Against 'Paraliteracy'/Prolegomenon to Reading the Language of the Flesh

[...] one emerges from such dangerous exercises in self-mastery as a different person, with a few more question marks, above all with the will henceforth to question further, more deeply, severely, harshly, evilly, quietly than one had previously questioned. Trust in life is gone: life itself has become a problem.


—Friedrich Nietzsche


In the world of academia, it is customary for the commentator/reviewer/syllabus-maker to offer the reader an introductory essay so as to prepare the reader on what to expect. Such essays are a necessary formality: for they expose the potential reader to the curated opinion and method of what to look for in a text and how to interpret it. But they do more than just that—they also help contextualize why a work is important for the here and now. At least, that's what the introductory essay ought to do, but their quality and excitement often vary.


This article was initially going to be a short description of the syllabus, but I decided to opt for the academic introduction. Or, an approach as well as my motive, to why I wrote the forthcoming. Lately, I've found myself looking up various hashtags on Instagram hoping to find a half-way decent excerpt from a philosopher or writer. Wading through what at times feels like a marsh than a vast ocean, I've noticed that often times the meaning of philosophical post is often imbued more by the influencer than the author himself. Now, on its own, the quote may or may not be meaningless or necessarily lacks profundity. The problem is that the meaning of the excerpt is not being defined by its author, but through the lens of the community from which it has been procured and posted. So if a quote by Socrates is posted by some IG-famous bodybuilder, the meaning of the quote is unlikely to be understood in isolation from the existing narratives of diet discipline, training motivation, etc., which permeates the world of Instagram bodybuilding. The meaning of the quote is already being defined apart from the larger context Socrates may have intended.


At a certain level, who cares? If people want to like an ass pic with a quote by Epictetus, it shouldn't. As former academic and teacher—better yet, as a voracious reader who craves knowledge—it bothers me in the way it bothers me to see a bunch of guys quarter-squatting at at a Gold's. No development is occurring. If anything, it half-measured quotes and squats may even do more harm than good.


Against "Paraliteracy"


The intellectual version of big upper bodies with chicken legs is called "paraliterary". This leads to a phenomenon called "paraliterary". The term "paraliterary" was coined by Merve Emre, a scholar of comparative literature at the University of Oxford, and more or less describes the idea that we read to be en vogue, to be emotionally engaged, or to read strictly to retain information. This habit developed in the post-1945 world order, as the United States rose to cultural prominence and power. America had to create for others, a kind of experience of what it meant to be "America": audacious, optimistic, individualistic, and so on. Enlisted in this effort were organizations from American Express to the Fulbright Commission. Reading clubs, reading lists, were also formed as a result—read for inspiration, read for courage. While it is true that (at times) we ought to read strictly for information, Emre makes a valid point in that it seems as though our culture no longer cultivates practices of "good" reading or what used to be called "close reading". I prefer to call it critical reading or reading. That is to say, the learned ability to dissect and expound upon metaphors we encounter in a classic work of fiction which hurdle the text from its own time period into the present—and possibly the future. They are, as one Shakespeare scholar once put it, de-provincialized from their time and place.


Unfortunately, this sort of critical reading appears to be a bygone practice from middle or high school (or university). We therefore wrestle in paraliteracy, the likes of which continue to whittle away at our critical thinking skills the more absorbed we become in the social media.


The Spectacle of 'Fitsagram'


Social media is more than just a modality of how we communicate, but how we increasingly live and interact with the world. This has a history, of course, as all things do. It is wrought from the proposition that we live in a world that increasingly defines products not by what they do, but how they can offer you an identity. Or better yet—an authentic experience. This thesis is not unique. It is more or less what French theoretician Guy Debord wrote of in Society of the Spectacle. Debord writes that all human realization has shifted from being into having and with that, commodities become the primary marker of identity in the modern world.

You see it everywhere, from cars to beard oil. Everything is meant to mimic a quest of authenticity authentic through purchase. We all do it. Myself included. It is hard to think of people becoming physically fit, without an origin story. No one wants to just lose weight, they want to be the hero in a fight against ready-made living and comfort. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that narrative. And those in the fitness industry, the influencers, know this, and so prop up that very same narrative—but with something to buy.


It's one big Homeric adventure—exciting, full of setbacks and triumphs, and the marketing behind these products has to be more than just selling this or that supplement or re-packaged whey protein. There has to be a guiding idea to keep these products animated and circulating in their world. In fitsagram, where the coupling of gym culture and Silicon Valley has made lucrative careers for some, the circulation runs faster by the click. Yet all of these products—from biohacking plans, veganism and Keto, "healthy" drugs like DMT, wellness retreats, all require an undergirding of spiritual and philosophical support so as to tie these products together into an ideologically-cohesive package. Otherwise, they wouldn't sell, and neither would these lifestyles truly be consummated for others to see.


Secondly, Instagram and other social media platforms are not for the slow-footed. They are not meant for minutes of mental and cognitive processing. Character restrictions see to that, and when enfolded into some muscular or sexy pose, the image gets the erstwhile reader's attention even faster. Nothing too long, nothing too complicated. Just the right amount of introspective "depth" for the two-second reader that needs to be relatable. About as much depth as that guy at Golds who throws on a few plates and basically bends his knees forward.


Such a disposition encourages mal-development, paraliteracy, and reinforces the "spectacle". And that is what spurs me to produce a list of actual works of philosophy. Not a review of philosophy or a commentary on it, but what the authors had written in their own words. They are meant to poured over, meditated upon, dissected, questioned, all in the manner it takes to wisely build strength for years. Stick around, the syllabus is coming soon and its made for people like you and me.




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