ENGL 300: Introduction to Theory of Literature

Lecture 4

 - Configurative Reading


The discussion of Gadamer and Hirsch continues in this lecture, which further examines the relationship between reading and interpretation. Through a comparative analysis of these theorists, Professor Paul Fry explores the difference between meaning and significance, the relationship between understanding and paraphrasing, and the nature of the gap between the reader and the text. Through Wolfgang Iser’s essay, “The Reading Process,” the nature of textual expectation and surprise, and the theory of their universal importance in narrative, is explained. The lecture concludes by considering the fundamental, inescapable role that hermeneutic premises play in canon formation.

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Introduction to Theory of Literature

ENGL 300 - Lecture 4 - Configurative Reading

Chapter 1. Gadamer Revisited [00:00:00]

Professor Paul Fry: So before we go on to talk a little bit about the American historicist hermeneutical scholar E. D. Hirsch, and then Wolfgang Iser–for whom you have your reading assignment–I want to go back to Gadamer a little bit and say something more about his taste, that is to say, the kind of literary and intellectual canon that his approach to hermeneutics establishes. You remember Gadamer is very much concerned with the norm of classicism, which later in his essay he is inclined to call “tradition” instead, and the reason that’s so important to him is that he actually has a very conservative view of what the reader can accomplish in understanding another horizon. Gadamer, in other words, doesn’t think that the reader can perform any great miracles in intuitively feeling his or her way into the mind of another time and place, so that the value of classicism and of tradition for Gadamer is that there is evident common ground in certain texts. Sometimes we refer to them as “great books”–in other words, the sort of text that speaks, or we feel as though it’s speaking, to all places and times. Of course, it’s contested whether or not there is really any merit in talking about texts that way. But Gadamer’s view is very strongly that this conservatism about the canon, which is intimately related to his conservative doubt about the actual capability of a reader to span enormous gaps–and I use that word advisedly because it is the word that Iser uses to talk about the distance between the reader and the text, and the way in which that distance should be negotiated–so in any case this conservatism, it seems to me, however, can be questioned.

I thought that we’d begin then by turning to page 731, the left-hand column, the footnote. You’re beginning to realize, I’m sure, that I like footnotes. Gibbon of course was said to have lived his life in his footnotes. Perhaps I live my life in the footnotes of other people. In any case, in this footnote Gadamer says something–I think it’s very rare that we can actually just sort of outright disagree with Gadamer, but he says something in this footnote that I believe we can actually disagree with. Toward the bottom of the footnote, 731, left-hand column, he says, “… [J]ust as in conversation, we understand irony to the extent to which we are in agreement on the subject with the other person.” We understand irony only, he means, to the extent to which we are in agreement with the other person. If you are expressing an opinion, in other words, which differs radically from my own, I can’t understand, according to Gadamer, whether or not you’re being ironic.

This seems to me to be just patently false. Think about politics. Think about political talk shows. Think about political campaigns. When our political opponent is being ironic about our views we understand the irony perfectly well. We’re used to it, we have accommodated ourselves to it, and of course it’s the same in reverse. Our opponent understands our ironies, and there is, it seems to me, a perfect kind of symbiosis, ironically enough, between political opponents precisely maybe in the measure to which their ironies are mutually intelligible. It probably teaches each of them a good deal to be able to accommodate, to encounter, to get used to the ironies of the other, and I think this applies to conversation in general. It’s very easy to pick up most forms of irony. We don’t have an enormous difficulty grasping them, and it doesn’t seem to me that our capability of grasping irony is founded on a necessary, underlying agreement.

That’s what he’s saying. Now if this is the case, it seems to me that one has found a loophole in Gadamer’s conservatism about what the reader can do. His premise is that in order to understand, there has to be a basis of agreement; but if what we’ve just said about understanding each other’s ironies, even where there is pretty wholesale disagreement, is true, that ought to apply also to our capacity to read work with which we distinctly disagree, with which we feel we can never come to terms in terms of affirming its value, but which we nevertheless can understand. If understanding is not predicated on agreement, the possibility of opening up the canon, as we say, insisting that it doesn’t have to be an absolutely continuous traditional canon, is available to us once again and Gadamer’s conservatism on this issue can be questioned.

Now it’s not that Gadamer is insisting on absolute continuity. On the contrary. You’ll probably remember that he says early in the essay that in order to recognize that we are in the presence of something that isn’t merely within our own historical horizon, we need to be “pulled up short.” In other words, to go back to that example once more, we need to recognize that there’s something weird about that word “plastic,” and in being pulled up short we recognize the need also for the fundamental act of reading in Gadamer which is the merger of horizons: in other words, that we are dealing knowingly with a horizon not altogether our own that has to be negotiated, that has to be merged with our own for understanding to be possible.

In fact, Gadamer even insists that if we don’t have this phenomenon of being pulled up short, our reading is basically just solipsistic. We just take it for granted that what we’re reading is completely within our own horizon and we don’t make any effort at all to understand that which is fundamentally or at least in some ways different. Gadamer acknowledges this, even insists on it as I say, but he doesn’t lay stress on it because the gap that is implied in the need to be pulled up short is not a big one. That is to say, it’s one that we can easily traverse. Take the example of “plastic” again: “Oh, gee, that’s a strange word,” we say, so we go to the OED [Oxford English Dictionary], we see it meant something different then, our problem is solved, and we continue. No big deal, right? But there may be ways of being pulled up short, occasions for being pulled up short, that Gadamer thinks exceed the imaginative grasp of a reader. As you’ll see when we return to Iser after I’ve said a few things about Hirsch, this, as you’ll see, is the fundamental difference between Gadamer and Iser. Where for Gadamer, the gap between reader and text, between my horizon and the horizon of the text, is perforce a small one, for Iser it needs to be a much larger one in order for what he calls the “act of the reader,” the reading act, really to swing into high gear, and we’ll see that this has implications for the obvious difference between their two canons.

Chapter 2. Hirsch’s Historicism [00:08:47]

All right, but now I want to say something about the passage from which I quoted over against the passage from Gadamer at the end of the Gadamer lecture. You remember Gadamer said we have to be open to the otherness of the past in order that for us it may “speak true,” but if we simply bracket out our own feelings, that can’t possibly happen so that we have to recognize that in this mutuality of the reading experience we really are in a conversation. We’re open to being told something true by someone else.

Hirsch on the other hand says, “Oh, well, no. The important thing is to know the exact meaning of that other person because that’s the only way to honor the otherness of the person. Kant says people ought to be an end and not a means for us; we ought to understand them on their terms.” Gadamer’s claim, however, was that if we do that, we are in fact suspending the way in which it might be that they speak true. We are honoring instead the integrity of what they’re saying without thinking about whether or not it might be true.

So I introduced Hirsch in that context, and now I want to go back to him a little bit and I want to work with two passages which I have sent you all in e-mail-form and which I have neglected to put on the board, but they’re so short I don’t think that will be necessary. The first of the two passages I want to talk about is Hirsch’s argument that “meaning is an affair of consciousness and not of words”–meaning is an affair of consciousness and not of words. In other words, the text is what makes the ascertainment of meaning possible and available to us, but meaning is not in the text. Meaning is in the intention of the author, and that is what we need to arrive at as we work through the text. Meaning is an affair of consciousness and not of words.

Now think about this. What it means is that in understanding a text, we are attempting to grasp it in paraphrase. We are, in other words, attempting to grasp it in a sentence that might read something like, “What the author means to say is–” Right? So that it’s not what the text means–which might be anything, according to Hirsch, if you just appeal to the text; it’s what the author means to say.

Okay. So what’s implied here? On the one hand, you could say this is just absolute total nonsense. We use a text to find meaning in something that we don’t have available to us. Why don’t we just find meaning in the text, which is available to us? That would make more sense. It’s up to us to construe the text. We can’t possibly know what the author meant except on the basis of our determination of the meaning of the text, so why not just focus our attention to meaning on the text? Hirsch was a student of Wimsatt. Hirsch was engaged in lifelong disagreement with Gadamer but he was a student of Wimsatt, the author of “The Intentional Fallacy.” Obviously, Hirsch was a rebellious student [laughs] and insisted that, far from wanting to take Wimsatt’s position, appealing to intention was the most important thing you can do, the only thing you can do which establishes–according to the title of his first important book on hermeneutics–”validity in interpretation.”

All right. It’s very difficult intuitively to assent to Hirsch’s position, and I’ll just tell you by the way that I don’t, I can’t, but I will say in passing in defense of Hirsch that if we reflect on the matter, we realize that in common sense terms, appealing to an author’s intention is precisely what we do for practical reasons. Let me give you an example. You’re all students. You are sitting in classrooms that in many cases oblige you to take exams. Your instructor tells you when you write your exam, “Don’t just parrot the words of the authors you’re studying. I want to know that you understand those authors.” Think about it. You prove to your teacher that you understand the authors by being able to put their meaning in other words–in other words, to say the author is intending to say something, not just that the text says something and this is what it says, with your exam then being one long screed of quotation. Ironically, the instructor doesn’t really want just quotation on an exam. He wants explanation, and the form of explanation is paraphrase. You can’t have paraphrase unless you can identify a meaning which is interpersonal, a meaning which can be shared among a group that understands it and can be expressed in other words. That’s the key. If you can put it in other words, those other words take the form of an appeal to intention.

All right. That’s an important argument in Hirsch’s favor. We realize that practically speaking, the necessity of appealing to paraphrase in order to guarantee mutual understanding certainly does seem to be something like agreeing or admitting that meaning is an affair of consciousness, not of words–my consciousness, the author’s consciousness, the consciousness that we can all share. That’s where we find meaning, and meaning takes the form of that kind of paraphrase that everyone can agree on.

So much then to the advantage or benefit of Hirsch. There are lots of things to be said against it, on the other hand, which I don’t want to pause over now because I think a course of lectures on literary theory will inevitably show the ways in which paraphrase is inadequate to the task of rigorous interpretation. Cleanth Brooks, a New Critic, writes a famous essay called “The Heresy of Paraphrase,” insisting that proper literary interpretation is a wooden, mechanical, inflexible exercise if it reduces the incredible complexity of a textual surface to paraphrase. So it’s a complex issue, and I should leave it having said this much, at least for the moment.

Now one other thing that Hirsch says, the other thing that I quoted, is in effect–I’ll paraphrase now–[laughs]that what Gadamer omits to realize is that there is a difference between the meaning of a text and the significance of a text. That is Hirsch’s other key position, and we can understand it by saying something like this: the meaning of a text is what the author intended it to mean–that is to say, what we can establish with a reliable paraphrase. The significance of the text, which Hirsch does not deny interest to, is the meaning for us–that is to say, what we take to be important about this meaning: the way in which, for example, we can translate it into our own terms historically, we can adapt it to a cause or an intellectual position–the ways, in other words, in which we can take the meaning of a text and make it significant for us. The difference between meaning and significance then is something that Hirsch takes very seriously and he insists–and here is, of course, where it becomes controversial–he insists that it’s possible to tell the difference between meaning and significance if, good historicists that you are, you can pin down accurately and incontestably the author’s meaning, appealing to all the philological tricks that you have, throwing out irrelevancies and insisting that you finally have the meaning right–of course, how many times has that happened? which is obviously one point of disagreement with Hirsch. Then, once you’ve done that, once you have secured the integrity and accuracy of the meaning, Hirsch says, “Okay, fine. Now you can do anything you like with the text. You can adapt it for any sort of possible purpose, but the crucial thing is to keep the distinction between meaning and significance clear.”

Obviously, Gadamer refuses to argue that we can distinguish in that way reliably. We don’t know–because it’s a question of merging horizons, my horizon and the horizon of the text–we don’t know with any guarantee where meaning leaves off and significance begins, so that the splitting apart of the two terms is something that simply can’t be accomplished by the way in which we enter the hermeneutic circle. That’s Gadamer’s position, and it is the position of anyone who opposes that of Hirsch, although what he means by the distinction is clear enough. “Yes, yes,” you say, “I see exactly what he means.” Nevertheless, to secure the distinction in actual practice, to say, “Okay. This is the meaning and now this is how I’m going to make it significant”–well, it seems unlikely indeed that this is something anyone could ever accomplish.

Chapter 3. Iser: The Act of Reading [00:19:44]

All right. Finally, to turn to Wolfgang Iser: Iser is concerned with what he calls the act of the reader–Akt des Lesers is the title of one of his books–and in so doing he establishes himself as a person very much in the tradition of phenomenology deriving from Husserl and more directly, in Iser’s case, from an analyst of the way in which the reader moves from sentence to sentence in negotiating a text, a Polish intellectual named Roman Ingarden who is quoted frequently in the essay that you have. Those are the primary influences on Iser, but he himself has been tremendously influential in turn. Iser’s interest in the reader’s experience is part of a school of thought that he helped to found that grew up around the University of Konstanz in the sixties and seventies, and which resulted in a series of seminars on what was called “reception history” or alternatively “the aesthetics of reception.” Iser’s colleague was Hans Robert Jauss, whom we will be reading later in the course. The influence of the so-called Konstanz School spread to the United States and had many ramifications here, particularly and crucially in the early work of another critic we’ll be turning to later in the semester, Stanley Fish.

So reception history has been a kind of partly theoretical, partly scholarly field, one that’s really still flourishing and has been ever since the early work in the great Konstanz seminars of Iser, Jauss and others. Iser, later in his career–he died just a couple of years ago–taught annually at the University of California, Irvine, and by that time he was very much engaged in a new aspect of his project, which he called the anthropology of fiction–that is to say, “Why do we have fiction? Why do we tell stories to each other?” All of Iser’s work is grounded in the notion of literature as fiction. He’s almost exclusively a scholar of the novel–and by the way, one of the first obvious differences you can notice between Iser and Gadamer is that whereas Gadamer is an intellectual historian whose canonical texts are works of philosophy, works of social thought as well as great works of literature, for Iser it’s a completely different canon. He is exclusively concerned with fiction and how we read fiction, how we come to understand fiction, and how we determine the meaning of a work of fiction. As I say, in the last phase of his career when he started thinking about the anthropology of fiction, he raised the even more fundamental question–I think a very important one, though not necessarily to be aimed exclusively at fiction–the anthropological question of why we have fiction at all, why it has been a persisting trans-historical phenomenon of human culture that we tell stories to each other, that we make things up when after all we could be spending all of our time, well, just talking about things that actually are around us. In other words, how is it that we feel the need to make things up?

All right. Now as you read Iser you’ll see immediately that in tone, in his sense of what’s important, and in his understanding of the way in which we negotiate the world of texts he much more closely resembles Gadamer than Hirsch. We can say this in two different ways. We can say that Iser’s position is a reconstruction of what Gadamer has, essentially, to say about the merger of horizons. For example, on page 1002, the bottom of the left-hand column over to the right-hand column, he says, “The convergence of text and reader”–Gadamer’s way of putting that would be the merger of the reader’s horizon, my horizon, with the horizon within which the text appears–“brings the literary work into existence.” This is implied in Gadamer as well. It’s not your horizon; it’s not my horizon; it’s that effective history which takes place when our horizons merge. That is the locus of meaning for Gadamer.

By the same token, what Iser is saying is that the space of meaning is “virtual”–this is the word he uses. It’s neither in the text nor in the reader but the result of the negotiation back and forth between the text and the reader, he says, that sort of brings the literary work into existence in a virtual space. “… [A]nd this convergence can never be precisely pinpointed, but must always remain virtual, as is not to be identified either with the reality of the text or with the individual disposition of the reader.” So you see this is Gadamerian. This is the result, this is the fruit, of the hermeneutic engagement between horizons that results in meaning. It’s put in a different way by Iser, but it is in a large degree the same idea. He also plainly shares with Gadamer the assumption, the supposition, that the construal of meaning cannot be altogether objective. In other words, Iser is no more an historicist than Gadamer is but insists rather on the mutual exchange of prejudice between the two horizons in question. So he argues on page 1005, the right-hand column:

One text [this halfway down the column] is potentially capable of several different realizations, and no reading can ever exhaust the full potentia, for each individual reader will fill in the gaps in his own way.

This of course brings us to the issue of “gaps” and the role that they play in the act of reading as Iser understands it. It’s an interesting term. I don’t actually know whether Iser, to be Hirschian, means [laughs] what I’m about to say about gaps, but plainly a “gap” is an abyss, it’s a distance between two points; but what’s really interesting is that we think of spark plugs–we think of gapping a spark plug. I don’t know if you know how a spark plug works, but for the electrical current to fly into operation in a spark plug, the two points of contact have to be gapped. They have to be forced apart to a certain degree. Too much, there’s no spark. Too little, you short out. Right? There’s no spark. So you have to gap a spark plug, and it seems to me that the “ah-ha” effect of reading, the movement back and forth across the gap between the reader and the text, can be understood in terms of a spark, right, as though the relationship between the reader and the text were the relationship between the two points of a spark plug. Whether Gadamer means that when he speaks of gap or whether he simply means an abyss or a distance to be crossed [laughs] I couldn’t say. Much like the opportunities in the word “plastic,” I think it’s useful to suggest that this sense of gapping a spark plug may have some relevance to our understanding of what goes on in this reading process.

Chapter 4. Expectations [00:28:25]

Now how then does he differ from Gadamer? One way that is I think not terribly important but I think is interesting in view of what we’ve just been saying about Hirsch and another way that’s absolutely crucial that we’ve implied already and to which we need to return. The way that’s perhaps not terribly important at least for present purposes–although this is a distinction that’s going to be coming up again and again later in the semester–is the way in which he actually seems to distinguish–this is page 1006 in the upper left-hand column–between “reading” and “interpretation.” This is at the very top of the left-hand column. He says: “… [T]he text refers back directly to our own preconceptions–”–Gadamer would call those “prejudices”–“which are revealed by the act of interpretation that is a basic element of the reading process.” So there’s a wedge there between the concept of reading and the concept of interpretation. I would suggest that it’s not unlike the wedge that Hirsch drives between the concept of meaning and the concept of significance. In other words, meaning is construal. Significance is the application of that construal to something. I think that the distinction Iser is making between reading and interpretation can be understood in much the same way.

Iser doesn’t make much of the distinction. In other words, it’s not an important part of his argument, which is why I say that the difference with Gadamer–who never makes the distinction between reading and interpretation–in this matter is slight, but the other difference is very important, and that is–to return to this point–that Iser stresses innovation as the principle of value governing the choice and the interpretive strategies of reading. Innovation is what Iser’s canon is looking for. That’s what makes it so different from Gadamer’s conservative continuous traditional canon. Iser’s understanding of gapping the spark plug is a much more bold affirmative of the imaginative powers of the reader, a much more bold process than the hesitant conservative process suggested by Gadamer.

Now in order to illustrate the way in which what Iser calls virtual work gets done in this regard, let me just run through a few passages quickly. If Gadamer says, in a way, that he doesn’t really stress in the long run that in order to know that there is actually a difference between the reader’s horizon and the horizon of the text you need to be “pulled up short,” something needs to surprise you–well, Iser throws his whole emphasis on this element of surprise. If it doesn’t surprise, it isn’t worth it; it doesn’t have value. And we’ll talk in more detail about the ways in which it doesn’t have value in a minute. If the element of surprise is to become absolutely central and paramount in the reading process, the gap has to get bigger. [laughs] It has to be a bigger distance, a broader abyss, and that’s what Iser is working with in the passages I’m about to quote. As I say, I’m going to quote three, more or less rapid-fire. The first is on page 1003, the upper left-hand column: “In this process of creativity”–that is to say, the way in which a text induces the feeling of surprise in the reader– “the text may either not go far enough, or may go too far…”

Now I admit in this particular passage you get a hint of Gadamer’s element of conservatism. The text may go too far. In other words, it may make demands on us that are too great. For example, we’re reading Finnegan’s Wake. We haven’t got a clue. The text has gone too far. We can’t get from sentence to sentence, and even within the sentence we have no idea what the words mean, so we’re lost at sea unless, of course, we really rise to meet the challenge; but typically or characteristically in Iser’s terms the text has gone too far: “… [S]o we may say”–he elaborates here’–“that boredom and overstrain form the boundaries beyond which the reader will leave the field of play.” In other words, if there are no surprises, it’s just a yawn. Why bother to read at all? If the surprises are too great, then they induce overstrain and we throw away the book in frustration and despair. So the distance of the gap needs to be between the outer limits of boredom and overstrain according to Iser.

Continuing to page 1004, the upper right-hand column: “… [E]xpectations”–this word is what Iser thinks governs the sort of dialectic that the reading process is playing with. Reading consists, according to Iser, in the violation of expectations. For the violation to work the expectations have to be there.So that’s the dialectic; that’s what’s negotiated. There has to be a sense, moving from sentence to sentence, that something is likely to happen next. If that underlying sense isn’t there, then whatever happens is simply met with frustration, but if we have the expectation that something’s going to happen next, and then something different happens, or if the suspense of wondering what will happen next is in play so that anything can happen–but the experience of suspense has been gone through, then in those cases that’s all to the good; that’s a good part of the reading process. “… [E]xpectations,” says Iser, “are scarcely ever fulfilled in a truly literary text.” You see, that’s where the evaluative principle that completely revolutionizes Gadamer’s canon comes in. In other words, innovation, the principle of change, the principle of violated expectation, is what imposes or establishes value in the literary text–not continuity, not a sense that across the abyss truth is being spoken to us, but rather the sense that across the abyss we are being constructively surprised. Right? That’s what has changed between these two positions.

“We implicitly demand of expository texts,” he goes on to say–and he may be alluding to Gadamer here because after all Gadamer is talking primarily about expository texst, works of philosophy, works of social thought, which of course aren’t trying to surprise [laughs] or trick us. They’re trying to lay out an argument which is consistent and continuous and keep surprise to a minimum. It’s difficult, philosophy and social thought, but it’s not difficult because of the element of surprise. It’s the vocabulary, it’s the complexity of the thought, and so on that makes it difficult. Iser acknowledges this. He says, “… [W]e implicitly demand of expository texts… [that there be no surprise] as we refer to the objects they are meant to present– [but it’s] a defect in a literary text.” That’s the difference for Iser between nonfiction and fiction. With nonfiction, we don’t want to be surprised. It poses other kinds of difficulty, let’s say; but in the case of fiction, in order to be engaged, in order to enter the hermeneutic circle properly, we need the element of surprise, as I say, as a way of distinguishing between fiction and nonfiction.

Let’s turn to page 1010, the lower right-hand column. The word “defamiliarization” we will encounter soon when we take up the Russian Formalists. “Defamiliarization” means precisely pulling you up short or taking you by surprise, making you feel that what you thought was going to be the case or what you thought was the state of affairs is not the state of affairs. The poet Wallace Stevens puts it beautifully when he says that poetry should make the visible a little hard to see; in other words it should be a defamiliarizing of that which has become too familiar. That’s an aspect of the reading process, and so Iser says: “This defamiliarization of what the reader thought he recognized is bound to create a tension that will intensify his expectations as well as his distrust of those expectations.” In other words, the tension itself of simultaneously having expectations and feeling that they should be violated, that probably they will be violated, being on the alert for how they’re going to be violated–this is a kind of tension, a constructive tension which constitutes for Iser the psychological excitement of reading.

All right. Having said all of this, obviously what Iser means to say is that the reader should work hard, that the virtual work done by the reader to constitute, to bring into existence, a virtual meaning should be hard work, and there’s not much work to do if two things are the case: first of all, if the text just seems real. In other words, if there’s no spin on reality, if there’s no sense of this being a fictive world, if it just seems to be about the everyday, about life as we live it, the life that we find ourselves in–then according to Iser, at least, there’s no violation of expectations. The gap isn’t big enough.

This is, of course, disputable. There is a kind of a vogue recurrently in the history of fiction for a kind of miraculous sense that this is just exactly the way things are. People enjoy that in ways that Iser may not be fully acknowledging in this argument, but there’s no question that it doesn’t involve the violation of expectations. There’s not much gap at all. It’s another kind of pleasure that Iser is perhaps not taking into account that we take in that which seems to be simply incontestably real as we read it, and Iser leaves that out of account. On the other hand, he says that there is no use either, no value either, in that form of engagement with a text in which an illusion is perpetually sustained. In other words, an illusion is created; a never-never land is created. We know it’s an illusion, but we get to live in it so comfortably with so little alteration of the nature of the illusion or of the way in which we negotiate the illusory world, that it becomes kind of womb-like and cozy.

Here of course, Iser is referring to what he calls “culinary fiction,” the sub-genres of literature like, well, nurse novels, bodice-rippers, certain kinds of detective fiction–although a lot of detective fiction is much better than that description would imply: in other words, novels in which undoubtedly it’s an illusory world. Things just don’t happen the way they happen in nurse novels and bodice-rippers–in which somehow or another the pauper marries the prince. This doesn’t happen, but at the same time it’s a world of illusion in which the reader lives all too comfortably. Right? So these are forms of the experience of reading fiction of which Iser disapproves because there’s no work being done. The virtual work of the reader does not involve surprise, does not involve the violation of expectations.

The relationship between text and reader must be a collaboration, Iser argues. The poly-semantic nature of the text–that is to say, the fact that the text sort of throws up all sorts of possibilities of meaning if it’s a good text– [laughs] and the illusion making of the reader are opposed factors. In other words, there is something in the reader that wants to settle comfortably into the world of the nurse novel, the bodice-ripper, the formulaic detective novel–that wants just to sort of exist comfortably in those worlds; but a good text is perpetually bringing the reader up short and preventing that comfort zone from establishing itself, so that the tension between the tendency on our part to sustain an illusion and the way in which the text keeps undermining the illusion is again that aspect of the psychological excitement of reading that Iser wants to concentrate on.

Chapter 5. Tony the Tow Truck [00:43:12]

Now a word about Tony the Tow Truck in this regard. I brought the text with me. You can look at it now or at your leisure. I wanted to call attention to a few places in the text in which it is a question of expectation and of the way in which this expectation can be violated. Now it’s only fair to say that if we’re going to read Tony seriously in this way we have to put ourselves in the shoes of a toddler; that is to say, as readers or auditors we have to think of ourselves and of the psychological excitement of experiencing the text as that of a toddler. It’s not so very difficult to do. For example:

I am Tony the Tow Truck. I live in a little yellow garage. I help cars that are stuck. I tow them to my garage. I like my job. One day I am stuck. Who will help Tony the tow truck?

All right. Now this is a wonderful example of the tension between having expectations, the expectation that someone will help Tony, and being in a state of suspense, not knowing who it will be. Now from the adult point of view, this is culinary because we know that we’re in the world of folklore and that in folklore everything happens three times. We know that two vehicles are going to come along and not help Tony and that the third vehicle will, because everything, as I say, happens in threes in folklore. Notice Tony the Tow Truck [emphasizes consonants] –next week when we read the Russian formalists, we will learn the research finding of one of the early formalists to the effect that “repetition in verse is analogous to tautology in folklore.” We have exactly that [laughs] going on in Tony the Tow Truck, “t- t- t,” and then the three events, Neato the Car, Speedy the Car, and Bumpy the Car coming along in sequence, with Bumpy finally resolving the problem.

So in any case we have an expectation. We have the dialectic of suspense on the one hand, how will this be resolved, and inevitability on the other, “Oh, it’s a folk tale, it’ll be resolved, don’t worry about it.” We have this suspense, as I say, between expectation, the possibility of violation, and simply not knowing.

Okay. Now we continue:

“I cannot help you,” says Neato the Car. “I don’t want to get dirty”… “I cannot help you,” says Speedy the Car. “I am too busy”… I am very sad. Then a little car pulls up.

I think it’s wonderful because it “pulls up” just like Gadamer being “pulled up short,” and there is, it seems to me, there’s another crisis of expectation in this line in that especially as a toddler I need to negotiate that expression idiomatically. I’m three years old. Maybe I don’t know what “pulls up” means. It’s probably not very good writing for a toddler precisely for that reason, but at the same time it lends itself to us because we recognize that there’s a reading problem or a piece of virtual work that needs to be overcome before you can get on with it. You have to find out what “pulls up” means in the same way that the adult reader of Pleasures of the Imagination has to find out what “plastic” means. As I say, it’s a wonderful irony that this particular difficulty in reading is precisely what Gadamer calls being pulled up short.

All right. So you solve the problem and then, lo and behold, it turns out that:

It is my friend Bumpy. Bumpy gives me a push. He pushes and pushes and– I’m on my way. “Thank you, Bumpy,” I call back. “You’re welcome,” says Bumpy.

Now I think we get another expectation. This is the kind of story that has a moral. It’s a feel-good story. Something good has happened. A sense of reciprocity is established between the tow truck and the person who helps the tow truck out of being stuck–a fine sense of reciprocity, so the expectation is that there will be a moral. The tension or suspense is: what will the moral be? There are a variety of ways, in other words, in which this story, just like The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, could end. It’s by no means clear that The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner will end with “Love all things, great and small things.” It could have ended any number [laughs] of other ways, and just so this story could end a number of ways. It happens to end “Now that’s what I call a friend.” Well, fine. The moral is that reciprocity is friendship and so good, all to the good, but as I say there’s a moment of suspense in the expectation at the point in the text when we expect a moral but we don’t know what the moral is going to be. Once again, there is that moment of suspense that the reader is able to get through with a kind of pleasurable excitement and then overcome as the moral is actually revealed. So even Tony the Tow Truck, in other words, is not absolutely culinary and can be treated in ways that I hope shed some light on the reading process.

Chapter 6. Gadamer, Iser, Hirsch, and the Canon [00:48:51]

All right. The time is up, so let me conclude by saying that if there is this remarkable distinction between Gadamer and Iser, between canons, where the methodology of Gadamer seems to impose on us a traditional canon and the methodology of Iser seems to impose on us an innovative canon, isn’t there some relief in historicism after all–because the whole point of historicism, as Gadamer himself puts it, is that it lets the canon be? We’re not interested in establishing a principle of value that shapes a canon. We’re interested in hearing everybody on his or her own terms and letting those texts be. In other words, doesn’t historicism open the canon and indeed make the process of reading, the experience of reading, archival and omnivorous rather than canonical? If every text just is what it is and we can’t bring, methodologically speaking, any kind of preconception to bear on what’s a good text or what’s a bad text, haven’t we solved the problem of the limitation imposed on the reader by any kind of canon formation?

Well, that’s the case only, I say in conclusion, if we can distinguish between meaning and significance. In other words, only if we really are sure that the historicist act of reading is effective and works, if I know the meaning of a text. Well, fine. Then later on, if I wish, I can establish a canon by saying certain texts have certain significance and those are the texts that I care about and want to read, but I can only do that if I can distinguish between meaning and significance. But if meaning and significance bleed into each other, what I’m going to be doing is establishing a canon, as it were, unconsciously or semiconsciously. I’m going to say, “Ah, this is just what the text means,” but at the same time, I’ll be finding ways, without realizing it, of affirming certain kinds of meaning and discrediting certain other kinds of meaning–all the while saying, “Oh, it’s just meaning. I’m not doing that.” But if in fact my reading practice can be shown not clearly to distinguish between meaning and significance, well, then that’s what would happen. So it’s still up in the air and it’s still perhaps inescapable that we read, as it were, canonically, but by thinking of various approaches to hermeneutics in these terms, I think what’s shown is that there is a relationship between methodology and canon formation, that certain things follow from our assumptions about how to read. Evaluation would seem rather at a distance removed from simple considerations of how to read, but in fact I think we’ve shown that evaluation is in one way or another implicit in certain methodological premises as they establish themselves in the work of these various writers.

Okay. Thank you very much.

[end of transcript]

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