From Sustainable Knowledge by Robert Frodeman, loc 1257:

I feel like I am drowning in knowledge, and the idea of further production is daunting. Libraries and bookstores produce a sense of anxiety: the number of books and journals to read is overwhelming, with tens of thousands more issuing from the presses each day. Moreover, there is no real criterion other than whim for selecting one book or article over another. To dive into one area rather than another becomes a willful act of blindness, when other areas are just as worthwhile and when every topic connects to others in any number of ways. The continual press of new knowledge becomes an invitation to forgetfulness, to lose the forest for the trees.

This discussion of the intellectual trajectory of Cornel West includes an illuminating reflection upon the limitations of academic talk. It’s a useful counterpoint to my own enthusiasm for improvisation in academic life. There is a time and a place for it but it’s something which will prove profoundly limiting if we don’t regularly move beyond improvised talk. The difficulties entailed by writing (“The pen is stubborn, sputters – hell!“) are opportunities for intellectual growth: chipping away at our improvisations with sufficient persistence to find the latent insights locked deep within them. I think this is as true of blogging as it is of speaking (both being forms of improvisation) and it’s something I need to remember when my frustrations with long-form writing leave me wanting to retreat into blogging.

In Brother West, West admitted that he is “more a natural reader than natural writer,” adding that “writing requires a concerted effort and forced discipline,” but that he reads “as easily as I breathe.” I can say with certainty, as a college professor for the last quarter century, that most of my students feel the same way. What’s more, West’s off-the-cuff riffs and rants, spoken into a microphone and later transcribed to page, lack the discipline of the written word. West’s rhetorical genius is undeniable, but there are limits on what speaking can do for someone trying to wrestle angels or battle demons to the page. This is no biased preference for the written word over the spoken; I am far from a champion of a Eurocentric paradigm of literacy. This is about scholar versus talker. Improvisational speaking bears its wonders: the emergence on the spot of turns of thought and pathways of insight one hadn’t planned, and the rapturous discovery, in front of a live audience, of meanings that usually lie buried beneath the rubble of formal restrictions and literary conventions. Yet West’s inability to write is hugely confining. For scholars, there is a depth that can only be tapped through the rigorous reworking of the same sentences until the meaning comes clean—or as clean as one can make it.

The ecstasies of the spoken word, when scholarship is at stake, leave the deep reader and the long listener hungry for more. Writing is an often-painful task that can feel like the death of one’s past. Equally discomfiting is seeing one’s present commitments to truths crumble once one begins to tap away at the keyboard or scar the page with ink. Writing demands a different sort of apprenticeship to ideas than does speaking. It beckons one to revisit over an extended, or at least delayed, period the same material and to revise what one thinks. Revision is reading again and again what one writes so that one can think again and again about what one wants to say and in turn determine if better and deeper things can be said.

  • How We Are – Vincent Deary
  • The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P – Adelie Waldman
  • The Circle – Dave Eggers
  • Locke & Key (vol 1 to vol 5) – Joe Hill
  • The Importance of Disappointment – Ian Craib
  • The Massive (vol 1 to vol 4) – Brian Wood
  • Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt – Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco
  • Race of a Lifetime – John Heilemann and Mark Halperin
  • Double Down – John Heilemann and Mark Halperin
  • Zeitoun – Dave Eggars
  • Revival (vol 1 to vol 3) – Mark Englert
  • Lazarus (vol 1 and vol 2) – Greg Rucka
  • The Courtier and the Heretic – Matthew Stewart
  • Ecce Homo – Friedrich Nietzsche
  • The Antidote – Oliver Burkeman
  • Acceleration – Harmut Rosa
  • Cat Cultures – Janet M. Alger and Steven F. Alger
  • Young Money – Kevin Roose
  • How To Live: A Life of Montaigne – Sarah Bakewell
  • Bertrand Russell: The Ghost of Madness – Ray Monk
  • A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine – Tony Benn
  • Ordinary Thunderstorms – William Boyd
  • Webcam – Daniel Miller and Jolynna Sinanan
  • Tales from Facebook – Daniel Miller
  • The Fall of the Faculty – Benjamin Ginsberg

I’ve always liked the idea of doing these lists but I’ve never got round to it before. However I really struggled to remember what I’d actually read all year – I ended up with an initial list of about 55, with another 10-20 I excluded because they were disappointments, but I’m certain there were more than this. Perhaps this fuzzy recall is why the lists appeal to me so much? I was also disturbed by quite how many books I had started and not finished. I have upwards of 40 books which I am, in theory, in the process of reading (and far more still on my Kindle). But in most cases, I’ve not touched them for months and it’s therefore slightly absurd to keep them lying around. I’d like to read more mindfully in 2015 and I think more regularly blogging about what I’ve read might help this process.

The notion of ‘clarity’ is a contested one within social theory. This was made clear to me when various posts of mine, often just embedding videos of other people speaking, attracted a lot of indignation on Twitter. There are some people who really don’t like Lacan and Žižek being criticised for their lack of clarity. The latter still bothers me, given how much I enjoy his work and how much of it I read. For instance I’m currently reading his Hegel magnum opus* – the seeming inability of some people to accept it is possible to enjoy someone’s work while also criticising them baffles me. Or perhaps I’m still indigent about being called ‘scientistic’.

Rather than rehearsing this tedious internet dispute, my point is to stress that writing clearly and writing well can be antithetical. I think Žižek often writes well, in the limited sense that his work is often enjoyable to read, while nonetheless rarely writing in a way that could be called clear. I think John Rawls writes clearly, in the sense that one knows where one stands with him, while nonetheless writing tedious prose. I mean this in the sense that it is clear what he is saying and why he is saying it. This is sustained throughout a text. Therefore it becomes possible to relate to him in a way that otherwise would not be possible.

It’s this capacity to relate to the arguments a theorist makes in a text which has been on my mind since reading the chapter on Goffman in Ian Craib’s (wonderful) Experiencing Identity. In this chapter, he identifies the “appeal to obviousness, self-evidence and reasonableness” which runs through Goffman’s work, such that “the world calls, everyone can hear it, it is reasonable that someone try to answer” (p 76). He offers a wonderfully incisive critique of this rhetorical deployment of obviousness:

To read Goffman is to be seduced or to refuse seduction. It is not to enter into a critical dialogue, nor is it to understand another’s view of the world. Initially one must lose oneself in his world or keep out of it altogether. The seduction fails or succeeds through a double strategy. In the first place, the reader is led into an ‘identification-in-superiority’ with Goffman. We become privileged observers in a special way: we see through tricks, acts, illusions of all sorts. With Goffman the reader is no fool. the reader becomes an ‘insider’, his or her status is confirmed by the systematic use of argot and suspicion. The alliance is confirmed when the suspicion is extended by Goffman to himself; it becomes a knowing alliance in which both Goffman and the reader admit to the possibility that Goffman might be fooling the reader. The systematic ‘frame-breaking’ of the introduction sets up a knowing conspiracy which achieves seduction through a revelation that seduction may be what is happening. It is not that we are taken in by Goffman’s openness, rather we side with him because of his admitted trickiness. We ourselves become tricky, knowing and suspicious. (pg 79)

He goes on to develop this line of argument, contending that “rarely does [Goffman] take the responsibility for what he is saying”. I’m not sure Žižek takes much responsibility for what he is saying either. This is my fundamental suspicion about opaque writing – it tends to undermine active intellectual engagement** by suppressing the propositional content of the argument. In any argument there are a multiplicity of points which can be affirmed or contested, with varying degrees of significance given their locations within the unfolding structure of the argument. Many of these nodal points will call into question the logic of the argument itself, or at least open up the possibility of it being reframed. By suppressing the propositional content of the argument (which all prose will do to some extent) we close down certain lines of response. Texts which lack clarity tend to obscure these and, through doing so, preclude an experience of being monologued at becoming one of having a dialogue with. For instance I find Žižek difficult to engage with because reading him is like having a very entertaining, interesting and learned scholar drunkenly monologuing at you in a high speed way. It can be great just to sit and listen. It  can get boring and you make your excuses and move to a different table. But what it never facilitates is a dialogue.

I find Žižek to be a very particular sort of reading experience, which is perhaps why I enjoy reading his books. What I’d like to understand more broadly is this relationship between the phenomenology of reading and the rhetorical style of theorists. I think Craib captures something important about Goffman and there’s the possibility of extending an analysis of this form to other theorists:

The alliance with the reader, then, is in the face of a world which is ‘just like that’. All one can say immediately is, ‘Yes, it is like that’, or ‘No, it is not’. In fact, neither response is adequate, or both are equally adequate: some aspects of the world are ‘like that’, others are not. To break free of Goffman’s guiding gestures is to begin to distinguish what he is really talking about, and it is a matter of looking at the questions that come out of his descriptions, but which remain unanswered and often unasked (pg 79-80)

My most rewarding experiences of reading theory have come from those who I was initially sceptical of but then was largely persuaded by (Archer) or those who I was initially persuaded by but then developed a scepticism towards (Crossley, Giddens, Elder-Vass). It’s this experience of moving closer or moving further away from a body of work, through textual engagement, which I’d like to understand better than I do. What sorts of relations does a text facilitate with its reader? What implications do these have for the reader’s mode of engagement? How can we understood these as a relationship between two distinct sets of properties and powers: those of the reader and those of the text?

*Consciously I’m genuinely interested in it. I’m also hoping it’s broad enough in its scope to help flesh out the limited (and limiting) intellectual map of contemporary continental philosophy I’m working with. Though it’s hard not to wonder if I have some unconscious motive in relation to these disputes about Žižek that irritated me so much at the time (whereas few things on the internet do these days).

**I use the word ‘tends’ very consciously here. I think there are countervailing tendencies, often arising from determined readers keen to cut through the thicket of obscurity, operating here in a way which ensures that philosophy of this sort doesn’t descend into oratory.

Edited to add: Reading Ian Craib is like having a relaxed chat over a pint on a sunday afternoon in a quiet pub.

I love the Kindle app on the iPad. Or at least I want to love it. I’ve been using it intermittently for well over a year now and I’ve gradually realised how difficult I find it to read attentively when using it. I’m a compulsive underliner, margin scribbler and corner folder of books. I sometimes feel slightly embarrassed when a friend asks to borrow a book and, upon handing them an utterly mangled text, find myself wondering if they still want it or they’re just being polite.

Much of the appeal of Kindle for me was the neatness with which it is possible to annotate the text, as well as the ease with which those highlighted sections and annotations can be retrieved. But it’s too easy. I far too often find myself skim reading a text, effectively mining for insights in a way that filters out the overarching coherency of the text. I’m often effectively sorting the text rather than attending to it.

I find using a pen rather frustrating these days. I’ve been touch typing since before I was a teenager and I’m used to being able to articulate myself electronically in a way that keeps up with the flow of thought. Whereas using a pen frustrates me because I perpetually feel as if I can’t write fast enough. But there’s a discipline to this, albeit of a sort I too rarely recognise the value in. It forces me to slow down. It forces me to read attentively. It encourages me to treat the text as a whole.

My claim here isn’t deterministic. I sometimes find myself doing this with books as well. But it’s much less frequent and much less pronounced. Things like eBooks don’t create my tendency to rush but they do amplify it.

If you read one book a week, starting at the age of 5, and live to be 80, you will have read a grand total of 3,900 books, a little over one-tenth of 1 percent of the books currently in print.


I came across this post on the CISG tumblr recently and it stuck in my head. I actually found it quite a distressing thought in a subdued sort of way. There’s an inevitable upper limit on the number of books you can read in a lifetime and, once you begin to think it through, that upper limit constitutes a tiny fraction of the books in print. But I’m also fairly sure it’s a tiny fraction of the books I would like to read. When I think about this it makes me want to be incredibly selective about the books I choose to read. But that kind of selectivity would feel like it was contrary to to the enthusiasm for reading which generates the problem in the first place.