Naïve Reading

In this week’s Stone column Robert B. Pippin urges English professors to encourage “naïve reading,” as opposed to critical theory. This is a very old argument–well, dating from the 1980s–and an extremely tiresome one. However, Pippin places the debate in the proper historical context, and while I disagree with his conclusions, Pippin makes some crucial points.

First of all, let me say that I don’t believe in “naïve reading” or any attempt to somehow halt the interpretive process at a moment of purity, before reading is despoiled by “theory.” As far as critical theory is concerned, it’s always been my position that practitioners of critical theory are much more ambivalent and haphazard about how they teach and apply critical theory.

That said, Pippin reminds us that the academic study of  literature is relatively new. As a formal discipline, it’s less than 100 years old. It took centuries for physics to settle on a method. Literary studies, Pippin says, is simply too young to have settled on a unified methodology, hence the confusing panoply of critical approaches taught in universities. Critical theory is a consequence of moving the study of literature into the academy, where texual studies have to demonstrate the some form of scientific objectivity in order to survive. (I was glad to see Pippin dismiss interpretations based on neurosciences and evolutionary biology as “spectacular examples of bad literary criticism.”)

However, literature is something of an oddball in the university. Unlike other disciplines, interpreting a poem isn’t a matter of simply applying a theory and declaring victory. Literature is a species of aesthetics, which means that a poem can’t be reduced to the formalized language used to describe it. Our response to literature will always be greater than our ability to put that response into language. As Pippin rightly asserts, this is the whole point of having arts in the academy.

From here Pippin moves on to describe “naïve reading” as a “first level” response to a literary text. Pippin describes  naïve reading as “an aesthetic experience that is by its nature resistant to restatement in more formalized, theoretical or generalizing language.” However, I wonder if the difference between a theoretical and a naïve reading is the same as the difference between a disorganized reading and an organized one, between a private response and a public one. Furthermore, I suspect that the issue has less to do with readerly intent than the cultural status of the text. Most educated people can come up with a naïve reading of a popular culture text all by themselves, There’s a difference between a Stephanie Meyer Twilight novel and a Henry James novel. A naïve reading of the latter ignores the uniqueness of James’s language–of what makes a novel a Henry James novel.

I’d like to make two more points, both tangentially related to Pippin’s argument. First, I think that critical theory is both an attempt to make literary studies more scientifically objective and an updating of a very old belief of literary studies: that the study of literature prepare you for the study of anything, that to be a good explicator of Keats is the same thing as being a good lawyer or banker or diplomat.

Second, in addition to trying to recreate the ways in which Dickens was read and interpreted in the nineteenth century, a scholarly research project, we should be trying to understand how audiences read today. Is a naïve reading possible or even desirable in the Internet age? Can critical theory be a better way to unify one’s response to the texts that come at us from everywhere and at unprecedented speeds? In the age of digital reading, do we need more systematization, or less?


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