Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Reader-Response and Moral Reading

Reader-response Theory discusses reading in terms of "experience," "transaction," or "relationship." It also recognizes the role the reader brings to the text: as a work of literature barely exists outside the mind of the reader, it is worthwhile to examine the reader's participation. It is perhaps the most honest way to read: it doesn't pretend at the objective analysis that other critical approaches may. It requires me to understand that the way I read is but one mode of reading.

Reader-response Theory also recognizes the impact of reading. While it may focus on what the reader brings to the text, it also does not treat the text as an artifact, sealed in a vacuum. Reader-response Theory fully embraces the reality that the text brings something to the reader. We can be deeply, fundamentally changed by what we read.

We might also recognize the morality a reader brings to the reading experience. I am not an Aestheticist: my interest in literature is not to treat the work of literature as an aesthetic creation devoid of moral meaning. I read as a moral being, and I explore art for its moral meaning. That does not mean attaching the author's morality to the text, as Daniel Green recognizes one shouldn't, but exploring moral meaning in the text. Whatever personal failings a writer has does not detract from my reading of that writer's work (though as I'm writing here of the legitimacy of subjective modes of reading, who am I to say another reader must ignore the author's life?).

My most prominent ethical realities are in my embrace of pacifism and my advocacy for animal rights (I was initially going to call them ethical "stances," but they are not mere poses; they are very deep ways of living and thinking that infuse my everyday life). As a reader, I cannot put those ethics aside (that doesn't mean I can't develop an interpretation separate from those ethics--my point here is the reading experience). As I read Golding's Lord of the Flies, a story which explores human nature and violence, I certainly read it as a pacifist. It would be stupid to think I could set aside my opposition to violence while reading the story.


  1. Did you read that article I emailed you from Lately I have been debating in my mind if the debate over non-violence vs. pacifism and if there really is a difference? What are your thoughts? In my reading of Yoder I believe that he would claim that Christian pacifism is just a way to describe non-violent action. I think the guy interviewed just oversimplified pacifism by relating it to the root word of passive. What do you think?

  2. No, I don't find it useful to differentiate between "non-violence" and "pacifism." While we can and should discuss different types of pacifism/non-violence, I don't see a significant difference in the designation.

    If anything, "non-violence" is the passive term because it is a negative: it only denotes the absence of one thing, not the presence of something else.

  3. "I read as a moral being, and I explore art for its moral meaning."

    I know many people who say some such thing, but I've never understood why one would do this. Why not explore art for its aesthetic meaning and read moral discourse for its moral meaning? Isn't the latter likely to be more satisfying, not to say more coherent? Do you also read moral treatises for their artistic meaning?

  4. I can only read as myself. It would be an inauthentic, tortured reading experience to try and put myself aside while reading. I would rather honestly admit that while reading, I'm encountering the text with all my experiences, values, and ideas.

    I don't see any problem in looking for "meaning" in literature. I suppose a flower or even a color has "aesthetic meaning," but I look to literature to find something deeper than that. I read literature for the IDEAS.

    But my real feeling is that individuals should embrace their own individual modes of reading. I don't insist that others read literature just as I do; I don't begrudge you if you'd like to read a work purely for its aesthetic value. What bothers me is when a reader with any theoretical approach (and yes, I consider Aestheticism a theoretical approach) insists that his/her approach is superior to any other approach, and insists that anybody not reading literature just as he/she is reading literature is getting it wrong.

    Basically, if you don't understand why one would explore art for its moral meaning, that's fine: I don't insist that you do explore art for the same reasons, or in the same way, that I do. I would be bothered, however, if you insisted that your Aesthetic approach is superior, and I'm wrong to read literature in my own way.

  5. "I read literature for the IDEAS."

    Again, wouldn't it better if you read, say, philosophy for its ideas? For one thing, you might actually find some there.

    Just consider me perplexed by the notion, given that art is by definition the very manifestation of the aesthetic, that "aetheticism" would be considered a "theoretical" approach. It's like saying that enjoying baseball as the playing of a game is only one way, and not even the most important way, to construe baseball. It's the very essence of the thing, isn't it?

  6. "Again, wouldn't it better if you read, say, philosophy for its ideas? For one thing, you might actually find some there."

    My favorite novelists are Dostoevsky and John Fowles--you'll have a hard time convincing me there aren't ideas worth exploring in literature.

    Aestheticism is very much a theoretical approach. An Aestheticist approaches literature with a preconceived idea of what literature is and how one should read it, downplays or ignores other aspects of literature that matter (like the ideas), and evidently holds negative judgment toward anybody who approaches literature in a different way.

  7. I hold no negative judgment.
    I'm trying to understand your approach.

    As an aestheticist, I do myself indeeed approach art with the preconceived idea that art is art
    and therefore should be perceived aesthetically. Take away the aesthetic and you no longer have art. This seems to me not a theory but a fact.

  8. That's the thing: any theory appears as essential fact with self-justifying definitions. A theorist that calls literature a "cultural artifact" may feel his/her theory (Marxism, Post-colonialism, New Historicism, whatever) is getting at the essence, too.

    And I'm still enough of an existentialist to distrust claims of "essence": the literature's meaning derives largely from what the reader is willing to give it. An Aestheticist still finds meaning in literature, but probably moreso in forms than in content. And if, as an Aestheticist, you consider ideas as secondary to the aesthetic form of a work, that's fine with me. But I see that as one approach, or one theory; there are other valid ways to approach literature.

    I certainly believe there are ideas in literature. I tend to focus on those ideas: it's why I read. Certainly writers often see themselves as exploring ideas. For example, William Golding says of "Lord of the Flies":

    "The theme is an attempt to trace the defects of society back to teh defects of human nature. The moral is that the shape of a society must depend on the ethical nature of the individual and not on any political system..."

    Here the writer, the creator of the work of art, is willing to talk of the "theme" or "moral" of his work. And many writers are: Dostoevsky was certainly exploring ideas (and the impact of ideas on people) in his great novels. So if the writers recognize the exploration of ideas in their works, am I misreading literature to look for those ideas? To discuss literature in terms of those ideas? It's what interests me in literature, and I find drama, fiction, and poetry much more interesting and insightful explorations of ideas than philosophy (perhaps because the aesthetic modes of exploring the ideas). I'm turned off by approaches to literature that are limiting, and if Aestheticism suggests I shouldn't discuss the ideas in a work of literature, then Aestheticism is limiting.

    Perhaps I should further explain that I do not separate study of literature from the way I live. I cannot appreciate "art for art's sake," because literature has so influenced my life, beliefs, and actions. I have changed my life over ideas--in my daily living, ideas influence the way I act and the way I interpret the world. And it's fair to say I've adjusted my worldview because of literature I've read. I see the world differently because I've read Fowles, because I've read Dostoevsky. With the deep impact literature has on the way I live, it's hard for me to reject the content/theme/moral/meaning/ideas of literature.

  9. Could you give a definition of "art"--presumably your definition--that does not involve first of all the fact that "art" is an aesthetic phenomenon? If it isn't, why call it art? If we can go right to the ideas and skip the art, why not just do so?

  10. 1. I accept that literature is "art," and by definition, that's aesthetic. You're going further. "Aestheticism" doesn't merely say art is aesthetic (which is obvious), but prescribes exactly how one can approach art. If as an Aestheticist you're saying I must appreciate "art for art's sake" and ignore the content/ideas to focus on the forms, you're going further than claiming that art is aesthetic: you're limiting my experience with art.

    2. At no point have I suggested we can or should "go right to the ideas and skip the art." I've said that art does have ideas, and that is is an acceptable approach to focus on the ideas in art. Why not? I'm in no way denying that one can focus on the art when reading literature; why are you denying that one can focus on the ideas? In fact, you've gone further, suggesting that literature does not contain ideas. I don't ignore the aesthetic when I say my bigger interest in literature is the ideas.

  11. I don't say you have to stop with "art for art's sake", but I do say you have to begin there. Otherwise you might as well skip on to the ideas.

    I do say literature doesn't contain ideas. Or at least "ideas" that you can abstract unprobematically from the text as if they've been broadcast as such. They're ideas that are always distorted and inflected by art.

  12. Well, I've never actually claimed the ideas are clearly broadcast in literature, either; sometimes the idea in a work is fairly clear, sometimes it is very complex. Again, I'll use Dostoevsky as an example. He's certainly exploring ideas in his novels. But as Bakhtin shows, Dostoevsky does it dialogically rather than dialectically; in a Dostoevsky novel, you don't come out with a clear answer, a clear "idea." Dostoevsky explores the ideas in a complicated way, crashes the ideas into each other in the different characters, and rarely comes to a clear, coherent conclusion. At the end of most of his great works, we're left with ambiguity. Dostoevsky doesn't tell us what we're supposed to think, but there are certainly ideas there; we've been made to explore them with him.

    Literature does contain ideas. Perhaps we can't get those ideas "unproblematically": that's why I prefer literature to philosophy. But it would distort literature to pretend there is no content there.

    Let's make this concrete. I'm reading "Lord of the Flies." As I'm reading, I am not just examining Golding's structure, or his use of language. I'm looking at the subject matter, I'm looking at the plot, I'm looking at the dynamics of the characters. I'm also looking at the THEME: the book is exploring something about human nature and about violence. What it reveals is troubling, and it is not revealed in the form of an essay. But Golding is still saying SOMETHING; he has an idea.

    My original point was that while I read this book, I'm not setting aside my own ethics. I am a pacifist; naturally, as I read this book exploring human nature and violence, I'm going to consider the statement being made, and the ideas being explored, from a pacifist's perspective. I'm recognizing my subjective mode of reading. And the idea being explored in "Lord of the Flies" touches me at a deeper level than its form.

    While reading a work, though, I'm neither starting at the aesthetic level nor the ideas level; I'm approaching the work from both levels at the same time. We have the capacity to hold multiple ways of thinking in our heads at the same time. I don't necessarily divorce the aesthetic from the ideas; they're usually quite closely related.

    Let me throw out another concrete example: Jean-Paul Sartre. He was a philosopher--he lived in ideas. He also wrote plays and novels. It's quite clear that the philosophical ideas Sartre explored in his philosophical writing are also being explored in his drama and fiction. Is he exploring them in a different way? Certainly. But sometimes those ideas are rather clear. There's some more ambiguity in the literature he wrote, but he's still very much Sartre the philosopher in "The Flies," "No Exit," "Bloody Hands," and "The Age of Reason."

  13. "But Golding is still saying SOMETHING; he has an idea."

    Well, in my reading he doesn't have an idea, he has platitudes: "Human beings are capable of terrible violence"; "Beneath human 'innocence' lies latent cruelty," etc. I'm pretty sure I already know these things, and I don't need Golding's novel to make me aware of them. There's not an original "idea" in the whole book. Which doesn't mean it isn't worth reading. I rather like it, mostly for its "aesthetic" qualities: its narrative vigor, its style, etc.

  14. Perhaps this is where the aesthetic and the ideas merge. I recently taught about Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment in class; as I'm reading "Lord of the Flies," I'm struck how the same sort of thematic points are brought out in Golding's book and Zimbardo's experiment. Now, Zimbardo offers a "scientific" stamp to these findings, making them for many more relevant. But was Golding already saying everything that Zimbardo's experiment found? Probably. So why is it even worth my time to read Golding, if I'm already aware of Zimbardo? Because Golding is exploring the same idea, but through fiction. His aesthetic rendering of Zimbardo's experiment (pardon my anachronism here) can reach a reader at a deeper level than the intellectual truth of Zimbardo's prison. I suspect somebody (like the middle schoolers and high schoolers that it is often taught to) reading "Lord of the Flies" for the first time may consider some of those human realities in ways they didn't consider them before. And that's where I also appreciate a writer's aesthetic: I like when a writer can render an old idea into a new form. I suppose that's what Golding does in that book.

    Frankly, I don't want to read a book that's full of great ideas but poorly written. But, I'd rather read that book than a beautifully written book that doesn't really have much to say. Perhaps I haven't been clear that in my questing after the ideas of literature, I do want literature that is well-written. But I don't just want a well-written book--I want a book that can reach me at a deeper level.

  15. I would like to add two points.

    1. At no point have I suggested my approach to literature is anything other than one subjective mode of reading (even if it is a mode that others share). At no point have I attempted to turn my personal tastes into a universal rule. I recognize that different people read literature for different reasons and in different ways. What I find vexing is the attempt of any individual to assert that everybody should approach literature precisely as he/she does. I don't think it's necessary to have one valid approach to art. The works of literature exist, and for the most part, they don't exist outside the mind of the reader. Why, precisely, shouldn't individuals approach literature in the ways that are most meaningful for them? I dislike universalizing rules about literature; because experience with literature is such an INDIVIDUAL experience, it seems most reasonable to accept that different people will have different modes, concerns, and interests in literature.

    2. In my view, it's difficult to discuss the aesthetic of some writers without discussing their ideas. I think it's difficult to come to a (choose an adjective: "accurate," "complete," "authentic") understanding of the aesthetic of Dostoevsky, of Sartre, of Fowles, of Milton, without considering the ideas they were up to. For each of these writers, the ideas are central to his art. I'm not denying my point 1. here, but asserting another reason the ideas are important to me.

  16. And one more point on why Aestheticism is a theory of literature.

    Aestheticism takes for granted that the purpose of literature is to examine its artistic forms; by focusing on literature as "art," it prescribes a "proper" way to approach literature.

    Aestheticism further claims to be the "proper" way to approach literature through its own definitions: since the lit is art, examining the artistic forms is the natural, essential way to examine literature.

    But examining the artistic forms is just one reason for approaching art; there are clearly many more. Aestheticism rejects many of these other reasons (education, edification, etc.), and that's fine--a theoretical approach does pick its focus and tends to reject other focuses. But the reality is those other reasons for approaching art are still there (and many of the artists are aware of those other reasons in their work).

    Now, I don't see any one theoretical approach as comprehensive in understanding literature. But when many people read a work in many different ways (and according to many different theories), and then share interpretations and ideas about the work, we come to a better understanding of the work. If everybody read a work of literature as an Aestheticist, we'd have a narrow, limited view of that work. But with people taking all sorts of approaches to the work (including Aestheticism--I don't reject its importance in examining the work), a sort of "pluralism of analysis" brings us closer to the "truth" of the work (perhaps I'm applying Mill's ideas on free expression in society to examination of literature: multiplicity of perspectives brings us to better understanding).

    So, yes, I definitely see Aestheticism as one theoretical approach. It sees itself as transcending theory, but it is itself a theory on how one is to experience art.