In Praise of Depth: or, How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Hidden

March 23, 2017

Joshua Landy

On March 23, 2017, Joshua Landy (Stanford University) presented a lecture titled “In Praise of Depth: or, How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Hidden.” This event was organized by the Comparative Cultures and Literature Forum and co-sponsored by the Institute for German Cultural Studies.

Landy sought to recover the concept of depth to understand better what he calls the formative function of certain texts. Originating in the hermeneutic tradition, as he began by noting, depth has been a much-maligned concept among literary theorists in recent years. On the one hand, it has been associated with an overly semantic way of looking at art, which overlooks aesthetic considerations such as form or materiality. On the other hand, the concept of depth has been deployed to read texts “against the grain,” to reconstruct an “unconscious” intention that deviates from the author’s supposed aim (the so-called hermeneutics of suspicion). But depth, Landy proposed, does not need to be about unintended aims or hidden meanings. Rather, it can pertain to a text’s intended effect – that is, its intention to teach readers a practice of reading.

Landy suggested that this approach to understanding a literary text does not apply to all or even to most literary cases. Rather, reading for depth involves only those works that conceal something from the reader in the interest of teaching them something. The lesson of such texts, Landy argued, does not lie in a hidden content or message, but rather in the process of searching for such a message; this is the hermeneutic work the text demands of its readers. Texts that can be read for depth in this sense – texts that Landy will elsewhere call “formative fictions” – demand a certain kind of work from a reader, thereby seeking to train readers to perform a particular mental operation. Such texts do not teach readers to look harder or deeper, Landy suggests, but rather to look differently. The type of depth these sorts of texts offer and the kind of procedure they demand of a reader often have to do with the intent of these works as a whole.

Landy discussed Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice as an example. A superficial reading of the story at the level of content only, he claimed, would run against the intention of the text. Rather than aiming to impart a particular meaning, the text instead seeks to teach readers to overcome their own superficial assumptions – their prejudices – by interpreting the text beyond the level of appearances. Our prejudice, or refusal to explore the text below the surface level of the story or a discursive meaning, is precisely what leads us to get it wrong. Pride and Prejudice, Landy claims, is thus designed to train a reader to look beyond the surface: in other words, to stop being prejudiced. (Matteo Calla)