What Happens to Literature When Persons Are Artworks?

Eric Hayot from the Pennsylvania State University delivered a Humanities Center symposium regarding the battle waged on close reading, Kant and how engaging with art can teach us principles of worth.

PROVO, Utah (February 20, 2015)—There’s a little scuffle going down in the literary world between distant and close reading, and it makes a lot of critics uneasy. Distant reading is a way of understanding literature without intimately interacting with it. Instead, distant reading involves analyzing literature through the aggregation of colossal amounts of data, quantitative analysis, topic modeling and other sorts of software programs that allow distant readers to analyze texts or bodies of texts without reading them closely. Distant reading is close reading’s progressive daughter-in-law. She’s moving in, and family dinners are a little tense.

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Eric Hayot, professor in the Department of Comparative Literature at the Pennsylvania State University, said, “Those trained in close reading are feeling a kind of crisis – a crisis in which the thing that they know how to do and the thing that they believe in is under attack.” He went on: “The distant readers start to feel like these cool new kids – the deans give them lots of money and they have [digital humanities] centers.”

According to Hayot, the impression is that distant readers find close reading “old and tired,” providing only certain kinds of answers and forcing literary critics to ask only certain kinds of questions. Accompanying this notion are articles in the New York Times saying that distant reading is the new thing, whereas, close readers haven’t had something in the New York Times “for like thirty years,” Hayot said.

More traditional close readers find distant reading destructive to the beauty of literature, wrong, irresponsible, and for them “this is a terrifying situation,” Hayot said.

One of the goals of Hayot’s most recent book, The Elements of Academic Style: Writing for the Humanitiesis to resolve this situation by suggesting that close readers, in fact, don’t actually believe what they say they do.

Hayot himself identifies as a close reader, so part of this work is about his own anxiety.

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He asserted that what close readers need is a better description of what close readers actually believe based on their practice. “If we have that, then what we would get is an understanding of ourselves that would not need to be threatened by distant reading, but actually would accommodate distant reading,” said Hayot. “It would accommodate it in a way that would take some of the threat away, so the lion of close reading and the lamb of the digital humanities – or maybe it’s the lion of the digital humanities and the lamb of close reading – would lie down together happily.”

Why, he wanted to know, do close readers think about literary texts the way they think about literary texts? Where does the sense of protection and defensiveness and the ethics of reading come from?

The answer, Hayot said, comes from Immanuel Kant’s third critique, The Critique of Judgment.

In the third critique, which is all about aesthetics and beauty, Kant asserts that the orientation toward beauty is an orientation to universality, meaning that which is beautiful, is beautiful universally. For Kant, an object of aesthetic value cannot be beautiful just for me or for you. It can be singularly useful or beneficial, but as a purely aesthetic object it cannot be treated as anything but universally beautiful.

“That’s why Kant describes it as a free lawfulness, or a lawfulness without law: it’s a lawfulness in the sense that it’s universal for everyone – everyone thinks this is beautiful, or everyone ought to think this is beautiful, but it’s a lawfulness that doesn’t actually justify itself by giving itself a set of reasons,” Hayot said.

Hayot’s basic argument is that this is why people who do close reading feel so strongly about the integrity of the singular object of humanistic research, regardless of whether that object is art, a novel, a poem, a piece of sculpture, a play, a film or a graphic novel.

“I, too, feel like this is a very appealing position. It feels very right to me, and why is that?” he asked. He asserted that it’s because it makes the work feel like a person. “This description of the aesthetic object, or the object aesthetically considered, feels true to us as a kind of ethical relationship to the object because it is homologous with, contiguous with, parallel with Kant’s description of the moral obligation we have towards a person.”

But the real question is: is Kant right?

According to Hayot, if Kant is right—that we do owe artworks the same type of moral respect that we owe people—then the argument for idiographic, or close and explicated, reading is absolute. Then, in fact, this distant reading, or quantitative analysis of aesthetic objects, is wrong – morally wrong.

In this case, “it’s morally wrong because it treats those objects as means; it fills in that gap between singular and universal,” Hayot said. It treats those objects as objects that don’t have their own purposiveness, but rather as examples of some general idea that governs them. In that sense, distant reading, data mining and all that that includes, is deeply hierarchical, and – in Hayot’s words – offensive to the fundamental, ethical integrity of the artwork.

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“That is, I think, what a lot of people believe or think they believe,” Hayot went on. “It’s not what we believe because if we believed it, we couldn’t do any kind of comparative or group analysis of works of art at all. What we’d have to do with each work of art is we’d have to get in front of a work of art and treat it as if it had no resemblance to and no connection to any other work of art.”

We couldn’t, for example, use a word like “novel,” as it is, after all, a gross generalization that degrades the organic nature of those aesthetic objects. In fact, generic terms like poem or fiction or prose couldn’t be used, because if we included objects under those umbrella categories, we wouldn’t be doing close reading, but rather conforming to some sort of mass categorization.

“The point is,” Hayot said, “no one actually believes this Kantian thing. But, we describe the ethics of our reading practices like we do.”

Hayot argues that what we do when we read and interact with artworks, we are always engaging in multi-scale analysis, and, even what we call close reading is not “mono-scaling.”

But, perhaps more relevant that our reading differently than we say we do: we also treat people differently than we say we do, Hayot said.

“We inevitably cannot treat every individual in the world as an ‘end,’” Hayot said, as Kantian theory requires. We are inevitably treating people as means, because that is how our society operates. We use each other to get things done – store workers, factory workers, taxi drivers, etc. – and even the people we love the most we don’t always treat as “ends.”

“Instead of turning artworks into persons, I’m actually interested in turning persons into artworks,” Hayot said. What are the implications for turning persons into artworks for the way we think?

“Part of my argument is that everything has a price,” Hayot said. “There are objects in art museums all over the world that have much more money spent on them than do human beings who are starving, in the same cities where the art objects are. Does this mean that we are fundamentally morally corrupt, as a society?”

Hayot wondered: is it okay that we sometimes spend more money on artworks then we do on people? Or should we take all the money away from the museums and feed the poor? “I guess I think that we should spend money on some museums,” Hayot said. “That’s kind of a weird thing to think about oneself, and it’s not always either / or; we live in a complicated system.”

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This has all kinds of implications for not only the way that we think about aesthetic things, but also of the role that the aesthetic plays in the social mind.

“We start to learn,” Hayot said, “that this standard of close reading lends itself not only to literature and art and objects of aesthetic value – but we can close read anything.”

According to Hayot, what it comes down to is that close reading is really nothing more than sustained attention to the singularity of an object that reveals that singularity as having access to the universal.

“Everything in the world has the capacity for the singularity,” Hayot said. “It’s simply a matter of how much attention you want to put on it. I’m pretty confident that good close readers can do this, and I’m pretty confident that what we do in the humanities is we train, among other things, in that capacity to recognize and engage with singularity.”

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Engaging with art is a way to practice singularity, Hayot said. The study of the humanities is a way to exercise the intellectual and emotional muscles that allow us to look at objects, literature, art, circumstances and people and find great meaning.

—Danielle Chelom Leavitt (B.A. Russian, ’15)