Wednesday, 18 June 2014

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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