- Read. Ruminate. Repeat
BY MICHELLE BOULOUS WALKER
London, New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017
I speak the pass-word primeval, I give the sign of democracy, By God! I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on the same terms.—Walt Whitman,Song of Myself, #24
At Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, in 2013, the performance artist Taylor Mac read the quoted passage from Walt Whitman. “That bears repeating,” I recall Mac saying, and, after a short pause, read it again: “By God! I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on the same terms.”
Whitman, read slowly by Mac, brought about a transformation of democracy. It went from voting or speaking or protesting in public to practicing a universality of everyday life that Whitman carefully particularized. Not that all must have the same rights and benefits as I do but, rather, that I will refuse to enjoy or exercise in my way whatever is forbidden to all to enjoy or exercise in ways of their own.
The performance left me pondering Whitman’s words and reflecting on the ruminative reading that made me hear and hold them in my mind. More than recite Whitman, Mac staged an encounter with Whitman’s words that set me—and, I am sure, others in the audience that night—reconsidering what democracy means to me and what it demands of me. [End Page 163]
This is “slow reading,” the unrushed reading and rereading that “encourages us to take our time, to pause, to look up from the page” and trains us to “encounter complexity in . . . meaningful and creative ways” (Walker, 29, 11). Slow reading is “meditative; a careful and concerned practice that patiently connects us both with what we read and with how we live” (30). It is “open-ended” (29). And it “has ethics at its core—ethics here denoting an openness to the other” (29).
Slow reading is the subject and, at its many engaging moments, the practice of Michelle Boulous Walker’s eloquent, thoughtful book, Slow Philosophy: Reading against the Institution. Walker explores various philosophic accounts of this practice as part of a twofold project: first, for the love of wisdom to “retrieve its pre-eminent place in philosophical work,” and, second, for an ethical reading practice to “counter the effects of containment and mastery that the institutional practice of philosophy has become” (2). Her narrative of the love of wisdom (lost with Socrates) may be too Heideggerian and her account of institutionalized philosophy (neurotically driven to grasp and contain the world “through the force of conceptual or logical argument”) a touch caricatured for some readers (58). But this need not diminish the experiential force and intuitive appeal of her guiding premise, that, to do justice to thinking in the current institutional climate of the academy, we scholars need to slow our reading down.
Who among us does not feel that the “superficial skimming techniques developed online” are impairing our capacity to dwell patiently with complex texts that promise a new way of apprehending the apparently familiar (13)? What about the hazards of “professional reading,” the tactics we academics contrive to strike a compromise between fairness and expediency as we make our way through the stacks of files—promotion and tenure, graduate admissions, postdoctoral competitions, scholarly awards—that make an urgent claim on our judgment (33)? Professional reading forecloses “a meandering, an un-hurried reception, a reflection, a rumination, a meditative relation, a patience, a receptive attitude” to leave us “reading so as to produce immediate (and often hasty) judgments” (33). Or, think back to the last time you had a deeply moving encounter with a text only to suffer the peculiarly scholarly alienation that occurs when transformative reading experience meets the discursive joust of the typical graduate seminar. [End Page 164]
Each of the book’s six chapters plumbs a different strategy for resisting “the instituted structure of philosophy’s desire to know” (56). There is “reading essayistically,” a “slow, open-ended rumination that takes its time and returns, time and time again, to the matter at hand,” that is inspired by Theodor Adorno...