This essay reflects on the recent debates about the value (or lack of value) of symptomatic, deep, and critical reading in the context of the decline of the political doctrine of secularism. It aims to frame the literary critical questions about surface and depth, subjectivity and objectivity, presence and distance in terms of their implicit relationship to secular models of argument, deliberation, and rationality. Drawing on Bruno Latour's discussion of religious speech, the essay suggests that the relevant distinction is not between surface and deep reading but informational and transformational forms of discourse. Understanding literature as transformational requires us to consider, however, the fundamental question of whether “criticism” itself is even compatible with the kinds of surface, pious, generous, intensive, mutual reading imagined as alternatives. The essay explores several recent responses to this question in an effort to begin to map the landscape of literature and criticism after secularism. J. M. Coetzee's Diary of a Bad Year provides an example of what such a criticism of presence would look like as well as the models of public life it entails. Coetzee's example, however, is ultimately ambivalent because it depends on his position as an artist-critic; thus, rather than endorsing an alternative method, the essay, following Coetzee's imperative to “speak without authority,” simply leaves the question provocatively open.

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