Thursday, December 08, 2005

Reading writing -- and arhythmatics

In this post, my interests in science, history, philosophy, and literature collide.

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, historian, futurologist, Research Director of Institute for the Future, Senior Research Scholar in Stanford's Science, Technology and Society Program, and blogger of Relevant History has an interesting post reflecting on Sellen and Harper's Myth of the Paperless Office.

Pang's observations on our ways of reading especially fascinated me because . . . well, to be honest, because I'd never quite analyzed reading along these lines before, but upon 'reading' his post, the fact of our various ways of reading suddenly seemed obvious:
Take, for example, . . . [Sellen and Harper's] observations about the complexity of reading. They make two big arguments. First, there are actually many different kinds of reading: an English professor reading a manuscript in an archive, a pilot going over flight plans and safety checklists, and a law clerk reading a draft of a ruling, are all reading -- but they're all doing it in different ways. Handwritten manuscripts, manifests and checklists, and typescripts of legal opinions all look different, contain different kinds of information, and are read with different purposes in mind. (I think this is a point that even many historians of reading don't give quite enough attention to.)

Second, reading is rarely the solitary, linear activity posited by literary theorists. Most reading that's done in the workplace is embedded in other activities: people read across multiple documents (to compare arguments or facts, say), take notes while reading, read documents with other people in meetings, or move between printed documents and word processor files open on a computer. The classical model of reading so beloved by defenders of the book -- someone sitting with a book, oblivious to the world -- is beloved because it's a luxury.
I confess that I shared with (some) literary theorists the view of reading as a "solitary, literary activity" -- just me and a book.

But that's obviously (obvious now) only one sort of reading and very rare in my life these days. Most of my reading takes place in the context of reading other things -- and I mean in the immediate context.

The internet, with its multiple links, provides the best example of how discontinuously we read -- how many of you clicked on some of the links above before continuing on to the words that you're now reading?

But I read discontinuously all the time, even when I'm reading a book. Just this morning, I was reading some lines by Stanley Fish's article "Interpreting the Variorum," originally printed in Critical Inquiry, 2 (1976) but reprinted in K. M. Newton's Twentieth-Century Literary Theory: A Reader (and what is a "reader" if not an enforced discontinuous reading?):
What I am suggesting is that formal units are always a function of the interpretive model one brings to bear; they are not 'in' the text, and I would make the same arguments for intentions. That is, intention is no more embodied 'in' the text than are formal units; rather an intention, like a formal unit, is made when perceptual or interpretive closure is hazarded; it is verified by an interpretive act, and I would add, it is not verifiable in any other way. (235)
I'd have to read more about Fish's point here about reading to make sure of his meaning when he says that intention is not embodied 'in' the text (and how am I to read 'in'?), but that's not the point of my post today.

Rather, I want to demonstrate a discontinuity in my reading of Fish. As soon as I read the above passage, I instantly thought of a point made by Edward T. Oakes in "Stanley Fish's Milton" (First Things 117 (November 2001): 23-34.) where he claims that "Fish place[s] the court of last appeal in the author’s intention, and not in the reader's response." This reminded me that Fish appeals to Milton's Christian Doctrine in his famous work Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost. In making the point that Milton has constructed Paradise Lost as a long, drawn-out 'occasion' to sin, or to resist sinning, Fish cites Christian Doctrine on "the poet's version of what the theologian calls a 'good temptation':
A good temptation is that whereby God tempts even the righteous for the purpose of proving [i.e., testing] them, not as though he were ignorant of the disposition of their hearts, but for the purpose of exercising or manifesting their faith or patience . . . or of lessening their self confidence, and reproving their weakness, that . . . they themselves may become wiser by experience. (Surprised by Sin, 40, from Christian Doctrine, in The Works of John Milton, ed. F. A. Patterson et al. (New York, 1933), XV. 87-89)
Fish certainly appears to be using Milton's Christian Doctrine to establish Milton's intent in Paradise Lost. I suppose that Fish could argue that in this case, too, "intention is no[t] . . . embodied 'in' the text" of Paradise Lost but in another text, Christian Doctrine. Maybe so, but I would point out that we've still got intention in a text.

But that's not my point today. This morning, I'm just focusing on our discontinuities of reading.

Another example, and then, I'll close. Currently, I'm re-reading a book by my cyber-buddy Bill Vallicella: A Paradigm Theory of Existence: Onto-Theology Vindicated. When Bill tells me that the "gist of the paradigm theory may be put as follows":
(PT) Necessarily, for any contingent individual x, x exists if and only if (i) there is a necessary y such that y is the paradigm existent, and (ii) y, as the external unifier of x's ontological constituents, directly produces the unity/existence of x.
How do I read a passage like this? Very slowly, repeatedly, reflectively. I read ahead, then review what I've already read, trying to make sense of it. A lot of the process requires sitting back and thinking about the words and the concepts that they point to -- Ferdinand de Sassure's signifier and signified at play in my reading of a very difficult text.

My point here and throughout this post? Just the (now) obvious one, that reading is a complex, discontinuous activity.

In my obliviousness, I've only just realized this.


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