In their introduction to a 2009 issue of Representations, titled “Surface Reading: An Introduction,” Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus assert that the way we read “now” resists the symptomatic readings of a previous generation of scholars. While this previous generation searched for “hidden” meanings, many scholars have now begun to look more closely at the surfaces, the non-hidden or apparent aspects, of texts. In doing so, Best and Marcus, perhaps inadvertently, demonstrate the importance of studying the history of thought.
Best and Marcus argue that although texts “may conceal the structures that give rise to them, they also wear them on their sleeves” (18). In other words, while skeptical readings, ones which probe texts for hidden meanings, may appear to be searching for truth, such readings may in fact obscure the basic, observable qualities of a text. Though this way of reading is presented in a different context, the concept of surface reading is nothing new—something Best and Marcus are not afraid to admit: “[t]his valorization of surface reading as willed, sustained proximity to the text recalls the aims of New Criticism, which insisted that the key to understanding a text’s meaning lay within the text itself, particularly in its formal properties” (10). In fact, surface reading is also a major component of New Formalism, a field which acknowledges its own history in its name.
My aim in drawing attention to the history of surface reading is not to question the efficacy of such an approach, but rather to demonstrate the relevance of an archaeological view, to use Foucault’s language. While Best and Marcus discuss the roles of the critic, as a skeptic and surface reader, they illustrate another potential role of the critic: to talk about the ways we talk about literature. Can an individual understand New Formalism without knowing about Formalism? Does surface reading necessarily refer to “non-surface” reading? Interestingly, while Best and Marcus demonstrate the relevance and usefulness of surface reading, they also show how at times it builds on and interacts with skeptical schools of thought. Thus, despite the “New” in New Criticism and New Formalism, these fields, along with surface reading, really work in tandem with the old.
Best, Stephen and Sharon Marcus. “Surface Reading: An Introduction.” Representations 108.1 (2009): 1-21. JSTOR. Web. 31 Jan. 2016.