Guide to Week 10: Tuesday
In the web page hyperlinked to this week's reading in Tyson, I have abstracted key terms and theoretical principles that identify various authors who helped create this critical theory and its interpretive methods. After you have read Tyson, review the terms and principles, and make sure you understand them. The first portion of our discussion will be a review of Tyson, and then we will look at some broader issues like those below. In its most basic form, R-R critics look for authors setting and manipulating readers' expectations, surprising and disappointing and even shocking readers with literary strategies that resemble Val Lewton's 1942 invention of "the bus" effect in his movie, Cat People. This shot sequence illustrates one of the basic techniques authors use to establish narrative expectations that set and test readers' interpretive skills along predictable lines. The readers' interpretive task, which Stephen Mailloux will call (following Barthes) its formulated "enigma," begins with the title of the film, which compresses neatly the plot's opposition of two alternate explanations of the events we are witnessing. Is this a psychoanalytic representation of the female protagonist's fears ("People") or is it truly a supernatural interpretation ("Cat"). As you will see, at this point at least, the film "equivocates" about the resolution of the enigma, but the frightened zoo animals at the end of the shot sequence and the next scene's report of the mysterious slaughter of the zoo's sheep suggests what Mailloux would call a "partial answer" of the enigma's resolution.
Reader-Response criticism had to fight for its scholarly life against the New Critics' seeming banishment of readers' experiences based on the arguments in Wimsatt and Beardsley's "The Affective Fallacy." You might want to revisit some of their main points to remind yourself what that argument was all about. Based on Tyson's summary of R-R theory and methods, what limitations do R-R critics accept on their practices? Notice that, although scholarly convention has named the theory in the singular (i.e., "reader"), most of the R-R critics do not argue for the scholarly importance of idiosyncratic, non-reproducible reactions of individual readers to what they are reading. We still will not allow our roommates or Internet pundits to say "this book is bad because it makes me sick!" Instead, R-R assumes (with Hirsch!) that "the text, itself," is only part of the relevant evidence needed to "construe the text," other information and skills being brought to the text by readers' literacy training and cultural preparation to read the text (that stuff between Hirsch's "inner" and "outer horizon" of expectation). Look at each critic's definition of "reader" and "reading" to detect what constraints s/he will impose on the evidence to make sure it is relevant and can be predictably observed by all competent scholars. Those strategies are their theoretical acknowledgement of the New Critics' point that serious study of literature must be based on evidence that can be shared by all investigators, and that methods of study must be systematically explained and defended.
Although the oldest Reader-Response critics, Rosenberg and Booth, fought their battles against New Criticism, dissatisfaction with Structuralism is the more immediate motive driving the second wave of Reader-Response critics after Structuralist and Deconstructionist critics began to replace New Critics as the dominant voices in the field of literary analysis. An old Systems Theory maxim states that "complex systems in competition with each other grow to resemble each other." (Complex systems are those in which human beings participate, vs. simple systems, which are completely mechanical and do not direct their own growth.) What evidence can you see in second-wave R-R theory and methods that would reflect the R-R theoreticians' focus on their opposition to Structuralism's temporary "hegemony" in scholarship during the 1970s and '80s? Can you see any ways their construction of "the reader" or "response" might be improved now that we are not fighting off a world-wide army of Structuralists? Think about the difference between the evidence gathered by "synchronic" reading (taking the work as a whole, reading "vertically") vs. that gathered by "diachronic" reading (taking the work as it happens, stage by stage, even sentence by sentence, as in Barthes' S/Z).
Reader-Response critics are especially interested in "how the trick of literature is performed." For that reason, it might be a good idea to remember Jim Steinmeyer's observations on how professional magicians turn their audience's expectations into belief in magic.