Perhaps no writer has, as consciously as Nietzsche in his style, made an art of stimulating good reading, extended a more open invitation to decipher and imposed an obligation to interpret, shown a more brilliant capacity for luring one along through the rhythm of the phrase and, at the same time, making one stop short in amazement over the content. One must consider the humor with which Nietzsche’s writing passes over the oldest and most firmly established precepts while caustically and relentlessly dwelling on unnoticed details: one must learn to listen to the musical pattern of this thought, the allusive, enigmatic way of bringing up a subject that will only later on find its full depth and the need for its connections. This style is the other face, the reverse of a well-defined concept of reading, of a concept that, as it becomes more demanding and more meticulous, frees writing from all dramatic, journalistic concerns, from all desire to attract the general public. In this way, it opens a space for the words of Zarathustra, for the creation of the extraordinary series of works that they continue, discuss, and confirm.
Nietzsche is especially explicit on this point at the end of the preface to Genealogy of Morals (1887) and at the end of the preface to The Dawn (1881): “Not to write of anything other than what could exasperate those in a hurry.” It is not a matter here, as this and other texts would have us believe, of the “eagerness of modern man” who needs to be informed as fast as possible and who would be opposed to slow, careful, “ruminating” reading. In putting emphasis on “interpretation,” Nietzsche rejects all naturalist or instrumentalist conceptions: reading is not receiving, consuming, acquiring. Reading is work. What we have before us is not a message in which an author informs us, by means of words, about his experiences, feelings, thoughts, or knowledge about the world and we, provided with a common code we share with him, try to ascertain what “that author wanted to tell us.”
That reading is work means, first and foremost, that there is no common code into which have been “translated” the meanings that we will decipher later. The text generates its own code through the relationships that it establishes among its signs; it generates, one might say, an internal language, which exists in a relationship of affinity, contradiction, and difference with other “languages”; the work consists, then, of determining the value that the text assigns to each one of its terms, a value that can be in open contradiction to what the same term has in other texts.
We could look at several simple examples, in which we can observe the contradiction that can exist between the meaning of a term in a philosophical or literary discourse and the value that it has in a text of a dominant ideology.
In the Theaetetus, Plato includes in the concept of “slaves” those kings, judges, and, in general, all those who cannot take the proper time that is necessary for the development of thought, because they are forced to decide or conclude within a certain term, and that prearranged term excludes them from having a relationship with truth, which has its own cycles, its paths and detours, its rhythms and tempos, which no circumstance and no power can determine in advance.
Nietzsche gives the name “will to power” to a unifying, perfectly impersonal force that confers a new ordering and a new interpretation of the facts which, until then, were determined by another authority. This notion is, therefore, not only alien to the meaning that the dominant ideology assigns to it, but directly the opposite, since in this latter “will to power” are understood the desire to dominate, to overcome, to oppress others, to subject them to existing values and hierarchies.
If we do not make the effort to define what food means for Kafka, and we assume its commonly accepted meaning, then we will never understand “The Metamorphosis,” “The Investigations of a Dog,” or “The Hunger Artist.” For Kafka, food means reasons for living, and in that sense a lack of appetite is a loss of the meaning of life and a lack of reasons to struggle. Only in that way does the meaning of his texts start getting clearer, because in the beginning we do not have a common code. This is the problem with all serious reading.
We bring up these examples only to indicate that every “objective,” “neutral,” or “innocent” reading is in reality an interpretation, which entails a dislocation of the internal relations of a text, a result of the translation of the meaning of its terms according to the previous interpretation of a dominant ideology.
But it must not be supposed that the work we refer to here consists of reestablishing the “authentic thought” of the author, “what he really meant.” The so-called author is in no way the owner of the meaning of “his” text. This meaning is an uncontrollable effect of a text’s internal economy and of its relationships with other texts; the author can be completely ignorant of it, he can be astonished by it, and, in fact, it always escapes him to some degree. Writing is adventure; the “meaning” is multiple, irrecoverable, unownable, irreducible to what one means.
The foregoing is sufficient to dispel the oppressively generous, pedagogic, and humanist illusion of a writing that bestows on an ‘idle reader’ (Nietzsche) a knowledge that he does not possess and that he is going to acquire.
These observations can serve as an introduction to a subject central to a theory of reading, a subject which we shall begin by, again, turning to Nietzsche and studying two apparently contradictory propositions, formulated with all possible radicalism in Ecce Homo:
a. “Ultimately, no one can get out of things, including books, more than what he already knows. One lacks an ear for hearing what one does not have access to from experience. Let us imagine the extreme case of a book that speaks only of experiences that, in their entirety, lie outside the realm of frequent or even infrequent experience, so as to be the first language to express a new range of experiences. In this case, quite simply, nothing is heard, which produces the acoustical illusion of believing that, where nothing is heard, there is nothing.”
b. “My mental image of a perfect reader always turns out to be a monster of bravery and curiosity and, also, something pliable, shrewd, cautious, an adventurer and a born discoverer. Finally: better than what I said in Zarathustra, I would not know how to say exactly for whom I speak deep down; to whom exactly does Zarathustra want to tell his enigma?
“To you, the daring, the seekers, and to whoever has once upon a time set out with shrewd sails on terrible seas. To you, who are besotted with enigmas that you lust after with the first and last light of the day, whose souls are attracted by flutes to labyrinthic abysses; for you do not desire, with cowardly hands, to feel along a thread and from there to where you can guess, you hate deducing.”
How do we hang on to the two ends of this contradictory chain in which it is suggested that we only read what we already know and, in order to read, it is necessary to be an adventurer and a born discoverer?
The first quote seems bitterly pessimistic; the second is terribly demanding. Let us consider them close up. In the first case, Nietzsche specifies the “already known” as what one has access to from experience. He declares all words into which we cannot read something that we already know to be mute, inaudible, invisible; all language that is not the language of our problem is illegible. It is only possible to read and hear when our problems, conflicts, and perspectives have come to be configured as questions and suspicions, susceptible to finding their expression, development, and answer in a language. Let us remember here the extraordinary tension that is generated at the end of the second part of Zarathustra, in the chapter titled “The Stillest Hour,” mainly in the passage where Zarathustra is terrified:
“Then, something without a voice spoke to me again: Do you know it, Zarathustra?”
And, indeed, in these transitional pages between the second and third parts, Nietzsche employs all the subtleties of his art to point out that the greatest difficulty consists of saying what is already known, in recognizing what is secretly known. This difficulty constitutes a terrifying abyss precisely because of its relationship with something that is already known: if it weren’t known it would be an empty word; but if it is recognized it tears at us and confronts us. Thus the link is constructed between the contradictory ends of the chain, between “what is known” and the demand for bravery, for audacity, and for taking the risk of being a discoverer.
Nietzsche claims for himself a reader who is not only careful, “ruminating,” and capable of interpreting, but also capable of allowing the text to affect his very being, to speak about that which fights to be recognized even at the risk of transforming him; a reader who may well fear dying and being born in reading but nevertheless allows himself to be bewitched by the pleasure of that adventure and that danger.
Just as, whether your eyesight is good or bad, you have to look from some standpoint, in the same way, you have to read from a certain standpoint, from some perspective, which is nothing other than an open question, an unanswered question, which works within us and on which we work with our reading. An open question is an ongoing search that has a specific effect on reading. One can only write for writers, and only one who writes really reads.
We have a magnificent, a redeeming capacity for forgetting all that we cannot convert into an instrument for our work. And, since that work is in reality a process that follows multiple channels, twisting paths, and often takes unexpected shortcuts, we tend to gather material in the most unexpected places. Anyone who has experience with reading (and even more so if he is an “addict”6) or who is accustomed to randomly picking up the first book at hand in his spare time will without a doubt have noticed, with a certain wonder, how frequently he finds, there where he wanted to get lost for a while, that the book speaks of the problem that, at that moment, was troubling him. Nevertheless, there is nothing strange here, nor is it necessary to deny the role of chance in the choice, appealing, for example, to an unconscious premeditation; the selection is made by the problem during the reading itself; the problem seeks its concepts, its connections, and receives and captures everything that might fill its gaps or the discontinuities between the points that seemed to be clarified, and rejects all the rest. It is the problem itself that is reading, the thing we want to take a little break from and that, nevertheless, continues working, in darkness like a mole.
One must take in the strictest sense, however, the thesis that it is necessary to read in the light of a problem. A problem is a hope and a suspicion. The suspicion that there is a unity, a necessary articulation there where we only see some scattered facts, which we can only partially understand; ones that escape us, but insist like an open wound. And the hope that if we manage to establish that articulation something will necessarily be explained that was not explained before; something that impeded our thought processes and therefore worked like a knot in our lives will be removed; one of the ropes binding us will be broken, one of those that obliged us to use all our energy, our aggression and our libido in what Freud called a hopeless “civil war.”
The work of the suspicion consists of subjecting all of the facts to an elaboration and a critique, which may allow for the overcoming of the power of the force (repression, dominant ideology, rationalization, etc.) that keeps them scattered, juxtaposed, or falsely connected.
Reading in the light of a problem is, then, reading on a battlefield, opened up by the act of writing and investigating.
Beyond that there is no doubt that this battle is not fought primarily on the stage of the consciousness. It is enough to read Freud’s “Wolf Man” or “The Infantile Genital Organization” to know that fairy tales and explanations about birth and the differences between the sexes are already read, interpreted, criticized, captured, and rejected based on the drama that Freud does not hesitate in qualifying as “original investigation.”
But, unconsciously or not, reading is always the subjecting of a text (which, because of its conditions of production and of its effects, escapes the ownership of any “author”) to an elaboration. Reading is part of a process that can in no case be thought of as consumption. It can be the encounter with a language in which an investigation is recognized or which it is neutralized by a translation to the dominant ideology, but it cannot be the appropriation of knowledge in the sense of consuming. This is the point that must be reached in order to break the conception and the practice of reading in bourgeois ideology.
Here also capital has its own conception. Reading cannot be but one of the two things into which capital divides the sphere of human activities: production or consumption. As consumption it is spending, entertainment, “recreation”; it appears as the enjoyment of a use value and the exercise of a “right.” As production it is work, duty, useful employment of time, an activity through which one becomes the owner of knowledge, of a quantity of information, and, in somewhat dated terms, “acquires a culture.” This is the period of saving, of capitalization
In the first instance it is a matter, as Marx demonstrated with respect to any “end consumption,” of the reproduction of the classes, here, of ideological reproduction, of the inculcation of the “values,” the opinions, and the blindnesses that an ideology needs to “function.”
In the second instance it proceeds through a much more precise division of labor, since reading is not yet end consumption but the means of training civil servants in repetition, in ideological reproduction; thus it is a matter of an amplified reproduction that isn’t limited to transmitting received knowledge but rather develops and augments it.
But, whether it is treated as saving or as spending, reading is always left as reception.
So now, if reading is not reception, it is, necessarily, interpretation. So, let us go back to interpretation.
Of whatever type it may be (psychoanalytical, linguistic, Marxist, etc.), interpretation is not the simple application of knowledge or of a set of known facts to a text in such a way as to allow the discovery (behind its apparent disconnection) of the internal law of its production. Above all because no knowledge is the possession of a neutral subject, but rather the progressive systematization of a struggle against a specific force of domination: against class exploitation and its effects on the conscience, against repression, against theological, teleological, and subjectivist illusions embedded in grammar and in the ingenuous consciousness of language. No one has managed to know Marxism if he has not managed to read it within a fight against exploitation; or psychoanalysis, if he has not read and suffered it from the standpoint of a debate with his subconscious problems. Derrida’s meditation on the development of linguistics shows that nobody manages to become a linguist outside of the struggle against the theology implicit in our language and in the classic forms of thinking about it.
–co-translated from the Spanish of Estanislao Zuleta bySteven J. Stewart and Rosene Zaros