Monthly Archives: August 2013

Reading ∈ Meaning ∩ Understanding ∩ Nonengagement

I’d like to quickly elaborate on my terminology. Reading is the act in which a text is put into interaction with a mind—which is to say, a body of symbolic discourse is run through the symbolic discourse of the mind (mind here is used in an explicitly materialist sense, as an emergent property of the brain). As it is put into the mind, it takes its place in that symbolic setting, as such both being shaped by and shaping its surroundings. We can think of meaning and understanding as two poles of this process. The immigrant text, if it is to be interacted with at all (the alternative being to simply look over the text without “taking anything in” as the phrase goes, although of course you are, on an unconscious level, absorbing these symbolic patterns), must either assimilate or create a new space within the pre-existing symbolic structure. I use the term “finding meaning” or “looking for meaning” to refer to the process where a text is approached in a hostile manner, and as such is generally forced to assimilate. An apropos example would be Chomsky’s reading of Lacan, in which he cannot find content because his reading consists of looking for meaning. Lacan’s text, as a resistant text, is not available for this kind of reading. On the other hand, Chomsky reads and writes in a manner heavily available for meaning. This isn’t to denigrate that method of writing—it’s the one I’m employing right now—but it’s to point out that it is one pole of writing and it has serious limitations. The primary limitation is that it caters to the pre-existing structures of the reader’s mind. There is a second pole to the process of reading (which can be thought of as a three-pronged graph with meaning, understanding, and nonengagement or ‘skimming’ each as the opposite of the other two). Understanding is the effort to bring oneself into the text. It is in many ways difficult with texts that offer themselves up for reading, but almost necessary for any engagement (and we can think here of the marital and military readings of that word) with a text that resists reading. We speak in the language of resistance and struggle, but that is only applicable insomuch as we are trying to draw meaning from the text. When we are trying to understand the text, we are open before it as a history textbook is before a middle-schooler. We engage with the text, allowing its terminology and structure to take residence within our own mind.

reading diagram

Obviously these three processes are never excluded (so in our three-pronged graph we can think of the graphline, which represents a value of 0 to the two opposite terms, as asymptotically unapproachable) in that we can never completely ignore a text while reading it, in that we can never derive total meaning without a slight change of our own understanding (and a slight unawareness/skimming), in that we can never imbibe a text without altering it (and a slight unawareness/skimming). Nonetheless, conceptualizing them in this manner helps us to see the modes we perform while reading, and think about how we want to approach and critique a text. Current educational structures privilege reading for meaning, which has led to the notion of reading for understanding as being unnecessary, and the resistant text as being somehow morally at fault. This in turn has led to recriminations and attacks of reading for meaning as simplistic and vulgar. What often dominates, then, is a lack of reading, in which a text is passed over for a few snippets from which can be drawn meaning and for a few ideas which can create understanding. This should also not be denigrated; nonengagement is a form of engagement (absence) with the text, one characterized by the conservation of one’s own mind. In the end, we should simply think about how a text wants us to engage—what primary mode of speaking does it employ? Is it worth this response from us? Or shall we read it against this—for example, I am currently engaged in a project of trying to understand the MPAA’s guidelines for ratings, which were clearly designed for nonengagement/meaning practices. To read Lacan for meaning as Chomsky does is to read against Lacan, which would be an acceptable mode of engagement if only it were acknowledged as such. To read against meaning is to engage with poetic writing, but also it reminds us that the first encounter with mathematics is always poetic, as a Taylor Series is at first a veiled metaphor. I find that for my own endeavors, which are generally poetic, reading for understanding is necessary, but it takes a great deal of time and effort, which are serious considerations. Whichever way, all three are necessary.

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