Wednesday, 25 June 2014

A Conlang for Your Heart

Conlang: A constructed language, or conlang, is a language whose features have been consciously constructed rather than developed naturally, as in most languages.
Asexuality: Asexuality is a sexual orientation (or something analogous to a sexual orientation) in which a person does not experience sexual attraction to anyone. Although many asexual people are aromantic--meaning that they do not experience romantic attraction to anyone either--not all are. People who are only minimally sexual, but not entirely asexual, are often called "grey."

One of the things that excites me about the asexuality movement is the attempt to create a new vocabulary for attraction. Many, if not most, of the ways we have learned to describe our relationships with other people are based on romantic and familial models, though we've generated a few others to describe sexual non-romantic relationships in the last few decades (friends with benefits, f*ckbuddies). And there are some institutional or quasi-institutional terms, too: mentors, sponsors, confessors. But there are few words or phrases for peer-to-peer relationships, and there are even fewer words or phrases for the kinds of bonds people have, irrespective of the particular activities that people do with one another. Asexual people, and especially aromantic asexual people, therefore have hardly a vocabulary at all to describe the different kinds of bonds they have with people. Making a new vocabulary is more urgent for aces, but it is useful for anyone who has informal non-romantic relationships . . . which probably includes pretty much everybody.

I encountered a "web of attraction" at the blog asexy beast. It consists of a spider's web with different points around the edge labelled with different kinds of attraction: sexual, romantic, aesthetic, platonic, physical, fantasy. The different components go unexplained, so we're required to use the author's commentary to try and make sense of the diagram. But I'm not wedded to the particular labels What was revelatory for me when I first saw the web was that all of these different kinds of attraction could be de-coupled. Until then I had been assuming that if I experienced a certain kind of attraction toward someone I really must be experiencing all of the others, since I had conflated them all. This became very confusing when my actual experiences did not line up: how can I be attracted to someone I don't find attractive? How can I be attracted to someone when I don't want to date them? etc. So long as I was grouping all types of attraction into one category and treating them as simply facets of a single experience, I was confusing myself. Seeing the web of attraction--especially in the context of asexuality--broke that conflation up for me. I have been able to make much better sense of my own experiences now that I am not reflecting on them with a limited vocabulary.

For instance, I am no longer especially confused or worried if I find a person attractive to the point of distraction but I do not have the slightest inclination to date that person: "thinks is cool" and "finds physically attractive" might be prerequisites to "wants to date" for me, but they are not sufficient, because "wants to date" is its own discrete and indivisible experience. But I'm simplifying a little--"finds physically attractive" isn't a single indivisible experience, either.

But of course different people will be experiencing different combinations of these forms of attraction, in response to different aspects of other people, so it will make sense for people to be developing their own vocabulary for their own use. The trick in making your own vocabulary is the danger that you'll try to project that vocabulary onto others (of which the problem asexual people encountered trying to explain themselves in sexual language is one example). I'm recommending that people make these vocabularies largely so they can explain themselves to themselves, and therefore it can be an entirely private language; however, teaching other people to speak your language could be helpful if you wanted to explain yourself to them and if you wanted to help them revise and improve the conlangs for their own hearts.

If you want to learn more about asexuality, I recommend checking out AVEN, the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network, and the YouTube channel Hot Pieces of Ace.

Although I have finished and posted this in response to a comment conversation at Unequally Yoked, I have been sitting on drafts of this for awhile.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Theory of Reading: Index

A Theory of Reading (1.0)


Back when I still expected to publish a serial novel on an online platform which so far hasn't materialized, I realized that I would probably receive criticism for the novel. I'm not opposed to criticism, but I thought it might be prudent to prepare the theory according to which I'd respond (or capitulate). Moreover, as I was writing my theory of interpretation, I felt like it was worth writing for its own sake, since someone might find it interesting or helpful. I know my colleagues in the English department often complained of arguments about literature and/or culture which stemmed from their interlocutor misunderstanding what interpretation even is.

I have posted the essay to the Tumblr I made for the novel, even though I don't know when or even if my novel will ever be published. I've also posted it here, but in parts to make it easier to digest. Here's an index:

Part I: Where Is The Meaning Of The Text?
Part II: Making Sure Your Reading Is A Good One
Part III: Reading Experience and Interpretation
Part IV: Schools of Critical Theory
Conclusion: To Exist Is To Differ

And some extra bonus content!

Using Theory
Please Read Responsibly?
Reasons to Read
What Good's an Author?

Theory of Reading: Conclusion

A Theory of Reading (1.0)

Conclusion: To Exist is to Differ

In writing my descriptions of different schools of criticism, I noticed something I forgot to mention: good literary analysis understands the text in relation to other texts, noticing both where it is similar and where it is different. In a profoundly obvious sense, a text is only a text if it is different in some way from other texts—it must have some difference in words if it is more than just a copy of another text. Bourdieu writes that a text, in order to be a part of a certain literature (say, 18th century French literature), must participate in that literature with its difference and as result change the literature a little bit. He summarizes, “to exist is to differ.” A good literary analysis of a text attends to this difference—but it also attends to the literature in which the text differs. Some focus on one more than another, but if the purpose of literary analysis is to uncover some set of a text’s possible meanings, it must bear both in mind.

However, scholars in English literature departments are not always in the business of uncovering some set of a text’s possible meanings. Some scholars are interested in reception history; for instance, someone doing reception history might ask how 18th century English poets responded to Shakespeare or how 20th century Latin American short story writers responded to Cervantes. Some scholars are interested in language theory, looking at the pragmatics of language use (this can be quite interesting, and is an entirely different thing than what I was used to before taking a language theory course). Some scholars are interested in publication history, and the way in which books or plays were published in different periods of time. These are all interesting questions, and I begrudge such scholars neither their work nor their place in the discipline—not that it would matter much if I did begrudge them, because I’m no one. However, I think it’s important to note that they aren’t doing the same thing as someone doing literary analysis; they are asking different questions, and so they are getting different answers. What I have been trying to outline here has been a theory of literary analysis and not, for instance, reception history.

Of course this theory of literary analysis has been terribly basic and, as a consequence, really quite boring to anyone who digs into literary theory or critical theory. It is also ferociously naïve. I admit to these charges, before anyone has a chance to make them, without compunction. Indeed, my point has simply been to create the bare bones of a theory, the sort of thing upon which most of us can agree—and if you don’t agree with what I’ve determined, then I’m not sure how you could really do literary analysis at all, because you’re either going to run into pure relativism or you’re going to be constricted in an impossible unitary meaning. So, before I sign off, I will give a brief outline of this basic and boring theory of literary analysis so you (and I) can see it all in one place.
  1. Misreadings are possible. There is such a thing as a bad interpretation.
  2. Not all interpretations are equal (but some are).
  3. A text has a field of possible meanings, some of which are better than others.
  4. Interpretation attends to the text’s field of possible meanings, not to what meanings the author intended or what meanings any particular reader experienced.
  5. A text can only have a field of possible meanings by using a pre-existing set of symbols; this includes the language(s) in which it is written, but also includes allusion, genre conventions, and so on.
  6. Pre-existing sets of symbols change over time, so the set of symbols a text uses will depend on its historical context.
  7. Good interpretations take into account the entire text, including its details, bearing in mind the historical context.
  8. Mastery of a text is not possible; a good interpretation prepares the ground for more good interpretations.
  9. While the reader’s experience of a text is not the same thing as the text itself, the reader’s experience is important because it is what makes texts worth writing and reading.
  10. An author is responsible for the text they write, not for the reader’s experience of the text.
  11. What I’ve described here is not the only thing people do in English literature departments, and that is fine; however, those other things that people do aren’t literary analysis.

I would like to repeat, once again, that I welcome feedback. I hope this has been helpful to someone.

Part IV: Schools of Critical Theory

Theory of Reading: Part IV

A Theory of Reading (1.0)

Part IV: Schools of Critical Theory

Those familiar with academic literary theory—also called critical theory—will recognize bits of specific schools of theory in what I've written so far, but they will also recognize that it does not really participate in any particular school. What I've been trying to elaborate is a very bare-bones understanding of reading; I'm trying to establish the minimum theory sufficient for interpretive reading. I would argue that what I've elaborated is the de facto theory of English classrooms at the university level; these are the assumptions which allow us to interpret texts, and my task has only been to codify and justify them. When I say this theory is minimal, I don't mean to say you cannot do anything with it; instead, I think it is quite powerful, and is a good and sufficient starting place for the sorts of interpretations—criticism, praise, etc.—that I describe in Part III. However, I recognize that people smarter and more educated than me have given critical theory a lot more thought than I have, and the schools of critical theory that result are therefore quite robust. I need, at least, to account for some of them. But I also think these schools of theory can be quite useful, and enable us to make valid interpretations which the practices I've outlined in Part II aren't quite able to produce.

This also seems like the right place to notice a distinction between theory and focus. Some schools lean heavily toward explaining what a text is and how a reader can understand it, while other schools lean more towards identifying certain subjects of interest in texts, on which their practitioners usually focus. Structuralism is a good example of the former; feminist criticism is a good example of the latter. Both theory and focus influence each other, and both influence the kinds of methods a scholar would use, but it is worth noting that some schools cannot be well combined (formalism and reader response theory, for instance) while others can be well combined (deconstructionism and feminist theory, for instance) because theory-based schools often make mutually exclusive claims, but focus-based schools do not.

So, without further ado, I will attempt to sketch out a few of the schools of critical theory and explain how they relate to what I've said. This isn't meant to be a complete and exhaustive guide, however; it is no more than a beginning.

1. Formalism

New Criticism is not the only kind of formalism (Russian formalism is also influential), but it is the one I will focus on because it has most shaped Anglo-American literary theory. To a New Critic, a text is a unified structure of meaning, and the purpose of criticism is to explicate the text. Explicating the text means, basically, to explain what the unified meaning is. New Critics typically analyzed poems rather than novels, and an explication would often involve a line-by-line analysis of the poem's unfolding meaning. This emphasis on what's called close reading—a focus on individual lines, words, or passages—is still a major component of literary analysis, but neither New Criticism nor contemporary analysis is focused entirely on bits and pieces of a work; the close reading served as an end to understanding the text taken as a whole.

New Criticism strongly championed the idea that the text's meaning was located in itself, not in the author's intention nor in the reader's experience of it. Further, only the text in its entirety produces its meaning; a mere summary of the work will never mean quite the same thing as the work itself. These claims are still, often, the default assumptions of contemporary criticism, unless and until the analyst announces a departure from them into, say, deconstructionism or reader response theory. However, even if these working assumptions prove to be false, they are historically valuable, moving the field out of its previous practices, which were more akin to poetry appreciation than poetry analysis.

There are a number of possible critiques of New Criticism, including its failure to recognize the roles language, readers, and economics play in creating meaning, but the critique I find most convincing is against the assumption that texts have a unified meaning. New Criticism often assumed that poetry (or at any rate good poetry) had a single overall meaning. I've tried to suggest this is false by describing a field of possible meaning, but I haven't yet mentioned that this field of possible meaning might be self-contradictory; I'll talk about this at further length when I discuss deconstructionism.

2. Reader Response Theory

It is possible to imagine most major schools of literary theory as critical responses to formalism. While this way of imagining things would be limited, I think it's a fair introduction to reader response theory. The basic idea behind reader response theory is that it’s the reader who creates the meaning of a text. This was in response to new criticism's general disregard for the reader's experience.

While there is a great variety in reader response criticism, almost all of it studies the reader's experience of the work. Quite a lot of reader response theory assumes that that is where meaning resides: in the reader's experience. So the large project of reader response criticism is to understand how different readers create different meanings, whether this is an analysis of features of the text (ambiguity) or different kinds of readers or communities of readers.

The problem with reader response theory, I think, is only that reader response theories conflate the reader's experience with the text itself. The readers' experiences are worth studying, but so is the text itself.

3. Structuralism

Structuralism is less interested in the analysis of an individual text and usually more interested in the way in which meaning is generated by structures of signs; most structuralism is based on Saussure's linguistics. Language is not a list of words matching to things; rather, language is a set of signs (signifiers) which correspond with concepts (signifieds), and they can only correspond according to their similarities and differences. A lot of structuralism is really interesting, but for my purposes the main take-away is that language and tropes can only gain meaning from an external structure of meaning.

4. Deconstruction

Out of structuralism developed poststructuralism, a major strand of which is deconstruction. Associated mainly with Jacques Derrida, who insisted that deconstruction was not a theory or even a methodology so much as a method, deconstruction notes that the meaning of a word or text is always deferred (or, if you prefer, open-ended). Subsequent words can change the meaning of a previous word. For instance, in the sentence, "The house was large for a shack," the first four words are revised by the last three. This deferral of meaning (which Derrida calls différance) makes the entire structure of language unstable. The binaries which structure language (male/female, white/black, civilized/uncivilized) are therefore subject to change.

Deconstruction, as a method, focuses thus on the underlying instability of texts, analyzing the contradictions inherent to them. The existence of binaries means that there are things which a particular text cannot say; deconstruction tries to discover those binaries, absences, and contradictions.

Gerald Gaff makes what I think is a strong critique of deconstruction: as New Criticism always discovers that a poem has a unified meaning, so deconstruction always discovers that a text has internal contradictions. Any method which knows in advance what it's going to find is suspect. However, deconstruction taken as a tool which usually works, instead of as a forecast which a scholar tries to confirm, is quite useful. Texts certainly can have tensions and contradictions within their fields of possible meaning; indeed, the idea of multiple possible meanings increases the changes of this happening.

5. Marxist Criticism

In general, criticism is Marxist when it looks at texts as either espousing particular ideas about economics, or as actually embodying particular facets of economics as Marxists understand it. After all, a novel written in a capitalist economy is necessarily a product of that economy—and a novel written in a different economic system is necessarily a product of that system. While Marxist criticism has influenced other forms of criticism—including feminist criticism, postcolonial criticism, and structuralism—and while Marxist critics have developed their own theories of texts, scholars of most schools can incorporate Marxist ideas into their analyses, even when they are not in a traditionally Marxist-affiliated school.

6. Feminist Criticism

Harold Bloom labeled feminist criticism, along with Marxist and postcolonial criticism, as a School of Resentment because he’s a bit of a misogynist feminist criticism was interested in the politics of poetry rather than the poetry of poetry. But one of the central tenants of feminist criticism, that literature’s patriarchal and misogynistic content helps perpetuate patriarchy and misogyny, necessitates a careful critique of fiction and poetry to uncover that content. As with Marxist criticism, feminist criticism is not mutually exclusive with the other forms of criticism I’m describing here—you could be a formalist and a feminist, for instance, and feminists often employ deconstruction—but feminists have also developed some of their own methods of looking at texts (though many of these get overturned by subsequent feminists, as with Cixious’s écriture feminine, which sought to show how women’s writing was essentially different from men’s writing and how “writing the body” could be emancipatory).

I want to make a brief note on the sort of feminist criticisms you might encounter as an undergraduate student: it can be very difficult to sell feminist criticism—or feminism generally—to undergraduate students, so often the form of feminist criticism you see modelled in lectures, tutorials, and other students’ papers is terribly simplistic. Very often the thesis of this criticism is quite simply that the text is sexist. But just as formalism is useless if you know you’re going to find a unitary meaning, so feminist criticism is useless is you know in advance you’re going to find problematic portrayals of gender, because of course you are going to find problematic portrayals of gender. Rather, good feminist analysis uncovers the way in which the text portrays gender problematically, often in aggregate with other texts. There isn’t just one kind of sexism, after all; the ways and methods of badly portraying women abound.

7. Postcolonial Criticism

To a large extent, I would be repeating myself if I were to elaborate much on postcolonial criticism; while the history of postcolonial criticism differs from those of feminist criticism and Marxist criticism, I have not been describing any of these schools at a level of specificity which would really notice those differences. However, I want to note that postcolonial criticism is very interested in place in a way the other forms of criticism are not. Since postcolonialism is about the transition of population from being a colony to being an independent nation, it is invariably interested in the politics of the countries which literature represents and in which literature is written. This is likely as good a place as any to observe that criticism like postcolonial or feminist analysis is not as wedded to the Intentional Fallacy or the Death of the Author as some schools are; after all, they would argue that it matters whether a certain statement is made by a member of the oppressed group or a member of the oppressing group.

Of course, not all countries are postcolonial; some critics note that Canada, the United States, and Australia are not postcolonial because the colonists never returned political power to the indigenous people. So possible versions of postcolonial criticism in these countries are looking for a new vocabulary to describe what they are doing, since “postcolonial” won’t do it.

8. Other Political Schools

I feel bad lumping into one category queer theory, Asian Canadian and Asian American Studies, disability theory, and other schools of criticism engaging with privilege and its representation, and treating them as analogies to feminist criticism and postcolonial criticism. I feel like they ought to be represented somewhere and I don’t trust myself to remember them all for individual commentaries, so I am creating this catch-all despite the awkwardness of it. In lots of ways they do resemble one another, but of course in other ways they have widely different challenges, since the forms of structural oppression and misrepresentation they confront are different from one another. Treating them as the same would be a problem.

However, in one way it is fruitful to bunch them: they all potentially intersect with one another and can work with the other schools of criticism I have discussed here. Indeed, some of the best work comes from an analysis of how these different fields interact with one another—see, for instance, Eve Sedgewick’s The Epistemology of the Closet for a good example of how that might look. Intersectionality—the way in which different forms of privilege and oppression interact with one another—has been a buzzword in the field lately, and for good reason.

8. Digital Humanities

The digital humanities are a hot new field, and they are also a field which many members of the discipline consider distracting, trivial, or potentially dangerous. Some of this response is purely reactionary, especially when the digital humanities seem to advocating against reading itself or against reading from the canon. For instance, some scholars get up in arms because their peers in the digital humanities are studying digital texts rather than Shakespeare and Dickens and Eliot. That’s just silly and, anyway, reading outside the canon is hardly unique to the digital humanities. But I am sympathetic to some of the others concerns about digital humanities.

Traditionally understood, the digital humanities are an attempt to use quantitative analysis on literature. This might vary from making data-rich maps showing how often influential thinkers in a certain time period mailed one another (look up A Republic of Letters to see that), or graphing the book sales of assorted genres, or plotting local oral stories on a map to show how they spread. Or it might involve crunching the page-numbers of a book’s index to see how the book changes in topic over the course of its pages. Or it might involve a quantitative analysis of the different words a text employs, counting the number of times certain keywords might appear. The results might be startling and illuminating, but often enough the analysis instead reveals something that could also be determined simply by reading the book. Moreover, a lot of those examples I mentioned do not even do literary analysis as traditionally conceived: after the quantitative analysis, we still do not have a better sense of what the text means.

However, I am starting to come around. A lot of the really good quantitative analysis provides insight into the text’s context—for instance, mapping the kinds of stories produced in different places, or creating networks of allusion and citation—or brings out some element of the text which the critic might consider—for instance, sophisticated linguistic analyses looking at word count frequencies. These results do not contribute to a better understanding of the text on their own, but they might raise questions or provide evidence for proper analytical claims about the text. Alternately, the digital humanities might prove an interesting and fruitful field on its own—but, if so, it should be distinguished from traditional literary analysis, which is asking an entirely different set of questions.

9. Other Criticisms

The schools I have listed are by far not the only ones; there are others still in practice, and there are some that have fallen by the wayside.

Archetypal criticism, a form of structuralism, tries to develop a set of universe archetypes, plot structures, and tones—so, a structure—into which all literary texts can be fit. Northrop Frye was its great proponent; there are still a handful of archetypal critics, but most have recognized that a universally-applicable structure usually privileges one kind of literature over others. Further, it does almost nothing to help us understand individual texts.

Psychoanalytical criticism looks at the way in which a text is a result of human psychological processes. This criticism was originally Freudian (or Jungian, in which case it overlapped with archetypal criticism), and then it was subject to all the flaws of Freudian or Jungian psychology. And indeed psychoanalytical criticism still struggles with these problems, but neuroscientific criticism provides an alternative which keeps up to date with current psychology.

New historicism—the school which I have probably studied the most—attempts to learn about the culture (with a particular eye to politics) in which a literary text was produced by analyzing the literary text alongside non-literary texts produced in the same (or a similar) context: court transcripts, religious treatises, letters, sermons, political pamphlets, and the like. New historicism is also most often associated with the early modern period (which you might know as the Renaissance), but a political analysis of a certain period by reading literary texts alongside non-literary texts has been performed for many periods and places. As I just described it, the method seems obvious; however, digging into the actual practices of new historicists I’ve come to the conclusion that much of its theory is based on a structural contradiction. (Ask me about it if you’re curious.)

Literary Darwinism is probably the one school of criticism which I would banish from existence if possible, since it’s the only one which has done nothing whatsoever for the field. The other ones, even when they turn out to have problems, have still yielded useful results; the same cannot be said for literary Darwinism. Essentially, this school holds that literary tastes must be the product of human evolution, so an analysis of literature should teach us something about human evolution and vice versa. But the resulting analysis invariably flattens both the text and human evolution. Texts are reduced to what they have in common; the idiosyncrasies which makes a text mean what it, in particular, means are ignored as trivial. And human literary taste is also reduced to what humans have in common, at best; at worst, literary Darwinists take one set of literary tastes as representative of all literary tastes. Either way, they deny the role culture has in shaping human psychology and deny the variation between individual humans within a culture. Perhaps it would be possible to perform a literary Darwinist analysis which has a robust place for culture and addressing texts in their particularities, but the field has not yet shown that such a thing is even so much as possible.

Part III: Reading Experience and Interpretation

Theory of Reading: Part III

A Theory of Reading (1.0)

Part III: Reading Experience and Interpretation

John Green—author, vlogger, and general Internet personality—has (in some circles famously) said, "A book belongs to its readers." I admire Green's work and find myself agreeing with a lot of his gnomic sayings, but this is one with which I can't unreservedly agree. My main problem with it is that it's imprecise (at best; at worst it is inaccurate). It's the reading experience, not the book, which belongs to the reader. In a capitalist economy, a book legally and creatively belongs to the author (or it should by capitalist logic, anyway), while, as discussed above, the meaning of the book probably belongs to the book itself as much as it belongs to anyone (though an argument could be made that a book belongs to either language or literature).[1]

I think it is very important to note that the reading experience belongs to the reader. What John Green tends to mean when he says that books belong to their readers is that a reader's interpretation of the book should be judged by whether or not that interpretation enriches their experience of the book. If their reading experience is better—they enjoy it more, they learn more from it, they are more challenged by it—then that interpretation has done its job. I don't disagree with this sentiment. Even a misinterpretation can be a rewarding reading experience, and if a rewarding reading experience is what the reader wants, then the misinterpretation has been, nonetheless, a good one.

The distinction is that the reading experience is not the same thing as the meaning of the text. An interpretation that makes for an enriching reading experience does not necessarily make for a good explanation of the text. So, the question is, when should we be concerned about a faithful interpretation of a text rather than an enriching reading experience?

The most obvious example is in the classroom, when you're called on to complete an English assignment. Whether it's at the high school or the university level, what's usually being asked of you is to give an interpretation of a text, not to record your reading experience. But I think there are more important instances: when you want to lay blame for, make criticisms about, or recommend a book.

By now most of us are familiar with the idea that someone might say some novel—or webcomic, or television show, or movie—is sexist or racist or homophobic. Or the claim might be that a young adult novel provides a poor model for romance, or that there simply are not enough books about some topic or some group of people. These claims, if they are to be broadly applicable, cannot rest on one particular reader's experience of novels. If I find my reading experiences do not have enough dinosaurs, that's not a failing of novelists, since I might simply be ignoring the dinosaurs that are in all of the books I'm reading. It's only if books actually do, in general, lack dinosaurs that my complaint is something that other readers should worry about. Therefore my claim cannot be that my reading experience lacks dinosaurs; my claim is that books today lack dinosaurs, and I back this up with interpretations of books as they are, not as I read them. I call upon the actual fields of possible meaning for books.

Consider the complaints about Strong Female Characters. These are some good examples of arguments showing that Strong Female Characters are not actually as helpful for women as they are made out to be. The argument generally goes that these characters tend to prove their strength by committing anti-social actions, actions which would be roundly condemned in male characters. Presumably the reason people do this is because a female character's strength needs to be proven—the assumption is that a female character is weak—and the standard for proof is a lot higher for a female character than it is for a male character. This does not actually diversify the kinds of female characters books can have but rather limits it further: a female character, in order to be Strong, cannot have moments of compassion, weakness, and so on that a male character, already perceived to be strong, could have. I think this is a strong argument, but the important thing to note is that the argument works or fails based entirely on what the guilty novels actually do, not just on how I personally read them.

It's when you are making this kind of claim—when you want to criticize a text, or defend a text, or praise a text—that you need to interpret the text rather than just record your experience of reading it. And this goes double if you want to praise or blame the author for producing the text; the author can only be responsible for the writing, not the reading. It doesn't matter what kind of criticism or defence or praise that you want to make, or what politics motivates you; in order for your claim to be relevant to anyone else (let alone the author), the claim needs to be about the text, not your experience of it. Of course, insofar as your experience of it is based on the text itself, any problems you have with your experience likely results from the text itself.

I want to repeat that the reading experience is very important. The reading experience is what makes writing and reading worth the effort, after all. A good reading experience can be exciting, pleasurable, distracting, challenging, or otherwise rewarding. I don't want to detract from that at all! The purpose of this section, and indeed of this whole document, is only to note that the reading experience is not the same thing as the text's meaning, and that figuring out the second takes different skills than does getting the first.

[1] I am unconvinced, actually, that the metaphor of ownership for meaning is useful. I am using it only as a response to a particular way John Green’s saying could be interpreted. This metaphor is perhaps troubling: it constrains meaning to the terms of private property. And I’m aware that there are other possible meanings of John’s phrase: insofar as he is suggested that books become part of culture, which is a sort of public commons open for use by other culture-creators, I agree with him.

Theory of Reading: Part II

A Theory of Reading (1.0)

Part II: Making Sure Your Reading Is A Good One

When I was a Teaching Assistant in an English Literature department, my fellows TAs and I used to tell our classes with some frequency that there was no such thing as the 'right' interpretation, but there were better and worse interpretations. What, then, makes one interpretation better than another? The truest answer is probably unsatisfying—the one which can be argued most persuasively is best[1]—but the reason it's truest is that there are a lot of things which might make an interpretation convincing. Here is a list, which may not include every possibility:

1. The interpretation makes sense of as much of the text as possible.
2. The interpretation does not require that you posit things not mentioned (or warranted) by the text.
3. The interpretation makes sense of the text in its historical and artistic context.
4. The interpretation tends to enable more new and good interpretations, not fewer.

1. The interpretation makes sense of as much of the text as possible.
A simple way of saying this is that there are no passages in the text which contradict your interpretations, but that's not necessarily the best way of saying it (I'll discuss this later in my section on deconstruction). But, in general, the idea is that your interpretation shouldn't require you to ignore parts of the text which are inconvenient to your interpretation. In other words, you need to look at all of the evidence.

2. The interpretation does not require that you posit things not mentioned (or warranted) by the text.
An interpretation is not a very good one if it requires you to make things up in order for it to work. This doesn't mean that we don't look for implications in the text, for connections between the elements of a text. And this doesn't mean that we give up symbolic, analogical, or psychological readings, either; rather, we make sure that any interpretations are thoroughly rooted in the text, that we have a reason to read it that way, and our reason comes out of the text itself. You work from the very strict and literal interpretations up to more interpretive ones. But all interpretations must by based on the actual words of the text, and not on possible interpretations which you posit but do not demonstrate. I tend to think of this as a warning against conspiracy-theories.

This criterion needs to be taken in balance with the fourth; I'll explain then why the stereotypical high school student complaint against English class—"Why does everything have to have a hidden meaning?"—isn't one of the better interpretations.

3. The interpretation makes sense of the text in its historical and artistic context.
As I already noted above, the set of signs which allow a text to mean something is a social convention. It's worth noting that the social conventions through which the text gains meaning change in time; allusions in one time period have wholly different connotations than they do in another.

If a text generates a field of possible meanings by using a set of signs, then an interpreter must be sensitive to how that set of signs would work during the text's composition.

Of course a contemporary reader will have a different set of signs than a member of Shakespeare's or Euripides's original audiences would have. Part III will deal with this difference at greater length, but the important point is that the contemporary experience of a novel, poem, or play is not the same thing as an interpretation of it. As a caution, however, I will note that this does not mean an interpretation is only legitimate if the author would recognize the interpretation; Marlowe may not have understood a Marxist analysis of Tamburlaine, but a Marxist analysis would still be legitimate if it was addressing the set of signs as they make sense in Marlowe’s context.

4. The interpretation tends to enable more new, good interpretations, not fewer.
If a text has a field of possible meanings, then an interpretation which enables access to more meanings is better than an interpretation which enables access to fewer. After all, an interpretation which does not acknowledge the fact that there are multiple ways of reading a text is not being particularly faithful to that text. In literary criticism, we call this a reductive reading: it reduces a text to a limited interpretation.

Now, the point here is not that any old reading will do—I've shown that misreadings are possible and that the field of possible meanings has limits. It is always possible to say that something is a misinterpretation, but to deny the existence of multiple possible meanings—ones you haven't thought of yet—is also false. The best example of a reductive meaning is the stereotypical high school student's complaint against symbolism: to insist on a strictly literal interpretation falsely constricts the possible meanings of the text.

The upshot of what I've said so far is that we can never expect to master the text; it is not likely that we can exhaust the entire field of possible meanings, or say that there are no possible interpretations remaining. Some new knowledge of the novel's context might come to light; some new interpretive tool, or some new area of interest, might develop. It might be possible that a play has been interpreted so many times that it doesn't look like future attempts will be worthwhile because the interpretations will only be subtle nuances or minor changes in focus; it isn't, however, ever accurate to say that no other interpretations are possible, just that they might not be worthwhile.

This means that any interpretation isn't closing the matter but providing the ground for future interpretation; that, in turn, implies that previous interpretations are there to be built upon. This claim that we cannot master a text does not mean interpretation is irrelevant, but only that it is never finished. If this seems discouraging, bear in mind that a hovel may not be a palace, but it's still better than nothing at all.


Part I: Where Is The Meaning Of A Text?
Part III: Reading Experience and Interpretation

[1] “Can be argued” is different from “has been argued”; the latter, as important as it is for grading, is pure sophistry.

Theory of Reading: Part I

A Theory of Reading: Part I

Part I: Where is the Meaning of a Text?

From what I can tell, any theory of reading must account for the following observations:

1. Misreadings are possible. That is, it is possible for a particular interpretation to be wrong.
2. In order for something (ie. a text) to mean something, it must mean something to someone. That is, a text's meaning only happens when someone is interpreting it.
3. Different people, having different experiences, priorities, and information, tend to interpret texts in different ways.

So, I start out by trying to account for these observations.

1. Misreadings are possible.

I know and encounter (and, sometimes, teach) quite a few people who argue for what I'd call interpretive relativism; by interpretive relativism I mean the attitude that anyone's interpretation of a text is basically as good as another's, or that, since there's no one who can say for sure what the real meaning of a text is, then no one can really say that anyone else's interpretation is wrong, exactly. I can understand why someone might think this: certainly there isn't anyone who can say for sure what a text means, especially if you don't think the author can do that (and I don't—I'll get back to this), so no one is an absolute authority on a text. However, I think it's obvious that some interpretations are better than others, and that some interpretations are outright wrong—and I think almost everyone already agrees with me on that, at least in particular cases. I’ll explain.

Let's imagine there are four people reading four different maps of the same area. The first person is good at reading maps and the map she's reading is a very good one. So when she reads the map, she can find her way successfully. The second person is bad at readings maps, and the map she's reading is a very good one. When she reads the map, she still gets lost. The third person is good at reading maps, but the map she's reading is a bad one; it is not only hard to read, but it actually contains errors. So when she reads the map, she still gets lost. The fourth person is bad at reading maps, and the map she's reading is a bad one. So when she reads the map, she gets lost.

Now, here's the thing. Whether or not any of these people find their way is not necessarily an indication that the map is good or bad; the second person, for instance, has misread the map. The map represented the territory well; she simply got it wrong. I think most people will agree that, in principle, you can misread a map. But someone might still object that the reason you can misread a map is because a map is supposed to represent reality; there's something (reality) against which you can check your interpretation of the map. However, this example shows why that isn't true: the person who is good at reading maps but had a bad map also got lost, because the map was wrong. She read the map correctly, but that correct reading of the map did not represent reality. So you cannot say that getting lost or not getting lost indicates whether or not your interpretation is correct. The only way you can see whether your interpretation of the map is correct is to check it against the map itself. In other words, the fourth person, who is bad at reading maps and is also reading bad map, is probably misreading the bad map as well. The upshot of this is that the correct interpretation of a map is based on the map itself, not on the reality the map represents.  By analogy, the interpretative relativist's objection that a novel doesn't have anything you can check it against (like the streets a map represents) doesn't actually hold; if the features of a map can create a correct interpretation, so can the features of a novel.

But what about the mapmaker's intention? Maybe the correct interpretation of the map is created by what the mapmaker was trying to portray, someone might say. But this is also not going to work. It is quite possible that the mapmaker is not very good at his job. Perhaps he had a perfectly good idea of what the city looked like, and he measured everything appropriately, but he had an unsteady hand and made lots of mistakes. His intention when making the map does not actually correspond with what his map looks like. Most people who have experience drawing things—whether they are good or bad at it—will likely know what it's like to try to draw something but to have the final image look different than the intended one.

In fact, there are a lot of places for error between the passage from the city streets themselves to the map to the reader's attempt to navigate those streets. We can diagram it like this:

the city streets --> the mapmaker's understanding of the city streets --> the mapmaker's intention for the map --> the map --> the reader's interpretation of the map --> the reader's understanding of the city streets --> the reader's success or failure in navigating the city

It's not important to remember every step here; the important take-away is that each of these steps is different, and when moving from one to the other a person might fail or might succeed. At any rate, the map itself might not correspond to the mapmaker's intention for the map, so you can't check your interpretation of the map against the mapmaker's intention. (For a longer and more thorough argument about this, I suggest you read "The Intentional Fallacy" by Wimsatt and Beardsley.)

But as much as maps are texts, they are different from novels in that they are attempting to accurately represent reality. Novels are self-contained; they aren't supposed to accurately represent reality. So we can make a different diagram for novels, based on the one for maps but subtracting all of the parts about city streets.

the author's intent --> the novel --> the reader's interpretation

What remains the same is that all of these things are different, and that each bit can fail in exactly the same way that reading a map can fail.

2. In order for something (ie. a text) to mean something, it must mean something to someone.

This one seems self-evident; words on a page are just ink and paper—and words on a screen are just an assortment of lights at different intensities—unless someone is interpreting them. So, technically speaking, the meaning of text is located in the interaction between the reader and the text—but, as we just discussed, this does not mean that any interpretation is as good as another. Whether or not the interpretation is faithful to the text still depends on the features of the text—but the interpretation only exists when there is a reader.

There's something else that's worth adding: a text can only mean something if it's in a language—or set of symbols, in the case of a map—that the reader understands. This implies that the language is shared by both author and reader; so, only in a community of language can a text have any meaning. This requirement can be extended to include references and allusions. The set of symbols might not just include words and grammar but also pop culture references, classical references, references to contemporary or historical events, the connotations of certain words and ideas, and other cultural matters.

The fact that the meaning of text relies on this common set of signs makes it even more difficult for the author's intention to become perfectly instantiated by the text the author makes. When using a particular word for a particular purpose, the author nonetheless includes all of the other things that word (or, as is more often the case, set of words) could mean. The context might point heavily to one meaning or another, but this ambiguity is inescapable, and it directly derives from the fact that authors do not get to make up their own languages perfect for their purpose; they must use a pre-existing set of signs. (As a professor of mine once said, you cannot include a cross in a poem and say that it has nothing to do with Christianity; that set of meanings is going to be attached, regardless of your intent.)

Of course, any one person has access to a limited number of these references, which leads to the third observation.

3. Different people, having different experiences, priorities, and information, tend to interpret texts in different ways.

I've so far argued that there is such a thing as a misinterpretation. But is it a consequence of that idea that only one interpretation is right?

I am going to say that there isn't only one correct interpretation, and here's why: lots of texts are ambiguous.

I've been using the example of maps so far because it's intuitive to think of your interpretation of a map as either being right or wrong; there don't seem to be shades of grey. So I'm going to switch examples; let's use the example of a recipe.

If a cake recipe isn't perfectly precise, there might be more than one way of reading the instructions. For instance, the recipe might read, "Mix the butter into the dry ingredients." But what ingredients count as dry? Later on in the recipe you are instructed to sprinkle the powdered sugar on top of the finished cake, so presumably the powdered sugar is not included among the dry ingredients in the instruction I first mentioned. But you wouldn't have misread the instructions if you thought the powdered sugar was one of the dry ingredients—it is an ingredient, it is dry, and it is often included among dry ingredients in other recipes. In other words, there is more than one way to read the recipe, and while only one of those ways will result in a good cake, they are all faithful to the actual wording of the recipe.

However, one of these interpretations might be more faithful to the recipe as a whole. Taken on its own, the instruction "Mix the butter into the dry ingredients" might have multiple possible interpretations, but if you the whole recipe through, you'll see that it calls for the powdered sugar later. So the interpretation "the powdered sugar isn't part of the dry ingredients" is a better interpretation than the rival interpretation ("the powdered sugar is part of the dry ingredients"), because it explains more of the whole recipe than the other. Both are legitimate interpretations, but one is still better than the other.

However, it probably won't be a stretch for you to think of examples where both interpretations are equally plausible; one is not better than another. “Meet me at the fountain by the dock,” your date says, but there are two fountains at the dock—a soda fountain and a fountain of water. So the situation we have is this one: a text has a range of possible interpretations, some of which are equally plausible and some of which are better than others. You find out whether or not a text is better than another by reference to the text itself—all of the text, but also all of the details of a text, not just a plot summary. I like to think of this as a field of possible meaning.

But there's actually a second part of the third observation that we should come back to: "Different people, having different experiences, priorities, and information, tend to interpret texts in different ways." Someone trained in psychology might have access to different elements of a text than a person trained in history. One of them would be more attuned to the meanings which rely on psychology; the other would be more attuned to the meanings which rely on history. Similarly, a novel about a poor African-American preacher might read differently to a poor white American non-Christian, a wealthy African-American non-Christian, and a wealthy white American preacher, because each of these people have access to different experiences which are relevant to the interpretation of the novel. This means that, if you want to figure out what the field of possible meaning looks like, you should probably look at all of these different people's interpretations, and try to figure out how they work together.


Part II: Making Sure Your Reading Is A Good One

Theory of Reading: Introduction

A Theory of Reading (1.0)


Although reading is an act most people take for granted today—or, anyway, most people reading this will take it for granted—what happens when we interpret the words written on a page and attempt to produce intellectual content from that interpretation is far from obvious. As a consequence, I have seen more than a few conversations about books, and what a particular book means, go awry because the participants in the conversation seemed to be talking past one another. Even if the participants understood that they had different ideas about where meaning might lie in a text, and how a person might go about recovering that meaning, they did not seem to understand where they disagreed—or at least one participant did not seem to understand what the other party was getting at. I have been involved in such conversations myself, both within academia and without.

This question is not clearly resolved even within academia; I know firsthand that English literature departments have not got it entirely figured out, and I understand that the philosophers of language toiling away in philosophy departments have not reached anything like consensus, either. (I had a professor who sat in on a philosophy seminar, and she reported that they had a far different idea of what we do in our discipline than, well, we have in our discipline.) However, despite the lack of consensus on a theory of interpretation, or what we call critical theory, the discipline for the most part seems to manage: few practitioners say to other practitioners that they are wrong because their whole approach to the text-meaning problem is broken. So there is, I suspect, at least enough common ground to be getting on with. And that common ground is worth considering.

So here I am trying to do two things at once, which might be a terrible mistake. The first of these is that I want to outline my own theory of reading, and the second of these is that I want to outline what you might consider the bare minimum which literature departments assume. The reason I suspect I can do both at once is that I got my own theory of reading from these assumptions, so any elaboration of my own thinking will resemble in some way the source of my thinking. However, whether or not this theory exactly corresponds with the assumptions in the discipline of English literature, I think this theory will be enough to be getting on with nonetheless: you should be able to manage sufficiently in the discipline if you subscribe to these ideas.

As a consequence of the above, anyone versed in literary/critical theory will find what I’ve written here both boring and naïve. The reason I am outlining all of this is not because I think it is ground-breaking or endlessly fascinating; rather, I simply want to lay my assumptions out explicitly so that other people will know where I’m coming from. The only other utility I can see here is to help people who don’t have any contact with literary/critical theory to understand the basic preconditions of that theory.

In Part I, I hope to construct the bare-bones of my theory by attending to certain observations for which any theory of reading must account. As far as I can tell, these observations are non-negotiable; at the very least, to reject them is to reject the idea of reading itself. The major crux of Part I is that I distinguish between different versions of a text which a person might confuse for one another: for instance, what the author wanted to write is not the same thing as what the author actually wrote, and the reader’s experience of reading a text is not the same thing as the text that the reader read. In Part II, I try to outline the standards according to which a person might tell if an interpretation is a good one or not: after all, if I say that interpretation is possible, and that some interpretations are better than others, I must be able to account for what would make one interpretation better than another. In other words, I summarize what I would try to tell my students back when I was a TA—though, to be honest, I wish I had thought to make so explicit a list back then. In Part III, I am going to come back to the distinction between the reader’s experience of a text and the text itself, because I want to make sure that I am very clear about why both things are important, and what these means for criticizing an author or an author’s works. Finally, in Part IV, I attempt the quickest and most insufficient survey of critical theory I have ever seen (let alone written). Despite its woeful brevity, I do want to make clear where I am getting the ideas with which I am working; since I eschewed reference to these schools in the first three parts, I think it would be both necessary and beneficial for me to indicate my influences here. Please consider this as nothing more than a casually annotated Works Cited page: if you want to know anything about deconstruction or archetypal criticism, you’d be better off researching it more extensively yourself instead of taking my summary as complete and without bias.

Before beginning, I want to make one final note: you may already have noticed that I have called this A Theory of Reading rather than The Theory of Reading or even My Theory of Reading. First, this is not the entirety of my interpretative practice: there is more that I could say. Second, and more importantly, I want to note that I probably have something wrong, and I do not mean that I have omitted something but that I have likely said something outright wrong-headed. Think of this as merely the first version of my theory—indeed, I am considering sticking “1.0” on the end of the title. It is nothing if not provisional. If there is anything here that you think will not work, please call it to my attention. In time, I imagine I’ll be writing a 2.0, perhaps a 3.0, perhaps more. We shall see.

Part I: Where is the Meaning of a Text?
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