Response to Masami Sugimori’s “Weak Theory, ‘Responsible’ Reading and Literature Criticism”

By | January 12, 2022

This week, in a series of blog takeovers, we’re looking at Modernism, Theory, and Responsible Reading with posts from the collection’s contributors.

Guest post by Daniel Aureliano Newman

Masami Sugimori’s call for a “‘responsible reading’ practice” (131) is also more than that: it is also a model of what reading responsibly looks like. More than a caution about weak theory, it invites us to rethink how literary studies is done and how its work relates to theory generally. The problems associated with claims of “weakness” are well documented, including by several contributors to this volume (most notably Cristina Ionica). But the real problem with weak theory may be the second term: theory. Is weak theory theory in the way queer theory is a theory, or does it use “theory” loosely, meaning “approach” or “attitude”? Is it simply a term asking us to keep our theorizing humble? By attending instead to the problematics of the “theory” in weak theory, Sugimori raises an essential question, which seems obvious only after it’s been raised: “Does weak theory offer a valid interpretive methodology applicable to specific literary works?” Sugimori keeps his answer implied, but it’s pretty clearly a no. At least, that’s what I am now convinced of, having read his chapter.

Sugimori reminds us, crucially, that theory (of any strength) should work for us. It should sharpen our readings or lead them in directions they wouldn’t otherwise go, helping us uncover more richness, more nuance, more puzzles in what we read. This is, of course, what good criticism has always done, whatever the critic’s theoretical commitments. Sugimori’s intervention echoes and generalizes a challenge that J. Hillis Miller has posed more specifically to narrative theorists, whose notoriously arcane distinctions

are useful only if they lead to better readings or to better teachings of literary works. Narratological distinctions and refinements are not valuable in themselves, as “science.” At least they are not valuable in quite the same way as decoding the human genome is valuable. The latter not only finds out new facts—those facts are also socially useful. They lead to new medicines and to new cures for diseases. Narratological distinctions … are disciplinary artifacts concocted for heuristic purpose to allow talk about certain features of human language. Narratological distinctions are useful primarily as aids to better reading, which is socially useful. (“Henry James” 125)

Overselling usefulness here, Miller overlooks one of theory’s great qualities: its capacity for being fascinating—its beauty, if you will. Reducing genomics to the potential for “new cures for diseases” strikes me as a great impoverishment of that field (though, obviously, “new cures for diseases” would be pretty nice right about now [June 2020]). Still, Miller has a point. While a theory shouldn’t be only useful, it should be useful, whether in humanities or science, narratology or genetics—though I would add that “useful” in this context can be synonymous with interesting, illuminating, provocative. By questioning weak theory’s usefulness or “methodological validity,” Sugimori reveals the material of the emperor’s new clothes.

To fill the methodological gap, Sugimori proposes responsibility as a practice designed “to facilitate actualization of weak theory’s spirit” (134). As a term for what we do or ought to do, responsible reading has undeniable advantages over “weak theory.” As Sugimori rightly argues, responsible reading avoids the paradoxical (or meretricious) implications of claiming weakness for one’s theories. More productively, it circumvents the well-intentioned and theoretically defensible but practically problematic project of giving up on objectivity—not by reinstating objectivity as an achievable goal but by positing it as a provisional and preliminary, “subjunctive” one, an ever-moving target as it were.

Sugimori’s practical demonstrations are outstanding, particularly his reading of Faulker’s 1955 Nagano seminar. His unpacking of Jessie Redmon Fauset’s “The Sleeper Awakes” is open-eyed and open-ended, receptive to contradiction and non-dogmatic in its rendering of the story’s negotiations of race and passing. But it was in his interpretation of the Faulkner seminar, via Wai Chee Dimock’s own “weak theoretical” reading of that event, that I really felt the force of Sugimori’s approach. Beside its attentiveness to textual and historical detail, his engagement with Dimock’s reading is refreshingly additive, eschewing the oppositional approach that remains, despite the humanities’ frequent claims for collaboration and community, the modus operandi for engaging with scholarly peers. One emerges from Sugimori’s reading not persuaded about what Dimock missed, or misread, but rather alert to the further possibilities her reading enabled. More than the reading of Fauset’s story, then, this engagement with Dimock’s reading captures the principle of readerly responsibility in its multiple valences: responsive to the text and its contexts, responsible to its particularities as this rather than any text, and also principled—not in the sense of being on the right ideological team but, rather, being modest in its reach and implications. In an early version of his chapter, Sugimori called on the Nietzschean ideal of “do[ing] without meaning” (Nietzsche 318), and provocatively linked this ideal to Virginia Woolf’s openness to “the essential thing” that “refuses to be contained any longer in such ill-fitting vestments [theory?] as we provide” (Woolf 160). In so doing, Sugimori suggested that to read responsibly is to meet the text much as Iris Murdoch suggested we encounter other people: “we need to turn our attention … towards the real impenetrable human person” who “is substantial, impenetrable, individual, indefinable, and valuable”—and also “destructive to myth [theory?]” (20).

It is hardly surprising to find such an approach advocated by a scholar of modernism: for doesn’t Sugimori’s view of responsible reading recall with the aesthetics—and ethics—of modernist artists and writers? I bring in ethics alongside modernism, not just because Sugimori’s practice has obvious implications for the ethics of reading and research, but also, more specifically, because it connects beautifully with an ethic that Melba Cuddy-Keane identifies in and with modernist literature. A pluralist world without moral absolutes, as Geoffrey Harpham notes, requires that “‘ethical choice is always a choice between ethics’” (Harpham, qtd in Cuddy-Keane 208). Under such conditions, narrative fiction (and especially modernist fiction) may offer a better ethical guide than theory: “The discourse of ethical choice must therefore grant access to compelling alternatives,” Cuddy-Keane writes, “so that ethical choice is made visible without hiding the questionableness of the choice that is made. The viability of alternative ethical systems, however, is something that theory is arguably ill-equipped to convey” (208–9). Cuddy-Keane illustrates this modernist ethics by means of a key moment in E. M. Forster’s Howards End, when the Wilcox family decide to ignore the late Ruth Wilcox’s note bequeathing her house to Margaret Schlegel:

Ought the Wilcoxes to have offered their home to Margaret?  I think not. The appeal was too flimsy. It was not legal; it had been written in illness, and under the spell of a sudden friendship; it was contrary to the dead woman’s intentions in the past, contrary to her very nature, so far as that nature was understood by them…. No; the Wilcoxes are not to be blamed. The problem is too terrific, and they could not even perceive a problem. No; it is natural and fitting that after due debate they should tear the note up and throw it on to their dining-room fire. The practical moralist may acquit them absolutely.  He who strives to look deeper may acquit them—almost. For one hard fact remains. They did neglect a personal appeal. The woman who had died did say to them, “Do this,” and they answered, “We will not.” (Howards 90–1)

The ethical issue is not the correctness, legality or defensibility of the Wilcoxes’s; it is their inability to “even perceive a problem.” They cannot see that “ethical justifications are … companioned with a sense of ethical loss” (Cuddy-Keane 212). The inevitable cost of ethical action implicates critical reading as well, as Miller has noted elsewhere: “Any writing down of a reading necessarily involves synecdoche, part for whole, the insolence of choice in the selection of details to cite and single out for comment. For that choice the commentator must take responsibility. The reader can only hope he or she has not missed something among all those details that has an important bearing on the reading proposed” (Literature 49). Perhaps reading responsibly as a critic means ensuring that those who read our criticism are not foolish in their hope. Anyway, Forster’s narrator foregrounds the ethical loss—not to deplore or mourn it, not to avenge it through irony, but rather to acknowledge its reality. This modernist ethics resembles Forster’s hope for modern fiction, which would end with “not a rounding off but an opening out” (Aspects 116). As I understand it, Sugimori’s responsible reading practice is animated by a similar principle—an ethics of reading and interpretation, rather than a theory.

And here is where I must express my own doubt, because I can’t help wondering what we gain by designating a reading practice as being “responsible.” Not just because of the implicit question, Responsible to whom, or to what? The key question as I see it is, Responsible as opposed to what? Could it be that “responsible reading” is simply what all literary readers ought to be doing all the time, regardless of their methodology? Is it only when it is done irresponsibly that the hypervigilant use of critical (Marxist, feminist, queer, postcolonial) theory deserves the pejorative name of “paranoid reading”? It is only when done irresponsibly that Strong Theory reduces rather than enlarges, though I sometimes feel that this is hardly the exceptional case. So does this mean that responsible reading designates not a specific practice with definable parameters or centres of attention but, rather, a general ethics of reading. In other words, is “responsible reading” another way of naming what we already strive for, in our own writing and in the writing we attempt to encourage in our students—what we might otherwise call, more colloquially, good reading, close reading, attentive reading, active reading, perceptive reading?

This is not a criticism of Sugimori’s chapter, since we continually need to be reminded of our task as readers, writers and thinkers. Sometimes that reminder requires a new term, and responsible reading seems as expansive as it can get, general without being vague—an opening out instead of a rounding off. “The question of responsibility is linked to one’s practice rather than one’s position”: this statement by Pamela Caughie (qtd in Sugimori [pg]) seems just right, so the question of responsible reading becomes, What can we do to ensure it? How should we make it responsible? I have no ready answers. But I take Sugimori’s case study of Dimock’s reading of Faulkner as an important step in a promising direction, a constructive response to another scholar’s reading that might also suggest more collaborative, dialogic ways of engaging with our peers. Nor is making it responsible necessarily making it new. Although exciting and to a great extent necessary for ensuring vitality, the constant arrival of new frameworks and increasingly specific critical schools also risks a communication and community breakdown. As someone whose job involves supporting graduate students with their writing, I and the faculty I have consulted with are struck by how many M.A. and PhD students struggle, despite an outstanding grasp of often very difficult theory, with the basic tools we use to disseminate the fruit of our readings: argument and argumentation, the use of textual evidence, a better sense of our audience and of the potential expansion of our audience too. Rhetoric, in short. The prospect of investing more in those old skills may seem less alluring than making it new with new theories or methodologies, but of course, as we modernists know, making it new is sometimes really just renewing the old.

I’m sure this isn’t quite what Sugimori had in mind, and I must admit I’m a little surprised to have ended here. I fear I may have led us to an anticlimax. But maybe aiming for a climax was the problem. Far from a retrogression, renewing our attention to the old tools and tricks of the trade may enable us not only to do our reading more responsibly but—and they amount to a different meaning of the same thing—to take our readings to new readers and new kinds of readers.

Works cited

Cuddy-Keane, Melba. “Ethics,” Modernism and Theory: A Critical Debate, ed. Stephen Ross, Routledge, 2009, pp. 208–18.

Forster, E. M., Aspects of the Novel and Related Writings, ed. Oliver Stallybrass, Arnold, 1974 [1927].

——, Howards End, Random House, 2001.

Miller, J. Hillis. “Henry James and ‘Focalization,’ or Why James Loves Gyp,” A Companion to Narrative Theory, ed. James Phelan and Peter Rabinowitz, Blackwell, 2005, pp. 124–35.

——, Literature as Conduct: Speech Acts in Henry James, Fordham UP, 2005.

Murdoch, Iris. “Against Dryness,” Encounter 16 (1961): 16–20.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Will to Power. 1886. Edited by Walter Kaufmann, translated by Kaufmann, and R. J. Hollingdale, Vintage Books, 1967.

Woolf, Virginia. The Essays of Virginia Woolf, vol. IV: 1925–1928, ed. by Andrew McNeillie, London: Hogarth Press, 1994.

Modernism, Theory, and Responsible Reading cover
Daniel Aureliano Newman is Assistant Professor (Teaching Stream) of English at the University of Toronto, where he is also Director of Graduate Writing Support in the Faculty of Arts & Science. He is the author of a book Modernist Life Histories: Biological Theory and the Experimental Bildungsroman (2019), as well as articles in journals including Style, Twentieth-Century Literature, Configurations, Journal of Narrative Theory, and American Journal of Botany.

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