Society of My Spectacles


Society of My Spectacles: a dérive

Published in Reading Room (dispersed holdings, 2020)


The whole life of those societies in which modern conditions of production prevail presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. All that once was directly lived has become mere representation.

– Guy Debord, Section 1, The Society of the Spectacle, 1967


I watched Mrs. Smith’s pale arm chart a jagged course across the green expanse. From an arbitrary mooring, her dance began: left, and then right, right on, until it broke off and went under. The air was filled with percussive clacking, the tempo charging and convicted, the rhythm cacophonous, irregular. Her cryptic choreography trailed puffy white lines and the loping marks bled into masses. I lost, and found, and lost the beat. My head ached.

This went on for weeks. Only when my mother was made to sign my math test for its low score, the first such instance of underperformance in my young academic career, was I called out of my reverie. Pressed for explanation, I admitted that, from the third row of Mrs. Smith’s second grade classroom, I could not see the chalkboard.

Within the week, my mother took me to Dr. Hatch, the optometrist, and then on to the eyeglasses store.



Mrs. Smith was notorious, a disciplinarian of a bygone era. Parents routinely called the school in August when class assignments came out and requested that their tender learner be moved to a different room. While corporal punishment was, legally speaking, well out of the American public classroom by the time I arrived in my seat in room 102, the steel-plated coldness of her words made up for their immateriality. My mother was thrilled.

I mostly kept below Smith’s attention, but she had a heat-seeker for the soft belly of every student. You caught it at least once. My turn came around in the spring. From beneath the snuffed-out conflagration of grey hair atop her head, Smith glared at my face:

“David, you look awful smart in those new glasses. Maybe you can help the class with this problem?”

In this moment, she’s called me out on two counts: once for math, by which I am already puzzled and shamed; and a second time for the new pair of cobalt blue wire ellipses anchored by two squiggled arms that reached for and pulled out my ears. I’d been hoping, in the strip mall lens wear depot, that they were substantial enough to hide behind, but indeed they only made me more visible. Such is schooldays luck.

“David, you go to Market Basket and you buy an apple. It costs eighty-six cents. You give the man a dollar. How much change do you get back?”

The whole class is looking. Their collective gaze runs along the frames, skating across the surface of the lenses until it dips down into my eyes. Then it spills out to cover my face. I count back from one hundred, ninety-nine, ninety-eight, ninety-seven, nodding my head at each passing penny, when she stops me:

“You mean to tell me you are going to stand there at the grocery and shake your head fourteen times to make sure you get the correct change?”

She mimics me for the class, exaggerating each nod, looking like a toy dodo dunking its beak into a puddle over and over. The class laughs. My face goes red.


The spectacle appears at once as society itself, as a part of society and as a means of unification. As a part of society, it is that sector where all attention, all consciousness, converges. Being isolated—and precisely for that reason—this sector is the locus of illusion and false consciousness; the unity it imposes is merely the official language of generalized separation.

– Guy Debord, Section 3, The Society of the Spectacle, 1967


Smith’s petty sadism that day in room 102 had consequence beyond the immediate shame it caused me: it served as a bruising reminder of my physical form. As I watched her make a little spectacle of my embodied calculations, as she mimicked me, I remembered, painfully, that there was a me to mimic. Her exaggerated motions were my own—I had undersigned them with my neck and forehead—and in seeing her, in all the hard resolution conferred by the beveled panes of shatterproof plastic that now hung over my eyes, I understood, again, that I had a body. This is the condition of physicality: all our lives we are taught and taught and taught about the body, and the teacher is pain. Smith’s lesson is with me like a scar.

As the chalkboard had resolved for me into discernible figures, so too had the judging eyes of my classmates. I could now see, with more clarity than ever before, the phenomenon of my being seen. This recognition christened a new awareness: I was both a part of and separate from my class, the collective, and by Smith’s temporary ousting I knew the sting and loneliness of ridicule. My response? That of any child: I resolved to become invisible.


The family optometrist was in Milford, the next town over. Dr. John Hatch. Around his neck hung a squeaking rubber toy, a duck. He was a master at gathering and directing the attention of his child patients. I thought myself too old the first time around for the duckie, but by the time I returned to his office, my four-eyed pride having wilted to despair in the round vanity mirror he held to my face, I willingly submitted to his game.

“Eyes on the duckie, David. Very good. Now, you’re a cameraman. You are a cameraman filming the duck and you want to get the picture nice and crisp. Which lens are you going to choose, number one…”

The black plastic slide lifted like a curtain and through the aperture of the phoropter a lens dropped, with a satisfying lock, into place.

“…or number two?”

Number two all but melted the poor bird’s beak. It would have to be camera one. Over many rounds of similar decisions, I followed my vision to greater and still greater sharpness until the duckie’s yellow edge seemed so keen it might slice through the dim exam room.

I admired the symphony of the phoropter, its proliferation of neat circles and hard lines, the gears that turned like a well-made clock, the balletic grace of its crane arm as Hatch slowly guided the face piece from its resting place by the wall to the saddle of my nose. My head held aloft, my neck erect, still and sure, I felt a calm relief as all the bones around my eyes were met by the machine. Peering into the two lenses, the room faded, and my earthly responsibility was reduced to a simple choice: one, or two. There in the leather chair, Smith’s incessant beckoning seemed very far away.

“David, answer Dr. Hatch.”

Dear Mother. I was back in the optometrist’s office to be fitted for contacts. My goal: to take my glasses off my face. I wanted to smuggle my vision back into my body.

After reluctantly completing the eye test and leaving the exam chair, I sat in the back room for a brief eternity, first getting up the courage to move my finger against my instincts and directly into my eye, and then poking myself bloodshot for forty-five minutes until I finally got the lenses to cup right and stay put. Satisfied that I could reproduce this little experiment at home on my own, Hatch sent me away with an invisibility cloak in the form of a small cardboard box filled with tiny translucent saucers.


A drop of water made for the first microscope. Seneca, recognizing that vital fluid’s magnificatory powers, used a glass globe filled with water to enlarge printed letters. Pushing the globe from left to right along a line, the words would scroll across the elementary marquee, fattening into bulbous view, immersing the reader in the text. This is reading as bathing in the thinking of another. This is why we love water, vision, and reading each: they bring the far world close.


When contact lenses adhere correctly, they do so in satisfaction of the supple eye’s desire for wetness. This is a poetic construction of a brutish process: once one determines that the disk is right-side up on the index finger, one administers a drop of contact solution into the bowl and proceeds to jam it past one’s pried eyelids. With luck, the drop of solution presses between the lens and the cornea, spreading across the disk’s circumference in a blanket of hydrogen bonds that hug the saucer to the spherical organ. Vision is thereby restored.

But, restored? Is this the word? The name of that false water would suggest as much: if we invert “contact solution” we arrive at “separation problem.” Surely my first bout with glasses made for a kind of separation problem: the frames newly disrupted my anonymity and opened my face to mockery; and surely the contact lenses, by rendering the technology of my vision unseeable once more, solved somewhat for this early site of embarrassment. I resent, however, the suggestion that the vision of my birth somehow made me inadequate to the visible, that my eyes were a problem. If you feel separated from the world, is this a deficiency of the body, or a failure of the world?


Whatever contact solution’s metaphysical status, I never seemed to have it when I needed it. As a child, I was always calling home, asking my mother to ferry a bottle to a friend’s house across town, and dopey adolescence amplified my forgetfulness. Only rarely could a small bottle of the stuff be found in the front pocket of my backpack. I regretted my neglect most when asked to stay out on certain special nights, either of the high school variety, up-til-the-small-hours on beer that someone’s brother bought with Timmy and the Alexes, or the (un)planned amorous kind I learned as a young adult. Constantly I found myself trusting my vision to Dixie cups filled with two fingers of hard tap water, or else saying the hell with it and consenting to morning blindness, the two disks going brittle on the hardwood floor.


Sleeping in contact lenses increases your risk for nasty eye infections six- to eightfold. It’s one of the most common and risky things teen and adult contact lens wearers do… “Just don’t do it,” said Dr. Steinemann. “That’s what I stress to my patients. Don’t sleep in your contact lenses. Don’t even take a nap.”

– Jennifer Churchill, “Why You Should Never Sleep in your Contact Lenses,” American Academy of Ophthalmology, 2018


How is sight for sore eyes? Not very good. The cornea becomes an airy husk, the eyeball a desiccated onion.


For my forgetfulness, and for the annoyance of maintaining the contact lensed life, I considered glasses again. It was not until my first year of college that this became a viable option for me, psychically speaking. Only after high school was in the past, and only by virtue of being unknown again could I consider donning my third and fourth eyes. After hounding the glasses shops of the Northeast for many months, I settled on a pair of thin gold wire frames. One new site of contact, however, kept me in distant touch with old Dr. Hatch.

I began playing rugby my freshman year. It was a club team, named for an unimposing variety of salamander. Ours was a tiny Quaker school. The average height of the starting lineup, when we could field a full side, was approximately five eight.The lack of seriousness facilitated my interest in the sport, as did a pair of contact lenses, the ruck and maul bringing me close to the straining bodies around me, to the fresh-mown field behind the stadium, my face pressed into rough cotton, a shoulder, the earth.


Fight, fight, Inner Light,
Kill, Quakers, kill!
Knock ’em down, beat ’em senseless,
Do it ’til we reach consensus!

– Rugby fight song, origin unknown


I loved the physicality of rugby. I loved what part of myself sprinted to meet the hulking farm boys of Penn State’s C side. I loved the bruises and the total exhaustion I felt after a match. These were honest reminders of my form. In a tackle, I felt the acknowledgement of the opposing player, and in this acknowledgement I felt respect. In the game of rugby, you are worthy of bringing down because, for a moment, sprinting the flank with the ball cradled into your side, you are above the fray. You are agentic, potent, beautiful. Playing in front of my teammates and what piddling crowd of spectators we could draw, I did not feel watched or looked at. I felt seen.

Opening myself to this physicality was not without its risks, however. Around the time I joined the team, I began worrying, for the first time in my life, about getting into a fight.

I had not gone to many parties in high school, and the kind of extravagant alcohol consumption that ruled college gatherings set my dog ears to rigid attention. Perhaps some aggression leeched from the rugby field and into my eyes, but everywhere I saw the potential for blows. This fear was a revival of that day in Smith’s classroom: if someone were to call me out beyond the sanctioning bounds of sport, I would need a left hook this time around. No more sweet boy. No more counting change. Just my deep-seated desire to remain unobserved and a willingness to protect it. My fear was irrational, but it was sufficiently preoccupying to cause me to defer my decision to hide out behind a pair of frames on a given night. I figured one good knock and the glass would shatter, and dire blindness would render me helpless.


A beat-up Henry Bemis awakens on the floor of a bank vault. He is shaken, befuddled, and frightened. Next to him on the floor lies a creased copy of David Copperfield and the daily newspaper. Bemis remembers a horrific sound. “Why am I here?” The room does not answer.

Pressing his back to the lock boxes, he pushes himself to his feet, dusts off his disheveled gray suit. His coke-bottle spectacles hang from one ear across his face, the left lens covering his mouth. Too stunned as yet to right them, he pulls open the heavy door. Something is wrong, but exactly what is unclear.


Heavy, broken lines appear where he remembers stairs. Rising dust takes body in the light. Silence prevails, and Bemis hesitates to disturb it. It is the refractory period after an accident, and so the world seems not to know how to be. Bemis lifts his hands to his glasses, bringing them up over his eyes.


He raises the glasses slowly. They pan over the camera lens, the thick plastic frames clearing the debris like windshield wipers, organizing the chaos into definable shape. Bemis’ fate, like the chalkboard that once spelled my ruin, focuses into crystalline view.


Henry Bemis has unwittingly survived the nuclear holocaust. A bank teller, he had escaped to the vault during his lunch break to read. Upon swinging shut the vault door and resuming his place in chapter three, the Germans dropped a bomb.


“What if the world ends tonight?” I asked the blurry visage.

I dragged the brush between my molars and my cheek, leaned in close. Ruby vessels meandered like the roots of a pothos plant. One jet black pupil receded from my gaze in the florescent light.

I pulled back slightly and returned my attention to the surface of the eye, to the place where I begin to call it mine, across the threshold over which that peculiar collection of derma, bone, blood, and water becomes my face. I gathered the toothpaste in my cheeks, looked down to the sink, spat, ran the faucet.

What if the world ends tonight? What if, after cleaning the blood from my split lip in the foul and bestickered bowl of a dive’s bathroom sink, I stick my face under the hot-air hand dryer, then lean into the mirror to appraise the damage, decide I’m enough to return to the scene, slide the heavy bolt of the plywood door, and push it open, only to find that the world is gone?

“You Were Always on My Mind” plays into a hollow room. Not a soul’s in sight. Light fixtures swing. Smell and feel of stuck beer. I walk through the hall and out into the street. Inexplicable daylight. No traffic—car, pedestrian, or otherwise. See a dog’s leather collar still attached to the leash, flung in limp tableau on the lip of the curb. See clothing, like buildings, leveled. No trash blows, the air eerily windless. I stand in the aftermath of some unfathomable cataclysm.

In the bathroom of my dorm, about to put my contacts in, I would routinely entertain this anxiety dream, asking, what if the world ends tonight?


The barroom brawl, which of course never came, was always the precursor, the dress rehearsal, of a much greater fight: that for post-apocalyptic survival. And every time I had the dream, my first thought emerging onto the empty street, no people, no phone, dogs and birds absent, friends and family absent, only silent ruins to attest to the history of the human race: will the pharmacy door be shattered open so that I can acquire some contact solution? Because my eyes dry out easily enough and, well, if I’m to persist in the post-anthropocene, I’ll just be terribly uncomfortable without a bottle of Opti Free.


Steve Huffman, the thirty-three-year-old co-founder and C.E.O. of Reddit, which is valued at six hundred million dollars, was nearsighted until November, 2015, when he arranged to have laser eye surgery. He underwent the procedure not for the sake of convenience or appearance but, rather, for a reason he doesn’t usually talk much about: he hopes that it will improve his odds of surviving a disaster, whether natural or man-made. “If the world ends—and not even if the world ends, but if we have trouble—getting contacts or glasses is going to be a huge pain in the ass,” he told me recently. “Without them, I’m fucked.”

– Evan Osnos, “Doomsday Prep for the Super-rich,” The New Yorker, 23 January 2017


Meet Henry Bemis: belittled husband, hapless employee, and the protagonist of episode eight, season one, of the mid-century American television classic, The Twilight Zone. Dubbed “a charter member in the fraternity of dreamers” by the show’s disembodied voice-over, Bemis is an ardent bibliophile who hides between the covers to avoid his domineering wife, Helen, and his unrelenting boss, both of whom thwart his readerly intentions at every opportunity. Helen finds his copy of the Romantics in the kitchen cupboard and tears it to shreds; she makes certain that Melville, Eliot, and George Bernard Shaw all find their way to the curb. One night, with a sadism that puts Smith to shame, she asks Henry to read to her from his survey, A Book of Modern Poetry; an innocent and beaming Henry is delighted to oblige, only, when he opens the book to his favorite Wordsworth, he finds that Helen has scrawled in black crayon over every page, a savage, angular alphabet of diminishment, fury, and misanthropy.

When Bemis emerges from the vault to that voided and “smashed landscape,” one can’t but sympathize with his initial sense of relief. The dead cannot nag you back to the bank cage. This consolation, however, gives way, as it must, to loneliness. Bemis finds canned food enough for years and even a pack of cigarettes to help burn down the time, but the notion of waking up, eating to sustain himself, sleeping, and then repeating, without purpose or companionship, for an indeterminate forever soon becomes too much for him. He walks the desolate avenues to where he knows he can find a pistol. He closes his eyes and raises the barrel to his temple. Bemis is crying as he lifts his head for one last look, and through his tears, what does he see? The ruins of the library.



Bemis, who never found the quiet he sought in his working and domestic lives, can read unopposed into eternity. And he need not miss a soul: among the spines, he will never be alone. Wasting not a second, he sets about creating a calendar in stacks, one for January, one for February, March, April, with reading material enough to plot out years. The episode here gains its title: “Time Enough at Last.”

Bemis stands up to proclaim his good fortune, puffing his chest, addressing the vanquished library clock, which rests at the foot of the building’s steps. Elated, becalmed, Bemis breathes a triumphant sigh and returns to his seat. He reaches down to collect a copy of Dickens and begin the good work of living on, after all.

Bemis bends over. His fingers search across the concrete; the volume is just beyond his reach. He leans further, his neck arching around the stopped clock. As he sends his gaze to meet his hand, his glasses fall off his ears. Bemis paws about: the paper pages, dust and ash, shards of glass, and then his empty frames. The lenses of his spectacles have shattered. Henry Bemis cannot see enough to read without them. “The best laid plans,” quips the narrator. The reader Bemis is condemned, once again, and finally, to blurry desolation.


There was time now.


Without my glasses, I cannot drive or recognize faces from more than three feet away. This means no crossing the street without help. I can barely make it to the bathroom at night from my bedroom unassisted, much less leave the house. As such, there are certain jobs from which I am disqualified: I will never be your commercial airline pilot, nor will I fly for the military. I’m barred entirely from the state police, and it is unlikely that I’d be allowed to lifeguard. Technically I could, with my poor vision, become an optometrist like the good doctor Hatch, providing myself permanent access to the phoropter, that gorgeous machine, but I do not think the man-aflame necessarily makes the best firefighter.

There is, however, one utterly crucial skill I can manage without my glasses. I discovered this back in the second grade, just weeks after I first got those steely blue ovals: unlike poor Henry Bemis, I can read.


Burn the Diaries, Moyra Davey, 2014


When I lived in New York City, I rode the subway for at least two hours a day. I took the J to Bowery for work, the A/C to 86th for therapy, the 1/2/3 for my relationship and a friend who lived up in Harlem. I walked to the G for Milk & Roses in Greenpoint, and hopped on the L late night just to sit when my phone told me the only way home at three A.M. in thirty degrees was a bus in forty- five minutes.

Two daily hours of subway time makes for a sumptuous reading residency. Whether you find a seat or not, you have 120 minutes of public solitude to enjoy, the navigation and travel taken care of, the delays entirely out of your control. With luck, you’ll have landed in a car with relative quiet, just a little earbud bleed to tune out, perhaps some chatter down a bench. Any reader will see that these are near ideal conditions (assuming one must leave the armchair-comfort of one’s home). But you must know how best to take advantage of the time.

I take two sea-green foam cylinders out of my breast pocket. I roll them into tight spindles and slide them into my ears. The sound of their expansion moves to fill me, like a jet of tide rushing to fill a cave. I can hear my heart beat up my neck as the plugs spread to fill the vaulted recesses of my ear canal. Then I hear nothing, or nothing but the whooshing of a far-off train. Thirty-three decibel grade is best, but pharmacy-standard thirty-two will do. Then, I take off my glasses. I fold them into themselves, and hang them by an arm on my collar. The car fades. My book takes on a warm, gauzy halo, and all of my periphery goes to dewy oblivion. Finally, concentration. Time enough at last.

When I take off my glasses, I bid the world farewell for a while. This is why I will never surgically correct my vision. I will never forfeit this modality of refusal.


Consider, for example, another genre of images that, like female nudes, are representations of privacy par excellence: images of people reading. A book is a kind of daytime dream. Held in the hands, head bent low, the book is an exterior symbol of interiority, an objective correlative of the mindful, imaginative activity going on inside.

– Quinn Latimer, Room 3, “Interiors: Some Stanzas on the Pleasures of Privacy,” Like a Woman, 2017


During a certain year in New York, over and over again, I read Moyra Davey’s Burn the Diaries. It’s a meditation on the relationship between a writer’s life and their published work, on private living and public disclosure. Davey’s text is interspersed with her photographs, many of which contain books or printed pages: the sun-faded blue and white cover of Violette Leduc’s La Bâtarde; a stack of files and computer paper marked with handwritten labels in ballpoint. The collection opens and closes with images of a reader on the subway. It looks to me like the G train, with its diner-metal siding and inward-facing seats in orange, umber, faded maize. The book is a Gallimard edition, someone’s Oeuvres Complètes.

Images of readers compel, fascinate, and comfort me. They drive me to think of the reader’s mind for its embodiment in that familiar posture of concentration. Of the quiet subjects, I ask, What are you reading? What are you thinking in there? If I look long enough, I can almost start to see the lines of text register in the reader’s gaze, the saccades moving from left to right in a choreographic index of that strange, inscrutable, whirring machinery we call the mind.


For one week every summer of my childhood, my family rented a small cottage by a lake in New Hampshire. The July after I graduated from Smith’s second grade, my dignity folded tight like a paper football, worn and tearing at the edges, tucked into my back pocket, I couldn’t wait for the chill dark of the lake water, for the familiar cool of the sheets in that musty bedroom that I briefly called mine.

I arrived at the water. My father had a cheerful vacation rule that we must swim each calendar day we were away. I was coated in SPF 45, the smell of Coppertone thick in my nose. The sun beat warmly. From the dock, I could see clear through to the sandy floor. A flicker of light meant a baby bass was passing. Mineral flecks shone, giving depth and body to the water. I wanted to join that body, to jump in with my own and feel it all around me. I wanted to sink to the bottom, to listen as the world went mute, to feel held by the pressure of the entire lake as it bore down firmly on my form. I lined my feet up to the edge of the splintering red boards. Just as I summoned the courage to leap, my mother called me from shore:

“Don’t forget your glasses!”

The world had changed because my body had changed. No longer could I move freely from the dry to the wet, at least not without consideration for the hampering apparatus I wore on my face. Where I had known fluidity before, there was now an impasse, a site of conscious action. I ran back to shore and placed my glasses in a case. I approached the water timidly now.

I nursed my quiet summer despair for a few days. My parents were unaware. It was better that way. I left my glasses on a towel, on the deck, inside the house on the kitchen counter, always forgetting where I had left them, and feeling too blind to find them when I did. I hated this new interval.

Thursday was most miserable. The end of our time away was nigh, and I had yet to relax at all. I emerged from my required swim, dragging my feet through the sand like a depressed swamp thing. I slunk into a beach chair and picked up the book I was in, Jon Scieszka’s Your Mother was a Neanderthal. The Time Warp Trio—Fred, Sam, and Joe—were trapped in front of a saber-toothed tiger. The Book that helped them apparate between ages could not be found, as writing had yet to be invented. My father called from the other side of the beach. I looked up. “Want a sandwich?” I could not see his grainy face. But I was reading.


If I couldn’t see you approach, then you were not there. Perhaps you would call me, saying my name with a question mark or exclamation point. Assuming you were just shy or hesitant enough, or if your voice communicated any indifference at all, I could ignore you, not unlike the way my mother, with perfect hearing but from whom I got my eyes, would studiously fail to hear my father.

When I removed my glasses, the world disappeared. In this way, my poor vision bestowed a new sight for me, and a new site of privacy. I would learn to instrumentalize this privacy over time, and I would learn how to defend it.

To quietly read among my family was to make them nervous. You became a sitting duck for conversation. Constantly they would approach with concerns and sudden interests in you, in how your school year had gone, whether or not you’d be playing such and such a town in soccer this year, etc. And they came in droves. Mine is a vast hoard, with twelve aunts and uncles on each side, and triple the number of first cousins. I think there was a panic at seeing someone silent and okay.

Reading dramatizes thinking. And this can be threatening in a tribe that prides itself on having forgotten its secret.

“When you think, do you think of me? And do you think well? Of me?”


…thinking’s community is unquantifiable. Also, reading’s topos, its place of agency, is invisible, and necessarily so. Reading resists being seen. This is not to say that it has no effects on public life, but that those effects cannot be predetermined, cannot be conveniently mapped and often do not follow causal, or intentional, patterns. What I intend for reading is usually not where it takes me. Maybe whatever broader, worldly effects reading has could be modeled on the random agency of the Epicurean clinamen, that wide-open and troubling proposition of utterly uncaused and spontaneous material change. Reading does change the world, but usually not in the way one might wish it to, and perhaps not visibly. Its acts are clandestine. I make this unproblematic segue from thinking to reading because, for me, the two activities are completely implicated, folded into one another. I am only certain that I think insofar as I read.

– Lisa Robertson, “Lastingness: Réage, Lucrèce, Arendt,” Nilling, 2012


When I see someone reading a book on the subway, especially one I have loved, or one I hope to love someday, I feel less lonely.


Over many years, she used figures of light and visibility in her accounts of what was necessary for there to be any substantive political life. For an individual to have political effectiveness, there needed to be a balance, a moving back and forth between the bright, even harsh exposure of public activity and the protected, shielded sphere of domestic or private life, of what she calls “the darkness of sheltered existence.” Elsewhere she refers to “the twilight that suffuses our private and intimate lives.” Without that space or time of privacy, away from the “implacable bright light of the constant presence of others on the public scene,” there could be no possibility of the nurturing of the singularity of the self, a self that could make a substantive contribution to exchanges about the common good.

– Jonathan Crary, on Hannah Arendt, 24/7, 2013


Temporarily refusing the world is, ultimately, a way to love it. Just as in my family, leaving the torpor of its community, taking time to read, though it registered as a kind of violence to the fabric of rapacious and outward-looking talk, was a way for me to be a better member of the kitchen table. I could be more calm, and I had more to say, having staked, for a spell, my place.

But if the family can be hostile to the site of reading, then the world can be triply so. A privacy that pays no heed to the importance of industry and pay makes a landlord nervous and an unhappy careerist insecure. Why aren’t you working? Here, reading signifies not interiority, but idleness. And idleness needs be exploited.



You, Mr. Bemis, do not function within the organization. You are neither an efficient bank teller nor a proficient employee. You, Mr. Bemis, are a reader.

– Bemis’ Boss, “Time Enough at Last,” The Twilight Zone, 1959


And it’s not just lucre’s terrible siren that keeps me from reading, from myself. As soon as my vision was brought to standard, the world crowded it with trash and horror. I remember the infomercials for Bowflex and the veiny palms of the Marlboro Man; I began collecting “Got Milk?” spreads from Sports Illustrated; I remember Ruthie’s red soccer jersey from Real World: Hawaii. Why?

All the time, this desperate seduction, this clamor for attention. And the reaching arm of the world has only gotten stronger, more flexible, deft—from the moment of waking to the quietest part of the night, my bedside table, my pocket, my very hand shakes with its address. When the tremor becomes too much, I turn to the quiet spines lined up along my shelves.


Between my eye and the lens, I found a golden little seam. I can fill it with a book and disappear into the gutter between the pages, a fissure in the world. I reemerge later, better. But while reading is paramount among the ways I’ve come to be at home in the world, it is also the means by which I was first exiled from myself.

Do you remember the first time you were instructed to close one eye, place one little hand over it, and to look at a chart swinging from a nail on the door? Do you remember the poster, the text that you read? One large letter on top, an impossible word in smaller type just beneath, and then a cascade that grew more garrulous, minuscule, and nonsensical as it prattled on down the page. You were made to read until you failed, and exactly where you failed indexed the weakness of your vision.

Thus the message about what was wrong with me was delivered through the activity I held most dear. This is often how it happens: what you love is instrumentalized against you. The trick is to reclaim it, to love it again, to use it as a tool to carve out, however crudely, a little dwelling in the world.

Perhaps reading is the way for you, though it needn’t be: whatever modality of interiority animates, amplifies your thinking life is the one to pursue. This is a social responsibility: per Arendt, as permutated by Crary, where there is no time or space for thinking, for privacy, there is no meaningful political life. Where there is no interior life, there is no resistance to what is outside us. And we need modes of resistance now, from the many forces anticipated by Debord and described by Crary.


There can be time enough again, but only if we make it.


The society of my spectacles is a mobile territory approximately ten inches in diameter. I am its little monarch. For its meager spatial claim, its temporal bounds are massive on the order of a conundrum: it contains multitudes. Various jetsam from the whole scope of printed matter have been known to pass through its realm, sometimes in sequence, sometimes in pell-mell-immediacy. This quiet society is cacophonous with ideas and opinions. It is my humble stay against the raging turpitude of the out-there. I go there to be alone, along with everyone who has written. I have written this to you that you might have known some time in it.

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