A caricature study of the generous reader

April 17, 2014 § Leave a comment

The question of how we read a text is crucial in the post-existentialist world consciousness. A thinker must know what sort of a reader she is, in — what is effectively — a metaphysical optometry. The two poles of accepting everything & rejecting everything are the measuring tools of the generosity of a reader. If we accepted a graphical representation of the axis of critical reading, it would look a lot like this, after debating choices of vocabulary:

Generous reader graph

NB: there is no middle-point; a balanced reader is a greater impossibility than the points at either end of the spectrum. The generous reader is one whose definition of reading well is a willingness to follow along with the author’s thoughts, often at the cost of their own. Against Barthes, the generous reader not only takes the author as still alive, but as immortal, one whose intent must always be respected. No other context has value to the generous reader outside of the author’s direct relationship to the work — neither lineages in literary tradition, nor canons. When confronted by a flaw in the text, the generous reader will attempt to correct the seams of the work, while denying herself the seamstress. She always takes the author to be more intelligent than herself, so that even stylistic failures will be attributed to the reader’s ignorance. [There is no admittance of bad writing.]

Focus on the generous reader is not arbitrary, but the result of an initiative in modernist texts that form a dialogical situation of reading. More simply, the initiative is towards aware criticism, jump-starting the Foucault in us all. Its success hinges on an attraction, & subsequent sympathy, to the text. Here are some of the formal devices of a dialogically structured situation of reading:

1. the juxtaposition of divergent points of view
2. the diversity of genres within a work
3. the lack of a narrative ending
4. the disruption of diachronic structures
5. problematising the narrator’s identity
6. positioning the text in genre boundaries relations
7. the surplus of meaning in images & narratives not exhausted by internal commentary
8. exposing the impossibility of absurdity of what is said
9. the disclaiming of authority
10. the questioning of the reader & the appeal to judgement
11. the reflection of existential conflicts in general

(after George Pattison, pp. 238—39)

These techniques in writing have trained modern readers into a negative relationship to life [i.e. a critical relationship]. To become this sort of a reader, one must first develop a distance from the text. Modernity is diasporic in order to be dialogic.

By saying Yes constantly to alien modes of thinking in order to follow the arguments of others, the generous reader finds herself in the terrain of negative philosophy [in conflict at every moment spent outside of the text, for text is her context]. Externality becomes a place for doubt, in the Hermetic sense, because the secrets of life [truths] are not put together, compiled so succinctly as in a work by a tangible author. With God(s), there was a much simpler situation of reading for which even perfectly rational atheists can feel nostalgic. Today, the greater capacity for critical reading is reserved for this external, unauthored text. Academia has inherited this Hermetic method. “In a universe dominated by the logic of similarity (& cosmic sympathy) the interpreter has the right & the duty to suspect that what one believed to be the meaning of a sign is in fact the sign for a further meaning” (Eco Tanner Lectures 164).

Truths evolve just like biological matter. Truths test themselves against one or another actuality, morph appropriately, & sometimes must be terminated as a failed experiment in the evolutionary process. Ordering of the world must be restructured at every new achievement of truth, according to the new requirements. In the public sphere these changes are much less frequent & therefore more abrupt. The language of every text book & museum must be altered each decade or so as society adjusts to new knowledge. As modern history has shown us — most clearly in the cases of Russia &, some years earlier, of Iran — the most recent truths are not always the most “progressive”. As such, progress & the acquisition of truths bear no relation to moral codes.

The generous reader of social constructs is dangerous — ending in one or another type of soldier, carrying & committing the propagated hypocrisy. We may (app)laud the generous reading of authored texts [of history, philosophy, or fiction books] as they aid in the prevention of the dangerous-generous soldier. The reason is that turn to negative philosophy, described in this post, which teaches the generous reader to doubt & critically engage with the actual world. It is difficult, sometimes estranging. But there is no simple code of morality.


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