Slow Philosophy: Reading against the Institution

Michelle Boulous Walker. Bloomsbury, 2017. 305 pages. $24.95.

By Doug Phillips

When last you were out for a meal, a meal, let’s say, at a midrange sit-down in or near the neighboring strip mall, its menu interchangeable with the chain across the street, its interior warmly lit and faux, its waitstaff a dutiful witness to your labor, inquiring, with every flyby, whether you’re “still working,” it occurred to you perhaps that you might like to do things differently, to experience all that matters most in life—eating, drinking, loving, reading—not in terms of utility or efficiency or productivity, but in no terms at all. No terms, that is, except for time. Slow, wondrous, dwelled-in time.  

The notion is Heidegger’s, this dwelling, but also Nietzsche’s, whose desire “to read slowly, deeply, looking cautiously before and aft, with reservations, with doors left open, with delicate eyes and fingers” is a refrain throughout Michelle Boulous Walker’s Slow Philosophy, itself a book in which to dwell, pore-over, romance, run your fingers through, return to time and again like an itch, or an old flame. Among much else, Walker’s book is about love, the love of reading especially, and with it the love of attention; the love, too, that comes with listening attentively and, likewise, being listened to; the love of mystery, of incompleteness, of knowing we can never really know or be known by another, not even those we love; the love of otherness, in other words; and of course the love of wisdom, which is what philosophy is, or was, once upon a time, when philosophers had more time to dwell.    

For ages, explains Walker, philosophy has been unhoused from its originary spirit of wisdom and resettled (dryly, regretfully) into product-driven environments that haven’t the time or money or patience for such unquantifiable whims as wonder or enchantment. What once, in fact, were institutions rooted in the love of wisdom—philosophy, higher learning—have long become mills instituted toward (and sabotaged by, says Walker) the desire to know. Squeezing all of Kant into a campus punchline, for example, the monumental inscription at the start of the 1978 film Animal House reminds us that “Knowledge is Good”—and for good reason. Unlike wisdom, it can be clearly put to the test. And, goes the thinking, only that which can be properly measured, calculated, accounted for, tallied-up, evaluated, and (for the love of mercy, man, please don’t say it!) assessed can be proof of our students’ purchase, as well as proof of every professor’s productivity. That faculty might need to marinate an idea for months, or to stew in it at least until next semester, is a luxury universities can no longer afford; and if, Herr Professor, the Dean is booked until late spring with budgetary committee meetings and bottom lines, then why should you get to dawdle before a blank page and a bottle of scotch, ruminating your next move in slow time? Instead, get yourself hurriedly fed on knowledge, as you might the hot wings at Ruby Tuesday, then to the publisher, pronto! Otherwise the Dean will ask frowningly—with all the flagging enthusiasm of an end-of-shift waiter—are you still working? 

In “many of our modern institutions,” writes Walker, “speed, efficiency and interchangeability characterize the dominant atmosphere or mood,” the upshot of which is that we’re losing our ability, or will, rather, “to engage with the world in meaningful, non-utilitarian ways.” As antidote to this malaise, which Heidegger identified as the spiritual cost for a “technological worldview” whereby everything and everyone gets reduced to a resource (is there a more depressing departmental designation than Human Resources?), Walker offers a way for doing things differently, for returning philosophy to its nascent pace of pondering, of relearning, in Heidegger’s words, to “stay with things”—that is, to dwell. But such slow philosophy, argues Walker, necessitates first a commitment to slow reading, which, really, is what Slow Philosophy is all about. In fact, were it not the case that there are at least three other books currently in print called Slow Reading, this, rather than Slow Philosophy, would be the more accurate title for Walker’s project, a project she pitches manifesto-ly in her “Preface: Why Slow Reading Today?”:   

…my call for slow reading is a political gesture as much as it is an aesthetic one. By engaging slowly, carefully and locally with the complex works that we read, by resisting the lure of ‘institutional’ readings, ones that reduce thought to information extraction or mining, we refuse or, at the very least, frustrate the modern technological drive that pillages thinking as a productive resource. Reading slowly and rereading, returning time and time again to read anew, we return, similarly, to the things in the world anew. 

What follows are six chapters on the art of slow reading, each foray accompanied by cultural theorists and philosophers whose wise counsel Walker draws upon to return “to the things in the world anew.”  While methods may vary, slow reading essentially means learning to attune ourselves to otherness, to difference; to allowing the other to speak, unfold, and to be heard. For her part, Walker, in her opening chapter (“Habits of Reading: Le Doeuff’s Future Philosophy”), defines slow reading as “a philosophical practice that enables an unhurried openness to otherness; it involves a desire to be transformed in this open encounter.” One such method for attuning ourselves to otherness, and to opening ourselves to transformation, is “Reading Essayistically,” the title of her second chapter. With the help of Levinas and Adorno, Walker explains that essayistic reading thwarts “our modern preoccupation with speed and haste. In place of an efficient or institutional reading (one motivated to extract or to capture information), it offers an open-ended rumination that meanders in non-systematic ways.” She adds: “While the institution beats a familiar path towards knowledge and truth narrowly defined, the essay meanders its way along branching tributaries, without concern for where it is supposed to be.” 

The philosophical spirit here can be traced to that meanderer par excellence, Montaigne, progenitor and Grand Poobah of the essay form. Well before Levinas and Adorno, Montaigne was a fierce opponent of identity-thinking, and his own early practice of slow philosophy anticipated—and firmly adhered to—Samuel Beckett’s mid-century caveat: “The danger is in the neatness of identifications.” For Beckett and Montaigne (as well as for Levinas, Adorno), there’s always more to the story: other threads, alternative angles, loose ends, remainders, fragments, anacolutha, shards, broken glass—the whole of which cannot be swept-up into measurable quantities of consumable knowledge or shoehorned, Roman-numerally, into a PowerPoint. Walker’s own propensity for essayistic wandering is on full display in Slow Philosophy, the footnotes for which—totaling 80-plus pages—comprise a full third of the book. But as a slow reader, as a practitioner of slow philosophy, Walker understands that the presumption of closure, of totality, is a form of philosophical naivety, if not immaturity; it’s a way of evading what Simone de Beauvoir calls authenticity in our relation to otherness.

In her chapter “Romance and Authenticity: Beauvoir’s Lesson in Reading,” Walker draws upon de Beauvoir’s distinction between romantic and authentic love, and maps them onto two distinct approaches to reading. For Walker, a romantic approach to reading, rather like de Beauvoir’s conception of romantic love, is one dependent on possessing, circumscribing, reducing the other—be it a person or a text—into a knowable, controllable object of understanding. It is, in Walker’s words, “the type of love that robs us of our transcendence, our sense of self and subjectivity.” In contrast, an authentic reading—like authentic love—“welcomes the strangeness of the other. Indeed, it exists in and through this strangeness. This independent love denounces possession and the demeaning relations that possession entails.” Furthermore, while a “Romantic reading performs an immature dependence in relation to the text,” an “authentic reading [is] one offering the possibility of a mature and more reflexive approach to the other/text […] An authentic reading would celebrate the ambiguity of the text, revel in its multiple meanings and wonder at its ability to effortlessly escape us.” 

Rounding out her interventions on the practice of slow reading and philosophy, Walker turns to two thinkers whose theories on love and wonder and intimacy will leave you longing to connect more deeply with all that you read, whether the book on your nightstand or the lover in your bed. In place of the usual and obvious suspects on the subject of attentive reading—I’m thinking specifically of Jacques Derrida, Paul de Man, and, especially, J. Hillis Miller (whose 2002 book On Literature includes a chapter titled “Good Reading is Slow Reading,” though neither it nor Miller gets anywhere mentioned)—Walker turns refreshingly instead to those other poststructuralists, Luce Irigaray and Hélène Cixous, whom to read is to feel certain that your next encounter with the other will be, at the very least, different, more intimate, open, wondrous—provided, that is, you allow yourself to read slowly. 

Read slowly, too, the whole of Walker’s book and welcome the manifold ways in which “the transformative experience of openness to the other” will return to you the world anew. 

Doug Phillips teaches English and American Literature at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. He earned his degrees at the University of Alabama and the University of Alabama-Birmingham. The University of Alabama is home of the Alpha of Alabama Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.