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Reading - in and out of time

Page history last edited by roy williams 6 months, 1 week ago


As part of the Philosophy of Education Reading Group, I have been reading Love's Knowledge, by Martha Nussbaum. 


However …


I have read parts of my grandmother’s diaries, and parts of the social ‘journals’ of the Cape at the time (mid to late 19th century in what is now South Africa).


It’s easy to identify the parts that are racist, etc, etc. No contest.


But it’s almost impossible to know, to appreciate, from this distance, what options, what affordances the authors, whoever they were, (my grandmother’s generation as well as Mark Twain, etc) actually had available to them - in their day-to-day reality - at their breakfast tables, as it were. 


More interesting to me is the question: what was going on around them (pick your author) which steered them in a particular direction? As a writer (of all sorts of things) I am always aware of not only what I write, but who (if anyone) is going to circulate - or allow to be circulated - what I am writing, and what will be the consequences if I ‘publish’ what I write?  


Nussbaum does mention the 'implied author' as the voice of the work as a whole, but I think she puts the ‘implied author’ in a timeless, abstract, world, rather than a world of day to day constraints - particularly the prevailing morality of the day - which is often difficult for any particular author to contradict.


These questions about the 'time' of the writer, and of the reader - for me - delve down into very important issues about different times - first, the time of writing, of publishing, of selling, circulating, of getting sued (or not) - all of which impose important frameworks which support or constrict the actual writer’s day-to-day affordances at the time. Not to mention fame, fortune and what we now call ‘celebrity’, which writers can use to try to create enough protective space around themselves to publish what they want - Salman Rushdie being a ‘celebrated’ example - and in his case, the time of getting murdered, or not, came into the picture too.


Then there is a second, separate, set of questions, about the reader, and their time, time-frame, social milieu - in what time does the reading, and the reader’s engagement with the text, take place? The ‘time of writing’ is fixed, and unforgiving. The time of reading is flexible, uncertain, and fundamentally unknown. 


Who knew in Shakespeare’s time that his plays would still be on bookshelves 400 years later, let alone performed all over the world in so many languages?  If Nussbaum cites D H Lawrence, he would definitely be modernist. But my criticism (here and in the following paragraph) is that she considers the works of all these authors (and even theorists like Aristotle) as if they all exist, somehow, in a singular, socially coherent ‘framework’ which exists in a time which is so abstract that it presents itself as being' timeless’, of no particular time, which is very Leavisite and, for me, also very disrespectful of people’s actual lives - not to mention often disrespectful of many of the realities of people (pick any disadvantages group - class, race, gender, disability, etc) who often appear in works of literature only on the margins, and often in caricature - if at all.  


If I remember correctly from the Leavisite tradition (mid 20th century), ’timelessness’ was not only a key part of the value system of English Literary Criticism, but also a non-negotiable criterion for even being considered to be ‘proper’ literature at all. 


I guess I am, now, even more intolerant of ’timeless’ value systems - because I see them - in the humanities, first and foremost - as being clumsy and even embarrassing attempts to mimic the timeless and universalist value systems of the ‘hard’ sciences, which is then used to justify stripping out context - (in the form of both social ecologies and physical and biological ecologies) - in order to worship, uncritically, at the feet of commoditisation, and lands us straight into the looming 6th mass extinction of our self-inflicted global warming, not to mention global pollution. 


So ... we don't have to remove hindsight from our ‘reading’ of Mark Twain (it would be artificial and weird to do so). But I do think there is an ethical (!) obligation on us to, first, place his writing in his time - cultural, financial, etc etc. Second, to make our understanding of our own time explicit (to ourselves at least). Third, make our own position (on a whole range of factors - race, gender, sexual preference, misogyny, class, and all their subsidiary discriminations - like age, for instance) explicit (again, to ourselves at least). Fourth, to try to make explicit how we relate ourselves and our own times to a particular person’s writing. 


And I have no problem with people celebrating Mark Twain’s story-telling genius, and simultaneously decrying it as an example of paternalistic racism (for instance). 


Which means … that a neat, highly abstract, classically situated, academically argued point of view is what Nussbaum (borrowing from Henry James) could be expected to recognise as “cheap and easy”. But the very complex alternative, which is open to her, particularly at this stage of her career, wouldn’t sell so well - or support her life-style or status. Maybe that’s just my view of the matter. It has been said that Nussbaum had to fight her corner with respect to 'Reading for Life' and to taking an ethical perspective on literary criticism. 


However … because my (perhaps somewhat prejudiced) view of her is as rather elitist, I think that (using my own criteria, above), I would say that: i) she may have been courageous in her views, which were written (precisely) in her time, and in the academic milieu of the day, but … ii) that these views are no longer (in our time) good or courageous enough to stand up to today’s requirements. In short, they are dated, and have dated quicker than she realises.


My criticism is at one level a criticism of her arguments, and at another level a criticism of her stance, her position, as a person. She puts herself forward, she ‘self-identifies’ - (to use that horribly pretentious phrase) as ’reflexive,’ ‘moral’, ‘ethical’ and self-critical, while today (particularly), falling far short of what is required - required because value systems that are built around decontextualisation feed directly into value systems witch are non - or even anti- ecological, and that is, already, both dangerous for the planet, as well as being intellectually irresponsible.  


I know that is a ‘big picture’ argument, but I am no longer tolerant of people who advocate value systems which, albeit very clever and very erudite, ’stand outside’ and even oppose the broader ecological requirements of our current and worsening planetary crisis. 


In short, I no longer recognise the (anti-ecological) style, or form, of her arguments, or the abstracted, timeless content of her arguments as being pertinent to our time. Which is not to say that I don’t recognise that she might have had a large, and even important, role to play in her time.


And her selective references to European-only ‘classicism’ raises another host of issues around ‘framing’, not to mention ’time,’ that Nussbaum seems to blithely ignore. But that’s another story …



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