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Thoughts on Close Reading

In a World of Hands: Toward an Ethics of Intellectual Joy
Yago Colás

This is an academic paper I delivered at a conference.  It may be too specialized to be understandable or even enjoyable.  But I tried to write it so that it would be accessible.  In any event, it's the non-hoops source for some of the ideas I articulated in my post on Microphenomenal criticism.

I would like you to imagine something. It may help to close your eyes, if you don’t mind. Now, imagine yourself on some land in the countryside. You are with a friend, a friend who was once close to you but whom you haven’t seen in many years. There is a large old house on the property, with a grassy hill leading down toward a stream flanked by woods. There in the woods, partially hidden by the branches of trees, you find the door to a long tunnel. Your friend opens the door and enters the tunnel. You follow close behind. The tunnel is pitch black. In a whisper, your friend explains that there is a long counter-top that runs along the entire right hand side of the tunnel. On it, someone has placed a series of ordinary objects. Along the left hand side, your friend continues, four individuals are spaced out at irregular intervals, kneeling on prayer stools, their heads covered with shawls. From time to time, they will flash a flashlight to indicate their position.

So now follow your friend through the tunnel, slowly, feeling your way along the counter-top. Is it rough or smooth? Sliding along the counter-top, your hands are surprised by powder, which feels as if it is in a loose pile. Your hands sink into the pile, each finger finding its own way through the cool softness, which gives way and breaks back over your knuckles, sliding down over your wrist, shaping itself to the push of your hands. You are unsure what you are touching, unsure even whether the sensation is enjoyable. You start to formulate a guess: “I wish there were beaches of flour,” you say, slyly. But your friend quietly but firmly cuts you off – “Fine. Keep moving.” -- indicates a towel hanging from the counter-top with which you can clean up and urges your hands to continue their journey along the counter-top. Perhaps you think to object. Or to turn around and leave. But something keeps you going. Somewhat abashed, somewhat resentful, somewhat curious, you follow your friend’s direction and your hands gingerly resume their slow, uncertain glide along the counter-top. You are in the dark. You do not know what you are doing. But your heart beats and your mind races.

You may open your eyes now if you like. I adapted the scene I just asked you to imagine from a short story called “Menos Julia” ("Except Julia" in English), written by the late Uruguayan writer Felisberto Hernández. I will tell you more about the story in a moment. To begin with, I just wanted you to imagine that experience. And now, I want you to think of your experience in the tunnel as a form of reading. In what follows today, I wish to elaborate upon some of the key features of this particular version of reading, which I shall call “close reading,” and then to suggest the ways in which I believe it expresses a form of ethical joy, or at least bears the potential to do so, a potential it is up to us, as to all readers, to activate.

Let me lead you back to the tunnel now to examine this form of close reading in a bit more detail. You’ve already seen that the tunnel is pitch-black, completely devoid of light except for the occasional flash of a flashlight. It is also devoid of human speech. That’s why your friend brushed aside your sly hint that the pile of powder was a pile of flour. You’re not supposed to talk in the tunnel. Darkness and silence serve together as conditions conspiring to ensure that you will have nothing but your hands – no eyesight, no verbal instruction – with which to find your way, nothing but your hands with which to explore and relate with the space you are in and whatever you encounter in that space. And this may be why the narrator of “Menos Julia” refers to the tunnel and his friend’s way of being in it as “a world of hands.”

Now, “a world of hands” differs from the world we typically inhabit – a world of eyes, images and words -- in several respects. Most importantly for my purposes here today, in a world of hands we experience, learn, and come to know (or, as I will suggest, to unknow) by touching. And this means that in order to experience and learn in a world of hands we have to get close enough to touch: the distance that the mediating functions of vision and language permit us to maintain between ourselves and the things we want to experience and come to know is drastically reduced. That distance may not reach the zero-point of absolute immediacy since, after all, when we touch something we are still touching something that is not us. Still, it remains true that we have to get closer and in getting close enough to actually touch unforeseen relations between our world and ourselves begin to emerge. And any way, absolute immediacy isn’t the point. In practical terms, the proximity required to function in a world of hands provokes a radical confusion of the distinction between subject and object. The tale abounds with odd constructions in which inanimate objects or limbs assume the kind of independent agency we associate with subjectivity, while human beings – the typical repositories of subjectivity – passively suffer the effects of these actions.

But this dynamic never extends so far as a complete and simple exchange of the contents of subject and object categories. In this world of hands, objectifying a human subject turns that subject into an object of the sort that exists in a world of hands; that is, an object that has already assumed some degree of subjectivity. And conversely, those objects animated with subjectivity become the sort of subjects that have already in some ways been objectified. Ultimately, the combined dynamics erode the categories themselves, to create a fictional world in which we can only really use the terms “subject” and “object” to designate something like Platonic ideals, terminal states or poles that never actually exist as such in that fictional world and so that do not help us to make sense of that world. Everything that does exist in that world – Being, in short --rather floats and shifts somewhere in a hazy intermediate zone between those only abstractly existent end-points.

The firmness of the distinction between knowing subject and known object lies at the foundation of the correspondence theory of knowledge whereby truth involves the formation of an idea by a subject about and object world that adequately represents, or corresponds to reality. So it’s not surprising that one of the effects of life in the tunnel, in this world of hands, is confusion and uncertainty. At one point, for example, the narrator has been surprised to find himself wrestling with how much leeway to give his hands and their apparently independent impulses. He attempts to reassert his authority as a subject over his hands, which he views as capricious children, and contrasts his disciplined sobriety with his friend, who, he concludes, “was too advanced in that world of hands. Perhaps he had made them develop inclinations that permitted them to live too independent a life” (OC II: 94/100, trans. modified). But these bulwarks against the erosion of the boundary between subject and object and the uncertainty that erosion can provoke turn out to be too frail. He finds his thoughts chasing the lead of his hands, which now feel a frame behind a piece of glass. Disconcerted by his inability to control his hands and the sensations and thoughts their explorations prompt, he once again seeks to know the object: “Was it a portrait? And how could one know? It could also be a mirror… Worse still.” Disheartened by his failure to identify the object his hands are feeling and now no longer even possessing the illusion that he, as a subject, is master of his thoughts, body, or the world around him, he concludes bitterly “I found myself with my imagination tricked and the darkness making fun of me” (OC II: 94/100, trans. modified)

But perhaps there’s a different way to experience the uncertainty provoked by the unsettling of the hard and fast opposition between subject and object. When the narrator’s friend first reveals to him the ritual of the tunnel he describes the physical configuration and then explains, “I will touch the objects and try to guess what they are. I’ll also touch the faces of the women and think that I don’t know them” (OC II: 85/89, trans. modified). The emphasis, in other words, is on the process of guessing (rather than on guessing correctly) and on the process of imagining (rather than on knowing who they are). It is, we might say, a process of unknowing that interests the friend; a process of unleashing and experience a zone of unfamiliarity normally obscured by what we call knowledge. This would account for why the friend tells the narrator, after their second passage through the tunnel together, “Today was very pleasing. I confused objects, thought of other, different ones and had unexpected memories. I’d barely moved my body in the darkness when it seemed to me I was going to bump into something strange, that my body would begin to live in another way and my head was about to understand something important” (OC II: 95/102).

It is not that the friend is never unhappily surprised in the tunnel – after all, he is “only human.” Indeed, at several points while in the tunnel, the friend expresses confusion, frustration, and even anger when someone transgresses the rules of the tunnel by stepping out of their expected (and assigned) function. Though evidently thrown by these moments, the friend apologizes for his outbursts and, moreover, after he has exited the tunnel expresses delight at the surprises. We see, in other words, a tension within the friend himself between his desire to control the conditions within the tunnel and the pleasure he takes when events in the tunnel surprise him, whatever the cause. Expectation and the desire to know and control thus appear to play a role, paradoxically, in the pleasures of unknowing. It might therefore be better to see unknowing as a capacitating flow rippling through experience alongside other flows – capacitating or not – such as the quest for certainty, the desire to govern, and so forth. The friend, in that sense, functions in his behavior like a surfer or a hang-glider, who ride various currents (like the wave, the thermal column of air) within a dynamic, fluid context in which a debilitating flow may in the next instant become a capacitating flow (and vice-versa).

The trick, it would seem, is to recognize these alternations and to adapt to them. A key element in this process of recognition and adaptation is provided by the final component of the tunnel-ritual. After leaving the tunnel the friend retires to his room to spend time in silence and solitude contemplating that afternoon’s events. It is not that the friend sits in his room trying to figure things out. On the contrary, his disposition in solitude contrasts with our narrator who, retiring to his own room, resolves to get “to the bottom of things.” Rather the friend appears to me to exercise in contemplation what John Keats called “negative capability”: “to be capable of being in mysteries, doubts, and uncertainties, without the irritable grasping after fact and reason” (Keats 43). This final component – of simple, solitary contemplation – thus appears to facilitate a rearrangement of the friend’s “self” such that he emerges able to experience what had been unpleasant as a necessary component of joy. The surprises and transgressions that disorient and frustrate the friend are not, so far as we can tell, there by design, but the designed conditions of the tunnel and its constitutive elements certainly lend themselves to such moments. And it is these conditions, coupled with the disposition of the friend, that lead to the unsettling, joyful experience of unknowing in which, as the friend puts it, he experiences “memories that don’t belong to” him and “ideas [that] brush past [him] on their way to somewhere else.”

Let me pause now for a moment to spell out more directly the connections I’m suggesting between the experience in the tunnel and close reading. Simply put, I propose that close reading poses the challenge of cultivating an unknowing relation with a text, much as the tunnel provokes the characters in “Menos Julia” – willingly or not – into an unknowing relation with the objects they blindly explore with their hands. Both encounters involve conditions of radical uncertainty that disable or at least temporarily mute the faculties by which we are accustomed to asserting subjective mastery over an object of experience or of study. The point of both experiences is not to reach definitive conclusions but rather to proliferate possibilities by way of a softening of the boundaries separating subject from object, reader from text. I want in the time I have left to suggest further that cultivating such an experience in turn yields an ethical joy. This joy, which I will differentiate from the titillating pleasure of a pleasant surprise, derives from slipping the bonds of the self. Freed of the narrow, calculating operations of the ego, we may open ourselves to an impersonal, a-subjective flow of sensation, affect, and thought; a flow composed of flows of which we are ourselves one (and one that is in turn composed of more flows). And far from presupposing the text as a bounded entity, closed to the world (as in New Critical “close reading”), the process I am here calling close reading generates as a kind of unauthored by-product a text rich in connections and flows with the extra-textual universe.

In other words, close reading can – like the tunnel experience – catalyze the experience of memories that are not ours and the movement of thoughts and ideas that pass through us on their way somewhere else. In close reading, as I understand it, as a process of contemplative touching, we move through the narrow confines of an egocentric attention to our pleasure or our displeasure to an experience and a perspective in which we can experience what we think of as our “self” – no less than what we think of as the “text” – more like undulating waves in a single flowing, surface of becoming. The intense experience of potency we then feel, when we can view the vicissitudes of pleasure and the self as necessary components of a much more expansive, impersonal, all-encompassing process is what I mean by the ethical joy of close reading.

In his very first work, Spinoza resolved “at last to try to find out whether there was anything which would be the true good, capable of communicating itself, and which alone would affect the mind, all others being rejected – whether there was something which, once found and acquired, would continuously give me the greatest joy, to eternity.” Spinoza distinguished this “true good” from necessarily temporary “pleasure” [the Latin is titillatio], which exhausts itself and after which “the greatest sadness follows.” By contrast, for Spinoza, “love toward the eternal and infinite thing feeds the mind with a joy entirely exempt from sadness.” The discovery and account of this “true good”, capable of “communicating itself” and of giving him “the greatest joy, to eternity” would be the project that he would develop systematically in his Ethics. There, Spinoza defines joy as “man’s passage from a lesser to a greater perfection” (E P11).

Perfection here refers to reality, or our power to exist, or, more specifically still to our power to act in accord with our essence or in a way that preserves our nature. Now, joy remains for Spinoza a passion, by which he means that it rests, like all the other passions, on an inadequate belief that its cause is external to us. But it is also the highest passion because it functions as a kind of springboard through which, by the increase in our power of acting (which entails an increase in our power to form adequate ideas), we are led to form an adequate idea of the source of this joy. To go from joyful passions to actions we need only to form the idea of what it is in us that allows a given encounter with an external body to give rise to the affect of joy. This entails recognizing that we are what he calls “finite modes”, partaking of matter and extension, and expressing a degree of the infinite and absolute power of substance. And this recognition is the state Spinoza calls, in the ethics, beatitudo or blessedness. Finally, this process of seeking mindfully to organize our encounters with the world in a way that leads to joy and from there to adequate ideas and blessedness is precisely what Spinoza characterizes as “good.”

I’m uncertain at this point as to whether I really want to claim that the friend in “Menos Julia” experiences beatitude, let alone whether beatitude is what we experience in what I call close reading. Perhaps I can just remind you that the tunnel ritual suspends our habitual belief in the substantiality of the self and those faculties we tend to use to defend it by throwing its participants into a state of unknowing relation with things. Already in this state, what Spinoza might call the “inadequate idea” that we are subjects walled off dialectically from a world of objects begins to lose its hold on us. Moreover, the state releases powerful affective impressions, which, when experienced from the vantage point of an uncalculating contemplation, give rise to an experience of affect and thought as impersonal forces or flows of which we partake: oceans of thoughts and sensation within which what we have always thought of as our own thoughts and sensations appear to us now as merely waves; waves made of more waves. Nothing but waves. And this looks to me very much like the Spinozist ethic of joy, whereby the “good” individual strives precisely for just such awareness.

As for an ethically joyful reading, perhaps it would look something like what Paul deMan once described, recalling his experience as a graduate student instructor:

Students . . . were to start out from the bafflement that such singular turns of tone, phrase, and figure were bound to produce in readers attentive enough to notice them and honest enough not to hide their non-understanding behind the screen of received ideas that often passes, in literary instruction, for humanistic knowledge.” (De Man 23, my emphasis)

We see, as in Felisberto’s account of the world of hands, focused attention, the disabling of habitual responses, and the emphasis on unknowing relation. Though we might not associate the two as readers or as theorists of reading, I believe Gilles Deleuze evokes – in very different terms – a similar approach to the text.

You see the book as a little non-signifying machine, and the only question is ‘Does it work, and how does it work?’ How does it work for you? . . . There’s nothing to explain, nothing to understand, nothing to interpret. It’s like plugging into an electric circuit. . . . This intensive way of reading, in contact with what’s outside the book, as a flow meeting other flows, one machine among others, as a series of experiments for each reader in the midst of events that have nothing to do with books, as tearing the book into pieces, getting it to interact with other things, absolutely anything…is reading with love” (Deleuze, “Letter” 9).
Precisely what the tunnel-ritual encourages as well. Plug into the tunnel. Feel the objects. Don’t interpret. Don’t try to understand. Just discover what works and how, through touching and contemplation.

Finally, Deleuze helps bring this back to bear on the ethics of close reading when he writes:
Herein, perhaps, lies the secret: to bring into existence and not to judge. If it is so disgusting to judge, it is not because everything is of equal value, but on the contrary because what has value can be made or distinguished only by defying judgment. What expert judgment, in art, could ever bear on the work to come? It is not a question of judging other existing beings, but of sensing whether they agree or disagree with us, that is, whether they bring forces to us, or whether they return us to the miseries of war, to the poverty of the dream, to the rigors of organization. . . . (Deleuze, “To Have” 134-5)

I’d like also merely to suggest – and to leave open for further discussion – that in this account we can find a hint of joyful politics (or ethics) that affirms the possibilities of making something new – friendship, love, a meal, an action on the street, and thereby eludes the exhausted impulse to judgmentally catalogue the failures of existence. This – “reading with love” -- is what I have in mind when I speak of the ethics of intellectual joy, at least for us as readers of texts.

It is I believe what Deleuze exhorts me to in a moving account of what drove him when he wrote about other authors: ““Think of the author you are writing about. Think of him so hard that he can no longer be an object, and equally so that you cannot identify with him. Avoid the double shame of the scholar and the familiar” (Deleuze and Parnet 119, my emphasis). And bear in mind that for Deleuze “author” is just a manner of speaking, a way to refer to a function that carries forward that impersonal flow of thoughts and affects. Deleuze aimed to “give back to the author a little of the joy, the energy, the life of love and politics he was able to invent.” Perhaps any text is amenable to the sort of close reading I have here tried to evoke for you. But in keeping with Deleuze’s exhortation, I want to end by pointing out that Felisberto’s writing – not only “Menos Julia”, but many other texts as well -- has served as a kind of tunnel for me, baffling me, leaving me alternately pleased and frustrated, and ultimately, leaving me behind entirely, open to and awash in “memories that do not belong to me”; in thoughts that “brush past me on their way to somewhere else.” When I read Felisberto closely, and try to write the effects of that joyful reading, I can only hope that I am giving back “to him a little of the joy, the energy, the life of love and politics he was able to invent.”


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