“No ‘expert’ intermediary can help you think for yourself”: rules for reading
My dear friend cheyanne turions, who has been thinking alongside me about the practices of looking and reading for quite some time, sent me photos of several pages of A Great Books Primer (1955) this holiday season, which offers 10 rules for running and participating in a reading group.
What I love about these rules are their clarity of language and direction, and their insistence that every reader (or viewer) is equipped with the critical and analytic tools to create meaning from any text (or image), so long as they pay close attention to it, and to the discussion of others with whom they are reading (or looking):
[excerpted and feminized. You know, like using feminine pronouns as the universal, and also like feminism made into a verb]
The Rules of the Game
1. Read each book well
Give it your full attention.
2. Have some questions ready
To pose to the group, not to its leader.
3. Talk about the book
You come to the group to talk about ideas. But about the ideas presented by the book—not just any ideas.
4. Speak your mind freely
State your opinions openly and be prepared to back them up with reason.
5. Be brief and to the point
If you find the talk is wandering, help to get it back on the track.
6. Don’t let the discussion get away from you
If you don’t understand what’s going on, say so. Ask for examples, illustrations, reasons until you do understand.
7. Disagree, by all means, but in a friendly way
Disagreement may bring out the contradictions in a position, or the complexity of the question.
8. Matters of fact can waste time
Assume the disputed fact for the sake of discussion. Of course, if the fact in question can be found by referring to the book you are discussing, you should do so. The book is the big fact which you all have in common.
9. Discuss the book, not what others say about it
Forsake outside authorities for the purposes of discussion. Not that they don’t know anything. They do. But your main purpose should be to develop your own thinking and ability to communicate. No “expert” intermediary can help you to think for yourself.
10. Discuss the author’s ideas, not her life and times
It is her thought that counts for your discussion, not the circumstances in which the author found herself. The major arguments, those which have meaning for us today, are understandable in the author’s own terms.
Through her work in No Reading After the Internet and my own attempts at adapting it into a looking group format, cheyanne and I have often discussed how to create an environment where this kind of looking and reading and talking can happen. We have drafted versions of a kind of “No” manifesto (along with the brilliant input of Kim Simon, Amy Lynn Kazymerchyk and Jacob Korczynski) that try to get at many of the same tenets and ideas. I suppose, like many of our experiments, there is the chance that there will be a disconnect between presenting these guidelines and the “real life” effects that can interrupt them when put into practice (group dynamics, unconscious processes, the eternal difficulties and discomforts of teaching and learning), but it has been a real inspiration for me, as I turn to thinking about a new calendar year, for pushing ahead with a kind of blind belief in the critical capacities of the reader/viewer, and the space of the gallery or artist-run centre in providing the environment for great (and sometimes difficult) discussions about books and images.