begins by reading the story. This might sound trite or simplistic, or like I'm saying Duchamp has no critical apparatus--but described by that simple term "reading" is a complicated act: one in which we simultaneously receive, translate, and create the text,** bringing to bear for all of these purposes everything we have ever experienced, everything we know and feel about the world (which includes everything we know and feel about other writing that exists within the world) and at the same time, crucially, experiencing the new ways that what we are currently reading has of opening that world to us. It is precisely this complex and above all open activity that the rigid way of "reading" I have been criticizing makes impossible--it both simplifies and closes it.

*And not a moment too soon!--for there is, I strongly suspect, an element of panic at work.
**It might just be that I'm currently enthralled with my studies in classical Greek, but I'm almost tempted to think of "to receive," "to translate," and "to create" a text as, respectively, the passive, middle, and active voices of "to read."

Duchamp reads Fowler's story and finds that it sets up particular resonances for her, which she seeks to explore. She sees that other readers, who (for politically determined, gendered reasons) inhabit a different world than she, did not find that the story set up these same resonances, and she seeks to explore the (politically determined, gendered) reasons why this might be. She does not treat the story as a puzzle to solve, a code to crack, something to be "figured out"; and though it might seem contradictory it is for this very reason that she is able to uncover in (or with or through) the story what might otherwise have remained obscure, where many other critics are not so able.

So, that thing that academic sf critics apparently call the "sf megatext" * is still relevant, because it is a part of the world we bring to the story, and a part of the world that the story opens up to us. Not only this, but it is a part of the world that the story cares deeply about (this is in large part what it means for a story to "be sf"), and as sf readers it is a part of the world that we care deeply about--so it is always right there, influencing, being influenced. But the moment this megatext becomes determinant (or the moment it becomes merely a collection of "tropes," or of "plots"), we have ceased to read, ceased to experience the story; and so far I don't see that anything worthwhile replaces this experience.

* I confess to an instinctive dislike and distrust of the term; I think the word "field," which I have come also to use in place of the totally inadequate "genre," covers the concept nicely.


Credit where due: this post was also sparked in part by my reading last night in Timothy Clark's great introduction/guide to Martin Heidegger, particularly this passage in which Clark is describing (a part of) Heidegger's approach in his investigations of language:

The thinker must take a step back from language, that is to give it the kind of non-coercive, presuppositionless attention we have already seen at work [in previous chapters; don't worry about it right now -ER].... It means not presupposing that we already know its mode of being and then trying to get a clearer concept of it as if it were an object one could turn at every angle beneath our eyes. Released from such attitudes thought may become attentive to the delicate but all-powerful way in which language articulates the open space or clearing in which we find ourselves, making things accessible with the significances and implications that give them their determinate being. It brings things to a world and a world to things.

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