Is it always wrong to profile? Is it even wrong at all?
Of all the unpopular opinions someone could offer in 2018 in America, maybe a positive slant on profiling seems to be among the dumbest. But I think this betrays a confusion between two ideas, both of which get swept up in the term "profile." The fact is, there's a difference between profiling and being prejudiced, however related the practices often are. To argue otherwise is to miss the way profiling manifests in social media as people profile themselves, classifying and categorizing things about themselves in order to share a snapshot of who they are with someone else. And we use this information. A lot.
We use information from people's profiles to deduce whether they might make a good addition to an organization. We use information from people's profiles to decide if they're worth befriending. We even use information from people's profiles to determine if they would make a decent life partner. Never have I heard of someone saying, "I refuse to fill out my profile because I'm afraid someone will get the wrong idea or hold it against me." We understand that our profiles aren't synonymous with who we are as human beings, and we also understand that there are right and wrong ways to use the information we share. The key is how we use the information.
I like high-top sneakers. I also like literature...and philosophy...and tea. If I see you in a tea shop, sipping a cup of Lapsang Souchong, wearing Nike Dunks, and reading the annotated works of C.S. Lewis, I'm going to assume that you're a cultured intellectual. Maybe I'll just make that assumption and move on. Maybe I'll try to strike up a conversation. Maybe you'll prove to be what I thought you were. But if I'm being fair, then my profile prompts me to test my assumptions. And maybe I'll be wrong. But. Being wrong really isn't the issue. The issue is what I do when my assumptions are put to the test. Do I make you fit my profile, without concern for who you really are? Do I justify mistreating you on the grounds of what I observe? That's being prejudiced. That's a misuse of profiling. That's wrong.
I think these ideas about what profiling is and isn't carry over to interpretation. Interpreters of a text take snapshots of that text by classifying and categorizing the information they discover. And while an interpreter's initial assumptions might prove to be somewhat or even wholly unsupported, profiling entails the very practices of observation and classification that make it possible to analyze anything at all.
As I read, I take note of what an author says, how she says it, and what she seems to mean. In other words, I observe. The more I read, the more I begin to see connections between things, patterns in her use of language. And as I become more intentional about recognizing those apparent patterns, I begin to identify, classify, and categorize the information in order to say something coherent about it. In other words, I profile her work. Is my profile synonymous with her work itself? Not even close. Might I find out more information (within her work or without) that would render my assumptions inaccurate? Sure. In fact, that's almost certain to happen. But again, what would take my process from profiling to prejudice? Making her work fit my assumptions about it, even if there's evidence to the contrary. Again, that's being prejudiced. That's a misuse of profiling. That's wrong.
Profiling a work is not unethical. The real danger in interpretation is being unwilling to adjust or let go of our initial assumptions when new or re-examined information calls our assumptions into question. So, don't be afraid to profile a text, but allow for the likelihood that your assumptions will need to be adjusted or abandoned.
Why do I bother reading at all?
That is a loaded question, to be sure. I can remember a time in my life when I read because it was a challenge to overcome. Later in life, I read for enjoyment, even to escape whatever my perception of reality was at the time. At this point in my life, however, I find something else drawing me to literature, something at once both infinitesimally minute in its focus and immeasurably universal in its application. Literary analysis is that deeper appeal.
I can already see a self-proclaimed literary purist shaking a dumbfounded face at the idea that analysis is a deeper appeal than appreciation. As if something so complex as literature could be quantified, measured, examined, categorized, and methodically studied, right? Perhaps such an endeavor sounds too scientific to be associated with something often labeled an "art." Then again, perhaps the line often drawn between science and art is not as defined as we often think. Certainly the artistic objects we study are greater than the sum of their parts, and the relative significance of those objects is boundless. And yet, is it not the greatest appreciators of anything that we expect to be the ones who have spent the most time, examined from the most angles, and explored the most minutia? I would submit, then, that skimming surfaces amounts to about as deep of an appreciation as one who identifies wrapped gifts without ever opening them.
Literature itself is indeed a gift, as is learning how to appreciate it by learning how to recognize all the different things it is and does. And this kind of appreciation, however intuitive it might be on some level for nearly all literate individuals, can only grow as a reader becomes an analyst. Like a good detective, a literary analyst sharpens his senses and practices perceiving more than is immediately apparent to the untrained eye. He takes in more of the scenes, sees more nuances in the characters, and ultimately reaches a place that emphasizes the universality of literature: thematic patterns. The things to which we truly relate in literature, which make literature accessible and timeless, are the things that arise from seeing the patterns, comparisons, and contrasts that arise as we extract and abstract from the literary occasions those things that illustrate relatable aspects of the human condition itself.
So this is why I read—to consider the connections, pick out the patterns, and recognize what literature is telling me about myself, about the others I know, about others I will never meet, and about the world in which we all live. If I seem sometimes to get lost in the details, then, it is because I am. But we only find the meaning of the whole when we are willing to immerse ourselves in the parts. For that reason, my goal is never to detract from the value of literature by putting it under a microscope. On the contrary, I hope to enhance my reading, and the reading of others, by bringing more of literary occasions to light. In attempting to do so, I do not deceive myself into thinking that I can exhaust any literary instance. But just because something is inexhaustible does not mean it is not worth exploring as thoroughly as one is able. I suppose that I will be learning about and learning from literature until the day I die. And I will consider the commitment to have exceeded expectations if I can convince even one other to do the same.