Surface and Depth

Surface and Depth : The Quest for Legibility in American Culture

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The idea of a common American culture has been in retreat for a generation or more. Arguments emphasizing difference have discredited the grand synthetic studies that marginalized groups and perspectives at odds with the master narrative. Surface and Depth: The Quest for Legibility in American Culture is a fresh attempt to revitalize an interpretive overview. It seeks to recuperate a central tradition while simultaneously recognizing how much that tradition has occluded. The book focuses on the American zeal for knowing or making accessible. This compulsion has a long history stretching back to Puritan anti-monasticism; to the organization of the landscape into clearly delineated gridwork sections; and to the creation of a national government predicted on popular vigilance. It can be observed in the unmatched American receptivity to the motion pictures and to psychoanalysis: the first a technology of visual surfaces, the second a technique for plumbing interior depths. Popular literature, especially the Western and the detective story, has reinscribed the cult of legibility. Each genre features a plot that drives through impediments to transparent resolution.
Elite literature has adopted a more contradictory stance. The landmarks of the American canon typically embark on journeys of discovery while simultaneously renouncing the possibility of full disclosure (as in Ahab's doomed pursuit of the "inscrutable" white whale). The notorious modernism of American literature, its precocious attraction to obscurity and multiple meaning, evolved as an effort to block the intrusions of a hegemonic cultural dynamic. The American passion for knowability has been prolific of casualties. Acts of making visible have always entailed the erasure and invisibility of racial minorities. American society has also routinely trespassed on customary areas of reserve. A nation intolerant of the hidden paradoxically pioneered the legal concept of privacy, but it did so in reaction to its own invasive excesses.
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Product details

  • Hardback | 234 pages
  • 163.1 x 245.4 x 20.8mm | 530.71g
  • Oxford University Press Inc
  • New York, United States
  • English
  • New
  • 0195157761
  • 9780195157765

Review quote

An acute, unexpected and convincing panoramic account of American culture's moral fascination with transparency and the denial of depth. Gilmore makes clear just what the opposite might be to Ellison's Invisible Man, and how standing up to sight and visibility define American life from the Puritans to the aftermath of Freud and Hollywood. * Philip Fisher, Harvard University * A sustained meditation on the pervasive American desire for 'legibility,' Michael T. Gilmore's Surface and Depth interweaves such themes as the rise of the cinema and the adoption of psychoanalysis in the United States with close readings of central political documents and major literary works. Written in the best American Studies tradition, this book offers a provocative interpretation of the intimate interconnectedness of democratic openness and racial
closure in the civilization of the United States. * Werner Sollors, Harvard University * Surface and Depth takes up the fault lines in American understandings by stressing the obsession that the culture has always brought to its own visibility. Michael T. Gilmore begins with a question. Why did film and psychoanalysis, surface and penetration, receive their greatest reception in America and at the same time? His powerful answer ranges across the length and breadth of American understandings. We learn as never before exactly what Americans allow
themselves to see and try to ignore. Then, in a series of brilliant readings, he proves that ferreting out the hidden is the controlling impulse in the country's literature. The result is a rare combination: cultural analysis at its best in what is also a very good read. * Robert A. Ferguson, Columbia University * The core of this book is an account of the literary dimensions of legibility, the intersection of the drive to make accessible and known with the literature of the American nation. Michael Gilmore argues his case with precision, bravura, and skill, offering a masterly intervention in the current debate over American literature-revealing, as he does so, an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of contemporary critical discourses, a sophisticated use of relevant cultural
theories, and genuine ease with interdisciplinary strategies. Surface and Depth is provocatively poised against the current critical norm, which tends to emphasize plurality and difference. This is a work that, if anything, swims against the disciplinary tide in an effort to get ahead of current
critical thinking-and, in my opinion, magnificently succeeds. * Richard Gray, University of Essex *
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About Michael T. Gilmore

Michael T. Gilmore is Paul Prosswimmer Professor of American Literature at Brandeis University.
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