Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Need for Effective Reading

One of the themes that recurred frequently in my last blog was the idea that effectiveness was often (always?) more important that efficiency. I first encountered this distinction in the area of decision-making; but it also spilled over to a project I had contributed to called "Productive Reading," where I would argue that, for most of the reading matter we were considering, productivity that was effective was more important than productivity that was efficient. I was reminded of this distinction when this blog received its first comment from a reader who seemed to enjoy the approach I was taking to interpreting news. (Since I received all of one comment over the seven months of writing my blog, I was happy enough to receive any comment is quickly!) The comment reminded me that, while there is no shortage of editorializing about every day's news (particular the sorts of things that are coming over the wire these days), that editorializing does not always involve the sort of "productive reading" that our project was trying to address; and, sadly, that may be because it is always much easier to bounce back with an opinion then to worry about whether or not your opinion is grounded in what the text was actually trying to say!

My perspective may also be informed by my recent efforts to read Derrida, which have turned out to be less traumatic than I had anticipated! One of the insights that helped me over the trauma was a remark in David Allison's translation of Speech and Phenomena, which tried to frame Derrida's work in terms of the mediaeval trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Our modernist disposition leads us to focus almost entirely on "extracting the logic" from the text; and we have even seen efforts in artificial intelligence to do just that with news stories. I would argue, though, that extracting the logic is not sufficient for critical reading. I once heard it said that Robert Musil spent every day at his favorite cafe table in fin de siècle Vienna reading the day's newspapers with an editor's pencil in his hand, because he believed that every grammatical error was a sign of a deeper error of thought. It is certainly the case that understanding the grammar and uncover subtleties that escape us if we are only interested in what semantics tells us about logical relationships, and we see that same kind of understanding in the way Derrida can bring new meaning to reading familiar texts, such as the writing of Freud. However, for Allison the discipline that was most neglected was rhetoric, which, I suppose, is why I have a tendency to use that noun to excess in much of my own writing! Nevertheless, the point is that, however much we think that reporting as an objective documentation of facts, it is all but impossible to write about anything (with the possible exception of mathematical equations) without being rhetorical. Our very choice of words shapes the persuasive power of our text, and all reporters know this. So my study of Derrida has encouraged me to examine those texts that we assume to be the most objective and then tease the subjectivity of the writer out of the text itself, drawing upon the subtle hints of grammar and the less subtle hints of rhetoric.

Do we have time for all of this? Well, most of us mere mortals don't really have time for "all the news that's fit to print" in the first place; so, no, we cannot read every news item we encounter that productively. On the other hand knowing that there is more to any story than its objective logic primes us to look for cues in the grammar and rhetoric that something interesting may be bubbling beneath the surface. This is how I know when to dig deeper, sometimes only on the basis of a seemingly innocuous headline. Yes, it takes time; but I have discovered that, as it becomes more of a habit, it is also fun. Since I no longer trust any established source of media, those habits are what I need to get through the news sources and feel as if I am not being manipulated; and having that feeling is worth the effort!

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