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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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Today I read Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Generous Thinking: A Radical Approach to Saving the University, a book that touches on many of my interests (public humanities, open access, reforming university assessments and hiring etc.). I’d already had the pleasure of reading the draft version, which was available for open comment, but the final edition really did feel even better than that.

One of the things that struck me, and about which I wanted to spill some doubtless pretentious words, was the remark on page 83 that “this is not to say that scholarly reading is solely instrumental in nature”. This isn’t really any kind of “response to” that phrase or passage, but rather a set of tangential thoughts that were provoked in me by that phrase.

Instrumental reading is something with which I have struggled for many years. And I think that there are actually several sub-kinds of instrumental reading and perhaps no kinds of non-instrumental reading.

The kind of instrumental reading for which I usually strive is non-specific instrumental reading. This is the type of reading where I read a book, hoping that it will in some way be useful for my academic work, but not knowing in advance specifically to what uses it will be put. I have a pretty good textual memory and can usually cite things I have read off the top of my head, but this kind of reading requires, often, a type of precision recall beyond that of which I am possessed. It also requires a retroactive contextualisation of that memory; a way of thinking back through texts that one read in a different context, to see the logic of applicability. The texts of the High Theory era that were particularly good for this – Foucault’s general purpose metaphor of the Panopticon, which you can, aptly, see everywhere, for instance – are those with reusable, wide, and memorable metaphors that can be made broadly applicable without requiring precision recall of textual detail. (This accounts for the many abuses of these texts, too. How many panoptic readings fail to note that Foucault claims the disciplinary era to be over?) However, most of my attempts to read non-specifically have failed.

Instead, what I end up doing is reading within a very specific context; specific instrumental reading. Just as it is “no longer possible to consider the influence of news or other messages in the public information environment apart from the comments which follow them” in the online space (Shi, Messaris, and Cappella, p. 988), I do not consider it possible to read, as someone who is paid to read and to write about reading, without the context of a current academic project playing a role. For instance, I read Tim Maughan’s (excellent) Infinite Detail yesterday and the part on which I zoomed in was the ASCII art pastebin project. This really got my juices going, as they say. But this is because I could see its use: I have a germinative project on the demo- and warez- scenes underway and I thought that Infinite Detail could become the literary work around which this book’s opening pages could be centred. My focal attention was drawn to this brief moment in the novel by the context within which I was reading. It was a bluntly instrumental reading – as was my excitement.

But what reading is non-instrumental in this sense? Our attentions and excitements when reading are pulled by the currents within which we swim. That cursed phrase of the “non-relatable” book that cannot hold our attention is deployed when there is no resonance with our current instrumental foci. Even escapism – the most seemingly non-instrumental point of reading fiction – is an end goal; an instrumental desire. Pleasure and enjoyment also cannot be the definitions of non-instrumentalism, particularly if, but not necessarily when, they are sought.

The non-linearity of reading inheres in the ways in which our subjective focus is drawn to different parts of a text, but this remains a type of instrumentalism, I think; it is the way in which we focus on the things that interest us as individual readers and “use” the text as chordal resolutions to our mental harmonics. I think of such reading – when I don’t know why I am reading or have no purpose in mind, but nonetheless know that my attention is drawn by forms of desire/interest to “use” the text for my own gratification – as sub-conscious, attentive, non-specific instrumental reading.