De-Disciplining the Eye

Critical Inquiry 16 (3):506-531 (1990)

In this essay I will explore a mode of reading I call “reading for the text.” A text is what we make of a work when reading it: roughly, a meaningful, well-structured whole with a beginning and an end. But as a mode of reading, textuality allows for constant activity, a continual shaping nd reshaping of sign-events. I will argue that reading for a sense of textuality, and for the wholeness this simple textuality entails, does not necessarily preclude awareness of a fundamental lack of unity, while reading for the effect of the real, in spite of the promotion of the “realistic detail,” tends to do so. The two modes of reading are fundamentally different; yet the conflict between them is not necessarily obvious, nor should such conflict be avoided, ignored, or smoothed out.The goal of this confrontation is not to promote textual reading at the expense of realistic reading. It is the conflict between them I wish to promote. The two modes of reading can be brought to bear on the same work, although they are incompatible. As a result, activating both modes is in itself a critical endeavor: their very combination helps one to avoid the unifying fallacy. Textual and realist readings are a problematic and thereby productive combination. Mieke Bal is professor of comparative literature and Susan B. Anthony Professor of women’s studies at the University of Rochester. The author of Death and Dissymmetry: The Politics of Coherence in the Book of Judges, her forthcoming book is Reading “Rembrandt”: Beyond the Word-Image Opposition
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DOI 10.1086/448544
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