Close reading describes a set of procedures and methods that distinguishes the scholarly apprehension of textual material from the more prosaic reading practices of everyday life. Its origins and ancestry are rooted in the exegetical traditions of sacred texts (principally from the Hindu, Jewish, Buddhist, Christian, Zoroastrian, and Islamic traditions) as well as the philological strategies applied to classical works such as the Homeric epics in the Greco-Roman tradition, or the Chinese詩經 (Shijing) or Classic of Poetry. Cognate traditions of exegesis and commentary formed around Roman law and the canon law of the Christian Church, and they also find expression in the long tradition of Chinese historical commentaries and exegeses on the Five Classics and Four Books. As these practices developed in the West, they were adapted to medieval and early modern literary texts from which the early manifestations of modern secular literary analysis came into being in European and American universities. Close reading comprises the methodologies at the center of literary scholarship as it developed in the modern academy over the past one hundred years or so, and has come to define a central set of practices that dominated scholarly work in English departments until the turn to literary and critical theory in the late 1960s. This article provides an overview of these dominant forms of close reading in the modern Western academy. The focus rests upon close reading practices and their codification in English departments, although reference is made to non-Western reading practices and philological traditions, as well as to significant nonanglophone alternatives to the common understanding of literary close reading.
The diversity of scholarly contributions to the interdisciplinary fields of animal studies and posthumanism defies summation. As loosely assembled areas of inquiry, however, these fields contest the exceptionalist elevation of humans above animals on the basis of the latter’s alleged lack of language and reason, their exclusion from the political, their inability to experience pain or to understand death, and their absence of a moral sense of right and wrong. Posthumanism also stresses that species difference warrants an ethico-political attentiveness that eschews automatically reducing animals to figurative representations of gender, sexual, or racial difference. While theses hierarchies are no doubt sustained in part by exploiting the metaphorics of species difference, the urgency of dismantling the human/animal hierarchy has inclined animal studies and a number of cognate fields toward the literal, resulting in non-allegorical readings of texts by authors such as George Orwell, Henry David Thoreau, and Toni Morrison. This preference for literality is also shared by continental philosophers working in speculative realism and object-oriented ontology (OOO), as well as by literary critics who advance the enterprise of “surface reading,” which eschews the notion that texts contain “hidden meanings.” The nonhuman turn has emerged in conjunction with a preference for literality because posthumanism tends to stress immanence rather than transcendence. This ethos engenders a flattening effect that places humans, animals, plants, and things on same ontological level (OOO); resists interpreting literary animals in human terms (literary animal studies); and rejects the role of the critic as a hermeneutic decipherer of texts (surface reading). The “literal turn” thus poses a number of questions for literary theory. Literal meaning is definitionally uniform, but can univocal sense be maintained? In the 1960s, Jacques Derrida radicalized the Saussurian notion of the arbitrary nature of signs, arguing that the isolation of a literal or proper meaning presumes the arrival of signified that would escape the chain of signification. If proper meaning never fully is itself, however, then one can never determine what is properly literal or figurative. Metaphors are typically defined as figures of resemblance that transport the name of one thing to something else. But this definition remains fatally inadequate because “resemblance” itself is metaphoric. In addition to overlooking the equivocality of the terms “literal,” “metaphorical,” and “allegorical,” the literal turn also risks reducing interpretation to a volitional act: a practice of choosing among different available approaches over which the human governs. To what extent do readers who believe they are performing literal readings disavow textual agency: that is, the conditions that texts establish for their own reading? To apply to texts what are often too loosely called “methodologies” is always to find interpretative approaches foiled by textuality’s uncontrollable effects. Does the literal turn thus reinscribe the humanist subject insofar as it presumes the reader’s power to wrest control over the feral force of language? Does it ironically restore human mastery under the guise of surrendering it?