Reading and Magic

interesting narrativeLast week, the Library Company of Philadelphia and the McNeil Center for Early American Studies hosted the Early American Literature and Material Texts Workshop, generously sponsored for the fifth time by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.  Led this year by Meredith McGill, the workshop offers a chance each summer for some material-texts scholars to get together and talk about their work and reflect on what attention to the material conditions of texts can bring to the study of, primarily, history and literature.  This year there was a particular focus on materiality as it relates to how we think about form and genre–we had great sessions on nineteenth-century autobiography as a genre, P.T. Barnum, the print transmission of colonial media narratives, and the meaning of format from manuscript to magazine to mp3.  It’s always humbling and exciting to glimpse the high level on which other scholars are thinking about some of the things I’m interested in.

There was a lot of talk about reading.  I arrived late in the week, but I heard repeatedly about earlier conversations in which reading research figured prominently, and that theme kept coming up.  Whatever else it is, book history is an attempt to widen the frame of text-based inquiry to include the material realities by which texts exist in the world.  The scholarly products of this inquiry range from detailed comparisons of book bindings to analyses of global print markets to arguments about printing presses, printers, and/or print as “agents of change.”  For many of us, products such as these and the methods that give rise to them are second-nature–it doesn’t make any sense to talk about the ideas contained in a particular text and ignore that text’s history of composition, production, and distribution.  The ideas are still important, though, and they push book historians to turn toward the question of reading: if we have established that the texts we’re interested in must be those with texture, heft, smell, and form, then we eventually have to talk about what happens when people get their hands on them.  Reading (broadly construed) is the point where print is consumed, where the printed becomes the known, the thought about, the misunderstood, gaining the capacity for influence.

Even imagined in a material context, though, reading itself typically leaves precious few material traces: we have to look for other sorts of clues, and maybe do a lot of imagining.  I came back from the workshop to grapple again with a book that I had been reading before leaving–Vincent L. Wimbush’s White Men’s Magic: Scripturalization as Slavery (Oxford University Press, 2012).  Wimbush is not a (book) historian per se, but rather a noted biblical scholar–past president of the Society for Biblical Literature, director of the Institute for Signifying Scriptures at Claremont.  With this book, though, he has turned his attention from “the history of the lexical content meanings or the historical backgrounds” of biblical characters and events (i.e., the typical work of biblical studies) to aspects of the biblical texts’ historical usage: “the psychology, the phenomenology, the sociology, the anthropology, the invention and uses, and the political consequence of the uses of the texts” (12).  The book is about … well, it’s about a lot of things, but at base it’s about the reading–more broadly, the usage–of texts.  It’s a close-reading of Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative, focusing both on Equiano’s reading/usage of the Bible and Wimbush’s reading/usage of the Bible, and Equiano.[1]

Wimbush’s goal is to witness, through Equiano, how he (Wimbush) as an American of African ancestry came to regard the English Bible as scripture, by tracing Equiano’s process of coming to regard the English Bible as scripture.  As of this writing, I still cannot claim to have a full grasp of whether or not Wimbush has clearly excavated this process–folks, it’s a complicated book, and this is just a blog post–but I have an inkling that here is a form of reading research which is viable and important.

Wimbush reads Equiano’s reading to sift out the process of “scripturalization,” which he defines as the development of the “occluding metadiscursive regime, structural arrangements, and relations of knowledge and power” that define experience (9).  This definition and Wimbush’s methods conjure a range of terms from twentieth-century literary and social theory: interpolation, symbolic power, dialogism.  In that sense, this attempt to show the reader, and himself, the Matrix is a common enough endeavor, but I think the attempt to show how it was built for one person and (according to Wimbush, at least) his cultural heirs is something less common.  Wimbush has set out to investigate how it is that the assumed, the unquestioned attains its status through and with texts–that is, in reading.  Equiano, Wimbush says, “came to understand the Bible as the fetishized center-object around which British society was structured” (17).  This realization both allowed him to work “magic” with it and placed him under its spell.  “Equiano understands that the dominant social and political structures in place are built around the Bible, drawing justification and power therefrom; so he proceeds to construct his life story in signifying/mimetic relationship to such arrangements” (18).

Anyway–like I say, I’m still working through this.  What we try to say about another’s reading of a text must have something to do with our own reading, and that kind of reflexivity is maybe always frustrating, if not frustrated.  (For a recent and entertaining demonstration of the problems involved, go watch John Modern knowingly but helplessly tie himself in knots over something so banal as a David Brooks column.)  Wimbush’s chapters excavating this genealogy are mostly comprised of stultifyingly fine-grained close readings that may or may not, as I say, achieve his goal.  I think there is an attempt at something historians would recognize here, though, and not merely close reading for its own sake, and that the attempt is worthwhile.

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1. James Green actually presented on the publishing history of the Interesting Narrative during the aforementioned workshop, but tragically I missed that day.  For his published account of that history, see James Green, “The Publishing History of Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative,” Slavery & Abolition 16, no. 3, (1995).

2 comments on “Reading and Magic

  1. Dave Mazella says:

    Thanks, Seth. It seems to me that literary scholars have struggled with these kinds of hermeneutic problems for some time, and often face similar difficulties reconciling the material questions with the hermeneutic questions of content. What do you think about switching out the commonplace metaphor of textual “consumption,” which still stresses the passivity and internalizing powers of the reader, with more active metaphors like “use” or “reinvention”?

    • Seth says:

      Thanks for the comment Dave — I definitely like “use” and “reinvention” — even “misunderstanding” is something active.

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