Cultural Studies vs Close Reading

This page is a posting I made on the PHIL-LIT listserv on February 7, 1997, in response to a student who wanted to know how List members felt about the issue of the apparent division between these two approaches, as what she seemed to be getting at her un iversity was a 'cultural studies' approach which ignored the texture, the quality, the poetic performance of the texts being studied.


It is difficult for me to know precisely what Emily Marcus means by 'cultural studies' (I've lost her original post), why cultural studies should exclude close reading, or why on the other hand 'literature' rather than texts less problematic in their intentions and interpretations than those which we refer to as literature usually are, is being used to 'do' cultural studies.

It may be that literary texts are understood by the instructors to be, in some way, privileged representations of social reality and hence are being treated as social documents with special force or heuristic power, because, for instance:

In such a case one of the tasks of the learning situation would be to theorize the grounds on which the texts are privileged as social documents. The argument can be made, on several grounds, such as those suggested above, and including grounds which require close reading in order to support and to operationalize the use of the texts.

If the grounds are established on which imaginative texts of a certain linguistic and representational complexity can be held to more fully represent the social situation (what it means to 'represent' being itself a matter for some thought), then the question arises as to what use the imaginative texts are put. One can do, for instance, a 'cultural studies' in which one examines how the ideologies of a culture are exposed, or illumined, of more fully contextualized, by this particular class of texts whose representational force one has established. Or one can do a 'cultural studies' in which one examines how cultural texts, of which imaginative writing may be held to be an exemplary instance, are interpreted by different people in different social positions (or 'subject positions', if you will), or who read the texts for differing purposes, and derive differing meanings. This latter kind of cultural studies ideally requires a fairly sophisticated ethnographic approach, complete with field studies. The former kind of course requires an articulated social theory.

If the case has been made that "literature" has some privileged or exemplary representational or heuristic status, then it seems to me that the use of literature in cultural studies will include some form of close reading. If literature is used opportunistically and in an untheorized way to do sociology, especially if it is sociology without any fieldwork, then the students are to my mind being shortchanged if not misled.

On the other hand it is I think the position of many people who prefer to do materialist readings of texts (in which the historicity of the text, its placement, its production, its use, are foregrounded) that 'close reading' by itself is irresponsible, and as misleading as any half-baked sociological use might be, because it is an explicit failure to theorize and explore the very existence and function of these texts, and that 'close reading' thus simply mystifies the texts, however much it may tickle its practitioners pink. It is also the case that reading of texts as 'cultural studies' has always gone on, and almost cannot not go on, if the texts are to be seen as having any social significance at all.