Reading is the Other Name of Class
What exactly do we do when we read? This question now haunts not only the humanities, which have traditionally been obsessed with textuality, rhetoric and the play of the sign, but, increasingly, the social sciences, cultural critique and even the sciences (for instance in Inscribing Science, ed. Timothy Lenoir, Stanford UP, 1998).
Very broadly speaking—and therefore opening the space for discussion and even controversy—one can say that theories of reading are structured along a binary conflict which is the reproduction of class binaries. The labor theories of reading have always argued that reading is a highly coded practice which mediates class relations through gender, race, sexuality, and nationality. Marx's own writings form the basic theoretical concepts of this theory of reading (Capital, Volume 1, Ch.1) and some of its modern theorists include Lukács and Adorno. Reading for Lukács, for example, is the unpacking of historical intelligibilities of the proletariat (History and Class Consciousness). However loosely associated with such a project, but often opposed to its radical conclusions, are theorists such as the early Roland Barthes, who puts a great deal of emphasis on the matter of codes and signs in reading and reading codes. One can also draw lines of connections between some of the writings of Kant and Hegel, on one level (critique), and the 18th century French materialists (Holbach and Helvetius), on another level (materialism), to this theory of reading. Fredric Jameson is perhaps the most familiar name in this tradition of reading although he seems to deny that his theory of reading has anything to do with class directly.
Opposed to this theory of reading is reading from the heart—the theory that regards any talk of codes and codality to be a mark of insensitivity (if not vulgarity) to feelings and affect. This theory of reading, which is really the mainstream theory of reading, gets its major modernist emphasis from Nietzsche. An emphasis which is reproduced in Heidegger, Derrida, the later Barthes, and Sedgwick, among others, and is also, perhaps somewhat ironically, endorsed by the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics, who regard "experience", "spontaneity", and "originality" to be the dynamics of interpretive vitality. The significance of Nietzsche for this line of theory of reading is that Nietzsche posits experience as "wholly individualized" and "original". Experience, in other words, is the space of irrational and excessive difference (singularity) that is not just incapable of being grasped by concepts but violently reduced by them. "Every concept", Nietzsche writes, "originates through our equating what is unequal. No leaf ever wholly equals another, and the concept 'leaf' is formed through an arbitrary abstraction from these individual differences, through forgetting the distinctions" ("On Truth and Lie in an Extra Moral Sense" 46). Nietzsche, who is responding to the contradictions of industrial capitalism, thus treats conceptual reading as reading based on purely arbitrary constructs without any basis in objectivity or truth—which are for him only deceitful "conventions" that destructively limit experience by "forgetting distinctions". The reading he puts forward instead, and which has been reproduced under numerous other codes (including Bergsonian "vitalism", Derridean "différance", and Sedgwickian "reparative reading"), is a reading grounded in the irreducible difference of the individual: reading as affect and instinct (or "Dionysian" reading).
One of the more recent permutations of this mode of reading is what Michael Warner refers to as "uncritical reading". In his contribution to the recent collection Polemic: Critical or Uncritical, edited by Jane Gallop, Warner argues that the dominant discourses of the profession are thoroughly informed by what he calls "critical reading", which has become institutionalized and thus "normative". For Warner the problem with critical reading is that it is "perversely antagonistic to all the ways our students actually read" (14). Critical reading, Warner suggests in a Nietzchean echo, seeks "to replace the raw and untrained practices of the merely literate with a cultivated and habitual disposition to read by means of another set of practices" (15). Uncritical reading—the discourse valorizing the reading practices "critical reading" has deemed illegitimate—seeks to recover the raw and affirm the familiar. For instance, practices like "identify[ing] with characters", "fall[ing] in love with authors", "warm[ing] with pride over national heritage", and "cultivat[ing] reverence and piety" (13), since these are, according to Warner the "actual" practices of the majority of readers. Warner suggests, in other words, that he has discovered more "authentic" reading practices that are already at work in what he calls "unconscious of the profession".
Despite Warner's claim to newness and authenticity, the "uncritical" is part of a long tradition of Western affective reading. It is the relay through which the social contradictions of capitalism are ideologically resolved at the level of the individual, situated as beyond social constraint, beyond boundaries, and beyond "conventions". Affect, in short, is a code for the private and pre-critical experiences of the individual. Of course, affect does not arise with capitalism; but it takes on a particularly important ideological role with the advent of capitalism. As the market expands and the contradiction between the city and the country deepens, resulting in a growing separation of the sites of production from the spaces of consumption that obscures that the very existence of society depends upon the (now) hidden labor of the producers, knowledges become increasingly necessary that ideologically reconcile the fundamental contradictions of the market. Capitalism has always privileged experiential knowledges like affect, pathos and aesthetics, because, as Teresa Ebert argues, "the logic of experience (local and individualistic) distracts critical inquiry and transformative action away from the system of capital" (Ludic Feminism 20). The mediations of the system of exploitative labor relations become, on these terms, intersubjective relations resolvable at the intersubjective level.
In Chapter One of the first volume of Capital, Marx provides an outline for a labor theory of reading that points to the limits of experiential reading. Marx begins with the concrete form of the commodity—the most familiar yet "mysterious" form of social life in capitalism. But he does not end there, treating the commodity experientially, as an in-itself. He instead traces the roots of this basic social form back to its material conditions. And in doing so he finds that despite the commodity's surface appearance as an autonomous and isolated thing, it is actually the product of deeper lying social relations, namely exploitive relations of production. It is on this basis that Marx arrives at his ground-breaking analysis: "The mysterious character of the commodity-form consists in the fact that the commodity reflects the social characteristics of men's own labour as objective characteristics of the products of labour themselves, as the socio-natural properties of these things" (165). Social relations are thus mistaken as inherent properties of the things themselves.
There are, I believe, two significant implications for the labor theory of reading that follow from Marx's analysis. First, modes of reading anchored within the realm of commodity relations—which is the phenomenal or experiential zone of capitalism—make sense of social products as mysterious and fantastic things, rather than as social and historical relations. To put this differently, the appearance of social products as self-generative and auto-intelligible is the result of an ideological way of reading the world produced by commodity relations which conceals the exploitative relations of production. Not reading the labor that produces commodities, is thus not a "personal" failing or mistake, or misunderstanding. It is a structural effect of specific social relations. Within the framework of commodity relations, reading always renders what is read "mysterious" in the sense of disconnecting it from its material conditions. Second, reading, for Marx, must therefore always move beyond the experiential, the affective—the realm of the sensuous—to the historical conditions in which those experiences are located. Reading, on the basis of Marx's analysis, moves from the inside to the outside of dominant social arrangements. Reading, in other words, is critique, and even more specifically, ideology critique. It takes what appears as given and spontaneous and locates it in relation to its outside. Objective knowledge of the outside of social relations is the condition of transformative, structural change: change, in other words, that does not reproduce the old exploitative relations on newer, and therefore less discernable, terms, but conceptualizes the basis for the eradication of exploitation and oppression.
I realize of course that the dominant interpretation of reading as ideology critique is, as Rita Felski argues, "gloomy" and pessimistic (40). And, in the words of Cristina V. Bruns, reading as critique always "miss[es] something important", which is, according to Bruns, the ways texts "move us" as readers when we approach them "submissively" rather than as "object[s] of [critical] examination" (PMLA 1640). And this is precisely the issue: affective reading is submissive reading in the sense that in situating readers as emotional subjects which are acted upon rather than active, affective reading produces "engaged" but ultimately passive citizens who are much more likely to acquiesce to the powerful.
The "spontaneous" that advocates of uncritical reading valorize is a mode of reading that seems spontaneous and natural only because it naturalizes the ideas necessary to legitimate unequal social relations. It is, in other words, a learned mode of reading whose learning (or non-spontaneity) has been covered over and erased. Warner is thus correct when he says that the reading practices through which fundamentalist religious women become "slaves to God" are not simply unreflective or unskilled but highly disciplined and thus "learned". But what he ignores completely is the historical role of the religious in mystifying unequal economic relations—a role so urgent that religion is emerging everywhere today to attempt to deal with the growing contradictions of global capital.
To put this differently, what uncritical reading obscures is that the religious experience is an experience painstakingly fabricated in religious and cultural terms by the governing social institutions and figureheads and funded by huge corporate donations. The "spontaneous" far from being spontaneous is an ideological effect of capitalism and its institutions. To put it even more crudely, what is "out there" in the everyday consciousness is put "out there". It needs to be critiqued, not valorized as the exemplary site of resistance.
The growing popularity of "uncritical reading" needs to be situated in relation to the heightening of contradictions in transnational capital between the massive productivity of labor and the increasing inability of capitalist society to meet the needs of the world's population. It is part of a broader attempt to erode concepts and conceptual thinking through appeal to the experiential that is getting a makeover in the post-9/11 world in which the global divisions are deepening. For, with the declaration of the end of "theory", it is no longer the poststructuralist emphasis on textuality that matters. It is, as executive editor at Harvard University Press Lindsay Waters argues, "our emotional response" to texts that matters most in contemporary theory; cultural forms should therefore be studied for the ways they "evoke various levels of sensation" on the part of the reader rather than for their class implications ("Literary Aesthetics: The Very Idea"). While poststructuralism and its concepts, such as supplementarity and (the ethics of) "difference", worked to enable neoliberal, "free market" practices and policies, now that capital has had to turn to more overtly violent forms of imperialism (the imperialist wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, for instance), these concepts are no longer useful and are being replaced with concepts that re-assert a binary vision of the world—for instance, between those who have appropriate "affect" and "values" (citizens of "democracies") and those who do not ("terrorists" and terrorist "sympathizers", who include all who dissent). Whether it is what Gerald Graff calls "street smarts" in Clueless in Academe or what Rita Felski refers to as "know-how" in her "Introduction" to the special issue of New Literary History devoted to "Everyday Life", the "new direction" in cultural theory is aimed at dismantling the concepts needed to understand the world as a totality of social relations and at putting forward experiential concepts which, by an even more militant embrace of the self, better meet the needs of capital in an era of dramatically sharpening global divisions. It assumes that, in the words of a recent writer in Utne Reader, what the left needs now is a "more primal" engagement with the social—one which gets people to "momentarily access [their] guts", thereby "transform[ing. . .] embattled individuals, many of them…feeling very alone, into an empowered community" (Schimke, "Calm in the Chaos: Find Inner Peace: Then Take It Outside"). Primal is a code for the re-writing and de-materialization of the collectivity of labor as contingent emotional bonds people from all classes can share in a moment of excessive feeling.
Reading from the heart is fundamentally a class practice, despite its supra-class self-representation. The aim of the uncritical, like the aim of its predecessor speculative "theory" (which likewise has always privileged the excessive, the post-conceptual and the affective), is to dismantle the other theoretical knowledges necessary for understanding the class relations of culture, by undoing, dissolving and dissimulating them, making it impossible for readers to see the structures in which they are located and exploited. It falsely teaches people that they come up with "on their own" the very notions that capital needs to continue its wars for profit. Uncritical reading is a class practice of making ideological sense of the world so as to hide its class roots and brutal consequences.
The labor theory of reading argues instead that reading has a more profound role to play in social life than to provide access to one's "guts" or primal feelings. The cultural "real"—what is represented in cultural studies as the space of affect and personal desire—is determined by the mode of production; by connecting modes of reading to social relations of production, the labor theory of reading therefore helps the reader to understand historically how the real is made real. The labor theory of reading, consequently, enables the reader to grasp how that real can be remade—and more specifically revolutionized rather than reformed from within. Reading thus becomes not the reproduction of passive, isolated agents of affect so desperately needed to crisis-manage capital today, but the activation of interventionists: people who become conscious participants in collectively transforming the social totality of capitalism.
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RED CRITIQUE 11 (Winter/Spring 2006)