When I was a grad student, I relished the rigorous read. I’d devour a text — that’s what academics call books and articles — word for word, gesture for gesture, trope for trope. It afforded me a profound satisfaction, a satiation, a resonant reverberation. The experience was less excavation than erotics (not that those two need be opposed). There was something sumptuous to me about letting Foucault’s — or Gadamer’s or Nietzsche’s — words linger in my mouth, savoring every syllable, relishing every figure. It was making love in every sense of the word.
But there was an implied moral component, as well. Rigor is an academic mantra, an accolade, an ideal. You gotta be rigorous. You have to know the thinker, the writer, the artist inside and out — and all the secondary writing on that person. That’s why a dissertation is supposed to exhaust the literature on your subject.
This was a problem. Rigor, to me, was aesthetic, not moral. I enjoyed devouring a book. But that didn’t mean I had to read everything he wrote. I mean, I did a rigorous reading of Paul Ricoeur’s La Métaphore Vive but do I have now to read everything Ricoeur wrote? Holy shit, I hope not. No, I like reading some of this, some of that, a dab of de Certeau, a bit of Bataille, a little of Lacan.
Every now and again, I’d be so enamored of a writer, I’d read everything he wrote (it was usually a he, I will admit). But once it came time to read the so-called critical writing, well, I just couldn’t stomach it. To plod through arid academse, to ponder such pedantic prose: I was not constitutionally capable. My body would revolt at the mere titles of articles. By the end of the first paragraph, I’d be weeping and retching. The bibliography of my dissertation has, I don’t know, 25 books — all written by the people I was writing about.
I did entertain some vague ethical notions of rigor. Something about being true to the text, respecting it, and so on. I remember believing that Deleuze was rigorous but that Guattari was frivolous; I read The Fold but scorned Anti-Oedipus.
That was before. This is now. Now I could care less about rigor. I just want something that turns me on — an exquisite phrase, a nasty figure, a keen turn of thought. I want it messy; I want it to slur with depravity, with lust, with love. I want it to challenge coherence; I want it to slip and slide and bleed. Now, it’s Guattari and his free wheeling schizoanalysis that turns me on.
This is not to say I don’t appreciate rigor. But my appreciation is aesthetic, not ethical. I love when artists are so insanely rigorous that their work takes on an aura of madness. Or a book, like Badiou’s Being and Event, is so absurdly thorough.
But rigor is not a mandate for me — morally or aesthetically. I can read a text, take any snippet of it I want and do what I want with it. When I quote people now, I go by memory. Who cares what the so-called real quote is? Ok, sometimes it matters and sometimes it’s beautiful. But, mostly, who gives a shit? The way I remember Nietzsche is Nietzsche, too — or, at least, is the Nietzsche that matters to me. And if some pedantic prig wants to come along and say otherwise, let ’em. You don’t like my Nietzsche? Who cares? Call it something else.
Words, art, texts are only as interesting as the new experiences they foster. If I read something and can then spin it into something else, isn’t that incredible? Do I really need to be faithful? Do I really need to be rigorous? Just give me something that lives and lives well. Give me something that foments new life. Rigor shmigor.