Do literary critics analyze textual patterns, formal structures, and stylistic signatures, or do they interpret textual meaning? Although description might be seen as integral to any practice of interpretation, “descriptive” is a dirty word in literary scholarship, almost always preceded by the damning adverb “merely.” In this joint presentation, Stephen Best, Heather Love, and Sharon Marcus make the case for valorizing descriptive practices in literary criticism. The presentation takes as its starting point the concept of “surface reading” that Best and Marcus coined in their 2009 special issue of the journal Representations, “The Way We Read Now.” Best, Love, and Marcus will survey a range of recent departures in literary studies from what Paul Ricoeur once described as the “hermeneutics of suspicion,” from material histories of the book to the sociology of reading, data mining to world systems analysis, genre criticism to new formalism. They will go on to trace some unexpected genealogies of surface reading in literary studies, art history, and the social sciences. Showing the long history of practices such as summary, paraphrase, coding, stylistic analysis, pattern recognition, bibliography, and textual editing in literary scholarship, that critics can develop ways of describing works that correct for interpretive biases even if they can never eliminate those biases.
Stephen Best is Associate Professor of English at UC-Berkeley. His interests include film and visual culture, critical legal history, American and African-American literature, and the historiography of slavery. He is the author of The Fugitive’s Properties: Law and the Poetics of Possession (University of Chicago, 2004), a study of property, poetics, and legal hermeneutics in nineteenth-century American literary and legal culture. A member of the editorial board of the journal Representations, Best has co-edited special issues of the journal on the topics of reparations (“Redress,” with Saidiya Hartman) and literary study in the wake of symptomatic reading (“The Way We Read Now,” with Sharon Marcus). Currently at work on a series of critical essays on black culture and the archive, entitled Unfit for History, he has published essays related to that topic in both Modern Language Quarterly and Representations.
Heather Love is the R. Jean Brownlee Term Associate Professor in English at Penn. Her research interests include gender studies and queer theory, late-nineteenth and twentieth-century literature, affect studies, film and visual culture, psychoanalysis, sociology and literature, disability studies, and critical theory. She is the author of Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History (Harvard, 2007), the editor of a special issue of GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies on the scholarship and legacy of Gayle Rubin ("Rethinking Sex"), and the co-editor of a special issue of New Literary History ("Is There Life after Identity Politics?").
Sharon Marcus is Orlando Harriman Professor of English at Columbia University, and the author of two books: Apartment Stories: City and Home in Nineteenth-Century Paris and London (University of California Press, 1999), and the prize-winning Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England (Princeton: 2007). With Stephen Best, she co-edited a special issue of Representations on "The Way We Read Now." Currently at work on a book about theatrical celebrity in the nineteenth century, she has essays related to that project in PMLA, Victorian Studies, Theatre Survey, and The Blackwell Companion to Comparative Literature. She is also the fiction editor for Public Books, an online monthly book review which since its 2012 launch has published essays by Simon During, Judith Butler, Bruce Robbins, Amanda Claybaugh, Eric Hayot, Heather Love, Paul Saint-Amour, and others.
Associate Professor of English, University of California, Berkeley