A Case of Interpassive Reading

ReadingI have always been a voracious reader. I read anything I can lay my hands: from novels to religious pamphlets, from popular culture to high culture, from romance pocket books to Dostoevsky, from Candy Magazine to Mao’s On Contradiction, from Virginia Woolf to Dan Brown, from tabloids to science fiction, and so on. Now, that I got myself in UPV’s literature program, even more so… The only difference is that it made my to-be-read list a bit more structured.

The growing accessibility of books on the internet has added a new dimension to my reading habits. Apart from scouring the secondhand bookshops, patronizing the library – which unfortunately only allows a student to borrow a maximum of five books which must be returned within two weeks, or occasionally purchasing an expensive book, I now spend a huge amount of time looking for free ebooks online.

Probably a million more websites can be searched in Google for ebooks and other electronic texts.[1] With all the books simply floating around the World Wide Web surely, I got myself thinking, I must be reading more than ever today. However, comparing my recent reading output to that of last year, when I didn’t discover all these free ebooks yet, reveals a drastic outline in the number of works I read. For sure, there are many factors in this matter. I would like to think, for instance, that my trying to read books for a more academic purpose rather than for simple enjoyment is the reason for this fall. But am I simply becoming a “better” reader?

The Slovenian cultural theorist Slavoj Žižek has shown how while passively watching it, a show sometimes robs you of your passivity so that it is the show itself that enjoys instead of you:

[T]hink about the canned laughter on a TV-screen (the reaction of laughter to a comic scene which is included into the soundtrack itself): even if I do not laugh, but simply stare at the screen, tired after a hard days work, I nonetheless feel relieved after the show, as if the TV did the laughing for me.[2]

This is what Žižek calls interpassivity. The parallels with my own “reading predicament” here are remarkable:

Almost every VCR aficionado who compulsively records movies (myself among them), is well aware that the immediate effect of owning a VCR is that one effectively watches less films than in the good old days of a simple TV set. One never has time for TV, so, instead of losing a precious evening, one simply tapes the film and stores it for a future viewing (for which, of course, there is almost never time). Although I do not actually watch the films, the very awareness that the films I love are stored in my video library gives me a profound satisfaction and, occasionally, enables me to simply relax… – as if the VCR is in a way watching them for me, in my place.[3]

Borrowing Žižek’s words: the almost infinite number of free books on the internet effectively lessened the number of books I actually read. I never have the time to read all of them; hence, I simply download and store the ebooks for future reading. Although I do not actually read the downloaded texts, the very knowledge that they are stored in my drive gives me a profound satisfaction – as if the laptop is in a way reading them for me.

This strange insight got me thinking, could not the same be said of a bunch of other things in the country? Our hiring of those old women to do the passive act of praying for us during all souls day and all saints day while we do the more important things like entertaining our relatives, Žižek suggests, follows this same logic of interpassivity.

Meanwhile, we see mass actions lambasting the Arroyo regime’s charter change scheme shown live in TV. Instead of sharing their indignation, we simply let the figures on the screen act out all the outrage for us. And some, as Kabataan Partylist Rep. Palatino points out, “change the world by adding advocacies in their facebook pages.”[4]

[1] There are a lot of places to look for texts online. You can go to Project Gutenburg, Penn State University Electronic Classics, or the University of Adelaide Library Ebooks, for classic literary works, just to name a few. There’s also Archive.org for a more comprehensive catalogue. Even contemporary academic references and recent novels often find their way on the internet. For more recent titles there’s: Scribd.com. Meanwhile, the blogs Continental Philosophy and Mariborchan has an impressive list of books by 20th Century and contemporary critical theorists. Lastly, Google Books offers limited previews to most books.

[2] Slavoj Žižek, How to Read Lacan, New York: W.W. Norton and Company 2007, p. 24

[3] Ibid., p. 24

[4] Far from doing any moralizing here, I must admit to owning the symptoms of this malady and (hopefully) working on a remedy. 


1 Comment

  1. This post is so insightful, I never thought of things that way but u are right! I felt enormous pleasure when I got rid of all the unwatched dvd’s that just stressed me about the lack of time to watch them;when I began to live light that’s the only time I felt that I really OWNED my time, to do with as I please!
    I guess this clutter and over-abundance of things to do and know, books to read and
    stuff to watch is truly making me crazy.

    I’ve read a few essays of Slavoj Žižek at the UP Library and he is funny and crazy!

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