The Reading of Life
The Reading of Life
Abstract and Keywords
This brief chapter relates the preceding discussions of Clare, romanticism, and biopoetics to the contemporary example of the city of Detroit and argues that the methods uses in this book, close reading in particular, can help us to see connections between the past and the present, between literature and life.
I end this story with Detroit, because this is where it began. It was there that I began to think about how John Clare’s poetry might help us to read about the quotidian forms of displacement in U.S. cities and suburbs, just as it might help us to think about radical homelessness or the emergence of biopoetics. In other words, I end it here in order to demonstrate what is at stake in this book. If these contemporary scenes seem to bear almost no resemblance to romantic disagreements about poetic genius or to the culmination of arguments about how to edit the work of an uneducated, yet well-read laboring class poet, I imagine them flickering and reflecting one another in a constellation like those Walter Benjamin described as the vehicles of a new form of minor history. This is a history of the forgotten, the forgetting of Clare but also the forgetting—one that we are living with right now—of reading itself.
I opened by calling for a return to close reading. I conclude by suggesting that close reading (or just reading) might still lead us to think anew about contemporary scenes of violence and loss, identity and belonging, survival and viability. When Benjamin saw the constellation—or allegory—as a form of redemption, it was not in the sense of a conventional dialectic or overcoming, but rather as a way of holding two distant and complex moments in mind, of letting them hold one another and save each other. Hiding within this book’s subtitle stand the names of the other readers who have accompanied me (or whom I have accompanied). For me the constellation—the name—that Clare holds and even saves for us is that of Paul de Man. While to talk about “redeeming” Paul de Man sounds like the work of apology and denial, a matter that I have taken up elsewhere, the kind of Benjaminian redemption that I am interested in here is what in the opening of Chapter 1 I described as “letting a little life” into de Man’s work. If, as I read him, de Man was relatively uninterested in life, I want to suggest that this indifference, (p.102) repeated over and again by his admirers and detractors, is also what makes his work seem so desperately lifeless, so robotically linguistic, so untimely, and I am arguing, despite all of this so filled with possibility. It may offer the key or lever that allows us to live with and in a world where questions of viability and nonbelonging—questions of language, politics, poetry—may be all that endure. In this world, untimely reading remains a condition of possibility of thinking today.
Sometimes when I think about the nature of this thinking, I am inclined to call it “posttheory.” To some, this might sound like a kind of overcoming that leads us into the domain of history or description, statistics or appreciation. Instead, I think of it in terms of the absorption of theory and its ways of reading. I think of it as a way of engaging with literature and culture that cannot do without theory, but that presents another relation to theory than the one that predominated in the last century and early years of this one. This is what I have undertaken to perform. In some sense, this reading is the strongest affirmation of the impact of what still goes by the name of theory that I can imagine, but it is unfamiliar and strange, lateral and sometimes subversive. In other words, it is a bit like John Clare himself.