29 March 2010

MCT: Valentine Cunningham

Near the end of MCT, now, and the first of two post-theory (a begged question, of course) pieces. "Touching reading" is a sparkling read, and you can imagine how good a lecturer Cunningham must be. It's a chapter of his 2002 book Reading after Theory. It's essentially an attack on mainly US proponents of Theory, centered around the concept of tact in reading. In a twist ironically redolent of Theorist writing, he approached this by looking at how the concept of touch has been handled (I know) in criticism of, among others, Great Expectations and the poems of Gerard Manly Hopkins. There's a brilliant dissection of William A Cohen's "Manual conduct in Great Expectations" and of Greg Woods' reading of "Felix Randal" in terms of queer theory.

The point of this is to reinstate the view that the purpose of reading is make us better people, to reinstate the human figure into literature, which he says Theorists have excluded. There are various suggestions that the founders of Theory (Barthes, Foucault, Derrida) never excluded the human in the way their 'followers' have; for example, Foucault's work is witness to "an interest, a truly human interest, in the human owners of those bodies [which are affected by the power relations]" (p 775).

This is good, insofar as it restores the focus of literary endeavour to understanding the act and purpose of reading. I think there's an underlying tendency to throw out a few babies with the bathwater, though. You can theorise about "the Author", locate the text as part of a wider discourse which speaks through the author, without disregarding the humanistic aspects of reading.

Similarly, though you can deplore the overuse of (eg) queer readings, his gungho approach risks losing the insight that identity politics has brought; and it's hard to think about those issues without using some of Foucault's views on discourse.

At the end of the piece, Cunningham quotes from Stephen King, in a calculatedly anti-theoretical act. King likens the relation between writer and reader as a kind of telepathy. By using words, thoughts and pictures that were in the writer's mind are now in the reader's. Once again, though, I as a reader don't care about what the writer was thinking.

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