“Consensus!” Close Reading in Context

Roger Rawlings

The history of close reading is the history of the 20th (American) century. This may seem like a contradiction—after all, close reading is only supposed to deal with the text itself as a self-contained entity, never any outside forces or sources—but it isn’t. To understand this is to understand the relationship of the world of scholarship and higher education to the greater western world at large.


Postwar New Criticism

After Arnold and Carlyle’s 19th century cultural models of criticism, where the Romantic revolutionary rise in nationalism put great emphasis on tradition, folk culture, national identity and the perpetuation of morals and manners, criticism morphed into its modernist phase.[1] As modern art turned abstract, the critic was needed to explain it to the undiscerning eyes of the general public.  Modernism made criticism a necessary discipline, but even then critics stressed social situations and the place of birth of the artist as the best means of comprehension (impressionism=France 1880s; vorticism=England 1910s; without WWI=no Lost Generation, etc.). The growth of little magazines in the 1920s and 30s (Partisan Review, American Mercury) also gave the world a widened analysis of the culture at large. But it wasn’t until the after the second World War, in the late forties and fifties, that the practice of close reading really became widespread. [2]

Postwar criticism turned inward mostly due to outward circumstances of the Cold War. The Red Scare scared academics and artists yellow alike. Though there are myriad instances of postwar witch hunts, to take but one, in 1946 the State Department tried to tour the infamous show Advancing American Art, in which O’Keefes and Pollacks were to sent to the continent to show European intellectuals susceptible to Marxist ideas the kind of “free thinking” that American democracy permitted. Controversy inevitably ensued:

Traditional painters objected so strongly [the show] was quickly withdrawn and the works tastelessly sold off by the government. In the McCarthy era, Abstract Expressionism was also accused of being “communist art.” Congressional hearings were held to get to the bottom of this subversive conspiracy allegedly taking place in art studios and galleries.[3]

Not only was it an age of anxiety, it was a crisis of understanding, with some groups either truly afraid of American-style freedom of speech or clearly incapable of irony. There was only one thing for academics and the artists who inspired them to do: play it safe.

In academia of the 1950s, American values came first; and those values mostly meant “offend no one.”  To do this, one sought “theories of the middle way;” in science it was known as “cognitive rationality;” historians worked using the “consensus approach;” sociologists called it “theories of the middle range;” essentially, the methodology one utilized, no matter the discipline, was what Arthur Schlesinger flatteringly labeled “locating the Vital Center.” Achieve this consensus at all costs.

For once funding for academic research began coming from the state, and once “science” became the magic word needed to secure funding, the paradigms of academic work changed. Analytic rigor and disciplinary autonomy became important to an extent they had not before the war. To put another way: scholarly tendencies that emphasized theoretical or empirical rigor were taken up and carried into the mainstream of academic practice; tendencies that reflected a generalist or “belletrist” approach were pushed to the professional margins, as were tendencies whose assumptions and aims seemed political.[4]

Because of this, later reviewers charged that this period produced highly artificial and not truly daring scholarship at all, just the bland leading the bland into a sphere of safe mediocrity. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan, in their famed doorstop Literary Theory: an Anthology, even argue that “American New Criticism was anti-scientific and only interested in the non-rational dimension of art.”[5] Fearing being viewed as subversive, academics didn’t really do their jobs in exploring every inch of a topic; they explored only the inches that allowed them to keep their jobs.

Either way, not only was it the protective norm, but close reading and New Criticism was especially loved by university deans in the ’50s and ’60s because it was cheap. Now, for bragging rights, you didn’t need to build a 3000-sq. foot research lab or an entire museum wing housing the single largest collection of Joseph Cornell’s ephemeral boxes, or even have to purchase exhaustive volumes of the letters of Wordsworth. All you needed was a well-respected New Critic and the artist’s work itself, neatly collected in one brick of a book, to be sold in the bookstore at a nice mark-up (along with a good thick dictionary).[6]


Identity Politics and the Boomers (Film Studies)

The period after WWII, from 1945-1975 is known as the Golden Age of College because higher education expanded 1000-fold as returning veterans went to college on the GI Bill, and Boomers followed on the cheap availability of a college education; it was one’s ticket to the middle class.

… it was in the mid 1960s that the coming of age of the baby boomers began to swell the already rising numbers of young people on the campuses. The number of Americans aged 18-24 rose from 16.5 million in 1960 to 24.7 million in 1970, a jump of almost 50%. By then approximately one-third of this age group (or 7.9 million) was studying at least part-time at institutions of higher education. The explosive leap in the numbers of college-educated young people, one of the most salient demographic trends of the decade, promoted increasing amount of talk by the mid-1960s about “youth culture,” “youth rebellion,” and “generation gap.”[7]

Even though they learned New Critical close reading from their elders who promoted it, these Boomers began to carve a space for themselves by adding street issues to their analyses. Having different life-experiences than their instructors, they wrote dissertations from feminist, Marxist and civil liberties points of view, eschewing New Criticism as an Old White Males’ prerogative.

And as the protests on the quad became more visible, the government decided it wasn’t going to keep financing the universities if they couldn’t keep their disruptive students in line. As a result, by the early 1970s, colleges were hit with a double whammy: loss of government funding and the waning of Baby Boomers leaving many empty seats. To fill those empty seats (and coffers), colleges admitted a whole host of newer demographics, from women and persons of color to former subjects of colonialism and other international students. This changed the equation even more. Encouraged by Boomers’ success in challenging close reading, these newer students brought their “outsider” experiences to bear on works of art that seemed to have nothing to do with such social interests.

But the “isms” couldn’t last for long as the limitations of such narrow approaches to works of art were quickly exposed. Post-structuralism, feminism, deconstruction, Marxism and post-colonialism were all too esoterically isolating and hermetically sealed for general readers, not to mention frustrated peers trying to get through some seriously opaque writing. The feeling was that these newer studies were done more to gain the authors tenure rather than to give to the public at large erudite and cultivated readings of the work at hand, tapping in to trendy movements for professional immediacy. Ironically, exactly what the New Critics had been accused of in the ’50s and ’60s.

But Boomers didn’t only change methodologies; they also added new disciplines to what became newer intellectually valid areas of study. And where close reading (especially in the ideas of scanning the mise-en scene) and pre-NC historical contextualization did return very quickly was through Film Studies, making film studies a major in many universities by the mid-1970s.


Close Reading comes back as Mise-en-scene and Context

I can remember being assigned to explicate a classic early ’70s structuralist essay in graduate school in the late 1990s. It was Stephen Heath’s famed Touch of Evil exegesis from the British film publication Screen (Spring, 1975), in a heady mixture of Marxism, semiotics, and psychoanalysis.[8] The piece took up almost an entire issue of the publication (p. 7-78); it was the size of a novella; it was exhausting. Unpacking his unpacking of Welles’s film in this manner seemed impossible because Heath attempted to expound every second and frame of the text.[9] It was not so much a revelation to be experienced as a mountain to be climbed. Post-structuralism might have been a daring experiment, but, fortunately, it was a short-lived trend of 1970s (academic) excess.

Like New Criticism’s brief run, this extreme of structuralist semiotics died because so much of it was overly pedantic. Very often such studies were mostly filled with diagrams with no foundational context, narration of set design without interpretation, simplified character overviews and the arranging of rulers like a draftsman as to what appeared where in what shot, frame or room, floating aimlessly without an anchor all to tedious excess, not unlike so many student papers that are packed with pages and pages of plot summary that only arrive at some semblance of analysis on the last page.  Publishers quickly stopped publishing structuralist readings (too long=too expensive), which in turn cultivated a new style faced with the opposite dilemma: trapped by limited space, journalistic criticism often became a means to a personal and unearned opinionated rant. This is why the literary/film essay (a feulleton?) is still the most rewarding of forms, and why the best criticism today tackles both concerns, balancing text and context, simultaneously.[10]


Some of the Best Films Can do It Too

But films themselves may also be essayistic criticism, too, no matter the genre.

A good recent example would be from the 2006 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston. It is the classic tale of an extraordinarily gifted young artist (and musician) that becomes famous overnight and, unable to handle his growing fame and attention, has a nervous breakdown. The film’s raison d’etre is Johnston’s own class limitations: born relatively poor in rural West Virginia, hounded by an oppressively religious mother obsessed with social reputation, and devoid of any real formal education, he eventually breaks away and his talent breaks through. Given the circumstances, it is impressive that the music and art he produces is so gorgeous, in a low-rent, low-brow way, making it perfect for the DIY movement and aesthetic of the late ’80s/early ’90s.

Take the sequence complimenting his song, “Story of an Artist.” As a work of art, the song’s imperfections make it the picture of perfection: the lo-fi recording (done on a shitty tape player in the basement), the passable singing complete with lisp (speech impediment brought on by an abusive childhood), the barely competent piano playing (autodidact, of course), matching the borderline literate lyrics (so heartfelt it hurts). It is a masterstroke of so-called naïf art; a Basquiat in white face.

To capture this beautiful sadness, suiting action to words and feeling, the film shows us, in home movies taken by Johnston himself during his late teens, his working-class family clowning with each other but also desperately embarrassed by Johnston’s artistic temperament–the subtext clearly exhibiting his sensitive heart getting soul-crushed by an atmosphere of American Bible-Belt mores, erasing the lonely individual crying out to express himself through passion-filled art.[11] It is an equally exquisite visual correlative to his devastating chanson réaliste torch song.

Both are exemplary testaments to the DIY artistic movement of the time, abject rejections of the corporate bombast (MTV) and the High Concept New Hollywood blockbuster mentality (Top Gun) that populated the late ’80s Yuppie American landscape, so fondly remembered today in Broadway/Tom Cruise musicals (Rock of Ages), nostalgically violent crime dramas (Sopranos/Drive), and big-hair revival tours. But the film’s assembled composition becomes a lyrical allegory for the role of criticism itself: a careful and sustained revelation of its own for the perceptive viewer, illustrating how the best way to measure the value of a work of art properly is to strike a balance between intense textual reading and a highly knowledgeable grasp of the social currents that inescapably shape the most rewarding art. As Morris Dickstein writes:

When a subject truly engages us, every detail is precious; every shred of evidence is worth considering. We want to know how life feeds into art, not simply how art feeds on itself. A critic should be as imaginative, as gifted, and as much fun as the artists they write about, even if they do not offer up a “method” to us.[12]

–a conviction the filmmakers clearly took equally ardently to heart.

Close reading of mise-en-scène attempts to rise to the challenge of a great work of art with creative energy and historical understanding of one’s own. We must not only learn to grasp its surface and immediacy but we must also learn to read right to the very end of a work of art.

Today’s analysts (critics, academics, students) have reached a kind of funky hybridization of external and internal, cultural studies contextualization meets the close reading of mise-en-scene. They are what Jeffrey Williams calls, “the Post-theory generation, because they take a detached view of the landscape from which theory emerged, but also attempt to place themselves in the mind of the artists in their time.”[13] This gives lie to the idea of a fixed, permanent canon because the canon changes as great new artists rediscover older artists who inspire them, just as students, academics, and critics discover older filmmakers by watching the works of a Tarantino or Todd Haynes. Less “anxiety of influence” than “anxious to learn.”

Consensually, then, we can all agree, the best criticisms become one with the epiphany that the artist creates, an exhilarating coming-together in a oneness of vision, that moment where they see harmoniously what almost no one else sees. Except that someone else does eventually see it! The contextualizing close reader is always at one with the art and the artist; she is always blowing her own mind.


Roger Rawlings is program coordinator of the graduate Cinema Studies program at Savannah College of Art and Design.


[1]   Before the 19th century, criticism was represented by Burke in England, Rousseau in France and Herder in Germany; what Isaiah Berlin called the Counter-Enlightenment.

[2]   Seminal New Criticism texts I A. Richard’s, Practical Criticism (1929) and William Empson’s, Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930) helped ingrain the methodology, but the crowds of postwar multi-generational college students gave it its ubiquitous audience.

[3]   John Patrick Diggins. Proud Decades, New York: Norton, 1989, 236.

[4]   Louis Menand. “College:  The End of the Golden Age,” The New York Review of Books, October 18, 2001.

[5]   Julia Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Literary Theory: an Anthology, “Introduction,” MA: Blackwell, 5. That NC was “unscientific” is hard to accept, perhaps, as scientific analysis was the chosen rationale for its acceptance. For an excellent examination on the social circumstances that may have contributed to theory itself, see Historicizing Theory by Peter Herman.

[6]   Publishers didn’t seem to mind either. Everybody was happy.

[7]   James Patterson. Grand Expectations, Oxford UP, 2001, 621.

[8]  I still have this edition in my collection. It was published by the Society for Education in Film and Television, 63 Old Compton Street, London W1. The Editorial Board at the time included seminal Film Studies writers such as Ben Brewster, Elizabeth Cowie, Stephen Heath, Christine Gledhill, Peter Wollen, and Charles Barr, among others.

[9] Never mind that Heath’s deconstruction was all for naught in the end as he had broken down the studio cut, that would go on to be so discredited one can’t even find a copy anymore. The final proper cut would be done by Walter Murch, who famously re-edited the film according to Welles’s 57-page notes.

[10]  They are best found in journals such as Cinema Journal, Film Comment and Film Quarterly or popular publications like the New Yorker and/or The New York Review of Books.

[11] It is even sadder today, as Johnston is back in his parents’ basement, in his 50s looking back through the orange haze of the selective montage film in his own mind.

[12]  Morris Dickstein. “Literary Theory and Historical Understanding, “The Chronicle of Higher Education, “The Chronicle Review,” May 23, 2003, 2.

[13]  Ibid.