Reading the tea leaves, 8

Friday, July 22nd, 2005

In reviewing the reading series in development here, I think I can come to a few major conclusions: I’m considering reading in two senses:

1. Reading as everyday (existential) activity: reading the self, environment, and landscape
2. Reading as cultural act and agency–multiform(al)/function(al) literacy

Literacy is applicable to both, but I would argue that literacy in its presence sense is more in line with the professions, scholarship, and specialization (I heard it used just the other day in this context). Likewise, both areas can involve degrees of skill and value. In English studies close reading is valued over the glance or surface read and thus the skill of close reading is emphasized in the classroom and developing the skill is supposedly addressed in the teaching pedagogy. But the term “close reading” can be ambiguous, in that people assume multiple meanings in its use, especially when we talk about education policy and schooling. Surely to deconstruct a text involves close reading, as would any other critical or philosophical aesthetic applied to texts. There are indeed different ways of reading William Carlos Williams’ poem To Daphne and Virginia

The smell of the heat is boxwood

    when rousing us

      a movement of the air

stirs our thoughts

    that had no life in them

      to a life, a life in which

two women agonize:

    to live and to breathe is no less.

and Dean Young’s I Am But a Traveler in This Land & Know Little of Its Ways

Is Everything a field of energy caused
by human projection? From the crib bars
hang the teething tools. Above the finger-drummed
desk, a bit lip. The cyclone fence of buts

surrounds the soccer field of what if.

–But, of course, this is well known, even though the poems may not be. Yet, I’m nagged by the second of the two main ideas. Is one way of reading better than another? What does best justice to the poem or to the photograph at least for the reader who wants to read: the biographical approach, which informs a reading of Williams’ Asphodel, that Greeny Flower by looking for the connection between real life and the poem; the new critical approach which takes the poem as a self-contained work; the post-structuralist, which, as a set of approaches, focuses on the ambiguities and complexities of meaning, identity, and construct; the reader-response, which places the reader at the heart of the process? It may be that these are pointless questions. If someone wants to compare Williams’ life to the things he writes about, I’d say, go for it (who is Daphne?). Likewise, if one wants to read the philosophy of Derrida or Jacques Lacan or explore the notions underpinning colonialist writings, that’s excellent too. Or what about studying the patterns of things and get into the philosophy of recursionism, a la Escher?

All of this is taking me off track though, it would seem, because anyone can seek out the approaches and use them to understand some part of the stone to whatever degree this may be possible. Is it fine to bring forth the story then of the three readers: the poet, who observes the stone; the geologist, who tells us its parts, and the capitalist, who will figure its market value. Three readers, three stones. But is there one “essential” stone around which all three congregate with gloves on?

At my son’s recent eye test at the doctor the nurse held up a chart and asked, “What is this?’

“It’s a glove,” he said.

What do you think he was looking at?


6 responses to “Reading the tea leaves, 8”

  1. susan says:

    a) A glove.
    b) A disembodied drawing of a hand.
    c) The letter E.
    d) A flower.
    e) None of the above.

    Just from reading the information provided, I would say a) A glove, and stop there. Then I might draw from imagery and experience to understand what might appear as a glove, armed also with the additional knowledge of your son’s age. It could be a baseball mitt, it could be a Rorschach blob, the word “glove.” I could guess that the nurse wore gloves, and that your son understood “this” to mean not the chart at all. We’re reading in words a description of what your son was reading on a chart. Sometimes there is no deeper meaning.

  2. Steve says:

    It was a basic eye chart, composed of a moon, a “plus” sign, letters, and what the nurse said was a “hand.”

    My wife said, “I would’ve said a hand,” but when we thought about it, we both came to the conclusion that given winters in CT, a glove was an excellent answer and the nurse thought that since he’d indicated the + as a “plus sign,” that he would grow up to be a math guy.

    But the answer he gave is an excellent example of the ambiguity of signs: he said glove, but as you know from new media, Barthes, and literary interpretation, it wasn’t a “glove” but a “drawing” of something that could interpreted as a glove, hand, warning, or palm.

  3. susan says:

    So then b) a disembodied hand was what the nurse felt she was presenting. But then, when has a four-year old seen a hand without a body? A hand-shaped “thing” and only that, is indeed a glove. He’s smarter than all of us, choosing his most basic knowledge to supply an answer. We, with years of other meanings, become disoriented from the basics. All this does indeed present a history of how we come to view things.

  4. susan says:

    And of course, to come back to Barthes, interpretation and all that, how have we come to recognize a stick figure as a man? One with a triangle as a woman? Would women scream in fear if all mice truly looked like Mickey? And further, a photograph, as you point out, is just a photograph physically, and not the thing itself.

  5. Steve says:

    But then we have this issue (to be taken with a grain of jello): is there really a “thing” there beyond its representation? Ir is there only a cultural “construct.” Gender, as you know, is huge issue with this.

    I believe Neha the “deconstructionist” would claim there is no “object” there just its “presentation” and “representation” to us. I would claim, tentatively, that there has to be something there to photograph, for whatever that gets us but that this “objectivism” is better suited to abstraction.

    I would conclude that I need to try and move beyond these tempers though and actually do some reading and see where this gets me.

  6. Neha says:

    Well, I also say that interpretation is entirely subjective and there’s no one way of looking at anything. There are always too many variables standing between an individual and his perception of the world around him.