close reading, open composition

We had an interesting works-in-progress presentation yesterday that focused  on composition. One of the takeaways for me was the overall mapping-out of the disconnects observed among the compositional practices of digital media networks, the schooling experiences of incoming FYC students, the mainstream, scholarly discourses of FYC as our graduate students encounter them, and the disciplinary values of literary studies-centered English.

I don't think that anyone would be so very surprised by these disconnections. However, as I see it, close reading is at the heart of these disconnections. Close reading, if you don't know, comes out the 30s and 40s with New Criticism as a kind of scientific method for literary analysis. It manages to survive the postmodern shift into theory and cultural studies, so that today we continue to advocate "close reading" without perhaps meaning the specific practice the New Critics called for. Btw, I think this is largely the case whether one is in a literature or composition classroom. Needless to say, while literary interpretation suggests a wide degree of openness in the meanings a reader might uncover in a text, close reading serves as a significant limitation on practices of reading and interpretation, and the compositions that might result.

Arguably, close reading is a practice predicated on a scarcity of texts. It's time consuming. Indeed, close reading might be said to follow upon a self-imposed, selective scarcity: the literary canon. Now, of course, we have an explosion of media. Furthermore, the discipline has departed from the selectivity of the canon. In short, there are more texts than ever to study. Yet we continue to cling to close reading because, I think, we have confused method with objective. This is, we have come to point where we might say that the objective of English Studies is to conduct close readings of texts. There appears to be a sense that intellectual work, at least in the humanities, can only function through close readings, that critical thinking requires close readings, and that other cultural-textual practices are anti-intellectual. Now, let me say that there's nothing "intrinsically" wrong with close reading. It is just simply a limited methodology that literally and explicitly closes reading and, indirectly, the composition practices that we insist must follow upon it.

Franco Moretti's distant reading methods are certainly one response to this condition. Moretti plays on the switch between close and distant. Here I'm switching close and open. I've played with this term before. One might draw connections with "open" in Heideggerean terms or in relation to the Black Mountain School or even in terms of "open source."

How would English classrooms operate if they didn't function as lectures/discussions of close readings of texts? What would English students write if they weren't writing interpretive essays based on close readings? What happens when we separate "critical thinking" from "close reading"?

In part, and certainly at the start, the answer would be non-deterministic. That is, one would not want to switch one overdetermined genre and practice for another. I think this is key. The heavy hand of judgment runs through our discipline where we imagine that we know how others should write (and what they should read and even how they should read it). I think this is a serious error in thinking. Typically, English faculty know very little about appropriate writing practices outside the narrow genre that results from close reading. To our credit, I don't think most English faculty believe they should be teaching students to write for these foreign discursive contexts, but in some strange paradoxical way, we still seem to believe that we know how students should write.

In this situation, I think the methodological answer is to examine extant writing practices and approach the development of new compositional practices in an open, experimental way. Communication takes place around the clock without close reading. People fall in love; fortunes are built; innovations are developed; discoveries are made; knowledge is composed and disseminated: all without the benefit of close reading.

Open composition, in the absence of close reading, is the situation of the text in an open field of networks and contexts. It's not about ignoring the specific intentions of the text; to the contrary ignoring intentionality is the hallmark of close reading. And certainly contemporary scholarship has plenty of examples of self-interested, careerist or politically-motivated readings of texts. In fact, open composition might have a stronger ethic of listening to the text and an awareness of the situated and distributed process of reading.