The Tyranny of the Reader

Sweet Talk’s very own Adam Gurri picked up a little Gadamer recently, a fellow who applied 20th Century epistemological questions to literary criticism. In my mind, he dealt a fatal blow to structuralism, releasing us from its evil bonds for the exhilaration of “non-modern” reading, aka, the way reading was always done until the Continental fundamentalists ruined reading for two hundred years. Now we’re back to the cat chasing its tail, as it should be.*

He brought an end to the tired “implied author/implied reader” schematic as a formal means for textual criticism and interpretive method. The fact is, we know there’s something like an implied reader, because, as authors, we all project one. I’m projecting one right now, and I’ll even tell you who you are: a late-middle aged male sitting in the silent room of a 19th Century Londoner’s club, someone with white mutton chops facial hair smoking a large-bowl pipe, quietly folding back the paper in which this post has been published. In short, you, my dear implied reader, are my variation on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Mycroft Holmes.

Before I met Gadamer in my readings, I especially liked the schematic arranged left to right: The real author–> implied author–> text <–implied reader <–real reader. And now the fundamentalist program: identify, as best you can, the real author, his mind, and what meaningfulness he means to…to…

Well, what’s the word here? Nothing is appropriate. You make one up. “…meaningfulness he means to express.” Was ist das? Anyhow, just align yourself with the implied reader, and you’re set to get meaningfulness! Interpretation by numbers, ftw.

This is, as I say, a fundamentalist program, and everything fundamentalist is a tyranny. We were taught for a couple hundred years there to tyrannize interpretation, which, of course, kills it. Meaningfulness dies, and the author–>text–>reader experience becomes a cadaver under inexperienced and unexperiencing scalpels. “Here, can you see the latent feminist reaction?” “Why, yes! There it is!” Mirabile Dictu! I couldn’t have seen it without your help, but it really is there!

Well, Mycroft, you’re probably thinking, “How then should we interpret?” I don’t know, but I’m guessing you’re going to interpret more or less as you feel like interpreting, experiencing how you desire to experience, but not without having those immutable marks on a page or screen affect you somehow. The trick is to communicate that experience, if you want to, or to understand the effects it has on other readers.

As the drinker of a particular wine grows older, the wine’s effect changes.

*This, like everything, is debatable.

Negotiating with Anger

In the Stoic psychology, anger, like all of the passions, is a source of irrationality and vice. Seneca has the most complete treatment available to us, and it includes many descriptions of the undignified behavior of people in the thrall of this passion. The Stoic ideal was apatheia; the absence of passions. This did not mean the absence of emotion; the distinction between destructive passions on the one hand, emotions on the other, and reason, is a not entirely untenable taxonomy. That apathy has come to mean not only a lack of passion, but a lack of motivation, initiative, or willpower, is surely a mark of the triumph of Stoicism’s intellectual enemies.

Aristotle had a different take on anger. For him, all emotions were to an extent cognitive; they had intentionality and were based on beliefs. Moreover, having the right emotional response to the right degree for the right reason was an important part of a virtuous character. Erroneous of inappropriate anger was a sign of a character flaw.

Yesterday, I was very angry about something. It began to boil first thing in the morning, on my way to work. It hit me very hard for a duration of about 20 minutes later that afternoon. This anger is of a very particular kind. I remember the first time I felt it—it was, in fact, almost exactly ten years ago. Back then, I indulged in some very spiteful and nasty plans for the objects of my anger. Fortunately, my lack of self-restraint was coupled with a complete and utter cowardice, and so no rash actions were taken.

Yesterday morning, I had spent my commute talking myself down to a reasonable state of mind. Once at work, I threw myself into my responsibilities. When the time finally came to discuss the object of my anger, it went very well—I had less to be angry about than I thought I did, if it’s even appropriate to think of the situation in terms of what I have to be angry about.

Yet it was after that conversation that I was really overtaken by the anger. I very nearly saw red; it was all I could do to keep myself from screaming or thrashing about or otherwise making a scene. I did keep myself from such childish behavior, and thankfully the moment passed.

In Aristotle’s scheme, I exercised self-control but lack true temperance. In the Stoic binary of 0 = non-virtuous, 1 = virtuous, I am a clean 0.

For my part, I don’t know why I got so mad when I got so mad. Mostly, I am glad I weathered it without doing anything stupid. Maybe that’s the most that can be expected from someone so intemperate.

It’s certainly a start.


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Ancient Egyptian Storytelling

Some instruction emerges when moderns approach ancient literature. We’ve known for quite some time that the ancients memorialized significant cultural experiences in many media, and with respect to literature, both in narrative form and in poetry form.

For a while there, the consensus was that poetry held the more reliable account of history, usually because the story was told more concisely with a few details of the event highlighted. It was reasoned in many dissertations that the narrative forms were expansions and interpretations, the victor creating the world, so to speak, with a version of history friendly to the contemporary regime.

Those dissertations sort-of wore out the subject, so some clever student turned the thing on its head (especially with the discovery of the Annals of Thutmosis III, which has been found to be a reliable description of certain significant cultural experiences in comparison to other extant artifacts and literature), declaring that whenever a prose narrative account and a poetic account are treating the same historical phenomenon, the prose account is the primary source and the poetic account is the secondary celebration.

Well, that was twenty years ago. Where are we now? The question reveals a modernistic bias that if we can somehow determine a primary source of the past, via artifact and/or literary account, we can also determine what really happened, and by having confidence in what really happened, we can get a better grip on our present reality. You know, the truth, objectively speaking.

Someone clever responds to this by saying, “If we really want to be sure about what really happened, we must build a time machine and transport ourselves to the place and time about which we are curious.” Indeed. Indeed not.

Even if you were literally present at these historically significant experiences, you’re still creating the history in your mind and projecting it forward onto a medium of some sort for the sake of posterity. That you think something is significant is significant in itself. Riding the DeLorean back to the future, that you think what they thought to be significant to be significant multiplies significances fractally. And the cat chases its tail.

A better model, I hereby posit, is that the different languages have a symbiotic relationship to each other. The narrative, for example, is a working out of the experience, trying to set order and emphasis, “topic, focus, and foreground” and how they shift and move. Poetry (and also minstrel music, a.k.a. pop music) develops focus further, attempting to reach a different realm, a further realm, of the person engaging the culturally significant experience. Scientific language is doing something entirely different: measuring, perhaps, testing and calibrating; I don’t know. Economic language likewise.

Each is a grappling with the others to invent a history for the sake of participating in it with a sense of safety, perhaps, or freedom, or progress, or something like that–the key is the participation, not the knowing. The knowing is secondary, and presumes an authority over the experience.

How many other languages attempt to realize what really happened?

A Calculus for Human Existence

I think we’ve got a basic mathematics for existence; probably also an algebra. I would imagine that the last few centuries have developed a healthy trigonometry for existence; wherefore I posit that most of the debate and paper writing today is working out the finer points of bodies in stasis. Bodies in state, if you will: how a society functions within a state, how individuals function within institutions, usw. Here’s angle x, here’s cosine a, solve for marriage.

Doesn’t it just want to make you give up, though? No one else is depressed by all the charts and misapplied time series, as though human and societal processes are linear on an x/y graph? Oh, I suppose there’s logarithms ‘n such: they curve infinitely.

A euvoluntary exchange, however, with the express goals of arete and eudaimonia, requires exchange. When it comes to growth and progress, euvoluntary puts the change in exchange (heh: nice one, Dave, but don’t quit any of your day jobs).

We are bodies in motion, with elements of life we consider stasis going out of its way to demonstrate the same. Even if there were such a thing as stasis, it would be The Void, which speaks loudly, in fact, that all the charting and graphing is doomed to revolutionary forces, if not the sun blinking out.

I wonder: is storytelling the calculus for human existence? I don’t think so, not unless storytelling can somehow be described as a mathematical application seeking to predict where bodies in motion might be, given certain infinitesimals, and where they are right now, seeing as how we are never right here right now, except in one or two certain cases, battle being the one.

Internet Arguing Destroyed the Universe

Once there was a person who argued on the Internet.

He spouted off any old thing that came to his mind. He saw things that disagreed with him for no particular reason, and he yelled at them—well, he typed at them, BUT HE TYPED IN ALL CAPS, YOU BETTER BELIEVE IT!

Gradually he became aware that some knowledge might exist outside of himself. So he started to read books. “Why, this is great!” He said to himself, “I can use some of this in my arguments!”

And so he did. And the more he read, the more he encountered other people who had read the same or similar things that he had, and became friends with them. Together and individually, they argued about stuff—and every so often made a reference to some famous philosopher or economist or sociologist or essayist or business book author.

Frustratingly, this did not seem to get everyone to see things his way. So, our hero continued to read more, to search for the one book that would have the one argument that would convince everyone on the spot that he was right.

Over time, he noticed that the knowledge outside of himself seemed to be quite interconnected. The arguments made about morality seemed to rest on assumptions about the nature of knowledge itself, which seemed to rest on assumptions about the nature of the universe, claims about which relied on assumptions about knowledge, which relied on assumptions about the morals of people making contributions to the general stock of knowledge.

This was way more than he bargained for.

What to do? From trendy business book author Nassim Taleb, he learned of something called a “barbell strategy”, which he interpreted as meaning “do either the smallest unit or the largest unit, but nothing in between.”

So he wrote blog posts and essays on the one hand, and tweets and tweet-storms on the other, but not comments. But he still felt like he didn’t know enough, and he was betraying the grand unity of knowledge by talking about it piecemeal. So he went deeper; he only did aphorisms on the one hand and books on the other. The more he learned, the fewer he did of each; shorter, more profound aphorisms, and longer, more thorough books.

After reading the very last book, he stopped saying anything at all. He simply stood, in the library where he had finally hunted it down, staring at the last page.

After a long time, someone came up and asked him the time.

He opened his mouth to answer, and articulated the entirety of human knowledge, killing them instantly and destroying the universe.

And that is why Internet arguing is to be avoided at all costs.

Propertarian Camp Fire

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a group of propertarians gathered for a camp fire.

Immediately they set about trading their favorite stories: various creation myths for the birth of property and of the state.

“I always liked the stationary bandit myth,” volunteered Wilson.

“I haven’t heard that one,” said Duke, “do tell?”

“Once upon a time, we lived in a Lockean paradise,” Wilson began, “where most people respected one another’s natural rights. In fact, the very basis of such rights was this tacit endorsement implied by mutual respect. But there was a problem: such respect was not enough to band people together for their mutual defense. The disrespectful were much better at organizing the use of force, and nomadic bandits would occasionally pass through and wreck people’s lives. Then some shrewd bandit thought to himself: why engorge myself today when I can be set for life? So he and his thugs settled down in a town and demanded a share of the people’s produce. He fended off the nomadic bandits, as well as other stationary ones who wanted to expand into his turf, not for the good of his people but to maintain his cash cows, which is all they were to him. He found that he could get less out of his people if they stole from one another or started feuding, so he established courts to adjudicate disputes and police to enforce their decrees. And that is how the first state was born.”

“I rather enjoyed that,” remarked Duke.

“I think it’s a story that tends to get proliferated by our kind of people to unfairly frame the debate from the start,” Nathan noted, though his tone did not necessarily imply a criticism.

“I would agree with that,” Wilson conceded.

“Allow me to offer an alternative,” Will piped in, “in the beginning, in our hunter-gatherer days, life was a very fragile thing. Rather than being peaceful people who occasionally were attacked by warlike people, all people needed to be a little warlike to survive, and yet still relied heavily on mutual respect and coordination within their tribes. The tribe chose the strongest, the noblest, the most decisive and wise to lead them in their hunts and in defending themselves against rival tribes, and making war.”

“As the years went by and humanity flourished, some populations began to settle and begin farming. The chosen leader of the tribe became the ruler of a settled society. Some of these societies collapsed; one of the notable things among those that did not is that they developed property rights. The state and property co-evolved.”

“Much more likely to be accurate,” The Celt chimed in, “stationary bandits are a libertarian slant. The aspects of property that make it essential for a society’s long-run flourishing are well known. The story of the bandit and the peaceful farmers is too much a fairy tale; humans were never entirely peaceful and never entirely warlike. And they became much more peaceful, by the numbers, after they’d settled into agrarian societies with kings and courts and militaries. Will’s story is more in line with history.”

What’s history got to do with it?” Duke asked, “Stories are stories. They can all be equally true while being inequally historical.”

They stared at him for a long time after that.

“No one can ever tell when you’re joking,” Glurri remarked with a grin.

“I know. It’s a problem.” Duke sighed.

The storytelling waned then, as they gathered marshmallows to roast in the fire.


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Stick It Where The Sun Don’t Shine

Randall troubles himself over the #phronesis of civility. Martin Gurri replies obliquely.

I am a child of privilege. I am a white married adult male living in one of the wealthiest tracts of land in the whole of history. It is devilishly easy for me to fancy that a benevolent Creator has crafted this mundane paradise for my benefit and my benefit alone. I am not subject to the gross harassment of thugs public or private. I am not subservient to the will of hereditary superiors. I owe no fealty, I pay piffling tribute to the state, at least compared to the tithes of my ancestors. I am at risk of neither conscription nor invasion. My society is so civilized that the nastiest the culture wars have to offer are heated online discussions centered ostensibly on the patently ludicrous topic of ethics in gaming journalism.

These are the challenges of my time. Beowulf v Grendel round II it ain’t. Or if it is, the beast is slain, and his mom’s head is mounted in my mead hall. lol

As a privileged middle aged dad, part of my noblesse oblige is to do what I can to extend the blessings of my narrow providence to marginalized groups. That’s why I count myself as aggressively pro-immigration, that’s why I shout into the uncaring wilderness about the benefits of expanding the sphere of euvoluntary exchange, and that’s why I do my best to not be an outright jerk when I exchange ideas with people.

That’s also why I’m naturally hesitant to wag my finger at people who don’t share my instinctual proclivities towards restraint and temperance. Randall called Maggie McNeill out for an aggressive exchange with a sex work prohibitionist. But like me, I’m sure he recognizes that Maggie has been in this fight for a long time, and she’s seen firsthand the ugliness of encounters with not only comfortable prohibitionists, but with the long end of the truncheon that enforces those statutes.

My task is analysis and commentary. It is not censure. I have a hard enough time policing my own speech. I can’t even imagine being enough of a shitheel to try to police the speech of others.

But that’s just me. Not exactly the go-to dude for matters of moral rectitude or whatever.