Speculations IV: Eileen Joy and the Joys of Reading

Art is inherently subversive, after all, as much an act of doing as undoing.

– Eileen Joy, Weird Reading

Who can remember the first book they picked up and read for pleasure? I confess that having been athletic and being raised down south in the fifties of the last century that being a book reader wasn’t on the top priority list of things a jock was ever to be seen doing. So like many I separated out what I had to read to get by in school from my subversive reading pleasures done under the covers late at night so that no one, especially my non-book reading Step-dad or brothers would ever catch me in the act of reading stories about ancient knights, or musketeers, or pirates, etc. All those weird tales that took me away from my hum rum life of being molded into a no brainer jock who was supposed to know more about hunting, fishing, football, baseball, etc. than about strange far away places beyond the temporal ken of our staid grey lives in the Fifties U.S.A. So coming onto this passage in Eileen Joy’s new essay Weird Reading for Speculations IV brought all those first time reading pleasures back to me:

Nevertheless, works of literature are also unique events that possess a penumbra of effects that can never be fully rationalized nor instrumentalized, and there is no one set of relations within which the whole range of any one text’s possible effects can be fully plumbed or measured. There is always something left over, some remainder, or some non-responsive item, that has to be left to the side of any schematic critique, and this is an occasion for every text’s becoming-otherwise.

This excess, this remainder, this something that can never be explicated fully or trapped within the close reading of some master reader or critic’s textual analysis, this is what escapes or withdraws from us beyond our wildest speculations into a reality so intense and alive that our minds barely comprehend its existence much less acknowledge its haunting presence. Yet, like Eileen describes we can always count on certain repetitions to occur exactly the same way and at the same point within these strange narrative structures we call novels, poems, stories, etc. As she describes it Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina will repeat the same suicidal tale, jump in front of a beastly train; Macbeth will lose his head; Hamlet will murder too late… each of these things will happen over and over like clockwork each time we pick up these same books, plays, poems, etc. And, yet, something will have altered nonetheless. That something is us. We will have been altered by this reading, this moving through the repetitions of a temporal onslaught of words signifying nothing more than strange characters on the abyss of the page entering into conversation with our mind creating a new sphere or object that is an interpenetration of both worlds: that of the text-as-reader and the reader-as-text, the shifting vagaries of something that is neither one or the other, but of both at once. As Eileen tells us:

Stories are like deterministic, machinic systems in which characters, situations, and other details are frozen, as it were, in certain poses, while also being always “wound,” like watches, to keep the same time. Yet, narratives also contain discrete, disconnected instances of being and becoming that are always attempting to expand beyond or subvert the larger narrative system—these instances, or “units” (as Ian Bogost would term them) are like things, material elements with their own conatus (Spinoza’s term for any thing’s tendency to persist in existing), which always leaves the system open to a creative and possibly fruitful chaos (a plenitude of generative unruliness whose historical tense would be the future perfect subjunctive: what would have been, or, what would have not been).

These material objects, these devices, books, novels, stories, poems, etc. sit there like inactive memory cells awaiting some strange being to come along an unlock their hidden algorithms, to enchant them back to life, to give breath once again to their fossil life, awaken the words on the page within our minds like sparks from an alien world giving us a chance to know and touch other realities we never knew before that moment existed. Such is the power of language. Eileen let’s us in on a secret. She understands that there are those readers among us, those supposed critics of literature who have mastered the power of reading texts and giving them ‘context’ putting these texts in their places, pounding them till that last iota of meaning is forced into some strict order of a totalized master schema. Her secret is that these critics will never know what escapes their nets, that a “a speculative reading practice might pay more attention to the ways in which any given unit of a text has its own propensities and relations that might pull against the system and open it to productive errancy (literally, “rambling,” “wandering”—moments of becoming-stray)”. This ‘errancy’ of which she speaks is the nihilistic light of the abyss, the untapped withdrawn point of no return, the distant shore of a meaning that we will never fully grasp within our linguistic traps. As she describes it in OOO terms:

Any given moment in a literary work (all the way down to specific words and even parts of words, and all the way up to the work as a whole), like any object or thing, is “fatally torn” between its deeper reality and its “accidents, relations, and qualities: a set of tensions that makes everything in the universe possible, including space and time,” and literary criticism might re-purpose itself as the mapping of these (often in- and non-human) tensions and rifts, as well as of the excess of meanings that might pour out of these crevasses, or wormholes.

Exactly! The gaps, the small holes of rhetoric that escape analysis, that defy contextualization, that seem to sneak up on us as we are reading and suddenly grab us, awaken in us, tear our own being to shred and reveal something that cannot be put into any schematic reference point, or made to fit any known philosophical or literary reference or point of meaning, as if the words we were reading were for us alone and written as we were reading them escaping the repetitive curve of every rereading one could ever imagine. Eileen terms this “reading for the weird”:

This will entail being open to incoherence as well, as one possible route toward a non-routinized un-disciplinarity that privileges unknowing over mastery of knowledge. The idea here would be to unground texts from their conventional, human-centered contexts, just as we would unground ourselves, getting lost in order to flee what is (at times) the deadening status quo of literary-historical studies at present, aiming for the carnivalesque over the accounting office.

Such a reading would break our habits, our habitual and repetitive, molded, readings enforced by linguistic historical analysis that has for too long held sway within the academic world ruling and guiding readings in a specific contextualized way enforcing codings and recodings of texts through specific lenses and well-trod operations, almost algorithmic and mathematical in precision and technique. As she relates it an “object-oriented (or unit operations) approach to literary works would not (in its supposed de-centering up of historical-materialist critique) necessarily be an apolitical or ethically vacuous project, as some might suppose, but rather is focused on (and maybe even affirms) a pluralism of being and worlds”. Ultimately for Eileen an act of reading, a weird reading, is an “ethical act, one invested in maximizing the sensual and other richness of the world’s expressivity”. Being more explicit she tells us that her own personal reasons for “crafting speculative reading modes follows from a desire to capture the traces of the strange voluptuosity and singular, in- or post-human tendencies of textual objects, but without mystifying texts and/or risking some kind of new sanctity, or theology, of texts, which are always co-agential with us in “earthy” ways—which is to say, enworlded with us”.

Eileen admits to a congenial influence from Jane Bennett’s notions of “vibrant materialism in which objects, which could be texts, are seen to “act as quasi agents or forces with trajectories, propensities, or tendencies of their own,” outside of human will and human design. Elaborating on this sense of “quasi” she remarks: ““quasi” here is important because it helps us to see the ways in which something, including a human or a text, is neither fully a subject nor fully an object, but a sort of “constructor of intersubjectivity” (which could also be interobjectivity), a “station” or “relay” between being and relation, between the “I” and the “It.” The point of this is that we need not dive into the depths to activate a responsiveness from either a person or an object, but merely brush the surface of their flesh or life to awaken or “bring its inner life into play.” She mentions the work of Julian Yates, Michael Witmore, Thomas Pavel as alternative multiplicities or ways, paths, or breaks within a speculative movement that provide a “productive convergence between SR and new modes of reading literary texts, especially if we want to give to texts any sort of agential realism that doesn’t always devolve to their supposed role(s) in well-worn historical contexts”.

Another aspect of her work is in allowing a sort of free-play of these weird worlds within texts to have their own way, to escape the tortures of our humanistic designs and meanings, and allow for a weird reading in the post-human mode of speculative realism “to see better how these teeming pseudo-worlds are part of my brain already, hard-wired into the black box of a kind of co-implicate, enworlded inter-subject-object-ivity in which it is difficult and challenging to trace the edges between self and Other, between the Real and the fabulated”. The point here being to break down the “checkpoint procedures” of that put up barriers between art and criticism allowing the two worlds to open up channels to each others hidden realities.

She gives us an almost palpable method that sees in the book or textual artifact not some dead object from which we retrieve information (although we do that, too), but as if it were alive, sentient in its own right and that the weird critic approaches the sleeping beast using ancient techniques of magic and sorcery, allures (Harman): “a special and intermittent experience in which the intimate bond between a thing’s unity and its plurality of notes somehow partially disintegrates.” Following Harman she tells us in “this scenario, “allure” names something (an experience, but also a timespace, of literary texts) that I think those of us who work in literary studies have been aware of for a very long time, but have not yet mapped in quite this ingenuous way—an “aesthetic experience” that “splits the atoms of the world and puts their particles on display.”

What she is describing is an almost horrific movement that allows a violence to be done to the worlds of texts, one that applies a sort of Hadron mentation or apparatus to enter into the depths of the text and collide with its fractured atoms in such a way as to break apart its encrusted casings revealing the inner core of its sparkling life. Such a weird reading reminds me of those old Kabbalists tales of the breaking of the vessels in which the light of the Ain-Sof (Supreme God) was enfolded within the template or book of life at the beginning to time, and this strange book was torn asunder into ten vessels that held the dark remnants of this dead god’s nihilising light. What happened next is that the vessels were unable to contain this light and suddenly broke into a multiplicity of fragments that fell into the catastrophic abyss that is our universe. Our universe is that catastrophe of a dead god’s nihilistic light scattered by the roaring winds of this catastrophic creation to the far corners of our universe. We are the regathering of those sparks of a nihilistic light that once exploded and split god’s body into this infinite ocean of darkness, and it is our nihilistic thoughts that split the thoughts of frozen time into a myriad of textual particles like monads on a seething sea of fire. Or, so goes those ancient tales of the kabbalistic midrashim.

As Eileen Joy says, we could be a little more prosaic about this splitting and displaying of particles, etc. realizing that “our texts are like collapsed mineshafts that, nevertheless, keep producing working mine-shafts. And literary critics might be like Zeno, laboring to split the paradoxical difference, to keep the allure coming. Maybe that’s not so dry, after all”. What she is seeking is to de-contextualize her readings of texts, to “better describe aesthetics-as-[weird]-causality in the present, with regard to literature, outside of traditional frames of critical-historical reference, is partly what I’m hoping for”. She puts it more succinctly, saying:

One hopes for new modes of reading that would allow texts a certain anti-reductionist and autopoetic, yet also intermediate, ontology—something like the weather, an atmospheric medium with an unpredictable life of its own that nevertheless drenches us.

Eileen Joy seeks a new form of reading that brings with it an almost Borgesian sense of the fantastic, a reading that is at once pleasurable but also affords us that dispotif that would allow us to “link quantitative work on a culture’s ‘built environment’ to words of the kinesthetic and imaginative dimensions of life at a given moment,” as well as “to see what texts can do … when they are not constrained by either their most manifest properties or their so-called historical environments (there’s that rift again, that vein of allure)…”. She tells us we might need to take an ontographical approach, one that would be a process of assembly and re-assembly, “engineered simply to see what might happen, what might occur, when we randomize (and also re-construct) literary objects, which would then be one way (among many possible ways) of simultaneously defamiliarizing and registering the, or a, world”.

Toward the end of the essay she waxes eloquent about here investment in an object-oriented approach to reading, one that juxtaposes disparate objects from different eras or temporal dimension in relation to each other forming new textual relations that can be a productive act of what “Harman calls “vicarious causation,” where two sensual objects “touch without touching” each other on the “interior” of the reader’s attention, and all parties “break free of the epistemological deadlock and reawaken the metaphysical question of what relation means”. In the accidents of relation, of strange weird objects confronting each other in odd weird readings we understand what she means by the carnivalesque: “It is here, in this carnal realm, where objects don’t quite line up with each other, that reading might be configured as an accounting, or description, of the sticky residues of accidents that reveal the places where objects both do, and do not, bleed into one another”. It’s as if Robinson Crusoe were to meet one of Dickens characters, say David Copperfield in a weird moment of time, a vicarious moment that brings them together in a text by Eileen Joy that then awakens in our mind and suddenly forms a new object, a new relation that did not exist before, an object that creates a new world where such characters as David Copperfield and Robinson Crusoe, or Huckleberry Finn and King Arthur suddenly find themselves alive and moving in realms both weird and wonderful.

Yet, this enjoyment and pleasure in reading does not imply an unethical dimension, in fact just the opposite it offers a freedom of thought that will not be limited by false Enlightenment strictures or academic regulation. In fact against one member of the SR community, Fabio Gironi, who argues that what is important now in the development of SR thought is a certain commitment to Enlightenment values, where “[t]o value reason means unwavering vigilance concerning the validity of our epistemic principles” as well as avoiding the “slippery slope of uninhibited conceptual inventiveness,” she tell us that what is needed is just that, an “uninhibited conceptual inventiveness that allows “the mad, the chimeric, the deviant, the teratological” within the academic world free reign rather than a reigning in. In the final paragraph she describes her personal allurement with object-oriented modes, saying, and I quote at length:

Part of my interest in SR and OOO is precisely because I see the (acid-trip) modes of thought opened within these intellectual realms as possible allies in transversally re-wiring the sensorium of reading with an eye toward increasing the pleasures and enjoyment of, not just reading, but of a heightened contact with the world itself, in all of its extra-human (but also co-implicate) vibrations, with what Harman has called “the sheer sincerity of existence.” And with Anna Kłosowska, I want “a different [critical] theory of pleasure,” one “grounded in presence,” where pleasure isn’t “conceived through an avaricious Marxist critique along the lines of symbolic capital, or [through] a cultural studies reading that would [negatively] label pleasure’s material and imaginative parameters,” surrounding it “with yellow tape as the crime-scene of simulacrum.” In weird reading, we might discover a non-projective, non-hermeneutic wedge against our usual ontological intransivity. This may be playful (skating dangerously, or perhaps seriously-pleasurably, around the edges of decadence), but it is also non-destructive. It might make of our work a welcoming pavilion of thought.

Reader Eileen Joy’s essay Weird Reading: here (warning: pdf).

5 thoughts on “Speculations IV: Eileen Joy and the Joys of Reading

  1. This was marvelous, inspiring enough to verge on ‘inspirational’, which usually can’t be used without religious overtones. So it’s the athleticism from the beginning that you still have that accounts for the exuberance. It’s a pleasure, and your tolerance is also ‘inspirational’, since I’m not terribly so (I guess you have to learn tolerance from ‘the right people’). I haven’t even gotten to the pdf yet. You’re older than I would have thought too, either my age or even a bit older if you ‘grew up in the fifties’. Good work.

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    • Thanks, Patrick! Yes, I’ve learned through many harsh years of war and life to be tolerant, especially of my own failings, but of others completely… realizing we all live in a world which is open and imperfect, knowing that its just that that keeps us sane…

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  2. I agree that this is excellent. In juxtaposing your lucid textual summary with your childhood reminiscence and the Kabbalistic meditation, you perform the sort of weird reading that’s being extolled.

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  3. Wow: as the author of this piece, but also as the publisher [Director of punctum books] of the journal, I am really impressed, and even moved, by your commentaries on the individual pieces. As a medievalist, I’m a big fan of the commentary [which is not the same as critique], a kind of “writing alongside” the original, a companion para-text. Cheers, Eileen

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    • Thanks! Yea, I enjoy the old style commentary! Gives one a chance to enter into the hidden folds of the text and allow it to shake hands with its own inner logic in ways that bring that free play and interplay you speak of into activation. Glad you enjoyed!

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