On Literature’s ‘Secondariness’: Citation, Creation, and Critical Primacy

Andrew David King
November 12, 2013
Comments 1

Here’s a promise, or an imperative: if I bring any references to books, poems, poets, novelists, dramatists, theorists, or philosophers into this post, you can stop reading immediately. You should stop reading immediately. Why? Because literary analyses—close readings, general observations, thematic overviews, applications of theory to particular works, you name it—tend to proceed by way of referential collage: the pulling-together of various and variant works, some congruent and others incongruous, on the assumption that such stitching-together of materials is a legitimate approach to criticism and, to go even deeper, to thought.

Of course it is a legitimate approach to both criticism and thought, and I don’t mean for my sarcasm (mild, I hope) to imply that it isn’t. But ever since I recently completed a book chapter on a contemporary American poet—a chapter filled, perhaps to a fault, with passages and paraphrases from sources across disparate times, spaces, and genres—I’ve been thinking about the limits, the bounds, of this legitimacy. The popularity of a patchwork approach is predictable enough: shrugging off or setting aside the confines of strictly-defined disciplines can seem liberating, and this liberation is as much the freedom to associate off-limit areas of inquiry with more familiar ones as it is the revelation of heretofore undiscovered connections, networks, and causal relationships. But some things are fuzzy when seen from a distance. I worry about the shape and solidity of the hypotheses such patchwork readings produce. It should be possible for them to stand up under critical pressure, but do they?

It might be question-begging to assume that such readings are really all that different from the “proper,” conventional readings that unfold in more conservative analyses. There are several ways this might be the case. Patchwork criticism and uniform criticism (a bit of a rough binary, but that’s how I’ll set it up) might turn out to be formally similar; both involve some sort of association, and it just so happens that the patchwork approaches take a more liberal interpretation of what’s permitted to fall under the associative umbrella. Or perhaps they are formally different, but this difference is negligible: why has a uniform approach tended to be valorized over a patchwork one? The question itself is too complicated for even a cursory answer here, but I take its weight for granted. And I take for granted, by extension, that there really are rules of discourse, and that they really do influence the way fields, disciplines, persons, and texts “talk.”

If either of these is the case, then the differences are superficial, and patchwork criticism is just another version of what we’ve had all along. But I don’t think that’s so—at least not always. When applied correctly, patchwork criticism can actualize the sorts of comparisons that are going on in the heads of intelligent people all the time but which, because of the rules of different discourses, get marginalized or, even worse, muted; it can, in other words, change criticism for the better. It can also change criticism for the worst. Not all eye-catching juxtapositions are eye-catching for the right reasons; similarities between two previously-separated quantities can be irrelevant or insignificant as well as meaningful and innovative, and the same holds for divergences. Close readings based on such comparisons can sometimes, true, produce insights into ideological and normative bases that could have never been penetrated had we stuck to the traditional methods of “investigation” (a curious word itself, implying the “discovery” of something already there). But they can also be breeding grounds for bad philosophy, sloppy reasoning, and inferences made to support conclusions that require logical acrobatics in order to stand up at all.

So why I am reneging on all this purported greatness and beginning a blog post with a disavowal of just this type of critical approach? Because for so many of my own writings, and for so many of the writings of others, it’s the go-to method of producing “compelling” readings—it dominates, not compliments. And this is a problem not just for those of us who become over-reliant on citations (“citationality,” as fashionable critical lingo would have it), references, and juxtapositions—those of us who thereby exhaust our own methodology by wearing it down, into thinness and redundancy—but for those who take other critical tacks as well. For, at its worst, over-reliance on the patchwork approach actually cultivates and embeds a sort of appeal-to-authority fallacy in the very discourse that’s supposed to be dedicated to the exposure and exposition of ideology: it perpetuates the myth—yes, the myth!—of literature’s “secondariness,” the idea, however wrongheaded, that the only way we can talk about literature is by importing other media into the discussion to clarify it for us. Philosophy, criticism, theory, other authors: all of these are sandpapers we rub on the text to make its “real” grain show.

Wait a second! you might say. When I quote or excerpt texts in my discussion of other texts, I do so in order to avoid reducing these texts to my paraphrase(s) of them—you might say you do so in order to preserve their “materiality”, for instance. This is well and good, but the point still holds: this materiality might be important, but it can’t always be so important that it ends up hogging all of your critical attention by moving that attention to other texts besides the one at hand. Materiality may matter, but it has to matter in view of other aspects of analysis mattering. Overuse of the patchwork approach bleeds away our ability to apply sustained focus to any single text; in turn, it weakens our acumen when we turn from those texts to others. The fear of paraphrase is something I won’t go into here, save to say that it’s got a slight case of the emperor’s new clothes: everybody pays lip service to it, but we all end up paraphrasing whether we like it or not, else we’d have to sell our critical toolboxes and just reprint, in whole and in situ, the works we would have otherwise discussed.

I have two questions, and two proposals, that hopefully point toward other ways around this referential roadblock. One is more radical than the other, but I mean them optimistically—and, above all, I mean them in good faith. The first question: why is it a sin to write on a piece of literature (or on a piece of anything, really) without paying footnoted homage to those who have gone before? This is coming from someone whose aversion to not historicizing enough is probably pathological. I still think there’s something to be said for “starting anew,” no matter how ill-informed or ultimately failed that attempt at freshness might be—we should be able to historicize or do this, or do both. Writings produced under this rubric could retain the “critical” moniker by detailing the phenomenology of a particular reader’s encounter with a text, a more “indulgent,” but also a more honest, approach. My second question is this: why is it a sin to respond to literature with literature? Doing this would seem to be in tune with the importance we claim to accord those works, anyway. Why the continued, time-honored divide between the critical and the creative when to assert the division between the two has already become so passé? It’s clear, to me at least, that we need to move toward another model: and maybe advocating something as crazy as attributing critical legitimacy to a short story or poem on a hallmark of the canon—instead of another conventionally “critical” essay, one resembling thousands of others—is the way we should begin.

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