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On "Reading"

In 2016 I joined Twitter so as to promote, following the publisher's suggestions, Continuity and Rupture. Although I suppose that site is useful for self-promotion since it allows me to introduce my work to a broader audience (and I can't deny it put me in touch with the author who would collaborate on Methods Devour Themselves with me) most of the time I find myself annoyed, stressed, and enraged. Aside from the vast amount of reactionaries and liberals who like to parachute into strings to troll, there are the Marxists of all types (sometimes including my own type) who also tweet infuriating things, performing Marxism in the same way identity opportunists perform radical liberalism.

Even worse are the Marxist edge-lords who say the most infuriating things and make Marxism look dumb and/or elitist. Usually when I get involved in these debates I end up wasting my time across several days, exchanging tweets with these people (who double down just as much as reactionaries), so now I try to resist the urge to respond. Today I happened to read a string of tweets about "reading" that annoyed me greatly. For some reason, the annoyance hasn't dissipated even though I read that string twelve hours ago; it is better served, however, in being expressed in a blog post than a series of imprecise tweets.

Here is the initial tweet driving the string:

This Marxist tweeter refuses to accept that "audiobooks count as reading" because reading Marx (or any other theoretical text as the string would make clear) is nothing like listening to the audio version. At first glance this reads like a leftish version of a reactionary complaining that "SJWs" don't understand the traditional understanding of words; at the very least it appeals to a pseudo-materialism of respecting literacy and conceptual boundaries. But as someone who is simultaneously an organizer, academic, and educator, I find this assumption to be conceptually wrong. Not only does it reveal a misunderstanding of the concept of reading and understanding texts, but it also undermines Marxism. There is a lot to unpack here, the kind of things people in philosophy (such as myself) like to unpack.

Let's begin with the concept of reading since the motivation of this string (of which I will share later reflections by the same person and others in agreement with this person) is driven by a rejection that listening to audiobooks can count as "reading". If we were define reading according to what the name to read particularly intended then, yes, listening to audiobooks would not count as reading-qua-reading. The name is limited and based on a privileging of sight as the sensual medium of literacy. But names are not concepts, and the concept of reading is not identical to the name. Why not? A very simple series of questions can establish that the distinction between the name and concept. First of all, when you ask people who claim that audiobooks don't count as reading if they think that blind people are incapable of reading since they cannot see words on a page, unless they want to completely adhere to the nominal definition they will usually say, "no they have Braille." Indeed, this deflection is made on the string in question:

So now we must ask a second question: if Braille counts as reading, and thus sight is disqualified as the only sense capable of permitting reading, then why is touch more significant than hearing? (Let's bracket, for the moment, that not every text is available in Braille and that blind and seeing impaired academics/activists/intellectuals use software to turn books and articles into audio form.) The answer is usually something non-sensical as "it is writing [meaning symbolic representation] on a page." Seriously. I've had this discussion, long before the string, with students and colleagues and this is how they get out of this problem: "it's writing on a page, man." Okay, then, time for the third question: if reading requires writing on a page––or more precisely symbolic representation on a page––then online reading by sight should be disqualified since it is not on a page but on a simulacrum of a page. But nobody wants to admit this, unless they really want to double-down (you can't read Marx online and understand him!), which proves that what is going on with this simplistic definition of reading is a privileging of sight as the only medium capable of transferring literacy.

If people claiming that the term "reading" should only be used for consuming symbolic representation by sight from a physical and tactile object were consistent then that would be one thing. It would be a weird limitation of a concept to a nominal index, true, but at least it would be consistent. We might ask whether they are similarly consistent with the name book that, in English, comes from buch/beech, and has to do with rune-inscribed beechwood tablets. (Funny how the concepts behind these words changes, no?) But still, as long as it was a matter of limiting a concept to the name from which it derived, this attitude might be forgiveable. The problem, however, is that those who push the dogma that "audiobooks are not reading" are usually making judgments about the ways in which we consume information, which is why they fall back on Braille because they don't want to exclude people who can't see (although they are in actual fact), that they think doesn't extend to listening. The string in question makes this point clear:

Well this must be news to my fellow blind and seeing impaired fellow academics! Since a lot of difficult theoretical texts aren't available in either Braille or audiobook format, blind and seeing impaired academics have to rely on programs that transform written text into audio format and consume the information in this way. Is the "result" as "tragic" as this tweeter assumes? Only insofar as they have to work harder to gain access to the material, which is not what this person who privileges reading as a sight activity means. And let me tell you, the blind academics I've known who have achieved their doctorate, and have done so by mainly listening to the material, understand it very well. Sometimes, when speaking with them, I get the sense that they understand parts of it better because they've had to work harder to grasp what was inaccessible due to the privileging of reading as a sight-based activity.

In any case, as the above tweet makes clear, this concern with the meaning of reading is not because of a desire to stick to the nominal meaning of the term but because these people literally believe that the act of reading by sight (and, just so they don't seem chauvinist, maybe by touch) is the only thing that can properly absorb complex information. Someone else on the string is happy to make this chauvinist judgment clear:

So apparently listening is just about relaxing, zoning out as someone drones on! This makes me wonder why educating in any kind of classroom setting should exist in the first place. Listening to a lecture isn't learning because we can only learn by reading with our eyeballs! I guess I'm just "droning on" when I lecture and it means nothing. Seeing students might as well just use their eyes to properly "read" and learn the real truths by themselves without having to engage vocally with what they read, read passages out loud, enunciate their thinking through of these passages, listen to a lecturer, etc. Capital can only be understood by independent study that is only meaningful if it is words that can be seen on a page. This is all total bullshit, of course, and there is a reason I structure my seminars in such a way as to force students to read passages out loud so they can LISTEN to arguments, as well as speak to each other about these arguments, because I know that people consume information in different ways––that some of us consume information in multiple ways.

But maybe I'm just droning on for 3 hours. When we hold this claim up to the previous claim about surviving in grad school, though, it becomes non-sensical. It is impossible to survive in grad school without listening and engaging in your classes; you skip out on those and you burn.

While it is indeed correct to recognize that listening can be lazy, seeing can also be lazy. Yes we can "zone out" when listening to an audiobook, especially if we are listening to it in a car (which seems to be the only way to consume audiobooks according to this string), but we can also be lazy when using our sight to read a book. Blind and seeing impaired academics slowly consume an audio text, pausing to take notes, just as a sight-inclined reader slowly underlines and also pauses to take notes. Which is why I have my students return to the text and read passages aloud. Because they "read" without "reading". To be clear, I cannot learn by primarily listening due to my own disability, but this does not mean that I cannot recognize those whose learning abilities are diametrically opposite to my own.

So how should we define reading if we are to grasp it conceptually rather than nominally? By the very substance that those who wish to incarcerate it in the nominal definition have expressed. The consumption of information through the transference of language. The sight inclined dogmatists (who admit touch only insofar as they can preserve sight) claim that information can only be absorbed by seeing written text. Such a claim is absurd, and the existence of literate intellectuals who are blind and seeing impaired defies such a definition. This is not to say we should pursue illiteracy, which would be ludicrous, only that literacy means something different for those cannot "read" according to rules of sight because they lack sight. The blind and seeing-impaired are not illiterate, but this edge-lord definition of reading would have us think so.

(The edge-lord definition would require that we also reject Indigenous oral history as meaningful because it is not meaningfully codified according to the rules of Eurocenric inscription. Which is its own problematic that is isometric to this complaint.)

Which leads us to the larger question of Marxist politics and the organizer. Marx intended his works, even Capital, to be a weapon for the proletariat. And this did not mean only the proletariat that was sight inclined but the proletariat that was disabled in this area as well. I have encountered third world ideologues who are blind, who learned Capital because people read it to them, who are brilliant theoreticians. Who do understand Marx without having "read" Marx in the sight-privileged sense. Who have taught me a fuck of a lot about Marxist theory without having seen a single word of Capital but who have listened to every single word, and have consumed and meditated upon its meaning, in a manner that puts our sight-based reading to shame.

The moment you conceptualize reading theoretical Marxist texts as a skill that is limited by sight is the same moment that you exclude those comrades who can't see, and thus who can't "read", from mattering because, according to this definition, they can't understand otherwise. While it is indeed the case that literacy should be promoted, and that the lack of literacy undermines a revolutionary movement, it is also the case that we need to expand our understanding of literacy to include those comrades who will never be able to be "literate" according to sight-based standards––and some of these comrades are active in the midst of ongoing People's Wars. And these comrades can very well grasp and understand the meaning of Capital, even if it has been read to them, and thus can read revolutionary theory as it impacts their lives.