Radial reading, Modernism, and Value

  In “How to Read a Book”,  Jerome McGann describes the function of  ‘radial reading’ as “decoding one or more of the contexts that interpenetrate the scripted and physical text,” necessitating “abstraction from what appears most immediately.” (McGann, 119) Radial reading moves beyond the self-contained linguistic and spatial messages within a text to expose relationships to other texts, to historical conditions, and to  the constructed act of reading itself. For McGann, radial reading is “the most important form of reading because [it] alone puts one in a position to respond to the text’s own (often secret) discursive acts.” (122)  McGann goes on to position certain types of text as facilitating radial reading, and others as impeding this. I found this distinction fascinating, especially because the delineations made are along classic ideas of value in ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture. Texts which encourage radial reading are those in the scholarly field, notoriously difficult texts such as the  poetry of W.B  Yeats, Ulysses, and Ezra Pound’s Cantos. The texts which discourage radial reading are ‘Harlequin Bodice Rippers’, e.g, popular and genre  fiction. McGann does write that popular works should still be analyzed, but that works “like these do not positively call out to the critical and self-conscious reader.” (119)

It seems that  facilitating radial reading  makes a text more challenging and (as McGann acknowledges rather obliquely) more valued, but the act of radial reading itself should undermine any  sense of superior value given to a work as constructed. The mode of reading which designates these Modernist texts as valuable is also the mode which  reveals the mechanisms of privilege behind this value. What makes Modernist texts valuable or compelling  is not an actual superiority to popular fiction, if this is the case; perhaps what interests us about Modernism is exploring the relationships built through radial reading; the relationships and stories which can be built around Modernist texts are simply more compelling because  these stories have more potential for contradiction –  the fallout from discrepancies between idealism and the reality of production and distribution is heightened when examining ‘artistic status’ works, but lessened with ‘entertainment’ works.

McGann points out the potential for radial reading to situate  Modernist works in historical and critical context when he recounts the prepublication history of T.S Eliot’s The Wasteland.  Terms of an arrangement between Eliot, the  publishers of The Wasteland’s book form, and the periodical which printed the poem, The Dial, stipulate that Eliot would be awarded “the Dial award for the year 1922 as part of his publishing contract with both of the publishers.” (126) A parallel explanation for the value of Modernist works can be found in fine art: Abstract Expressionism presents an extreme example of ‘radial reading’  contextualizing artistic work beyond claims of aesthetic prowess.  Abstract Expressionism  as a Modernist school of painting clearly differs from literary Modernism in some respects, but  it can be viewed as a kind of Ur-expression of utopian aesthetic claims – AE is seen as apolitical, the pure outpouring of an individual consciousness on the grand scale. It could be compared to stream of consciousness literary devices without too much of a stretch. These works were championed by critics like Clement Greenberg for eschewing representation and presenting ‘pure’ aesthetic experience – these works are positioned as culture high enough to be beyond articulation. However, much like The Wasteland, the story of what makes Abstract Expressionism so important is quite different.

If we were to read say, a Jackson Pollock, only for the  immediate content on the canvas, we could make all sorts of aesthetic interpretations and claims about the powerful, dynamic splatters and the personal emotion wrangled into an image, but the real story of what makes Pollock important would only emerge if we were to read radially, outside the image, alongside the image. (“alongside the image” might be a quote from Mcgann – I can’t find it right now, but I’m going to cover my ass in case it is)First, to literally look outside the confines of the canvas, we situate a Pollock as an image within an institution. The institution, much like Eliot’s award, confers value to the work. The historical context of Abstract Expressionism’s rise is the most telling; Eva Cockcroft articulates the complex political and economic maneuvering of these distinctly American images in her brilliant but hyperbolically titled “Abstract Expressionism, Weapon of the Cold War.” Cockcroft posits that art museums came to replace patronage, with powerful corporate families, such as the Rockefellers,  pressing institutions (MoMA, etc) into the service of financial and political agendas. In the 1940s and 50s, these agendas were largely anti-communist. MoMA organized international exhibitions designed to promote capitalist, democratic life following WWII. Abstract Expressionism “constituted the ideal style for these propaganda activities. It was the perfect contrast to the ‘regimented, traditional, and narrow’ nature of socialist realism… Artistically avant-garde and original, Abstract Expressionism could show the U.S as culturally up-to-date in competition with Paris.” (Cockcroft, 129  In a catalog for the exhibition “New American Painting,” which traveled Europe 1957-58, the then director of MoMA, Alfred Barr, wrote of the Abstract Expressionists commitment to their apolitical  “dreadful freedom,” in “a world in which freedom connotes a political attitude.”

McGann closes “How to Read a Book” with the cautionary message that “messages and their senders are neither innocent nor completely reliable,” (128) but we must apply the same skepticism to him –  McGann warns that “unlike The Wasteland,” popular and mass media texts “labor to minimize [their] own internal conflicts, as well as possible conflicts the message might generate,” (127) but it can’t be overlooked that ‘high’ culture is often as self-contained and aggressive in promoting particular messages and minimizing threats to these messages, as we can see in historical contexts surrounding the value of some Modernist works.

Works cited

Cockcroft, Eva. “Abstract Expressionism, Weapon of the Cold War.” Pollock and After: The Critical Debate. By  Francis  Franscina. New York: Harper & Row, 1985. Print.
McGann, Jerome J. “How to Read a Book.” The Textual Condition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1991. 101-28. Print.
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