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Diacritics 31.2 (2001) 85-97

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Reading's Reason

Iain Morland

[W]e must first of all recognize [. . .] how modes of reasoning that were once necessary can spring out of particular situations and be put to new tasks.

—Michel de Certeau, Culture in the Plural

Reading after Reason?

Reading is unreasonable. If, as Theodor Adorno has contended, to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric, then surely reading—whether of poetry, philosophy, or newsprint—is doubly obscene ["Cultural Criticism" 34]. For Adorno, such barbarism means inattentiveness to barbaric historical truths; it is the misuse of rhetorical reflexivity for the perpetuation, rather than the critique, of social conditions. In other words: to write poetry after Auschwitz is to reproduce, and thereby implicitly condone, a contradictory society within which lyric verse and mass murder are coexistent. By extension, reading—as a pastime within the culture industry—appears to achieve nothing but the expression of such cultural reification. Reading is, as Adorno has written of criticism, "self-satisfied contemplation" in the face of systematized dissatisfaction ["Cultural Criticism" 34]. The Enlightenment had characterized reading as a process of educational reasoning, a dialogue with professional intellectuals about progress and truth. Although this idea carries a rather didactic undertone, as Michel de Certeau has pointed out ["Reading" 166-67], its representation of the book as a mobile repository of thought and criticism seems reasonable enough. Yet, in the face of such barbarism as Auschwitz, the practice of reading appears shamefully futile—a blindfolded refusal of historical truth, rather than an informed response to its implications.

Reading is not alone in its unreasonableness: reason too has become unreasonable, Max Horkheimer has argued in Eclipse of Reason. Consequently, Horkheimer proposes that the "denunciation of what is currently called reason is the greatest service reason can render" [187]. Objective reason, Horkheimer suggests, has been eclipsed by its insipid, subjective counterpart, rationality. Rationality defines what is reasonable as what is useful; it does not seek truth as an end in itself. Reason has thus become merely a mental tool with which one can make effective plans in neocapitalist society. In short, rationality privileges means over ends. This subjective pastiche of reason, like poetry after Auschwitz, dumbly reiterates the status quo through devising ever more efficient procedures by which tasks may be carried out. It does not criticize the objective ends that are actually furthered by such procedures. Similarly, poetry (for example, that of James Fenton) invents ornate and affective representations of modern barbarism without removing the conditions within which barbarism thrives. In this regard, reading is [End Page 85] the negative counterpart of Adorno's "dialectical critic of culture," who "both participate[s] in culture and [does] not participate" ["Cultural Criticism" 33]: reading seems to be uncritical for the same reasons that a cultural commentator is critical.

The valorization of procedure, of means over ends, is why the practice of reading seems complacently to ignore the demands of society and culture. Insofar as rationality considers reasonable only those procedures that have instant, efficient results, reading remains in essence unreasonable. Reading is not a procedure whereby certain tasks may be accomplished—whether ethical demands for political change, or capitalist invitations to unlimited consumerism. Put differently, although reading has consequences, there is no procedural connection between the practice of reading and its consequences. Consider the case of ethical demands: reading may certainly serve as a preparation or grounding for future political activity. However, such preparatory reading is inevitably superseded by the activity that it incites. It is not itself a procedure for political change, but simply part of the means to a political end. This situation is mirrored in the opposite case, that of capitalist enticement: reading interrupts bookselling. A consumer's reading time extends indeterminably beyond the moment of expenditure, unlike their usage of a product with a predetermined life span.

Likewise, when I wrote in the opening paragraph that it "seems reasonable enough" that a book ought to be a repository of thought and criticism, I too have employed reason in merely a rational sense. I have defined the process of reading a book as reasonable only if...


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