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Theology Still?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 October 2020


“I hope my attitude will not be regarded as irreverent,” Maurizio Ascari declares before launching into a critique of Franco Moretti's critical methods (3). By contrast, I undertake no critique of Moretti's methods, but my attitude toward his work is at least somewhat irreverent, if also appreciative. I titled an early draft of this essay “Distant Reading and the New Poetics of Enchantment; or, Toward a Literary History That Is Spiritual but Not Religious.” This title was self-consciously outrageous, since there is little that is overtly enchanted, let alone spiritual, about Moretti's criticism. Indeed, one of the recurring rhetorical fillips in his book Distant Reading involves the disparagement of close reading as a kind of theology: “At bottom,” close reading is “a theological exercise—very solemn treatment of very few texts taken very seriously—whereas what we really need is a little pact with the devil: we know how to read texts, now let's learn how not to read them. Distant reading: where distance … is a condition of knowledge” (48; see also 33, 67, 89, and 113). By invoking enchantment and spirituality to describe his work, then, I was looking to underscore, a little cheekily, how rigorous engagement with his “pact with the devil” reveals similar features to those Moretti partly discredits—namely, credulity, “superstition” (Johnson 84), and “mystery” (Goodwin xiii). In essence, my aim was to employ close reading—of distant reading—as a kind of return, if not revenge, of the repressed.

Theories and Methodologies
Copyright © 2017 The Modern Language Association of America

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