[-empyre-] The E-ject

joseph tabbi jtabbi at gmail.com
Sun Apr 19 09:59:58 EST 2009

Yes, Michael, there are viewings that are also readings
(metaphorically speaking?) and vice versa. And yes, Cynthia, there is
thinking in images. But my impression is that these operations are all
too readily conflated in current discourse - when what is needed
rather are stern distinctions, kindof - lest the literary itself is
lost in the faster, more powerful circulation (and also the
'push-pull') of visual/perceptual experience. And in discourse on the

People flock to museums. We go there to see a collection of visual
objects. A  few of these objects, we hold in our minds, but not in the
way a museum's holdings are possessed. Those curatorial possessions
are commodities precisely because they cannot be memorized (and hence
held in our thought). The objects in a museum also need to be
perceived, sensed bodily, not only thought about.

When we think in words, we hear, in our head - words. At least they
sound to us something like the words we hear, or hear ourselves say.
This happens also when reading. That is an important continuity I
think, that brings the act of reading into the realm of thought, in a
material way that is just not possible with images.

This is the medial specificity of print: it stimulates thought by
reducing perception, during the time of reading, to a minimum.
(Concrete poems and examples of book art and the whole rematerialized
context of e-writing are interesting precisely because they bring the
forgotten material support for reading BACK into consciousness, but
then we're again perceiving, not reading, not thinking with words.)

Why insist on the distinction? Because the 'layering of meaning and
perception' (Cynthia) is more interesting, more rich cognitively, when
the layers are kept distinct and their different cognitive operations
can be observed.

"It is the ideas that stir, not the object itself" (Cynthia again).
Right. And I agree totally about the impossibility of commodifying the
meanings that attach to an art object. (The neolibs haven't figured
out yet how to do that, or have they? have we?)

But the path from stimulation to idea is very different, when reading
or when viewing/sensing. The ideas in books are formed by words, and
the ideas about objects are formulated, not in objects, but in words.
At least, we need a verbal formulation if we want to communicate our
ideas - to any person who speaks our language, or whose language we
speak/read. Sure, you can communicate by an exchange of objects that
can be as richly interpretable (in its own way) as a poem or a
literary narrative, but again the meaning of the object will need to
be cognized verbally, in ways that can only be 'about' the object (to
use Davin's term, around and about but never within, as we are when

That makes a kind of continuity possible, that again accounts for the
medial specificity of books: when we read old books, in languages that
have changed over time, we can make comparisons between the language
we think in habitually and the language of, say, Chaucer or the
Beowulf poet or Melville or Virginia Woolf. We can register the
changes in style in the lifework of a contemporary writer. The words
going through their heads, and getting somehow preserved on a screen
or a page, have a different composition or pacing from our words, but
there's still a basis of comparison. And a way, then, to feel the
effects of history longer in duration than our own memory or the
memory of our grandparents. (Again, we can observe different period
styles or deviations therefrom in objects recovered or preserved from
the past, but we would have to communicate these differences, and
their meanings, in words. When reading, we don't have to switch levels
in order to know something about what the work's creator was

The other reason to hold onto the distinction, is the different
temporal durations of different levels of cognition - which aren't
waved away by saying that a disciplined viewer of art can slow down
the visual experience and in some sense "read" the object for
ambiguities, tensions and so forth. Perception doesn't happen
instantaneously. But relative to the time of sentence formation,
perception is immediate.

That kind of distinction, I expect, can be useful in devising a
criticism consistent with the emergence of e-lit, where different
modes (reading, imaging, coding, etc) are necessarily working all at
once - but at different timeframes that need to be noted.

"Aesthetics as the layering of perception, communication and
consciousness?" (Michael)

A kind of cognitive alternative to Freudian psychology?

Precisely, but only if we keep the layers distinct. And work with
distinctions that come to us from the sciences, with something of the
same care and attentiveness that many of us (on this list, anyway) use
when deploying terminological distinctions from classic authors in
literary/cultural theory.


> Temporalities of “viewing” versus “reading” may not be identical, as the
> time each activity requires can differ according to what exactly it is which
> must be consumed—which does not preclude the possibility of a viewing that
> is also a reading (for example, some of the scenes of Peter Greenaway’s
> “Zoo”) or a reading that is also a viewing (for example, the Ian Hamilton
> Finlay poem).

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