Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Reading and progress

(I've been sketching some theses on reading as a follow-up to the theses on writing. One of the points became long and unwieldy, so I'm posting it separately here.)

In a culture that worships progress, even reading an old novel becomes a theological act.

Today belief in progress far exceeds the most extravagant excesses of 19th-century enlightened Europe. Belief in progress is cemented deep beneath the floorboards of our culture; if we rarely speak of it, that is only because it has attained the status of an absolute fides implicita. We believe in progress as we believe in financial credit: a powerful silent credendum that gives shape to our social behaviour, preferences, and habits of mind.

In the temple of progress the doors are never shut and the priests never sleep. The worship of progress produces a new kind of moral imagination: the technological mind. Implicit in every new technology – without exception – is the belief that the New is a historical ‘advance’ on the old, that newness rides the crest of a teleological wave. No one lines up for the iPhone 4 believing it will be worse than the previous model, a step ‘backwards’ (i.e., against the direction of history).

The worship of progress is likewise the secret of all contemporary cultural values, which are held up as self-evident and infallible on account of their teleological relation to the antiquated values of the past. Witness the recent emergence of political correctness, surely the most remarkable cultural phenomenon of the past few decades, memorably described by one commentator as ‘the most intolerant system of thought to dominate the British Isles since the Reformation’ (Peter Hitchens). In Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault identified the Panopticon not merely as an isolated phenomenon but as the emblem of a whole cultural epoch. The emblem of our time is the managerial memo, stipulating the correct use of words and values.

When the cultural history of our time is written, will it not be organised around the twofold emergence of internet technology and political correctness? (And is it not conceivable that some future historian will also devote a minor chapter to the emergence of enforced euthanasia in the later 21st century? We are morally offended by whatever is old; it’s only a matter of time before blood is demanded at the altar of progress.) Our cultural and political life deems inadmissible anything that is outdated or ‘backwards’, anything that fails to reflect the teleological direction of history. In a society ruled by progress, the most powerful person is the one who stipulates new (progressive, forward-looking) values, and the policies to enforce them: just think of university management. Increasingly, it is not only the technological innovator but also the values-driven manager who serves as high priest of the technological society.

Don't misunderstand me: I enjoy technology as much as anyone; I just don't think it makes a very good deity. And this is where reading comes in. In a society that worships progress, reading is a site of resistance. To read is to refuse the ideology of progress. Reading is a lunge backwards into the continuum of history. The reader refuses to accept that the relation between past and present is always and necessarily one of teleology. In the night sky we peer deep into the past, at light emitted millions of years ago by dying stars. Books are the twinkling lights of the human past. Reading is the experience of the simultaneity of past and present. It is a silent witness against the god of progress and those who clamour at its temple. Reading is a preferential option for the past.

As the prophet Daniel disobeyed the king’s edict and prayed to the Lord three times a day, so readers bend their minds to the past, quietly ignoring the decrees of progress. A whole society gathers smilingly around the bright battery-operated glow of its temple, whispering the hypnotic mantras of values and progress. To speak or act otherwise is forbidden by sovereign edict. Three times a day I go into my room and read, the windows open as before towards Jerusalem.

Update: C. S. Lewis responds.

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