Reading the World
All the World's a Text
I say on the Homo Vitruvius “About” page that in addition to being a writer, “I’m also a reader. I’m a reader first. I write what I read of the world, the text of the world, which is mine and everyone’s life, to be deciphered and interpreted, understood and mistaken.” I’ve said elsewhere that as a professor of English, a teacher of literature, I’ve thought of myself more as a teacher of reading.
In guiding students to read more attentively, then insightfully, I try, as one technique, to defamiliarize language to them. People are so habituated to language as mere tool, a basic utilitarian means of fumbling communication – just paint on a bedroom wall – they can struggle to perceive it as material for artful meaning making, oil on canvas. Likewise, I introduce them to alternative languages, sign systems, like the visual. So I offer exercises in, or demonstrations of, reading visual texts.
When I teach my class on the city in literature, with a focus on New York and Los Angeles, I have fun with this image, a still shot from Martin Scorcese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. That’s Leonardo DiCaprio, predator jungle creature, and a pre-Barbie Margot Robbie, great blonde hunter with an unusual weapon. I learned quickly that some students know the film, so I needed to instruct them to disregard the film and focus on the still as a stand-alone image.
After a brief period of discussion in which I ask the students to be attentive to what they see and to try to describe it with precision, I introduce the class to Laura Mulvey’s theory of “the male gaze.” That sharpens the discussion further. Then I will bring in Camille Paglia and her ideas of female sexual power. The last time I taught the class, just a few years ago, one of the students was a young woman who had taken first-semester composition with me. She’d received an A and expressed her intention to take another class with me. But two years passed before I saw her again, in this class. By this point, during those intervening years, she had become fully critically acculturated and at the mention of Paglia responded with a flare of her eyes, as if I’d dropped my pants.
“Oh,” the student said, adjusting her body a little in the chair, “she’s very problematic.”
For those who don’t know, “problematic” is a bit of viral academic jargon that jumped species from the academic into the social justice body, and while purporting to present normative, nonjudgmental analysis, actually intends to mean bad, certainly unacceptable.
I contained my amusement.
“Well,” I said, “let’s just try to address ourselves to the ideas.”
In the manner of direct instruction, I also often share this video from one of my favorite YouTube video essayists, the Nerdwriter. An aspiring novelist, Evan Puschak found his truer calling (enhanced by his supple, made-for-audio voice) applying his acute reading skills across a range of cultural texts. The most recent I watched from him, in his usual insightful analysis, is about Hulu’s hit dramatic comedy The Bear. Here, in “Hopper's Nighthawks: Look Through The Window,” (seven or eight years old now) among his many observations, Puschak connects with my “Missing in Memoir” focus on absences by interpreting the missing glass in Edward Hopkins’s windows. Hopper is a very accessible, representational painter and provides a model opportunity for this kind of exercise.
Reading can take place on the level of the individual work, resonating back and forth between that work and the artist’s oeuvre, as Puschak mostly pursued it with Hopper; it also takes place connecting to further cultural and historical levels, as with this next video on Peter Bruegel the Elder.