The image, it is clear, must be set between the mind or senses of the artist himself and the mind or senses of others. Stephen Dedalus
The most significant change that has occurred in the field of literary criticism and hermeneutics is in where the locus of meaning is perceived to inhere.
In the disciplines of literary criticism and hermeneutics (when hermeneutics principally referred to the methods and rules of interpretation) it was originally assumed that meaning resided with the author. Thus the purpose of interpretation was to discern the author’s intention which would unlock the textual meaning for all times. After Lessing, however, a new-found distance between the present and the past caused interpreters to focus more concertedly on the text itself, because the author was no longer deemed accessible to the interpreter. The shift in the locus of meaning continued under the influence of cultural pressures and meaning came to be seen as inhering in the reader. I can unfortunately select only a few individuals to mention in this brief survey of critical theory before focusing on one of the more prominent and radical reader-response critics, Stanley Fish.
The place to begin is in the discipline of theology with Friedrich Schleiermacher who sought to apply a scientific method of interpretation to the biblical texts. Gadamer attributes to him the differentiation of understanding and misunderstanding, in which the interpreter is seen to begin the process within his or her own misunderstandings. In other words, the interpreter brings to the text his own set of presuppositions which causes him to misunderstand the text. The hermeneutical method was intended to secure a right understanding of the text from preconceived understandings or misunderstandings. Thus there is a recognition that the mind does not necessarily act as a mirror reflecting exactly what is in the text. Schleiermacher’s position is epistemologically more sophisticated than those preceding him. From this perspective the discipline of hermeneutics gradually moves from a methodological approach to the text toward the modern conception that hermeneutics is what happens when we interpret a text or how one comes to understanding.
The story of modern hermeneutics begins with Edmund Husserl and his phenomenological approach. Following “Descartes’ dream” of absolute certainty in knowing, Husserl focused on things as they show themselves. The philosophy of this movement was to “let things appear as they are” or to refrain from reading our presuppositions into a text. The purpose of Husserl’s “phenomenological reduction” is to focus on what is immediate to experience, “Everything not ‘immanent’ to consciousness must be rigorously excluded.” In this approach the meaning of the text has been fixed by the language and exists in an “idealist” sense.
In an attempt to go beyond Husserl’s essentialist approach, his pupil Martin Heidegger posited an existential theory of hermeneutics in Being and Time. Heidegger rejects the notion of objective historical knowledge, instead man finds himself “thrown into” the world in which language, culture and the institutions of life are givens. We cannot simply “bracket off” our pre-understanding in order to gain a transcendent, objective standpoint. Pure objectivity can never be gained by the subject. Heidegger’s rejection of the subject-object, “I-it” duality leads him to the position of denying that meaning is fixed in a text which would be to affirm its objective reality. Thus meaning is not something objectifiable but is as elusive as Being itself.
Heidegger’s Dasein or Being examines the situation of Being from within, not outside of, history. Being for Heidegger is the historically conditioned individual which is aware of itself and the passage of time. As Being exists in time its understanding is conditioned on previous understanding. Thus the interpreter finds himself in a hermeneutical circle in which prior understanding is always “read into” the process of understanding. Heidegger describes the circularity in the process of reasoning about Being in the following: “Phenomenological Interpretation must make it possible for Dasein itself to disclose things primordially; it must, as it were, let Dasein interpret itself.”
Truth is then seen, not as an objective grasp of meaning, but as the unveiling of Being through the medium of language. As Dasein is historically conditioned and understanding is based on prior understanding, interpretation for Heidegger is the extrapolation of past understanding into the future.
In interpretation, understanding does not become something different. It becomes itself. Such interpretation is grounded existentially in understanding; the latter does not arise from the former. Nor is interpretation the acquiring of information about what is to be understood; it is rather the working-out of possibilities projected in understanding.
Although he thoroughly grasped the situation of pre-understanding, because he failed to understand the primacy of language in producing, not just expressing, meaning, Terry Eagleton calls his approach a “hermeneutic phenomenology.”
It was one of Heidegger’s students, Hans-George Gadamer, who first presented an adequate view of linguistics in hermeneutical theory. Gadamer makes a nice transition figure between hermeneutics and literary theory for he was also a student of Rudolf Bultmann. Like Saussure and Wittgenstein, Gadamer argues that there is no thought prior to language. It is language that both makes possible and limits our understanding. “Gadamer would say,” according to Brice Wachterhauser, “that it is only through language that we have a world.” In order to understand a text we need a fusion between the horizon of our world and the world of the text. This is a creative or dialectic fusion which produces a new meaning. “To understand it does not mean primarily to reason one’s way back into the past, but to have a present involvement in what is said.” Gadamer represents a movement away from author-centered interpretation but there remains, however, a two-way process between text and interpreter in which the latter’s questions are informed by the former. He explains in the following what is meant by a “fusion of horizons”:
One intends to understand the text itself. But this means that the interpreter’s own thoughts too have gone into re-awakening the text’s meaning. In this the interpreter’s own horizon is decisive, yet not as a personal standpoint that he maintains or enforces, but more as an opinion and a possibility that one brings into play and puts at risk, and that helps to truly make one’s own what the text says.
While Gadamer moved the locus of meaning from the author somewhere between the text and the reader, on the American scene in the early to mid-twentieth century we see the rise of a school focused solely on the text with New Criticism. Gadamer’s own theories bear a number of similarities to the approach of New Criticism. I. A. Richards represents somewhat of a transitional figure to this movement. Eagleton comments that Richards “had naively assumed that the poem was no more than a ../graphics/cleardot medium through which we could observe the poet’s psychological processes: reading was just a matter of recreating in our own mind the mental condition of the author. Indeed much traditional literary criticism has held this view in one form or another.” With New Criticism we find the ascendancy of a more text-focused hermeneutic where the author’s intention, even if it could be discerned, is irrelevant to the work at hand. The text is all that is and all that is important.
In text-centered literary criticism William Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley are key figures. It is their famous article on the “Intentional Fallacy” that secured the death of authorial intention. They argued that the psychological processes of the author are inaccessible to the interpreter. We are locked out of the mind of the author and have only the text and it is this that should be examined, not the author. As they wrote, “the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art.” They continue in the same article by saying, “The poem is not the critic’s own and not the author’s (it is detached from the author at birth and goes about the world beyond his power to intend about it or control it). The poem belongs to the public” [italics mine]. What is important to the New Critics is the verbal context as it now stands instead of the historical context in which it was first spoken. This may very well be a false dichotomy as it is unclear how the verbal context can have meaning apart from the historical context. But it is apparent that the wheels were in motion that transported meaning from the author’s mental processes to that of the reader’s, and the text from the public domain to the private.
It is Wimsatt and Beardsley who also bear the brunt of the later “reader-response” critics’ ire. In another article on the Affective Fallacy, they argued against taking into consideration the affect which the text has on the reader saying that when this is done, “the poem itself, as an object . . . tends to disappear” making what was public verse into private verse. This comment also betrays the New Critical attempt to objectify the text and thus secure it from the subjectivity of those theories that had attempted to investigate what was happening in the mind of an author.
As with the neo-orthodox movement occurring in Germany, the meaning of the text is something that is not to be located in the past. There are definite similarities between New Criticism and German Neo-orthodoxy. The text is severed from its past and the interpreter stands at the far end of a yawning chasm with only the text in hand. It was Karl Barth who sought to free the meaning of the text from being corrupted by past understanding by positing an existential immediacy in which the Word is revealed to us through the word (recall Heidegger’s “Being” revealed through the medium of language). Rudolf Bultmann then carried Barth’s project to its radical extreme by severing all connections with the past in an attempt to secure meaning as suprahistorical. It is this mindset that is behind his demythologizing program which seeks to demonstrate “the independence of faith from history”. Gadamer, on the other hand, sought to make immanent again the meaning by grounding it in language and Being. But if Gadamer moves us toward a text-centered hermeneutic, he also opens the door for the next movement in literary theory which is “reception theory.”
For Gadamer, because Dasein encounters the text in one’s own world, the foundation of understanding is always shifting. Dasein is historically situated, which means that, “Our rational ability to make such judgments does not rest on some deep, permanent structure, transcendental reason or human nature, but rather it depends on our changing self-understanding.” These insights open the door for a new attentiveness to the reader’s contribution to the hermeneutic process. Eagleton notes that there has been, “a marked shift of attention to the reader over recent years. The reader has always been the most underprivileged of this trio [author, text, reader]–strangely, since without him or her there would be no literary texts at all.”
While the New Critics sought to secure the text objectively with verifiable results in the critical process, reader-response critics opened the door for the reader to focus on his or her mental processes in the act of reading. Following the German tradition, a more moderate proponent of this type of criticism is Wolfgang Iser. Iser says, “The phenomenological theory of art lays full stress on the idea that, in considering a literary work, one must take into account not only the actual text but also, and in equal measure, the actions involved in responding to that text.” He goes on to say, “The convergence of text and reader brings the literary work into existence.” Although Iser brings the reader more fully into the interpretive process, he does not find the locus of meaning to inhere in the reader. Similar to Gadamer’s approach there is a free-play or creative act between the author and the reader with the reader supplying the gaps in understanding generated by the text.
A more radical approach to reader-response criticism in the tradition of neo-pragmatism and conventionalism is that of Stanley Fish. His assertion is that the reader manufactures the sense or meaning of the text. Meaning no longer inheres in the text, but is fully located within the reading community. Thus the reader’s presuppositions are not something to be overcome, they are inescapable. The “interpretive community” is a reading public that shares a strategy or approach to interpretation. The text is not an object that can be approached and examined from the outside. There is no metanarrative; there is no truth or story that will encompass and make sense of all other narratives. There are only ungrounded language games and ungrounded interpretive communities. Indeed, a narrative is nothing without the reader. Fish rejects the idea that there are any right methodologies for interpretation; methodologies just are and they determine the interpretive results. He says that, “The meaning of an utterance, I repeat, is its experience–all of it–and that experience is immediately compromised the moment you say anything about it.” At the end of this same article he concludes: “It follows then that what utterers do is give hearers and readers the opportunity to make meanings (and texts) by inviting them to put into execution a set of strategies.”
The image, it is clear, must be set between the mind or senses of the artist himself and the mind or senses of others. Stephen Dedalus