Popular Posts

22 February, 2012

Read What You Need

Remember when the literature professor (or English teacher, or weird poet kid next door, or whoever) told you that there was no "One Correct Reading" for any text? You may have heard that everyone might read a single text and have a completely different, valid understanding of what they'd read. Remember when you thought that was bullshit? Come on: a book is a book! It's not like the words change, so how can there possibly be "different readings"? Maybe you never thought that way, but I did, and here's the funny thing: two terms into a Master's degree at the intersection of the social and natural sciences, I'm starting to comprehend what those teachers may have meant.

I know some people might read "Avatar: The Last Airbender" -- excuse me, might "watch" this nuanced and mindfully written exemplar of cartooning that's pitched at kids and good enough for me, too -- from a purely plot-based perspective. Some unusual people in an unusual world do unusual things; it's pretty exciting! Cool beans. Some others among us, perhaps including many who watch as kids, might without noticing absorb lessons that inform what they'll later consider important in life, like how to pay attention to emotions, the importance of self-control, the practice of empathy, or about how to deal with overwhelming problems. Other people, like me, deliberately practice relating situations, images, motivations, interactions, etc. to my own experience. (That scene where Toph has to walk on a bridge of ice? Graduate school.) Metaphors galore. I realize that, although some of those messages seem deliberately written into the plot, I might take different lessons from them than other people; I might miss some things that other folks catch; and, which is especially important in a story where one gets to see multiple viewpoints on some issues, I might find one narrative more salient or more compelling than another, when another viewer or even the writers might find the other point of view more compelling. Other people might completely disagree -- so why would I ever want to characterize any one of these different readings as "right?"

For one thing, because they aren't about the plot in behaviorist terms. I might argue with someone about the motivations we infer from the characters' actions, but we aren't going to disagree on their names, on their dialogue, or on which people got to ride the flying buffalo in the first season. Secondly, this kind of interpretation is a supervenient story. It rests on top of the strict plot, derived from the story's content but not shackled to it: it's at the realm of metaphor. At that level, since I can't know what the author thought (and since there is more than one author, and since the author's views follow from a specific context, etc.), there isn't even the option of having a single canonical reading. Even if there were, there's a more useful basis for judging the worth of a reading. Since that level of reading is not about the author's story but about the reader's application of the story, I'm basing the "rightness" of the reading on something unrelated to the author's intentions. How much does my reading help me understand my own life?

The great thing about what you might call a rich text, like Avatar:TLA or the Bible or the Iliad (see what I did there?), or any basically anything created by a human being, is that it affords a breadth of opportunities for any one person to find the lessons that that person needs at that time and place. Maybe you watch a movie and love the way that two characters interact; the lesson you take away is the triumph of love, let's say. Or, maybe you watch the same movie and can't believe the lengths these characters go in order to preserve their codependent relationship; the lesson you take away is that, when people believe that their one chance at happiness rests on a single, specific person, they will ruin their lives in order to cling to that irrational dream. Whichever narrative youhttp://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gif take away from the movie, what do you do next?

My point is that neither of those readings has anything to do with what the director, actors, or anyone involved in the movie intended, and that's awesome. I'm going to be posting some close readings and cultural critiques in the upcoming posts, so it seemed reasonable to put this as a prologue. The plot doesn't matter; what matters is how the text (or movie, or whatever) changes your thinking and your life. This is what I wish my teachers had said explicitly even one time, so that I wouldn't have wasted an essay talking about the evocative use of color in The Great Gatsby. So, which reading is "right"? We can talk with others to get their perspectives, but you're the one who knows your mind best. Read what you need.


  1. I agree with you that there are a basically infinite number of "right" ways to interpret a piece of fiction. But some interpretations are wrong. The Great Gatsby is not about the uplifting power of technology. Animal Farm is not an endorsement of communism. And so on.

    If a work can mean anything, then it means nothing.

    1. Couldn't sleep; kept thinking about this. You are obviously right, yet we appear to disagree. Why?

      Here's my thing: "Animal Farm is not an endorsement of Communism" is, in my book, a statement on the level of "which characters got to ride Appa in season one of A:TLA?", just slightly removed in that it requires one to have a referent, "Communism," for some thing-in-the-world and to recognize something in Animal Farm as referring to the same thing-in-the-world.

      In this post, I am not talking about that level of reading. Back in school, I thought that my teachers were talking about the level of reading that you are talking about, and now I think that they never were -- at least, not the ones who really knew where their towels were.

      By teaching a course in critical thinking, and by getting involved in activist communities, I've come to see the importance of changing the terms and scope of debates. What happens inside a text as a closed system doesn't fucking matter, because it's just a book. Who cares that Animal Farm isn't an endorsement of communism? That variety of conversation is not the conclusion, it is just establishing the premises. What matters is what happens in the world; what determines what happens in the world is what happens in our minds, within the constraints of out opportunities.

      Have I sufficiently clarified my terms and my position? Do we disagree?

  2. Here's my "oh crap, 40 minutes late to a meeting" response:

    Sure, and the Bible isn't about Santa Claus (unless you conceptualize Santa Claus as a metaphor for altruism without expectation, in which case I actually picked a pretty bad example), but that's orthogonal to my point. My basic point is that there's a reason to read -- that art can be so much more than "for art's sake", that that part of art lies within each reader, and that art is a vehicle for thinking one's way out of internalize oppression. That said, perhaps it's useful to you personally to think of interpretation from a disconfirmatory, rather than a positive, perspective. ;)

    Here's where I have decided to disagree with you. If a work can mean anything, that is not an absence of meaning: it means an infinite number of somethings. It's just that the locus of those meanings isn't in the artwork itself ... as is true of all art, since symbol-processing itself takes place within individual minds. So, even if the art itself means nothing -- if all art means nothing in-itself -- this hypothetical means-anything piece of art affords its audience infinite meanings.

    To borrow a metaphor from computing, words (and all symbols) are pointers, not code. The processing takes place in the reader; I might say instead, only a conscious agent can ever be a locus of meaning. Further, because we can choose the stage on which a debate takes place (e.g., choosing to ask not "Does Animal Farm endorse communism?" but "What informs Animal Farm's depiction of communism, and how does that influence the way in which this book informs my thinking about whether the situation it depicts reflects real life?"), there might be infinite lessons to take from a work of art that, considered as a system unto itself, states a single conclusion.

    1. Bluh, did I just write that pointers weren't code? Sorry, I don't know the terminology to distinguish pointers from functional parts of code.

  3. Hmm, I think I had the opposite experience in high school - one of the things I found most frustrating about English class was that there frequently seemed to be only one right answer, only one right interpretation for a given text. Short stories were the genre/medium I struggled most with by far, perhaps because I was so used to reading novels (which had more time to make things more explicit), and because I have a very literally-minded brain (er, you know what I mean).

    By the time I took English Literature (in grade 12), it wasn't so much a problem anymore, but that course explicitly encouraged multiple interpretations - you could argue that a text was saying anything, as long as you used in-text quotations to make your case - and there were no short stories involved (it was all poems, with Hamlet and A Modest Proposal for good measure).

    To respond to the earlier comments, I think there is a meaningful distinction to be made between what a work is about and what it means - which I think is another way of stating Oxytocin's position about the 'depth' / 'level' of the questions one is asking. What something is about is it's subject: a matter that can be a topic of some debate, but not a characteristic that can be said to have an infinitely broad range of possibilities for most any give text.

    On the other hand, what something means is up to more interpretation - experiencing a work of art and/or entertainment (like experiencing anything else while human) is a personal and subjective thing - and "what happens in our minds" when we read/view/hear a creative work has a very broad range of possibilities, constrained only by the personalities and experiences of those reading/viewing/hearing the thing.