Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Reasons to Read

A Using Theory Post

In my discussion of literary theory and interpretation, I made a particular assumption about reading which isn’t universally supportable: I assumed that the point of reading was either to 1) discover what the text’s meaning really is or to 2) gain a particular reading experience (be that challenge or distraction or pleasure). However, there are almost certainly other reasons to read something and other expected results.

For instance, a person might read a text in order to learn something about the author. This is a fraught process, as I outlined early in my argument. But it’s a common and unavoidable reason to read: I don’t read letters as independent objects of reading, but as correspondence, one person’s attempt to communicate their ideas to me. I don’t listen to politicians’ speeches as pure rhetorical performances, meant to be enjoyed in themselves; I listen to politicians’ speeches in order to understand what the politician is thinking about the issues that face our body politic. And so, in what are maybe the most quotidian and ubiquitous acts of reading, we violate the intentional fallacy, a cornerstone of interpretation.

A person might also read in order to learn something about the world. When I want to discover something new about koalas or dobsonflies or argonauts, I do not go out and try to find examples of them for observation; I read about them. (I might ask someone about them, but this is no different: the text is auditory rather than written, and while that changes some of the ways we need to interpret, the fundamental principles are the same.) This is a strange sort of thing, when you think about it, because it takes two kinds of trust: the first is that my interpretation of the text is valid, and the second is that the text’s information is valid. Or perhaps it doesn’t: I can imagine a situation in which the text is ambiguous or outright inaccurate, but I still learn what I need to learn because I can compare this text with what I already know about koalas or dobsonflies or argonauts and “correct” it in my interpretation, just like I can usually read around typographic errors.

I might also read as a way of generating ideas. This is the book club sort of reading: we read a common text, and then discuss what we think of the character’s actions or the book’s depiction of some facet of reality. Often these arguments are not really about what the text actually says; the book only serves as a focal point or as common ground for a discussion or argument about ethics, politics, philosophy, and so on. If we ask of Watership Down, “Do you think that rabbits in Cowslip’s Warren would really act the way they do in Watership Down?”, we are not asking a question about the novel but about people, and it’s not a question of interpretation but of anthropology. Nonetheless, this is a reason that people read.

Some people read in order to improve their own writing. They want to inspire themselves, and so they go back to what inspired them to write in the first place. But, as Bloom makes clear, this process does not require accurate interpretation at all. He suggests that it positively benefits from inaccurate interpretation; whether he’s right or wrong, we can notice that this is a different thing from interpretation.

And there are other things that one might do as an academic studying literature. One of the sillier errors David Deutsch makes in The Beginning of Infinity is when he seems to think that literature departments ought to be working on the problem of beauty rather than meaning. Deutsch in interested in explanations that have reach, and if he’s noticing that what literary critics do sometimes lacks reach, he’d be right; his desire to see critics figure out what makes a poem beautiful might be an attempt to get this field back into conjecturing universal explanations. But he’s wrong that universality of reach is the only measure of an explanation; particularity matters too. The question of beauty is probably one that’s worth answering, however, even as the questions literary analysis currently asks are also worth asking. So this is maybe another reason to read: to figure out beauty’s mechanism. (I suspect this is a task for psychology, though, and not the humanities.)

I want to affirm all of these reasons to read. Some of these activities are necessary; some of them are excellent. But they aren’t interpretation; they do not contribute to interpretation, they are not the ends of which interpretation is only one of the means, and they are not what people do in English departments (or at least not primarily what people do in English departments). Of course an interpretation of a text might note that the text seems especially well suited to one of these tasks, but that’s not it’s job. Of course some of these tasks rely on interpretation to some degree, and so they benefit if that interpretation is expert rather than amateur, proficient rather than inept. And of course insofar as these tasks rely on interpretation they are also subject to interpretations limitations. But it’s still important to make distinguish between these activities, because the skills and methods involved in one are not always the skills and methods involved in another.

Let’s go back to that first example: reading a letter. I care what the person wanted to say, so literary interpretation isn’t going to cut it. I could do that work, of course, but it isn’t going to get me the result that I want. Trying to discern authorial intent is a somewhat harder task: instead of working out the meaning of the text in itself, I try to anticipate what meaning a person would want to impart when they chose those words. It is a much more speculative activity than literary interpretation. The result is far less certain when trying to discover intent than when trying to discover meaning; ambiguities must be resolved, not acknowledged and incorporated into the reading. Prior knowledge of the person, however, counts as evidence here, which means that you do have more data to work with—unless you don’t know the person very well, in which case reliance on the person’s personality becomes a liability.

And, I think, this goes back to the questions in the second half of my post on John Green, Twilight, and Paper Towns. If we’re holding people accountable for what they wrote, we luckily have all of the evidence we need in the text itself. If we’re holding people accountable for what they intended to write, our project is in trouble from the outset. If we’re holding people accountable for which misinterpretations they could anticipate…that seems difficult, indeed.  But, whatever we do, our understanding of the text must be an understanding of the text, and not anything else. That’s why I’m making these distinctions.

(For more on literary theory, see this index.)

No comments:

Blog Widget by LinkWithin