Reading in Detail: Aesthetics and the Feminine
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Who cares about details? As Naomi Schor explains in her highly influential book, we do-but it has not always been so. The interest in detail--in art, in literature, and as an aesthetic category--is the product of the decline of classicism and the rise of realism.
But the story of the detail is as political as it is aesthetic. Secularization, the disciplining of society, the rise of consumerism, the invention of the quotidian, have all brought detail to the fore. In this classic work of aesthetic and feminist theory, now available in a new paperback edition, Schor provides ways of thinking about details and ornament in literature, art, and architecture, and uncovering the unspoken but powerful ideologies that attached gender to details.
Wide-ranging and richly argued, Reading in Detail presents ideas about reading (and viewing) that will enhance the study of literature and the arts.
object. This Idea of the perfect state of nature, which the Artist calls the Ideal Beauty, is the great leading principle, by which works of genius are conducted. (III, 44-45; emphasis added) . The "se~ection" procedure Reynolds recommends the painter follow In abstracting the Ideal from brute Nature is not unlike the techni· d . db que . evis~ y structuralist analysts of myth and folktales to extract the Invan_ant structure of the narrative from its variable concrete manifestatiOns. The ideal,
seen as a masculinist aesthetic designed to check the rise of I8 Reading in Detail d T which threatens to hasten the slide of art into fe~ininity, a etai Ism . bl for Reynolds the decadence of art since the unquestwna Y ' d· · b eca~se . b nd up with its loss of virility: "Parmigiano has IgniRenaissance Is ou ·· · ·th the sim d the enteelness of modern effeminacy by uniting It :VI ,: fie_ . ofthe ancients and the grandeur and severity of Michel Angel? h . dded) · Indeed ' as we shall have
language will be pure Latin, plain and clear; propriety will always be the chief aim. Only one quality will be lacking, which Theophrastus mentions fourth among the qualities of style-the charm and richness of figurative ornament/ For the archaeology of the detail, the sexism of rhetoric is of crucial significance. Neo-classical aesthetics is imbued with the residues of the rhetorical imaginary, a sexist imaginary where the ornamental is inevitably bound up with the feminine, when it is not the
leads her to argue, for example, that "realism is as much a discourse on the detail as a discourse of the detail" (Reading 142) and to adopt the metacritical mimesis she practices in Reading in Detail, which is "both a defense of the detail and an illustration of its lures." Schor's readings of theoretical works such as Reynolds' Discourses on Art or Hegel's Aesthetics are "close readings of details of texts on the detail" (6) and give careful attention to their "literariness," to use an old word
This then is Freud's great innovation in the field of the detail: the detail owes its privileged status in pathological as well as normal states to the primary process of displacement. As long as one persists in viewing the minute as an autonomous, self-sufficient element, it appears to be a usurper of signification, but once the mechanism of displacement has been discovered, once the detail has been connected with the whole which it represents, it becomes the royal way to the unconscious. Now,