Thursday, January 08, 2004


New Blogs, Ethical Reading Practices

Two new blogs in the blogosphere have come to my attention: University Diaries (which actually predates my own blog by a week or two) and LitSkunk. Both make for interesting reading, and have certainly proven thought provoking for me. Each has served, in its own way, to remind me of why I do this—the reasons I decided to enter this profession in the first place. Thanks.

I am reminded that the political response to the politics of the academy, though sometimes necessary, can also serve to steer us away from the job of carefully reading literature that has been entrusted to us. The predominance of theory in our profession is a problem, but not merely because it has served to politicize the classroom.

What too many practitioners of theory forget is that an individual, human being wrote the “text” being studied. I read an interesting book by Steven Kepnes entitled The Text as Thou, which uses Martin Buber’s I and Thou model of human relationships as the basis for a practice of reading. I’m not going to recap the book’s contents here (I am slightly busy dissertating, after all), but I think that the ethical relationship it requires the reader to establish with the text—remembering that the author is a Thou whose essential human identity must be respected—is one that we as a profession would do well to adopt.

It is a constant source of amazement to me that in a profession where postcolonialism holds such sway that the “colonization” of a literary work is not only permissible but commonplace. Rather than the voice of an individual mind with something to say, the literary work becomes an opportunity to further the agenda of the reader. Rather than engaging in a dialogue with the author, theory allows readers to engage in a monologue all their own. How many “readers” are there amongst those of us who read literature for a living who produce time and again the same basic reading of any work they happen to read? For how many readers is the text always about “X”, or always about “Y”? And what about the ridiculous “absence as presence” position, in which a text that doesn’t address “X” can be said to speak about “X” because it avoids speaking of “X”?

Is this an ethical reading practice? “X” may be the interest of the reader, but it’s most definitely not what the author is writing about. Conversation between author and reader grinds to an immediate halt. This shows a singular lack of respect for the fact that the author has something to say, and labored intensively in the attempt to communicate it. Don’t we have an ethical obligation to listen? To try and understand what the writer is trying to communicate? A Thou wrote the words on the page; dead or alive, the author deserves to be listened to.

No doubt the theorists will find this position naïve, uncritical, or worse, old-fashioned. Putting ethics above politics is frowned upon in our profession. Judith Butler’s essay in The Turn to Ethics is extremely revelatory of the current attitude toward ethical concerns amongst scholars of the humanities.

Like the American culture academia so regularly condemns, we are poor listeners, unable to hear what is being said to us over the sound of our voice. Thankfully, some of us are trying harder to listen to what literature has to say to us.

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