Incipit: On Reading (Chambers)


For the second installment of this dialogic series, the journal asked Ross Chambers (University of Michigan) and Robert St. Clair (Dartmouth College) to reflect on reading and on interpretation. In what ways do we meander when we engage with a text? Where does a text lead us, and what happens when we go off course? The first two essays were composed simultaneously, without knowing what each destinataire might be writing or saying; the textual exchange followed the chronological order presented below.



Originally prepared for oral delivery at a conference session on the author’s study of Baudelaire as a city poet, the paper explores related academic genres involving academic judgment before giving an autobiographical account of the author’s reading of Baudelaire, which was mediated by the experience of the AIDS epidemic in Ronald Reagan’s United States as Baudelaire’s Parisian experience had been mediated by the Second Empire. Thus is suggested a theory of the ongoing readability of literary texts as that readability is mediated by the successive events of changing human history. (RC)

The following essay attempts to tease out the implications of what it means to read in dialogue with others, to think of reading (and teaching) as a kind of conversational act, one involving exposure to modes, instances, and situations of difficulty, incomprehension, and “failure” that are often not only the surest sign of a text’s constitutive open-ended interpretability, but also, and more importantly, of its (potential) meaningfulness for readers. Taking Rimbaud as a case study of sorts, the piece draws especially on a corpus of theoretical insights advanced by Ross Chambers—on the pragmatics of interpretation, on irony, reference and situationality, on the gap between meaning and meaningfulness—and thinks of reading a collective practice of meaning-making with, one hopes, important political and ethical implications for our times. (RSC)

Ross Chambers and Robert St. Clair
Volume 45.3-4