There are self-effacing texts, like the ancient epics, which put the reader in control of the text, where every engagement with the text is different, where, even after centuries, the textual energies are inexhaustible, like the hydrogen in the stars. Those texts don’t get old, because they look the reader, rather than themselves, in the face. And the face is always different.
But there are other texts, which are self-regarding, where the reader is a superfluous agent, texts that only need themselves to run, automatons rather than living beings. These narcissistic texts have been proliferating over the last half-century, and have been powering the shift to meta: texts that don’t talk to us, but to themselves. Postmodernism at its finest.
Personally, when a text, whatever it might be, fiction, non-fiction or anything in between, tells me how to read it, when it urges me to check out its entrails without glimpsing its beauty, I politely put it back on the shelf.
The same is happening elsewhere. Apple TV’s The Morning Show is a product of TV entertainment about TV entertainment. It’s a good show, but altogether narcissistic. We watch, but without being acknowledged.
As readers, we want to feel like we’re eavesdropping on the voices in the text while at the same time being recognized for who we are, the breath of life circulating through the text, the makers of its fortune.
Does a tree really fall in the forest when there’s no-one to hear it fall? Does a text really exist without a reader to read it?
There is no outside text, Derrida once decreed. He meant it in a different way, of course, but the words turned prophetic. Just as Narcissus glimpsed his reflection in the water and was entranced, forgetting about everything else around him, so texts stare at themselves in their own textuality and forget about the reader and why they’re there.