Listen to Sara Jane Stoner read “Reading” here
(for S., and with gratitude for Shulie’s Mug)
Like so much we do that relationally buttresses the individual and the collective, reading is an illustration of a quotidian reliance on faith. I’ve been thinking about reading while marking this particular time: of competitive irony. This time in which so much is being made of and at the nexus of nihilism and narcissism.
And in this essay I will (gentle myself enough to) show how these gaps in understanding caused by latent contradictions between subjects are abused to generate power. Just kidding. Not kidding.
A belief (not unrelated to reading, and the assignment of reading, from one person to another): a certain negativity in the self depersonalizes pleasure; and the danger and possibility in this; the risk.
The evolving question of authenticity, in the prevailing weather of the feeling of “rightness” and “wrongness.”
I still hold to the weird promise of the moment in which Kate Bornstein said to me, “Take as long as you can to figure out what you’re doing.” And how the long is still being taken.
How to name the difference in (the function of) desire (now). The complex ways in which the expectation of punishment (so often) accompanies desire.
What this has to do with the coercion in application. How some structures simultaneously and propulsively valorize presence and spatialize neglect.
Context is everything; except for everything beyond the context immediately acknowledged.
I tell them I started teaching in 2002, when I was 23 years old, and that it felt like magic: how effortless the discovery of how dumb I actually was when I was suddenly deemed qualified by an institution to occupy the role of the person supposed to “know” something. How I found myself so ready to simultaneously try to “know” things in an ongoing, processual, embodied, collective way, and be completely lost in what felt like a new art form. Something fundamental in my experiences as a student arrived in my work as a teacher early on: knowing doesn’t necessarily mean communicating something, and communicating something isn’t necessarily teaching. It took me a while to realize that, for many people, teaching means different kinds of being good at what you already know how to do in a room with other people.
A story about the self in textual production, about reading, but more specifically about reading as a teacher. And about how I tried in the way of a shared time, and also am trying in an ongoing theoretical way, to meet the resistance to reading and being read in other people called students with my own resistance to being read, my own resistance to being read (or reading myself) as a person called a teacher. A story about the production of a text–a durational document of experiences of reading, talking, cleaning, cooking, hiking, living, called a “journal”–the conditions for which which also insist on collaboration for the production of and responsiveness to a version of a shared reality. A decisive turning toward: the application of pointed acknowledgment and sustained attention to create the possibility of something—something that no amount of thought or study or conversation should ever allow me to fully determine.
Simone Weil writes: “Attention is bound up with desire. Not with the will but with desire—or more exactly, consent.”1
Two sentences from Gravity and Grace that name so succinctly (in a nearly mind-stopping way) a crux that feels very present—what seems at stake in claims to attention, even those simply made by a text. Desire and consent are brought together here to clarify attention’s significance to the terms of a being’s presence. A question, maybe, of inseparable quality and quantity: how much of what moves you (what is you) is with you in the experiencing of a thing, sensing, with feeling (con/sent) and feeling with the thing, through your attention?
Approaching experiences of attention with questions of life and legacy and influence and discipline and liberation: in your memory and in your lived experience, how do texts treat your desires? And how do spaces that expect your attention behave toward your desires? (I ask this as a person who teaches in institutional contexts with work requirements for credit based courses that often feel out of step with what students can or want to do.)
What conditions the possibility of, the potential risk or beauty of, the disappearance of your “I” into the full “unmixed attention” that Weil equates with prayer? How does this attention free up an energy in you? To follow her any further here would mean, among other things, pursuing the subject of the soul. And I am still learning how to ready myself for the subject of the soul. I am still learning to tolerate forms of loving attention which I know I deeply desire.
In one version, I hear a report from the present moment, and detach myself in honor of some larger or smaller wish. In another, I suspend myself in non-judgment, a kind of tentative curiosity. A rumor: in the early third of an experiential learning program I teach in, the word “surveillance” is moving between bodies, being used to describe the eventual reading of the writing done by people called students by people called teachers. I have been told of the source, but haven’t met them yet, given the slow build to being together required in this pandemic year (2021). This word, “surveillance,” drifts around like auburn smoke through the woods, like there’s a war on somewhere (which of course there is); puts me in mind of the mode of these internal wars conflagrated and leveraged by the present. What arises from the rolling harm of distanced objectives, forms of control founded on the denial of experience; from neglected wounds; from the creep of inflation into the proposal of speech or event, the words, the (wasted) aura of experience; from vulnerability to the quick sell of intensity, of image, of division. The general sense of alarm.
I know a few of the reasons why I have a tendency not to dismiss things that I hear—my tendency to try to mind all the business, as in when I hear people say, “mind your own business” I take my business to mean (my experience of) the world. Teaching in this program for a number of years has taught me about the real and actual sensitivity of its culture. So when I heard this word “surveillance” being used by a range of people with this shy sense of imminent injury and subdued complaint, I marked it and knew it would go on. The fear of being read, of being controlled by the expectation of being read, spread. What is the difference between “surveillance” and the kinds of attention one might anticipate receiving or even desire from a teacher?
I am only one reader (writer?) reflecting on teaching within different kinds of learning environments, some “experiential,” some more conventionally “institutional,” which I can only ever share with you as a partially recalled and fragmentary text. In addition to that which we might share, I bring my own pressures to bear on this representation. Back to the difficulty of writing about teaching, where it’s always high time to ask oneself: what kind of reader am I? what kinds of reading do I consciously perform as a teacher? what adjustments does my reading make? what kinds of adjustments does my reading make for individual students and their writing? All these questions being other ways of asking myself who or what am I when I read, who or what do I value in language, and how do I bring myself with intention to a text?
Once upon a time in a certain institution (after years of meaningful work that directly depended upon my willingness to perform extensive emotional labor) I was told by my long-time boss and mentor that I “should try to be less vulnerable.” These were the last words spoken between us.
Once upon a time, I had a lover who, after hearing me tell stories about my family of origin, asked me (in a declamatory tone) “but what do you do with all of your rage?”
I share these broken parables without being able to tell fully what they mean, or what they’re doing here in this essay, except to say that I value vulnerability and I am learning to value anger. And I do not think I am alone in lately experiencing new degrees of both. Some of the evidence of this is obvious, and some of it is terrifying. And when I find myself facing or tasked with facilitating a gathering of people I often find myself asking the question (quietly, and to myself): What do we do with all our vulnerability, and all our rage, when we’re together?
Soul is the place,
stretched like a surface of millstone grit between body and mind,
where such necessity grinds itself out
—Anne Carson, “The Glass Essay”
A big class gathers on the lawn to discuss excerpts I’ve chosen from Anne Dufourmantelle’s In Praise of Risk, a book which Lara Mimosa Montes pointedly recommended to me, and which I’ve felt enter my thinking in an irrevocable way. In the casual conversation that betters any start, I find that the people gathered reflect different kinds of excitement about the reading and a surprisingly energetic fatigue with how the fear of risk has overdetermined our relationship to our own lives. Someone says, “mind blown.” I had another idea for an opening written down in my notebook, but instead propose that we write for a while about a single sentence where we found our “mind was blown,” and then read aloud our sentences and what each of us wrote. Going around the circle while the sun makes slow moving pieces of itself between the leaves; feeling the adventure in the risk of emphasis and speech as co-incidences emerge between our selves and our lives, each other.
In the chapter “Life—Mine, Yours,” Dufourmantelle describes life as “what binds each of us to one another, and to risk.” “Like any crushing experience,” she writes, life doesn’t belong to a single person, even as that person alone has lived it and been “transformed by it.” My turn, I read the sentence I chose from the text aloud:
We are transformed enough that, after the fact, in the future anterior, we can judge that life will have been risked up to that point, perhaps, in us; that this hospitality, like that of madness, or amorous delirium, was a violence that we ended up surviving, for good or for ill, and returned from; that it will have been life that thus risked us—against death and with it, against attachments, loyalties, defenses, families, shame, and the burial of all memory; because at this very instant we have been passeurs, most often unconsciously—that is, in an incandescence, a sadness, a dependence, a revolt, an imagination, a love, or a silence that remains unknown to us and yet found asylum within us.
In my notebook: to propose that embodiment is a form of hospitality, that being alive involves a duty to life as a stranger. In the transformation [wrought by life’s experience] a recognition of our role as passeurs—as passers, smugglers, ferrymen, couriers. All this fugitivity going on under the good show demanded by social capital, capital, and institutions. Who wants to talk about feeling like smugglers of life? In a world of constant sensorial and proprioceptive bribes to commodification and consumption, constant fears of life’s theft?
A breeze has picked up, shearing the sun’s spring warm with cool air off the lake and tossing the light on the grass. As we continue around the circle, sentences repeat; we negotiate new understandings of the nature of our excitement in our sentences as we parse the qualities and meanings of the sentences themselves. I track concepts we debate and/or seek to define together on a big piece of paper. We read our sentences aloud once again and feel the difference created by what our work together has done. We write some more. I imagine many unpredictable versions of the subject of risk (and their attachments and associations and narratives and desires) welling up and spilling out into disparate and shared sources and spaces of responsiveness, action in time.
Questions and assumptions of readerly “skill.” Questions which we scarcely have the time to encounter in ourselves, and which the urgency of labor, survival, and politics charge, complicate, distribute. How I might read with what inclusive or exclusive company, what patience, what speed, what need, what affiliation, what sorting impulse (judgment), what sense of the text as “tentative holding” or “escape room,” a game to get out of, together or alone.
I’d like to take this opportunity to say a few things about myself as a reader, different postures and affects of reading that may arise within in a week, sometimes a day. This makes it sound like a confession, or maybe like I’m acknowledging something analogical to the assumed risk of dullness or irrelevance in telling you about my dreams. Here goes:
I hold on to the presence and procession or gathering of words with something like a desperation, as elements of self, oriented by my senses and their history of my body across many times, pull away with different varieties of force, different vectors.
I am completely convinced by absolutely everything I read, and ready to fully commit myself.
I cannot read at all, unless it is absolutely necessary to making a certain gear turn or window close.
I read and I am chill, low key, even dismissive. Cool.
I withhold the submission involved in granting any credence to anything I read.
I am so fully aroused by everything I read, I can scarcely read another word.
As I read, I withhold myself, and someone deep inside of me knows what I think, but I have no idea.
I slide off the page, the paper, the screen into the deadest boredom.
I give my whole being, mind and body and something like soul, to registering the details and following the unfolding of whatever the text is with a tremendous urgency, as though everything is at stake.
I also know: I was raised without discipline, except for the exacting emotional needs of my several parents. I had to self-regulate. When I was left alone I was alone on a tiny island of self-regulation and busied myself with the chaotic details of prior experience. A child, I lacked many of the tools and so much of the contextual knowledge to have a self which I nonetheless managed to fake possession of in conversations with adults that lasted minutes but which felt like centuries. I went to books with a deep desperation for a different kind of relational experience, but it’s taken me years to distinguish the demands of books from the demands of those people delivering (what psychoanalyst Jean Laplanche calls “the overwhelm” of) the “primary address,” the namings and prerogatives which positioned me and taught me to objectify myself in relation. Going to books became the “second occurrence” that slayed me with feeling, the experience I survived, and practiced surviving.
Diving (against the practical rule against) headfirst off the dock (surrounded by a graded tumble of submerged granite, buffer for rough waters of the easterly weather) your left shoulder (pieces of you prone to dislocation, pieces of you like the pieces of those who came before you, parents and siblings, prone to dislocation) your left shoulder jars at the suddenness of contact (but was it the water or the nearest edge of one of those rocks but so shallowly you dove) and your arm comes loose from its socket (a center of movement of a certain confidence in capacity becomes a center of pain) and the sound of this event clears your mouth without a thought.
Somehow back on the dock (did you swim or were you pulled out by your friends) lying on your back and crying (as a continuous fact, clarifying in its force) your shoulder (a hot color from the icy water or from the graze) is slowly slowly returned to the right location (how slowly it finds its way back) by a person with knowledge about what to do (fresh knowledge, recently acquired) they share as an expression of practice in collaboration with you (what do you feel now and how about now keep breathing you’re doing great there it is there it goes) by a person (with fresh knowledge) called a student.
Lately, the work of teaching (for me) has felt more involved in discovering ways to help people return to the process of learning how to read. When I’m reading something in preparation to teach (particularly when it’s something I’ve taught before), I print out a fresh copy of the (years-old) scan, and I read slowly, so slowly, like I’ve never read it before. I annotate heavily with reactions, senses of relationships to prior discussions, with definitions of words (I think I know); compile lists of key words and concepts with theoretical or historical significance, organize them thematically or in terms of possible interest, cross list them with quotes that span the text. I make a short outline of contexts and connections and biography that I might project or hand out. I write down questions that come out of nowhere and come directly from the text that will often be adapted to be written on the board. I map out directions that responses to these questions might take. I think and imagine myself into hovering between them. I make a plan that builds in reading practices that help me make the plan, practices we’ll experiment with together. On approach, nervous every time, I firmly remind myself that we will do maybe a third of what I’ve planned, but that time for unexpected depth and digression might lead us to the reasons for the doing of the reading itself. My plans dream of everyone’s involvement.
Just like reading, something called teaching is going on all of the time. And I don’t think I need to tell you that teaching is hard. People talk to me about how hard teaching is all of the time. So many qualifiers and conditions feel so necessary to name at the threshold of teaching—but maybe the most meaningful to me is this certain self-estrangement that can come with forms of learning which insist on co-presence as fundamental, that sometimes terrifying magic that comes with recognizing that ideas and experiences can be shared, but not without the gift-problem of profound distance and difference, even when trust evolves and proximity is desired, beyond required.
In the context of teaching, your questions are there, ready and waiting for you to reveal your attachments. In teaching it is made more plain that sharing a subject can only be accomplished gradually and partially, and that how you relationally or pedagogically research the shape of a subject as it manifests in and for members of your class can make the difference between believing that what you want to be happening is happening, and sensing what might actually be happening—and this takes a lot of time. Being a “good” teacher depends upon particular conditions, but I think it’s impossible not to be a “bad” teacher. How apparatus, policy, and contract play a role in the disciplinary imaginary of this distinction. How the incentives to hedge your investment in and dependence on or even love for this work seem to multiply with the onset of each semester, at every level, from the institutional to the personal. The position of (most) teachers is profoundly vulnerable, which raises one’s own risk of violence, inward, outward, given, and received. What I want to know is: what are the practices that resist or refuse the fortification of the neoliberal self? What can the spaces of reading and writing between us really do?
Sometimes the surface of the activity of teaching responsively and relationally shadows and shimmers with the difference between thinking and acting etiologically (on the bases of causes) and thinking and acting teleologically (on the bases of purposes). Particularly considering how we’re talking and writing about something: what made that happen?—linking cause and effect, producing an emphasis on the power of the past to determine the future…vs. what’s the reason for doing that?—suggesting intention, the question of purpose. Then another different question: what do our (class / self) practices show and what needs do they address? If it can be acknowledged, in a moment of effort to self-recognize one’s orientation in relation to the shared object of the text, difference erupts (between the self and the self, between self and other selves), and then, I think, something can happen. How reading together might be that moment of effort.
Teaching in the cabin called Library, the dusty morning air is a mix of bright and dim between the shelved sections, the windows, and the motley lamps. My body hews to its own structure in a kind of gentle clench against the old sofa’s broken oversoftness, feeling the room. We are reading in the anthology called Black Nature, poems by Lucille Clifton, Patricia Spears Jones, Carl Phillips, Yusef Komunyakaa. I had a loose plan focused on the questions of the poems, how the disasters of the poems make the questions appear, how they do or do not answer: “why / is there under that poem always / an other poem?” (Clifton) “When will we learn / to move like trees move?” (Komunyakaa) “How many pills? / Can we afford this?” (Spears Jones) “Where had I been, for / what felt like forever?” (Phillips) We read the poems out loud over and over. Speaking and listening intermittently, collectively, in acknowledgment of the poems, gathering their senses, marking the places where our feelings and understandings and the poems touch. I felt held by a weird trance writing and talking through and between these poems, like the poems were talking to each other through our responses to them. I believe we felt their presentness. Though some practices like rhythms emerged (familiar but shifting) I couldn’t tell you where or at what we arrived with enough clarity to consolidate (or fetishize) this work into an “idea.” It was an unrepeatable class, with moves wholly dependent on the minds of the people involved. In my notebook—evidence of my loose plan, my notes tracking the conversation, my own somewhat spare and ambiently distracted freewriting—scant evidence of what actually happened.
A version. After they told me the story of the hour of writing that followed our class, I said, “I’m so glad that what happened made you want to write. And I’m excited to read what you wrote.” And they gave a short grindy laugh and said, “Don’t say that.” And I said, “But it’s true. I am excited that at some point I’ll get to read what you wrote.” And then they said, “Yeah, but don’t say that.” And I said to myself inside, as the adrenaline rose, Do you really want to tell me what I can and cannot say?
To the person outside I said, “I will continue to insist that I am allowed to say I’m excited because it is a fact in my body right now. But I hear that you are uncomfortable with the idea of what you wrote being read. Would you like to meet and read what you wrote aloud to me?”
Another version. I was walking to the middle dock to find K., a student with whom I’d experienced a pattern of close conversation since very early in the program. In the first few days, K. had recognized that the challenges she was experiencing in this place were balanced in part by the possibility of an individual and a general willingness to be personal with each other, as in finding ways to share ourselves, as particular persons, with each other. She was already deep in preparation to teach a class on Anne Carson’s “Glass Essay,” which she’d read before. As her mentor, I was tasked with supporting her creation of a plan and attending the class as a student. There was pleasure in my body moving through this afternoon window past the last class of the day, when thanks to the staff and students making dinner for us all that week, I could rest or in this case do another form of interstitial work that seemed (though planned that morning) more spontaneous, less about structure and more explicitly about need and relationship.
K. was there with S., sitting on the bench built into the verge of the dock’s walkway on the shoreline. It was a beautiful, clear, early June day in New Hampshire, and you could feel the late afternoon tipping just slightly toward evening in the barely urgent splashes of the bodies leaping into the lake behind me, rose seeping into everything by the tint of the lowering sun. We all half-smiled and squinted at each other, K., S., and I, in the gently sly and curious and conspiratorial way that I associate with this place, this work; a way that communicates some comfort in the shared knowledge of what we’re all up to together and some camaraderie around the many mysteries that are nonetheless sustained.
As K. rose to join me on the walk to my cabin a little further down the shore, S. began to speak about how after our last class on Black Nature, which I’d taught that day during the morning session, they had stayed in the Library, talking with other people from the class who hadn’t had to rush off to prepare the communal lunch, carrying on the conversation until this gave way to writing. They said they wrote for almost an hour continuously, returning to the poems and thoughts which had only partially emerged in class, which in turn gave way to thoughts that had not come out at all. Lowering their eyes and nodding their head at a low point nearer to their shoulders, S. said, “It was a good class.”
A version inside a version (a kind of fantasy), I say: “Thank you, S. That means a lot to me.”
In another version, the one that happened, as K. and I began moving down the dock, I said, “I’m so glad that what happened in class made you want to write. And I’m excited to read what you wrote.” I want to say that what I said in response was both casual and pointed, spontaneous and planned, and though I had a feeling that it would initiate a conflict, I also completely meant it.
S. responded with the words, “Don’t say that.” At this, I stopped. I remember tilting my head up to the sky for a minute, and turning my body so that it was facing the lake, with K. to my right, and S. to my left. I know I was trying to feel the largeness of everything. I turned toward them and replied, “But it’s true. I am excited that at some point, I will get to read what you wrote.” And they quickly replied, “Yeah,” stretching out the word until its timbre was thin and descending in pitch, “but don’t say that.”
“Reasons course through me that I cannot fully recuperate, that remain enigmatic, that abide with me as my own familiar alterity, my own private, or not so private, opacity. I speak as an ‘I,’ but do not make the mistake of thinking that I know precisely all that I am doing when I speak in that way. I find that my very formation implicates the other in me, that my own foreignness to myself is, paradoxically, the source of my ethical connection with others.”
—Judith Butler, “Responsibility” in Giving an Account of Oneself
When I say something, and you say “don’t say that,” it does not magically undo the saying, but it illustrates a hostile condition for what has been said that does something strange with time. It is a moment of a certain kind of honesty—a moment which cannot help but interpellate me, as a “you,” embedded in layers of identity, institutions, relationships, time, in an imperative which follows my own moment of honesty, in which I extend an affirmative anticipatory feeling toward that person who is not me which nonetheless does nothing to undo or make clear our differences or similarities or relationship in what remains an institutional context. What I fantasize about now (and in some ways forever) is that I could have slowed down and found the “right” way to ask the question: “what do you mean?” or “what makes you want to speak those words to me?” Questions which could have easily been asked of me, after I expressed my interest in S.’s writing. After a conversation with S. months later, recalling this moment, they point to my assumption of eventual access (the “get to read”) as a pulling of institutional rank, and I turn over my basic desire to read, then try to name my belief in the unpredictable thing, encountering thoughts on texts we briefly shared in class, wanting to learn from them.
The fact remains that when I offered to meet with S. so that they could read me what they wrote, they said yes. The next day as we passed each other heading out of the Dining Hall, we pounced on the open time and moved quite immediately to the Library cabin’s porch. I took notes as they read, and afterward gave them my best sense of what I noticed in what I had heard. I found in this writing an early suggestion of rhythm that moved between description and response, touching off different flashes of critical and spiritual reframing. The voice of the writing was strong, with its particular interests. The writing felt close to the possibility of working through what complexity might arise when its parts are thought together, with a little more freedom to speculate. I wondered aloud about what kinds of permission we might find to help ourselves and each other be notational on the page and in person. To be (or read or write) together in an observational mode, marked and marking, creating a record but also an iterative willingness for that kind of draftiness or recursivity that feels like a need.
And then I took the risk of sharing with S. what I felt when they said “don’t say that”: a hot terror that exceeded the basis of its adrenaline. That for me to be told that I cannot say something strikes quite precisely at the location of a deep, weird wound that exists very near to the place where my own language comes from. (I’ve thought a lot about how my looking forward to reading S.’s writing landed near another kind of wound.) They apologized, and I accepted this apology, while also trying to take responsibility for the history of my own feeling. And I told them that I too struggle to be read. I told them I too prefer to have my body present with my own writing when it’s received, to read it aloud. (At worst: to defend; at best: to say and hear more with my whole body.) We made our way to shaking hands over this commonality. At first I wrote that this felt like a “truce,” but when I read this essay aloud to S. we agreed: something more like a leveling.
Together and alone.2 The fantasy of reading as neutral practice. Reading synonymous with evaluation. And reading with an inescapable power differential. Reading as struggle. The erotics of reading. Reading as a dislocation that locates.
What if I said that when I read as a teacher: I want to be a medium for something else, desperately average, but definitely not neutral. I want to help create a negative space into which things can come, like a container, but so porous, more animal. (I believe a part of me will always strongly identify with that which knows the least, the near wordless, the pre- or dis-identified. The part which knows best how to notice as much as it can. The part eager to sound it out, to s/wallow or wade or parse or open to the sound transitioning to sound.) Unpredictable emphases arise in my body, but as much as they might be evidence of my reading and teaching self in motion, I also attribute them to the what which stimulates in the present around me: the people, the room, the structure, the meadow, the labor, the spiral, the discourse, the day, so much of which cannot be measured. A posture that moves through certain ideas, certain values, but without aspirations to mastery, uncomfortable with authority. In the dirt, with a stick. Pursuing thingness, imagining calling up a search party for the thingness of the thing, imagining calling you up to join me.
1 “L’attention est liée au désir. Non pas à la volonté, mais au désir. Ou plus exactement, au consentement.”
2 “Chaque être crie en silence pour être lu autrement.” / “Every being cries out silently to be read differently.” Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace.