On Scopophilic and Aural Reading

Here, I offer a rough sketch of two competing practices of reading—scopophilic reading and aural reading—through intellectual autobiography.
A 3D spectrogram made with Chrome Music Lab

I am beginning to realize that, despite my short stint in Virginia Tech’s STS PhD program, I have never been a graduate student and was never truly an STSer. What I mean to say is that my mode of intellectual engagement has hitherto been narrow, extractive, and stiff, qualities that run counter to my growing understanding of intellectualism as sheer receptivity. In what follows, I offer a rough sketch of two competing practices of reading—scopophilic reading on the one hand and aural reading on the other—through intellectual autobiography.

Scopophilic reading is a mode of engagement that leaves the self intact and encourages an extension of the self onto the object of study as a way of selectively gathering that object’s desirable attributes. Scopophilic reading is a mode of enframing through which the world presences forth as a utility, a mere instrumentality for the homeostatic narcissism of the self. By leaning on the psychoanalytic concept of scopophilia, I wish to invoke the term’s association with pleasure, as well as the particular relationship between viewer and viewed that subsumes the existence of the latter into the former.

When I first encountered STS, I was a freshman engineering student at the University of Virginia (UVA) who was exasperated by the technotriumphalism of my peers. I was also deeply irritated by their dismissive consensus towards the humanities and social sciences, thought to be squishy, soft, lacking rigor, and having little practical import. As someone who loved his STS coursework and read voraciously around anything that offered a “social” view of science and technology, the ways in which my peers would openly mock “STS” (which they misunderstood to be a general education or writing requirement nuisance) and balk at the frivolous teaching of STS faculty at UVA registered as a psychic wound. My initial engagements with STS, then, was a kind of therapeutic escape from the masculinist, hard-headed toxicity of engineering.

As an undergraduate, I identified with STS insofar as it was useful for my engineering education reformist sentiments. In the summer between my sophomore and junior year, I interned at the National Science Foundation (NSF) under the supervision of the then Engineering Education Research Program Director and prominent engineering and social justice activist Donna Riley. I got riled up with Donna, along with the Liberal Education/Engineering & Society Division of the American Society for Engineering Education, that summer over national level accreditation changes in engineering that re-bolstered the technicist aspects of engineering cultures that I found to be utterly repugnant. I processed my anger towards engineering through reading lot’s and lot’s of STS. Social construction, critiques of technological determinism, externalism and contextualismco-production, hybrids, Trading Zones and Interactional Expertise (2010), Kuhn Kuhn Kuhn, and anything that got Inside Technology and came out with soft and squishy social stuff became the salve to my inferiority complex as an engineering education reformist qua budding qualitative social scientist.

For my senior thesis, I conducted a case study of UVA’s STS Department, paying close attention to how the STS faculty imagined their ideal engineer—and, by extension, their ideal society—as someone equipped with an “STS sensibility.” I then interviewed a bunch of their engineering students to get a sense of what was actually going on. While I still stand by my eventual framing of the project’s intellectual merit as a critical examination of the promises and limits of an interventionist STS, I cannot deny that my first foray into research was utterly bound up with my normative commitments as an STS apologist. “STS will save the world,” I kept telling myself. Hence my interest in studying other STS evangelists as my own kind of proxy intervention that reinscribed and reinforced the conclusions I already held.

And then there was graduate school. By the end of my college career, I had convinced myself that I was an STS scholar. I was already well versed in the theory and history of STS (through reading, through conversations and interviews with senior STSers, through digging around in the program archives while I was at the NSF) and had decided that I wanted to be a professor. I managed to convince two STS PhD programs. I started at Virginia Tech in the fall of 2017.

What I hope is becoming clear from what I have shared is my utterly scopophilic relationship with STS—first as a medium to express and resolve my resentment towards engineering, then as proxy for my desire to make the world a better place, and finally as a means to fulfill a professorial fantasy. Throughout, my sense of self has stayed intact. My mastery of the field was precisely that: mastery, the extension of control, the selective extraction of desirable parts from a unified whole, the machinations of the self that seek to bend the non-self into submission. Such is the gluttony of scopophilic reading.

And I have not fully gotten over my scopophilia. I seriously read critical race theory for the first time in the summer of 2017 after moving to Blacksburg in an attempt to voice my discontents with the hegemonic whiteness of the area, not because I had any deep questions around race that I wanted to explore. My first foray into queer studies was to work out my own relationship to being queer and to try to think “queer” in relation to the celigay Christian project I was cooking up. Here I go again, taking, selecting, filtering, spectating from afar.

But I am learning, albeit slowly. I am learning how to read and think in a more attentive way. “Attention,” French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil (1942) writes, “consists of suspending our thought, leaving it detached, empty and ready to be penetrated by the object.” The kind of detachment of which Weil speaks is not the fortified detachment of Western epistemology’s self-contained objective subject, that same subject of the scopophilic self that I have been critiquing throughout this piece, but rather a vulnerable detachment of the self from itself in order to make room for the non-self. Receptivity is desirable insofar as it shatters the self, breaking open its potentialities to something greater than self-serving mastery.

A few weeks ago, I heard Roderick Ferguson give a talk for an ASA panel organized around sociology’s engagements with Stuart Hall. In his talk, Ferguson analyzed anthropologist David Scott’s recent book, Stuart Hall’s Voice: Intimations of an Ethics of Receptive Generosity (2017), especially the ways in which Scott argues that Hall’s intellectual style privileges listening as a corporeal-epistemic mode above sight and foregrounds receptivity as an ethical virtue. In a similar vein as Ferguson and Scott, I find listening and receptivity to be a compelling correctives to the Western epistemology’s possessive investment in a closed-off ocularcentrism. Furthermore, the metaphor of listening helps to clarify the mode of intellectualism that I am just now coming into.

In shifting coroporeal-epistemic registers from sight to sound, I am trying to indicate a fundamental shift in posture. Sightedness is always distal insofar as the distance between viewer and viewed is traversed by a gaze. Listening, on the other hand, is proximal insofar as sound itself enters into and psychically envelops the listener. The self is necessarily shattered in the auditory sensation, whereas vision leaves the self intact as viewer. Listening also takes seriously the auric impermanence of sound, demanding then a heightened attunement to the present, whereas vision assumes the objective permanence of the image as an always available asynchronous resource.

Aural reading is a mode of engagement that starts with a self-broken-open. In its shattered receptivity, the listening self is wrapped into a soundscape, temporarily suspending its hermetic claim to selfhood for the sake of encountering, in its totality, the object of the non-self. Aural reading is attentive reading, and it is precisely that form of reading that I have hitherto neglected in my stubborn state of inattentiveness.

So what do I mean when I say that I was never truly an STSer? What I mean is that I never aurally engaged with STS. I never gave myself to the field, opened myself up to its central concerns, wrapped myself in its many conversations, sought to become part of its soundscape. I was always a scopophilic reader of STS, a sealed-off subject deriving pleasure from what I deemed to be STS’s most titillating features. My exasperation with STS’s so-called intellectual peekaboo, then, is more a reflection of the limits and banality of my own scopophilia than it is a reflection of the state of STS scholarship. One must be a real STSer to make the latter claim.

And what about my claim to never have been a graduate student? What I mean is that real graduate students, or at least successful graduate students at the doctoral level, engage in aural reading. How else can one make an original contribution to a field of study without having a deep intimacy (as opposed to a fickle and instrumental interest) with the field’s cacophonous pronouncements and silences? And how might one come to such an intimacy in any way other than attentive listening?

I think I am becoming a graduate student again and for the first time. In my own reading practice, I find myself becoming less and less scopophilic and more and more aural. Instead of only saving citations that are useful to a certain project (personal, professional, research related), a selective extraction from the rhizomatic complex of scholarship, I find myself reading every footnote in an attempt to register the full reverberations of a given piece’s citational network. I add to and edit the indexes of books in an attempt to hear its hidden murmurs. I can feel my mind opening up, becoming more receptive and more attentive, a kind of intellectual proprioception of the self.

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  1. […] Hall’s inimitable intellectual style, a style that in some way has helped you to figure out your own shifting relationship to intellectual life. But they also enlivened your sense of the epistolary as a kind of relational presencing, or to use […]

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