[Note: This blog entry also appears as a guest post over at MandM, the blog of Matt and Madeleine Flannagan.]

I take some things for granted. People with a background in theology, biblical studies and hermeneutics or literature will be familiar with theories of meaning, but not everyone has (or wants) this background, and not everyone is familiar with theories of meaning. I thought it might be interesting to some readers to say a few words about it. Think of this as a very introductory post to the subject.

The question has importance for scholarship in general, but as a professing Christian the issue has a special importance to me because I believe that in the Scripture of the Old and New Testament we have something with a unique type of authority, so the way we interpret it is important. The issue centres on the following question: What does a piece of writing mean? To some the question seems a bit silly. If you want to know what it means you just read it and find out. It means what it says! But strictly speaking, even someone who says this is likely to admit that not everything means exactly what it says. Writing comes in all genres: literal history, biography, poetry, parable, apocalypse and so forth. There are cases where meaning is bound to be unclear to many readers. So what, in principle, does a piece of writing mean? To the unfamiliar reader, I’m going to outline two major alternatives: an authorial intent theory of meaning and a reader response theory of meaning.

Easily the most traditional theory of meaning is the authorial intent theory. Authorial intent is just the intent of the writer. According to an authorial intent theory of meaning, the actual meaning of a text is the meaning that the author of the text intended to convey. If we want to find out what a piece of writing means, we need to ask what the author meant to convey when he wrote it. In our day to day life, I submit that everyone holds to the authorial intent meaning. If we get a flier in the mailbox about all ovens being on special at a nearby department store and we want to know whether or not this includes microwave ovens, we would not feel free to decide for ourselves or we may end up being embarrassed in the store. What we do instead is ask a representative of the store whether or not the information in the flier was meant to include microwave ovens. Similarly if we are asked to write an essay for class, we put care into the way we write it because if we don’t, the person marking our essay might not realise what we actually know and understand. We assume that if we get the facts right and express them well, the marker will see that we know our stuff, because our intended meaning will be clear and it will express certain pieces of information. We assume the authorial intent theory in many other obvious settings; when reading a weather forecast, when reading an account of a significant battle at sea, when reading directions for finding somebody’s house and so forth.

What then is the alternative? What does a reader response theory of meaning propose in place of the above?

An enthusiastic advocate of the reader response theory of meaning, Elizabeth Berg Leer explains:

Because reader-response theorists posit that each reader is actively and individually involved in the construction of meaning, they question the New Critical view that if readers attend closely enough to a text, they should come up with its “correct,” intended meaning. Reader-response critics insist that because individuals bring different backgrounds, cognitive abilities, and reading experiences with them to a given text, one “correct” response to literature cannot exist. According to Louise Rosenblatt (1978), one of the earliest reader-response theorists, objective meaning cannot be found within a given text any more than it can be found exclusively within the reader of that text. Instead, Rosenblatt argues that meaning is derived, or, in her terms, a poem is evoked from the transaction between the reader and the text during a particular act of reading, and therefore meaning is unique to an individual within a specific context and in each successive act of reading. A change in either the reader, the text, or the situation will, in Rosenblatt’s terms, result in “a different event—a different poem.” No two readers will have the exact same response to any text, and no single reader will have the exact same response to a text read multiple times.

Elizabeth Berg Leer, “Reader Response: Learning from Teacher Research,” Minnesota English Journal, 42:1 (2006), 129-130.

What has really taken hold as an extension of this thinking is that rather than individual readers determining the meaning of a text, perhaps we should think, not in terms of individual readings of a text but of communal readings. Communities of readers with shared concerns approach the text together and interpret the narrative or thrust of any given text in a way that speaks to them in their unique context. Rather than thinking of “my reading” or “your reading” of a text, perhaps we should think of, for example “a feminist reading” of the New Testament Epistles, or “a homosexual reading” of the Gospels. What arises here is the practice of reading a piece of text “as” something. “Reading Shakespeare as queer theorist,” “The Apostle Paul as feminist critic,” “Moby Dick as sexual metaphor,” and so forth. Using the reader response theory of meaning, whether the authors in question really had those intentions is not the determining factor in asking whether or not these themes are really there to be found.

One telling criticism of this approach (but not the main one), however, is that it leads to outrageous consequences that proponents of, say, gay or feminist readings of history and literature would never accept. One clear example would be a holocaust denier’s reading of twentieth century history. It’s no secret that there are people (including many white supremacists and Muslims) who deny that the Nazi holocaust against Jews took place, or that it was anything like the travesty that is portrayed in mainstream history. Their reading of history confirms this belief. They deconstruct mainstream accounts of Nazi treatment of European Jews as a Zionist misrepresentation in an effort to seize institutions of power and influence or to drum up support for the Zionist cause in the Middle East.

If a reader response theory of meaning really is the correct one to take, what, precisely, is wrong with this way of interpreting historical accounts? Would it be oppressive, arrogant, condescending or patriarchal to tell these people that they’ve simply got the facts wrong and they should read history as we do? Even if it is none of these things, are we factually in the right if we tell them that their reading of historical documents is just incorrect? In fact we are. We do not regard it as a legitimate view of history just because it is a view held by a reading community. On the contrary, we are much more likely to use cases like this as clear cut cases where ideological “group think” can distort the way people in a group do read.

But over and above this I think that there is a much more fundamental flaw with the reader response theory of meaning. How, precisely, are we supposed to tell what it means? If this seems facetious, consider the following dialogue:

Ken: I hold to a reader response theory of meaning.

Barry: Oh? What’s that?

Ken: It means that I think the correct meaning of a piece of text is not fixed, but rather is created by the reader in an interaction with the text.

Barry: Wow. So you think that texts have fixed meanings as determined by the author, huh?

Ken: No, that’s not what I said. I said that texts do not have fixed meanings, but that meaning is created by the reader in an interaction with the te-

Barry (interrupting): Yes, like I said. You think that texts have fixed meanings determined by the author.

Ken: What? How could you think I said that?

Barry: Well, it’s what your statement means, isn’t it?

Ken: No! It means the opposite!

Barry: The opposite? Are you sure?

Ken (getting irate): Of course I’m sure!

Barry: Well, I’m just telling you what your words meant to me, that’s all. And to me, you reject a reader response theory of meaning. You accept authorial intent. I’m going to tell my friends that you just told me that you accept authorial intent, because that’s what you said, as I see it.

Ken: I can’t believe this! That’s dishonest! I did not say that and I did not mean that!

Barry: How do you know?

Ken: How do I know what my own words meant?

Barry: Yes, how do you know that your words really mean that texts have no fixed meaning, but that meaning is created by the reader in an interaction with the text?

Ken: because they are MY words! I said them! I presented them! I gave them meaning, and you have to right to twist them to mean something else!

Barry: So you’re the author, and because of your intentions in using those words, you get to tell me what they mean, and my response is mistaken somehow if I take your words to mean something else altogether? But I thought you advocated the reader response theory of meaning. What happened?

What’s ironic is that proponents of the reader response theory of meaning invest time and care into spelling out their position so that the reader will understand precisely what it is, all the while declaring that what an author (or speaker or artist) actually means is in the eye of the beholder. Stated differently, the problem I am identifying is that if a reader response theory of meaning is correct, then it’s not really possible to misunderstand somebody, because whatever meaning you see in the text is the one created by the reader’s experience and hence is correct. The only way for a proponent of the reader response theory, therefore, to expect that her readers will understand her theory properly is for her to presuppose that the theory is just not true.

Did you find this blog post interesting? If so, let me know. I’m contemplating writing the occasional post that simply introduces the reader for the first time to an issue in any of the subjects covered in this blog.

Glenn Peoples