This article returns to the question “what is it to read?” through two texts: Louis Althusser's Reading Capital (1965) and The Way We Read Now, a special issue of Representations (2009). Rooney analyzes the issue's introduction, Sharon Marcus's and Stephen Best's “Surface Reading,” examining its accounts of description and “minimal critical agency” and its skepticism concerning radical freedom and the interpretative heroics of literary analysis from the point of view of Althusser's radically different account of reading as a “guilty” practice, one marked by productivity and the contingency of “surprise.” The author argues that the surface method of “critical description,” which seeks to “indicate what a text says about itself” and to describe what it makes “evident, perceptible, apprehensible,” fails when Marcus and Best describe Althusser's text but overlook the fact that his lecture symptomale sharply critiques the metaphor of depth and cautiously deploys a metaphor of terrain. This article proposes that from an Althusserian perspective, the metaphors of surface and depth as they appear in “Surface Reading” are twin brothers, two sides of a coin. Whether in the form of the religious myth of immediate, surface reading or the empiricist conception of the text as veiled truth, these approaches proclaim their critical “innocence” and disavow the metalanguages that bring the textual surface into view. Rooney argues that the figure of terrain enables a reading that confesses its mediating power, while conceding that it moves in a field not of its own making.

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