Good and Bad vs. Right and Wrong

This is an excerpt from a book I'm working on....

There may be infinite readings of this or that text but there are still good and bad readings. A good reading is creative. Things once familiar become refreshingly unfamiliar. The reader is a progenitor of the uncanny as habit falls away 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.

My first exposure to a reading which left my heart palpitating and the ground beneath my feet forever and gloriously unsure came at the hands of one of the reader’s most ready tropes: the reversal. In the reversal, expectation and assumptions are, well, reversed. Nietzsche loves reversals. Christian morality, he argues, is built on hate and resentment cloaked in the passive aggressive stance of love. Christian belief in god is nihilistic, a belief in nothing rather than a living through of life — a devastating reversal as Christian love becomes hate and faith becomes nihilism.

I was in Mr. Tucker’s 11th grade AP American History class. A fan of the revisionist Marxist historians (it was an odd school), Mr. Tucker had us read Gabriel Kolko’s essay on the creation of the USDA that claimed that the USDA and its dispensation of approval — those assuring gradations of meat — were not born of consumer advocacy but were in fact a foil of the meat industry, an industry suffering due to Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle which exposed the grotesqueries of meat packing. The USDA, then, was not only not there to protect my fellow citizens and me — it was in fact an elaborate abuse of governmental ethos, a ploy to move product, a product which may very well be harmful to the very citizens the USDA was nominally formed to protect. It was exhilarating!

My second great reading encounter came in college, in a Women’s Studies lecture with Carroll Smith-Rosenberg. Her lecture concerned the culture of the faint Victorian woman. Expecting to hear the tale of patriarchic oppression (which at the time seemed interesting and familiar to my decidedly uninteresting and familiar mind), my body readied itself for confirmation. But the tale I was to hear snapped me right to attention. The feminine assumption of weakness, it turns out, was not solely a means by which men subjugated women. No, the faintness of Victorian women was in fact a strategy by which a woman could a) avoid the toiling duties of housekeeper and hostess; and b) if institutionalized, be with other women. A feminine posture of weakness and the entire medical culture surrounding it was not just another example of men keeping women down; it was in fact a feminine strategy of survival and pleasure. (Reversals demand italics — they make the words themselves careen.)

In The History of Sex v.1, Michel Foucault argues that the discourse of the repression and liberation of sexuality is part of the same discourse of power: repression does not repress and liberation does not liberate. They are both constitutive of a will to power that endlessly articulates sex and rigorously controls it. For Foucault, the very notion that sex is something that can be repressed and hence liberated is part of the system of control that is built on the logic of the depth: the soul must be mined to its deep, dark recesses.

How does Foucault reach this conclusion? He spent days, weeks, months in the archives and found a veritable explosion of documents speaking, in one way or another, about sex. Sex clearly was not repressed. And yet we walk around speaking as though it were, as though it were in need of liberation. Foucault, then, looks at what we say and what we do and the relationship between the two

These, I am arguing, are good readings. Rather than taking the world at its word, these readings heed the performance of the text at hand and then put it all together in a surprising way, flipping the thing’s own claims on its head which, in turn, creates new architectures of becoming. A good reading does not confirm the known; it spins the elements into new shapes, new possibilities so we see the thing anew, as if for the very first time.

Reversal is only one tactic of reading. One does not need to reverse in order to render the world uncanny. Take Kierkegaard’s reading of Plato. When I borrow from Kierkegaard and say that Socrates proffers a way of life (irony), not a rigid philosophy (Platonism with its Forms), I am not reversing Plato. Rather, I am offering an alternate way to read Plato’s texts, how they behave. 

In any case, the goal of the reader is to fold, pleat, spin, cut, shape the world in some way that does not seek to confirm the known but rather seeks the unknown. To read well is literally an adventure, a forward looking propriety, a thing being made in the very act of reading. As Steve Zissou declares at the end of Wes Anderson's film, The Life Aquatic, "This is an adventure."

This is really a matter of one’s posture in the world, how one stands towards things, towards experience. Do you seek to recognize 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. This is how we organize our world. But when I come to a book or art or politics or sometimes just a glass of tequila, I want to see it anew; 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.

Of course, not all readings fare so well. Søren Kierkegaard claims that so-called Christianity mis-reads Jesus and His Testament. The Church, Kierkegaard tells us, picks up where the Gospels leave off, after Jesus has risen. But for Kierkegaard, Christianity — and faith in particular — is a matter of reckoning the life of Jesus. A poor, skinny Jew stands before you and claims to be the eternal God. Believe him or don’t: that is the struggle of faith. A historically specific person claims to be eternal; it’s absurd. And yet it is precisely on the strength of this absurdity that a true Christian finds faith. To premise one’s faith on a Jesus who has risen is, for Kierkegaard, to miss Christianity all together. After all, Jesus’ words come while he is alive. So Kierkegaard asks us to be contemporaneous with the text, with the disciplines, to hear Jesus’ words as if they were spoken, while He was still alive and the burden of faith is on you. It’s not that the Church is wrong per se; rather, it’s that the Church reads the Gospels badly.

Ted Morgan entitles his biography of William S. Burroughs, Literary Outlaw. Few would find this title surprising; indeed, it seems appropriate. After all, Burroughs is the bad-boy of literature, eschewing plot, consistency of voice, character development, and perhaps every other literary convention. This reading works.

But it’s not terribly interesting. Burroughs, reading himself, takes issue with this characterization of his work: "To be an outlaw you must first have a base in law to reject and get out of. I never had such a base." That is to say, to read Burroughs as an outlaw is to read him as reacting to the laws of literature rather than (re)inventing them.

A good reading is uncanny, taking the familiar and making it unfamiliar so you at once know and don’t know the thing. To see things, to think things, to sense things that you didn’t even know existed, to experience turns of thought, insights and twists, nuance and qualifications: a good reading is exhilarating. To read a good reading of a film or painting or book is akin to seeing Rafael Nadal work his opponent to one side of the court before delivering a drop shot to the other side; it’s akin to watching Michael Jordan penetrate a defense, stop, turn, jump in the air backwards and sink a basket without a hint of rim. A good reading is athletic. 

A reading can’t really be wrong — there is no code to be deciphered, no truth awaiting behind or within the words. The author will not come to deliver the Word from on high. Nor will the critic or the professor. All there are are different readings.

And yet a reading can 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 can be violent to a text, making it bend in 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, aesthetic, and fair. 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. It is empirical.

And then there are plain old bad readings of things. These are readings that may very well be in bounds but that are bad for any number of reasons. A bad reading may make the thing less interesting, quashing its multivalences, such as the writing on the wall in the museum at the Philip Guston show that reduced Guston’s work to a symptom of his childhood. Or calling Burroughs an “outlaw” when he really is an outlaw of both the law and the outlaws. And, to be fair to Ted Morgan, I think this is how we can read his title: Burroughs is not an outlaw per se, he is always already outside the law.

A bad reading may just be obvious, the reader not really doing anything at all but echoing that which has already declared itself. An example might be when a reader reads Nietzsche and claims that Nietzsche does not believe in truth. That’s a bad reading because, well, Nietzsche’s texts say they do not believe in, or ascribe to, truth as a value in and of itself. A good reading would tease out the rhetorical nuance of Nietzsche's claim, perhaps show how truth functions for him — as not just something that is or isn't but as something that operates within an elaborate will to power and how that might impact what it is to be a reader of Nietzsche. In any case, a good reading does not reduce or state the obvious: it sheds light on places you didn't even know existed — as perhaps they didn't before this reading.


Jim H. said...

There is also the issue of over-reading. Or over-interpretation. The sort that valorizes a text and ascribes more meaning than the text will bear. Much New Testament hermeneutics by evangelicals (& medievalists) falls into this category. Also, Midrash scholasticism.

Take a metaphor: Some guy named Jesus taking the fall for his gang of rowdies at a Passover festival a couple thousand years ago, getting executed for it, and the subsequent mythologization of a simple, unselfish act by a gang leader into a prescription for eternal salvation. Get my drift?

Marx, too, e.g., can be made to say whatever.

We then enter into the Foucauldian territory where systems of preconceptions determine readings, no?

Quite a pickle you've set for yourself in this book you're writing. Fine-tuning interpretations of laws and judicial constructions of same just is the fight of jurisprudence as well. Lots of ground to cover. I look forward to reading more of your project.

Daniel Coffeen said...

Academics and zealots do love to push a text beyond what that text wants to do. Sometimes, it can be beautiful or strange or hilarious — even if being a bad reading.

My book is, alas, about reading, not about notions of justice — although I believe there are implications for jurisprudence. But, as you suggest, that gets very, very complicated and would involve me doing research on different legal systems. When all I really want to talk about is this act of reading something — a book, film, person, tequila.

I do try to address the ideology/Foucauldian issue of discourse (pre)determining our readings. But we always are where we are; there is no being outside of our manifestation in this culture, this time, this place. We begin where we begin. And we make discourse as much as discourse makes us.....for the rest, you'll have to read the book!

Thanks, as always, Jim for reading and commenting.