Studies in Contemporary Literature
Reading in Detail
In her landmark study, Reading in Detail, Naomi Schor argues that the detail has traditionally been devalued in Western aesthetics, gendered feminine through an association with the everyday, the domestic, or the ornamental. She argues, however, that the detail undergoes a revival in poststructuralist analysis, with its “valorization of the minute, the partial, and the marginal.” A perennial problem posed by the detail is its seeming difficulty in moving from the particular to the general, tending toward fragmentation and digression, and threatening the achievement of totality or aesthetic harmony. At the same time, in certain genres – such as ethnography, travel writing, and indeed, realism – the accumulation of details is not only a key aesthetic and rhetorical strategy but also serves to ground epistemological authority. Whether considered as a symptom, a clue, an ornament, and an alibi, the detail emblematizes the problematic of the part’s relationship to the whole.
This seminar will consider the place of the detail in a range of 19 th to 21 st century novels as well as theoretical texts. Questions we will consider include: what counts as a detail, and how has that definition shifted over time? How has the place of the detail (or the types of details) evolved from realism to modernism to postmodernism to the contemporary? How might we think about the detail in light of recent debates over reading methods, the scale of the literary object, and the scale of literary criticism? What kind of information can details provide, and what kind of truth-claims? Where do we situate the detail in relation to the local and the global? In what ways do details serve to differentiate and to classify, with respect to gender, race, class, etc.? What role have they played in projects of imperialism and colonialism (Said, for instance, calls Orientalism “a discipline of detail”)? What is the relation of the detail to voyeurism, spectacularization, and sensationalism?
Potential writers include: Balzac, Flaubert, Zola, Conrad, Larsen, Sebald, Garréta, Marilynne Robinson, Toni Morrison, Ishiguro, Tom McCarthy, Ruth Ozeki. Potential theorists include: Schor, Freud, Barthes, Adolf Loos, Lukács, Genette, Rancière, Said, D.A. Miller, Nancy Armstrong, Anne Cheng, Sianne Ngai, and Saidiya Hartman.