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 Yan Tang
Daniel Newman’s essay deftly moves from a generative reading of postcritique that calls for alternatives to Theory’s reductive tendency, to responsible reading as a pedagogy of sharing our myriad experiences of reading and thinking with modernism. In this refreshingly performative piece, Newman demonstrates that the “weak” in “weak theory” can be understood “in terms of vulnerability, of theory’s accountability to external checks” (pg#). Through the case study of modernist mixed-voice narration, Newman shows us the ways we might commit to this notion of weakness by sharing our vulnerabilities—excitement, frustration, and attachment—in analyzing multivalent incidents of a particular stylistic feature. Newman’s humility strikes a keynote of “responsible reading” without devolving into reductive moralism or virtual signaling, for it is undergirded by a brilliant thesis that “[w]e read the text for its own immanent theorizations” (pg#). “‘What is the text doing’?” (pg#)—Newman’s seemingly “basic” question is extremely complex. It prompts us to think about how our research and teaching practices allow openness and commitment to a literary text’s agency—its inner workings of contradictions and tensions that are also social and political. Newman’s question is indeed in line with how Felski mobilizes actor-network theory (ANT) to regard a literary text as a nonhuman actor whose “ability to make a difference [. . .] derives not from its refusal of the world but its many ties to the world” (154). Commitment to nonhuman agency does not mean that we “give up” our ability to analyze literary texts; instead, it makes our roles as readers more explicit in a network and turns our methods of reading into something participatory instead of predominating. In this sense, modernist mixed-voice narration might in fact theorize and perform for us exactly an ongoing effort to reach out, to forge ties, to be open.
At the same time, Newman’s essay is much more than just another reiteration of ANT. In this response, I focus on his fascinating conception of “a hermeneutics of curiosity.” Newman describes it as “an approach to research in which the search is foundational and the question ‘why?’ always at the fore” (pg#). The notion of “curiosity” emerges from his essay as a critical disposition beyond ephemeral excitement provoked by strangeness or novelty: it “accepts and embraces the fact that literature is often puzzling, finding in our puzzlement the seeds of interesting, potentially surprising findings” (pg#). Newman’s discussion of mixed-voice narration, as he reveals, is also meant to “make you curious” (pg#). Thus, curiosity in his essay appears to imply the word’s older connotations of rich affects such as “careful; studious, attentive,” and “anxious, concerned” (“curious, adj. and adv.” OED). As Newman writes in the opening of the essay, “But your discomfort was accompanied by an exhilarating curiosity, half bemusement, half piqued interest; in fact, the curiosity was produced by the discomfort” (pg#). This disposition of curiosity not only incentivizes but also sustains the responsibilities of modernist scholars that Newman envisions.
I have a few questions for Newman’s formulation of “a hermeneutics of curiosity,” to address possible risks of embracing curiosity in all its modes. How do we approach texts that were previously marginalized or muffled due to the institutionalization of modernism, texts that are now “new” to us and open to our “discovery”? What modes of responsible curiosity should we adopt to approach literary texts without reinforcing the extractivist and exploitative logic that silenced those texts in the first place? To me, there remain many nuances in the word “curiosity” that we should keep exploring, both curiously and cautiously. For instance, what about the tension between curiosity as a neutral / positive affect and curiosity as an exploitative affect that justifies taxonomizing and categorizing others? To concretize what this tension might look like, I bring Newman’s notion of curiosity into conversation with two images of the curious reader modernist texts theorize for us: the governess in Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw and “the privileged man” (245) in Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim.
In The Turn of the Screw, the governess models for us how a curious reader turns into a paranoid one. The governess’s “beginning of curiosity” (161) takes place when she learns that Miles – a ten-year-old boy, the elder brother of Flora – has caused trouble in boarding school. The governess’s “confusion of curiosity and dread” (168) soon intensifies after her first encounter with the ghost of Peter Quint. From there, the wall between curiosity and paranoia in the text becomes rather thin. As the governess spends more energy in figuring out what’s going on in the house, she grows increasingly paranoid and possessive of the children, a process incentivized by her moral investment in heterosexuality and purity against “the poison of an influence that I dared but half-phrase” (pg#). At one point, the governess articulates perfectly the experience of a paranoid reader: “No, no—there are depths, depths! The more I go over it the more I see in it, and the more I see in it the more I fear. I don’t know what I don’t see, what I don’t fear!” (186). Trying to understand what the governess means, Mrs. Grose asks her if she is afraid of seeing the ghost of the former governess again. To this question the governess responds, “It’s of not seeing her” (186). This is, of course, an extreme example of avoiding any “bad surprises,” and the governess as a model of the paranoid reader has stepped into a terrain much more violent and pathological than what Eve Sedgwick calls “paranoid reading.” However, the perversion of curiosity into paranoia and possession in the case of the governess does foreground an exploitive logic when one encounters something utterly alien and then attempts to extract certainty and moral comfort from it. In this sense, the novella itself functions as a pedagogy that dramatizes the risk of curiosity. Showing us the etiology of paranoia driven by improperly indulged curiosity, the novella teaches us how to avoid bad surprises when we are curious. While Sedgwick warns us that the aversion to bad surprises is the “first imperative of paranoia” (130) on the level of epistemology, The Turn of the Screw demonstrates that irresponsible curiosity can lead to unintended consequences on the level of ethics.
What crucially distinguishes Newman’s vision of interpretative curiosity from the governess’ is that Newman describes a reader who stays curious and puzzled by new findings without transforming curiosity into a consolatory impulse to come up with an encompassing argument about a literary text. I wish Newman’s essay could say more about how we might achieve this hermeneutics of curiosity as analytical practices that resist extraction / exploitation on the level of research, epistemology, and institutional power, especially when extraction and an endless search for something new are not mutually exclusive. I think this might also speak to a particular predicament for scholarly publication, as we have been trained and required to come up with a clear argument about cultural products. “Where is your thesis?”—From first-year academic writing to publishing scholarly books and articles, this single question haunts every academic writer and reader, and it does not allow much room for other modes of writing. As Newman cautiously clarifies, his case study is not promoting “half-baked research writing” (pg#), but he also believes that “there ought to be, beyond conference presentations, a forum for sharing research at the productive edge of discovery and explanation—where readers might access our readings when they are still in the process of discovery” (pg#). I very much agree with him here, and I wonder how we further adopt new modes of writing—such as works in progress or creative projects—as valid forms of research sharing.
Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim offers us another example of the curious reader—“the privileged man”—who is also driven by the desire for discovery. After Marlow’s tale ends at his last glimpse of Jim in Patusan, the subsequent chapter tells us that only one listener among Marlow’s many audiences is able to receive Marlow’s packet and hear the rest of the story about Jim. Drawing the curtains and shutting out the noise outside, this listener opens Marlow’s letter, “like one approaching with slow feet and alert eyes the glimpse of an undiscovered country” (246). Marlow’s letter reaffirms that this is an interested and engaged reader: “I don’t suppose you’ve forgotten [. . .] You alone have showed an interest in him that survived the telling of his story” (246). As the text moves to the end of Marlow’s letter, we know that this reader is once again drawn into Marlow’s narration: “There with Marlow’s signature the letter proper ended. The privileged reader screwed up his lamp, and solitary above the billowy roofs of the town, like a lighthouse-keeper above the sea, he turned to the pages of the story” (255). What’s interesting about this reader is that his curiosity compels him to retreat into a solitary state and self-indulgence in continued fantasy. And one of the reasons he stays attached to Marlow’s narration is that Marlow evokes and anticipates a reader’s experience of reading, in particular his racial consciousness. As Marlow’s letter goes,
You said also—I call to mind—that “giving your life up to them” (them meaning all of mankind with skins brown, yellow, or black in colour) “was like selling your soul to a brute.” You contended that “that kind of thing” was only endurable and enduring when based on a firm conviction in the truth of ideas racially our own, in whose name are established the order, the morality of an ethical progress. (246)
Marlow here evokes “ideas racially our own” to forge further connections between him and the anonymous reader, under the rhetoric of “the morality of an ethical progress” which is in fact based on a logic of racial superiority and condescension (“giving your life up to them [. . .] was like selling your soul to a brute”). The example of the privileged man suggests that the identity of the curious reader is not neutral but always situated in specific communities and belief systems. The interpretative community that Marlow and the privileged reader share, then, is one of whiteness, of racialization and racism. The privileged reader’s desire for “the glimpse of an undiscovered country” also resonates with the doctrine of discovery as the foundation of settler-colonial legal justifications of land ownership. As we continue to see the violent development and reiteration of this dominant racial collectivity of whiteness in current political environments, this example of the curious reader prompts us to think again about what shared experiences reside behind curiosity and excitement for discovery.
Finally, looking at the two examples of the curious reader in The Turn of the Screw and Lord Jim together, I can’t help but think that we have to take into account the gendered nature of curiosity as a critical disposition. The female reader in James’s novella is associated with hysteria and other excessive emotions, whereas the male reader in Conrad’s novel is portrayed as calm and solemn, although he is self-indulgent. Yet they are both curious and engaged readers. I wish Newman’s essay could say more about who can afford to / is allowed to stay curious and engaged. He certainly touches upon this question in his candid example of how graduate school experience—the problem of competition, cliquey inner circles, and gatekeeping (pg#)—can perpetuate the production of disinterested, elitist academics. I wonder how we can further acknowledge, reflect, and examine our privilege and responsibility even when we have a chance to recover our curiosity in our search for something new and surprising in literary texts.
Conrad, Joseph. Lord Jim: A Tale. Edited by Jacques Berthoud, Oxford UP, 2002.
“curious, adj. and adv.” OED Online, Oxford UP, June 2020, www.oed.com/view/Entry/46040.
Accessed 9 July 2020.
Felski, Rita. The Limits of Critique, U of Chicago P, 2015.
James, Henry. The Turn of the Screw and Other Ghost Stories. Edited by Susie Boyt, Penguin Books,
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. Duke UP, 2013
Yan Tang is Assistant Professor of English at the University of the Fraser Valley. Her research interests include twentieth-century British and Irish literature, critical theory, and the environmental humanities. Some of her writings have appeared in LIT: Literature Interpretation Theory, the Routledge Encyclopedia of Modernism, and Modernism/modernity Print Plus.