Building 260, Room 012

Building 260, Room 012

English 305H

Close Reading

Spring 2015, Tues 3:15-6:05

Building 260, Room 012

Professor Alex Woloch

Office: Building 460, Room 307

Phone: 723-4594


What is the difference between reading and reading closely? Is “close reading” a specific methodof literary criticism or a sensibilitythat might attach to any mode of criticism? And how would we characterize this ubiquitous but elusive term -- as either method or sensibility?

This course will try to develop some basic categories for this interpretive practice, examining close reading at the juncture of some distinct, but sometimes overlapping, intellectual and critical traditions (including formalism, ideological critique, hermeneutics, deconstruction, psychoanalysis). Neither a chronological nor conceptual survey, the course will revolve around experiments in critical response, including various texts that “stick with” the reading of another text in conspicuous ways. In some cases (as with S/Z by Roland Barthes) this act of reading involves the critical re-articulation of every moment within the text. In other cases, as in Auerbach’s Mimesis, this act of reading entails, on the contrary, a marked compression of the text, into its essential “moment”.

The contrast between these two approaches (each of which might be seen as close reading) is the type of problem that I want to focus on. Does close reading involve looking at a text longer than expected or more rigorously than expected (and what would this latter definition mean, exactly)? Does it entail getting “close to” or intimate with the text, or, on the contrary, developing angles of interpretive vision that are actually at a remove from the text: so that looking at the textual object “closely” is synonymous with looking at it in a new and unfamiliar way? Or in a way that pays not merely close (empirical) attention to the object of analysis but close (reflective) attention to the unstable processes involved in the act of reading or interpretation itself?

The texts we’ll consider dramatize these problems both intellectually and formally – they engage in often inspiring, sometimes infuriating, acts of hesitation, of slowing down at the moment when the rules of cultural encounter might say to keep moving. This course will start with three complicated and different kinds of close readers -- William Empson, Roland Barthes, Erich Auerbach. We will then look at a broader range of figures, including Theodor Adorno, T. J. Clark, D. A. Miller and Helen Vendler. As much as possible, the seminar will use these texts as spring-boards and reference-points for discussing the function and nature of “close reading” in our own critical work.

Provisional Schedule:

April 1 Introduction

April 8: Empson

William EmpsonSeven Types of Ambiguity

Optional: Paul de Man, “The Dead-End of Formalist Criticism” (handout)

Michael Wood, “William Empson” (handout)

April 15: Barthes


Optional: “Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives” (handout)

From D. A. Miller, Bringing out Roland Barthes

April 22: Auerbach

Erich Auerbach, Mimesis, Selections

April 29: Hermeneutic Circles

Clifford Geertz, “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture” and

“Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight” in The Interpretation of Cultures

Cleanth Brooks, “The Heresy of Paraphrase” in The Well-Wrough Urn

ShoshanaFelman, “To Open the Question” in Literature and Psychoanalysis

Stanley Fish, “Not so much a Teaching as an Intangling” inSurprised by Sin: The

Reader in Paradise Lost

Cathy Caruth, “The Wound and the Voice” in Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative

and History

May 5: Cultural Criticism: Theodor Adorno

Adorno, Minima Moralia

May 12: Art Criticism: T. J. Clark

T. J. Clark, The Painting of Modern Life

Clark, “Lecture Three: Window” from Picasso and Truth (pp. 113-146)

May 19: D. A. Miller

D. A. Miller, JaneAusten, or the Secret of Style

Miller, “Hitchcock’s Hidden Pictures”

May 26: Helen Vendler

Helen Vendler, The Odes of JohnKeats

June 2: NO CLASS

Week of June 8-12: Conclusion/Review (time/place TBD).

Franco Moretti, from Distant Reading

Sharon Marcus and Stephen Best, “Surface Reading”


1. Week Two: Describe a significant experience of reading (500 words). What was the first (or most important, or most interesting) text you read closely? And what constituted this reading as a “close reading”? Or what was the (first, most influential, most interesting) critical text that distinguished, for you, the difference between “reading” and “close reading”? How did this distinction emerge? These will be shared and integrated into the discussion.

2. Presentation/Essay: This essay should provide a more extended reflection on what we do when we read. (1000-1500 words). You might again want to consider an act of reading that clarifies the differences, or the tensions, between reading and “close reading.” The subject matter of this text is open: you can offer a reading of a literary text or consider an example of critical work outside the syllabus. In either case, the essay should dwell in part on the intersection of a critical argument and a literary text – what are the strategies for selection, for integrating literature into argument, for paraphrase, citation, synthesis, or abstraction of the text? If close reading often involves a moment of discovery (where we see a text one way and then -- under the pressure of our own or another critic’s reading practice -- see something else) what is the nature, and significance (aesthetic, critical, ideological, literary-historical) of what’s found and what’s (exposed as) hidden? These essays will form the basis for class presentations, which will take place throughout the quarter. Presentations should try to rearticulate questions from the course – and from the primary readings – in terms of particular examples that interest you. While we can’t read too much more material for these presentations, students should feel free to distribute some material beforehand to the class (either literary or critical).

3. Final essay. 10-12 pages. This essay can explore one of the primary texts in our class, or elaborate some of the problems and questions that we’ve broached in relation to other literary or critical texts.


Students with Documented Disabilities

Students who may need an academic accommodation based on the impact of a disability must initiate the request with the Office of AccessibleEducation (OAE). Professional staff will evaluate the request with required documentation, recommend reasonable accommodations, andprepare an Accommodation Letter for faculty dated in the current quarter in which the request is being made. Students should contact the OAE assoon as possible since timely notice is needed to coordinate accommodations. The OAE is located at 563 Salvatierra Walk (phone: 723-1066,URL:

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