Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Secondary Joyce Paper: Reader Response Criticism

This is a paper I wrote in June of 1996. It is based on Peter J. Rabinowitz' essay "A Symbol of Something: interpretive Vertigo in 'The Dead'." I was kind of interested in the Reader Response school of thought at that time.

Secondary Joyce Paper: Reader Response Criticism

Peter J. Rabinowitz begins his essay, “‘A Symbol of Something’: Interpretive Vertigo in ‘The Dead’” by describing the scene in “The Dead” in which Gabriel looks up at Gretta on the staircase and feels “interpretive vertigo” (137) when trying to understand the feelings the scene evokes in him. He gives examples of formalist and psychoanalytic explanations of the phenomenon of interpretive vertigo or ambiguity, then proceeds to dismiss them as inadequate. As an alternative he introduces the idea of examining “ . . . the interpretive procedures that readers are likely to bring to bear on the text” (138).

His next step is to define the starting premises of his argument: 1)reading is an activity or process, 2)the act of reading changes the text, and 3)the changes that take place are governed by rules. By this he means that in the act of reading, a reader constructs certain meanings out of the “raw material” of the text, and does so according to some sort of “ . . . more or less communally agreed upon procedures of transformation” (139).

From here Rabinowitz moves on to classify these procedures into four groups: 1)rules of notice that draw our attention to certain parts of the text, 2)rules of signification that give meaning to the details selected by the rules of notice, 3)rules of configuration which fit these details into familiar patterns, 4)rules of coherence that make everything in the text fit together as a unified whole.

He goes on to qualify the idea of rules by saying that which rules are utilized varies according to the reader and the reading situation, and that these differences are created not by the text, but by the reader. This is what causes “interpretive disagreement” (141), and can occur not only between readers, but between readings by the same person.

Rabinowitz proceeds to assert that the rules that govern reading are learned throughout one’s life, first through exposure to simple narratives, and increasingly to the theories that attempt to explain them. He says, “ . . . reading is always reading in a particular cultural context, which . . . predetermines the nature of that reading experience” (141). It is because of the particular “culture” in which Joyce’s works are read that we as readers experience interpretive vertigo.

In order to create “ . . . a model for thinking about vertigo in ‘The Dead’ . . .” Rabinowitz generalizes that readers are responding to the intersection of conflicting rules. The rules he describes are: 1)Rule of Hyperdense Intertextuality, 2)Rule of Infinite Etymology, 3)rule of coherence. The first two are both rules of signification which serve to connect the work to other works and to the associations of the actual words used. They are particular to reading Joyce as they, unlike most interpretive strategies, do not exclude certain associations by affirming others. In other words, in Joyce, all connections are valid. The third, more general rule of coherence is that which creates the interpretive conflict. In other words, if everything fits together [coherence], how can widely differing interpretations and associations be valid? As Rabinowitz states, “The result of this intersection of rules is an unresolved dissonance in the reading process” (146). Thus, as readers, we feel vertigo.

Finally Rabinowitz explains what he feels is gained by this type of analysis. First off he asserts that “ . . . if . . . self-consciousness, in the sense of self-knowledge, is an inherently valuable thing, then coming to understand what we are doing when we are reading ‘The Dead’ . . . is intellectually valuable in and of itself, even if it does not alter the way in which we interpret the story” (146). In other words, by examining how we approach and interpret the story, we learn something valuable about ourselves. Secondly, he asserts that “ . . . this approach to thinking about the story liberates our reading as well. For as soon as we recognize that the vertigo found in the story is the product of readers rather that inherent in the text, then we open ourselves up to alternative ways of experiencing ‘The Dead’” (147).

The Rabinowitz essay is helpful in understanding “The Dead” because it stresses the importance of what the reader brings to the work. His method of analysis, rather than trying to assert that Joyce was trying to do this or that, yet at the same time not discounting the author’s intentions, asserts that the experience of reading “The Dead” is the story’s real meaning. As that experience is different for each reader, so is the meaning. At the same time, there is enough common ground among readers to allow for a shared feeling of disorientation or ambiguity in light of the associations connected to the work and the feelings of the characters. That is why most readers feel a kind of “vertigo” when reading “The Dead,” even though each reader’s vertigo might be somewhat different from any other’s.

I feel that the “Reader Response” school of criticism makes a strong case for understanding ambiguous texts for the reason that it doesn’t really try to explain them. Instead it tries to examine what about them is ambiguous and why. Since it stresses the reader’s contribution and doesn’t focus exclusively either on the text or the author’s intentions, it makes it possible for a less sophisticated reader to gain something worthwhile from a work without having to understand all of the possible associations and connections. As long as the reader recognizes that the connections exist, and is comfortable with the ones he is familiar with and how they work in the story, he can construct a satisfying meaning from the work. In the case of “The Dead” that meaning generally involves a degree of uncertainty or interpretive vertigo. Since that is precisely what Gabriel is feeling concerning his life and relationships, then it follows that the reader should experience a similar sensation.

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