Objective Reading

Reading is not one thing but many. Most of all, reading is not passive. “In reality,” writes Michel de Certeau in the opening of The Practice of Everyday Life, “the activity of reading has on the contrary all the characteristics of a silent production.” But what are we producing? And what does the scholarly practice of reading do to this production?

As graduate students we often expect ourselves somehow to swallow texts whole—to get them. We try mightily to read texts simultaneously in terms of their own coherence, elisions, and indeterminacies as textual systems, of their unconscious procedural expression of determinant historical conditions of possibility, of their own stated and unstated relations to their intellectual precursors, and in the light of their reception by scholars or later links in the canonical chain; we strive to keep in mind texts’ political ramifications, how their formal-generic elements engage with other morphologically-related texts, and their relative sympathy or antipathy to various major philosophical concerns or strands of ideological critique; we read texts to find out whether we can instrumentalize our readings for the purposes of conference papers, dissertation chapters, or course syllabi—and maybe to determine whether we like them. More often than not, while reading I am also planning on passing along certain passages to colleagues or photocopying them for friends outside of the academy; wondering whether I could get a pirated PDF instead of waiting the several days for Interlibrary Loan or maybe shelling out the cash for a nice sixties paperback copy of my own, speculating about the biography of the author or the business-end realities of the academic press in question, and so on.

This is hyperbole, but willing myself to maintain even some of these threads of thought and store them away as hierarchical meta-data can fracture the attention to the point of reading a text threadbare. Hannah Arendt would likely label this kind of academic reading practice a species of philistinism. In her essay, “The Crisis in Culture,” Arendt traces the history of “philistinism,” which as a term originally designated simply “a mentality which judged everything in terms of immediate usefulness and ‘material values’ and hence had no regard for such useless objects and occupations which are implied in culture and art.” With the rapid growth of an aspirational mercantile middle class, however, Arendt argues that society began to appropriate cultural objects “for its own purposes, such as social position and status”—and the educated philistine as social type was born. As Arendt writes:

“The great works of art are no less misused when they serve purposes of self-education or self-perfection than when they serve any other purposes; it may be as useful and legitimate to look at a picture in order to perfect one’s knowledge of a given period as it is useful and legitimate to use a painting in order to hide a hole in the wall. In both instances the art object has been used for ulterior purposes . . . The trouble with the educated philistine was not that he read the classics but that he did so prompted by the ulterior motive of self-perfection, remaining quite unaware of the fact that Shakespeare or Plato might have to tell him more important things than how to educate himself” (203)

The problem, in short, is that philistinism transforms the cultural object into an exchange value: when works of art become “the object of social and individual refinement,” they gradually lose their “most important and elemental quality” which is their capacity for “arresting our attention and moving us.”

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For Arendt, cultural objects are simply things that endure, marked by their “ability to withstand the life process and become permanent appurtenances of the world.” They are not consumed or otherwise metabolized, but are objective features of the world that we behold in their self-disclosure to us and that do not “disappear again from the phenomenal by being used and used up.” An understanding of the object-ivity of the work of art—the “elemental quality” that distinguishes it from consumer goods—is what I strive to share in the classroom, but in the early stages of a profession that requires results in the form of literary criticism, how best to honor this elemental quality or at least to avoid what is most pernicious about philistinism? Is it really the case that to the extent that I mine The Prelude for professional currency, I make it disappear from my own experience?

A few weeks ago I saw an article by Richard Holmes in the NYRB about his experience working on the monumental biographies of Shelley and Coleridge that have occupied the majority of his career. Along with insights about Coleridge, Romantic science, and collective biography, he shares a few hard-won tricks of the biographer’s trade. He first describes the “footsteps principle,” according to which the biographer must physically travel to each of the sites—no matter how insignificant—where the subject lived, worked, slept, or traveled. The second concerns a mode of researcher’s “double accounting” which involves keeping a two-sided notebook:

“Put schematically, there must be a right-hand side and a left-hand side to every notebook page spread. On the one (the right) I would record the objective facts of my subject’s life, as minutely and accurately as possible (from the letters, the diaries, the memoirs, the archives). But on the other (the left) I would also record my most personal responses, my feelings and speculations, my questions and conundrums, my difficulties and challenges. Irritation, embarrassment, puzzlement, or grief could prove as valuable as excitement, astonishment, or enthusiasm. The cumulative experience of the research journey, of being in my subject’s company over several years, thus became part of the whole biographical enterprise.”

This strikes me as a completely sensible practice for keeping track of those more fleeting reactions and intuitions that ultimately make up such a large part of the creative enterprise of scholarship. Maintaining the distinctions from Arendt, however, and focusing less on the material history of biographical research but instead on the reading practices of literary criticism, we might invert the terms Holmes uses: where Holmes records the “objective facts” of his subject, the literary critic mobilizes and reconfigures the text in the service of a critical project; what Holmes calls the “subjective” side of research, we might call the encounter with a text’s (durable, resistant) objectivity.

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In our institutional lives as scholars we inhabit a temporality of wheels inside of wheels—nested hierarchies of possible futures and overlapping contingencies. As a graduate student entering my dissertation phase, this autumn I crafted a convincing-enough dissertation prospectus forecasting my accomplishments over the next three years, a series of fellowship applications making a series of slightly-varying cases for the importance of my research in the 2015-2016 academic year, and a chapter prospectus with a plausible if ambitious take on what I will have achieved by March. In December I graded the fall semester’s final papers, while simultaneously proposing a writing course for the next fall which will never exist if certain fellowships come through. I’ve submitted a travel advance form for a conference in Toronto in April with an abstract that I wrote in September, and I’m thinking now about my paper and travel funding for Winnipeg in August, because the funding calendar resets in July and I won’t have to use departmental funding for Austin in January, because my brother lives there and I can maybe use some frequent flier miles.

This kind of litany can of course be generated by any busy person working in any profession, but I resist the dissociative tendency that it—like the impossible reading practice that began this whole line of reflection—lends to my daily experience. The temporal fragmentation is homologous with the problem of reading—my persisting idea of myself is broken up into different functional strands that operate alongside each other at different tempos—and it turns out that the solution (or at least one possible solution) is homologous as well.

For me, the salient feature of Holmes’s “two-sided notebook” is not that it has two sides, but that it is one notebook. For the last few months I’ve tried keeping a single notebook in which my daily concerns and jotted phone numbers and movie recommendations have jostled among my notes for classroom use and drafts for my dissertation chapter. It takes some strategizing on the page and among the pages to make sense of it all—and I know, of course, that this particular strategy would not work for everyone—but for me it has made so much more sense than the artificial compartmentalization of multiple folders and digital files and rubber-banded notecards. If I eventually need to export something to a digital document or letter to a friend, it involves an extra step of transcription, but it turns out that the extra step helpfully enables me to separate the two very different tasks of drafting and revising—and in the meantime the one-notebook method is a simple reflection of my one-human existence. To boot, it isn’t so different from the practice of Coleridge himself—the “master of the notebook,” according to Holmes.

The overall effect of this practical adjustment has been a perceived integration in the way I approach my reading. I recently had the pleasure of intensively reading Dryden’s translation of the Georgics over a few weeks. What do my few score hours of reading compare, ultimately, to the years spent on its composition or the months that Wordsworth spent translating sections of it as a teenager?—and yet how many times in my life will I really read it so carefully again? How many times will I really visit the Georgics, rather than simply flipping through my photo album of it? Probably not more than a few. If I treat my reading experience like a significant life event in itself rather than one of a series of professional tasks, mustn’t I take seriously not only my claims on the text but the text’s claims on me?

The Georgics are fundamentally about cultivation, not productivity. Martyn makes this clear in his 1741 translation, in which he accuses Dryden of “debasing” the poem’s theme by translating the programmatic opening line as “What makes a plenteous harvest.” In Martyn’s translation, by contrast, the poem begins, “What may make the fields rejoice…” Cultivation in this latter sense, as Arendt argues, is a quintessentially Roman art; the Greeks, whose heritage the Romans transformed in their preservation of it,  “did not cultivate nature but rather tore from the womb of the earth the fruits which the gods had hidden from men.” We need food to eat, but the primary goal of agriculture is not the harvest but the continuity of man’s commune with the land. So too, potentially, with reading. Humanism–which Arendt offers as philistinism’s opposing term–is “the result of the cultura animi, of an attitude that knows how to take care and preserve and admire the things of the world.”