by Yumi Pak
“That reading wasn’t more comfortable than writing. That by reading one learned to question and remember. That memory was love.”1
I’ve been teaching the literary theory class required of all English majors, my sixth time teaching it in as many years. The common charge of many students in the class has been, and remains, that it is just too difficult. For students for whom literature has been a site of potential and pleasurable disidentification, this theory class can be acutely alienating, especially if the comfort of reading is the constant they’ve had in a largely unfamiliar world; over 80% of students at California State University, San Bernardino are first generation students, and thus academia is often a space heretofore intimately unknown.2 Many of them retreat into self-doubt, or worse, the paralyzing possibility that they were never good at reading to begin with.
I tell them that literature is in some ways much more difficult to read than theory.3 Our theorists eventually tell us what their arguments are; “creative writers,” on the other hand, don’t. Literary analysis is “easier” because we have been doing it for longer, pressed to explain the symbolism of Kino’s pearl or Jonas’ red sled.
Reading is not only a question of what, I say, but also of how.
“I can’t help but wonder if I’ve been disciplined to cite Foucault, & whether or not it matters if I read Foucault correctly. Why, still, am I so anxious about misreading Foucault when I have been misread time & time again?”4
The weight of teaching as faculty of color, as Black or Native/Indigenous faculty is that we are charged with teaching our students the knife edge of disciplinary language when they – and we – are so often read through the depoliticizing and flattened rhetoric of diversity that we continuously challenge.
Why the anxiety of performing a misreading when we are misread so frequently? When the strategic formation of antiblack texts leads to misreading Derek Chauvin’s murder of George Floyd as an act of one bad cop, rather than the institution of policing working perfectly?5 When the strategic formations of heteronormative and misogynistic texts lead to continuously misgendering Tony McDade and erasing Breonna Taylor? When white liberals and conservatives alike delight in quoting Dr. King as a figurehead of respectable niceties, performing not only a willful misreading of his most-quoted speech but also a selective reading of his manifold oeuvre? When they insist on misreading Amy Cooper as an exception to white womanhood, rather than the rule? When this logic is what institutional diversity produces?
“For each paragraph break, he leaned back or forward in his chair. She had an excuse now to stare at the tented fingers she had always loved: a tap of his left fingertips to his right meant a comma. Right index fingertip to left was a colon; pinkie to pinkie a semi. He bent his knuckles and locked his fingers together for a period.”6
Those who understand and/or embody the costs of these misreadings, who live under a double consciousness and differently, what my lived experiences name nunchi, read with tenderness and precision, our students.7 This has been one of the challenges of teaching online: how do I teach when I cannot read the question marks of my students’ brows, the commas of their spines after a graveyard shift, the punctuation of their faces and bodies shaping the breath and pauses of our work? How do I teach when, named as essential workers, they cannot attend our meetings, when they sometimes refuse me entry by keeping their cameras off?8
“She is teaching herself how to read.”9
As the initial panic over COVID 19 seemingly wanes, the pendulum sways – if it had even moved to begin with – to the survival of the university over the survival of people, reeking of a violence that is endemically American. The answer is not rewarding students if they can make synchronous classes or punishing them when they refuse us entry into their private lives, or even the inevitability of “innovative” practices in our teaching.
The responsibility is on us to collectively commit to reading differently, either as radical epistemological shift or deepening of our already existing practices, against diversity and toward liberation, as Dionne Brand has put it.10 It is not a reading between the lines but rather of the lines as protecting whiteness, as barricades to “an opening in the present order of meaning and being through which another structure, or perhaps another world, might be preciously assembled.”11 We must read toward a Black queer world, “an excavation of some of that which never was, but might have been. It accumulates. It refuses to(o). And still is, lying in wait.”12
“Look. How lovely it is, this thing we have done – together.”13
Yumi Pak is associate professor of English and interim co-director of Ethnic Studies at California State University, San Bernardino.
1 Bolaño, Roberto. Woes of the True Policeman. Trans. by Natasha Wimmer. Farrar, Straus and Giroux: New York, 2012. 102.
2 José Esteban Muñoz’s “disidentification” is a survival strategy for minoritarian subjects wherein they read themselves in cultural texts that are not “meant for them.” A minoritarian subject, Muñoz says, “scrambles and reconstructs the encoded message of a cultural text in a fashion that both exposes the encoded message […] in a fashion [its] universalizing and exclusionary machinations and recircuits its workings to account for, include, and empower minority identities and identifications” (12). For many, what English departments hold up and teach as “literature” function as sites of potential disidentification and disruption; assured of their lifelong identities as readers, students find the moments where scrambling and reconstructing meaning are not only possible but also pleasurable. But when the very text itself is closed off not because of its narratival difficulty but because of its linguistic and structural ones, what was once a plentitude suddenly appears barren.
3 We spend considerable time then unpacking the supposed division between “literature” and “theory,” one which is powerfully excoriated by Barbara Christian in “The Race for Theory.” Utilizing Christian, we also critically engage with the shifting definitions of literature so as to consider how we are disciplined by our discipline, to ask the question Christian puts to us: “For whom are we doing what we are doing when we do literary criticism?” (77).
4 Perez, Jason Magabo. “Crayoning the King: On Discipline.” In This is for the Mostless. Wordtech Editions: Cincinnati, 2017. 20.
5 I borrow the concept of the “strategic formation,” “which is a way of analyzing the relationship between texts and the way in which groups of texts, types of texts, even textual genres, acquire mass, density, and referential power among themselves and thereafter in the culture at large,” from Edward Said’s Orientalism (28).
6 Alvar, Mia. “In the Country.” In In the Country. Vintage: New York, 2016. 561.
7 “Double consciousness” is of course from W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk. The Korean concept of nunchi is, as closely as I can explain it in English, a constant awareness of where you are and with whom, an affective and physical registering of said place. Needless to say, who has it – and who doesn’t – (or, in other words, who has to have it, and who doesn’t) quite often divides along gender and class lines.
8 It bears mentioning that when I assured students it was acceptable for them to keep their cameras off, that they did not have to tell me why they were doing so, more of them started showing up to our discussions.
9 Whitehead, Colson. The Intuitionist. Anchor Books: New York, 2000. 186.
10 “Dionne Brand: Writing Against Tyranny and Toward Liberation,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ychlzoeeIm0&t=8s. Brand notes: “This business of justice then, I don’t believe in the notion of justice, since it presumes a state of affairs that is somehow formally good… In our case, I think that we live in a state of tyranny, and to ask a tyranny to dismantle itself, to claim, to ask for, to invoke justice is to present our bodies already consigned in that tyranny to the status of non-being, to ask that tyranny to bring us into being and that is impossible. And it won’t. That state is, in fact, anathema. That state is anathema to us and so I do not write toward anything called justice, but against tyranny and toward liberation.”
11 Keeling, Kara. Queer Times, Black Futures. NYU Press: New York, 2019. 174.
13 Morrison, Toni. Nobel Lecture. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Media AB 2020. Wed. 20 May 2020. https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/1993/morrison/lecture/ (1993)