What is “surface reading”? How have we been called to attend textual surfaces, and what are the implications of such a call in our current intellectual climate? More specifically, how does such a call to the surface affect medieval and early modern studies, subfields that have had vexed relations to critical theory and teeter at the edge of “relevance” and usefulness?
From 9-12 February 2012, Exemplaria and the University of Texas will convene 25 prominent scholars of medieval and renaissance studies to explore these questions. The recent recommendations of “surface reading” as a preferred protocol for scholarship make this work especially urgent. This is in part because such recommendations caution variously “against,” “beyond,” or “after” the very interpretive tools that prompted the founding of Exemplaria in the first place, that is, textual analyses informed by the hermeneutics of suspicion associated with Marxist, Psychoanalytic, and Deconstructive theories.
A recent issue of Representations (Fall 2009), for example, looks toward a straightforward theory of textuality and culture engaged with what the text says rather than what it avoids, hides, ignores, or misrepresents. How is such a call to surface reading—a resistantly literal understanding of texts that begs the very questions of depth it seeks to dismantle—to be understood at the present moment, in the wake of increasingly instrumentalist notions of the future of academic work and the University? And what, after all, are the implications of “surface” readings for the specificity of early texts and traditions? Will eschewing symptomatic readings return us to the simplistic and uncomplicated narratives of the past that scholars have worked hard to complicate or dismantle? And given that surface reading has been tied, through the notion of “distance reading,” to quantitative models of scholarship fueled by the recent digitizations of Google books—how does digitization itself engage with the early printed book? Data-mining character recognition (OCR) software available through Google books technologies cannot yet accommodate Blackletter printing, thus threatening to leave out all of the Middle Ages and much of the Renaissance from its data sets. What are the implications of this “new” digitized, “fully-searchable” archive for our understandings of the long tradition of “literary,” “artistic,” “religious,” or “textual” culture?
These the questions, concerns and issues the Exemplaria symposium, Surface, Symptom, & the State of Critique will address.