One thing that you deal with when you read a lot of academic books and texts is you get an impression of the writer. It’s not just that you read the book, it’s that you read the book over and over again, and you read certain passages over and over and when you do that, you need to be able to contextualise those passages in the greater work, and that means you’re encouraged to form a framework of the opinions and beliefs of the person you’re reading about.
Sometimes this is very useful; it’s illuminating to remember that Heidegger was a Nazi (and people can um-and-ah about that point) or that Caillois a misogynist (amongst other things). These people write about things where those perspectives are implied but not stated, and being able to put their behaviour in their own contexts is not a bad thing.
Still, there’s a risk you run when you do this kind of close reading, especially when dealing with academics who are still alive.
One idea I use a lot in my discussion of games and plays is that the play of a game is paratextual; that you play the game to experience its text, and that represents a boundary between ‘definitely the text’ and ‘definitely not the text.’ Play is not something the author put there, but they definitely put something there that the play happens with. But the idea of paratext was not made for games – it was developed by Gerard Geanette to talk about books, specifically books as objects, with ideas like dust jackets. The idea that play is paratextual seems to be from me, and it’s not widespread. That means I’m taking an idea someone else had and using it to explain something else.
That’s how academic reading and studying works, but here’s the problem: I have no idea if Gerard Geanette would agree with me. I don’t know if he thinks this is a good application of his idea or, even if he didn’t like it, that that matters. I’ve never gotten the impression Geanette particularly likes board and videogames. I’ve always had the impression that he loved books, a bibliophile who found reason to discourse about the weight of paper and its influence on text.
Moreso than that, in Alien Phenomenology, Ian Bogost relates an incident where he, generating a little web tool that created random banners, was reprimanded (sort of?) for putting a label of ‘WHAT IT’S LIKE TO BE A THING’ over a picture of some women. It wasn’t done specifically – it wasn’t something crafted to his ideological position, it was just something a bit of code he made did.
I have read this anecdote a dozen times or more as I grapple with explaining and justifying the philosophical conception of things existing, and seeing it over and over makes it easier to remember. Easier to put a sense to. Easier to imagine having a tone of irritation.
Thing is, I think odds are good that Bogost is not only over the mild discouragement he got for this web applet doohickey, but that all the irritation in his tone that I read in his piece is entirely in my head. This passage doesn’t have emphasis or sarcasm notes or colour coding. It’s very stark text in the same voice as the rest of the book. Yet I keep coming back to this passage, to this moment of an author’s mindset, and find something there, something I don’t think I found the first time I read it. And the author, frozen in time, has nothing to tell me but what they already told me. Hanging, suspended, for my interpretation of invisible ink.
Be vigilant about the assumptions you find in work, but also be vigilant about the assumptions you build to make telling the story to yourself easier.