Three Readerly Illusions

by rsbakker

(Cheesy) Aphorism of the Day: It is better to entertain thoughts than to entertain people. It is better still, to entertain people entertaining thoughts.

I’ve been thinking about the wonderful laboratory that is Amazon’s reader review system.

There’s no fact of the matter about the intrinsic value of books. The argument is simple: Consciousness is a product of brain function. Meaning is a product of consciousness. Meaning, in other words, is all in our head.

Here’s an interesting theoretical cartoon for consideration. We have a physical object before us, one that encodes a semantic object. The tendency is to attribute the clarity and stability of the former to the latter, to conflate the semantic content with the material vehicle–to weld our experience of reading to the thing we hold in our hands. Let’s call this the Illusion of Semantic Objectivity. We seem to have a hardwired tendency to think of our reading experience as a kind of thing, and to use the logic of things to structure our subsequent reasoning about books and readings.

The vast majority of readers, I would also hazard, actually think they possess exhaustive knowledge of what they read. “This book is over my head,” is a comment only rarely found on Amazon. Let’s call this the Illusion of Semantic Exhaustion: the impression that one has gleaned, if not all the meaning, then all the significant meaning, from what they have read. A philosophy professor friend of mine once complained about the sexism of Neuropath, perhaps the most layered reading experience I have ever attempted to create. When I told him that the sexploitation so common to the larger cultural genre was something I was mucking with, he told me that “if he didn’t pick up on it, then it either wasn’t there, or it wasn’t significant.” Not only do people think their reading is a thing, they think it is a complete thing. The possibility of more nuanced, more sophisticated readings, escapes them–even when they preach the promiscuity of the signifier!

This ties into the third illusion I wanted to throw out for consideration. The vast majority of readers also, in my opinion, assume they are more intelligent than the books they read. The general, which is not to say universal, tendency is for people to think that they are more intelligent than others. In fact, there is a correlation between the lack of intelligence and the propensity to think oneself more intelligent. The dumber you are than others, the more likely you are to think yourself smarter than others. I’m convinced that this lies behind the tendency of people to label things they don’t understand ‘pretentious,’ simply because the alternative, the fact that you have encountered something you are incapable of understanding, is too unpalatable. I know I’ve caught myself doing this innumerable times, and I can only imagine how often I fail to catch myself. Let’s call this the Illusion of Semantic Authority: sense that your semantic evaluation somehow trumps the evaluations of others. That somehow you’ve won the Magical Interpretation Lottery.

Now I can feel the Horde of qualifications storming the gates, but simplification is the point of heuristic theorizing. Since no conceptual cartoon can ‘capture’ the reality of the thing, the best we can hope for are cartoons that let us leverage some kind of actionable understanding.

All three of these contribute to what might be called the Illusion of the Book, the sense that reading is perceiving, that rather than an idiosyncratic ‘fusion’ (as Gadamer might say) of you and the semantic possibilities encoded in this material object, you are simply the passive observer of some object hanging in public space.

A couple points in service of my ongoing polemic against literary culture: You would think the literati, who are well aware of the conflation of the material and the semantic (some have even raised theoretical empires about the dichotomy) would be immune to this tendency, but this is almost certainly not the case. For all their rhetoric they still think of literature as a kind of thing possessing, as things do, abiding properties–rather than a psychological event. They fail to realize that something is or is not literary based on what it does–and this is demonstrated, I would argue, by the way ‘literate reviews’ on Amazon exhibit all the same characteristics as ‘lay reviews,’ only expressed through a veneer of greater sophistication.

Regarding my own books, I would say that they tend to generate a wild range of semantic experiences, some positive, some negative, for a wild range of readers, and that is better than generating a narrow range of semantic experiences for a narrow range of readers. Some books make nary a ripple going in. Plop-plop-plop. Others splash your ass with cold water. That’s what I’m after: an experience that makes you feel the need to shower.