I just can’t relate to it. I’ve heard some variation of this phrase whenever I suggest a new book, film, podcast, or television show. It’s popped up everywhere, from casual conversation to the classroom. I too am guilty of using it.
But this easy dismissal takes on a more sinister cast in the midst of an election year, the kind of year that reveals the worst of our collective cultural tendency to systematize identity, locating and marking boundaries between ourselves and others.
In the media and at the polls, we become demographic statistics and voting blocks, delineated by age, race, gender, class, sexuality, geography, and other categories which seek to place our actions and reactions in predictable narratives. This urge to entrench and delimit identities in easy-to-consume packages becomes the primary interface, a feature of American culture writ large that emerges in its most virulent form in deeply political years.
These impulses are closely linked.
At the end of her essay on the value of reading widely, Rebecca Solnit reminds us that we need to take art seriously: “Because art makes the world, because it matters, because it makes us. Or breaks us.”
When you only consume “relatable” art, you make a world that only looks like yourself.
To judge art on whether or not you can relate to it makes the particular universal. When we find something relatable, we find ourselves reflected in it. For Rebecca Mead, relatability becomes a greater “scourge” because of the demands it places on art: “that the work itself be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer.” Likewise, relatability bothers Rebecca Onion “because it presumes that the speaker’s experiences and tastes are common and normative. . . It’s shorthand that masquerades as description.” Relatability shapes our horizons by limiting them.
But it also ignores what we do when we read. Reading is a deeply vulnerable act. You give yourself over to the words on the page. You lend a book your body. But reading also demands effort and collaboration – a willingness to invest yourself.
In “From Work to Text“, Roland Barthes distinguishes reading-for-consumption and reading-as-collaboration. The text, Barthes argues, “asks the reader for an active collaboration.” It demands “play, task, production, and activity.” You become a co-writer, helping the text come alive. Boredom and disengagement, the inability to relate, becomes a failure of the imagination, an unwillingness to “play it, open it out, make it go.”
When you refuse to relate to literature, film, television, etc., you close yourself to the potential for discomfort, confusion, vulnerability, and failure but also the exhilaration of art.
Reading, really reading, is risky.
Katie Dyson is a PhD candidate in English at Loyola University Chicago. When she’s not teaching or working on her dissertation, she reads the internet.