I wanted to use this post to circle back to a conversation we had in class late last week, where several classmates and I raised our concerns/critiques of Nobakov’s “Good Readers and Good Writers.” I want to reiterate and clarify that, although I understand the need for a framework when reading in a literature class, I deeply disagree with his argument about things “good readers” do. Nobakov says that in order to be a “good reader” one must use an “impersonal imagination,” where they do not see themselves in the story nor connect it to their own life, but instead properly immerse themselves in the world they are reading about. I see where he is coming from here, but I stand by that a key rule of art–maybe the only rule art has–is that the artist gets no say in how people interpret their work. To try and demand how a reader sees your writing is not only impossible, but also somewhat narcissistic. It’s a sign of a god-complex: a hubris large enough to think that an author has the right to control the inner workings of a readers brain. One of the most valuable aspects of art is the variation in how different people interpret the same piece. When Nobakov tries to control how we read, he attacks that aspect of the process, which does a disservice to the readers and to the work itself.
Day: September 5, 2022
Benjamin’s Gender and Power Theory
Jessica Benjamin argues that subjectivity and power come from individuality separated from the mother and father traits. Benjamin puts to light recent shifts in psychoanalytic theory and their relevance relating to individuality. As Freud’s theory on individuality suggests, boys growing up will recognize their anatomical differences from their mothers and identify with the father, while girls will never understand their own subjectivity in terms of difference from the mother.
As Jessica suggests, individuality is a balance of separation and connectedness rather than solely being decided by class, gender, etc. The primary focus of Benjamin’s writing is not about love but about power; she focuses on love to an extent as its perversion leads to domination and submission. She mainly argues that women seek ideal love more than men, in turn, making them more vulnerable to deception. The male is the subject, and the female is the object at the root of domination.
Benjamin vs. Freud
Benjamin challenges outdated views of gender roles and their relation to power in her book Bonds of Love. Sigmund Freud, a famed neurologist, theorized that men recognize their sense of self and acquire their sense of being an individual by noticing their differences and separation from their mothers. Women, however, do not recognize this in the same way. Freud theorized that women never reach the same potential as males because they lack the same degree of recognized individuality from their mothers. Benjamin challenges this notion in her book, and theorizes that Freud was incorrect. She argues that a sense of self and individual identity does not arise from recognized differences with one’s mother, but instead it comes from mutual recognition. She explains mutual recognition as acknowledging someone else as an individual person and separate identity, and having them equally recognize you back. This mutual understanding is what creates a sense of self. It also marks everyone as equals, and does not discriminate against other people as an “other”. I do agree with Benjamin’s theory for the most part. I think that mutual recognition is a much more beneficial way to obtain a sense of self, without sacrificing or demeaning someone else. This way, you do not label someone as the “other” or put yourself above them. This should be applied to everyday life as a way to avoid discrimination and power struggles. Men often use not being a woman as a way to feel more comfortable and confident in their identity, when in reality, this is not necessary at all. You can recognize yourself as a man without having to put down women. It is more of an “I am a man, and you are a woman, and that does not make me better than you or you better than me.” Freud’s logic was flawed and led to a lot of hate and negativity towards different identities. In our current political climate, we are especially polarized. Finding your identity by putting down someone else’s is not productive at all, and Benjamin does a good job of illuminating that.
All kinds of writers deceive, Nabokov
In “Good Readers and Good Writers” Nabokov argues that “Every great writer is a great deceiver”. Nabokov continues to argue that a good writer is someone who invents. A person who is able to construct entirely new truths out of nothing. The idea that a good writer is someone who manipulates their readers into truly immersing themselves in the story and believing whatever the author may write is a bold statement and a difficult task. At first, I did not agree with Nabokov’s description of a good writer. This was because there are many great writers who don’t create entirely new stories or truths. There are many great non-fiction writers or journalists who take already true facts and construct great writing with them. As I re-read Nabokov’s article I realized the purpose of his argument. It is the construction of the facts, real or imaginary, that does the deceiving. Even writers who publish non-fiction must build their writing in a way that the reader can believe and follow. Journalists must know what statements to use and how to put them on paper to display the story they want to get across to their audience. It is not just the fiction writers who are inventors but every writer, because every writer has a reason for the story they tell. And they must use imagination to portray that reason.
Applying Benjamin’s Theory
After reading this excerpt from Benjamin, I applied her theory to the PARENT/child binary. I found that parents make certain decisions because they have a responsibility that they brought upon themselves. They love their children so dearly because they are responsible for the safety and care of the child that they created. Her theory also made me consider relationships within a family structure in general. The MAN/woman binary was interesting to me because there has always been a societal norm that guided the actions of a man and a woman in a relationship. The feminist movement has disrupted that norm and it is causing people to rethink the system. Many people consider this unnatural, but in reality it makes total sense. It is similar to a child wanting to have freedom from their parents. The child will eventually gain freedom, but will one day be a parent and be in control of their child. There will always be a time when the so-called “done-to” are going to take action and try to free themselves from a system that they were submitting to such as when people revolt against something that they consider to be unjust. After revolutions, people build up what they consider to be the right way to dominate and then the process eventually repeats itself.
Application and Anti-thesis of Benjamin’s theory
Benjamin’s argument about ‘mutual recognition is valid and applicable especially as we continue to develop and grow as we age while freud believes that we only see in black and white and identify others by their differences and not their similarities, which causes division and prevents unity.
Our relationship with our parents is a great example of mutual recognition at play, especially in the stage of life we are in right now and beyond, as we are neither children nor adults. Due to this, the original adult/child or parent/child relationships that Freud believes in are being shattered as are parents are able to see and recognize us as nearly equal human beings with our own agendas and preferences. Benjamin’s Theory of humans psychology and human behavior is extremely enlightening and encouraging to groups who are in the submissive role of a relationship by giving them agency and making them realize that their current position is the result of them giving up the equal standing that they once held.
I believe that the theory for the most part is accurate but there are some relationships that don’t really fit. African slaves and their masters for example, or white colonists and native Americans because they never had equal standing due to guns and more advanced weapons giving the colonists and major power advantage that they exploited against the native peoples. However this is a truly enlightening theory and, if applied correctly could revolutionize human history and culture. Although the requirements for this line of thinking are heavy and neither group of people may not want to give or take what they have, this application of recognizing others could revolutionize humanity.
Abused or Acknowledged: A Benjamin Application
I love movies, and recently, someone very close to me recommended that I watch the movie Whiplash. The film had been lingering on my mind for quite some time as it is critically acclaimed and has been mentioned by many friends and family as of late.
Upon watching, I couldn’t help but draw the similarities of the relationships of characters in the movie to the theories of Jessica Benjamin regarding power dynamics that involve a person subjecting another.
The movie follows Andrew Neiman, played by Miles Teller, a student of the most prestigious music university in the country, who’s obsessed with reaching a level of greatness through becoming a outstanding figure in the Shaffer Conservatory Jazz Band. Throughout the movie, Neiman endures forms of psychological and physical abuse from maestro Terence Fletcher, played by J.K Simmons in his goals to find and create the next great Jazz Musician.
Fletcher is seen practically torturing Andrew by throwing objects at him whilst playing, slapping him for missing tempo, and verbally insulting him time and time again for mistakes whilst playing. But this harm only reinforces Andrews obedience to Fletcher and motivation towards achieving his goal of greatness. Conversely, it allows Fletcher more opportunity to enforce his cruelty in hopes of achieving the goal of his own.
This relationship between the two creates an compelling power dynamic or teacher/student or conducter/musician that’s followed throughout the movie, and ends up resulting in an unforeseen conclusion to the twos relationship that begs the question on whether or not either Fletcher or Neiman achieved a level of Mutual Recognition.
In the end, Andrew plays a final time for Fletcher, disobeying his conducting and reversing the roles of the power dynamic in order to play the set on his own terms. At first, Fletcher doesn’t take kindly to this, mouthing silent threats to him in order not to provoke the audience, however, he eventually submits, and relishes in Andrews talent shining through. The conclusion seems lighthearted and displays the power dynamic fizzling into mutual recognition through Fletcher accepting Andrews rebelling, but it poses the question of the power dynamic being reinforced through Fletcher having his goal achieved of finding solace in Andrew being the next “great” so to speak and Andrew feeling as if he has achieved that status through the approval of his disobedience through Fletchers supposed smile in the final frame of the movie.
Mutual Recognition and Capitalism in America
The entire time I read Benjamin’s theory, my mind strayed to the capitalistic system within the United States, and how it might fit into her theory that both sides have to participate in order for a binary to exist. At first, I questioned if this system even had participation on both sides. How were lower or working class people supporting the system? Why were the supporting the system? Were they even aware of it, and if they were aware, why would they willingly support something that kept them financially oppressed?
I began to think about the history of the United States. Our entire country was built around an idea of independence, especially financial. For years, this idea developed and deepened until it became the backbone of the Republican party. On the surface, it makes sense. Keeping the majority of your hard earned money for yourself, by lowering taxes and putting personal gain ahead of community growth, a person should theoretically be able to achieve the ‘American Dream’ and become very rich. In actuality, this practice has protected the upper class, keeping them rich, while portraying themselves as people who worked a little harder to make a little more.
This is where the bonds of love come into play. By fighting for lower taxes, a working class person might believe they are on track to achieving the ‘American Dream’. The upper class, however, continues to prosper and get further ahead, deepening the wealth divides, often while encouraging lower economic class people to support this system. Both sides contribute and keep this system in place, creating an endless cycle of wealth disparity with no end in sight.
Application of Benjamin’s Theory
An application of Benjamin’s theory may help to explain why people stay in abusive relationships; they acknowledge their partner’s subjectivity by recognizing that they are a separate person and fulfilling their demands, but their partner refuses to reciprocate and sees the partner as an object.
By refusing to reciprocate, the abused subconsciously begins to perceive themself as an object and disregards their own emotional wants and needs. Which then creates further trauma for the abused, until eventually they cannot function emotionally or otherwise without their abuser supporting them.
This definitely changes my understanding of how certain patterns of abuse and social control work, as many other systems of power and oppression are formed and maintained in this same manner as the domestic abuser. An action that I might urge others to take is to validate other’s emotional subjectivity.
Domestic abuse and oppression occurs because of a refusal to recognize someone as a person, as a conscious individual just like you or me;if you want to overome the deleterious and detrimental systems ingrained in our society, start with recognizing others as individuals.
Bad Readers and Good Writers, a Response to Nabakov
In Nabakov’s essay ‘Good Readers and Good Writers,’ he writes about the qualities that make a good reader and a good writer, and the reaction that occurs when the two of them combine. One of the main points that he writes about is how a reader should never relate themselves with a character that they read about, because every well-written character should be strikingly independent.
I fundamentally disagree with this idea, because it bases itself on the idea that just because a reader and a character have different qualities, the reader cannot still put themselves in the shoes of said character. Just because a character I read about does not have the same looks or experiences as me, does not mean that I can’t empathize with their struggle. In fact, I believe that a truly good writer forces their readers into the perspective of the characters that they read about to the point that seeing themselves in the character is an inevitable byproduct.
Nabakov would strongly disagree with this statement, characterizing relation with a character as ‘bad reading’ however this sentiment is another of which I disagree. In my opinion, there is no such thing as a bad reader as long as that person is reading and interpreting the information presented to them. Everybody reads, perceives, and develops differently when a story is presented to them, so to label a certain way of reading right or wrong seems very one-sided to me.
However, overall Nabakov does present an interesting thesis despite its flaws, which can be studied in order to further understand the use of stories and literature.
The Uncanny story from Escape From Spiderhead
Her face was masked with rage. She drove her head into the wall. Like a wrathful prodigy, Heather, beloved of someone, managed, in her great sadness-fueled rage, to disassemble the chair while continuing to drive her head into the wall. (P 70)
After reading the story Escape From Spider Head from the book “The Tenth of December,” a series of short stories written by George Saunders, I come to find out how Saunders writes about dark and serious topics. This story in particular touches on the topic of the internal struggle of morality. The protaginist Jeff struggles with the moral dilemma, he has to decide if he should kill himself to save Rachel and Heather or save himself by escaping. Jeff finds himself in an oppresive, controlled setting, almost like a jail. There, he experienced much unethical experiments that played tricks with his mind. This eternal struggle eternalizes as Jeff tries to redeem himself. Jeff is in control by a man named Abnesti, who is the antagonist of the story, he belives he is working for a greater purpose. He is the one that is in control of the setting in which Jeff is in. He knows he has to obey Abnesti, if he didn’t he would be injected with docilryde (a injection that makes you obey every word someones says). Jeff meets two women, Rachel and Heather whom Abesiti made Jeff have sex with. When Jeff was asked to make a decision whether which person should be injected with Darkenfloxx (a substance that makes you severly depressed that you end up trying to kill yourself), he refuses to inject one of them with Darkenfloxx. Jeff starts to realize that Heather and Rachel are human, just like him. Abnesti injects Rachel with Darkenfloxx and Jeff is forced to watch and describe Rachels actions after being injected. Rachel is intentionally hurting herself. Jeff comes to a conclusion that he needs to save Rachel and Heather from Abnesiti. Jeff starts to show mutual regconition by viewing Rachel and Heather as human beings who have feelings. At the end of the story, Jeff results to killing himself by injecting all the drugs that Abnesti created.
What is a good reader?
What does it mean to be a good reader? Vladimir Nabokov argues that a good reader is one who rereads and one who doesn’t put themself in the story. The reader also detaches themself from the story. I see his idea of how when you reread a story you begin to see the bigger picture and what the author really wants to get across. I also can see what he means by detaching yourself. The author wants you to get something out of the story and if you put yourself in it and use your imagination you might miss it.
But at the same time shouldn’t a good reader be one who reads how they want and what they enjoy doing. Especially if reading for your own enjoyment isn’t the biggest purpose of reading to enjoy yourself. Sometimes people read to lose themself and transport themself to a different place and does that mean they are a bad reader? Overall, I see Nabokov’s argument but is his way the only way to be a good reader or are there others?