Friday, October 25, 2013

Reading as a Loser

A long while back, when I first became interested in postmodernism, I read a collection of essays by philosopher Mark Kingwell entitled Better Living. One of the essays, “Reading as a Loser,” became one of the most transformative pieces of philosophical prose that I've ever read. It changed the way that I interact with text, and in doing so changed the way that I interact and relate with other human beings.

Kingwell's basic thesis is that we tend to like to read in order to be a winner. If we're reading a text that we basically agree with, we perceive it as a kind of ammunition or an ally in the fight against various ideas that we don't agree with, and often we end up overlooking aspects or elements of the text that challenge us because we are over-eager to be able to say “See, I'm right! Kierkegaard, or T. S. Elliot, C. S. Lewis, or Pope Francis, Richard Dawkins, or Noam Chomsky, or whoever, agrees with me!” If we're reading a text that we disagree with (or expect to disagree with) on the other hand, we approach it from an antagonistic perspective. Instead of trying to gain a deep understanding of what the author is trying to communicate, we try to gain just enough of an understanding in order to be able to refute it. From page one, we look for faults in the argumentation, flaws in the text, false axioms, circularities, or rash conclusions that will allow us to criticize and defeat the argument as it is developed. The common atheistic practice of reading the Bible in order to find the contradictions is a classic example of this kind of reductive triumphalism.

In either case, the text that we're reading is deciphered primarily in terms of an ideological battle, and whether we adopt or reject it depends largely on whether it is lined up against us within the discursive landscape that we inhabit. This habit of reading leads to, amongst other things, the perception that there are certain books which are dangerous or that ought to be prohibited. It produces vain controversy and leads to the promulgation of straw-men, and the proliferation of decadant disputes where learned people talk past each other without ever really engaging in honest dialogue.

Putting it in Christian terms, reading as a loser is a habit of spiritual meekness with respect to the ideas of others. It's a kind of ideological and rational humility, where instead of reading a text in order to discover whether you agree or disagree with it, you read it primarily in order to escape from your own subjectivity, to enter into intersubjective communion with the author. The discipline to put oneself aside in order to get inside a text, what Foucault calls philosophical askesis, provides the written word with the capacity to be transformative rather than merely persuasive. It is not that one is “overcome” by the power of the argumentation, but rather that one enters into the argument in the role of a student who has come to learn, rather than in the role of an adjudicator who has come to judge.

This doesn't mean that the faculty of rational discrimination is rejected, but rather that the time for exercising judgement is postponed. In the same way as the just judge does not open a trial with a preconception of the guilt or innocence of the accused, the reader does not crack the book with a preconception of how they will respond to the arguments contained therein. Every argument is approached under the presumption that it is written by an intelligent person with a valid perspective, who will be able to give you something of real value in return for your attention and consideration. The thought of the other is thus received as a kind of gift, and one's humility before the text is the posture of gratitude and of reciprocity that preserves the gift from contempt and prejudice.

Now all gifts are good for something, and no gift (Christ aside) is perfect. Once the book has been fully read and understood on its own terms it becomes appropriate to subject it to the kind of discrimination that allows good ideas to be held on to, while ill-formed notions are rejected. This, again, is a notion taken from Foucault: he describes his writings as a tool-box, and encourages readers to take and use anything within them that they find useful and leave the rest. The ideal relationship between the reader and the text is one in which the author is kind enough not to belittle his or her reader for refusing to accept the ideas presented, and the reader is kind enough to look for the good within the author's offering.

Such a relationship allows for the greatest possible proliferation of truth and the establishment of authentic love between persons through the instrumentality of text. The author ceases to be merely a cipher for a series of ideas but becomes instead a person who presents a fascinating and compelling perspective, a paradigm shift that calls the reader out of him or herself and into another person's interior world. The reader is then able to disagree with the author through love of the author's thought rather than through enmity with it. Critique then becomes an act of love, a form of reciprocity through which the reader responds to the author and adds his own subjective perception of the text to the author's presentation. The result, if the author is still alive, is a form of mutual enrichment and if the author is dead then the critique becomes a gift to her or his posterity. This mutual self-giving allows the practice of authorship and readership to become a means of communion rather than an opportunity to engage in ideological warfare.


  1. I like this. I think this reading as a looser is something which is very important for reading your Bible as well. Not as an argument but with a genuine intent to learn something which I haven’t knew before. Sorry, for a shameless self-promotion, but I have just yesterday posted a blog post about this

  2. This. This so hard. It'll be comforting, in future, to have this in my mind when the only way I can think of expressing my thoughts is in New-Age-y sounding pleas for "dialogue."


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