Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Watching Myself Read

For my "Future of English" course this week we were asked to watch ourselves read and to reflect on the process.  This is my result.

In trying to watch myself read, I was surprised to find that I already do watch myself read. That is, I sat down to read and said "ok, now to watch myself read" and found that, as I started to read, I was reading exactly the way I always do. So, really, that wasn't what surprised me, actually. What surprised me was that I didn't realize that I always watch myself read. You could say I haven't watched myself watching myself read.

This continuously self-aware division into reader and watching-reader leads to interesting contradictions. I am an extremely critical reader, on the one hand. I am an extremely agreeable reader, on the other. I naturally filter what I read through the lens of other familiar texts, but I am often hard-pressed to say just exactly which text I am filtering my understanding through, or even if I actually am filtering at all. I have a sophisticated and refined interpretive ideology, and yet strive to adopt the ideology of the text I am reading.

In short, I know my reading extremely well on a surface, procedural, level, but understand it almost not at all at a deeper, existential level. That is, I know how I read, but I don't know exactly who the I is that is doing the reading. It's not the I that eats dinner with my wife, that's for certain. Indeed, that dinner-eating I often spends much of those dinners trying to understand what the reader I has just experienced, appropriating the readerly experience and reinterpreting it for my real life, synthesizing and analyzing, arguing and explaining.

As an almost schizophrenic reader, it is not uncommon for me to generate a lot of ideas as I read, and especially shortly after or whenever I pause to take a (mental) breath, often by glancing at the clock or leafing through the upcoming pages or checking my Twitter feed. In these times of pause, the more familiar, more argumentative, more discursive I interposes on the receptive, reader I. This is the I that has always watched the reader I. This is the I that is critical. This is the I that searches for connections. This is the I that is consciously ideological. This is the I that is always the same.

The reader I, on the other hand, is much more mysterious, despite how conscious my bifurcation is. I find myself reading texts back-to-back that contradict each other, and, at the reader level, agreeing with both. My reader-self will follow even the most dubious argument to its conclusion, nodding in assent the whole way. Nevertheless, the reader-I is not wholly passive. It is the reader part, not the interpretive part, that shifts voices as an author does, that can tell whether Eagleton is speaking his own opinion or is rehashing the views of someone else.

In observing my reader I this week, an interesting phrase occurred to me. It is this: "the audience of your reading." My reader reads, while the interpretive I asks questions like "who is the audience of your reading?" I might as well say, while I am reading, a part of me is always writing - or preparing to write - also. Whether that writing ends up actually written is immaterial, I engage in mental preparation for it either way.

I would not go so far as to say that, for me, reading is writing. Rather, that they are different is exactly why my reading process is so bifurcated. Then again, the reader I and the writer I almost always coexist. They are not, perhaps, so schizophrenic after all. Rather they are like Aristophanes's lovers (from Plato's Symposium), amorphous blobs meant to be together. Indeed, they are not only meant to be together, but incapable of surviving without each other.

Perhaps the true challenge of this assignment, however, is not in recognizing this dichotomy. Rather, it has been in getting the reader I to read itself. The writer I is used to interpreting the transmissions of the reader, and the writer I is used to looking at and analyzing itself. The reader, however, never really gets a chance to turn that equation in the other direction*. Because this reader I is so impossibly anti-ideological and anti-interpretive, its voice in the process is non-existent. It is, after all, the writer within me that writes this very reflection. Even when I read my own writing, the reader I adopts its traditional role, treating the text as if it is not my own, letting the interpretive I do the interpretive work.

* Except, perhaps, when I'm doing astrology, but that involves the procedural trick of placing myself outside myself in a system of formal codes.

Reflection is a telling word, in fact. When I look in the mirror, what I see is not myself, but a reflection of myself. In trying to turn the interpretive mirror on myself, what I discover, above all, is that the same interpreter that interprets my reading also interprets myself. This could be maddening, but in fact it bothers me not at all. The system, it seems to me, works. I see no occasion for dramatized crisis. Nevertheless, it is interesting to observe and articulate this strange division-cum-non-division, and it is surprising to me that I had never noticed something so fundamental to my own reading before.

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