The Politics of Pleasure and Sickness in Academia

Despite the scathing criticism with which the literary community addresses the issue of pleasure, at the end of the day, the reason why Thomas Hardy’s novel Jude the Obscure is my favorite work of fiction is because it brings me pleasure.  When I read it long ago, I knew for sure that I wanted to work with literature as a career choice.

Imagine that…what kind of person bases her career on pleasure?

Today, I chatted with a student of mine who wanted to express her excitement about my approach to our literature class.  She said something wonderful like “You are my favorite instructor.  I never thought that reading for pleasure could be meaningful.”  I had, according to this student, ignited a passion with my own.  I felt like a firecracker.

Then, I also have been reflecting on just how political the process of valuing pleasure as a critical lens has been — and continues to be — in academic discourse.

When talking about the politics of the pleasure of reading, Roland Barthes’s short work The Pleasure of the Text is a good place to wet the tongue, as a friend reminded me last night.  For Barthes, there is pleasure and jouissance that come from the act of reading.  He wants to distinguish between “writerly” and “readerly” texts, however, as he feels that “readerly” texts are more politically charged because they challenge the reader’s position as a subject, while “writerly” texts merley cause pleasure.

For Barthes, reading in this way is mostly a private and personal endeavor and not necessarily the public celebration of pleasure/jouissance that I think is most useful in the classroom.  On the other hand, it does give offer a foundational example of such classroom politics because it begins with the individual, as all action does.

Other theorists have chimed in to the debate of pleasurable/sexual reading.  For example, Kathleen McCormick, in her essay “Closer than Close Reading: Historical Analysis, Cultural Analysis, and Symptomatic Reading in the Undergraduate Classroom,” acknowledges the necessity for advancing critical reading abilities in the classroom, and insists that we as instructors should “provide opportunities for [students] to take pleasure in their acts of reading.”  By observing that many students enter college as “poor readers,” McCormick postulates that these students have not learned how to read texts symptomatically. While championing strong analytical and critical reading skills in students, she situates the act of reading as an integral part of writing, since it can help foster historical and cultural perspectives which “give [students] some agency.” Agency in writing, as Susan Miller hints, may aide students in the “practice of manipulating genres” which, in turn, privileges the “dose of vulgar composition” which she finds so critical to viewing and using language as action. Helping students to read in both or either of the ways that McCormick and Miller advocate would enable students to act through reading.

But is “symptomatic” reading similar to “pleasurable” reading?

A relationship between the two, at first, seems counter-intuitive.  “Symptomatic” is a concept just as complex as “pleasurable.”  What is symptomatic, for McCormick, is clearly reading practices driven by behaviors that are characteristic of individual interests.

Yet, the word also carries an affinity with disease and the rhetoric of sickness, especially in the sense that a “symptom” often leads to other symptoms that eventually add up to a kind of problem — at least in the colloquial and current usage of the term.

In the first definition, a relationship between symptomatic reading and pleasurable reading makes sense.  But it also makes sense in the second definition, doesn’t it?

As a catalyst for disease, a “symptom” has a repellent nature.  So does pleasure.  Pleasure is widely associated with wrongdoing in contemporary American society, particularly in the education system in which education about the body (physical education, health, etc.) has taken a back seat to rigorous memorization of various topics that are seemingly far-removed from pleasure principals.  In many ways, pleasure is symptomatic in such discourse.

As a result, the sensuality of reading — as a public act — has been undervalued in much academic discourse. As Barthes insists, there is a kind of jouissance inherent in the act of reading that can and should be used, at least, to frame theoretical lenses.

Public pleasure is undeniably powerful.  When, for example, a leper walks down the street wearing her “symptomatic” signs of “disease” on her body, people stop and stare.  They’re scared.  Curious.  Maybe disgusted.  When symptoms become public, the general population whip out their trite cotton medical masks.  To protect themselves.

Public, pleasurable reading has a similar effect.

The pleasure of deriving knowledge of specific kinds from texts and then to publicly wear the “symptoms” of this pleasure is contagious!  When readers can connect to texts they are pushed to find relevant avenues of inquiry that lead them, eventually, to an intertextual approach to knowledge which I think ought to be a foundational principal of education.  Through sharing the pleasures of knowledge, students may find ways to not only connect themselves to the world but also to consider how others  are connected to them by developing a heightened, sensual relationship with the act of reading. Moreover, public pleasure like this fosters a hunger for more, related knowledge, like a lover who fiends for more sensual interaction and no longer cares how public her desire has become.   

Pleasure creates communities of pure-pleasure-seekers.  

That’s a dangerous enterprise in a world that is driven by standardized thinking.

Resistance to pleasure in the classroom is a taught behavior.

When I started teaching Jude the Obscure I noticed from watching my videos of the instruction that I spoke with a hand over my heart.  My cheeks were rosy and my eyes lit up like a tiger tracking prey.  I was practically salivating when I brought up the context of the “New Woman.”  Watching my videos, I asked myself if maybe I have gone too far in displaying my excitement for the text.

But why should I be ashamed?

Students have been coming to office hours smelling like vibrancy.  I meet almost every day with students who just can’t  get enough of reading texts.  Working intimately with them.  Pushing their faces into the pages.  Lapping the meaning there like dogs.

Pleasure is a weapon.  It is a political act because it ignites passion.  I imagine a world in which this kind of human electricity is law.

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