[-empyre-] Objecthood and Ephemerality

davin heckman davinheckman at gmail.com
Fri Apr 17 02:00:07 EST 2009

What a great discussion, Joe.  Particularly the distinctions that you
draw between "reading" and "perceiving."

Not to sound too curmudgeonly, but there is a tendency to romanticize
"perception" as superior to "reading," which stretches back into
literary "romanticism," but which has enjoyed a second coming in the
age of postmodernism.  Because people do not have time (take time, or
make time) for serious cognitive work of reading, there is a tendency
to exalt the alternative mode of interpretation, perception.

I encounter this routinely in my literature classes.  Students whip
through a poem or novel or website, and then write papers about the
text, that are really "about" the text, rather than being about the
text.  Rather than a deep response, you get an impulsive response, a
string of associated impressions roughly based on things that happened
in the book, but never a thorough interrogation of what actually
happened and how it happened.  And though these types of readings tend
to be stitched to everyday experience in some compelling ways, the
sort of deep, conflicted, and challenging readings that one hopes
students might produce in a literature class tend to be rare.

I don't know if this is simply an expression of postmodern
sensibilities or if it is learned through everyday communication
practices or if it is something that is structured by late capitalism
or if it is simply a blossoming of historical ideas.  Most likely it
is a combination of these things that work to shift literacy from
"reading" to "perceiving," from "philosophizing" to "responding."

I was re-reading PB Shelley's Defence of Poetry, and it occurred to me
that the Romantics seemed to benefit from "herd immunity" such that
they could produce powerful critiques of rational society, while not
having to live in a society without rationality.

Here, I think Stiegler might be help.  Whereas the standard posthuman
critiques seem to veer dangerously close to a simple embrace of the
romantic tendency, Stiegler suggests that human subjectivity relies
upon perception that is subject to reflection.


On Thu, Apr 16, 2009 at 10:07 AM, joseph tabbi <jtabbi at gmail.com> wrote:
> Thank you, Michael, for the (again) generous responses. Your
> comments/qualifications on collectibility got me thinking.
> On further thought, after claiming that e-lit is nesting with the
> arts, rather than with traditional literary institutions, I have been
> thinking more about how e-lit also distinguishes itself from the arts.
> Because, yes, my friends those several years ago who 'framed' their
> texts recognized that entry in the art world demanded that they
> deliver an 'object,' something you could hang on a wall or present
> through an inteface. Something that could be collected, and circulated
> through networks. That then makes the work commodifiable in so many
> ways, and these days concepts circulate comfortably with commodities.
> Though what actually circulates (verbally) are labels, tags, and
> keywords that can be grasped during the overall period of 'viewing.'
> Once one actually attends to developed concepts, arguments, phrases,
> motifs, narrative developments, or the materiality of written/spoken
> language, then one has stepped out of the system of circulation. The
> time of reading is so much different than the time of viewing. Not
> necessarily slower (a disciplined viewer knows how to pace herself,
> how to take in visual meaning over time, and also 'all over' the space
> of a visual composition).
> Not slower necessarily, and certainly not inferior or superior. But different.
> One way I have tried to describe that difference, is through the
> distinction (in Systems Theory and also in cognitive discourse)
> between perception and communication. Viewing obviously takes place
> during the (relatively instantaneous) time of perception, discussion
> during the time of communication, and reading - that occurs somewhere
> else or in between, when perception and communication are reduced to
> distractions. But these realms aren't separable. We are always
> perceiving, even when we are sitting alone quietly in a room reading.
> Our own thoughts are still occurring (though muted, and unattended)
> even while we are reading the recorded thoughts of an author. That is,
> our thought-track is unattended so long as we're caught up in a
> written narrative. The moment we stop to notice something we've
> perceived  (a noise in a room) or something communicated to us (a
> reminder from the person living with us that we need to be somewhere
> else, not here reading) - at this moment we return to the time of
> living perception or active communication.
> The use of a 'collectible' is that, yes, it confers value on the past
> (by retrieving an object that would otherwise be lost to perception or
> communication, in the general entropy of existence). Very
> occasionally, collected objects are available for continued
> contemplation, and continued communication (for example in scholarly
> essays on the object, or in social discussions after a visit to a
> museum, or at the home of a friend who owns works of art). That's how
> writing, perception, and communication connect with art, over the
> extended life of a work that someone, in collaboration with some
> institution, has made an effort to collect.
> But we connect with literary works differently. And the difference
> might be given in what it is we collect, and where the collection
> takes place. In writing, whether e-lit or traditional print, we do
> need a stable material medium, so that the words we encounter at a
> given time and place are the same, as those encountered at other times
> and in other places where the work might be read. We need stability
> and reproduceability, so that we have something to *go back to*, when
> we want to re-read the work. No matter, if the order of the words
> changes, as happens in hypertextual constructions. The words in the
> nodes do not change (unless platform incompatibilities over time have
> rendered the work inaccessible). If the words themselves change by
> design, we're not then capable of reading - what we are doing, is
> observing, or perceiving, the replacement of one verbal installation
> with another (as when a 'text rain' shows some words at a given
> moment, and other words at another time, in differnt postions on a
> screen). (But has the digital artist somewhere secured a canonical
> text, before it gets purposefully washed away by rain? These are
> questions we need to bring to each work of e-lit we encounter, I
> should think.)
> Words need to be collectable, and they need to be collected in the
> mind of a reader, retained, forgotten, and recoverable in re-reading.
> Without this continuity of thought and literary object, one leaves the
> realm of conscious reading and moves into more perceptual or
> communicative realms.
> (Always keeping in mind, that perception, consciousness, and
> communication happen at the same time - even as we can attend to a
> conversation and still have our own thoughts: this layering is very
> important I think to any aesthetic experience, where material and
> mental activities are constantly interacting.)
> Another thing, about literary reading: the things "collected" are
> collected not in rooms, but in our minds. And these collectibles -
> written words - happen to be the same things that are present during
> conscious thought. The things we read are also the things we think
> with.  However: over time, we have had other thoughts, our words have
> acquired associations with new experiences, and this means we can
> experience a written work quite differently when we go back to it, at
> another time, for more.
> But the comparison is possible because the words on a page or screen
> are in the same medium as our conscious thought.
> And these (thoughts) are 'collectible' only by an individual, or by
> one person at a time who reads one work at a time. (Even when
> multi-tasking, the memory of patterns and meanings have to assemble
> around *this* work, or another work: otherwise one is not involved in
> reading; one might be collecting hybrid parts for one's own reuse.)
> So I'd revise my remark in the last post about literature
> becoming-a-network. It may be possible for literature to *circulate*
> through networks - and this is being faciliated through the electronic
> markup of works, through the use of metatags and keywords so that
> works can be retrieved according to semantic content (and not just by
> matching character strings).
> That kind of networking is I think essential for the persistence of
> the literary in electronic environments. And it's one reason, over the
> past few years with my colleagues at the ELO, I've been encouraging
> the development of an Electronic Literature Directory.
> But the reading of works - this remains I think an essentially
> individualistic process - one that we can perceive happening in
> others, and we can then communicate to one another our various
> experiences while reading. The material instantiation of literary
> writing in a network can (to deflect Benjamin) bring thought into
> contact with the non-human, and networked literature can do this now
> in a highly nuanced and evolving way.
> But reading as such, and the literary, remain technologies for
> constructing an individual consciousness, not for building networks or
> communities.
> Joseph
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