In this article, the authors call readers to consider the “normative” practices of engaging with/criticizing print works (Samuels and McGann 26). They place particular emphasis on poetry as they discuss the differences between the performative tradition of criticism, one that to me, appeared to rely more so on adherence to structure, to tradition, and to stricter practices, and that of the interpretive tradition, one that speaks more to the contextual possibilities of meaning embedded in the work. They offer a definition of deformance as an act of “disordering” the text that calls in to question the power and role of the active reader/scholar as they function within this ever-changing society of readers (Samuels and McGann 28).
In their discussion of these different kinds of scholarship and how it has changed, the authors discuss three particularly fascinating points:
- The authors open their discussion on interpretive vs. performative with the interesting question of reading backwards posed by Emily Dickinson. I was initially quite confused as to why this idea was thought of as performative rather than interpretive, but now I believe that I see that they mean that this distinction between the two versions of scholarship lies in what goals we have as readers and the mindsets we entertain as we engage with poetry. They state:
> In this perspective, the critical and interpretive question is not “what does the poem mean?” but “how do we release or expose the poem’s possibilities of meaning?” Dickinson’s reading proposal has nothing to say about “meaning” at all, new or old. Her thought, her idea, is not a reimagined meaning but a project for reconstituting the work’s aesthetic form, as if a disordering of one’s senses of the work would make us dwellers in possibility (Samuels and McGann 28).
Dickinson’s question deals with following a strict path of interpretation focuses on the structuring of a reading experience with a certain goal in mind. It is focused on the act, the objective experience of simply reading the poem in a new way in its intentionality. This manner of reading backwards becomes deformative when we begin to question the thematic implications and possibilities that the text begins to evoke once we step outside our normative reading habits. When we deform a text, we become these “dwellers in possibility” as we make new meanings and add new life to works of art/scholarship. There is a certain power in the deformative tradition, and readers come to gain a new level of importance in this recursive relationship with text as they re-order their thought processes along with the texts.
- Secondly, they discuss how critical theory, and our traditional performative method of engaging with texts, especially “literary” ones, can transition from performative to deformative. They note that though this performative tradition is deeply embedded in our scholarly society, when we change ourselves, our readerly identities and motives, we can bring the text to new conceptual heights. They note that “imaginative work has an elective affinity with performance: it is organized as rhetoric and poiesis rather than as exposition and information-transmission. Because this is so, it always lies open to deformative moves” (Samuels and McGann 33). The creative nature of the work, the emotions and intentions that brought it to live make it prime for readerly engagement, ripe for deformation. Even so, this possibility does not appear to be available to critical works. The authors note that when it comes to scholarship, deformance is “all but forbidden, the thought of it either irresponsible or a threat to critical seriousness” (Samuels and McGann 34-35). This shift appears to be swept aside by the authors at present, but the possibility of this shift remains intriguing. The reasons we are not permitted to deform scholarship appear to suggest an esteem to the act itself; it is not one to be taken lightly as it is tied to the authenticity and reputation of an author and their work. They are removed from the creative process by way of their goal. The authors note:
From an interpretive point of view, this assumption brackets off from attention crucial features of imaginative works, features wherein the elemental forms of meaning are built and elaborated. These forms are so basic and conventionally governed—they are alphabetical and diacritical; they are the rules for character formation, character arrangement, and textual space, as well as for the structural forms of words, phrases, and higher morphemic preinterpretive units—readers tent to treat them as phonemic and precritical” (Samuels and McGann 35).
Again, this calls back to the role that readers play in creating meaning in a text at any level; how we think about engaging with a text, the initial goals, emotions that surround its creation, create certain interpretive possibilities for a text. In this way, I believe that the authors begin to suggest that this shift from performance to deformance, to a greater freedom of interpretation, is possible at all levels.
- Lastly, they elaborate on the different ways in which scholars/readers may deform text grammatically, syntactically, and semantically. These different courses of action result in dramatic revelations. In deforming, we are able to uncover secrets the text itself might have never even knew it had stored away to tell. We are able to conceptualize new subjects of poems and as we do both of these things, we as readers experience new language, new veins of sensation and contemplation in the literary worlds of our minds. Through manipulating the material structure of poems, reading them backwards or changing how the words are presented on a page, creates a novel adventure for readers and scholars of a work and they can journey into the world created by the words of the artist to find and create new meaning in silent or verbalized conversation with the creator. The authors state, “[i]n this deformance we also enact a critical subjectivity: this version isolates only some of the nouns and verbs. Such selectiveness instances the critic’s position as a reactive reader, choosing certain combinations which exteriorize the variable attention we pay to parts of the poem” (Samuels and McGann 45). We have power to make a text new, to carve out a meaning that is entirely our own. We become more active as readers and as thinkers. Deformation then, is subjective; it is personal, and it is powerful.
There were two things that I would have liked some more clarification on as I read, and they include the following:
- She discusses how translations and editions function as performative scholarships, but when she does this they discuss the role of these interpreters in a way that make them seem more interpretive. Initially, they state, “Editions and translations are by definition performative. Elaborate scholarly editions foreground their performative characteristics, and sometimes, translations do the same” (Samuels and McGann 33). Yet, later in the text they bring up the notion of mistranslations, which, even though the goal of engaging with the poetry/prose, what to follow a set pattern, structure for communication on and about the text, is in a way a sort of deformance, of changing the text. Because there is always that possibility, and I guess this calls back to their use of the word “sometimes” in the quote I brought up, could not all translations be acts of deformance. Scholarly editions have this quality as well, as we order works as we see fit in order to accomplish the cultivations of certain conceptual experiences for readers. Would reading Poe after Fitzgerald in an anthology of a newer edition than one that placed either artist in different relations make me see the works and the world differently? I certainly believe so. They go on to delve into this distinction a bit more, but I am still hazy on what exactly constitutes the characterization of certain works as inherently performative or deformative, as the authors have already shown how a shift is possible.
- They briefly mention that as poems become more familiar, they can, in a way, lose their power. Samuels and McGann present this statement when they note that this “reading backwards,” Dickinson’s “procedure, as we have follows from a romantic suggested, awareness, famously articulated by Shelley among many others, hat poems lose their vital force when they succumb to familiarization” Samuels and McGann 28). This really threw me for a loop because it seemed to call into question one of the elements I viewed as critical to the success of their argument: the power of the reader. When they state this, it appeared to me as a statement that lacked faith in the cognitive power and creativity of readers of prose and poetry, of the new ways of thinking about a text. It also looks as if here, they falter in their belief that scholars/readers will engage with and deform the text as they call for in their arguments. As I write this though, I wonder at my own misunderstanding. When they make this observation, I believe that they could implicitly be calling attention to the need to step outside of performative scholarly traditions. This changes much of my perceptions of this argument, but my initial confusions and questions do remain.
After reading this article, I would like to pose the following question:
In our class, we have discussed how materiality of a text and the technological/physical manner in which we experience it, matter in terms of how we are affected by it as we engage with it. I wonder if these differences in materiality and experience could be applied to the act of deforming a text. I read these articles on my computer and used the note taking and highlighting features available to me there. I believe this falls in line more so with the performative kind of scholarship/commentary on the text due to the nature of the document, but if we take this same idea and apply it to works of poetry or prose, how do these different venues of experience, of materiality, influence the revelations/manners in which we can deform texts. If I use a pen or a pencil to re-arrange a poem, what will I find? Is it any different than if I manipulate the text digitally?