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Literature at Work: A Conversation with Derek Attridge

A TEXT IS NOT literary — or non-literary — by essence. It becomes literary when readers let it work as literature, when they do justice to it. This is what the emeritus professor of English at the University of York Derek Attridge brilliantly argues in The Work of Literature, published by Oxford University Press in 2015. Though focused on the specificities of the literary, his inquiry does not resort to any essentialistic conceptions of literature. It is in the individual act of reading that we put a text to work and can share something of its literary power. Attridge had proposed the main line of his theory in The Singularity of Literature (Routledge, 2004), but his recent achievement presents a richer and more articulated argument, one that also takes into account critical responses to the previous book. Paying attention to the developments of the current debate in literary criticism and theory, our conversation spontaneously gravitated toward the issues of form(s) and formalism(s) that are giving rise to much discussion in the United States these days. Attridge, one of the world-leading thinkers of singularity, situates his own long commitment to literature in relation to this context.

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FRANCESCO GIUSTI: The first part of The Work of Literature is a Q-and-A you hold with yourself for almost 100 pages. You reply to requests of explanation about, and potential objections to, your theoretical endeavor, often clarifying and sharpening your previous effort at systematization in The Singularity of Literature. What is immediately striking to me in this chapter is how the singularity you propose as both a concept and a practice of writing and reading resonates with the format (or form) you chose to open your book. In a certain sense, the Q-and-A session performs the singularity of your own theoretical approach, which does not intend to assert itself as an abstract system.

DEREK ATTRIDGE: Thank you for starting us off with a topic that goes to the heart of literary reading. I hadn’t thought of my own practice in The Work of Literature as exemplifying what I take to be central to literature’s distinctiveness, but it’s true that I wanted to be present to the reader as someone thinking through the issues rather than as the disembodied voice of philosophical truth. For the same reason, I like the interview format — or, as I would rather conceptualize it, the conversation.

What emerges in the opening section is the embodied authoredness of your account of the literary work. The notion of authoredness lies at the basis of your reflection on the interrelated concepts of inventiveness, singularity, and otherness. In order to have these features active in the work of literature, you argue that the reader must recognize the text as the bearer of a certain degree of authorial intention. Only this way can the singularity of reading touch the inventiveness of the work. How could we find the uncertain point of mediation where the author’s authority does not block any inventiveness in the reader, and the reader, on her side, can still feel that there is an author at the opposite end with whom to get in touch? In engaging with Dante, who constructs a strong authorship in his works, I often wonder how we can allow the text to work in ways not fully predetermined by its author: in other words, where we can find places of potential friction between authorial intentionality and the inner workings of the text.

I think there are two issues at stake in the question of authorial intention that it’s helpful to keep separate. The first arises from a number of incontestable facts. There is the fact that writers have conscious intentions in creating works of literature, and the fact that those works may be readable in terms of those intentions (though this need not be the case, as many writers themselves have admitted; conscious intentions may not be actualized in what gets written, and the unconscious may play a significant role in composition). Then there is the fact that reading is a complex process, also partly conscious and partly unconscious, in which many kinds of prior information play a part, including information (or misinformation) about those authorial intentions. If I’ve read a letter in which an author states clearly what he intended in writing a particular work, it’s likely that my understanding of that work will be colored by what I know, however strong my theoretical attachment to an anti-intentionalist position. Something similar is true, of course, of biographical information and evidence from manuscript materials.

The second issue is the one I’ve tried to address with the concept of authoredness. Quite apart from any sense of an “implied author” created by the text is my awareness that the work I’m reading has a real author (or perhaps more than one author, as in the case of translation). The work may be anonymous, or by an author about whom I know nothing, but I still read it as authored — as the product of an author’s intentional act. We feel, as you say, that we are able to get in touch with the author when the work moves us or challenges us or amuses us. To experience the inventiveness of the work is to experience the traces of the actual creative labor that produced it, however inaccessible that labor may be to historical accounting. It’s here that I see an ethical dimension to reading: one has a certain responsibility to, and indeed for, the author — to read with care, not to impose one’s own assumptions on the work, and so on.

To answer your question, then — how can we read creatively when this may lead to departures from what the author intended? — we have to put it in these two different contexts. In the first context, I would follow, as far as it is possible to do so, D. H. Lawrence’s maxim: trust the tale, not the teller. Whatever external information I may have as to the author’s intention should be tested against the work itself, and although one can’t control unconscious influences one can at least make a conscious effort to let the work win out in any conflict. What you call a “friction between authorial intentionality and the inner workings of the text” can arise only in this context, and although one should certainly treat records of author’s intentions with due seriousness (and they are always open to a variety of interpretations), it is those inner workings that matter most.

In the second context, the sense of a strong authorship, such as you say Dante constructs, is not a matter of external evidence but a product of one’s reading of the work and forms part of any full engagement with it. There is therefore no possibility of friction between intention and inner workings; the experienced intention is part of those workings. But a responsible reading is also a creative reading: since what one brings to the poem is singular — each of us has a unique history that informs our engagement with a particular work — one’s reading is also singular. Creativity or inventiveness in reading is simply what happens when the singularity of the reader encounters the singularity of the work. There is no way the actual author could have foreseen the singularity of my, or anyone else’s, reading; it necessarily goes beyond actual intentions. But to consciously go against the intentionality encoded in the work, “reading against the grain,” I would say, is to subject the work to something other than a literary reading — it becomes an instrumental reading in the service of a political, historical, or other end.

Right. Instrumental reading simply sets the reader’s intentions against the author’s ones. Yet, your elucidation makes me think of the peculiar nonlinear historicity of literary language and genres. Certain gestures, rhetorical structures, metaphors, and linguistic formulations in a text point to similar previous and future usages. Language itself seems to carry potential meanings of which the author might be unaware, or that might be partially in contrast with her intention. The reader could possess a different knowledge — or, in your terms, idioculture — of the history of those usages that can contribute to a different working of the literary work. Perhaps such temporality could give to every singularity a certain degree of trans-historical generality, which has nothing to do with immutable, ahistorical universality. When I read Dante’s lyric poems, I cannot help thinking that Sappho was performing quite similar gestures 19 centuries before — and Dante knew nothing of her poetry. Our relationship with the text as a work of literature does not seem to entail only a negotiation between the author’s and the reader’s contexts, but also with the broader context of the longer tradition, which is constantly changing in the reader’s mind. As you suggest, we have to recognize a partial sameness in order to open ourselves to otherness. Radical otherness cannot be apprehended. To what extent might these reenacted gestures be part of the literary, of the specificity of literature as literature?

Your description of the reader’s negotiation with the long tradition of literary works, with which I agree, has some connections with T. S. Eliot’s famous — or notorious — account in “Tradition and the Individual Talent”: “The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted.” Eliot, of course, was imagining some self-sufficient and harmonious ordering of literary works independent of the particular reader, but if we think in terms of our function as readers, it seems right to say that each new work (what Eliot calls “the really new” work) has the potential to make a difference to all the others that we have already read and might reread. It’s perfectly plausible that someone would read Dante’s lyric poems, then Sappho’s, and then return to Dante to find that his poems have changed — not, as you say, because they are now understood as influenced by Sappho, but because the possibilities and parameters of lyric poetry have been altered for that reader. I wouldn’t describe this mental coexistence of all one has read and remembered as an “ideal order” in the way that Eliot does; rather, it’s an ever-changing cluster of impressions and memories, not all consistent with one another.

I think what has to be emphasized is that reading a literary work with the fullest engagement is not a matter of applying to the text frameworks of understanding, historical information, linguistic and generic rules, and so on, but a process that is as much passive as it is active, allowing the work to generate its own pathways through all that we may bring to it. The achievement of a good reading — one that is responsive to the work’s singularity, inventiveness, and otherness, attentive to the implicit intentionality of the work — is not a matter of the exercise of ingenuity or the deployment of knowledge but of letting the work gain access to what one knows, recalls, and feels. This will include the mental residue of all one’s reading.

I like your distinction between a transhistorical generality and an ahistorical universality. The experience of a transhistorical connection — between Dante and Sappho, for instance — is itself thoroughly historical: it’s the product of the history of an individual’s reading in a particular time and place, and it’s subject to continuous historical change.

A difficulty arises, however, when we think in terms of “world literature.” What if I read Li Po’s poems and then return to Dante? Does the greater cultural distance between these two poets (than in the case of Dante and Sappho) mean that we should resist any impact that the Chinese poet might have on our reading of the Italian poet? Dante and Sappho can be thought of as belonging to a single “European tradition,” and Eliot would certainly have thought any influence outside this tradition to be irrelevant.

When we read across cultural traditions like this, we read from within our own tradition, except in the rare case of someone who is equally at home in both. In such a case, the individual would have an unusually rich and complex store of cultural materials that would produce very interesting readings, though ones that would be hard to share with others who lacked access to that range of materials. I can only read Li Po’s poetry in English translation, which is to say in a version already mediated by the English lyric tradition. In a certain sense, then, it has already been brought into my own cultural universe, and there is nothing illegitimate about its influencing the way I read Dante. What we’re both resisting, I think, is historicist purism — the assumption that the only proper way to understand a work is to recreate the conditions of its original production and reception, an assumption that would render all readings in later periods improper.

Exactly. But let me play the role of the historicist just for a moment. In the first part of The Work of Literature, you briefly address a possible objection to inventiveness as a specificity of literature: What about pre-Romantic poetics in which novelty was not a specifically valued property in literature? What kind of inventiveness may we find in systems of literary production that were much more based on the sharing of an established code, reciprocal responses, imitation of acknowledged masters, non-autonomy of the literary work, free circulation (costs aside), and distributed authorship? A poetics that, to a certain extent, seems to be coming back in recent years. Today art appears to be more a practice to be participated in than an enclosed object to be experienced, thus making the 19th-century conception of art and the artwork a (historical) exception rather than the rule. I am convinced that there has always been some kind of inventiveness in literature — that you aptly distinguish from originality — but I would like to know more about how it applies to such different systems.

Thank you for pressing me on this point — I agree that to emphasize inventiveness is to privilege certain periods and modes of creation. I think we need to make a distinction between the discourses about art on the one hand and the practices of artists and receivers of art on the other: the two clearly feed into one another, but the discourses produced in a particular period aren’t necessarily the best guide to what is actually happening in the minds and bodies of the practitioners and their audiences. For example, Renaissance poets and their readers had a much more sophisticated sense of poetic rhythm than any of the period’s many theorists of meter, and we would get a completely inaccurate idea of the achievements of these writers if we used only the contemporary commentaries.

So the fact that in certain periods inventiveness is not highlighted in the writings about art need not indicate that it was absent from either the creative process or the pleasure it provided its recipients. The evidence of the works themselves suggests, on the contrary, that it was a significant element, both for artist and the viewer, reader, or listener. The works that had the greatest influence on later practitioners were those that were most inventive in their time (Kant saw this clearly in emphasizing what he called exemplary originality), and who thus made further inventiveness possible.

As you say, art practices sometimes depend on a highly specific code shared by members of a cultural group, and in such cases the smallest innovation can have profound effects. Here, the reinforcement of the code at the same time as it is reinvented provides part of the pleasure that the work produces. Skillful imitation that succeeds in avoiding mere repetition is highly prized. In periods where less is shared in the way of generic convention, linguistic patterning, and so on, greater divergence from previous works is necessary to create the same degree of inventiveness. This, perhaps, is why there is a more obvious premium placed on artistic innovation in Western art in recent times, in the 19th century to some degree and more strikingly in the 20th.

The different models of generalized authorship that you cite are just as able to produce inventive art as the more conventional solitary artist. The experience of an opening-out into hitherto closed mental and emotional territories that are characteristic of invention seems to me just as likely in a participatory event of creation or reception as in a lone event.

To make one thing clear, I am unashamedly using the concept of “art” evaluatively; not every artifact that has the outward appearance of an artwork functions as art in this special sense, and not all those that have the potential to do so are always engaged with in a manner that produces the experience of art. But where that experience takes place, I believe there is always an element of inventiveness, however minor.

The ethics you propose for the act of reading — by the common reader and the trained critic alike — aims also at the handing-over of the work’s literariness to future generations. This entails both a revivification of the work and a letting-go of the reading, which is never to be definitive. In order to keep being literature, the work has to retain some of its otherness, even though what we perceive as other might change over time. In other words, the literary work has to resist interpretation and the interpreter has to resist the temptation to superimpose a full explanation on the work. Otherness is not to be exhausted. There is actually no truth-seeking in the criticism you advocate. Since it is only in the act of reading that the text becomes a work, the potential ethical action is not located in the work itself but in its interaction with the reader. (The compound act-event you propose is meant to emphasize the both passive and active character of this interaction.) Being an individual response to a work, in which the reader takes the responsibility to and for it, ethical reading accepts the situatedness of its achievements and the multiplication of possible readings. There is an ethical aspect in this contribution to building a community of readers across time and space. How would you envisage the relationships established by such an endeavor that is both individual and, hopefully, collective?

Your summary of what I take to be the ethics of literary reading is an excellent one, and I’m glad you stress the unfinishedness of any reading (however full and however perceptive) as the means by which the reader leaves the work open to the future. From the point of view of a sociologist, a community of readers is a social phenomenon implying responses shared through appropriate media, but from the point of view of a reader engaged in a literary work the experience of community is less easily definable. The concept of authoredness, which we talked about earlier, is one way to approach the sense of a relationship with the creator of the work: not the individual whose biography we may be familiar with (that is a relationship the reader of any kind of text might sense) but the posited individual whose inventive handling of language is being enjoyed, and the product of whose labor the reader is willing to take responsibility for. But there is also, as you imply, the experience of a community of other readers, past, present, and — in light of the idea of unfinishedness — the future.

If I am reading a work of literature with no thought of communicating my response, my sense of that community may not be very strong. Perhaps it is more implicit than conscious, a version of Kant’s subjective universal: I assume that my responses are not peculiar to me, but shared with other readers who have engaged with, or will engage with, the work. If I took my response to be entirely idiosyncratic, I would not think of it as a property of the work at all. If, however, my response is a written one to be made public — in a work of criticism, a lecture, or a class — I am participating in the much more concrete community of my future readers, and now my responsibility is not only to and for the author but also to, and perhaps for, this community. That is to say, the ethical stakes now involve the effect my own writing or teaching may have on others, and the possibility that it will contribute to the creating and sustaining of a collective readership whose common interest is the writer in question. Responsibility to and for the author is therefore inseparable from responsibility to and for the collective: if I do an injustice to the former, then I do an injustice to the latter, promulgating an inaccurate or insensitive view of the work and thereby selling the community of readers short.

In the fourth chapter of The Work of Literature and in your conversation with Henry Staten, The Craft of Poetry: Dialogues on Minimal Interpretation (Routledge, 2015), you provide a number of readings as examples of the critical method you promote. This modality on the one hand shows a great deal of respect for the inner workings of the work, and on the other hand it minimizes, or at least contains, the critic’s own stylistic and interpretive creativity. Indeed, you name such method weak or minimal interpretation. I can see the need for such a way of reading, especially when the investigation of potentially literary texts for nonliterary reasons has reached insidious peaks.

The recent trends in formalism are a reaction against historicism and contextualism, but they resist also a certain ideological critique. Both historicism and critique can end up considering the literary work as an artifact, among many others, to be explained away historically. Though weakened, for you the practice of interpretation is still important. How would you situate your approach with respect to the descriptive or explanatory modality that lies at the center of the current debate? After all, a general notion of form also tends to deprive the literary of its specificity: form is what we can find in all existing shaped matter. The act-event as the interaction between work and reader and the authoredness of a particular arrangement of words in the text seem to be quite far from such formalist approaches. Somehow, the latter seems to regain a methodological validity at the expense of the singularity of its object and of each literary work.

As someone who has been addressing the question of form from various perspectives for five decades, I find the current wave of interest in the topic intriguing, to say the least. And I agree with you that one of the dangers in this revival of interest is in treating form in too generalized a way. Caroline Levine, for instance, in her much talked-about Forms, understands forms as highly general tendencies (her subtitle and chapters name the categories she is interested in as “Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network”), a simplification that enables her to find formal similarities between works of literature and social or political realities. This is not to say that she doesn’t have some interesting analyses, but it seems to me that they owe very little to her overarching concept of form. Whatever is common to both poetic rhythms and institutional rhythms, literary hierarchies and sociopolitical hierarchies, is so general that it is of little analytical power. On the other hand, if we use the term for whatever purposes are called for by the particular analytical project we’re engaged in, as Jonathan Kramnick and Anahid Nersessian have recently suggested, it loses much of the explanatory capacity it has as a conceptual tool.

As a first corrective to the abstract notion of form, and restricting the discussion to literature, I would suggest that the term is best understood as a verb. Form, or forming, is something that happens in the experience of reading (or hearing) that constitutes the literary work as a literary work. Even the visual aspects of a literary work are part of that temporal experience. Secondly, as you suggest, form always has to be understood in relation to singularity: it is an aspect of what makes any literary work singular, and any given formal device may be used to very different effect in different works.

I take the word “form” to refer to all those features of the work that are not coded as semantic; that is to say, they are not processed by referring to a conventional lexicon that was imbibed when the language was learned. It’s only an apparent paradox that these features include the material substance of language itself: for instance, for English speakers there is no conventional meaning attached to the sound of a plosive, and a writer may make the formal decision to use plosive-heavy language for a variety of purposes. The singularity of any poem, therefore, and to a lesser degree of other genres of literature, includes the specific collocation and ordering of sounds, the rhythmic patterns they establish or resist, the types of intonation they call for, and so on — always operating in conjunction with (sometimes enhancing, sometimes contradicting) the semantic dimension. I’ve tried in several books to do justice to the particularity of these aspects of poetry, hoping to enhance an appreciation of the singularity of every poem and at the same time clarify relations among poems (singularity being not an immutable core but a unique configuration of shared properties).

Other features of the literary work that we could place under the umbrella of form are more obviously related to the classical notion of that which shapes matter: length (again, a temporal experience rather than a spatial property), organization of elements to create narrative tension and resolution, the panoply of effects traditionally classified as tropes, and the deployment of genre-specific conventions.

Formalism, then, is a name for the critical attention to these aspects of the literary experience, and I find it difficult to see how any responsible reading of a literary text can ignore them — though, clearly, a great deal of literary study over the past two or three decades has chosen to do so, preferring to treat the semantic dimension of the work as if it were the only thing of interest. To the historian or the sociologist, perhaps it is, but as a student of literature there is much more to take into account. My sense is that to look at meaning irrespective of these formal qualities is a sure way to misunderstand meaning.

You locate the source of an ethical reading in the priority of the literary work’s otherness, which of course entails its form(s), and in the reader’s response to it. New formalisms seem, slightly paradoxically, to locate the potential for political action in the critic’s mode of reading, in their trained sensitiveness, in Levine’s terms, to the “collision” of forms taking place in the literary work as well as forms in other objects and situations in the world. You rely on the reader, common and expert alike, whereas new formalisms rely on the professional literary critic. In other words, the latter seems to be more about what literary criticism has to offer to social change than about what literature can contribute to it.

Well said. Overestimating critics’ efficacy in the social and political worlds is part of the déformation professionnelle literary critics are prone to. Our job is based on the assumption that literature itself has value, and for many of us that value includes making a contribution to positive social change. The dominance of historical-empiricist approaches to literature over the last two or three decades is partly explicable as a reaction against ways of treating literature that seemed (rightly or wrongly) to ignore or even exacerbate the inequalities and injustices of the world, and it’s noteworthy that the most prominent recent attempts to refocus attention on formal properties — I’m thinking of Levine’s Forms (2015), Joseph North’s Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History (2017), and Tom Eyers’s Speculative Formalism: Literature, Theory, and the Critical Present (2017) — all insist on the importance of literature’s engagement with political realities. I’m very sympathetic to North’s and Eyers’s criticism of what the latter calls “the strangulating hegemony of historicism in the literary disciplines,” but their (very different) proposals for an alternative approach don’t get very far in suggesting how actual readers reading actual literary works can be said to contribute to social justice. I think there’s a fair amount of wishful thinking in this revivified interest in form, both in the theories being advanced and in the enthusiastic reception it is receiving in some quarters.

The alert and sensitive reading of the best literary works by a significant proportion of the population, willing to be surprised and changed by the experience, could be said to constitute a social good, even though in my view — since opening oneself to otherness is always a risky business — there can be no calculation in advance of what benefits might accrue (and there is always the possibility that some events of reading might have a negative effect). One way of looking at the ethical task of the literary critic, therefore, is the encouragement and enhancement of such reading, including the fostering of an appreciation of the working of form. Responsible critics keep literary works alive by affirming them in singular readings, readings that bring out those works’ inventive engagement with otherness (in which, as you say, formal operations play a crucial part), but it is of course their authors who make the greatest contribution to the domains of ethics and politics.

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Francesco Giusti is currently a fellow at the ICI Berlin Institute for Cultural Inquiry. After completing his PhD in Comparative Literature at Sapienza University of Rome and the Italian Institute of Human Sciences (SUM), he pursued his research on the history and theory of the lyric at the University of York (United Kingdom) and Goethe-Universität Frankfurt (Germany).

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