Monthly Archives: December 2020

Scholarly Texts

Scholars are illiterate. They know not how to read. They do know how to decipher symbols printed on a page, how to translate those symbols into meaningful elements, and how to synthesise those elements into a cohesive argument. But they do not know how to read.

So often do scholars approach a text prepared to judge it guilty that they can scarcely find any text innocent of wrongdoing—and where they do, it is only on account of some oversight, some gross miscarriage of justice. For truly every text is guilty; only the uncultured boor could ever fail to see the guilt of a text. We call those boors dogmatists who proclaim the innocence of their scriptures. But decrying the injustice of dogmatism is not reading. It is senseless; the scholar has said nothing by expressing this judgement. To read is to forgive a text its trespasses, to reconcile with it and recognise it as more than mere criminal: it is human, equal, partner in the project of life.

This is the scholars’ fault: a text to them is not a partner but a tool. It is a means only to their own text, their own tool, their own unforgiveable object of guilt. And scholars know this. It is expressed in their manner of writing. It is the reason for abstracts and introductions, and all those other means of summary, of bare expression of the value of a text, understood exclusively as the contribution it makes to a literature, to a system of self-satisfied means—or what the Kantian might call an end in itself. That the scholar proclaims the guilt of a text means little when they express at the same time the innocence of the literature. This is dogmatism with etiquette. And a boor in a velvet gown does not cease to be a boor.

There are no ends in life, and the scholarly pretension that their researches, their concepts, their texts exist only for the sake of further texts proves only that the scholar has never lived. They are satisfied by the meagre development of self-consciousness, as if all life were an understanding thing, a knowing thing, a rational thing, Science. It is no wonder that these illiterate scholars find in texts only pale shadows of their own selves. But these texts are no ladder to the scholar, to their literature, to their texts forthcoming. It is only because these scholars have not lived, have never needed to live, that they see themselves, their concepts, their self-consciousness as ends. The living, the truly literate, resist this stupidity. They know that any effort to satiate hunger creates only greater hunger. They know, that is, that life is always driven beyond its means, beyond what can be determined in reason or in consciousness.

The text for this reason is not a mere means. Means are means only with respect to determinate ends. But in life, there are no ends: all our ends lie in wait, ready to be deliberated, elected, constructed through life’s developmental processes. And texts are elements of these processes. They do not contribute to the achievement of our ends, except rarely, but to their construction. They are a means only in the sense that a mother is the means to her child. To call her a means is to mistake her contribution; she has agency; she has power; she is not merely the fertile ground within which sperm may germinate; she rather cultivates the child by opposing, by rewarding, by shaping its originative impulses. To call the text a means is to mistake its contribution in the same way. They possess a queer agency, but an agency nonetheless. A text may drive a reader or arrest them. It ridicules them, makes demands of them, encourages and moulds them. And it does this not on its own volition, but by appropriating the intuitive, deliberative, and altogether reflective power of its reader.

Scholars are not blind to the agency of a text. They actively resist it. A text treated by scholars, a scholarly text, is stripped of its power. This for them is the ideal. This for them allows the text to be best manipulated for purposes alien to its own. To achieve their end, the scholar must attend to the source of a text’s power. They know that it has no power of its own. It cannot. Rather, the text parasitises the agency of its reader. And by inoculating the reader, the scholar sterilises the text. They do this in two ways: by supplanting the powerful text with the scholarly and by cultivating what they call “critical thought.”

Scholarly texts are neutral, summarial, anti-rhetorical; they require no power nor agency on the part of the reader. The scholarly text is a guide through a literature. It is transparent. It contains neither surprise nor challenge. Arguments, premises, inferences are laid bare for the reader; the reader may follow them at their whim. They need not endorse any one. It is in fact better, more scholarly, to refuse. The scholarly text is in this sense an open toolbox. A reader may appropriate any argument that suits their fancy. They may destroy with it. They may construct with it. But in doing so, the reader is not destroyed, is not constructed. The scholarly text has no power to cultivate a reader—not at least in the same way that other texts do. For indeed the scholarly text does cultivate something in the reader. It cultivates complacency in their reader, and weakness, and laziness. The reader becomes accustomed to their guides and their summaries. The reader of scholarly texts gradually loses the power to navigate a text, to reflect on a text, to be moved by a text. They preserve only the power to bend it to their will. And a text has no agency whose power is subject to a reader’s will.

Powerful texts, edifying texts, they are not like this. They make demands, they pose problems, they are puzzles, they are games. In them the reader exercises and develops their agency. But there are boundaries and objectives. A reader does not merely swell: they develop; they grow. A powerful text in this sense informs a reader. It does not merely give a reader the power to exercise their will. It also shapes their will.

The scholar cannot accept this threat. Against it, they deploy “critical thought”—truly a shadow of genuine thinking—by means of which a reader strips a text of its power and translates it, word by word, concept by concept, argument by argument, into a scholarly text. Critical thought is a killer. It is a forge and a hammer. Critical thought beats a living text into a dead, inanimate tool. This is its supposed virtue. The scholar advertises critical thought by emphasising its use in subjecting a text to one’s will. Critical thought isolates claims and reorders them into plain arguments. It eliminates the challenge of a text and the game; it eliminates the agency of a text. This is the goal. A powerful text is a threat to good reason, to good will. And for the scholar, only this is sacrosanct.

The scholar has good reason to worry. The powerful text is a threat to their reason and their will. The living reader is all too aware of this. To them, the text is a partner. One’s ends must be deliberated in its company, negotiated, and then constructed and achieved. And so the reader must take care that a powerful text not destroy them, for any partner may at one time command one’s armies only to at another time turncoat and treason. To this end, critical thought, carefully applied, is indispensable for the reader. But there is much more to reading than criticism, than judging a text guilty, than sterilising it, murdering it, forging it into a tool. A text gives a reader the power to do what they cannot do on their own: to cultivate their own agency. It is by means of the text that the reader reflects upon their own desires, their own values, their own interests; and it is by means of the text that the reader constructs them. Genuine thought is more than critical: it is reflective, synthetic, practical. Critical thought destroys this: it destroys agency, it destroys life. The scholarly text, the powerless text, this I say is death.