The Demeaning of Meaning: The Reader Ascendant, Impoverished
Posted by Brian
In recent years, we’ve been told we, as readers and writers, must choose between two mutually exclusive propositions: either we must accept the author as tyrant or promote ourselves into his/her place.
“Hogwash” and “poppycock” are two appropriate technical terms.
While there is something to the critiques of both extremes, the idea that we must accept one or the other is nonsense. In my own opinion, there is a better, deeper, and more truthful answer to the question–one I hope to introduce you to this month. Maybe you’ve already thought of it, but regardless, I hope you find the discussion of it as engaging as I do.
Would you tell me please, Mr. Howard, why should I trade one tyrant three thousand miles away for three thousand tyrants one mile away?
–Mel Gibson as Benjamin Martin in The Patriot
Last week we established (I hope) that while critics of the author have created something of a bugaboo in their depiction of the author as tyrant, there are some sincere concerns we could raise concerning authorial idolization. This week we see the pendulum swing, as it so often will, to an equally dangerous extreme. Western literature in the late Twentieth Century, claiming to be terrified by the threat posed to innocent readers, reacted by utterly destroying all that it meant to be an author. In place of the author, they offered a real Tyrant of the Text, or more precisely, millions of tiny tyrants. However, rather than freeing readers this approach instead enslaved them to a sort of petty ruler that is harder than ever resist: themselves.
In the late Nineteenth Century, there had indeed been a very strong focus on the author as the arbiter of the text, even if it did not rise to the boogeyman-tyrant some have alleged. At times, the text itself and its plain meaning were both lost in the search for the writer’s intent and biography. In response to this over emphasis, the New Criticism broke the text off from the author, insisting it had a life of its own. They began to study it separately, taking it apart much as the scientists of the period might enthusiastically vivisect some poor animal.
In divorcing the text from the author, they therefore broke it away from the writer’s meaning and intent. While the New Critics were personally still sincere in their search for meaning, it didn’t take long for a new movement to ask the obvious question: If a text has no permanent tie to its author, how can it mean anything?
Enter postmodernism. Disgusted with the arrogance and failed promises of the “Enlightenment” and early progressivism, postmodernism called everything previous generations had believed so fervently into question. While postmodernism is a very diverse thing, it can usually be boiled down to this: the application of the idea of relativism to a particular field of study. (That can look radically different in different contexts–hence why some scholars miss the connection.) With no absolutes, there was no Truth, no transcendent right and wrong, no objective meaning to life in general. Further, the very idea that an author could communicate at all came under siege from the deconstructionists, who insisted in their relativism that language could communicate nothing of objective value. After all, words must mean one thing and not another regardless of context for language to be useful, and it was strongly argued (ironically through language itself) that this was impossible. Language was simply a relativistic arrangement of arbitrary symbols that could be interpreted however the reader felt like interpreting them. My truth might be different from your truth and I might take your arrangement of symbols to say something completely different than what you intended because my context was different.
Of course, there had always been problems interpreting authorial intent, but now postmodern readers ceased to even make an effort to discover it. If it was not even theoretically possible for the text to mean something, if the language in which it was written communicated nothing objective or reliable, why even try? This obviously not only “emancipated” the reader from the “tyranny” of the author, it obliterated the author entirely. Carried to its logical end, this idea makes the reader the sum total of the reading experience. The text means nothing and anything the reader takes from it is relative to that reader and to his or her experiences and thoughts. The reader imposes his or her will onto the text, rather than taking something from it. For many people, it is a liberating experience to think that they not only have something to offer, they define the process. In a grander way, it is a chance to fulfill that which humanity has sought since Eden: to revel in the power of a god, to determine our own truth, and to create our own reality in the text (albeit on a pitifully small scale).
We have, however, traded the one hypothetical tyrant three thousand miles away for the three thousand very real tyrants one mile away. Worse, they are lords of an impoverished state who can never offer us more than we already have. While I have made what I think are strong arguments against postmodernism elsewhere*, I begin to find a selfish one to be the most potent of all: the idea that the reader is the essence of the text is not, and could never be, fulfilling to anyone who aspires to rise above the level of a narcissist. When I read a book, an article, or a story, I’m looking to go beyond myself. I want to experience something new, something bigger than me. I want to read a story or see a world I could never have thought of on my own. I want to engage with a mind different than mine, one that will show me ideas and consequences that would never have occurred to me. If postmodernism were to be correct (and thankfully I don’t believe that it is), none of that is possible. How can the text introduce me to something bigger, grander than myself if it has nothing to offer me other than what I bring to it? Further, this must be universally true for all readers, if the text is truly relative to them and not to some higher standard. A genius could never transcend his own brilliance anymore than a dullard could be free of his ignorance. They each look into a text and see only themselves starting back out.
I would prefer to suffer under the “tyranny” of an author with the hope he or she could open some new door to me I hadn’t noticed before than to know I’m forever stuck looking at the same four windowless walls through different sets of reflective glasses.
But there is an even greater danger in this debate for those who call themselves “Christian.” It has the ability to shake, indeed to invalidate, our entire faith. We’ll look into that question next.
Next Week: Why It Matters, Biblically
*i.e They really mean to say there is no meaning? They use language to insist that language communicates nothing? There are no absolutes except the absolute that there are no absolutes? Only academics could take nonsense like that and pretend it’s profound, let along take it seriously. It would be more respectable intellectually for them to simply spend their time twiddling their thumbs.
Posts in this Series
- The Author as Tyrant?
- The Reader Ascendant, Impoverished
- Why it Matters, Biblically
- The Redemption of Meaning: Freedom with Respect