power reading

I’ve been looking back over some of my recent posts about how to become a more moral, less anxious and more efficient reader. As I’ve done so, I’ve been wondering what Christian ethicist Miroslav Volf would say about them.

In his essay, ‘Theology, Meaning and Power: A Conversation with George Lindbeck on Theology and the Nature of Christian Difference’, Volf says (p 55):

Though I believe that Michel Foucault slights the “domain of signifying structures” and elevates unduly the “relations of force,” he is right in warning against reducing the relations of power to relations of meaning. “Semiology” may indeed be a way of avoiding the violent character of social conflict “by reducing it to the calm Platonic form of language and dialogue,” as he suggests.

The Foucauldian accusation Volf is channelling needs to be taken seriously. Attending closely to what happens when a text is read risks underestimating the ‘relations of force’ within which all texts are embedded and implicated in extending.

And it’s a real danger. If you’re anything like me, you’ll know what it’s like to get so caught up in figuring out what a text means that you overlook what it does.

G20 - Riot police storm squad

G20 - Riot police squad (by Tanya N, on Flickr)

To counteract this I suspect I need to get much better at ‘power reading’. I need to sit at the feet of the so-called hermeneutics of suspicion (in its Nietzschean, Marxist, feminist, psychoanalytic and post-colonial varieties) and find better ways of asking about what the text is doing — intentionally or unintentionally, with the best or worst of intentions — and how it is doing it.

It’s a mistake to treat a text simply as a neutral and inert object, lying anaethetised on the dissection table ready to be poked and prodded. No doubt doing so may help expose how it works. But most texts aren’t written to be studied — they’re written to persuade or make requests, to subvert or reinforce authority, to upset or reassure, and myriad other things.

No-one claiming to be a genuinely moral reader can afford to ignore this…

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