Politics and Reading
An immense and fascinating field of problems comes together under the phrase "politics and reading." There are questions concerning the role of the written word in political discourse, its strengths and deficiencies as compared with spoken words and images, and the nature of the link between power and literacy. All are themes worthy of reflection, and all emerge at various places in the present collection of fragments. Yet one can also trace two less direct, perhaps more subtle approaches to the relation between politics and reading running through these texts. First, how does reading relate us to the world, and what are the ramifications of these relations for our collective action? Second, in what sense is the act of reading itself political-in what sense is there a politics of reading? These questions guide my interpretation of the selections gathered together in this edition of Ballicatter. Having taken only one of the possible approaches to the texts, my remarks will of course leave much unexplored and unthought.
Reading as Concealing and Revealing
One of the issues explored in "Cruces" is what happens when the written word and its referent become unhinged. The reader who approaches the poem expecting words to point to images or concepts in a smooth progression leaves baffled and frustrated. Demonstratives are left to dangle at every turn, and one sentence fragment follows the next. A trip to the dictionary provides some help with deciphering: "cruces" is the plural of "crux," a word which, in addition to meaning what is most important in a matter, also refers to a "puzzling or seemingly insoluble problem." (From the Latin crux, meaning cross, torture, trouble.) Refusing directly to point to its own crux, teasing the reader with mentions of the crux of the subject matter under discussion (some other poem? itself? both?), "Cruces" is itself a crux. Here the connection between language and crux is stretched and severed, both by distancing language from what it refers to and by disrupting its habitual, discursive flow.
A consequence of the separation of word and crux revealed by the poem is a loss of identity on the part of the reader. With no world on the other side of the play of words, the anonymous "narrator" has the puzzling ability to "distinguish between my thoughts and those of the narrator." As a text cloaks the world instead of revealing it, consciousness loses its intentional grip on the world and with it its sense of otherness. The anonymous narrator now becomes an ominous one, a force able to shape my thoughts and my sense of self for me. Advertising comes to mind in this regard, with its erection of a hazy barrier of images (Plato's eikasia) between consciousness and the real as a key strategy of manipulation.
Reading's capacity to take us the other way-back towards contact with the real and towards a more defined sense of self-is explored in "Ladde." The aspect of reality made thematic here is the past. The written word, with the relative permanence and solemnity of Aiden's big black reading glasses, promises to resist the passage of time and with it the fleetingness of the idle chatter of the crowd. Whether or not words fulfill this promise in "Ladde" is not clear: one could read the family history recounted there either as a report of what research has uncovered or as a speculative account of what might have been. Whatever the case, the poem closes with a haunting depiction of how the past makes itself felt in the present regardless of whether or not it has been properly documented. Perhaps this observation can be broadened into an optimistic one concerning the relation between word and fact in general: in spite of the misuse of language to obscure, manipulate and distort, things still have a stubborn tendency to break through.
Indeed, when clearly seen, the world in its particularity shines through with an intensity that words, with their inherent generality, cannot capture. Both "Cruces" and "Ladde" close by pointing to the inadequacy of words to fully capture their referents. In the last stanza of "Cruces," a person, "Sue," suddenly materializes from the fog of broken abstraction; the strangeness of her presence is evoked wonderfully. At the end of "Ladde," the poet turns away from his words, nauseated by the prospect that they point at nothing, and is confronted with the stark presence of a jacket and nail sedimented with history. Both poems manifest how reading by turn conceals and reveals the world we shape and the selves who shape it, as well as the necessity of silence.
With the revelation of the world through the written word comes intellectual satisfaction. The mere mention in "Cruces" of "recognition" and the thought that the two scenes of recognition mentioned there might be found in the poem itself momentarily dispel the stifling fog of incomprehension. But there is always the danger that revelation is only apparent, making the world even more difficult to uncover. "Ate It Anyway" illustrates this pernicious tendency of the written word by contrasting the dry, "factual" language of statistics with the human reality it masks. The language of quantity, so often taken as the prime indicator of our progress, discloses a world that is neat, tidy and mathematically manageable. The human lives muted by the numbers remain buried throughout each new attempt to rely on economic discourse to reveal reality. Special effort is required to see past the world as quantified and to uncover the genuine world that calls for action. Because reading conceals even as it reveals, calls for vigilance like the one made in "Ate It Anyway" are always necessary.
Reading and Possibility
Whereas "Cruces," "Ladde" and "Ate It Anyway" can be read as treatments of reading's power to conceal or reveal the actual world, "America in a state of panic, he says" testifies to the need for language to articulate the possible. The "I" who speaks in the poem does not find itself at home in our present actuality of deception, fear and impersonality. But it can only vaguely gesture at the world in which it would realize its deepest potential-this world is described negatively, as the "other-world." Yet some general hints are provided regarding the nature of this other-world: at the very least we can say that it is a world in which leaders feel bound to speak the truth and in which desire is not the sole arbiter of the good.
Beyond these intimations of the possible the "I" fails again and again to reach. Indignant yet acquiescent, it stifles itself in a "passive-aggressive storm." The anger that rises as it takes in its newscasts cannot quite overcome the lethargy that keeps it on the sofa. The hope that springs up when it gazes back into history is promptly swallowed by its habitual apathy. Every impulse to overcome its suffocating actuality falls short-again and again the cursor retreats to a blank screen. In the poem there emerges a portrait of one of the despairing selves described by Kierkegaard, the self that lacks possibility. To be in such a state means "either that everything has become necessary for a person or that everything has become trivial."1
Do reading and writing offer any hope of salvation from this crippling situation? The power of the written word to lift us beyond the here and now is hinted at in "Cruces," where a poem grants "the fleeting sense that it might be possible to escape" constricting political and literary notions. But the need expressed in "America…" is more profound: what is called for here is a complete moral transformation. While reading and writing is the primary medium for articulating the possible and thereby providing direction for our sense of discontent, the actual impetus to follow through on our visions must come from elsewhere. "America…" points both to the need for the "other-world" to be articulated and read about, and to the inevitable moral remainder that persists after this task is performed. (After learning about the injustice that goes into a basket of strawberries, the crucial question remains: to "eat it anyway"?)
The Politics of Reading
Reading, in its capacity to reveal and conceal actual and possible worlds, does not function as a purely apolitical prelude to political action. The process of reading and writing is itself shot through with political currents, both in the sense that choosing what to read or write impacts the sorts of choices we make, and in the sense that power dynamics are at work within this process itself. The first sense of the politics of reading is made thematic in "From Grade One to Twelve." The poem is an outcry against abuses of education such as the distortion of history, the suppression of critical thinking, the economic segregation of the school system and corruption, abuses carried out with the aim of maintaining an unjust social order. Taken straightforwardly as a report on the condition of Canadian education systems, the poem fails on account of excessive generality-while we can all identify to some extent with the sentiments expressed in the poem, surely our education does not fail us as horribly as the poem suggests? I think the poem succeeds better if it is read as a stark enumeration of the potential for education-embedded as it must be within a political order-to fall victim to the desire for power.
The second sense of the politics of reading comes up in "Cruces," where the relationship between readers and writers emerges as a theme. In giving my attention to a text, I open my mind to the thoughts of another and allow the sequence of my thoughts to be shaped by what she has written. In so doing, I expose myself to the risk that the writer writes not to reveal through an appeal to my intelligence, but to manipulate through subversive rhetorical appeals to my emotions or even through ironic jabs at my ignorance. Propaganda exemplifies the former sort of abuse of language, degenerate forms of literature the latter. Sophisticated writers can exercise their talent to engage in literary games: obscure references are left for other members of the literary elite to pick up on, and readers, who "should see that they have it coming to them," are deliberately misled for the sake of ironic amusement. In such a situation, reading and writing becomes a self-contained arena for petty politics, and the potential of literature to help to transform the world fails to actualize. In both senses of the term, the politics of reading results in negative relations between politics and reading. The power of reading to change the world constantly risks being neutralized by the power dynamics of the world we wish to change.
- 1Soren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death; trans. Hong and Hong (Princeton University Press, 1980), p. 40.