Monday, 16 February 2015

The absence concerning reading

I spoke last week of reading as presence: the urgency and utmost necessity of a text to be there in the first place, meeting and greeting the reader, after having occupied the territory well before the birth of said reader as reader. But nothing is simple when it comes to reading or writing. Their complexity means that something said can (oh, frustration of all frustrations!) be said otherwise, or counter-said, by the same person - sometimes in the same sentence, by means of the same words.

Source: Monash University
What I want to say for real is, in itself, simple. Reading - that thing that requires the precedence of a text in order to start functioning - is also dependent on a special kind of absence.

A slight detour

To explain this statement, puzzling in itself, and perhaps intimidating (at the end of the day, what on earth can a reder do when the text he/she is meant to read is said to be not?), I need to take a few steps back. Time-wise.
In late-seventeenth century, George Berkeley showed that vision is not what we believe it to be. He made it his task to prove that vision was, really, an adaptation of our sense of touch. And to that effect he pointed out that we see only that which occupies our field of vision, and that it is from this axiom that we derive the whole gamut of illusions associated with seeing (and hence, since we're visual beings, with thinking).
That which stands before my eyes limits the very possibilities of my sight. In theory, given the complexity of the world and the limitless possibility of my eyes to see everything that is seeable, the object taking over my field of vision bars the world away from me. Hence the paradoxes of the sense of sight: for instance, the fact that my thumb, if lifted in front of my eyes, can obliterate the steeple of a church which, taken in absolute terms, is tens of thousands of times larger. The point Berkeley was trying to make was that our appreciation of distance was wrongly thought to depend on our estimation of size, whereby we deem an object that appears small to us as being far away, and, vice-versa, a large object we figure out to be closer to the eye that sees it. To Berkeley, it was all in the way vision worked, by means of minima visibilia, i.e. the most minute particles perceptible by sight. These particles, he said, are the same, no matter what we have in front of us. So that our visual experience is, really, the mere play of combinations between these minimals.
What I need to retain from this, though, is simply the idea that what I see hides away from me the rest of the world.

Frames and visions

Of course, Berkeley was not the only philosopher ever interested in this problem of obliteration. Traces of his musings can be found in the theories with regards to frames in objects of art.
Let's take painting and photography as the reference points here, but it won't be hard, I hope, to see all arts as one in this respect. What happens within the frame is one possible description of whatever happens in the world. But the world is far too complex to go by this limited perspective; there's more in it than meets the eye of the viewer. All it takes to see this is to take that proverbial step backward and look outside of the equally proverbial box. The box in this case being, obviously, the frame. Once you do that, you start seeing - seeing the world and its complexity. You see the wall that surrounds the frame, the building that contains the wall that surrounds the frame, the urban space that contains the gallery that contains the wall that surrounds the frame. You end up seeing the whole universe that contains... etc. etc. etc.

The impossibility of seeing through

It's exactly like Berkeley's theory of vision: the object of art, which we have understood to be a truth, is only one truth. It is only one slice of the big cake. But there's much more to be eaten where that slice came from. The fact that we don't munch up the whole cake is due to the fascination we have developped about this particular slice. A fascination that feels like a terror: as if we were afraid that the taste might change, we keep nibbling at this slice, at the same time prolonguing our confidence in the slice we know (we call this pleasure, don't you know) and worsening our fear of the rest (the unknown). Knowing the Snow White trick, we are afraid that one side of the apple might be poisonous in spite of the other side being perfectly good to ingest.
And all this because of the way our field of vision is taken up and taken over by that which is right in front of us. An expression of the limitation of our senses, no doubt, since we are creatures incapable of seeing through. Whover has created us has deprived us of the easiest way of dealing with the world: since the straight line is the closest route from point A to point B, wouldn't it have been more efficient to have the capacity to see through the things that occupy our field of vision? Wouldn't it have been easier to be equipped with X-ray vision and avoid the problem of having to move the thumb away in order to see the steeple?

Are transparent texts possible?

Fingers and texts - they work in similar ways when it comes to seeing what's behind. The same theory of the frame must be brought to bear in order to understand this overlapping capacity of texts. So when it comes to reading (let's not forget where we started!), the same will apply, hopefully.
The text I am perusing is there, in front of me. It has to be there; otherwise there would be no me reading. But the same text also acts like a screen, hiding from me all the possible texts out there, in the vast and open spaces of textuality.
And with this - one may draw attention, again, to the tyrannical nature of the obvious. The birth of a text is the death of a multitude of other texts. The birth of one text: this is what it takes for the rest of the possible texts to disappear. And what's really deceiving is that the obvious (the object right in front of my eyes) hides its fragility behind the argument of one. Like the steeple compared to the finger, the multitude of alternatives is infinitely greater than the given text. But we are blinded by the finger. Again and again.
The finger, this perfect hiding place, this detail of anatomy behind which we can lodge an entire world. With it, we keep ourselves busy. Fingering the
world - is what we do with a text, with every text that promises too much; with every text that promises to be the World.
But what a field of understanding opens up when we do see the trick, the multitude hidden behind the one! When we figure out that the game consists of not seeing only the obvious!

Discovering other texts

Once this absence/invisibility concerning reading is taken into account, one might also hope to solve, among other important things, the problem of the writer's arrogance. The special status of unicity (i.e. the originality of every creator) is nothing compared to the vastness of alterity (everything that's different, everything that's an alternative, all the authors in the world and all their flying texts). But in order for that to happen, in order for us to be able to see beyond the given, we would need a major overhauling. We would need to be endowed with X-ray vision. And that, as we all know, isn't possible beyond the scope of technology (where, by the way, it is only an illusion, only a species of wishful thinking that would make even Superman roll over with laughter).

Source: Astrobiology
So what's the solution? What's the way out of this aporia? My bet: Critical Reading, i.e. reading that takes the proverbial step backward as its most productive tool. In order to see the background we need to relativise the foreground. We need to make room for more stuff to come into our field of vision. And so, as they say, a step back is the only way ahead.
This is how we are to understand the absence concerning reading: as something that needs to be discovered, unframed. In other words, the absence concerning reading is a presence that hasn't been found yet; a presence that begs to be found and one that promises to render itself findable. But to enable this finding the reader needs to go through an essential metamorphose: he/she must become a writer. Because, remember?, only a writer can bring about something that didn't exist in the first place. The reader-as-discoverer is a reader that creates. And unless we accept that Reading is a creative act, we have but one option in terms of naming: call it authorship. If you dare.