In the early twenty-first century, the campaigns to globalize the American university are often accompanied by a narrative that reverses the United States-centric approach to higher education of the postwar years. During the cold war decades, the U.S. attracted large numbers of foreign students to its campuses and put them through sufficient training before sending them home to their own countries to disseminate American ways. These days, the pedagogical model seems to be different. A new emphasis on the local, on how U.S. institutions must learn from diverse cultures, their histories, and their languages, and bring all that learning back to the U.S. so that our institutions can improve themselves with reference to these exotic others, is much more characteristic of current higher-education administrative rhetoric. How might this turn to the local as a nexus of global agency (that is, a connection from which meaningful, because other-centered, transactions are deemed to arise) be seen as coeval, if not co-determinant, with another dimension of higher learning today, namely, the push for a return, in the aftermath of the “high theory” decades, to the study of literature? What might close reading, the literary method associated with critics such as I. A. Richards and his contemporaries and followers such as Allen Tate, J. C. Ransom, M. Beardsley, W. K. Wimsatt, William Empson, T. S. Eliot, Cleanth Brooks, and others, and strategic to the consolidation of English as a (historically recent) field of study, have to tell us about the shifting academic institutional relations around 2015?

In raising this question, I am, of course, thinking about close reading in a rather different manner from that of its supporters and detractors alike. Indeed, the juxtaposition of close reading and the global university may seem at first to be a juxtaposition of incommensurates. What would the aggressively futuristic, revenue-oriented placement of U.S. campuses in distant locales such as Abu Dhabi, Singapore, and China have in common with a practice by, and for that matter have anything to do with, Anglo-American literature specialists?

To begin to answer this question, it is necessary to think of the controversy over close reading, beginning with its early promoters such as Richards, as itself symptomatic of the apparent decline of a certain kind of knowledge production, traceable to the European romantic tradition and its cultivation of, in Friedrich Schiller’s terms, an aesthetic education. (One of the words Richards often uses, for instance, is “feelings”: the sentiments are very much at stake here.) This decline is usually perceived in relation to the type of labor that is language—specifically, to language’s loss of power and impotence to change or affect the world.

In response to language’s putative decline, scholars of the humanities have to this day tended to reinvest in language’s relevance by emphasizing the antagonism and incompatibility between humanistic learning, on the one hand, and science and technology, on the other. Martin Heidegger is an outstanding example of a philosopher who tries to reanimate language from this perspective. For Heidegger language is not only the dwelling of Being; it is also equipped with the mystical power to interpellate, to call and bid things to come forth.[1] Similarly turning to poetic language as a way to reclaim humanistic learning’s universal significance, the Anglo-American New Critics exemplify the appreciation of a poem taken in isolation, whose reality they consider independent of historical happenings and authorial intention. “A poem should not mean/But be”: in this well-known announcement from Archibald MacLeish’s “Ars Poetica,”[2] one detects a desire for the work of art to be (understood as) ontologically self-sufficient, as though any swerve into meaning would amount to a compromise. For its New Critical advocates, thus, close reading as a theory of literary labor seems, even in its nascent stages, a redemptive undertaking, designed to restore something that is threatened from all sides–-by modernization, urbanization, science, technology, mass culture, and consumerism. A text read by itself is believed to yield truths of a kind that, notwithstanding their commonsense, are unique to the act of poetic articulation.

In ethnographic terms, what is sometimes invoked in derogation as textualism in this context may in fact be seen as a practice of localism, whereby the text is treated as a kind of native informant, one that can speak for itself while its interlocutors, its readers, painstakingly engage such speech and take note. This intense, meticulous attentiveness to the words on the page is, however, only part of a more basic belief in an organic whole that unifies disparate meanings. Richards, for his part, readily identifies the arts, and in particular poetry, as a type of activity that, albeit not necessarily different from other mundane activities, offers the quintessential access to such an emotionally integrated experience. Close reading, he writes, is instrumental in bringing about this access:

All will agree that while delicate intellectual operations are in progress brass bands should be silent. But the band more often than not is an essential part of the poetry. It can, however, be silenced, if we wish, while we disentangle and master the sense, and afterwards its co-operation will no longer confuse us. A practical ‘moral’ emerges from this which deserves more prominence than it usually receives. It is that most poetry needs several readings—in which its varied factors may fit themselves together—before it can be grasped. Readers who claim to dispense with this preliminary study, who think that all good poetry should come home to them in entirety at a first reading, hardly realize how clever they must be.[3]

With a vocabulary consisting of words such as wholeness, unity, integration, connection (of things which are otherwise disparate), ordering (of experience into a single response), and so forth, Richards alludes to a certain presence, one that endows on what exists at the verbal level the import of a profound emotional fit or coherence. If “a poem should not mean/But be,” it is less because a poem is complete in and of itself than because some larger condition of possibility—a certain ground if you will—enables it to speak. The poem’s autonomy, in other words, is pre-articulated by a larger if intangible Being (to borrow from Heidegger) whose essence or power is exactly one of holding things together. One can interpret this integrative relation with a larger Being in religious or secular terms, by way of the existence of divinity or something like a social contract. Whether it is god or the social collective will, the pre-articulation suggests that a bigger force is there to mediate, regulate, and indeed govern the production of meanings through the poetic text.

In revisiting the New Critical tradition, subsequent generations of literary critics, notably Paul de Man, have targeted precisely this implicit organicism as an unviable point of departure for literary criticism. “Richards postulates a perfect continuity between the sign and the thing signified,” de Man writes.[4] In the wake of poststructuralist theory, the New Critical project’s epistemic and moral premise for close reading—the groundedness of what some might call a metaphysics of wholeness—is fundamentally disrupted. To this end, Richards’s discussion of “pseudo-statements”[5] interestingly foreshadows Jean-François Lyotard’s discussion of the postmodern condition. Like the metanarratives that, according to Lyotard, have lost their exclusive claims to truth in the postmodern era,[6] pseudo-statements for Richards are the kinds of assertions that, even though not scientifically verifiable, have been lending emotional equilibrium to the ordinary person’s sense of the everyday world. As it is increasingly difficult to believe in pseudo-statements, as aspirations become increasingly conflictual without shared bases, Richards writes, “Our attitudes and impulses are being compelled to become self-supporting” (“Pseudo-Statements,” 25; my emphasis)—self-supporting, that is, in a world in which different claims to truth, all contending for legitimacy, are becoming ever more incompatible and irreconcilable with one another. What, then, is close reading in this desolate condition of modernity and postmodernity? What may the literary labor of close reading accomplish?

Deconstruction has provided one kind of answer: the text may be regarded as a material phenomenon that keeps doubling on itself, referring to itself, in a potentially endless series of reflexive moves that reveal language’s alterity (or perpetual self-alienation) to be its own purpose. In pursuing the text in this, what some term “regressive,” manner, deconstruction brings into the open a question that is implicitly foreclosed in New Criticism: what is meant by “close” in close reading? Is close reading simply a matter of reading repeatedly (as Richards’s phrase “several readings” suggests), or is it a matter of reading symptomatically, approximately, or seamlessly (without gaps)? Is close reading a quest for some ultimate oneness? Importantly, unlike for the New Critics, close textual reading for de Man, Derrida, and their followers is not a means of inferring a transcendent unity somewhere. Rather, it is an intimate engagement with the text that is, nonetheless, forever unmet by a definitively reciprocating or holding ground. However precise and penetrating, this close textual reading is now readily sliding off—and horizontally displaced onto other words in play, in the literal sense of allegory—“other speak”—ad infinitum.

In this shift to reading as an allegorical mode of operation (in the deconstructive sense), it is details, what often turn out to be unfitting or ill-fitting parts, that acquire a new conceptual significance: details detached from a presumed final cause (such as social or communal connections); details that are eccentric or singular; details that multiply by self-generation. Close textual readings after poststructuralism may be said to be engagements with lingual details or parts of this kind, leading much less to a restoration of any deeper connectedness than to a series of ongoing allegorical performances. No longer rooted in an organic whole, a textual detail can acquire an existence of its own, in the sense that any part or bit of information–verbal, visual, sonic, narrative, numerical, and otherwise–is now potentially an allegory ready to take off in the performative mode.

Although we are a long way from the lone poem that should not mean but be, the New Critics seem, in hindsight, to have helped pave the way for this ascendency of the allegorical-as-performative in our time. For, grounded or not, once ontological self-sufficiency has been given the status of a moral virtue, it inevitably becomes an ideal to which everyone aspires. Our postmodern trends in proliferating narratives, in particular narratives about the self, may in this light be seen as a continuation of the revitalization of (the relevance of) poetic language as native informant or as native performant.[7] The “postmodern condition” is one in which everyone feels entitled to such poetic rejuvenation: however trivial or odd, any human being’s life story deserves to be received as an organically whole work with its self-originating, self-validating, and, as Richards writes, “self-supporting” value. To this extent, the U.S. academy’s celebration of multicultural identities, multi-ethnic literatures, and exotic local cultures around the world—in so many varieties of “Let X speak!”—may be seen, historically speaking, as a logical extension of the unfinished New Critical project on a transnational scale.

Returning to the questions I ask at the beginning, let me propose that it is the valency of allegorical parts becoming generative native performants that underscores the epistemic affinities between what at first appear to be incommensurate realities—the secluded and arcane practice of close reading, based in literary texts, behind the walls of academe, on one hand, and the financially ambitious, jet-setting business dealings of the global university, on the other. On the world map—a very large text—“local” places such as Abu Dhabi, Singapore, and cities in China are the hitherto unconnected parts that Western institutions of higher learning are eager to close read—to hover over, to scrutinize, to mine, to bore into, to open up—in a word, to perform and let perform. Once these institutions close in upon these other places and spaces, however, what becomes inevitably clear is the necessity for a different order of reading—namely, translation, interpretation, and historicization—as people realize that nothing, not even ordinary, everyday communication, is straightforward or can be taken for granted.

Are performances of the global text in the guise of valorizing the local redemptive, restorative exercises then, as the New Critics and their followers imagine close reading to be, or are they exercises in groundless allegorical proliferation, as suggested by poststructuralist theory’s reading of New Criticism? On these large and abstract questions hangs the balance of the mindboggling ramifications of the global university that implicate all academic workers today.

*A version of this short essay was presented on the panel “I. A. Richards Now” at the MLA Annual Convention in Vancouver, January 2015. My thanks to Bill Brown, Ming-bao Yue, and the audience for their responsive questions and comments.


[1] See for instance the essays in Martin Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought, trans. and intro. Albert Hofstadter (New York: Harper Colophon, 1971); see in particular 189-210.

[2] “Ars Poetica,” Poetry 28.3 (1926): 126-27.

[3] Richards, Principles of Literary Criticism (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Co., 1925), 190; my emphasis.

[4] Paul de Man, “The Dead-End of Formalist Criticism,” in Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism, second edition, revised, foreword by Wlad Godzich (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1983), 229-45; the quotation is on 232. See also the essay “Form and Intent in the American New Criticism,” in Blindness and Insight, 20-35.

[5] Richards, “Pseudo-Statements,” in Twentieth Century Criticism, ed. William Handy and Max Westbrook (New York: The Free P, 1974), 22-27.

[6] Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi, foreword by Fredric Jameson (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1984).

[7] I am indebted to Zak Sitter for this term.