Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Reading the World

It was recently suggested to me that I read a text to demonstrate what it is to read, criticize, or analyze it. There have been many vogues in reading over the years, and the tide of new fashions continues unabated. What I should like to do, before picking out something in particular, is to discuss some general things that I feel need repeating, as an invitation for you the reader to perhaps reflect upon your life in a new way.

One way of looking at culture is that it involves the HOW of things rather than the WHAT. Now the "what" surely matters. If we are looking at a book those sentences and paragraphs matter, and of course if those sentences and paragraphs build to create the illusion of a plot, that matters as well, and some of the meaning resides in precisely the general impression or summary we draw from that book. We get a sense of Joseph K, or Dorothea Brooke, or Pip because of the effect of accumulation of assertions about that "person" (whether through a newer free indirect style or older narrative authority). But equally, and, in what I would refer to as the highest works of literature, the means by which this process is carried out might eclipse in importance the summary. Too often, though a reader wants just the summary and reads for that alone. In quite a few cases this might be an egregious mistake, not because that summary or shorthand doesn't matter, but because the meaning of the thing dwells in how it is told. In fiction this sometimes takes the form of twisting and turning the figures written about in such a way that how selfhood is constructed by fictional character and reader alike becomes itself the theme.

I thought it might be fun to look at the world in this way too. We can read our friends, our fashions, our buildings and see how they are made. In this sense the poststructuralists were right to say that the whole world is a text. (Where they were wrong is in their excessive suspicion about what is given in a text, and in their tendency to be uninterested in older humanistic criteria for evaluation, criteria I will try and uphold on this site). Some spiritualist type people and astrologers often talk about reading a person's chart for insight into their character. We rarely have the fortune or opportunity - it is magical really - to step outside of our habits and read the world in this way. What would it be like to step back from our practices and do anthropological field work on ourselves? We might ask why so many males wear baseball caps en masse, for example. Or why certain females have the need to get into oversized and gaudy white machines with flashing lights and drive around a lot and get drunk and giggle incessantly upon planning for a wedding for one in their party. The trick, of course is to defamiliarize all of this, but not to do it in such a way that is neither functionalist on the one hand, nor censorious on the other. The functionalist, like a certain sociologist typically sees the WHAT of the situation. Thus, those girls are doing a timeless ritual of bonding before a wedding. The trouble with this functional account is that it leaves behind some of the most salient facts about that bacholerette party. Why usually the white limo for example? It is completely inadequate to reduce the world into use value in this way. This is one of the problems with NeoDarwninian accounts of human behavior: it turns matters of what into how, which often even ignores the how.

One way we usually get perspective upon our familiar styles is by a certain kind of travel where we live with others who are rather different. But the questions of how we eat, how we dress, how we contain ourselves are opportunities for reflection, meditation and contemplation, whether we are faced with challenging difference from those ways or not.

Before we really make any provisional evaluations we must be sensitive to this issue of how. Of course we do it all the time when our pundits and nutritionists and foodies evaluate the health and nutrition of what we eat. But there are other areas of life that are taken absolutely for granted to the point where the readings of those areas are shamefully poor. The development of the Interstate Highway is one example of the tragic consequences of an abandonment of the power of how. We were in such a hurry to summarize (we read for the plot), that we just built the most unattractive strips of concrete, the better to get from one location to the other and (in theory) the quickest time.

We also read from a particular standpoint. There are two salient facts about me that make me read a certain way. For one I don't drive, and for another I don't drink. As a relentless pedestrian a compulsive peripatetic I am struck by the absolute domination by and love for the automobile. The world is hostile to me at every turn because it potentially threatens me with large machines whose speed extraordinarily surpasses what my feet can do.

Being a nondrinker in a world in which drink is deeply important is another standpoint issue. To make matters more tricky I don't not drink for moral or medical or philosophic reasons as I am not in recovery from anything alcohol related. People can be hostile and irritated by my non drinking. Drinking is an important means for people to connect and maintain those connections.

Now, even though I expressed my alienation from the world of drink, I would be most dissatisfied if someone only looked at drinking as a pretext for people to meet or as a means for people to alter their psychology (to relax or to get into a certain state). I may be a nondrinker but I am fully aware that there is this extraordinary art - and it is ever changing - to beer and wine, to say nothing of, say, whiskey or liquours. There is talk of vineyards, and grapes, and the right climate for this or that preparation and heady and ecstatic talk of tones in a drink, and dryness, and heaviness, and lightness, and bitterness. The writing on our alcoholic beverages in the most mediocre food column can read like Dr. Johnson writing on Shakespeare. And none of it concerns mere functionality.

Thus we can look at the world as a work of art, as we would regard a poem or sculpture. And my guess is, though I can't quite prove it, that if we looked at the world in this way, it would not slow us down or distract us from matters of great importance, but rather, we might become better judges of character in the people in our lives and avoid signing on to projects that in the long scope of history turn out to be disappointing at best or tragic at worst.

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