English 190

Research Seminar: Too-Close Reading: Poe and Others


Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
2 Fall 2012 Miller, D.A.
MW 11-12:30 300 Wheeler

Book List

course reader; Barthes, Roland: S/Z; Poe, Edgar Allan: Poetry and Tales; Poe, Edgar Allen: Essays and Reviews

Other Readings and Media

Rear Window (Hitchcock); Blow Up (Antonioni)

Description

Here are the main things we experience from within the reading practice scapegoated as “too close.” The first is that it is worse than useless: the futility, the irrelevance of its mountainous molehills demoralizes us all the more profoundly as the question “what is the point of such excessive attention?” invariably triggers the far more broadly discouraging question “what is the point of anything?”  And the second thing we feel is that this same spirit-killing practice is nonetheless irresistible, as if getting too close to the text we are reading were a compulsion hard-wired into the activity, at whatever chosen range, of reading itself.  Too-close reading cannot, then, be plausibly quarantined as the nonsensical luxury of tenured literature professors, or a mere (now obsolescent) phase in literary studies; it is the necessary liability of even the commonest reader, who, sooner or later, is fated to fall into the practice of what we rightly call “reading to death.”  For it is with a certain death that too-close reading seems to threaten us: the death not just of the so-called life of the text, but also of social utility, psychosexual integrity, and sense-making of any kind.  (Perhaps this is also why—in fiction at any rate—the redemption of too-close reading, its conversion into a properly productive reading, typically involves rationalizing an otherwise unaccountable death: the solution of a murder case.)

The course takes up its topic in three distinct observances: first, we read in the literary tradition inaugurated for the modern period by the stories of Edgar Allan Poe, where excessive attention is embraced in all its antisocial pathology and brilliance.  Next, we explore the literary-critical tradition of super-close textual analysis also inaugurated by Poe, but continuing in academicized form from Leo Spitzer’s Stylistics to Roland Barthes’ Poststructuralism and De Man’s Deconstruction, to certain critical-writing experiments of our own day.  Finally, we look at some too-close reading practices characteristic of 21st-century mass culture: fandom, 24/7 “crisis” news coverage, etc.

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