Category Archives: Morass & Muse

M&M: Reception Theory & Reader-Response Criticism

There was something perversely interesting about Philosopher William Irwin’s argument:

Perhaps the notion that social and historical phenomena are texts is not such a difficult pill to swallow. Historians and lay people alike speak of such things as their interpretations of the French Revolution or the Clinton presidency.

The pill swallowed by Will(iam) must have caused some sort of hallucination to see historians as lay people.

For the sake of historians, one hopes there will be a major difference between my interpretation (as a lay person) of the French Revolution or the Clinton presidency and their study of the same events.

I have yet to see a historian use George Orwell’s Animal Farm  as a documentation of actual events. The novel will  be Orwell’s pessimistic view of society and politics from the Russian revolution through World War II presented as a satire. 

The perversely interesting portion of the essay has to do with some of the arguments used by Irwin.  For  example, take this one:

“Intertextuality,” a term used in literary criticism, has outlived its usefulness, says William Irwin, an associate professor of philosophy at King’s College, in Pennsylvania. It is, he says, “at best a rhetorical flourish intended to impress, at worst … the signifier of an illogical position.”

 The “at best a rhetorical flourish intended to impress, at worst… the signifier of an illogical position.” argument was the exact one used by Marxist Critics against novels like Animal Farm (esp. against the quote “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”).

Irwin’s essay has a very pro republican vibe (i.e. attacking the Tel Quel school as France opposes the Iraq War), but what makes it humouros is his attempt to present it as an academic piece ( instead of selling it as a political one).  

Example of another dangerous argument:

The term describes a way of viewing literature in which texts refer only to other texts and the intentions of the author are irrelevant. It was coined in 1960s Paris in an atmosphere of distrust for authority and capitalism, he says. Intertextuality began as a “politically charged theory” that sought to transfer power from the author to the reader.

But there are logical problems with that transfer of power, Mr. Irwin says. For the theory to be consistent, he says, it should also hold that “the reader can no more create meaning than the author can,” he says.

The fact that Kristeva and Barthes were dogmatic with their theories is not an over-exaggerated argument,  but that never put any major dent on their school of criticism or philosophy. All it did was weaken their theory.

Yet it seems Irwin is suffering from partial amnesia  by using Kristeva’s school as the reason why the desire to transfer power from the author to the reader still exists …

Did someone say Yale School of Deconstruction ?

The Tyranny Of the Yale Critics [The New York Times ( March 16, 1986)]

To be fair, it was Paul de Man’s (more than Jacques Derrida or Harold Bloom  ) past actions that led to the Yale Scandal.

The Case of Paul de Man [ The New York Times (August 28, 1988)]

Paul de Man: The Plot Thickens [The New York Times (May 24, 1992)]

But even after all the scandals,  the late 90s saw an attempt to separate de Man’s personal life from his academic work. There are numerous white papers and essays aimed at filtering the concepts. Here is a good example:

Paul de Man’s “Semiology and Rhetoric”

It all becomes pointless (and a waste of time)   when someone like Irwin tries to capitalize on a political fad while trying to make it sound academic. 

Defenders of intention determines meaning seem to fear that if we deny this notion, we place readers above authors and it opens the door to “anything goes” in interpretation.

Certain doors open only when the reader consciously wants to be a solipsist. Using it as an argument to kill Intertextuality is pointless because the author’s intention or even determinancy of meaning becomes irrelevant to this particular reader.

As for authors using allusion, I respect them for the power of their creations to stimulate endless thoughts and give rise to a variety of readings.

A good number of modern literary criticism seems to be focusing on reception theory and reader-response criticism.  So let me do a mini Morass & Muse on this subject.

Let me once again exploit KB’s Poi (as a self-parody created using pastiche  )… Uday Kiran’s character is crafted to begin as a Type 1 reader ( Daydream) and Vimala Raman as a Type 2 reader ( Reflection) as it relates to the theme: translation of literature. (There are many other forms of criticism, but these two types dominate modern literary criticism esp. Bloom’s school)

Type 1 appeals to the reader’s sense of discovery and cognitive coherence (Yes… I still say Its cool to be a fool) to the person’s ability to detect, connect, and interpret implicit, ambiguous, or incomplete textual information. This involves more mental than reflective activity of the reader .

Type 2 appeals to the reader’s sense of empathy with human fate, building upon the tension between:

  • desire vs reality
  • expectation vs result
  • hope vs disappointment
  • nature vs nurture

Type 1 is considered spatial and circular, while Type 2 is essentially temporal and linear.

These two types are mostly built on psychological theory of Sigmund Freud ( another genius to abuse literature with his Oedipus complex ) and Wolfgang Iser’s phenomenological reception theory.

First Freud abused Literature to build his theories and then many writers abused Freudian theories to create characters.

What happens to the reception theory when the so-called implied reader is consciously aware of the two types?

Links to other articles:

Critical Theory: Introduction to Literature

Captive Ape: Reader-Response Criticism

Ohio University Literary Criticism

Approaches to Reading and Interpretation

Reader-Response under review: art, game or science?

Reader-Response Criticism



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Morass & Muse With A Fuse

A train of thoughts set on linestowards an unknown destination… 

Drop a few letters…      

A rain of oughts set on lies wars a known nation…

Theories end… Concepts begin…


The word ‘morass’ carries two meanings:

  1. A complicated or confused situation
  2. An area of soft wet ground in which it is easy to get stuck. [LITERARY]

The word ‘muse’ carries three meanings:

  1. Say to oneself in a thoughtful manner
  2. An imaginary being or force that gives someone ideas and helps them to write, paint or make music. [LITERARY]
  3. In Greek and Roman mythology, each of the nine goddesses who preside or give encouragement in different areas of arts and science. [LITERARY]

The word ‘fuse’ carries four meanings:

  1. Blend, join or become combined. (i.e. Fusion)
  2. Cause to melt (together) especially at a high temperature.
  3. Safety part in a electrical device or a piece of machinary which causes it to stop working if the current is too high and so prevents fires or other dangers.
  4. A string or piece of paper connected to a firework or other explosive item by which it is lit, or a device inside a bomb which causes it to explode after a fixed length of time.

Simpleton’s morass and muse on  Arts & Literature with Science begins…

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