The idea of close reading is fundamental in art history and literary criticism. This essay is about the coherence of the idea in art history and in some archaeology.

The case study in the essay is the work of Alexander Marshack, who studied notches and scrapes in Neolithic artifacts, such as the ones diagrammed above. His theory was that in certain cases, the notches are tally marks, but made before the development of numbers or language.

The large literature on Neolithic markings continuously deals with the possibility that marks might be just decoration, in which case it is not necessary to "read" as closely as Marshack does.

In other cases the marks do not look like decoration: they seem to be individually made, and therefore they ask to be read as denotative signs.

On the Impossibility of Close Reading

This is a study of the idea of close reading, which is fundamental to modernist literary criticism and art history. The case study is the archaeological reading of tiny marks on Neolithic bones; but the general subject is the coherence of the idea that a closer reading is a better or more sensitive reading, and that it is possible to know how to engage in, or control, a close reading in the first place.

This appeared in German as  “Über die Unmöglichkeit des close reading,” in Was aus dem Bild fällt: figuren des Details in Kunst und Literatur, [Festschrift für] Friedrich Teja Bach zum 60. Geburtstag, edited by Edith Futcher, Stefan Neuner, Wolfram Pichler, and Ralph Ubl (Munich: Wilhelm Fink, 2007), 107–40.
The essay is a rewritten version of a critique of Alexander Marshack that appeared in the book Our Beautiful, Dry, and Distant Texts: Art History as Writing (University Park, PA: Penn State Press, 1997); that essay was condensed from a much longer paper, with a number of responses by Whitney Davis, T.J. Clark, and others: "On the Impossibility of Close Reading: The Case of Alexander Marshack,” Current Anthropology 37 no. 2 (1996): 185–226. Readers interested in the archaeological context should consult the original essay in Current Anthropology.

The question of close reading has recurred in art history in the last forty years. The article reviews theories of what counts as close reading in Daniel Arasse, Georges Didi-Huberman, Friedrich Teja-Bach, and others. Art history has an open-ended and largely untheorized relation to the detail: it is seldom clear how closely it makes sense to look.