Chris Palazzolo wonders how we can read when there’s no time or space to read.
To be a reader in 21st century Australia is to be like the public agent in William Burroughs’ The Soft Machine – standing on a street, receiving messages and instructions from random fleeting scraps of signs like a page of a newspaper blowing past or a song on a passing car radio. The bewildering, oceanic quantities of signs our culture industries pump out makes reading necessarily a fragmentary, grasping and furtive activity. Our culture’s overvaluation of a certain definition of ‘production’ – that is of a perpetual one way, from inside to outside pushing out (what Burroughs himself called ‘sending’) and which covers a range of phenomena from KPIs in business and publishing quotas in academia to the emoting on social media and tv talent shows like The Voice – makes reading something vaguely suspect, interior and receptive, a passive ‘absorbing’ that seems suspiciously layabout.
But we are all readers, all of the time. Even when we believe our minds are switched off to any external signs while we’re dutifully producing, we’re still snatching them from here and there, like Burroughs’ agent, feeling our way, with our semiotic sensors, through the maelstrom of the 21st century socius. We certainly wouldn’t last very long here if we weren’t constantly reading. Even the most trivial of signs – Fitzy and Simey on FM radio banging on about Kendall Jenner, or the covers of Woman’s Weekly and Marie Claire sitting in waiting rooms, or on loungeroom coffee tables – provide a perpetual source of low level semiotic illumination that keeps the daily socius ‘legible’. ‘Serious’ reading, whether of the monastic exegetical type or the 19th century Matthew Arnold type, or the ‘close readings’ of the New Critics, or the deconstructionists of the late 20th century, is still the exclusive provenance of the universities. But even there there is less and less space, as the borglike ‘resistance is futile’ logic of consumer capitalism (modes of productiveness and efficiency) opens those spaces out onto the socius where Burroughs’ schizoid agent seems to be the only hope for any kind of critical reading.
But what is the purpose of critical reading? Is it to reveal truth and beauty or the mechanics of ideology? I don’t see why it can’t be both. It should really depend on the mood of the ‘agent’ who’s taking the trouble to read critically. If most citizens have neither the time nor the energy to think about the interplay of melodic motifs and lyrics in the song that’s playing on their radio as they sit in peak hour traffic, then the critical reader is there to speak to that half-minded and low priority, and yet nonetheless thoroughly contemporary and shared experience of hearing that song and perhaps, momentarily, being ‘taken with’ it, before the lights turn green. That’s what critical reading addresses; the ‘taken-withness’ of something. I’ve been taken with that song with the line ‘My heart is a ghost town,’ which I heard on my car radio, but didn’t catch who sung it cos my kids were mucking around in the back seat at the time (the song is by Adam Lambert). Is this experience important? No. What’s important is delivering myself and my kids, safely, at a destined parking spot to do shopping, pay bill, see doctor, etc. But, momentarily, amid the regulated catastrophe of internal combustion machines, I’m taken with a metaphor of desertification. I’m struck by this, not because the line is particularly original, but because of the way it’s sung; it’s shouted out, over a skipping electronic beat, with a reverberation to give the words added sharpness. It is both a cry of distress and of exultation, like a state of being achieved – no people, no movement, absolute stillness. In the cabin of my car, I’m enthralled by its desolation, just for a moment. I recall another song, about desolation in traffic; U2’s ‘Beautiful Day’. The lyrics of this song actually are about sitting in traffic, with apocalyptic visions of the everyday, and they also have the word Heart in its opening line. The Heart in both these songs signifies the same kind of centredness as the monad signified in Leibniz – the centre, the subject, the thinking-feeling I. By using Heart to signify the seat of subjectivity, these song lyrics reveal their descent from the lyrics of the Troubadours and the poets of the Trecento – dove sol con Amor seggio/ quasi visibilmente il cor traluce.
– Chris Palazzolo
Teasing Threads is Chris Palazzolo, novelist and poet, editor at Regime Books in Perth, radio host on 6EBA FM North Perth, and was, until recently, manager of one of the last video shops in the world. His novel, Scene and Circles, is available from https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/449419