Textual Harassment: The Ideology of Close Reading, or How Close is Close?

I think this is from Isobel Armstrong’s The Radical Aesthetic, and I read it awhile ago, so I’m just going to focus on the main points and their application to my project (well, to my project as I conceived of it in my prospectus). 

Armstrong argues against predominant methods of theorizing close reading that organize themselves around a thought/feeling binary. “A rationalist poetics,” she writes, “founded on the antithesis between thought and feeling which still goes largely uninvestigated in our culture, refusing the importunities of the desire of the text, acts as a screen for a more difficult and subtle problem. Sexuality, feeling and emotion are associated with a language of affect which is deemed to be non-cognitive and non-rational. Affect falls outside what is legitimately discussable” (86-87). 

Here’s her thesis: “The task of a new definition of close reading is to rethink the power of affect, feeling and emotion in a cognitive space. The power of affect needs to be included within a definition of thought and knowledge rather than theorized as outside them, excluded from the rational” (87).

And what is affect? Here’s Armstrong: “What we term affect, I would suggest, is the cathecting or build-up and release of energies in this intense analytic process, as well as the process itself” (93).

And a bit more: “I am not proposing a paranoid model of reader and text, but I do believe that all reading that is not reading for mastery necessarily gets caught up with, imbricated in, the structure of the text’s processes, and that this is where thought begins. The intensity of this experience can be renamed as affect and consigned to the non-rational, but this is an impoverishment. Arguably, close reading has never been close enough. It has always been the rationalist’s defence against the shattering of the subject. It has always been engaged with mastery, and the erotics of the text have been invoked to endorse the reader’s power over it” (94-95).

This is on my list because I think that the close-reading trajectory that I’m charting progresses along this thought/feeling binary that Armstrong tries to deconstruct. Sherlock Holmes–at the later end of my trajectory–is the type of close-reader that Armstrong finds problematic. He has no feelings, no emotional ties to the “texts” he reads. In evacuating feeling from his close-reading methodology, Holmes strives for mastery over his texts. Also, he’s always chastising Watson for his anti-rational romanticization of the crime narratives he relates.

Sensation fiction, on the other hand, enables Armstrong’s analysis. I think that sensational detectives, in a proto-Armstrong method, blend the power of affect into a cognitive space. I’ve already traced this idea through most of the texts I’m working with so far, so I won’t recount that all here. But this is what I’ll say about Armstrong if I’m asked…

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