Wednesday, 18 June 2014

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

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