Reading From The Outside

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If one considers all speech to be poetic, and all worlds are framed by speech, a reader’s interaction with a text is an apt metaphor for one’s attempt to function and participate in the world.

When regarded from an outside perspective, the act of reading looks like an absolutely useless and monotonous activity. A person will sit for some duration of time, stare at an object, occasionally make a flipping motion with his/her hand, turn from one thin thing to another, and then resume staring at a different side. From the outside, it looks as though there is literally nothing happening; there is no activity other than the occasional hand motion, which does not seem to accomplish much at all. And when the act of reading is finished, there does not seem to be any discernible evidence that any semblance of an activity has occurred. Even Sartre admits that the writer’s activity is useless; “it is not at all useful; it is sometimes harmful for society to become self-conscious”.[1] The writer is useless because his activity is not, by all definitions, productive for a society, and the reader is useless because his activity is not even discernable as an activity.

In reality, the exact opposite is the case. Not only is the act of reading an incredibly active process, one of the most active processes coupled with thought, but it also cannot be objectively defined. The reading of a text can only be defined with regards to the reader, as well as every potential reader. Far from being a solitary event, the act of reading is an incredibly intersubjective experience that can never be the same construction twice. A text is not an object; for a text to be an object, it must exist prior to its construction. But a text does not exist before it is constructed by a reader; it only exists in its ongoing construction, in its becoming. This is why, at least for me, whenever someone asks me what a book is about, I have an incredibly difficult time answering. I can tell you what the book is making me think about, but what the book is about depends entirely on however you read it. The black marks on the page will always be there, but they do not mean anything without a reader who forms a relationship with them and assigns meaning. The only reason these black marks mean anything to us, the only reason we call them words, is because the idea of ‘words’ has been so naturalized in society that it never occurs to us to disassociate them from our own usage. To take a step back and understand something outside our own usage of it creates a perspective that allows us to realize that more than one perspective may be valid. This is how a text gets reconstructed differently by different readers. And not only can the same text be constructed differently by different readers, but the same reader will construct a text differently every time he/she reads it. The text is not defined by the black marks or the different readers, but rather the specific relationship between the two, which encompasses a plurality of definitions, especially those contingent upon time.

Breaking away from objective/subjective and turning towards a framing of the world that relies upon relationships can not only explain the phenomenon of reading, but is an incredibly useful way when attempting to understand the world. There is no ‘you’ and ‘other’ in the world. All that exists and all that you can participate in is the relational activity that occurs between these two things. If you remove the notion of an objective world from your frame of understanding and instead focus on the relations that are happening between you and others, and participate on the basis of your understanding of those relations, a multitude of freedoms are opened up for you.



[1] Sartre, Jean-Paul What is Literature? Trans. Bernard Frechtman. New York City: Philosophical Library, 1949. 71. Print.



Marina Manoukian, Sarah Lawrence College

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