Reading and Selving

Self-Portrait, Reading in Winter by Rockwell Kent (ca. 1935), an example of the subgenre of self-portraiture in which artists depict themselves reading.

Over the last two weeks, I’ve been putting the final touches on the syllabus for a seminar that I’ll be teaching in the fall titled “Reading and Selving” (a nickname that’s stuck). The course arises from frequent encounters with accounts of media-driven transformations of the self across the ages in the works of not only the Toronto Schoolmen but also more recent media theorists, philosophers, literary critics, and essayists. An approachable (meaning, not jargon-laden) sample of this sort of argument appears in Ivan Illich and Barry Sanders’s 1988 book ABC: The Alphabetization of the Popular Mind, a brief(-ish) explication of which will expose some of the primary concerns of the semester ahead.

Illich & Sanders, first of all, argue that the self is not a biological endowment, nor a social necessity. Indeed, “most epochs got along without a self. There was no self in epic times.” In the famous eleventh chapter of Preface to Plato, Eric Havelock had (as Illich & Sanders knew when writing ABC) made this claim, using the example of “self”-less Achilles (and, by extension, the audience of the Homeric songs before literacy converted the Greek soul [or “pysche,” ψυχή]). I&S, meanwhile, cite the example of Beowulf: its titular hero has no memory, no conscience, “nothing of what we moderns call ‘self'” (though Wiglaf, assigner of guilt, they argue, does). Oral culture cannot sustain the kind of reflection on personal history or one’s thinking that produces a self.

But literate culture can:

The idea of a self that continues to glimmer in thought or memory, occasionally retrieved and examined in the light of day, cannot exist without the text. Where there is no alphabet, there can neither be memory conceived as a storehouse nor the “I” as its appointed watchman. With the alphabet both text and self became possible, but only slowly, and they became the social construct on which we found all our perceptions as literate people.

Writing the history of the self is as difficult as writing the history of the text. The self is a cloth that we have been weaving over centuries in confessions, journals, diaries, memories, and in its most literate incarnation, the autobiography, to tailor the dress in which we see our first person singular. […]

Though the accounts of the various commentators differ in particulars, they all arrive at the same general conclusion: the self develops over the centuries through the mediation of writing. As this passage from ABC suggests, transcribing one’s thoughts or memories begins the process, which continues through the experience of reading and reflecting on them. I&S’s “retrieving” and “examining,” moreover, suggest not only an initial act of reading (the reading that happens as we write) but subsequent re-readings (which may, in turn, motivate re-writing, and re-writing further reading, etc., etc.). Inwardness arises with exteriorizing: once thought and feeling are preserved materially, they can become objects of reflection. For Havelock, one needn’t even be a happy citizen of a literate culture to be affected: his principal example of the new selfhood possible in literate, fifth-century Athens is Socrates, history’s chattiest philosopher, and a famous critic of writing. Illich makes a similar argument regarding the medieval “lay self” in a number of his writings, including “A Plea for Research on Lay Literacy” (1991). Alphabetization  selves.

I&S suggest, furthermore, that the self is not only something that we experience individually. It is a basic assumption that members of literate cultures bring to interpersonal relations:

We cannot conceive facing each other except as selves. The image of the self that we have inherited seems to us fundamental for western culture.

The “we” that opens the first sentence seems at first a general or inclusive one, but further sentences clarify that the authors are referring to themselves. They are, in fact, dating themselves, albeit suggesting that they–and members of their generation–belong to a longstanding cultural tradition. I&S continue:

But we notice that some of our students are bred on electronic text composers. “Text” means something entirely different for them than it does for us. And thus we sense its extreme fragility at this moment. We fear that the image of the self made in the image of text could fade from society, together with the self-destruction of the text.

Three observations about these remarks:

1. Many commentators in our current century align the advent of the so-called “digital natives” or “born digitals” with, or shortly after, the rise of personal computing in the mid-1980s (and/or  America going Online in the early 90s). The first cohort would have matriculated at colleges in the mid- to late-nineties. But word processing is a phenomenon that date backs to the early sixties, beginning in the workplace but then venturing out to other spheres in commercial and “homebrewed” forms. (Matthew Kirschenbaum has been telling this story from a literary perspective.) The students of whom Professors I&S speak, those who have been “bred on electronic text composers,” were college students in 1988 (or earlier), meaning that they had likely been born before 1970. It would be fascinating to learn which particular machines/software I&S have in mind here. Here’s some more work for our future graduate student researching the denizens and artifacts of Xerox-land.

2. I&S, regrettably, don’t explain exactly what about “text” has changed here, though based on their other writings (including the chapter “Text” in ABC) we can guess that they are concerned with their own sense of the fixity or stability of texts from the Print Age (or even the Manuscript Age) in contrast to the new fluidity and fleetingness of text composed via word processing software. Here’s an exemplary passage from Illich’s 1993 In the Vineyard:

The bookish text is my home, and the community of bookish readers are those included in my “we.” ¶ This home is now as outmoded as the house in which I was born, when a few light bulbs began to replace the candle. A bulldozer lurks in every computer with a promise to open new highways to data, replacements, inversions, and instant print. A new kind of text shapes the mindset of my students, a printout which has no anchor, which can make no claim to be either a metaphor, or an original from the author’s hand. Like the signals from a phantom schooner, its digital strings form arbitrary font-shapes on the screen, ghosts which appear and then vanish.

(Another useful testimony on the alarms that word processors sent up for typographical souls appears in Birkerts’s The Gutenberg Elegies of 1994.) For many contemporary folk, of course, “text” has an additional (perhaps even primary) sense undreamt of by these two scholars in the late eighties. What a remarkable career the word “text” has had in recent history!

3. The previous two observations point toward the third: I&S’s concerns about a gap opening between the old and new generations’ selves–or, in the worse-case-scenario envisioned here, lack thereof among the young. This is not simply a problem of rival technologies or psychologies. The passing of the cultural centrality of the traditional text, and with it the traditional self, also threatens to destabilize the realm of interpersonal relations. Maybe even, as Sanders argues in A is for Ox: Violence, Electronic Media, and the Silencing of the Written Word, the social order. Education represents one obvious context where this gap forebodes ill. I&S, as other publications discuss at greater length, worry over not only for their respective abilities to connect with Electronic Age students; I&S are concerned about their students’ “mental space” (Illich’s favored term), which is consumed with information-storage rather than slow thinking and self-reflection. In other words, they fear for the educational undertaking itself.

Here’s the overarching question of the semester: where are we now? Are accounts like this one helpful in understanding our current textual condition, the state of our reading lives, our contemporary sense of the self? Has the great change that I&S foresaw–and others since have claimed to observe–taken place? The pairing of reading and the self is, of course, doubly inauspicious. Unlike writing, reading belongs, to borrow a phrase from Roger Chartier, to the “order of the ephemeral”: it is “a practice that only rarely leaves traces, that is scattered in an infinity of singular acts, and that easily shakes off all constraints.” Meanwhile, the self poses its own problems of detection and definition, as even its most stalwart modern defenders confess (though some make such confessions joyfully).

To make matters worse, my mode of inquiry into these issue will involve distributing readings, largely in codex form, among a group of undergraduate students who, if some of the readings are correct, don’t read books and might not have selves. (If I am, generation-wise, a goner by “textual” measures like that of I&S, then my students must be reckoned long-goners.) We will then discuss the readings, beginning with the claims that they make, the evidence that they offer, the styles/genres that they employ, before turning to the question of whether/how they illuminate our experiences of reading and selving. The course will be in part a phylogeny of reading/selving in the West, and in part dedicated to examining the ontogeneses of the readers in the class (with help from guides like Francis Spufford, whose practice of re-reading books from childhood we’ll imitate).

The self-side course will thus be heavy on what Birkerts calls “soft data”: “the expressions that tell us who we are and who we have been, that the record of individuals living in different epochs–that are, in effect, the cumulative speculations of the species.” (Fitting as it sounds, I don’t believe that there’s ever been a successful “double blind trial of the self,” though the investigation of literacy and the self has produced some intriguing results. For example, see here for brief notes on Alexander Luria’s work in Uzbekistan in the thirties.) The “harder” sort of data will appear in the form of reports on the current scientific understanding of reading. There’s also the hard shells of the inscription technologies that students will review (some drawn from special collections libraries, others from their backpacks and pockets). For the most part, though, our “subject matter” will be the field reports of particular individuals ancient and contemporary. The class members will be its “subjects” in more ways than one.

I hope to give an update or two on this doomed enterprise as the semester progresses.



While working on the syllabus, I got wind of Edward Mendelson’s piece “In the Depths of the Digital Age” for The New York Review of Books via my friend Alan Jacobs’s superb blog Text Patterns. Edward reviews in this piece six books of techno-society diagnosis published by major presses (Harvard UP, Yale UP, MIT, Simon and Schuster). Here’s his summary of their shared concerns:

The explicit common theme of these books is the newly public world in which practically everyone’s lives are newly accessible and offered for display. The less explicit theme is a newly pervasive, permeable, and transient sense of self, in which much of the experience, feeling, and emotion that used to exist within the confines of the self, in intimate relations, and in tangible unchanging objects—what William James called the “material self”—has migrated to the phone, to the digital “cloud,” and to the shape-shifting judgments of the crowd.

I highly recommend the piece, which I’m now trying to fit into the syllabus. It will be the second bit of Mendelson’s writing that students read, the first being selections from Edward’s terrific The Things That Matter: What Seven Classic Novels Have to Say About the Stages of Life, which Alan commends in his blog post. If the books discussed in the review evince varying degrees of panic (or false calm) about The Way We Live Now, Edward’s book offers a mature reflection on How We May Live Well Whenever. It’s a veritable guide to reading one’s self into a rich experience of inner life. And outer life, too, since Mendelson’s ongoing claim is that true development across the stages of life happens through our interactions with others. Here’s how he sets up this aspect of the book’s program the introduction:

One of the themes of this book is its argument that the most intellectually and morally coherent way of thinking about human beings is to think of them as autonomous persons (the plural noun “persons,” not the collective noun “people”) instead of as members of any category, class or group. A second theme, inseparable from the first, is that persons exist only in relations with other persons, that the idea of an absolutely isolated and independent person is intellectually and morally incoherent, that all ideas of personality and society that emphasize stoicism and self-reliance are at best only partially valid, while ideas that emphasize mutual need and mutual aid have the potential to be true.

(If you aim to extract this quotation, dear reader, do be sure to copy the whole thing. I’ve noticed a troubling tendency among quoters to cite only the first theme, regarding “autonomous persons,” and forget the “inseparable” second, regarding the necessary relationality of personhood.)

That book, and this passage in particular, will enrich your understanding of what Alan is suggesting here in his second post on Mendelson’s review:

Mendelson does not say that this shift is simply bad; he writes of gains and losses. And his essay does not have a thesis as such. But I think there is one not-directly-stated idea that dominates his reflections on these books: Neither users of nor commentators on these social-media technologies have an adequate intellectual or moral vocabulary to assess the massive changes in selfhood that we have opened ourselves to. The authors of the books Mendelson reviews either openly confess their confusion or try to hide that confusion with patently inadequate conceptual schemes.

But if even the (self-proclaimed) expert authorities are floundering in this brave new world, what can we do to think better about what’s happening to always-connected, always-surveilled, always-signalling, always-assessing selves? One possibility: read some fiction.

Let’s all hope that there’s further exchange on these issues between these two friends.


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