In a chapter called “Against Allegory,” in his book J.M. Coetzee and the Ethics of Reading (2004), Derek Attridge argues that we should, more often, stop asking what a text “really means.” He’s writing about the South African novelist J.M. Coetzee, a writer who critiqued the structures and policies of apartheid and whose writing was yet allowed through the censors of the regime that enforced this bureaucratic racism because sympathetic academics on the censorship board could persuasively say that he was writing about something else entirely. Because of the conditions under which his work was published, Coetzee, Attridge argues, tends to be read as someone hiding his true meaning: even as his work rarely deals with the specificities of South African politics, set in different (and often ambiguous) times and places, it still tends to be read as “standing in” for apartheid, as being an allegory for the politics of their time (or, in Coetzee’s later novels, of the recent past). Whilst alert to the important possibilities inherent in this kind of reading, Attridge also argues that it must always miss, or even silence, other important ways of looking.
We can define an allegorical text as one which hides something, which hides its true meaning, and in allegorical reading we’re meant to go to somewhere else than the surface of the words on the page. George Orwell’s Animal Farm is an explicitly allegorical novel that demands allegorical reading: the animals in Orwell’s tale, and the humans, and the events that take place, are all proxies for the events of the Russian revolution. When we perform the act of allegorical reading, then, we perform an act of substitution: if we know our history, then we can, to some extent, ditch Orwell’s characters and proxy in the realities of the world. And allegory can be seductive, making us feel smart, like we’ve solved a puzzle, or “got” a reference, like we’ve broken through the text to a real meaning only available to a few. But, as Attridge says:
[t]he danger . . . is of moving too quickly beyond the novel to find its significance elsewhere, of treating it not as an inventive literary work drawing us into unfamiliar emotional and cognitive territory but as a reminder of what we already know only too well. (pp. 42-3)
When it comes to Coetzee, it might not be that his work is best read as a broad allegory for some universal experience of oppression, nor a narrow allegory for the specificities of apartheid (which, as Attridge shows, are both common readings); what if, instead, his work doesn’t, or doesn’t only, stand-in for something, but, rather, makes you feel something, makes you affected by the characters and the plot and the setting in a way which might be just as (or more) enriching or enlightening as either explicit description or allegorical coding. This is not to deny allegory — many readings can, and must, exist simultaneously whenever we read — but allegorical searching is just one kind of reading among many, and maybe there’s a kind that we miss out on too frequently: not to ask the hermeneutic question “what does this text mean?”, but rather, instead, to ask the phenomenological questions “what does this text do?”
Attridge describes this neglected approach as a “literal reading.”
What I am calling a literal reading is one that is grounded in the experience of reading as an event. That is to say, in literary reading (which I perform at the same time as I perform many other kinds of reading) I do not treat the text as an object whose significance has to be divined; I treat it as something that comes into being only in the process of understanding and responding that I, as an individual reader in a specific time and place, conditioned by a specific history, go through. And this is to say that I do not treat it as “something” at all; rather, I have an experience that I call Waiting for the Barbarians or Life & Times of Michael K [both novels by Coetzee]. It is an experience I can repeat, though each repetition turns out to be a different experience and therefore a non-repetition, a new singularity, as well. (pp. 39-40)
What we read is never just the words on the page, it’s a whole confluence of interests and histories and interpretations clustered around that script that all together produces something that we name as the text. And it is the kind of experiences that certain scripts are liable to produce at certain times that Attridge is most focused on, and wants us to focus on — to not go away from the page, but rather to think about what the page is doing in concert with us at this moment. This is what he describes as the “event” of literary reading.
So what does any of this have to do with Ambient Literature? As I walked the routes of Duncan Speakman’s It Must Have Been Dark By Then, the first commissioned piece from the Ambient Literature project, I found that I wasn’t looking, at all, for allegory, for what it “really” meant, I was only interested in what and how it was making me feel, what it was doing, what it was making me do. Ambient Literature seems to cry out for Attridge’s literal readings — no lack of depth or importance, but the weight instead placed on the event of experience. A literature which aims to reflect on the felt experience of place, to make you look at the world anew, to find existing stories in your environments even as it imposes and transposes new works onto them, this is a literature with little interest in standing-in for something. The pleasure comes not from breaking through the work to what it might really mean, but in working with the text in co-producing meaning right now — the text doesn’t need to be swapped out for the world because the world is a part of the text.
— Matt Hayler