26 July 2005

- Economy of Rereading -

David points to Bérubé's post on Harry Potter. I have nothing against Harry Potter—quite the contrary—but I wonder a bit about Bérubé's take.

Not surprising for a literature professor, Bérubé valorizes rereading. In and of itself, there seems to be little to argue with in that stance. Most of us (myself included) presume that rereading is important to the kind of understanding we value. Bérubé quotes Roland Barthes on rereading:

Rereading, an operation contrary to the commercial and ideological habits of our society, which would have us “throw away” the story once it has been consumed (“devoured”), so that we can then move on to another story, buy another book, and which is tolerated only in certain marginal categories of readers (children, old people, and professors). (S/Z, 15-16)

Bérubé also reminds us that "people familiar with his work will remember that [Barthes] was as willing to interpret magazine covers, detergent ads, and wrestling matches as the work of Balzac." Bérubé's point is that Barthes' stance on popular culture cannot be inferred from his valorization of rereading. Yet Bérubé does not really pursue the issue. In particular, he does not mention that Barthes' reading of what he calls our cultural "mythologies" depends itself on rereading, his refusal to throw away ephemera just because culture asks us not to concern ourselves with it once it has been consumed. In this way, his reading of a particular magazine cover, say, depends on "rereading" it after its cultural moment has passed: in this way the social consumptive habit is resisted.

Such resistance may be all well and good when a text is designed to be forgotten in the act of consumption; but what about when a text is made for the economy of rereading? A need to reread seems immanent to Rowling's books; they engender this desire to reread; rereading them to all appearnces gives pleasure. In that respect they are not unlike so-called difficult texts, though the latter seem far less enchanting. We are aware of our labor as we read difficult texts. That is, reading and rereading them seems like real work.*

What is most troubling, however, is the way this desire/pleasure/need is instrumentalized by the Rowling industry. So we get not just the movies, but all the other ancillary products, which seem predicated on the very desire of rereading, of returning to the world of the text—really to get lost in that world: thus do we convince ourselves that we own this world, that it belongs to us. And this is at one with the the commercial and ideological habits inculcated by the film blockbuster, which produces the desire to see it again, not just for the added box office revenue but even more for the ancillary revenue that this desire generates. Think of Star Wars, Batman, Spiderman, etc.; but think also of The Lord of the Rings.

It is the connection to Tolkien that I find most relevant. For his may be the first texts that have been used to instrumentalize rereading in just this way. And though Tolkien could have hardly forseen the transformative commercial and ideological effects of his texts, the Tolkien industry has formed around reaping profit from the desire to reread that they give rise to. This desire is instrumentalized spectacularly in the films and the ancillary products related to it. But it is perhaps even more apparent in ten volumes or so of his notes and drafts that have been released. Name another author whose Nachlass has been published not for scholarly consumption but to feed the ravenous appetite of general readers for more text.†

So then the question: what does it mean culturally that rereading is no longer an operation contrary to the commercial and ideological habits of our society but has rather in some cases at least become identical with those commercial and ideological habits?


*This is not to say that reading Rowling's books does not take real labor. The sheer time commitment certainly suggests that one will have to work at reading the books. It's simply that the work one does in reading them is less apparent presumably because the pleasures it gives rise to seem more intense and immediate.

†As the term "scholarly consumption" suggests, we cannot exempt humanistic scholarship from this economy, which may indeed serve as the source and model for the economy of rereading; the primary difference is that at this time monetary profit cannot as yet be reaped from most products of humanistic scholarship. With perpetual copyright just around the corner, this may well change, since such scholarship may well prove profitable when consolidated and organized into information databanks.