Friday, 15 January 2016

The mystique of reading

Reading has a je-ne-sais-quoi about it that always troubles the reasoning minds.

Source: Hippies Read Too
There is, of course, that insistent kind of reading, to which I often subscribe, which refuses to read the obvious. That, in itself, is an act of rebellion. It’s, if you trust me, a way of asserting a belief in the force of the almighty reader. But try as we might, strive as we might, the text is there with a reason. And that reason is to puzzle us. I don’t mean this in the sense of mystery novels, but in another, more general sense. I mean it in the sense of an encounter. All encounters which are not re-visitations (re-readings) are, of course, by definition, encounters with the unknown. Texts are no exception to the rule. Simply put, we never know what to expect. And that’s precisely what makes texts beautiful, worthy of our effort, interesting at all. Also – infuriatingly challenging. To someone who wants to swear that he/she has decoded the cultural means by which texts are formed and re-formed, i.e. written and read, this reality of the text that never clarifies its intentions is insufferable. The same applies to someone who is completely, unequivocally sworn to the idea of reader’s omnipotence. Their trust in that ability is a little too optimistic, a little too patronising.
But let us assume this was correct. Let us imagine a situation in which the reader, by some miraculous means, manages to get to the core of the game. Let us imagine that a text has been left with no place to hide, that we’ve nailed it, so to speak. So?
Cui bono?

There’s disappointment in revelation

Vilém Flusser said something to a similar effect about his technical images. He made the same supposition. He was in fact able to give good examples of this class of textual objects. When one watches tv, Flusser says, one is flabbergasted by the mystery of the medium. You’re familiar, I suppose, with the children’s puzzlement: how is it possible to reduce people and buildings to such a small size and, moreover, put them inside that box where they act as if they were real? It’s a valid puzzlement, is it not? Most will resolve this shock by suspending their disbelief. The classical solution of the deserter: flight, don’t fight. Pretend the danger didn’t exist. Act as if the difficulty has never been posed. It makes sense. Difficulty, as Yeats put it, wears you out. So why bother?

Source: Early Television Museum
But – adds Flusser – there’s another approach to the problem. It’s something akin to the attitude of the hero: he/she will hold the ground; he/she will fight, will face the difficulty, will get to the bottom of all this puzzlement. In the case of technical images, this is possible, if only at the end of some effort. All you need to know is the technicalities of image production. Once you’ve gained that knowledge you know that electric impulses replicate the images created in a studio and transport those replicas into your own tv set. You’ll know, now, that everything you’re watching is an illusion, that Plato was right, that you can point out with perfect precision the whole process of creation. No more mystique! You can, if everything comes to it, replicate the process, because you are enlightened.
But the bitter truth is this: enlightenment is disappointing. As in Jonathan Swift’s poem, once you remove the layers of makeup from a young lady’s face, you’re left with the horrible truth of her anatomy. And now you have to live with it! Now you have to be happy with the important discovery you’ve made! Congratulations!

The fog that protects signs

And this is only the materiality of texts that I’m talking about. I refuse to go into the metaphysical zone (may I call it that, simply to differentiate it from the material, ‘physical’ constituent: what with the pen and the paper, the computer keyboard and the printer, the videotext and the YouTube channel, and so on and so forth), for fear of not having a proper argument. I believe Flusser’s demonstration to be frightening enough to curtail any attempt at future arrogance on my part. Yes, I can exercise my free will, I can do violence to a text by making it mine (even if I hate the notion of taking-over – of colonising), but I need not be so outrageously arrogant as to ignore the many roads that lead to the text I’m reading into.

The body that reads

So let’s face again this assumption that one can read a text completely. Let’s face that with the evidence of – I don’t know – irony, double entendre, jokes, textual traps, hidden meanings, hermeticism. Etc. Etc. Plagues upon the lives of readers. Let’s do the facing, then let’s go back to the initial idea: the mystique of reading. And see what happens.

Source: Kurz Weil AI
I would define the mystique of reading by reference to that tickling sensation, to that tremor of the limbs, to that quickened heartbeat one experiences when encountering a passage that touches a nerve. Regarded from this perspective, reading is a seismic business. It causes real somatic reactions in a reading subject, palpable as all emotions. Put differently, reading relies on events to prosper. It needs to create those seismic movements just mentioned.
How boring would it be to go on perusing the surface of a flat desert where there’s no hope for an oasis? Very boring, indeed detrimental to all forms of reading. If there’s no projection of a reader’s expectations there’s no pleasure to be gained from a text. The page-turner argument is a perfect tool from this perspective.
In many cases, those sensations generated by a text are little more than a preamble to something that could be more important, more complex. But readers often reject the enlightenment that might reside in the decoding of a passage. They do this for various reasons. ‘We don’t have enough time’ is one of them. ‘We don’t have enough time to spoil our amazement’ is another one. Since reading marks a gap in the mundaneness of life, we might as well go with the wind, accept the chance of deserting.
This escapist theory doesn’t apply exclusively to literature. The reading of a philosophical text follows the same pattern. We read in order to see what happens next. How the argument develops, how the thought is turned into what it is. Since texts are defined by linear progression, there’s no way of avoiding this sense of expectation, this hope for what is to come. And as long as what-is-to-come exists, as long as this present absence titillates us, the possibility of reading’s mystique is unavoidable.

Dead ends

Reading appeals, I believe, precisely because it is such an interesting concoction of certainty and uncertainty. On the one hand the letters in front of my eyes. Always there, bright as daylight, sure as hell, immutable. On the other hand the invisible meaning. Somewhere else, always somewhere else, never on the page, never blinding my sight. The former engenders arrogance; the latter – humility. I mean humility in an almost religious sense. A reader is always a pious reader insofar as they accept the challenge of not challenging the text beyond the point of no return.
As in Flusser’s technical images, what would I gain if I managed to subject the text to my impulses? Nothing but a disappointment, no doubt. I would see the wires that connect the circuits, the strings that make the text stand together. And then what? Then nothing. Then a dead-end.
Mission accomplished followed by the despair of boredom.

Source: Screen Crave
That’s why the mystique of the text is so necessary; why it is so necessary that we stop where there’s still hope. Even if we’re not satisfied. Precisely because we’re not satisfied. Professional writers know exactly what I mean, because to them reading is no longer pleasure but something else. Not quite pain but certainly something else. A professional writer reads in order to rip the text apart, to see its entrails, to smell its guts, to watch the gore of its internal functions, and hereby to discover the ‘secrets’ of other writers. If there is pleasure in this insistence, it will fade the moment this reader asks the ordinary question, Now what? This question is inevitable in relation to any finite objects, because once an end has been reached continuation is craved.
But what a bliss that reading cannot produce finite understandings...