When I was a freshman in college in 1967, I took a full-year course in what turned out to be called “close reading.” I had no idea what close reading was, and no one explained. Sitting in the classroom was an unnerving experience. We had random poems or little chunks of prose thrown down in front of us. We were given the authors’ names, but nothing about who they were or when or why the texts had been written. The point of this, it seemed, was to screen out everything except the words on the page. Our task was not to decipher what was going on, narratively, in the passages (that was supposed to be easy) but to figure out what was really going on. What was the tone of voice, exactly? Didn’t it change … there? Was the speaker playing hard to get, threatening, flirting, just being an asshole? How was the beloved supposed to respond? Did the ending get the would-be couple to a new place, a new emotional balance of power? If so, how were we supposed to feel about it?
I felt lost, but one practical lesson emerged right away. Appearances to the contrary, the words on the page were not the only thing that counted. The kids who had already had sex, a group which had its distinguishing marks and to which I was grimly aware I did not belong, were at a definite advantage in answering the sorts of questions we were being asked. Mulling over the C+ I received on my first paper, I realized that close reading had something to do with life, and that I needed more practice in both areas. My desire to have sex fused imperceptibly with my desire to do better on the next paper, which may have been even stronger. I did have sex. My papers got better. I became a close reader.
The next year, in a different course, a TA informed me that close reading was considered a questionable method, perhaps even an outdated one, because it ignored historical context. I was taking history courses at the same time. The idea that I was guilty of disrespect for history had not occurred to me. And maybe, after all, I wasn’t.
Half a century ago, in the great hippie year of 1967, an acclaimed young American science fiction writer, Roger Zelazny, published his third novel. In many ways, Lord of Light was of its time, shaggy with imported Hindu mythology and cosmic dialogue. Yet there were also glints of something more forward-looking and political. One plot strand concerned a group of revolutionaries who wanted to take their society “to a higher level” by suddenly transforming its attitude to technology. Zelazny called them the Accelerationists.
He and the book are largely forgotten now. But as the more enduring sci-fi novelist JG Ballard said in 1971, “what the writers of modern science fiction invent today, you and I will do tomorrow”. Over the past five decades, and especially over the past few years, much of the world has got faster. Working patterns, political cycles, everyday technologies, communication habits and devices, the redevelopment of cities, the acquisition and disposal of possessions – all of these have accelerated. Meanwhile, over the same half century, almost entirely unnoticed by the media or mainstream academia, accelerationism has gradually solidified from a fictional device into an actual intellectual movement: a new way of thinking about the contemporary world and its potential.
In Cruising the Library, Melissa Adler places the systems and structures of library organizational schemes at the center of the production of gender and sexuality in the United States. For Adler, library shelves are not merely rows of books, but formations that, like other political, social, and economic systems, govern and discipline gendered and sexed ways of being.