Friday, October 29, 2004

Janice Radway & Reader Response Theory
I don’t have a whole-whole lot to say about Janice Radway’s article. It isn’t that I disagree with reader-response theory but more that it seems so much like a given that I’m not sure why people have to write about it. She begins with a quotation from Robart Escarpit: “A book is not a thing like other things. When we hold it in our hands all we hold is the paper: The book is elsewhere.” Well, no kidding. It doesn’t help to hold a book or own it if a person doesn’t read it. It also seems to me a given that different readers make different interpretations of the text, dependent on their life experiences and their cultural beliefs and expectations.

Nevertheless, Radway says that if Escarpit’s proposition is “ever taken seriously, it has the potential to alter virtually all forms of literary study” (30). Now is that hyperbole? It seems like it. But she points out that for American Studies people, the “location” of criticism is “with texts alone” rather than with “questions of social process” (30). This question, though will change that.

Radway goes on to say that she isn’t saying we should do away with interpreting the text completely, even though some scholars (like Jane Tompkins and Jonathan Culler) have. But she is saying that for American Studies scholars who want to reconstruct and explain American culture literary interpretation will have to remain one of our “forms of evidence” (30). In addition, though, she thinks we should apply reader response theory to go beyond that interpretation.

In order to explain how we got where we are, Radway gives a summary of the development of American Studies, from Henry Nash Smith and the myth and symbol school to the ideas of “the country’s ‘leading’ thinkers,” and “the ‘great’ works of American literature.” She explains that the practice was based on certain “assumptions” that we might not agree with anymore (31).

She goes on to point out that, for instance, Marx says that the meaning of the text is “inherent,” and that he doesn’t notice that “different readers might be affected differently by particular rhetorical strategies” (32). She’s right. I hate to sound like a total male basher, but Marx definitely falls in to a male fallacy here, when he assumes that the viewpoint he takes on a text is inherent, is so obvious that anyone who picks it up will agree with him. That seems to be dangerous. Marx isn’t totally absolutely, though, because he admits that there may at times be conflicting interpretations, but event then “a reliable scholarly consensus” will come about” (32). Radway says, though, that his assumption here still shows that the conflicting interpretations come about from faulty perceptions and not correctly divergent viewpoints.

But when we start to view a text as a product as a “social process of communication between identifiable groups of people,” then it can’t be a document that can “testify to the state of American culture as a whole” (34). I don’t know. Can it? Let’s see. So say a guy in the barrio writes a story. Will it be evidence of how all of American culture affected him? Well, I guess the rich people of Kennebunkport won’t really have touched him—he may not even know who they are: they may not even know who he is or that his barrio exists. I guess this makes sense. So, what she says is true: “Its historical meaning and significance, then, are intimately bound up with the social and material context within which it appeared, was used, and was understood” (34).

Radway cites the methodological suggestions of Murray Murphey, who says that “the principal goal of any cultural historian is the formulation of an answer to the question, ‘Why is it as it is?’ where ‘it’ refers to some sort of data pertaining to the past but surviving to the present” (34).

A little later Radway takes up Stanley Fish’s consideration of the reader-response argument, saying that she thinks that since Fish says he no longer thinks of “communication as a simple process of transmission and reception,” he, “in effect [is] no longer a reader response critic” (37). She believes he is more of a semiotician, since he “conceives of the text instead as a collection of material signifiers (37).

So Fish’s theory states that the meanings, or significations, of a text are determined by the nature of the reader. Any and all literary critics start with “assumptions about what a text is, what its relation to them might be, how it should be read, and what it could possibly mean” (39). In effect, then, “texts are actually written by readers” because the readers expectations create so much of the interpretation (39).

The implications of this kind of interpretation are important when one wants to determine the meaning of a text “as a historical or cultural document,” since cultural critics cannot make the “subject of their search…the simple object of the text” (40). The important lesson to take from reader-response theory for American Studies scholars is that no single, hegemonic reading of any text exists (40).

In addition to historical and cultural issues to study, it is important to study textual meaning by examining the life of the author. To “reconstruct authorial assumptions and intentions” may help scholars to understand intentions that aren’t otherwise obvious (41). For example, the biography of an author might tell readers who he or she wanted the reader to see a certain character or situation (42). Radway warns against placing too much stock in biographical data about authors, though, because doing so can distort readers’ understanding of meaning. It’s also hard to look at these historical documents and establish the way people from the past interpreted them at the time they came out (43).

Radway advises that “literary critics…working with contemporary texts…have…two options” (45). They can try to figure out what the author meant for us as readers to get from it, in which case it becomes a sort of historical text in view of what life was like for the author. Or else, they can try to decide how the people who have been reading it will interpret it. The problem with this approach is that not much research has been done to show how to do it, other than educational research regarding literacy.

Anyway, as far as Radway is concerned, Fish’s most important point has to do with that “text-reader conjunction” because it will cause us to “relinquish our old subject, the literary text, in order to take on a new one, the socially and culturally determined activity of reading” (47).

Radway is using Fish’s reader-response theory as her own means to get beyond the single, hegemonic approach of American Studies. There is no single view of a text. A text has as many interpretations as there are readers. I always tell my students that a plot does exist. We have to be able to agree that a series of events happened. I think of that time a student in my literature class read a story, I forget which, and shouted, in an epiphany, “So the main character is blind!” I felt terrible explaining to her that that was utterly and completely wrong—she wasn’t speaking figuratively. I had to ask her to agree with me on the plot. However, she, a woman from another culture, with a very different style of interpreting the world, could have many other interpretations than me. Hmmm…maybe blindness was one of them?

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