Surface and Depth: The Quest for Legibility in American Culture

Paperback | June 15, 2006

byMichael T. Gilmore

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The idea of a common American culture has been in retreat for a generation or more. Arguments emphasizing difference have discredited the grand synthetic studies that marginalized groups and perspectives at odds with the master narrative. Surface and Depth: The Quest for Legibility in American Culture is a fresh attempt to revitalize an interpretive overview. It seeks to recuperate a central tradition while simultaneously recognizing how much that tradition has occluded. The book focuses on the American zeal for knowing or makingaccessible. This compulsion has a long history stretching back to Puritan anti-monasticism; to the organization of the landscape into clearly delineated gridwork sections; and to the creation of a national government predicted on popular vigilance. It can be observed in the unmatched Americanreceptivity to the motion pictures and to psychoanalysis: the first a technology of visual surfaces, the second a technique for plumbing interior depths. Popular literature, especially the Western and the detective story, has reinscribed the cult of legibility. Each genre features a plot that drives through impediments to transparent resolution. Elite literature has adopted a more contradictory stance. The landmarks of the American canon typicallyembark on journeys of discovery while simultaneously renouncing the possibility of full disclosure (as in Ahab's doomed pursuit of the "inscrutable" white whale). The notorious modernism of American literature, its precocious attraction to obscurity and multiple meaning, evolved as an effort toblock the intrusions of a hegemonic cultural dynamic. The American passion for knowability has been prolific of casualties. Acts of making visible have always entailed the erasure and invisibility of racial minorities. American society has also routinely trespassed on customary areas of reserve. A nation intolerant of the hidden paradoxicallypioneered the legal concept of privacy, but it did so in reaction to its own invasive excesses.

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The idea of a common American culture has been in retreat for a generation or more. Arguments emphasizing difference have discredited the grand synthetic studies that marginalized groups and perspectives at odds with the master narrative. Surface and Depth: The Quest for Legibility in American Culture is a fresh attempt to revitalize ...

Michael T. Gilmore is Paul Prosswimmer Professor of American Literature at Brandeis University.

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Format:PaperbackDimensions:256 pages, 9.25 × 6.13 × 0.68 inPublished:June 15, 2006Publisher:Oxford University PressLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0195313240

ISBN - 13:9780195313246

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"An acute, unexpected and convincing panoramic account of American culture's moral fascination with transparency and the denial of depth. Gilmore makes clear just what the opposite might be to Ellison's Invisible Man, and how standing up to sight and visibility define American life from thePuritans to the aftermath of Freud and Hollywood."--Philip Fisher, Harvard University