- Taking Reading Seriously
Peter Kivy is perhaps best known to readers of this journal as author of The Seventh Sense: Francis Hutcheson & Eighteenth-Century British Aesthetics (expanded ed., 2003; 1976), still the only book-length treatment of Hutcheson's aesthetic thought. The Performance of Reading builds upon work Kivy has done since The Seventh Sense in the philosophy of art, and while not strictly an entry in the field of eighteenth-century studies, it nonetheless considers questions about what happens in the mind when one reads—questions that were initially pondered critically by Addison, Baumgarten, Hume, and Reid, among others. The eighteenth century is, in fact, a philosophical halfway house in Kivy's narrative, where the phenomenon of silent reading first becomes a subject for explicit, public consideration.
In pushing us to think harder about what it means to consider silent reading a "performing art" (126), Kivy begins by invoking the "type/token ontology" familiar to students of the philosophy of art (7). In his formulation, Pride and Prejudice, for instance, is the type of which your, my, and Kivy's readings—in all their likely differences from one another—are tokens. The burden of Kivy's book is then to explain how we can regard such token-readings fundamentally as performances. This might seem a commonplace-enough postulation in light of the language of "performativity" still making the rounds in theory circles. But the comparatively limited and mundane definition of "performance" Kivy employs paradoxically ratchets up the theoretical import of his work, lending it special resonance with studies of early modern print culture and the kinds of reading that occurred within it.
Plato's Ion and Republic are the key texts here, for they show us the "rhapsode" in action, reciting the Homeric epics and other works in public (8). Kivy's narrative then moves through the subsequent chirographic and early print cultures in the West, in which, he argues, reading aloud was still the norm. His main evidence for this (drawn largely from Paul Saenger's Space Between Words ) is that until the seventh and eighth centuries in Ireland and England (and much later elsewhere) "there was no separation between words" in manuscripts (16). Once word separation was introduced, silent reading became possible, for with the spaces came the ability to recognize words instantly by sight; before, readers had to discover them phonetically, through oral pronunciation.
Kivy is a philosopher, not a historian, and he is willing to concede that others might quibble with this account of the genesis of silent reading. But scholars of eighteenth-century British literature and culture routinely conceive reading in the period as having been as much a group activity as a private one, often performed aloud in the salon, coffeehouse, and parlor; thus, Kivy's related assertion that "the first aesthetic theories of the fiction-reading experience, which were advanced in the eighteenth century, were really performance theories, suitably modified to accommodate [End Page 655] a silent reading art" (19) should prove less controversial. Addison, Baumgarten, Burke, and Reid, whatever their differences in how they theoretically modeled the reading experience, all construed silent reading "as a kind of inner sense perception" (28). For these thinkers, reading generates images in the mind (Addison influentially postulated that it calls forth theatrical-type performances in the mind's eye). Even Burke, the harshest critic of such Locke-derived "'image' theor[ies]" of language (31), still assigns word-pictures an essential, if secondary, role in the reading experience. To understand reading in this way is, however, not fully to grasp it as performance, for the reader in such an account is not yet the active performer Kivy requires for his theory.
What is remarkable about the Greek rhapsode for Kivy is how his performance involved not just ventriloquizing a poem's myriad voices and accompanying sound effects, but giving a running critical commentary on it as well. This...