Left on ‘read’

When I googled ‘reading attention span’, the internet reassured me that I must be seeking diagnosis for my own personal crisis—which surely must be a shortened attention span—but also that this crisis by no means singular. The top results were predictable but haunting: “How can I improve my attention span while reading?”, “Before the internet broke my attention span, I read books” and most menacingly, “short attention span: signs, causes and ways to pay”, which pathologized what I thought was a mere feature of late-stage capitalism: our bodies rewiring to gobble atomised instances of text, whether on the page or in the supermarket. Attention spans, it would seem, are the real antagonists of our reading habits: they are cast as agentic, destabilising, conflictual, dictating if we make it to the end of a page with three interruptions or none, or if a doom-scroll features in the third act of our performance of reading. These affects caused by attention spans, nearly always seen as broken or damaged or necessarily a glitchy result of trauma, all feel negative. We find ourselves, or I certainly do, evaluating reading as a moral performance of personhood; re-constructing our subjecthood as ‘bad’ literary citizens, because we feel so bad. I looked at endless tweets and memes about reading and attention spans, I felt called out, shaded; I laughed.

I was on this browser tab, thinking about how much I enjoyed being shaded by the affective discourse around attention spans of our reading habits, because at the end of week 1 of Mellon Theatre 2021: The State of the Field, specifically Prof. Namwali Serpell’s electrifying lecture and seminar on ‘Notes on Reading’, I began to think through the myriad ways in which reading is a performative [gesture]: what exactly the phenomenological and textual stakes are, and why, as Prof. Serpell’s lecture suggested, they are quite so high. Prof. Serpell’s lecture asked us to think of reading [or rrreading, after Felski] in three ways: first, literary criticism’s ongoing debates on the role of critique and the affective and political axes of these debates; second, to look beyond the academy to black queer and femme ball culture for a practice ‘that exceeds and troubles those binaries’; and third, to apply this practice as a method to explore ‘lovehate’, as she did for Bret Easton Ellis’s 1991 novel, American Psycho.

Prof. Serpell constructed an elegant and luminous case for opening up ‘how we read’, to ‘methods, texts, affective postures and political gestures beyond the rarefied halls of academia’. Shade, she argued, as evolved from a black, femme and queer cultural form, is a method. She cited drag performer Dorian Corey’s words in the documentary Paris is Burning (1990): “Shade comes from reading. Reading came first. Reading is the real artform of insult. . . Then reading became a developed form where it became shade.” Shade as a performance—whether you’re throwing it, receiving it, or watching it volley out—is self-implicating, self-reflexive, paraleptic, going to ‘the fine point’, as Corey says. It isn’t just insult, ‘it’s the art form of insult; it hates in the service of love’ (lovehate). As Prof. Serpell observes in her Post45 essay ‘Notes on Shade’, the tenderness of shade ‘is not about sweetness but about mutual vulnerability. You're made tender; you've been tendered a "cutting," "scathing," "excoriating" read — a sharp-edged disclosure.’ (2021)

Perhaps the clearest indication of how to rrread with vulnerability was when Prof. Serpell conveyed the features of this feel in her ‘lexical purr’, the syntax and cadence harmonising with the subject being considered:

the feel of a hand stroking backwards over velvet

the laddering of a stocking

a decadent going against the grain

a drag that catches.

Our seminar the next day continued this discussion of the affective ambivalence of lovehate, catching at the tonal aspects of performing shade, which include refusal—in the Black Radical tradition, I thought—and subtlety. It was clarifying to hear that rreading relies on an interpretive community, where one might learn what it means to participate in shade as an art form of insult, and where our task is perhaps as much to learn how to receive shade as much as throwing it. This was illuminating to me, not least because of our mistaken assumption so often that the text does not require listening to, when in fact it does, not least because it might be shading us back. Performance so often does.

I came away thinking how elating it was to listen to—and feel—our worlds being read like this, to witness the forming of a form: from a place that centred the work of black femme and queer work, moving outwards only to glance lovingly backwards, winking, raising an eyebrow, feeling seen. Later, when I found myself laughing at being dragged by the attention span anecdotes, I thought, this is what it means to receive shade, then. To feel the sharp, warm graze of love in the lovehate.

—Sharanya Murali

See also: Sharanya Murali