Misreading the Surface: Reevaluating Our Post-critical Moment

(Panel)


American/Diaspora / Rhetoric & Composition

Carly Schnitzler (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)

Erin Piemont (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)

Care, the theme of the 2022 NeMLA conference, is a “practice of interdependency.” This panel seeks to surface the interdependencies of the aesthetic and political on and within the surfaces of literary texts, asking: What is the status of surface reading in literary criticism today? Twenty-first century literary criticism has seen a renewed interest in the “surface” of the text, in terms Sharon Marcus and Stephen Best made familiar in 2009. Marcus and Best’s “surface reading” is reminiscent of Susan Sontag’s call for an “erotics” rather than a “hermeneutics” of art in her 1964 essay “Against Interpretation.” “The function of criticism,” she writes, “should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means.” This turn away from the practices of interpretation and hermeneutics has also informed Rita Felski’s 2015 The Limits of Critique, which aligns “critique” with practices of a hermeneutics of suspicion and designates our current critical moment as “post-critical.” In light of these calls for more sustained attention to the form of the literary text, what is the status of formalism itself? Of course, the practice of surface reading bears the marks of our New Critical inheritances—inheritances which have informed much critical neglect of the social implications of literature in favor of aesthetic and apolitical concerns. What are the affordances of attending to a text’s “surface” and what are the limits?

This panel asks, what is the place of surface reading in today’s literary-critical landscape? Evie Shockley’s “lyric dis-reading” has described the ways in which female poets of color have negotiated their relationships with white poetic influences in order to write themselves into exclusionary white poetic traditions. In what other creative and inclusive ways have authors re-inscribed the surfaces of literary works? How can we reconsider the textual “surface,” attending to the interdependency of aesthetic concerns of form, genre and medium alongside intersectional sociopolitical concerns? What is gained by reinscribing the surface of a text, and what is lost? While such questions engage with concerns central to poetry and poetics, we invite a variety of reconsiderations of a text’s “surface.” Considerations of materiality and form, as well as interdisciplinary concerns of the literary text’s relation to the surface of a work of visual art, or the digital screen, and other approaches, are welcome.

This panel seeks to surface the interdependencies of the aesthetic and political on and within the surfaces of literary texts. What is the status of surface reading in literary criticism today? Considerations of materiality and form, as well as interdisciplinary concerns of the literary text’s relation to the surface of a work of visual art, or the digital screen, and other approaches, are welcome.