Friday, May 22, 2015

Strong Kindness

"The reader ... is, of course, free to make what he will of the book he has been kind enough to read." (Michel Foucault)

My daughter has been singing the song for weeks, which is why that allusion to Rihanna slipped into my last post. "The reader," I had said, "is always fourfiveseconds from wilding. They have given you their attention. Don't take their kindness for weakness." Now, when I say the reader is always a few seconds "from wilding", I mean simply that we're all busy people and, if we grow impatient with a needlessly difficult text, we might, if not throw it wildly across the room, at least put it down and look for something else to read. And the other line from that song captures nicely the emotion that drives us away from the text. We feel that our kindness has been mistaken for weakness.

The important thing to remember is that, as scholars, we don't have to get our reader's attention, nor even hold it. The reader has their own reasons for giving it to us. We have to use it. We can expect the reader to read us carefully and deliberately and with curiosity. The reader expects to be addressed as someone who has a great deal of knowledge in advance. You must not try to teach the reader something that is already part of the reader's attention, part of their reason for reading you. Rather, what you say must depend on a great deal of knowledge to be understood. It is in this sense that the kindness of their attention is not weakness. On the contrary, it is grounded in their strength.

But in what sense is it right to call it "kindness"? Not, to be sure, in the sense that they are doing you a favour by reading you. To be kind originally meant to do something "with the feeling of relatives for each other". That is why "the kindness of strangers" is such a beautiful thing. And scholarly writing is very much based on this idea of being "of the same kind" even when one doesn't know one another personally. One presumes a shared body of knowledge, a shared tradition. And so we read each other's work, not with actual personal knowledge of the other, as we would read a letter from a relative, but with a presumption that we come from the same "background", that we've had the same, as it were, "upbringing". Our kindness displays this impersonal kinship. The reader is already listening.


Presskorn said...

Association: McDowell, at one point, speaks of the fact that the world is hospitable to our concepts as "the kindness of the world"...

Thomas said...

Nice thing to set alongside Hegel's "prose of the world".