Critical Connections Public Lecture and Mini-Seminar

Zeynep Celik AlexanderZeynep Çelik Alexander (University of Toronto)
“A Minor History of Non-Reading”

Public Lecture: January 30, 2014 / 5:00 p.m. – 6:00 p.m. / Peter Graham Scholarly Commons / Bird Library

Mini-Seminar: January 31, 2014 / 10:00 a.m. – 12:00 noon / Special Collections Research Center / Bird Library

(Both events are co-sponsored by Syracuse University’s School of Architecture. They are free and open to the public, but advanced registration is required for the mini-seminar. To register, contact or call 315-443-2697)

Zeynep Çelik Alexander is an architectural historian whose work focuses on the history of modern architecture since the Enlightenment with an emphasis on German modernism. She is currently completing two projects: a book titled An Epistemological History of Aesthetic Modernism and a co-edited volume exploring the histories of technologies that have come to dominate contemporary design disciplines. Alexander’s writings have appeared in several edited volumes as well as in journals including Harvard Design Magazine, Grey Room, Journal of Design History, and Centropa. She is a member of Aggregate Architectural History Collaborative and an editor of the journal Grey Room.

“A Minor History of Non-Reading”

Countless contemporary observers have noted that in the age of digital media skimming, scanning, browsing, and watching may have rendered close reading obsolete. Yet such claims about the disappearance of reading —accompanied as often with uncritical enthusiasm as with unwarranted anxiety—are not new. This paper attempts to understand the epistemological implications of such claims by returning to early-twentieth-century Germany where a peculiar kind of reading, dubbed “non-reading,” emerged. Non-reading was neither illiteracy nor reading in-depth: it was a technique of engaging with a text without using the hermeneutic practices that had been a crucial part of German education since the early nineteenth century. The modernist picture book became a primary site for the practice of non-reading. In books by Paul Schultze-Naumburg, Max Dvorak and Heinrich Wölfflin (and later by Sigfried Giedion, Le Corbusier, and Colin Rowe) images with strikingly similar formal qualities were juxtaposed as example and counter-example so that the non-reader could switch her gaze back and forth between the two images until she could reach the correct judgment. Those who used the comparative method—in books as well as in other pedagogical settings at museums, design schools, and universities—shared an assumption about the kind of knowledge inherent in this analogical reasoning. If Wissen, knowledge associated with conscious thought and language, had been at the heart of nineteenth-century institutions of learning in Germany, the comparative method was put to use with faith in Kennen, corporeal knowledge assumed to be the result of inferences drawn unconsciously from aesthetic sensations. This paper traces the brief life of non-reading in turn-of-the-century books, slides, mass-produced prints and photographs with an eye on its long afterlife in twentieth-century modernism.

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