Wednesday, 18 June 2014

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.

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