Methodological Analysis #1:  “Scales of Reading” by Julie Orlemanski

Laurie Epps

January 23, 2016

In Julie Orlesmanski’s piece, “Scales of Reading”, she wants to stress that there are scales of reading which constitute a literary event, where units of analysis are acquired hermeneutically through the reader.  These units being essential to the overall study of literature, such as devices, themes, genres, and language.  She uses Chaucer as a prime example and examines how readers distribute their attention to various scales of reading and how laborious close reading can be.  She asserts that “close reading . . . gives literary study consistency and specificity as a discipline” (217).

Orlesmanski discusses many literary professionals that support her claim or feed into her idea that there are scales in reading.  For example, she discusses English professor Underwood’s idea of discovery as a literary “addition” and states that digital methods we are seeing entering the scene now as simply add-ons to the literary study as we know it.  She, however, sees the digital methods diverging into literary study as a crisis for the humanities. In supporting her desire for more humanistic approaches, she discusses the value we place on the labor involved in literary studies. She continues to go back and forth with her assertions versus or in companion to other professionals in her field.  This method of discourse helps her substantiate her position and cover all her bases.

Orlesmanski makes it clear that her views differ from those of author Franco Moretti, who notes the legitimacy of distant reading and that “knowing is not reading.” He poses that literary study might assert itself forward in a historical field of discipline.  This, says Orelsmanski, is just what he is trying to create—a crisis in humanities, not a progressive change.  She refers to colleague Rebecca Comay’s previous note of Hegel’s dialectical method trying to have the same effect, which no doubt helps her assert her claim on Moretti.  Comay states:  “It brings every situation to its breaking point.  Its strategy is not to instigate change but to precipitate crisis.” (95) (229) This method of overlaying professional opinions against and in favor of her own of literary study is prime in Orlesmanski’s style of asserting her theory of scales of reading and the colleagues who may or may not agree with her.  In Moretti’s case, she acknowledges distant reading but says it, too, offers scales of reading. She is quite convincing through her overall support and analysis of other theorists. Orlesmanski shows exactly where her viewpoints fit in to other theories that are presently out there.

Orlesmanski continues her claims through how we have examined literary discipline through time and what has seemed to work or not work.  She discusses the contribution of the New Critics and how readers can hermeneutically experience a text.  The essay shows an evolution of what is to be considered literary study—its worth, its labor, its knowledge, its purpose.

Close readings bring knowledge, says Orlesmanski.  Through readers’ interpretations, knowledge is gained and there is recognized value in the art of studying literature.  She supports this through a detailed acknowledgement of the work of Peter Szondi, who describes two modes of interpretations, grammatical and allegorical, which pull the text into the moment of the present with the reader.  She continues on Szondi’s claim of reading later in discussing Simon Gaunt’s idea that texts have the power to move the reader, just as a performance would through “imagery, affect, and meaning.” (230) To fully assert the power of the text, readers must comply with a close reading.  Orelmanski defines close reading through John Guillory’s distinction of close reading versus reading closely.  She says that “what we read changes how we read it.” (230)

In Orlesmanski’s conclusion of her essay, she discusses the importance of noting the different literary scales that we read and noting that the extrinsic and intrinsic determinants cannot be erased, only acknowledged.  We, as readers, decipher what is important in a text and what we can pass over.  Whether we read fast or slow, deeply or only skimming, we find ways to draw our own interpretations from the text. She falls back to Chaucer and notes that his poetic style “itself is a constant enactment of the malleability of literary scale.”  This claim supports Orlesmanski’s belief that scale has very important ties to literary study and our access to knowledge, all through the whole experience of reading.  Overall, Orlesmanski’s consistent comparison and thorough examination of theories that are current and those that have passed, clearly substantiate her claims that reading scales hold esteem in literary studies.