The Singularity is Near


Review of The Work of Literature, by Derek Attridge

Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015

The very title of Derek Attridge’s The Work of Literature announces it as a deviation from what has become the usual sort of academic study of literature. No subtitle indicating that whatever work literature does for the critic is in the service of something other than itself? “Representation as Political Resistance”? “Style and the Cultural Determinants of Language”? Just the “work of literature,” in isolation from its historical and sociological context, as if such a work might actually be approached on its merits as, well, art, or some other reactionary, now discredited and outdated practice? Heavens to Betsy!

Attridge makes it clear soon enough that “work” in this book can be understood both as a way of identifying a poem or novel (“a work of fiction’) and as the labor involved in the work’s actualization (its “performance,” as Attridge has it). Still, the focus of his analysis is unmistakably on the experience of reading literature: “Can we do justice to literature?” Attridge asks. “More specifically, can we do justice to literature as literature when the institutions within which we engage with it—as teachers, students, researchers, and critics—exert constant pressure to treat it instrumentally—to reduce it to a set of rules, or a source of information, or a deployment of skills?” What complicates the attempt to do justice to the literary work (that is, if it is truly “literary”) is the difficulty of grappling with its “singularity,” the “particularity of the work’s power, intellectual and affective.” Singularity occurs not in fixed features of the text (which Attridge regards simply as the words printed on a page) but as an event, an “act-event,” Attridge’s coinage intended to capture the activity of both writer and reader. “Singularity” refers more broadly as well to literature as a whole, accounting for its “distinctiveness among linguistic practices, allowing us to appreciate what is different about a novel or poem in comparison with a letter, a factual article, an opinion piece, a sermon, a historical study, a scientific treatise, a philosophical argument, an after dinner speech.”

Attridge’s concept of singularity was first introduced and developed in his 2004 book, The Singularity of Literature, and he describes The Work of Literature as a supplement to that book and an extension of its argument. Fortunately, for readers unfamiliar with the earlier book, Attridge provides a recapitulation of sorts in the form of a self-interview comprising the first chapter of the new book. In this chapter the reader will learn not just what Attridge means by “singularity” but also how writers display “invention” to invoke “otherness,” the latter of which (although Attridge also uses the term “alterity” as a term for this) is for Attridge the defining feature of the reading experience, bringing to the reader’s awareness the absolutely different, something never before apprehended “because the modes of encounter made possible by the state of things. . .do not allow for it.”

. . .Otherness is not just out there, unapprehended because no-one has thought of apprehending it, or because it bears no relation whatever to existing forms of knowledge, but because to apprehend it would threaten the status quo.

“Status Quo” does not refer simply to the reigning political order but includes all existing categories of thought, cultural, psychological, or aesthetic. The disclosure of otherness represents for Attridge the singular value of literature (and to an extent, art more generally), taking the place of aesthetic beauty, moral suasion, or political enlightenment in other accounts of the efficacy of art and literature, not least because those kinds of value can be affirmed in many other, non-artistic endeavors and experiences. In the subsequent chapters, Attridge further pursues questions posed but not fully explored in The Singularity of Literature, especially the salience of the alternative approaches to literature that have dominated academic discourse over the last several decades and within the context of which Attridge’s theory must compete for recognition and respect. What is the proper role of the critic of literature? How does historical context shape our response to the literary work? To what extent does cultural difference affect our reception of the work?

Attridge answers all of these questions by maintaining throughout that literature’s singularity, for both writer and reader, is, while unavoidably conditioned by context and culture, always present to the reader approaching the work as an artistic expression, in fact must be present if the work is to be experienced as such. (Some works no longer afford this kind of experience, while others, not originally written to afford it, can begin to do so.) It is not that a work of literature can only be encountered in its singularity—all literary works can be read for many other purposes (as historical document, as cultural symptom, etc.). But Attridge insists that they exist as “literature” only when they are allowed to manifest in the “event” of conscientious reading open to the unknown and unexpected. Although he also repeatedly acknowledges that literary writing can be considered from other perspectives for a variety of motives, Attridge clearly believes that it is the transformative power of poetry and fiction that most warrants our attention to it, that, indeed, justifies creating the category of “literature” in the first place.

To illustrate how the various concepts employed in his theory might be applied, Attridge offers a number of close readings of specific works, from Emily Dickinson’s poem “As imperceptibly as Grief” to Alaa al-Aswany’s novel The Yacoubian Building (2004). These readings are uniformly effective in the context of this book, demonstrating both that Derek Attridge is a skilled and discerning reader and that terms of the theory as he defines them can indeed be coherently applied. But the very success of these readings in exemplifying Attridge’s own apprehension of literary invention and its revelations of otherness raise questions about how his method could be transferred to the formal study of literature. Arguably New Criticism gained the prominence it once had because the strategy of close reading proved effective not just in generating a distinctive kind of academic literary criticism but also in organizing a classroom in the still-developing discipline of literary study; however, for this strategy to really succeed, analysis should lead to conclusions that can be generalized, even if only toward a broadly shared “appreciation” that nevertheless is anchored in manifest features of the work at hand. Attridge’s mode of analysis discourages us from thinking that a literary work actually has manifest features to which all readers will respond in a similar way.

For Attridge, the “text” is simply the otherwise inert printing of words. The “work” is the text as brought to life by the reader, whose experience of its singularity is itself singular. Attridge speaks of the possibility that the teacher might “encourage and leave a space for the encounter with otherness,” but it scarcely seems plausible that a curriculum of literary study could be justified according to how felicitously it enabled its students to register the singular experience of reading assigned literary works. If the kind of close reading associated with New Criticism was ultimately discredited because the appreciation it was intended to foster seemed hopelessly indistinct as an object of knowledge, it is hard to see how the kind of approach implied by Attridge’s description of the reading experience would be perceived as rigorous enough to become a generally accepted practice. Indeed, however much notions like the “autonomy” or the “singularity” of the literary work (Attridge rejects the former as a denial of reality, it should be said) are legitimate names for the artistic integrity many of us feel a work of literature should be granted at some point in our consideration of its value, using the literature classroom (the literature curriculum more generally) simply to reinforce this particular value, the possibility of a potentially transformative experience, can’t finally be the solely sanctioned strategy for “teaching” literature. There is, after all, a difference between studying literature and reading it, and there would seem little need for formal programs in literary study if joining a book discussion group might work just as well.

That Attridge underplays the practical applications of his theoretical construct suggests he knows those applications are problematic. Thus The Work of Literature ultimately seems more preoccupied with ethics than with either pedagogy or aesthetics (certainly not formalist aesthetics), in the process locating the book comfortably enough in currently respectable academic discourse after all. Attridge’s precepts are expressed in unequivocally ethical language—“doing justice,” “responsible” reading—even in the final chapter recasting the activity of readers and critics as a form of “hospitality”: “effective hospitality to the literary work involves informing and energizing one’s conscientious, careful, rule-governed reading with the unlimited, unpredictable force of unconditional openness to whatever might arrive.” It would seem that for Attridge academic criticism can provide in its attentiveness and solicitude, its scrupulous accountability, a model ethical project, his book becoming an extended gloss on the ethical theories of Derrida and Levinas. Literature itself, it turns out, is most valuable in making this sort of ethical and reading and criticism possible, provoking the question whether Attridge doesn’t de facto stress the instrumental convenience of literature himself, prizing it more as a source of ethical reflection or inquiry (including the inquiry resulting in this book) than for its intrinsic value as aesthetic expression.

It might be said further that Attridge’s analysis of literary value and its embodiment in the event of reading, to the extent it relies on widely-accepted ethical concepts (“hospitality” is rather unconventional in its bearing on literary criticism, but the term identifies an attitude toward reading the ethical status of which is readily apparent) is also dubiously faithful to his own stated preference for a criticism that recognizes literature’s singularity, pursuing ends that could not be accomplished just as well using other kinds of illustration, other rhetorical means. Surely the ethical considerations that inform Attridge’s analysis could be explored in numerous contexts apart from reading poems and novels. If Attridge makes a good case for the singularity of literature as realized through the reading experience, his book itself serves as a less persuasive model, except in isolated flourishes designed to reckon with that singularity in its tangible expressions.

The most tangible element of a literary work’s artistic expression –its formal and stylistic features—would presumably correspond to what Attridge designates as “invention,” but just as (deliberately, it seems) he defines “otherness” as broadly as possible, he also does little to specify what characteristics constitute invention, or whether some forms of invention might be aesthetically superior to others. We can get some sense of how he measures it by looking at his sample readings, such as the discussion of Emma Donoghue’s novel, Room (2010) at the conclusion of Chapter 3. Attridge asserts that Donoghue accomplishes “something new” in her novel related from the perspective of a young child, but exactly what is new about it is never made clear. The novel is somewhat unorthodox in that the child’s at times opaque language is allowed to be the novel’s center of discourse, but that hardly seems an innovation, however much it does condition the reader’s perception of the story’s immediate circumstances. Ultimately the novel’s language and its oblique narration serve the fairly standard function (standard in contemporary fiction) of delaying the full revelation of setting (a single room in which the child and his mother have been imprisoned by a rapist abductor) and creating a kind of mystery plot. Donoghue’s invocation of her character’s verbal reality may be done skillfully enough, but that it represents some kind of advance over, for instance, The Sound and the Fury is not a sustainable claim.

Attridge’s case is not strengthened by the arguably circular reasoning employed in his elucidation of the connections among his central concepts: “A work that is inventive is necessarily one that introduces otherness and is singular; a work that brings the other into the field of the same is necessarily singular and inventive in its handling of the available materials.” The notion that a work of literature has managed to introduce something unprecedented and heretofore unknown because it is inventive in a particularly “literary” way seems perfectly sound, but when “otherness” is defined so loosely that the perception of it can only be subjective (“It’s ‘other’ to me!”) then invention comes to seem a rather indeterminate activity—since I feel the work reveals an unfamiliar subject or technique, it must be inventive because, according to Attridge’s formula, the two qualities always appear together. In his readings of passages from poets such as Milton and Wordsworth, Attridge is quite persuasive in showing how specific elements of these passages can lead to a recognition of invention, but when such features are irretrievably tied to the “act-event” disclosing otherness, it is not at all certain that different readers will respond to them with the same sort of faciltity.

However attuned to the subtle effects of literary language Attridge proves himself to be in his close readings, there is also a certain modesty to them, in keeping with his assertion that “a critical method should be no more powerful than is absolutely necessary for the task it is called upon to carry out.” Attridge explicitly poses such modesty against the criticism of someone like Christopher Ricks, whose considerable skills are “deployed to move, delight, and persuade” more than they are used to convey the critic’s direct experience of the work at hand. Attridge suggests that the critic instead pause to ask, “does what I am pointing out really matter in my experience of the works?” This seems at first a perfectly reasonable suggestion, but when “experience” in effect overrules the claims that might be made for the existence of more or less objective—or at least stable—features possessed by the literary text that predispose the reader’s experience, it merits further reflection. For one thing, the notion of “my experience of the works” here seems surprisingly static. Does criticism so easily capture that experience, as if recording a unitary reading, unalterable in its results? As a way, perhaps, of making the concept of “singularity” seem less absolute, Attridge stresses that it is subject to change according to time and circumstance, that a work can gain or lose it, so it is curious he would enjoin the critic against attempting to “move” or “persuade” the reader, to introduce critical matters that might, for example, modify and enhance some readers’ future experience of the work.

Even if we were to accept that the experience of reading can be regarded as something unified and discrete, how, finally, would we determine what “really matters” in an assimilation of that experience? Is it what matters to the integrity of the experience, or is it what matters in our attempt to do justice to the literary work itself? Perhaps Attridge would say there is no way to separate the two questions, since they are both answered in the affirmative and describe the same phenomenon. But for the critic’s attempt to be either just or unjust, the “literary work itself” must have palpable qualities that are not simply functions of the reader’s perception. There must be the possibility that some critics might do greater justice to the work than others, even the possibility that some critics might simply get it wrong. “Getting it wrong” is not something that applies to the act of reading taken purely as a psychological state; the retort, “That’s the way I read it” is impossible to counter with an admonition to read better, not unless it is acknowledged that the “text” exists as more than a rumored presence enabling the act-event of literature, that the singularity of literature begins in the writing, the very material medium through which all literary art is irreducibly given its form.

Posted on 16 May 2016

DANIEL GREEN is a literary critic whose essays and reviews have appeared in a wide variety of publications, both print and online, general interest and scholarly. He maintains the literary weblog, The Reading Experience, and teaches at the University of Missouri.