Speeding and Reading

As luck would have it I stumbled over two good essays in the same day that seemed to speak to my general concerns (paranoia) at the state of the world. Mark Edmundson over at The Chronicle Review has an excellent piece on the speed with which American college students live their lives these days, a speed perhaps most emphatically symbolized by the Internet. Edmundson is a professor at the University of Virginia, and the author of the book Why Read, a book, among thousands of others, I haven’t had time to read yet.

Says Edmundson, beginning with a chance encounter with a student at the beginning of the school year:

We asked each other the usual question: What did you do over the summer? What he did, as I recall, was a brief internship at a well-regarded Internet publication, a six-country swing though Europe, then back to enjoy his family and home, reconnect with high-school friends, and work on recording a rock CD. What had I done? I had written five drafts of a chapter for a book on the last two years of Sigmund Freud’s life. I had traveled to Crozet, a few miles away, to get pizza. I’d sojourned overnight in Virginia Beach, the day after I woke up distressed because I couldn’t figure out how to begin my chapter. I’d driven to the beach, figured it out (I thought), and then I’d come home. My young friend looked at me with a mixture of awe and compassion. I felt a little like one of those aged men of the earth who populate Wordsworth’s poetry. One of them, the Old Cumberland Beggar, goes so slowly that you never actually see him move, but if you return to the spot where you first encountered him two hours past, lo, he has gone a little way down the road. The footprints are there to prove it.

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One day I tried an experiment in a class I was teaching on English and American Romanticism. We had been studying Thoreau and talking about his reflections (sour) on the uses of technology for communication. (“We are in great haste,” he famously said, “to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.”) I asked the group, “How many places were you simultaneously yesterday — at the most?” Suppose you were chatting on your cellphone, partially watching a movie in one corner of the computer screen, instant messaging with three people (a modest number), and glancing occasionally at the text for some other course than ours — grazing, maybe, in Samuelson’s Economics rather than diving deep into Thoreau’s “Economy” — and then, also, tossing the occasional word to your roommate? Well, that would be seven, seven places at once. Some students — with a little high-spirited hyperbole thrown in, no doubt — got into double digits. Of course it wouldn’t take the Dalai Lama or Thoreau to assure them that anyone who is in seven places at once is not anywhere in particular — not present, not here now. Be everywhere now — that’s what the current technology invites, and that’s what my students aspire to do.

Edmundson’s essay is pretty wide-ranging, going on to link up with insightful discussion of the relevance of Byron, the natural of contemporary sex, and the laptop as an engine for infinitely expanding desire. Most interesting to me is that Edmundson rightly notes that higher education tends to respond to this situation by saying something like “There go my people, I must lead them” then rushing as fast as possible to make our classrooms and our curricula ever more multi-dimensional, multi-media, multi-tasking, multi-cultural, and multitudinous.

In part, the frantic and unrelenting—and perhaps unavoidable—drive for students as consumers leads us to “meet them where they are” rather than challenging and questioning the form of the culture we all necessarily inhabit.

Often times this argument is put in apolitical—and frankly just stupid—terms by casting it as old culture against new culture, or the culture of elders against the culture of youth. Edmundson points out that this generation of college students has had the internet since they were eight years old. My son has never known a time when we didn’t have an internet connection—even though we only managed to get off dialup a few months ago. How, one must ask, is an eight year old determining the contours of his or her culture. This is a culture that has been thrust upon them by mature adults who made the culture in which they must inevitably participate.

But to recognize that inevitability is not the same thing as having to endorse it or at least fail to recognize its limitations. The formidable speed and the wealth of information available at my internet connection is offered by denizens of the net as its greatest and most empowering aspect. It is also, perhaps, its most its most dehumanizing aspect.

Side note: who decided that more power—implied by the notion of empowerment—is always a good thing, always a humanizing thing. Ask Eliot Spitzer—awfully empowered. Not completely sure the quest for more empowerment results in better persons or better cultures.

Though, as I think about it, this isn’t really a sidenote. One traditional hack on traditional modes of reading (and traditional classrooms) are that they are disempowering. Too slow. The author/teacher is too much in control. Against this notion Edmundson suggests that the first task of teaching in such a world is not to speed up our classes, but to slow them down

For a student to be educated, she has to face brilliant antagonists. She has to encounter thinkers who see the world in different terms than she does. Does she come to college as a fundamentalist guardian of crude faith? Then two necessary books for her are Freud’s Future of an Illusion and Nietzsche’s The Anti-Christ. Once she’s weathered the surface insults, she may find herself in an intellectual version of paradise, where she can defend her beliefs or change them, and where what’s on hand is not a chance conversation, as Socrates liked to say, but a dialogue about how to live. Is the student a scion of high-minded liberals who think that religion is the OxyContin — the redneck heroin — of Redneck Nation? Then on might come William James and The Varieties of Religious Experience or Schopenhauer’s essays on faith. It’s this kind of dialogue, deliberate, gradual, thoughtful, that immersion in the manic culture of the Internet and Adderall conditions students not to have. The first step for the professor now is to slow his classroom down. The common phrase for what he wants to do is telling: We “stop and think.” Stop. Our students rarely get a chance to stop. They’re always in motion, always spitting out what comes first to mind, never challenging, checking, revising.

Not long ago a young man came to my office, plopped down, and looked at me with tired urgency. “Give me 10 minutes on Freud,” he said. “Convince me that he really has something important to tell me.” Despite appearances, this was a good moment. It was a chance to try to persuade him to slow it down. Get one of Freud’s books — Civilization and Its Discontents is usually the best place to start — read it once and again, then let’s talk.

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As to our students, all honor to them: They may have much to teach the five-drafter. By their hunger for more life they convey hope that the world is still in some measure a splendid place, worth seeing and appreciating. Into spontaneity they can liberate us. But life is more than spontaneity and whim. To live well, we must sometimes stop and think, and then try to remake the work in progress that we currently are. There’s no better place for that than a college classroom where, together, we can slow it down and live deliberately, if only for a while.

Yes, I think this is it precisely, and I appreciate Edmundson’s effort to find a balance between the culture of speed and the culture of reflection. But I also think he’s right that our students don’t need from us how to be taught to speed through a course of study; they do that well enough already.

Along these lines, I do think one of the greatest challenges facing English departments—if not the culture as a whole–is the deliberateness and singularly absorbed attention that traditional intensive reading requires.

There is a particular sense in which this kind of attention, this kind of slowing down, is “disempowering” in a particular and commonplace use of that term. I willingly subject myself to the book and surrender my consciousness to the authority of the text, my imagination to the primacy of another imagination. I am in some very real sense possessed and my consciousness of self temporarily dissolved into another world created not by the clicking finger of my desire—though my desire may not be suspended—but created by another will.

This is why romantics from Emerson to Byron to Barthes have hated reading (I say this even though Barthes is sometimes taken as a romantic of the reader. Or because of it. He can only imagine reading as a positive act if reading is reimagined as a form of writing, not a form of self-abnegation.)

My terms here verge on the spiritual, which leads to a second essay I read from Nancy Malone, but I’ve gone on too long already and will try to get to this later. Reading, or at least some kinds of reading, as a form of contemplative practice, one who’s desired goal the self-aggrandizing expansion of desire, but dissolution of the desiring self in any straightforward sense.

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3 thoughts on “Speeding and Reading

  1. I think Kieregaard said that if he were a doctor and could prescribe one thing for all the ills of the modern world it would be silence.

  2. See Thomas S. Hibbs’ new book on Noir film “Arts of Darkness” (pg.92) where he talks about the “endless pursuit of diversion.

  3. Thanks for the tips. I’m not familiar with Hibbs’, but the quote is interesting. I was an SK fan as an undergraduate (and several years thereafter). I feel a yearning to get back to him at times. His hyper individualism isn’t too hip right now, and I have doubts about his anthropology. But on the other hand, I think a lot of the rhetoric that passes for community and social belonging these days are fancy terms for the corporatization of spiritual life. The sickness unto death and fear and trembling would no doubt be a bracing tonic.

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