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Hanneke Stuit is an Assistant Professor of Literary and Cultural Analysis at the University of Amsterdam. She is interested in the central logic of inclusion and exclusion in how communities come together, are sustained, and most of all, represented in peripheral spaces in the globalized present. She focuses on prison spaces and the narratives and metaphors generated in, about and around those spaces. Stuit is interested in how the seemingly peripheral space of the prison can be instrumentalised in rethinking incarceration more generally across different contexts, in the Netherlands, the United States, and South Africa. She is also part of the comparative ERC project Rural Imaginations, which aims to address the fact that globalization is often considered a predominantly urban phenomenon and that the impact of globalization on the rural tends to be neglected. Within this project, she focuses on the South African rural. https://www.uva.nl/profiel/s/t/h.h.stuit/h.h.stuit.html

Why use close reading? 

Stuit believes that the potential of close reading relies on its ability to “open up detail”. As such, Stuit explains, close reading excels in making “small claims” that could be compared to researching the ever changing structures of molecules. She describes this method as a “microscope that you look through in order to get to these small parts, and then see how they relate to the whole”. Close reading thus provides cultural analysis with a tool to analyse singular cultural objects in order to understand their wider cultural or social functions. Close reading, she proposes, allows scholars to understand “the processes and forms in which people construct meaning”. 

Stuit explains that this method exposes that meaning can never be taken for granted, “that producing meaning is never done”. Meaning, she clarifies, “happens every-time something is reiterated. You would have to study all those reiterations in order to get the full image of what something means”. As follows, close reading “is really a way of showing, Spivak would say, the mechanics of how knowledge is produced”. 

Close reading “assumes that the knowledge produced by research creates reality as much as it describes it”. Thus, scholars must be careful with the type of claims they make. However, far from being a limitation, its ability to make “small” claims is, according to Stuit, one of close reading’s strengths. This is due to the fact that the method’s “constant questioning of what something means” offers critical insight into how meaning circulates socially, scientifically and politically. 

Finally, Stuit believes that one of the method’s strengths is that it can be used to analyze different cultural objects, which provides it with a “potential for interdisciplinarity”, since“you can close read a novel, artworks, art installations, commercials, policy, texts, anything, really, that has a form”.

Is close reading generalizable? 

Discussing whether her method is applicable to different objects, Stuit proposes that there is a set of generalizable qualities. There are basic questions that can be asked about any cultural object as long as it has a form, she clarifies. “What does it look like? What does it do? What are its effects? How does it function? And, importantly, how does it allow us to think about the world differently?”. Thus, regardless of the type of object, close reading allows scholars to investigate what kind of intellectual “inspiration” the cultural object under study opens up and to question “how this inspiration can jump productively from one setting to another”.

Is reflexivity important when doing research?

A key aspect of her approach to cultural objects has to do with reflexivity, Stuit explains. Being aware of the context of knowledge production and of one’s own position as a researcher, the author believes, is vital. This is especially true in the context of globalization studies, precisely because of the complexity and multi-fascetedness that globalization processes display in relation to specific contexts. 

The disclosure of the researcher’s role “gives other people room to see your knowledge for what it is”. Scholars who shun this reflexive stance run the risk of “pretending that what you are doing is ultimately true for others as well”. Hence, Stuit’s perception of her role as a scholar is very vigilant of generalizations: “I would prefer to just be one voice who says a specific thing that helps others rather than to speak for others or assume that what I say is generalizable or true for other contexts as well”.

What are close reading’s limitations? 

Stuit recognizes two main limitations of close reading. First, “that it is sometimes a challenge to connect it to larger trends”. Second, that close reading always needs to “stick to form”. 

Regarding the first limitation, Stuit suggests that close reading’s attention to detail and focus on meaning production on a small scale can make it hard to link it to larger trends. This limitation, however, can be overcome by making connections with disciplines which have “charted this larger trend” in order to learn “how it is being researched in other fields”. If the researcher is successful in bridging disciplines, Stuit proposes, then close reading realizes its potential of connecting “the larger trend to individual forms”. Additionally, it can also display how meaning transfers from one object to another. By doing so, close reading “can show unexpected connections between objects that perhaps are not so visible with other methods because the combinations of what you study would not fit the disciplinary mould or because of restricting associations about which concepts, objects, or people belong together, and which do not”. 

The second challenge delineated by Stuit is connected to the first: close reading can make statements that can potentially be connected to larger trends by resorting to larger groupings of close readings, genre studies, or other disciplines, but it cannot, on it’s own, analyse these trends themselves. This is due to close reading’s focus on careful interpretation, which posits that cultural expressions are always delivered and received in a mediated and specific form. “For me the form is the data”, Stuit affirms. These data do not allow for an analysis of human behavior, for instance. Yet, although the formal aspects of the cultural phenomena studied limit the focus of a close reading, it also allows for a scientific lens on the nuances of the production of meaning and knowledge. Crucially, these nuances, ambivalences and ambiguities often generate new insights into meanings that are usually taken for granted.

Should close reading be combined with other methods?

This brings us to the question of combining methods and connecting to other disciplines, which Stuit believes is very enriching for cultural studies. “If you have different methods, you have different lenses and the view becomes larger and maybe also deeper”. 

The key challenge, however, is finding common ground. “You have to have your goals aligned”, she explains. Researchers, Stuit proposes, need to reflect on what kind of knowledge they want to produce. When connecting to other disciplines, she says, “what I do is try to figure out what it is that they have researched and see how I can talk to that, rather than just say my own thing and bring it to them, I try to connect it to the issues that they are preoccupied with”.

Interdisciplinary work that combines methods, she believes, is particularly important when studying globalization, because “if you talk about globalization studies, you automatically talk about translation processes, from one culture to another, from one set of cultural habits to another”. In this context, different disciplines provide “different lenses” to analyse the same phenomenon. While other disciplines can help understand the context, Stuit proposes that the role of cultural analysis and in particular of close reading is that “it would be able to show the specificity of how those globalization processes condense in specific contexts”. 

 

Recommended readings by the author: 

S/Z by Roland Barthes 

Three Women's Texts and a Critique of Imperialism by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

Humorlessness (Three Monologues and a Hairpiece) by Lauren Berlant