On Reading, Part III.2: Reader Response

By Timothy R Butler | Posted at 5:05 PM
Continuing from Part III.1 on Reader Response

A few more words, perhaps, should be said about Reader Response criticism. What did I mean when I said that Reader Response is not permission to interpret the text anyway that I might want? That's a good question. What Reader Response does is look, as I said, at certain types of “readers” that it creates to analyze the text. The control on this is that we are not interested in one individual, but in a comprehensive interpretation.

So, for example, I might create a Freudian reader, and look at how on average, using a Freudian model, I would interpret the text. A liberation theologian or Marxist would create an oppressed reader and look for key parts of the text as they appeal to the downtrodden. As for me, in as much as I would participate in Reader Response, I would likely provide a Jungian model of interpretation.

It has been my long term assertion that the Jungian model is better placed in the next school that we will look at, Mimeticism, but for the sake of argument, consider it here. If we assume that there are certain key archetypes embedded in humanity (whether you wish to call them part of natural law or be truly Jungian sounding and dub them the “collective unconscious”), then it stands to reasons that the text will be read with the reader constantly searching and meeting the text where the text can enter into the archetypal roles. Hamlet is the famous prince he is because we can read into him the role of the tragic hero, or — with only a little stretch of the imagination — a savior figure.

Norman Holland talks of “subjectivity questioning objectivity.” The good part of reader response is its focus on a dialectic. The text and the mind are in a constant conflict to create the poem (used in the looser sense, not the sense of verse). This explains why we enjoy texts that conflict with our views and we are prone to forget about simplistic texts that have no ambiguity or depth. There is little dialectical value in those texts. No text is completely free of dialect to be sure, otherwise it would be a mirror image of our mind, but certainly some texts are so poor as to come close.

The important point that this all leads up to, which a wonderful professor I studied under kept re-enforcing because it is so tempting to forget, is that Reader Response is not about how much I enjoy the text. While we can formulate that certain characteristics that will lead to people enjoying the text, such is totally irrelevant to the school's goal. This school is about applying systematic models of readers to the text, not about becoming a newspaper book reviewer who must give new books so many stars and suggest whether her readers will enjoy the book. To pull this whole series back into its starting point at exegesis, note that higher criticism is about interpretation, not reviewing.

With that said, I think we can now move on to Mimeticism with a fuller understanding about why I will argue shortly that one should reject Reader Response and argue that Mimeticism follows similar themes much more fruitfully.

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