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Minding the Body - De File
Does Collecting Make You Feel Dirty?
cbertsch
cbertsch
Minding the Body
The other day I wrote about how changing the place where I write has had a positive effect on my thinking. When I look up from the laptop screen, I'm seeing books that inspire me to make connections between them and whatever is currently in or on my mind. Describing this circumstance again tonight, I decided to say that this relationship, between what's near -- the screen -- and what's far -- the bookshelves, has given extra body to my work. But then I realized that this formulation, which sounds a little too much like a commercial for shampoo, is more interesting than what it seeks to capture.

Reading and writing are invariably more bodily in nature than we are inclined to think. Where we sit, what the lighting is, how much we've had to eat or drink: these physiological factors play a crucial role in our experience of those activities. There's a reason why magazines like The New Yorker have been running ads for literary accessories since their inception. The person reading the magazine while suffering from a headache or exhaustion is both aware that her or his body is conspiring against the task of reading and doing her or his best to suppress those surges of unease by focusing on the text as if it were not part of the physical realm.

Today I spent a long time sorting through crates and boxes of books and moving them around in my office, the garage, and the storage space. Although the task eventually wore me out, I was initially happy to be doing it. There's a big difference between reading a piece online, where all cats are, in a sense, gray and reading it in a bound volume you can hold in your hands. I don't mean to devalue online learning, which occupies much of my time. It's just that there's knowledge conveyed in the physical experience of holding a book that can only be distilled indirectly for cyberspace.

Recently, when I was talking to a former student about to take his doctoral exams, I explained that I had prepared for my own by both reading and listening to books on tape. When I took my orals, I found that the material I had take in by ear was more readily available for conversational improvisation than the material I had only read on the page in silence.

I wonder if something similar is at work in the distinction between reading a book and reading online. I find that the absence of distinctive visuals in internet content tends to make it less clearly resolved in my mind. I often remember details from a book in a process where look and feel are inextricably bound up with the words I summon from the depths of memory. In the absence of such mental props, I struggle.

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From: babyiwasshot Date: March 9th, 2009 08:44 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
The person reading the magazine while suffering from a headache or exhaustion is both aware that her or his body is conspiring against the task of reading and doing her or his best to suppress those surges of unease by focusing on the text as if it were not part of the physical realm.

Interestingly, the capitalistic obsession with fitting everything into rigid temporal structures elicits exhaustion (both mental and phsyical), and with the university (a milieu in which reading is paramount) increasingly adopting a capitalistic structure, it thus negates its (ostensible) purpose.....then again, I suppose the purpose of the contemporary university is to make money. I wonder how that "telos" would be received in the lyceum.


Regarding the distinction between physical and "quasi-physical" (online) content; to me, print has a decided legitimating function; when I read online content, I tend to do so without taking it as seriously, which then causes me to gloss more and pay less attention. Moreover, it's simply easier to "publish" online than it is to publish in print, which may/may not pertain to Benjamin's ideas regarding "aura" and "mass production"....dunno. HAh!Incidentally, what little I know of Benjamin has been picked up aureally, much as you picked up stuff from your books on tape.

I often remember details from a book in a process where look and feel are inextricably bound up with the words I summon from the depths of memory. In the absence of such mental props, I struggle.

I'm the same way.

Good post.

cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: March 9th, 2009 04:06 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Excellent thoughts RE: Benjamin. He's my fave. I've read that essay so many times and taught it a bunch too. What you say is right on.

I'm also interested in your point about the sort of reading that the academy asks of students and teachers alike. I'm not sure making a profit is the direct goal, since almost all schools lose money, but that doesn't mean that they're not set up to serve the interests of global capital. One thing I've been struggling with for a while is the tension between the lingering pre-capitalist structures in universities -- which, like religions institutions tend to preserve what Raymond Williams called "residual formations" a lot longer than they last in the "real world" -- and the increasing pressure to rationalize them along corporate lines.
From: babyiwasshot Date: March 9th, 2009 06:25 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
One thing I've been struggling with for a while is the tension between the lingering pre-capitalist structures in universities -- which, like religions institutions tend to preserve what Raymond Williams called "residual formations" a lot longer than they last in the "real world" -- and the increasing pressure to rationalize them along corporate lines.

I'm reading Dos Passos's USA (published in 1938, I think) in one of my classes, which (in a biopic of Thorstein Veblen) mentions something along these lines, actually:

"At Carleton College, young Veblen was considered a brilliant unsound eccentric; nobody could understand why a boy of such attainments wouldn't settle down to the business of the day, which was to buttress property and profits with anything usable in the debris of Christian ethics and eighteenth-century economics that culttered the minds of collegeprofessors, and to reinforced the shaky edifice with the new strong girderwork of science Herbert Spencer was throwing up for benefit of the bosses" (849).

PS: Tell Scruggs about my dropping that passage if you see him; sometimes I think my dismal quiz performances--on account of being a slower-paced reader--convince him that I'm not doing the assignment.

From: babyiwasshot Date: March 9th, 2009 09:06 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Interestingly, the ease with which I recall and spit knowledge gleaned from magazines such as The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books forces me to conclude that I'm most receptive to the content published in that form.

Magazine content is physical, like a book, yet it's also generalized, which would explain the manner in which I myself like to generalize and theorize--I've never been one for detail...hmmm
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: March 9th, 2009 04:07 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Oh, I'm the same way. I probably shouldn't have written "bound," since I wanted to include magazines and newspapers in my description of non-online reading.
From: (Anonymous) Date: March 10th, 2009 12:49 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Your former student just aced that exam - thanks for the help.

- Mark
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: March 10th, 2009 12:54 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Awesome! I'm so glad to hear that. Not that I'm in any way surprised, mind you. But it's still good to get that behind you.
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