Ethics of Reading

Published the following letter to the editor in this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education. Yes, I am becoming “that guy.” You know, the odd ball, slightly unkempt if not unwashed, who writes letters to the editor. As I think of it, blogging is a bit like letters to the editor on roids. Roid rage and all.

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Deconstruction and Reading

To the Editor:

Peter Brooks begins “The Ethics of Reading” (The Chronicle Review, February 8) by noting his dismay at J.M. Coetzee’s association of torture with the reading practices of “the academy of the humanities in its postmodernist phase.” Coetzee’s association is less surprising than Brooks’s shock; the link between reading and violence is nothing new.

The purported existence of links between how we read and ethical corruption or political violence is a commonplace in complaints about contemporary theory. Indeed, the link between reading and moral corruption goes back much further than this, found as it is throughout Western history — especially since Gutenberg. Faust is, after all, nothing if not a reader.

The opening line of Brooks’s essay points to a peculiar construal of both reading and ethics — one that, I think, can be found in a variety of other “ethics of reading” theories, particularly that of J. Hillis Miller. Says Brooks, “I’ve long been invested in the notion that teaching to read literature carefully, seriously, reflectively can be an ethical act.” Reading here seems to be conceived of primarily as a procedure or a technique; rigorously following correct procedures ensures or at least encourages an ethical outcome.

Brooks casts about to find an appropriate place to lay the blame for reading practices that have led to the infamous memo on torture allegedly written by John Yoo. He comes up with inept graduate students, or perhaps just people who didn’t attend Yale: “It must be admitted that the lessons of deconstruction in the wrong hands — less adept than its original practitioners — led to facile untetherings of meaning.” Ironically, he then points to Paul de Man as a practitioner of “essentially ethical” reading in his attempts “to understand how texts mean and how language works.”

To be fair, Brooks is pointing yet further back to Reuben Brower, de Man’s own mentor in the skills of reading. However, I have my doubts that de Man’s close reading skills did much to save him from his own readings of Jewish existence in Europe.

I have no interest in attacking de Man’s character or revisiting his history. But maybe part of the problem is, in fact, how he taught us to imagine reading. Why would we begin to imagine that pursuing a rigorous technique to its endpoint is inherently ethical? Fascists were certainly champions of the rigorous pursuit of techniques and industrious in their pursuit of efficiency.

While the ability to read closely and industriously and with technical proficiency may further the ends of people seeking to do good, it seems just as plausible that the ability to do so can serve the ends of those who seek to do ill. We accept that great artists may not be great people, and that their art may even serve both good and bad ends at the same time. Why should we believe differently about great readers?

http://chronicle.com
Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 54, Issue 26, Page B29

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