“Reading the Way of Things” (A Review)

Review by Curtis Cole

I love reading about Reading. That is to say, I love reading about literary theory concerning interpretation. If there is a new and dynamic way to engage with a text—a film, book, website, chair, etc.—then I am all in. I am a sort of lover of all things hermeneutic. So, when I saw Daniel Coffeen’s daring new book in which Deleuzian theory was combined with phenomenology, I couldn’t resist. I bought it right away and started reading. I am glad that I did, too, because though I do not agree with the book whole-heartedly, I felt that the theory within is worth engagement. Which, if dedicated readers know me at all, means that I am giving it the green-light.

Coffeen’s argument is something that he calls “Immanent Reading”. This practice is focused not on semiotics—on the relationship between signifier and signified—but on “unfolding”. Coffeen argues for allowing the text to speak by nudging the reader to focus on what words “do” instead of mean; how a word signals action, how it unfolds. His emphasis hones in on how we perceive what we see and extrapolating awareness of perception to a criticism. So, this is a theory focused not on definitive answers, but multiplicity; not on experts but everyday people like you and I; not on dictionary definitions but action and perception of that action’s unfolding in the world; and, most of all, how we as readers interact with this world-as-text and respond to it by our reading abilities—how we demarcate ourselves and live in harmony or disharmony with the world.

It is a neophyte argument. To combine Deleuzian theory with the phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty into an understandable sum is no small task. Yet, Coffeen manages very admirably. In the result is a well-reasoned and not overly academic insight into the perceived wrongs of Critical Theory (so-called “exemplary reading”) and how reader and text might find a deeper harmony by foregoing “suspicious reading” models which always embark upon witch-hunts.

As I have only finished a single engagement with this kind of “immanent reading” I cannot say how effective it is as a theory since I have not yet fully immersed myself in its practice. Though I do feel that it has a lot of potential, I wonder about its ultimate use.

For example, I love Coffeen’s strident plea against the over-adoration of experts and intellectuals when it comes to interpretation, and I love his resistance against the neo-liberal university; I can even imagine how this resistance, this immanent reading, could be used in radical pedagogical situations to help train revolutionists and bridge the gap between the academy and practice. So, in that sense, I feel that Coffeen has presented us with a text that could be used to great practical effect if its ramifications are fully explored. However, I do have some reservations.

My objections center on this text’s misuse. The justified hostility toward experts and the university, though very mild mannered and reasonable, has potential to be misapplied by Dark Enlightenment Alt-Right types; likewise, though the idea of immanent reading does have radical potential, the idea that a form of reading should eschew critical historical and theoretical thinking, thinking like that of Critical Theory which can only come about from the recourse to intellectual authority figures, rubs me the wrong way. Immanent Reading can do a lot, I do not doubt, but such a reading is not going to say anything new about how capitalism functions or how Queer people are oppressed. Namely, immanent reading does not pierce—it can force an egalitarian unfolding of potential, but it will only ever be the first step in a truly critical practice; the final step needs to be some sort of critical theoretical augmentation to take the immanent reading further.

If need be, I could wax eloquently on this subject more, but I think that I have made my point. Moving on to the text itself, I found much to like—as just explained—but also some moments which I did not like.

When it comes to short texts like Coffeen’s book, tracts published that are not full books so as much as they are books in progress, there is always an uneven quality. In this instance, for example, I found Coffeen’s argument for the first half or so of the book to be engaging and coherent. But, this coherency broke down about halfway through; at which time, I noticed that the book stopped being a unified piece and started being a series of blog posts: central thinkers’ claims repeated over and over, sometimes exact passages from previous chapters. At a certain point in the book, chapters became isolated, existing on their own; the more this happened, the more I noticed that the thesis of the book almost vanished—instead of immanent reading you have this idea, at moments which, it almost became hippy-like with its focus on interconnectivity, that bottomed out into pure phenomenology and, eventually, rhetoric. Though the text did recover some of its previous steam, it was at the cost of the illusion of wholeness.

Is this a bad thing? I would not say so. I love reading material from Zero Books precisely because the content here is this sort of material—blog posts, interviews, project notes and the like; content which would likely never see the light of day in a typical university press. Even so, when I spend money on these books, content which is easy to find elsewhere for “far less”, I do expect some degree of unity. But, I am being overly critical, which means not very critical since I am complaining about money-commodity-enjoyment relations. At the end of the day, Coffeen’s book is professional, at times funny, and very accessible. It holds great potential for hermeneutics and, I, for one look forward to my continued engagement with this intriguing idea of immanent, or, rhetorical reading.

Reading the Way of Things: Toward a New Technology of Making Sense

Daniel Coffeen

160 Pages. Published by Zero Books. $7.99 (Kindle). 2016.

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