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Monday, September 24, 2012

the myth of the modern reader


This happens.

I decide that I need to understand Heraclitus’ famous fragment, ethos anthropos daimon. It is on my to do list. So I go to some journal articles. I look up Bruno Snell. I look up some books. I am trying to get a handle on daimon. I look up T.M. Robertson’s translation and explanation that daimon can me fate and can mean divinity. I look up Richard Geldard’s book on Heraclitus. And it is in Geldard’s book that I come across one of those assumptions that litter academic books – an assumption about how “we moderns” view things – that makes me doubt the sociological bones of Geldard:

“The problem with “Character is fate as the translation is that in both denotation and connotation no sense of the word daimon as spirit orsome power either within or without is even implied, unless one wishes to burden the word “fate” with excessive determinism. Moern readers, however, feeling free of ruling ruling forces (except the power of DNA, perhaps) understand such translation to say that as human beings we hold our destiny in our hands soley by virtue of our character.”

Modern readers? I have no idea what modernity Geldard lives in. The country he is writing in, the United States, contains, for the most part, readers who consistently affirm that they believe man was created by God. Another lively section of the modern readers cohort affirms a hodgepodge of new age beliefs, which seem to center around various ideas about reincarnation and past life experiences. Geldard has obviously never visited the “philosophy” section of a mall book store (if there are any left), where the shelves are crammed with “metaphysical” books in which self-help and a certain cosmology are nicely blended – for modern readers.
I am not blaming Geldard alone – phrases like this drip casually from many an academic pen. Having swallowed some notion of “modern” which comes entirely from a small part of their own lives, that passed in a classroom, they casually set forth this heuristic fiction as sociological fact.
I was raised in fairly modern circs. Air conditioning, vaccines, cars, computers, jets. All the accoutrements. And I have rarely met anyone who did not feel that outside forces were operating in their lives. One of the phrases one hears regularly, when one listens to people’s life stories, is that there was a “reason” for things. The reason one, for instance, had bad relationships x, y, and z, is so one could have good relationship “a”.  The reason Smith had a car accident is so Smith could learn to be kinder to his children. The reason Jones had to go through bankruptcy is so Jones could learn the true value of worldly goods. These heuristics proliferate not under the surface, but on it. Go to a crowded restaurant at noon and listen to what the people at the other tables are talking about, and you will likely hear a “reason” story, or a variant.  This notion of a reason operating in one’s life is as widespread in the United States as the idea of a daimon, or of a fate, in Greece, as far as I can tell.
My irritation with Geldard has to do with my encountering, all too often, casual remarks about “moderns” which seem to have no footing in anything besides the mind-forged image academics have created of each other, all believers in the most up to date modern science and masters of their rational self-interest. The creation of this fictitious image  has other consequences – for instance, the creation of a fictitious teleology, with the modern looking back on the past as something that “leads up to” us. In a sense, this is the intellectual “reason” story. It confuses a fact about the seriality of the time line with a stronger sense of ‘leading’ that, well, seems daimonic.
Once one grows sensitive to it, one begins to find the “modern readers” trope and the way it functions in academic writing fascinating. For one thing, modern readers are always better readers. Or, if they have lost some connection to the past – the past that is too sentimental, too racist, too crude – the writer is  there to do the proper brokering work. So intent is the academic on this brokering work  that he or she rarely looks up at the world of narratives in which the “modern reader”  moves, which includes a superhero with spiderlike qualities, whole cable stations devoted to dramatizing romance novels in the most sentimental way possible, other “reality” tv shows about discovering the ghosts in haunted houses, etc., etc. The video game and most crude division between good guys and bad guys are standards of modern narration, as are effectless murders’, childish FX, and periodic moral panics involving such things as widespread satanic abuse in a vernacular that is lifted almost verbatim from the witch panics of the 15th century.
So this use of the “modern reader” gives me the heebee jeebees. I want to say: The modern reader, boss – he dead.  

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