Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Host-ile Reader

       If I were to sit down and read, say, Twilight, I would approach it with hostility. That is, I would already expect it to not only contain bad writing, but that I would also oppose it’s moral, ethical, and political position(s). At UF and other R1 institutions, popular culture has become a legitimate topic and text for theoretical inquiry. Thus, there have been many papers written on Twilight, Harry Potter, and, my (least) favorite Avatar. As academics, we believe we can offer fresh perspectives on these texts in order to show if not their aesthetic worth, at least how they openly display the mass culture’s beliefs and pre-occupations.
Even if we are openly hostile to books like Twilight, critiquing them for their re-entrenchment of heteronormativity or religious imperatives to wait to repress desire, we are at the same time their hosts, inviting them into academic discourse. As hosts, even host-ile hosts, we are at the same time hostage to these texts as they seem to be representative texts of our culture. Furthermore, once we become hosts to these texts, they take ‘the tradition’ hostage. Now, I do not want to bemoan the loss of the great aesthetic, literary tradition because to a certain extent it is still alive and kicking. However, I do want to point out the dialectical relationship created by engaging with these texts and then, eventually, compare this to hostility shown in workplace writing.
      As Harold Bloom has pointed out, poets are constantly struggling against some previous figure, attempting to escape from their literary shadow. By engaging with this tradition, the poet becomes part of the tradition and, at the same time, confirms the previous poet’s importance to the tradition. The poet creates something “new,” but only by responding, struggling against, and appropriating the old. Poetry may be the place for true invention, but what about theoretical ideas—or literary hermeneutics? When someone interprets Twilight again, are they re-inventing and re-visioning the text, so as to legitimate it as part of the popular culture (and academic) canon? Are they not also preserving the text, even as they write against it and refute it?
We see that within the academic tradition, the text can actually be preserved by hostility because writing an academic article requires effort and engagement with the text. In academics, we tend to see these cultural texts as “representative” of the culture, perhaps showing us the ‘culture’s’ cultural ‘public opinion’. This does not seem far-fetched, as these texts circulate wildly throughout the United States, impacting the lives of many people. These are paradigmatic stories of our culture, much like the myths told in oral cultures and, even in academic critique, these myths are preserved and legitimized as objects of inquiry. Inquiry and critique takes an appreciation of the text, a hostility to the ideas perhaps  but not to the act of reading itself.

And so we leave the halls of academia and enter the cubicles of corporate America. . .

        In this arena, I want to argue that texts are not preserved by the hostility related to the host and hospitality. In this world, the reader is hostile not only to the ideas but to the act of reading and interpreting itself. In the previous section, I deliberately played with Jacques Derrida’s punning on hôte, meaning both host and guest. As Diane Davis puts it, “as soon as the guest is invited in, the host becomes the guest’s hostage; the power of the host is converted into the vulnerability of the hostage” (Davis 132). However, as Matelene points out, hostile audiences such as the Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, are not going to ‘engage in a play of signification’ not going to ‘envision alternative readings’, and are not going to play the role we have written for them” (Matelane 54). Furthermore, the host as hostage of the guest kind of thinking seems to only work if the host and the guest are on the same power-level. A chairman could easily dismiss the text as meaningless, unimportant, hostile to another value, etc. The text, in this case, not the reader, is the hostage of this person in power. These people in power are not going to give up their power, are not going to welcome the ‘unexpected guest’.
      Let me be clear: I think that Derrida’s ideas about welcoming the unexpected other are useful, but, as he says himself, (im)possible. Given that we cannot expect this kind of openness from those higher up on the corporate ladder and given that hostility toward these texts usually result in their death, we need to figure out how to negotiate these types of reading environments. Reading a novel, reading an academic paper (even as a peer reviewer) requires giving the paper the benefit of the doubt and allowing oneself to be captured (taken hostage) by the argument or narrative; true, in academic argument, we also read “against the grain,” but it is only an against the grain so as to help the writer or as a mode of invention for our own writing about the text.
      I’m not sure that all I’ve written is correct. I realize I have little evidence and little argument—perhaps I am just ranting meaninglessly. But I needed to produce some writing. 

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