These are notes towards understanding a title-phrase: The Time of Literature. This title is to lead to paths of sub-inquiry regarding two question: What is Literature? and Is Literature?
The Time of Literature
The Time of Literature is a phrase packed with multiple different and simultaneous meanings. This multipicity is itself part of the title’s allure as an allusion to and demonstration of the key functions of literary language.
There is the obvious titular nod to Maurice Blanchot’s ‘The Space of Literature’.
There are also meanings that are not referential as much as descriptive. Literature has several particular and important relationships to time.
The chronologically primary relation to time of any literary text is the time of production. We are not overly concerned with this, though it may sneak back into consideration and shadow all that follows.
There is then the relationship of a literary text to the period in which it was created, and, relatedly, the period in which it is read. There is then also the period or periods to which the text refers and/or is set in. These are the relations to historical time.
There is, finally, the relation to time in reading. I am particularly interested in this relation, though to separate it so neatly from the previously noted times is not exactly a fair or clean procedure. Let us note the interrelatedness of the Times discussed and for a moment plunge into a discussion of time and the reader.
When I am read to I do not read. If I hear a book on tape, I cannot properly say that I’ve read it. If I claim to have read it for the sake of conversational ease, I feel the discomfort of lying. If I have a compunction to honesty, I will not be able to call listening reading. It would be as if I claimed to play a song by listening to it.
Reading is a difficult subject to analyze phenomenologically because the reader’s potential practice ranges so broadly. Reading varies according to the specific conditions of the encounter with the text object. Let us assume that we are speaking of the traditional book or magazine text, or even a static text posted online.
The text does not move in time and yet it takes time to read. The experience with text is an experience in time, taking time, understood largely in relation to the time it takes to experience. We describe a ‘quick’ or ‘slow’ read, explain that a book will or did take an afternoon, a single sitting, a month.
Recorded media are also described according to time, but in terms of minutes, hours, seconds. On the other hand, we do not speak of a long painting (except in relation to space), a slow sculpture, a quick photograph. There are of course exceptions, but these are perhaps exceptions that prove the rule, or at least confirm the common tendency of artistic experience.
So then reading is particular, as it is an experience understood in relation to non-fixed time. Blanchot says of writing that it is the ‘fascination of time’s absence’ (The Space of Literature). Text then always bears this intimate but indefinite relation to time.
The question of activity/passivity that was raised in Jeff’s recent post is I think relevant here. One can obviously read in more active ways– closely, by cutting up, by jumping about in a text– but can there be such a thing as passive reading?