Caleb Smith’s “Disciplines of Attention in a Secular Age,” and Authorial Intention

For English 7800, Fall 2020.

Caleb Smith’s “Disciplines of Attention in a Secular Age” is, in part, about what we do as literary scholars. Should we interpret literature? Should we just read it? What do we owe what we’re reading, and what can studying literature do, for us, for the world, or for our texts?

Critical Theory — which, classically means the Frankfurt School — was highly suspicious about cultural objects. And no wonder, given that the founders of the Frankfurt School of Social Research were German Jews who had to flee the Nazis: in such an environment, of course any cultural object looks dangerous! Couple Critical Theory with psychoanalytic criticism (in which the critic attends to the literary text as something like the voice of a patient in a psychoanalytic session) or deconstruction (which tends to find the oppositional structures of a text — guest and host, for example — and then to demonstrate how these structures fall apart), and you get a mode of literary scholarship that takes texts as always up to something shifty or always bound to fail somehow. It’s not that scholars who did this kind of work are looking for “hidden meanings”: it’s that they tend to think every text is dangerous or harmful in some way.

Postcritique emerged in a period of exhaustion with these ways of reading, foundationally with Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s chapter on “Reparative Reading,” which we’ll be reading in a few weeks. I’d say that anyone doing postcritique hasn’t abandoned the habits of Critical Theory. It’s not that scholars who do postcritique have decided naively that Chaucer, for example, doesn’t actually has a suspicious tendency to tell stories about suffering women (I am among those reminded by Chaucer of the films of Lars van Trier), or that Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice is not actually antisemitic (because it is, indisputably, but in complicated ways). It’s that postcritique, with its championing of “surface reading” and “attention,” wants to imagine what could happen in the kind of quasi-meditative activity of “reading” (rather than interpretation), a form of engagement with texts that, in fact, captures why many of us were drawn to literary studies in the first place.

Smith’s essay examines the longer context of this word “attention” (and its antonym, “distraction”) by looking at the praise of attentiveness in two contradictory figures in nineteenth-century American writing, the Presbyterian minister J. H. McIlvaine and (the far more famous) Henry David Thoreau. Briefly, McIlvaine understood attentiveness as a way to build self-discipline to form good citizens and good workers; Thoreau, as a way to liberate the self from the confines of merely being a good citizen and good worker: despite their differences, each praises “attentiveness” and decried “distraction.” And in their praise, on the one hand, of self-discipline, and on the other hand, of a liberating transcendence, each is drawing on values whose roots lie in religious practices (for more on this, see Smith’s collaborative blog post with the medievalist Irina Dumitrescu). As Smith, among others, demonstrates,  the claims of our “secular era” to be “free of religion” are grossly overstated.

The larger question concerns the use of attentiveness. As Smith observes, whether it’s McIlvaine, Thoreau, or postcritique, the benefits of “attentiveness” accrue not to the text we’re reading, but to ourselves. We build ourselves as more disciplined subjects (McIlvaine), more liberated, transcendent ones (Thoreau), or more sensitive ones (postcritique, perhaps). Doing any of this might do some good for the texts we’re reading, or it might not.

So we have to ask about the use of literary criticism and the problem of “authorial intention.” The Frankfurt School didn’t think its suspicious readings of cultural objects would necessarily save culture from itself: their experience with the cruelties of Nazi Germany didn’t let them rest in that delusion. But they saw some value in upsetting our comfort in merely thinking cultural objects objects of beauty.

In doing so, they were, perhaps, actively working against the “intention” of the people who crafted those textual objects. How so? By showing how a text, an idea, or a way of life may have an explicit intention, but that that explicit intention may have little to do with what the text is actually doing, or what enables it become popular.

Let me finish, then, with a longer word of caution about authorial intention: I’m going to choose an outrageous example. Imagine you’ve come across a meme about human trafficking statistics, one that suggests that, for example, a child is some 66,667% more likely to be kidnapped and trafficked into sexual abuse than they are to die of Covid 19, and that, therefore, masks on children do not protect them, because a masked child is harder to identify. The person sharing this meme might believe that they are combating some terrible threat to children. They might believe this even though the statistics on the meme, like nearly all human trafficking statistics, are misrepresented or even simply fraudulent.

Does understanding that meme and why the person shared it require understanding the intention of the person who’s sharing it? A little, yes, but knowing whether the person sharing it is sincere or just a troll, for example, is going to get you only so far. Because the meme is promoting a conspiracy theory, QAnon, which ultimately holds, among other things, that a Jewish-led cabal of powerful figures is kidnapping children by the millions for sexual abuse and cannibalism; that Hillary Clinton is involved in this somehow; and that Donald Trump and his allies are secretly working behind the scenes to reveal this whole child trafficking/cannibalism conspiracy.

The person sharing that meme might not be aware that they’re promoting QAnon. And even if they are, they might not be aware of, or support, the whole range of claims of QAnon. They might just think they’re somehow “saving children” by sharing the meme. But, again, looking at that individual and their motives isn’t going to tell us much about the meme; nor, for that matter, is looking at the motives of the individual who *created* that meme. Why not?

Because their individual motives don’t account for why that meme, and others like it, have become so popular in the last several years. Understanding QAnon therefore means understanding not separate individuals but rather the particular cultural environment that would allow a conspiracy like this to flourish. It requires understanding, among other things, how social media works, the collapse of local news reporting, the social isolation caused by the Covid pandemic, and a host of larger cultural anxieties (especially those involving fear for the safety of children, a staple, not incidentally, of antisemitic conspiracy theories dating back to mid-twelfth-century England) in which the motives of any given individual are only the smallest, least significant factor.

Likewise with any cultural object! The motives of the individual creator are just one part, and often not the least important part, of why a text came into being, why it became popular, and why it’s popular today. Understanding Chaucer’s individual motivations, for example, helps us understand a little about The Canterbury Tales, but we probably learn a lot more about them by learning as much as we can about fourteenth-century England. And even if Chaucer had left us a note telling us what his work meant, he himself might not have fully understood why he was creating his cultural object: did he know what his own habitual cruelty to his female characters meant? Probably not. Was his tendency to be cruel to these characters a personal flaw? Perhaps, but it’s much more so a symptom of the habitual misogyny of male intellectuals in Chaucer’s culture.

In short: one of your key jobs as a literary scholar is to account for the cultural networks that allow certain kinds of texts to come into being and allow certain kinds of texts to become popular. “Attentiveness” might help you do that, but I think critique and interpretation is going to get you much closer to that goal, which, of course, requires that you pay attention.