By Spencer D Gear PhD
In searching the Internet for more information on reader-response ways to deconstruct any text, I was attracted to Dr Jeremy Koay’s1 brief article, ‘What is reader-response theory?‘ (2017) This is an exceptional overview of a method that is overwhelming the reading of documents of any kind, whether narrative, poetry or interpretation of art.
Even though the article was published in December 2017, no comments had been made to it, so I forwarded my response.
1. Problems with reader-response: From the article
I find that a major problem with read-response theory is that it cannot consistently interpret literature. You stated, ‘The idea of pure literal meaning is contestable because our culture, experiences and worldview shape our understanding of words’. Is that how you want me to read your article? Or do you want a literal reading (which includes figures of speech)? Can I engage in postmodern, deconstruction, reader-response techniques with your article to make it mean what I decide it means?
Could you imagine the recorded history of Emperor Nero, George Washington, Hitler and the Nazi concentration camps, Captain James Cook circumnavigating NZ and sailing up the east coast of Australia being interpreted by reader-responses?
Did Emperor Nero, George Washington, Hitler and James Cook say and do what is recorded in their journals and history about them or is that open to the readers’ interactive deconstruction with our reader-responses from our century and cultures?
That’s what we are dealing with in examining any writing from the past or present. I wouldn’t interpret the articles in the Brisbane Times (BT) that way.
Imagine my reading your writings with that view? Surely you want me to read this article so that I understand the content of what you mean, within the bounds of English grammar and syntax, rather than imposing 21st century Brisbane environment and my reader-response on your text.
If I read the BT like that and passed on my postmodern, reader-response, interactive, contemporary interpretation of today’s BT stories to the people in my community, they would think I was going over the edge mentally.
EduMaxi chose not to publish my reply, so I sent this inquiry: ‘I submitted a comment on 28 August 2018. It has not been published. Are there reasons for this delay or non-acceptance of the comment?’
2. Email rather than online reply
Dr Koay chose to reply by email rather than publishing my letter on the EduMaxi website’s target readers are primarily language teachers (not philosophers)’. So he considered my reply was philosophical.
I won’t publish his email because he has not given me permission to do that. However, you’ll pick up some of his content in my response, sent by email on 13 September 2018. I use ‘you’ and ‘your’ in referring to Dr Koay.
From your content, I raise five concerns:
2.1 ‘Pure literal meaning is contestable’
You say that this is because culture, experiences and worldview shape our understand of words. I don’t disagree with that perspective. However, I contend that my current worldview cannot be used to deconstruct the meaning of, say, John Milton’s Paradise Lost (Stanley E. Fish tried to do it in Surprised by Sin and came to an understanding that, I think, would cause John Milton to turn over in his grave).
OF Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,
Sing Heav’nly Muse, that on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed,…. (Paradise Lost, Bk 1)
I consider that I would be cheating Milton to use my culture, experience and worldview to place my meaning on Milton’s poetry written in the seventeenth century. I need to understand the language and concepts he used and the biblical worldview to which he referred. Uncovering the intent of the author is my primary task as an interpreter of any document from your article, to the Brisbane Courier-Mail, or to the Bible. This is done by listening to the ‘plain meaning’ of a text.
I don’t use the language of ‘pure literal meaning’, so I don’t know how that differs from taking a text – narrative or poetry – at face value. I obtain the meaning from the text and not from my creative invention (reader-response, pesher method, allegorisation) of the text.
I have great difficulty in refusing ‘pure literal meaning’ when I investigate Captain James Cook’s circumnavigation of NZ and sailing up the east coast of Australia in HMS Endeavour in 1770:
How is it possible to use a reader-response interpretation dealing with the Endeavour when Captain James Cook’s name is associated with an ocean-going ship, The Endeavour? Pure literal meaning applies as much to Jacinda Ardern’s being Prime Minister of NZ and Scott Morrison’s recent ascension to the PM of Australia. Is plain reading of a text the same as ‘pure literal meaning’ to you?
You stated ‘ This theory rejects the structuralist view that meaning resides solely in the text’. Do you consider that structuralism (meaning because of the language system) has been superseded by postmodern reader-response methodology?
I can’t walk into a local fish and chips shop and give a reader-response interpretation to the menu and expect to get what I ordered. I had to ask for clarification when some friends and I had lunch at a local tavern. My friend ordered whiting for the fish dish. He discovered his fish was NZ whiting and not Australian whiting. Questions for clarification are not equivalent to reader-response hermeneutics whether in the supermarket, at Centrelink (social security), reading The Sydney Morning Herald or the Bible.
I endorse the perspective that readers engage with a text to question concepts raised, discover etymology of words, cultural divergence from contemporary culture, etc. However, that is not the position you advocate as a theory: ‘Readers, as much as the text, play an active role in a reading experience (Rosenblatt, 1994)’.
It is my understanding that readers do not create content of a writing; authors do that. Readers may disagree with the content and provide reasons for such, but creating meaning is not their roles. Readers may develop personal or group applications from the text, but this is not part of the author’s intended meaning.
2.2 ‘I regard the theory as a theory – nothing more and nothing less’
I commend you for treating this reader-response literary device as ‘a theory’, which means it has yet to be proven.
However, that is not the view of many promoters of the reader-response approach. They use it as a method of hermeneutics. Take these eminent promoters of reader-response views:
According to Wolfgang Iser, ‘the meaning of a text … is not inherent in it but must be produced or actualized by the reader’ (Iser in Culpepper 1983:40, 209).
Iser explained the supposed ‘vacant pages’ and ‘gaps’ in a text that a reader uses in active and creative ways. His perspective was that ‘the gaps, indeed, are those very points where the reader can enter into the text, forming his own connections and conceptions and so creating the configurative meaning of what he is reading…. From the given material [the reader] must construct his own conception of the reality and hence the meaning of the text (Iser 1972:40, 276, emphasis added).
‘While the meaning of the literary work remains related to what the printed text says,… it requires the creative imagination of the reader to put it all together’ (Iser 1980:142).
‘More recent research (Eco 1985 and 1994; Iser 1980; Ricoeur 1992) has accentuated the creative role of the reader in interaction with the text. Intertextuality is a component of this dialectical process’ (Zumstein 2008:135 n. 17).
John Dominic Crossan: ‘‘This, then, is my working definition of history: History is the past reconstructed interactively by the present through argued evidence in public discourse’ (Crossan 1998:20; 1999:3 emphasis in original).
That aborts my research as an historian and historical Jesus’ scholar. It would cause my examination of the historical HMS Endeavour, Captain James Cook, and the historical Jesus, to be a contemporary mish-mash of historical evidence and personal, contemporary, public deconstruction. Historians should hang up their historical credentials and become innovative writers of historical fiction if they pursue reader-response methodology.
While you state reader-response is a theory for you, it is not so for many other postmodern writers.
2.3 ‘My father drove me to school’
In using this example, I consider you have confused the ‘gaps’ in reader-response theory with committing An Argument from Silence logical fallacy.
The logical form to your argument is:
Person 1: The boy claims his father drove him to school (a truthful statement) and then remains silent;
Person 2: Then, it is true his father drove him to school (but the boy leaves out a lot of evidence that Person 2 creates about the vehicle).
You state that you ‘do not equate this to a “pure literal meaning”’. Is ‘my father drove me to school’ literally true? If so, then it conforms to a ‘pure literal meaning’.
However, what you have called an example of reader-response theory in action is really fallacious reasoning:
The reason this technique works so well, is because imagined reasons are often more persuasive than real reasons. If someone wants to be convinced, this technique works like a charm. However, to the critical thinker, this will not fly. Silence is not a valid substitute for reason or evidence (Bennett 2018).
You also use an Argument from Silence fallacy in your statement: ‘For me, the fact that you (not other readers) commented on my blog suggests that you and other readers may have ‘read’ it differently’. Do you have evidence to prove this statement?
2.4 ‘… I do not and cannot expect that to happen’
You don’t expect readers to understand the intended content of what you wrote because of their different worldviews?
I find this to be ambiguous. Because I may have a different worldview to yours, that does not mean I cannot objectively (but imperfectly) examine the words, grammar, syntax and content you wrote so that I could respond online to your article. That is what I did originally and is what I’m doing now to your email reply.
I observe that you were able to deal with the content of what I wrote – without any difficulty – so you could email me your response. I did not observe any creative, reader-response of filling in the ‘gaps’ in your reply. You did clarify what you wrote in response to my ‘comment’ to your article.
2.5 Ultimate truth
You gave statements about those who do and do not agree with ultimate truth because of their differing worldviews. One was: ‘ Others believe that since we can’t objectively assess an ultimate truth, they subscribe to the idea of versions of realities’.
Because you dealt with the generic ‘some’ and ‘others’, it makes it difficult to respond when there is a lack of specifics. However, in my research (480pp dissertation in New Testament, University of Pretoria, South Africa) I noted that some deconstructionist, reader-response promoters reject any examples of absolute truth (e.g. Iser, Crossan, Derrida, etc.).
Your statements included those who believed, ‘Since we can’t objectively assess an ultimate truth, they subscribe to the idea of versions of realities’. Are they absolutely sure of this belief?
That should be shattered on the absolute truth that driving rules in New Zealand and Australia require that we drive vehicles on the left-hand side of the road. Any other side is an aberration by those breaking the law or for legitimate reasons (e.g. road works). With this denial of absolute truth in Aust and NZ, does it include a denial of the moral view that it is wrong to murder and steal?
3. Works consulted
Bennett, B 2018. Logically fallacious (online). Available at: https://www.logicallyfallacious.com/tools/lp/Bo/LogicalFallacies (Accessed 13 September 2018).
Crossan, J D 1998. The birth of Christianity: Discovering what happened in the years immediately after the execution of Jesus. New York, NY: HarperSanFrancisco.
Crossan, J D 1999. Historical Jesus as risen Lord, in Crossan, J D, Johnson, L T & Kelber, W H, The Jesus controversy : Perspectives in conflict, 1-47. Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International.
Culpepper, R A 1983. Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel. Minneapolis MN: Fortress Press.
Fish, S E 1980. Is there a text in this class? London and Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
Fish, S 1987. Surprised by sin: The reader in Paradise Lost. New York: Macmillan.
Iser, W 1980. The act of reading: A theory of aesthetic response. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Koay, J 2017. What is reader-response theory? EduMaxi, 5 December. Available at: http://www.edumaxi.com/what-is-reader-response-theory/ (Accessed 13 September 2018).
Zumstein, J 2008. Intratextuality and intertextuality in the Gospel of John. In T Thatcher & S D Moore (eds), Anatomies of narrative criticism, 121-136. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature.
- 1Dr Jeremy Koay is a New Zealand-based Independent Researcher and a Research & Development Consultant at EduMaxi. He obtained his PhD in Applied Linguistics from Victoria University of Wellington in 2015. His research interests include Discourse Analysis, Genre Analysis and TESOL (Koay 2017).
Copyright © 2018 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 14 January 2019.