English 190

Research Seminar: Suspicious Mind


Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
8 Fall 2013 Best, Stephen M.
TTh 12:30-2 221 Wheeler

Book List

Hawthorne, Nathaniel: The Blithesdale Romance; James, Henry: The Turn of the Screw; Poe, Edgar Allan: The Purloined Letter

Other Readings and Media

Over the course of the semester the following films will be screened: Rope (Alfred Hitchcock), The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola), Caché (Michael Haneke), and A Single Man (Tom Ford).

The course packet will include readings by: Roland Barthes, Renu Bora, Cathy Davidson, Rita Felski, Heather Love, D. A. Miller, Sharon Marcus, and Jordan Alexander Stein.

Description

Suspicious reading, which is sometimes called “symptomatic reading,” starts from the assumption that a text’s true meaning lies in what it does not say, know, or cannot understand.  For symptomatic readers, influenced by the depth hermeneutics of psychoanalysis and Marxism, the text’s most interesting aspect lies in what it represses, which would remain all but absent were it not for its irrepressible and recurring symptoms.  The professional reader is like a detective or analyst who wrests a latent meaning from behind a manifest one, and suspicion, though it may serve initially as a tool of modern surveillance, when turned by the critic against the social order becomes an ironic instrument of political dissent.  But in recent years, cognitive scientists have proposed that it is professional reading that is in fact the problem, that blindness is a function of mind, not the unconscious, for when people train themselves to read in a specialized way or focus their attention on a narrow task they tend to miss things that appear unexpectedly.  The thesis: you only see what you think about – and this applies to radiologists, TSA screeners, and, arguably, literary critics looking for evidence of repressed homosexuality in the novels of Henry James.  (Look up “Invisible Gorilla” on your next online search.)

What is more, literary critics have begun to question whether suspicious reading is the only (let alone the most relevant) mode for reading in the digital age – a time in which computers can do some of our preliminary reading for us in the form of searches; when texts can often be read by computer programs in ways that reveal things that heretofore could not be discerned through an individual reader’s interpretation; when we read on digital tablets that are networked to other readers, those readers’ comments and highlights are instantly available to us, and for many literature is little more than an interface (you’re reading literature on your Amazon Kindle, and Amazon is reading you, i.e., data mining your tastes and preferences).  Of what should we be more suspicious while reading The Blithesdale Romance on a tablet: the “homosexuality” that Hawthorne’s contemporaries never named as such, or the homosexuality that Amazon assumes about you based on the words and phrases that you chose to highlight?

Of late, the phrase “surface reading” has functioned as a portmanteau term to describe modes of reading that have a long history and are proving useful tools for navigating these waters.  It is a term intended to capture the phenomenology of a reading practice that is willing to look at rather than through surfaces, “to respect rather than reject what is in plain view,” in the words of Rita Felski: description (Heather Love), analysis (Roland Barthes), reparative reading (Eve Sedgwick), style (D. A. Miller), just reading (Sharon Marcus).

This course will have two broad goals.  First, to establish the terms of the suspicious reading vs. surface reading debate:

o   suspicious mind | specialized mind

o   the unconscious | attention blindness

o   psychoanalysis | cognitive science

o   deep reading | surface reading

o   interpretation | machine reading

o   textual interiority | textual surfaces

o   the work of narrative | the work of mind

o   epistemology of the closet | queer ’texture’ and interface

o   devaluing the obvious | the nonobviousness of the obvious

Our second goal will be to set up a series of classroom laboratories where we can explore two of the surface reading methods that to my mind are at present most promising: stylistics and machine reading.  Students should be prepared for a lot of digital tinkering, crowdsourcing, and collaboration.

Please read the paragraph on page 2 of the instructions area of this Announcement of Classes for more details about enrolling in or wait-listing for this course.

Please click here for more information about enrollment in English 190.

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