READER RESPONSE THEORY -- ROSENBLATT REVISITED
Roles of Form, Text, and Reader in Creative Literature
Shagufta Imtiaz, Ph.D.
1. THE EMERGENCE OF READER RESPONSE THEORY
Literary theory has seen massive upheavals due to the emergence of Reader Response Theory. Reader Response Theory arose as a reaction against the New Criticism or formalistic approach, which focused on the text, finding all meaning and value in it and regarding everything else as extraneous, including readers. Generally it is believed that Reader Response Theory is a phenomenon of the 60's.
This is largely because of two reasons: first, from the 1930's to the late 1960 New Criticism had dominated literary criticism, and, secondly, as a concerted movement "Reader Response criticism had gained enough advocates to mount a frontal attack on the bastions of formalism" (Guerin et al 2003:357).
Certainly ideas of reader response can be seen in the critical writings as long as the 1920s. For instance, I.A. Richards, who is usually associated with the New Critics, gave a methodology for studying an affective system of interpretation, which was decidedly reader response. But in arranging the responses of his students he made "the poem itself" as the basis. Even the notion of "mock readers", given by Walker Gibson (essentially a formalist) in 1950, who enact roles which actual readers feel compelled to play because the author clearly expects them to play for the sake of the experience.
All these clearly affirm the importance of the reader but are not willing to relegate the text to a secondary role.
2. PIONEERING WORK OF ROSENBLATT
It is, therefore, our contention that despite the presence of the ideas of reader response in 1920s and 1930s, Reader Response Theory originates from the pioneering work in the 1930's of literary theorist and English educator Louise Rosenblatt. Her theory drew upon the epistemological constructs from pragmatic philosophy and challenged the age-old assumption of the importance of the text over the reader. Her transactional theory of reading stresses the interconnectedness of reader and text in the process of meaning making.
Where the New Crticism's insistence on 'close reading' with the centrality of the text was emphasized above the considerations of reader or author, Rosenblatt's 'transactional' view required attention to the words of the text and also "assumes an equal closeness of attention to what that particular juxtaposition of words stirs up within each reader." (Corcoran, 1987:38)
In fact, Louise Rosenblatt adopted the term 'transaction' from John Dewey's epistemological writings to imply that the "self" of the reader and the test are more flexible, taking on their character during the process of reading. In advancing her transactional theory she suggested that a poem comes into being only when it receives a proper ("aesthetic") reading, that is, when readers "compensate" a given text (The Reader, the Text, the Poem, 1978). Her reader response theory located meaning construction in the personal lived through quality of a literary experience, making the relationship between the text and the reader central.
However, Rosenblatt's theory with emphasis on a reader's contribution to meaning making was glossed over and neglected. Some scholars (Willinsky, 1991) believes that part of the neglect of Rosenblatt's work has been due to her status as a woman in a male dominated field and also due to her unique positioning of the reader and her use of American rather than Continental philosophy. Be as it is. It will not be the objective of this presentation to go into the genesis for this neglect. This paper basically aims at revisiting Rosenblatt with a view to locating the relationship between the text and the reader from the writings of this literary theorist.
3. READER-ORIENTED THEORIES
Reader response criticism does not designate anyone critical theory but is a focus on the reading process shared by many critical modes - American and European, which have come into prominence since 1960s. Reader response is not actually a theory of literary criticism but a theory of epistemology for it explains the way a reader makes knowledge about a text.
Reader Response critics focus on the ongoing mental operations in the responses of the reader. Many modern literary critics agree that meaning in the text are the creation of a reader, hence there is no one correct meaning for all readers. They emphasize on the importance of the reader, the act of reading and the reader's interpretation.
The difference among the critics lies in:
- their view of the factors that shape a reader's response.
- the line between what is objectively in a text and the subjective responses.
- the conclusion about the extent to which a text controls a reader's responses.
4. MAIN TENETS OF READER-RESPONSE THEORY
Since the ideas underlying reader - oriented theorists are complex and in the field of literary criticism and theory the study of the act of reading has been referred to by several names like "reader response criticism", "reception theory " or "audience-oriented criticism" all of which differ on a given point, it would be better to enumerate here the following tenets which reflect the main perspectives in the position as a whole:
- In literary interpretation, it is the reader and not the text, which is the most important component.
- In fact, there is no text unless there is a reader, and the reader is the only one who can say what the text is.
- The reader creates the text as much as the author does.
5. OPPOSITION TO NEW CRITICISM
It was Louise Rosenblatt in Literature as Exploration (1937/1976) who pioneered the first theoretical work outlining a reader oriented approach to the study of literature. In the 1930s Rosenblatt emphasized a reader aesthetic response in opposition to a text based literary theory, which was New Criticism. Literary theory witnessed a massive upheaval due to the emergence of reader response theory. While Rosenblatt and New Critics shared a common interest in restoring literature as art, they differed significantly on how to achieve this goal.
New Criticism redefined literature as art by turning exclusively to the text where meaning was found through an impersonal analysis. From the 1930s and 1960s new criticism dominated literary theory. Rosenblatt's theory with an emphasis on the reader's contribution to meaning was overshadowed. Some contend that part of the neglect of Rosenblatt's work was due to; her unique positioning of the reader and also from her status as a woman in a male dominated field.(Willinsky, 1991)
In the past three decades, a wide and diverse range of theoretical positions including Rosenblatt's transactionalism has challenged New Criticism. The diversity serves not only to expand the debate on the importance of text and reader in meaning formation but also to create competing reader response theories, which are either more reader or more text oriented than Rosenblatt's perspectives. As a response to this continuing debate Rosenblatt distinguishes by emphasizing the reader and text component.
6. A BALANCED APPROACH
Due to the pendulum swing from the emphasis on the text in 1930s to that of the reader in 1980s, Rosenblatt's advocacy of a balanced approach has seen a shift. Ironically, instead of arguing for the inclusion of the reader as she did with New Criticism in 1930s, Rosenblatt defends the importance of the text as a crucial part of meaning construction. Though the emphasis has changed from 1930s onwards the objective has remained consistent.
The aim of propogating a reading theory, which avoids charges of subjectivism and relativism, continues while a balance for the role of reader and text is sought. While the New Critics were arguing about the possibility of na´ve or innocent encounters with the texts, with readings, which denied the existence of reader experience, Rosenblatt (1976) was expressing the view that the process of literature is fundamentally a negotiation of meanings between reader and writer. She sees defects in both the interpretational model (the reader acting on the text) and the response model (the text acting on the reader) because each implies a single line of action.
7. THE RELATION BETWEEN READER AND TEXT
The relation between reader and text, however, is not linear but situational, an event occurring in a context of time and space. Rosenblatt argues that this 'transactional' model of reading process "underlies the essential importance of both elements, reader and text, in a dynamic reading transaction. A person becomes a reader by virtue of his activity in relating to a text, which he organizes as a set of verbal symbols. A physical text, a set of marks on a page, becomes the text of a poem or of a scientific formula by virtue of its relationship with a reader who thus interprets it."
8. DEWEY AND ROSENBLATT - PRAGMATISM
American pragmatists like John Dewey, Arthur Bentley and C.S.Pierce from whom the transactional terminology has been borrowed have influenced Rosenblatt. The reading process should not be thought of as an interaction of two self contained and well-defined entities but as a transaction where the entities themselves are transformed. Adopted from the philosopher Dewey, it implies that the self of the reader and text are flexible and take on their character during the reading process. It draws on Dewey's epistemological position that knower and known constitute and are constituted by the process of inquiry.
Dewey argues against any view, which denies the transactional character, separating mind from body, subject from object, and self from world. The subject's spectator is not viewed as examining the realm of objects but the biological environment, which involves participation of organisms. The transactional perspective illuminates the inter connectedness of knower and known which undermines the modernist epistemological claims of detachment. Dewey emphasized on the active role of the knower and the need for communication and agreement among the knower.
9. HIGHLIGHTIG READER'S AESTHETIC EXPERIENCE
Drawing on these constructs, Rosenblatt 's theory of reading highlights the reader's aesthetic experience with the text. Rosenblatt's theory is a response to Dewey's call for an educational theory to be built upon a frame of reference to the organic nature of experience. By stressing on the primacy of experience Rosenblatt aims to restore the aesthetic value of literature and to enhance its instrumental value in achieving broad educational aims.
Dewey stresses that knower and known should not be viewed as transactionally related where thoughts actions transact with experience. From a Deweyen perspective the process of constructing meaning starts with a relational character of subject and object. There is no premise for a radical separation between the observer and the observed here Dewey's concept of transaction foregrounds an organic and generative relationship between knower and known. Rosenblatt also rejects a dualistic view of reader and text by eliminating a subject and objects dichotomy where the demarcation between objective and subjective becomes irrelevant. In the act of reading both reader and text are modified where the self and the text are viewed as being flexible.
10. MULTIPLE POTENTIALITIES
Dewey's argument about multiple potentialities create openings for individuals to construct meanings becomes central to Rosenblatt's theory of reading. Dewey highlights two views of experience in contributing to the transactional relationship.
First, experience describes the interactions of living beings with their environment. Secondly, Dewey advocates experience as a method. Like Dewey's position of the generic trait of existence as a transaction between organism and the world, Rosenblatt extends this to reading. Rosenblatt draws upon the definition of experience with its focus on immediacy, its association with multiple potentialilties and the uniqueness of personal response. She accepts that a literary experience is different in some degree from actions without verbal mediation but that is an experience that cannot be ruled out.
The second view of experience as method states that the role played by humans as active agents in selecting an experience and how to pursue a solution. To learn from experience means making a connection between what one does and what one suffers. Rosenblatt emphasizes on the view of experience as a method with the reader's reflection on lived through experiences with the text. Rosenblatt's concept of selectivity views meaning as connected to experience .The activity of selection sets the conditions for subsequent experiences and reflections during the reading process.
11. THE FUNCTION OF INQUIRERS
Dewey's notion emphasizes communication and agreement among inquirers. The perspective of an inquirer is not of disinterested bystander but of dynamics participation. Under these fluid conditions inquiry contains possibilities in a way, which undermines the notion of a single objectivity waiting to be discovered. Language and text are seen as modes of participation. He emphasizes the generative aspect of communication and meaning construction where communication and agreement become epistemological elements.
The tension between personal and social is dissolved and responses gain meaning of accepted meanings and values. The question of what constitutes accepted meaning and values has been raised and shortcomings of Dewey's approach have been highlighted. Dewey has been criticized for underestimating issues of power, lack of analysis of the social condition of the inquirer. Despite all these criticisms the theory rests on a "co responsible position"(Heldke), i.e. one that evokes the harmony in enquiry with its thrust on the generative relationship between reader and text.
12. ROSENBLATT'S THEORY OF READING
Dewey's educational writings do not talk about reading or literary experience directly but he views texts as an important part of the learning situation. An experience is always what it is because of transaction that takes place between an individual and his environment. Rosenblatt concurs with Dewey 's critique of a formalized view of knowledge where books are seen as an end in themselves. She places primacy on experience and on the transactional character.
Rosenblatt describes the relationship of the reader, text and poem as a dialogue where the reader
- develops a tentative framework in response to the "cues " of the text.
- forms expectations that influence selection and synthesis of responses.
- experiences fulfillment or frustration of those expectation.
- adjusts expectations.
- synthesizes meaning.
The reader and text become partners in producing meaning and in the interpretive process. The text acts as a stimulus for eliciting ideas from the reader and at the same time shapes the reader's experiences and ordering the ideas that conform to the text. The text is defined as an event, which takes place and is created during reading and interpretation.
Readers can therefore, read in two different ways either as efferent reading where importance is given to gaining factual information and aesthetic reading and where the reading engages the reader and brings out his experiences. Here the reader concentrates on the complex structure of experience.
Rosenblatt overlaps with reception theory (of which she makes no mention) in suggesting that the life of a work is not "its own but a function of the changing life material so to speak which readers in different ages have brought to the text". The role model for the young reader that is postulated by Rosenblatt, Bleich and others is of co creator of the literary work. Or, as a co creator the reader interacts cooperatively with the writer in the process of literary creation where the interaction is characterized by discord as well as harmony.
13. A CRITIQUE
Rosenblatt's transactional view preserves an active role for the reader but fails on certain counts. With regard to the role of the reader Rosenblatt stands in two similar but different positions - reader as a co-creator and reader as a re-creator. While stressing on the transactional nature of the activity, she regards the literary process as a negotiation of meaning and the reader's role as a co-creator. In other place she speaks of the process as one of re-creation and considers the essential role of its reader as that of a re-creator:
Every time a reader experiences a work of art, it is in a sense created anew. Fundamentally, the process of understanding a work implies a recreation of it, an attempt to grasp completely the structures sensations and concepts through which the author seeks to convey the quality of his sense of life. Each must make a new synthesis of these elements with his own nature, but it is essential that he evolve these components of experience to which the text actually refers. (Rosenblatt, 1976, qtd in Corcoran, p.16).
Both co-creative and re-creative aspects evoke acceptance of difference in degree of responsibility vested with the reader with regard to the text. Implied in the notion of co-creator is the sense of abandonment of responsibility on the part of the reader to the text. Reader as re-creator suggests an a priori existence of something that already exists and the "reader has a responsibility to transfer symbol to language ('text' to 'poem') in a way that does justice to the work". (Corcoran, 1987:16)
It provides few insights into the role played by language as the text, reader and social context interact. Her lack of emphasis on stressing the placement of the reader in social contexts is her refusal to accept the deterministic tendencies between post structuralist and deconstructionists. These theories stressed on the individual/social dichotomy with the recognition that individuals absorb the values of society or culture., They attach "meaning making" to discourse communities or to relationships of power among members.
Rosenblatt views it as lacking as far as the question of individual involvement in meaning construction is involved. Her aim is to avoid the notions of generic reader by New Criticism or to the current post modern view of reader in the "the prison house of language and culture" both of which undermine the role of the reader.
The transactional relationship between the reader and the text creates a tension between the internal meanings of a reader and the external world so that the boundaries between the two become flexible. Reading context enables a balance between reader and the text. Rosenblatt's transactional theory of reading fulfils the goals of literature by restoring literature's aesthetic value and by focusing on the reader's aesthetic experience and by serving an instrumental role in bringing readers the experience of others.
By foregrounding a reader's aesthetic experience, Rosenblatt's theory provides little consideration of how larger social context shapes meaning. There is little insight into how these contextual forces transact with personal aesthetic experiences.
Further, while Rosenblatt speaks of integrating the transactional theory of reading into a classroom setting, the key issue that confronts here is what constitutes a valid reading of a text. For judging a valid interpretation the criteria provided is that a reader's interpretation cannot be contradicted by the text. If this were the case then how does one determine the validity of interpretation?
Rosenblatt argues that that the text leads the "reader toward a self corrective process". Rosenblatt has discussed the possibility of valid alternative approaches and criteria for validity of interpretation. The question of what constitutes responsible readings surfaces where this is generated by community standards, which reflect multiplicity and conflict. Her solution is to turn to Dewey's for democratic values contained in both dominant and minority cultures.
Like Dewey's "warranted assertibility" the community agrees through process of inquiry thereby avoiding arbitrariness. This leads to a community based objectivity instead of being purely subjective or being dominated by a single group. Rosenblatt explained further "the interpretation that takes into account more of the text would have more weight than the one that ignores parts of the text." Rosenblatt encourages personal response as a starting point which needs to progress to include stronger transaction with the text.
14. EDUCATIONAL IMPLICATIONS
A number of important educational implications can be drawn from Rosenblatt's transactional theory of literary work with its emphasis on the generative nature of relationship between reader and text. Rosenblatt's contribution has been to stress on the importance of idea of experience in the classroom. It states how literature can serve as a source of experience by focusing on a reader's initial aesthetic response highlighting a reader's construction of meaning instead of locating a determinate meaning within a text.
The transactional perspective implies that meaning changes as readers share their responses with others. Rosenblatt's transactional theory of reading challenges educators to evaluate epistemological assumptions underlying the reader/text debate and their instructional methods. It adds a critical dimension for assessing the reader's role in constructing meaning suggesting a need to reevaluate the aims of literature programmes. It also suggests looking at the developmental continuums of reader response theory which could account for why the same text is being looked upon differently by different readers or differently by the same reader at various points in his life.
Asselin, M. 2000 Reader response in literature and reading instruction. Teacher Librarian, 27.4.
Connell, J. 1996 Assessing the influence of Dewey's epistemology on Rosenblatt's reader response theory. Educational Theory, 46.4.
Corcoran, B. and E. Evans 1987 Readers, texts, teachers. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.
Guerin, W.L. et al 2003 A handbook of critical approaches to literature. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Rosenblatt, L. 1937/1976 Literature as exploration. New York: Modern Language Association.
Rosenblatt, L. 1978 The reader, the text, the poem: The transactional theory of the literary work. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.
Willinsky, J. 1991 The triumph of literature/The fate of literacy: English in the secondary school curriculum. New York: Teachers College Press.
This is a revised version of the paper presented in the National Seminar on Linguistics and Modern Theories of Literary Criticism jointly organized by the Department of Linguistics, AMU, Aligarh and Central Institute of Indian Languages, Mysore, in January 2004.
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Shagufta Imtiaz, Ph.D.
Aligarh Muslim University
C/o. Language in India