Of the many time-wasting hobbies in which spinster aunts are known to indulge, one of the most beloved is the close reading — or megamicronalysis, to use the clinical term — of some passage of text or other.
Why the close reading? Why not para-sailing? Why not chemical engineering?
Because spinster aunts used to be English majors, and old habits die hard.
Not an English major? Don’t know or care what the heck I’m talking about? Fantastic! A close reading is when a total nerd takes a chunk of text and gives it the Everlovin Eye of Scrutiny. By which I mean, she whips out her language-loupe and inspects the text-chunk, line by line, word by word, letter by letter, with assiduous concentration on tone, point of view, verb tense, style, connotation, imagery, symbolism, syntax, literary device, motif, theme, punctuation, density, negative space, texture, aroma, atomic weight, or what have you. These attributes — atomic weight et al — form the subtext. A subtext contains layers of meaning that cannot be conveyed by the text’s superficies alone. In fact, the meaning of a subtext’s layers often exists solely in the mind of the total nerd. That’s what’s so marvelous about it.
Subtexts and all their perilous possibilities are irresistible to English majors.
Once a text has been flayed open and every aspect of its shimmering sub-substance lies exposed and quivering in the 60-watt light of the English major’s second-hand desk lamp, the close reading is complete. At this point it is customary to write a long, tedious paper that maybe two people in the world will ever read, in which the English major not only reveals the results of her megamicronalysis, but craftily uses her findings as evidence supporting whatever brilliant and obscure argument she’s making about the text.
Why make a brilliant argument about text at all? Why not do something useful like go down-the-coast and cap that fucking oil leak?
Indeed, it is a question for the ages. One hypothesis: the English major has deduced that English words strung together in certain sequences can express certain ideas, almost as though they were a kind of language. Furthermore, she has realized that her strings of words can express ideas about somebody else’s strings of words, and that these ideas are just too fuckin replete with philosophic value not to synthesize into a long, tedious paper that ultimately draws weighty conclusions about the human condition. Also — brace yourself — close readings can be performed on other close readings, creating string upon string upon string of words expressing this, that, and the other thing, ad infinitum, until the whole of human genius has been explicated, turning the very cosmos itself into an open if slightly long and tedious book!
Thus is the close reading, if one is of a certain lowbrow temperament, immensely satisfying to execute.
In the cut-throat world of patriarchy blaming, close readings are particularly valuable. In the parlance of people who write things about things, “teasing out” the subtexts concealed within garden-variety patriarchy-generated texts (news reportage, field guides to Texas lepidoptera, Italo Calvino short stories) can reveal realer truths about the culture of oppression that might otherwise languish in obscurity where they do no women no good no how.
A favorite self-replenishing source of patriarchy-generated text falls in the Emails Sent In By Dudes category. Say, here’s one now!
Despite my being a male reader of your blog (and one who doesn’t even meet the commenter criteria), I know that neither you nor any other feminist has a responsibility to explain feminism to men. I’m kind of stupid, however, so I am going to go ahead and ask you for your opinion on a recent issue, and for advice on how to proceed. Also, I know that you don’t have definitive authority to speak for feminists, let alone women, but I still seek your opinion as a person far more experienced in these matters than I. I am asking that you grant this, not as an obligation, but as a favor from one possessing wisdom to one sorely needing it. There is undoubtedly some male presumption on my part in asking this, but I would ask that you look beyond that to see that I am honestly endeavoring to do what is right.
The case I am writing in regards to is that which is reported here:
[yadda yadda yadda]*
Jeremy is asking for something, a thing to which he seems to be aware that he is not entitled, but which a lifetime of dude-on-dudess interaction has nevertheless taught him to expect. He appeals for an exception to the Spinster Prime Directive by asking a spinster aunt to define rape for him, so that he can look smart on some other blog.
Jeremy presents his case in first person, from the point of view of an entity described as a “male reader.” This gives us important information about Jeremy. It tells us straight away that Jeremy has determined that the most basic tenet of the blog — “if you’re a dude, don’t ask me shit” — does not apply to him. We may therefore identify him as a schmuck.
Jeremy refers to “I” or “me” eleven times in this single paragraph. Nine times he refers as “you” to the Internet feminist known as Twisty. His conversational tone (“I” and “you”) suggests that Jeremy perceives a relationship between himself and Twisty. Although he sees himself as the dominant figure in the relationship, Jeremy wishes Twisty to regard it as one approximating that of sovereign/supplicant, where Twisty is the sovereign and Jeremy the supplicant. We infer this because, whereas Jeremy describes himself as “kind of stupid,” he floridly flatters Twisty as “one possessing wisdom” and “experience” who is in a position to “grant” what Jeremy wants. This gambit is transparently calculated to butter Twisty up, that she might cast a benign eye upon his heartfelt plea and do him the favor of setting aside her Internet feminist agenda by telling him what to think.
It is clear, however, that Jeremy doesn’t actually consider himself stupid. We know this because a) in the entire history of the entire Internet, there have only been like two instances of people writing stuff online who were not convinced absolutely of their own moral authority and intellectual superiority, and even these were later shown to have been hoaxes, and b) because Jeremy chucks around, albeit awkwardly, a few 50-cent phrases that he wouldn’t expect a genuinely stupid person to chuck (“definitive authority,” “honestly endeavoring”).
In fact, describing himself as “kind of stupid” and admitting up front that he is not qualified to take part in patriarchy blaming’s cutting-edge dialecticals is merely common self-deprecation, a device used to suggest a sense of humor and a bit of submissiveness where none actually exists, the better to cajole a boon out of a reluctant boon-granter.
In other words, Jeremy is a disingenuous suck-up.
The self-deprecating claim of stupidity allows Jeremy to acknowledge Twisty’s unequivocally stated lack of interest in running a school for boys, while simultaneously deploying an affect so irresistible that Twisty will have no choice but to abandon — “not out of obligation, but as a favor” — her stated mission and personal beliefs in order to cater to his whim.
Why should she do this catering? Because Jeremy is “honestly endeavoring to do what is right.” It is common knowledge that there are no worthier recipients of favors from Internet feminists than honest dudely endeavorers. For, honest though his endeavoring be, Jeremy simply cannot achieve do-rightness without Twisty’s guiding hand on the rudder of his conscience. Is this because he is too lazy to read 17 books on radical feminist theory?
Yes. Yes, it is.
If there’s one thing an English major learns from having had to write, over the course of her academic career, 73 or 74 papers on The Great Gatsby, it’s that when a first person dude claims he’s honest, he lies.
Yes, ladies, the world and the Internet are crawling with dudely entitlement; it may come disguised as the lying lies of obsequious flatterers, but when it does, the English major has it covered like a fuzzy pink seat on a toilet.
* Here is the rest of Jeremy’s email. Feel free to address, in the comments, the “recent issue” [!] of rape-by-deceit.
But first: You know, the only reason men are so anxious to define rape all the goddam time is to keep women from getting away with having too much autonomy over their sexy selves. If I were to define rape for anyone who thinks rape requires defining it might go something like “It’s rape whenever she says it’s rape, douche.”
To summarize, a Palestinian Arab was recently convicted for Rape by Deception on the grounds that he claimed to be Jewish in order to have sex with a Jewish woman. There is some question as to whether he actually intentionally deceived her, but that wasn’t really relevant to the discussion, which quickly turned to whether or not this should be classified as rape. In the comment section to that blog post (which you may want to read for context), I attempted to make the argument that this would, indeed, count as rape, on the grounds that deceiving someone in order something they would not otherwise do is coercion, and that coerced sex is rape. In a later post I attempted to clarify this by stating that I find coercion, of any form or severity, to be the defining factor in whether an instance of sexual activity is rape, admitting that there is some degree of variability in the severity in these rape acts, which by this definition includes everything from violent rape, to statutory rape, to prostitution and pornography, to lying about one’s interest in a long term relationship.
Opposition from the other commenters has caused me to question my argument, however. Some have pointed out that it might tend to infantilize women, and others that it is offensive to victims of violent rape to dilute the term by including so much in the definition. Further, there are several counterexamples (such as a women lying about her sexual history to avoid scaring off potential sexual partners, or a light-skinned woman of African descent lying about her racial ancestry in order to marry into white society) that I desperately do not want to classify as rape, but would seem to follow from the system I put forward. If opposition to my arguments were universal, I would withdraw my argument, believing it be a case of an oppressor blind to oppression. However, a couple of commenters have supported my conclusion, at least one of whom I have cause to believe is female, so I am stuck.
I would very much appreciate your opinion on this matter, and am more than willing to accept that I may have been dramatically wrong in my conclusion. I understand that you may choose to use this E-mail on your blog to make example/fun of.