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Reading for the Apparatus: An Interview with Garrett Stewart

Sep 17, 2019
Garrett Stewart

Reading for the Apparatus: An Interview with Garrett Stewart
by Ben Kirbach

Transmedium: Conceptualism 2.0 and the New Object Art (Chicago, 2017)
The One, Other, and Only Dickens (Cornell, 2018)
The Value of Style in Fiction (Cambridge, 2018)
Cinemachines: An Essay on Media and Method (Chicago, 2019)

I first met Garrett Stewart as an undergraduate. It was less by providence than sheer luck that I found a seat in his seminar on narrative film: I had no idea who he was. But I remember that shock of white hair as he strode into class and cued up clips from 2001 and Citizen Kane and Young Mr. Lincoln. It was high-powered theory applied, in real time, to fine-grained analysis. I’d never seen anything like it.

You might say I never recovered. And not just because my copies of S/Z and Reading for the Plot are still pin-cushioned with Post-It notes; if I hadn’t signed up for that seminar, Garrett wouldn’t have ended up, years later, directing my Ph.D. thesis. Naïvely, I could always sense what in him gelled with my own thinking about narrative as a kind of human technology. But as I began to understand what an illustrious career he’d had, it threw into relief the generous attention he’d given my writing—and still gives it, quite honestly, since without his sharp eye (or ear, as the case may be) I would never have made it this far.

And an illustrious career it’s been. By the end of 2019, Stewart will have published four books in two years. A coup de grâce, perhaps, but more like unattenuated momentum: with fifteen books and over a hundred published articles, the English professor has been nothing if not prolific. Yet this latest creative burst is so remarkable, so hyper-productive, that I decided to sit down with Garrett and talk, both about this recent flurry of publication and his career in general.

What follows is a transcript of that exchange. First, as a sort of primer, it might be useful to outline in broad strokes some of Stewart’s ideas, since they evince a signature mix of formalism, narratology, and media theory. So it is that when I mention the eye or ear of reading, it’s important to note that when we read silently we “subvocalize,” or bring just below the threshold of activation the vocal cords and other muscles involved in speech. That’s why, in Reading Voices: Literature and the Phonotext (1990), Stewart argues that the medium of print isn’t primarily visual but verbal. It’s through this “simultaneously summoned and silenced enunciation” (1) that we unveil an aural layer of the text that isn’t contained in (or constrained by) its typography. Like electricity through a printed circuit, the “voice” we lend to literature ignites its acoustic underside, and with an ear sensitive enough we can track the liaisons and slippages and random mutations of meaning.

If print is brought to life in this way, cinema similarly summons and silences (twenty-four times per second) its most basic constitutive element. “Filmic frames flickeringly disappear into cinematic image rather as the fluctuations of alphabetic language congeal into units of meaning on the page,” Stewart writes in Between Film and Screen: Modernism’s Photo Synthesis (1999) (2). What cinema really “is,” in other words, is a procession of still frames; Stewart argues that this stillness impinges upon the moving images we perceive—and, in turn, affects (or infects) film’s narrative logic. He therefore views the various storytelling techniques native to cinema (e.g., montage, dissolve) as a symptom of their mechanical undercarriage. And if we alter film’s technological basis? Stewart’s contention in Framed Time: Toward a Postfilmic Cinema (2007) is that the undulations of the pixel array affect, in equal measure, the more liquid logic of digital filmmaking.

I open with this “crash course,” as it were, because it illustrates how Stewart in each case focuses on the underlying apparatus of the medium, be it mechanical or linguistic. Zeroing-in on where and how this apparatus bleeds into technique has perhaps been the hallmark of his career. How these tiny inflections then scale-up to the larger temporal structures of plot prompted Stewart more recently to coin the term narratography—a mapping of what he calls the “microplots” out of which a given narrative style or genre is built. The consistent methodology at work here, which he names below and which informs my title, Stewart calls “apparatus reading.”

The following has been edited slightly for accuracy.

. . .

BK: I often feel like a single dissertation is an insurmountable task. How can you possibly have published four books in two years?

GS: At times they feel like just one to their author, four related chapters in an attempt to tie up some loose ends this far along in my career.

BK: Your career from the very beginning until now?

GS: Yes. In graduate school at Yale, I found myself in a program whose strengths lay in the intensively theorized reading of poetic texts, whereas I was bent on immersing myself in the language, the prose poetry, of Charles Dickens. Rather than seeking a Victorianist advisor, I ended up working with a Medievalist whose main teaching was in the History of English. Forty-some years later I’ve returned to that verbal immersion in The One, Other, and Only Dickens, based on graduate as well as undergraduate courses I’ve taught here at Iowa for a couple of years running.

BK: When you say the “intensively theorized reading of poetic texts,” I take it you mean the New Criticism. Which is interesting, because I tend to associate that time and place with the “Yale School” and the likes of Paul de Man, Jacques Derrida, etc.

GS: They were on their way in as I was on the way out in 1971. It was a cusp moment, a former literary intensity confronting the pressure of revisionist theory. I found myself rather caught between the stuffiness of the New Critics and the “phonophobia” of deconstruction. Take The One, Other, and Only Dickens. The point of the title is to highlight—as a function inextricable from the One and Only, the fabled Inimitable, as master storyteller—the undersong of wordplay in Dickens’s prose. I trace this back to an early trauma in his professional development, when the teenaged Dickens began his famous stint as a Parliamentary reporter and was tortured by the difficulties of the then-dominant shorthand method. He was lightning fast in transcribing the Parliamentary rhetoric, but, as detailed in his quasi-autobiographical David Copperfield, was agonized when he couldn’t read his script back into normal English from all the gaps of missing internal vowels in the compressed stenographic code. This frustration leads directly, it seems to me, to the unprecedented density of vocalic sound effects, and deliberate sound defects, in a later fictional prose that was often intoned by Dickens as he wrote—you could say drafted aloud.

BK: That would seem to position the text as a sort of surface tension between typographical arrangement, on the one hand, and the “voice” we lend to it when reading, on the other. Is the overlap (or slippage) between the two where you see “style” at work?

GS: That’s part of it, yes. As a kind of companion volume to the Dickens study, The Value of Style in Fiction also developed out of an undergraduate course at Iowa on “Prose Style.” This book widens the context, from sound play to the whole rhetorical arsenal of diction and syntax. The effort is to introduce readers to the potential yield of a verbal focus, its pleasures and analytic leverage, in novelists from Daniel Defoe through Dickens to Don DeLillo, from Herman Melville to Toni Morrison.

BK: You’ve also published several books on film. Was it viewed as an anomaly—a defection, even—for a Dickens scholar to swerve into film studies?

GS: The more unanticipated move was to conceptual art. Film isn’t terribly surprising for a Victorianist—after all, the Victorians invented it. And the lens of tightly focused attention doesn’t need much adjusting, really, in turning from prose fiction to my books on the evolution of cinema, filmic to digital—in transition from the celluloid reel through the pixel array to the counterpoint between framing narration and the inset surveillance of closed-circuit video monitors. As the intended capstone of these studies, due in November, Cinemachines is subtitled “An Essay on Media and Method” and is meant to be just that: a methodological position paper on what I call “apparatus reading.” It’s a mode of attention that registers the way evolving screen technology surfaces as narrative technique within certain microplots of concentrated optic effect, with examples in every phase of screen practice from the silent comedy of Buster Keaton to 2017’s Blade Runner sequel. But here again there’s a strong cross-over impetus. The “media” that I imagine benefitting from this approach are not limited to screen narrative.

BK: Can you say more about the move to conceptual art? Prior to Transmedium you’d written, not on close-reading per se, but on the painting of reading (The Look of Reading, 2006) as well as the sculpting of book-objects (Bookwork, 2011). How does that connect to your more recent work?

GS: On the literary front, leaving aside conceptual art for a moment, I find that what fascinates me about the imprinted page when deciphered—the fingerprints of an author’s style even apart from its signature effects—is thrown into negative relief by painted romance readers on canvas reading loosely scrawled pages I myself can’t read, as well as by book carvings or installations giving no access to the page at all. In fact, the picture accompanying this interview is of me in a sculptural space made of 10,000 closed books and their infinite replication by angled mirrors, called by the punning title Passage. It’s an installation in a Slovak library that you walk rather dizzily through—warned about its risk to vertigo sufferers—as an encompassing metaphor for the literary passages made unavailable to you. All books, no verbal medium.

BK: Earlier you said that “apparatus reading” isn’t limited to screen narrative. What other media do you have in mind?

GS: That’s where the conceptualist work comes in. Beyond my ongoing emphasis on fiction reading as “media study”—the medium of delivery being the linguistic “apparatus” itself—there is also the art-historical cross-section explored in Transmedium, where I attempt an end-run around a mostly discredited “medium-specificity” in art analysis—the High Modernist valorization of painting, say, that’s only about the act and conditions thereof, stroke and surface and color and coverage. Instead, I look to recent conceptual work that freshly specifies its own material parameters through deliberate and illuminating collisions with other media: giant woodcuts made to resemble grainy video grabs, say, or thousands of internet thumbnail images collaged into simulated single photographs.

BK: Looking back across your career, do see a through-line linking these various projects?

GS: For me, it’s always first of all the medium that matters—and in a quite material sense, including the differential function of phonetics and frame-advance in literary and film “texts” respectively. Or cross-wired technical effects in conceptual art. With interpretive viewing posited as its own kind of “reading,” my emphasis is everywhere on process rather than product: on knowing how it is that we read before determining what it is, in all its cultural and political ramifications, that we are out to understand.


Garrett Stewart is the James O. Freedman Professor of Letters at the University of Iowa. He was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2010.

Ben Kirbach is a Ph.D. candidate in English and an academic advisor at the University of Iowa.


TransmediumThe One, Other, and Only DickensThe Value of Style in FictionCinemachines