I Want the World to Shimmer and Gleam

There may be infinite readings of this or that text but there are still good and bad readings. A good reading is surprising, delightful, and generous. Things once familiar become refreshingly unfamiliar; habit gives way to the now and a thing experienced hundreds of times suddenly comes into focus as if for the very first time.

Few things exhilarate the way a good reading does. A fine and fresh distinction or well-placed reversal infuses the banal with vitality, the quotidian with wonder, the dead with life. A good reading is uncanny, taking the familiar and making it unfamiliar so you at once know and don’t know the thing.      

A reading can’t really be wrong — there is no code to be deciphered, no truth awaiting behind or within the words. Neither the author nor the critic nor the professor will deliver the answer from on high. All there are are different readings.

And yet we can still pass judgment, say this reading is good or bad. For instance, a reading may be out of bounds. To say that Moby Dick is a tale of Soviet oppression is just plain silly. And, I suppose, we can say it’s wrong. Such a reading exercises a certain  violence on a text, making it bend in the most uncomfortable ways. So perhaps rather than saying a reading is wrong, we can say a reading is…distasteful? Unethical? Foul — as in baseball? Yes, I like “foul” because it is at once ethical and aesthetic.

There may be no proof that a reading is right but there is evidence — a foul pole of a sort. To read something demands attention, an accounting for what’s there, for what’s happening. There is something thorough about a good reading (although not exhaustive — it can never exhaust a text as a text is infinite).

And then there are plain old bad readings of things, readings that may very well be in bounds but that are bad for any number of reasons. A bad reading makes the thing less interesting, quashing its multivalences (think: writing on museum walls or much of ideology critique). A bad reading may just be obvious, the reader not really doing anything at all but echoing that which has already declared itself.

It’s a matter of posture and health, of the terms with which you come to the world. Do you seek to recognize the world? Or (re)create it? Of course, we often seek to confirm what we know. This is not a bad thing. On the contrary, it is necessary. But when I come to a book or art or politics or sometimes just a glass of tequila, I want to see it anew, fresh, I want to spin it into new shapes and new modes of living. I want to be lead astray of myself, taken somewhere new and exciting. I want the world to shimmer and gleam.


dustygravel said...

Could you give me an example of a reversal, I've always assumed I knew what that was-but do I really.

Is it like when you explained that Socrates is really an advocate of sophistry because he uses questions in a rhetorical manner?

Also what do you think of curent philosophers such as of zizek, manuel delanda, Meillassoux, Ray Brassier, and saul newman? These thinkers never show up in your work even though your topics often over lap. Personally I find Brassier annoying and he looks like he's going to have an aneurysm every time he talks- then I start to feel bad for these thoughts and his self torcher starts to elisit competition from me. So Coffeen, whats your reading of the future seen?

umpolung said...

There's this strange sense too in which I'm reading your reading about readings — and the multiplicity contained in the very word reading! Even if you hadn't said anything, there's still this complex genealogy of thought that it took to get from you to me. Maybe that's part of the uncanny sense we sometimes get — the "that other people have also touched this" or, to steal from Nicholson Baker's dictionary, we're building with recycled lumber, in a way.

I was also re-listening to some of your Rhetoric lectures recently and heard a common theme in one of them that you mentioned here: the idea of aporia as a precondition of learning, of "taking the familiar and making it unfamiliar." And, of course, there's a "good" and "bad" sense of this. It's not obfuscation for obfuscation's sake (try saying that three times fast). I think a good reading in this way is honest, revealing, archaeological. The professor (hopefully) or the person giving the reading "unearths" from the text meanings one might have missed and from these meanings constructs new concepts, new ways of seeing from the very text that was seen. There's some involutionary element too, in a sense (don't really know if this is something of the idea of the Hermeneutic circle...) that the reading and re-reading of a text (a good one, anyway) constantly yields new multiplicities, because each time you read it, you refine your concept that you derived from your reading. In a Platonic sense, the shadows' edge gets sharper and sharper and sharper; though, not in the sense that there is this one, objective, universal set of concepts that we should all aspire to — just that one becomes more aware of the edifice one has built.

To me, in a way, the concept is like a field or boundary perhaps, at first sketch. And then one has to go explore: mapmaking as it were. And once one's explored everything within the concept and figured out how it works, you move on — expanding the boundaries. As you said, the text is infinite: hence this expansion can extend infinitely, as can the sets of concepts we generate from texts.

So, in a really weird sense, a text is almost a causa sui. Talk about a death of the author...

Daniel Coffeen said...

@ Dusty: You know the reversal well — it's when Nietzsche claims it's Christianity that's nihilistic for belief in another life; when Foucault says sexuality is not only not repressed, it's expressed, a positive form of power; when Gabriel Kolko says the USDA was not created to protect citizens but the meat packing industry, etc.

The only names I know from that list are Zizek and DeLanda, neither of which I know well. Tell me something worth reading and I'll read it (I never liked Zizek on Lacan or movies).

As for the future, fuck if I know. I think Houellebecq might, though — read Possibility of an Island.

Daniel Coffeen said...

@ Umpolung: I like your map/territory figure quite a bit. It works well.

The image I tend to have is this: a thing is sliced through by so many networks, so many strands, so many networks that shift depending on how you look at it. These strands are always in flux as new things, new readers, come into being and realign all networks, backwards, forwards, and sideways. A text really is a becoming.

what the Tee Vee taught said...

I had an intense dream about Daniel 23 a few years ago (I remember being stirred up... details have faded, but I embodied the endless Daniel for an relatively long dream cycle, I don't think it was a sticky dream, haven't had one of those in a long time).

αλήθεια said...

Beautiful as always! I love the idea of the reversal. Reversals sure are very seductive, hypnotic, and sometimes scary, as they have the force of a vacuum, in which everything can get sucked in and turned around numerous times. It’s as if reversible signs and symbols were like mirrors where things, texts, books, people, were reflected upon whatever they encounter.

I guess Kierkegaard did a better job than I do in explaining the mirror stage in his Diary of the Seducer, “ The mirror hangs on the opposite wall, she does not reflect it, but the mirror reflects her.” I get goose flashes every time I read this. In my mind I visualize that everything is like a mirror, and whether consciously, or unconsciously, we are always being reflected by the world, and the world is always being reflected by us. And all this world is, at least on a phenomenal level, is this play of reflections and refractions, colliding with one another, going across one another, hitting on various surfaces, bouncing off of other surfaces.

I may have gone far off from the topic discussed in your article, but to me the seductiveness in anything, whether it’s a text, a parody, a joke, a wise quote, lies in its ironic reversibility, in which words are arbitrary, referring to no meaning, having no end, yet pointing towards the never ending play of appearances, renderings, and meanings. A good example I can think of right now is that of the Pre-Socratics!

@ dustygravel – I may have mentioned this in one of my other comments, but if you really want to know how reversibility works, I would suggest reading Jean Baudrillard’s Seduction. It’s a wonderful book!

PS Please excuse my bad English. I have to say that English is my third language, and often times I have “bad English days!” I think today is one of those days!

drwatson said...

I always think a good reading should make me see something I've always seen look brand new. Heidegger talks about the play of concealment and unconcealment and I think applicable here. All readings do both, but so many readings unconceal the same things at the expense of what would be truly interesting. I use that optical illusion - the duck/rabbit in class. Basically for about three different things, but one of which is this. Imagine you've never seen the duck and finally someone goes - no look at the Rabbit's ear - that's the duck's bill - and magically you see something that was always there, but previously unseeable.