The Good, the Bad and the Strong: Gendered Readings

I am currently engaged on a project to read Kierkegaard as a thinker of immanence. In my more pretentious moments I’ve described this as a kind of ‘creative misprision’, since it obviously goes against the grain of dominant readings of Kierkegaard as a champion of transcendence. Reading Kierkegaard ‘badly’ is a deliberate way of trying to unearth some of the buried logic of his texts.

However, the more I think about this idea of creative misprision, and its relation (in Harold Bloom’s original formulation) with ‘strong reading’, the more questionable it becomes, for reasons indirectly related to Anthony’s post.

For Bloom, the truly creative ‘strong’ poets are not slavish followers of tradition, but nor do they work in a vacuum. Their relationship to their poetic forebears is one of defensive resistance. This allows them to interpret their precursors by misinterpreting them, misreading them to allow new meanings and formal possibilities to emerge. To be ‘strong’, therefore, is to be both defensive and creative, and so to wrest the possibility of making meaning from the hands of one’s precursors.

Should we therefore welcome strong readings as inherently liberating and deterritorialising? The problem, as I see it, is one of power relationships.

To explain what I mean, let me move the terrain away from literary readings. One of the most well-known slogans used in opposition to rape culture is ‘no means no’. In the case of a woman refusing consent to sex, this slogan demands a literal interpretation. Men are simply in no justifiable position to second guess and say (to quote the execrable Robin Thicke) ‘I know you want it’.

The reason for this is not of course that it is logically impossible for ‘no’ to mean something other than ‘no’, but because such exchanges happen in a context of patriarchy, where what women ‘mean’ (both what they say and what they are) is dictated to them. Here, the literal reading is the liberating one (or at least the one that does not stand in the way of women’s self-liberation), because it means refusing the male desire to know what women mean.

The language of the ‘strong’ reading is becoming more suspicious in my eyes at least, because it evokes a discourse of mastery and overpowering, rather than creative mutuality. In the hands of oppressed minorities, this can work as justified resistance. In the hands of privileged dudes, it is only justifiable if it serves a resistance led by oppressed minorities.

Incidentally, this is one reason I react so negatively to the accelerationism that Daniel discusses. This is for rather different reasons than he gives. I don’t necessarily have a problem with projects of futurity and conversion as such. However, accelerationism strikes me as a project which, in the guise of futurism, actually affirms the logic of the wretched present, in which the self-mastery of the neoliberal, implicitly masculine subject is precisely the problem.

13 thoughts on “The Good, the Bad and the Strong: Gendered Readings

  1. stanley cavell typically gives what i would consider strong readings of the texts he deals with, but he also does so in a way that puts himself / his self (or an ‘i’ aiming to be representative via his own contributions to philosophy, as an author) at stake. in the scattered remarks on the idea of reading that his work uncovers / implies, he tends to characterize this in terms opposite from those of mastery and overpowering: instead, he uses terms of ‘exposure’, of having assumed a ‘posture’ (as it were a vulnerable one) in which he as a reader has been laid open because giving voice to responses to a text which are at root personal, responses for which he can not ultimately claim a stronger basis than his sense that he is (hopefully) not just speaking for himself.

    (so, if you like, this is mastery/overpowering talk flipped around, so that the aim is to allow yourself to be mastered by the texts you read. when he writes about emerson he is big on the idea of being more ‘obedient’ so as to let the text teach you something – a la ‘character teaches above our wills’. i think a similar thing could be fairly said to be going on in gadamer.)

  2. A minor, but I think related, point. I read through all of SK’s published works a couple of years ago and I was amazed at the extent to which he was precisely and specifically a *thinker* of immanence. He definitely tried to push that as far as he thought it could go but his religious works seemed to be trying to something otherwise than thinking (and I think he failed in that). How that relates to this conversation is how SK has so thoroughly been appropriated by mainstream orthodox theology. It seems that readers could not take him at his word (which is a loaded and layered word to be sure).
    But as soon as someone talked about the desire and possibility of transcendence it proved too much for orthodoxy to remain outside its discourse and so became a function of thinking transcendence. I am not trying to establish a strong analogical tie between gender/power issues with a white dilettante’s philosophy (though he died poor and mocked) but does bear some relation.

  3. To be fair, for Bloom strong misreading is a relationship between literary works themselves and not between an artist and the tradition in the sense that the artist is pathologized. This might seem like an evasion, but nothing implies that strong misreading is understood as taking place in a non-aesthetic scenario ( such as a woman refusing sex).

  4. Thanks for the comments on Cavell and Bloom, both of which are fair comment. Just to be clear, I wasn’t implying any direct correlation between Bloom’s notion and the kind of ‘misreading’ I am critiquing. However, indirectly, I think there are insidious translations, where the elision of strength and creativity mean that the latter is associated with a presumption in favour of overriding the other. And I don’t think that can be limited to an ‘aesthetic’ scenario (or, rather, I don’t think the ‘aesthetic’ is apolitical).

    David – that’s a great point.

  5. I guess one possible question here would be: who are the thinkers that you feel drawn to give strong readings of? Would you give a strong reading of, say, Mary Wollstonecraft? If so, what would that look like? If not… why not? What is it about Kierkegaard that lures you into a strong reading?

    I don’t know how much Bloom’s theory on strong reading has to do with his theory of the anxiety of influence, but these seem related (I’m not really a reader of Bloom). Poets in the european literary tradition [going to leave the obvious point about their social identities left unsaid here] tousle with one another over some common legacy that they feel they share, perform, and re-create again in their own work. They may respect their predecessors for one reason or another, but the “good” (memorialized) poets won’t simply let their predecessors have the last word. They master the craft and come out on top. Part of what creates the lure toward one “great predecessor” over another in this scenario has to do with identity. One guy is pulled toward a great poet that he wants to be like, in order to become “good”. He repeats what he believes is successful in this other guy’s articulation. But he has to figure out how to articulate the crucial difference in their identities. So he works to supercede the work of his predecessor. But, in the end, this remains a game played among “friends.” It remains clubby and (exceptions aside) tended to re-create a certain white, male, colonial position while one or another of them were surfacing as the individual *greats* of one epochal moment or another.

    I think we’re often drawn to read thinkers who we feel some degree of complicity with. We feel caught up in a common project. Or their words and ideas have just been burned into us, somehow. Perhaps one way to deal with this complicity is to muscularly wrest their ideas into a new context in a way that shrouds the complicity. Another way, perhaps, is to bathe in the complicity and proclaim undying fidelity against the changing tides that might threaten to leave a given text or discourse behind. Yet another way might be to launch a critical attack that allows one to remain in conversation, while feigning disgust. But there are other tactics, no?

  6. Without wanting to indulge in too much (blinkered) self-analysis here, it’s clearly true that I am drawn in some way to a lineage that includes Kierkegaard. That has something to do with his conflicted relationship to Christianity, the critique of Christendom, the fascination with limits to thought, the aesthetic forms and so on. For me, it is about not really knowing what is left of Christianity in modernity, whilst trying to recoup some of its potentials. So, yes, I am complicit, and it as well to acknowledge that, because, as you say, it is also a kind of complicity in the Great Men of Ideas ideology.

    Given that the options you outline – muscular relocation, undying fidelity and feigned disgust – all involve lying to oneself and others, what is the alternative? Somehow it has to do with getting out of the ‘me-and-him’ politics of friendship that is involved in reading Great Men. Complicity is always there, so it needs to be named and the structure of it critiqued. I guess I don’t know entirely what that involves, which is why this conversation is helpful.

  7. Almost sounds more like Deleuzian monstrous birth.

    I’m suspicious of the politicization of aesthetics. It’s clear that art is capable of great political insight and power. That it must always be viewed through politics seems a drastic measure. It reminds me of the Susan Sontag quote where she lists all of the great achievements of western culture and goes on to say that these don’t mitigate slavery and colonialism. She’s right, but it’s hard to believe that by that she meant that gothic cathedrals are any less magnificent. There’s an element that’s not captured by socio-economic contextualization.

  8. Eric, I think It’s about more than just the politicization of aesthetics. It’s also about creating different relations with the figures we read. Sure, this desire to relate differently is affected by politics. But it’s also just an acknowledgement that the passage of time does real things to change the shape of cultural objects, as well as how we encounter them. I’m skeptical that the magnificence of a gothic cathedral has ever been *uniformly* experienced.

    Steven, I think that the examples I brought up were, in part, all relatively cynical or negative examples. But I also think that there are, perhaps, as many different kinds of relations with these texts as we can explore and invent. Relations are inherently complex and I think the politics of friendship can be complicated and pluralized, as well. I think the volume on seduction and Augustine, written collectively by Virginia Burrus, Karmen MacKendrick, and Mark Jordan is an interesting example ( Agreeing to be seduced by a text, and to attempt to seduce it in turn gives a nod toward complicities, I think, in a way that’s outside of the staid and somber discourses of so many contemporary academic texts. That said, I realize that it’s a relational pattern with its own limits. What are other possibilities? I’m thinking about it right now, and I’m not sure. Maybe there’s something important about acknowledging a shared anxiety, a shared fear, or a share fixation/obsession… something that underscores a kind of shared vulnerability between figure and reader, rather than using the shared discourse as another veil to shroud those vulnerabilities?

  9. Beatrice, I agree that it is necessary to find new ways to relate to tradition. Regarding cathedrals, one way of doing so would be to compare them to contemporaneous Hindu temples that are as magnificent. There is thus I believe a universality that can be approached by stepping out of a particular discursive mode. Perhaps this isn’t what you mean by uniformity. I guess I’m hoping there’s a ‘transdiscursive’ value to objects, although our appreciation of them is of course mediated.

  10. Thanks Beatrice, I’ll check out the Augustine volume. I like the idea of a kind of mutual vulnerability, where it is not about overpowering or submitting to a text. The image of seduction is powerful too. Something that fascinates me about Kierkegaard’s texts is their internal critique of seduction, at the same time as there is a renunciation of authority, an invitation to make meaning with the text, to be a self-active reader. And of course, this is precisely how the text seduces! A question reading these writings always pose for me is related to this anxiety: without authorities, immersed in existence, to what can we commit, for what can we risk ourselves? And there’s a need for me to be aware of how differently those risks are framed depending on one’s position in networks of power.

    Eric: I was talking about how politics and aesthetics impinge upon one another at all points. I wasn’t suggesting that aesthetics should simply be politically instrumentalised.

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