BY JUAN MENESES
Associate professor of English, University of North Carolina at Charlotte
In Resisting Dialogue: Modern Fiction and the Future of Dissent, I argue that literature can offer roadmaps for citizens to navigate the depoliticization of their lives. In particular, I analyze situations in which dialogue is used not to motivate the democratic resolution of disenfranchising schemes, as it is conventionally thought to do, but to perpetuate them.
This insidious employment of dialogue is one of the many indications that we live in a postpolitical moment—and the work of certain novels can give us clues about how to forge a political life in the face of such depoliticization. In paying attention to the ways fictional characters tackle their own disenfranchisement, readers can find not just solace but also strategies and tactics to make politically meaningful interventions or, as I show in a couple of examples, reveal something important in their failures. This can be done by practicing what I call “reading dangerously,” a kind of reading that makes thinkable what cannot or is not allowed to be conceived as yet in the “real world.” Ultimately, my intention is to make a contribution to a long critical tradition aimed at showing how the literary imagination and the political imagination can be, and perhaps should more often be, one and the same.
A case for close reading
While one could envisage the idea of reading dangerously in a variety of ways, in the book I make a case for close reading. In an age of fast “content” production and consumption, reading with an eye to detail and not immediate satisfaction or for an often-predetermined general message can be very productive. Close reading, as I argue in the book, “promotes political literacy” and is, therefore, “a legitimate tool for fashioning one’s civic duties and commitments. Reading texts carefully helps us read the world in the same way.” This is a task for the reader or, in the context of reading dangerously, what I call the “citizen-reader.” If our lives are increasingly determined by our identification as individuals at all levels, it is to our own interest that we make a similar kind of investment (though oriented in the opposite direction) so that we strengthen our capacity to put into practice this dual form of meaning-making. The close readings of novels that I offer in the book seek to aim precisely to do that.
The novel is an ideal genre to (re)activate the link between the imaginative dimensions of literature and politics because, given that it is most often focused on character and context (ranging from scene to plot), it serves as a mirror-image of the world in which we and the situations where our most pressing political issues materialize. As readers, furthermore, we inhabit a unique position that stands both outside and inside the text. While most of our waking hours are spent in the “real” world, we are also allowed entry into a fictional world that is presented exclusively so that we can experience it, a world that is hence as fictional as it is real because we are real. At the same time, as outsiders to that fictional world we enjoy a critical distance that allows us to stand alongside our characters, as it were, while being able to stop and think about the situation in which they find themselves. We can, then, discern the moment a protagonist is too deeply immersed in their own plot to identify the depoliticizing nature of having to choose between two equally inequitable choices, for instance, or study the course of action they take to escape such a dilemma. Beyond the act of recognizing oneself in a given fictional person (or, as it is sometimes put these days, “relating to them”), this kind of critical reading requires that we open up to the text instead of restricting its scope by reclaiming only those aspects that correspond neatly to our own circumstances.
The challenges with close reading
There are, of course, many obstacles to this activity, such as limitation in access and exposure to the kinds of narratives that allow for such an exercise of the political imagination. This is an ongoing challenge that must be urgently tackled, and the work of teachers, mentors, librarians, and any others helping empower readers cannot be celebrated enough and should be supported without hesitation. Encouraging the practice of a form of reading that does not serve as a mere form of escapism can help motivate a more critically acute understanding of our historical moment. This is why the challenge for citizen-readers is not to lose sight of the “real world” while they immerse themselves in a novel. Our reading is already conditioned by the world that surrounds us, as the values, contradictions, and disputations of our time are the guiding principles that determine why we choose to read a text over another or how we make our own judgments about characters and their behaviors. The kind of close reading I am describing here, therefore, establishes a direct, purposeful connection between fiction and politics.
Another obstacle is concerned with the largely solitary nature of reading. Readers read primarily for themselves and by themselves, perhaps even to themselves. Yet close reading does not have to be a self-serving activity. The themes I explore in Resisting Dialogue are political, among other reasons, because they are broad and affect large groups of people across the planet, like the afterlives of colonialism, neoliberalism’s assault on the social contract, or the visibility of environmental destruction in the global South. If, in these highly individualized times, we seem to be prompted to think first and foremost about our own interests, reading closely can help us find ways to identify important problems and solutions from our own connection—though never equation—with the fictional Other(s) inhabiting a novel. Furthermore, to be both a reader and a citizen is to be a member of a collective majority whose members one doesn’t know much about. The act of reading closely that I am promoting here is not geared toward the emancipation of one, but the emancipation of one’s position as exemplified by the fictional characters one reads about. Hence, engaging actively in this activity is to defend the emancipation of all those who—in their own multidimensional, intersectional, and uniquely situated ways—are, have been, might be, or will be in a similar position.
Finally, close reading—especially in its most traditional iteration—can easily become a reductive form of interpretation. The unchecked practice of close reading can make a reader too absorbed in the mechanics of the text to become a politically passive actor. But the satisfaction of losing oneself in a novel does not need to eclipse the work that the novel could do if we read it both in the context of the historical moment in which it first appeared as well as against the backdrop of the political circumstances that define our era (if the two are not the same). We must, therefore, be most diligent in our practice of close reading so that we don’t end up decontextualizing the issues we read about simply as exercises in craft. Appreciating literary craft is important, but studying a writer’s craft for its capacity to form a political question through characters and context is doubly rewarding. Contrary to what it has sometimes been said in order to depoliticize the work of literature (and the arts in general), politics and aesthetics do not have to be at odds with each other. This is not to privilege political significance over aesthetic gratification, but to refuse to have to choose one and not the other, to reject this false dichotomy.
Despite these impediments, there is much to gain in reading closely, if carefully. Reading closely allows us to engage with the genres that we are sometimes impelled to escape. Literature teaches us to embrace the dramas of life, the moments that require reflection, the absurdity, the cruelty, and the ironies of this world, not always without humor. Reading closely lets us see that which, from far away or after a cursory glance, might look like a misunderstanding but is really a ruse, what seems to be an inevitable “structural consequence” of a larger issue but is in reality a concerted effort to generate a specific outcome, or what looks like an attempt to bring people together but is, instead, a maneuver to extend the exclusion of many.
Juan Meneses is author of Resisting Dialogue: Modern Fiction and the Future of Dissent. Meneses is associate professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.