Affective Stylistics

faculty-page-fish-stanley.jpgAffective stylistics is derived from analyzing further the notion that a literary text is an event that occurs in time—that comes into being as it is read—rather than an object that exists in space. The text is examined closely, often line by line or even word by word, in order to understand how (stylistics) it affects (affective) the reader in the process of reading. Although there is thus a great deal of focus on the text, which is why some theorists consider this approach transactional in nature, many practitioners of affective stylistics do not consider the text an objective, autonomous entity—it does not have a fixed meaning independent of readers—because the text consists of the results it produces, and those results occur within the reader. For example, when Stanley Fish describes how a text is structured, the structure he describes is the structure of the reader’s response as it occurs from moment to moment, not the structure of the text as we might assemble it—like puzzle pieces all spread out at once before us—after we’ve finished reading. Nevertheless, affective stylistics is not a description of the reader’s impressionistic responses but a cognitive analysis of the mental processes produced by specific elements in the text. Indeed, it is the “slow-motion,” phrase-by-phrase analysis of how the text structures the reader’s response for which affective stylistics is perhaps best known.

Some of the finest examples of this procedure have been produced by Fish. To see how this approach works, let’s take a look at his analysis of the following sentence.

That Judas perished by hanging himself, there is no certainty in Scripture: though in one place it seems to affirm it, and by a doubtful word hath given occasion to translate it; yet in another place, in a more punctual description, it maketh it improbable, and seems to overthrow it. (“Literature” 71)

According to Fish, the question “What does this sentence mean?” or “What does this sentence say?” yields little because the sentence provides us with no facts with which we could answer the question. Even if we notice that the sentence does say something—it says that Scripture gives us no clear indication of whether or not Judas hanged himself—his point is that the sentence tells us only that it is unable to tell us anything. In contrast, he notes, the question  “What does the sentence do to the reader?” or “How does the reader of this sentence make meaning?” yields something quite useful.

What this passage about Judas does, Fish notes, is move the reader from certainty to uncertainty. The first clause, “that Judas perished by hanging himself” (which, as most of us know, is a kind of shorthand for “the fact that Judas perished by hanging himself”), is an assertion we accept as a statement of fact. We thus begin with a feeling of certainty that leads us, without our being quite conscious of it, to anticipate a number of possible ways the sentence might end, all of which would confirm our certainty that Judas hanged himself. Fish offers these three examples of the kinds of endings the first clause leads us to expect.

1. That Judas perished by hanging himself is (an example for us all).
2. That Judas perished by hanging himself shows (how conscious he was of the enormity of his sin).
3. That Judas perished by hanging himself should (give us pause). (“Literature” 71)

These expectations narrow the possible meanings of the next three words in the passage: “there is no.” At this point, the reader expects to see “there is no doubt,” but is given instead “there is no certainty.” Now the fact of Judas’ hanging himself, upon which our understanding of the sentence has rested, becomes uncertain. Now the reader is involved in a completely different kind of activity. As Fish puts it, “Rather than following an argument along a well-lighted path (a light, after all, has gone out), [the reader] is now looking for one” (“Literature” 71). In such a situation, the reader will tend to read on in hopes of finding clarification. But as we continue to read the passage, our uncertainty only increases as we move back and forth between words that seem to promise clarity—“place,” “affirm,” “place,” “punctual,” “overthrow”—and words that seem to withdraw that promise: “though,” “doubtful,” “yet,” “improbable,” “seems.” Uncertainty is further increased by the excessive use of the pronoun it because, as the sentence progresses, the reader has more and more difficulty figuring out what it refers to.

Such analyses are performed by reader-response critics in order to map the pattern by which a text structures the reader’s response while reading. This response is then used to show that the meaning of the text does not consist of the final conclusion we draw about what the text says; rather, the meaning of the text consists of our experience of what the text does to us as we read it. For a text is an event that occurs in time: it acts on us as we read each word and phrase. As we just saw, Fish’s passage first reinforces a belief about Judas the reader probably already holds and then takes that reinforcement away, leading the reader on in hopes of finding an answer that is never provided. If the kind of experience created in this passage is repeated throughout the text from which the passage is taken, then a reader-response critic might say that the text teaches us, through a pattern of raised expectations disappointed, how to read that text and, perhaps,  how to read the world: we must expect to have our expectation of acquiring sure knowledge raised and disappointed. We desire sure knowledge. We pursue it, and we expect to get it. But this text teaches us that we cannot be certain of anything. In other words, for a reader-response critic, this text isn’t primarily about Judas or Scripture but about the experience of reading.

In addition to an analysis of the reading activities that structure the reader’s response, other kinds of evidence are usually gathered to further support the claim that the text is about the experience of reading. For example, most practitioners of affective stylistics will cite the responses of other readers—of other literary critics, for example—to show that their own analyses of the reading activities provided by a particular text are valid for readers other than just themselves. A critic might even cite an extreme divergence of critical opinion about the text to support, for example, the contention that the text provides an unsettling, decentering, or confusing reading experience. This wouldn’t mean that the text is flawed but that by unsettling the reader it demonstrates, say, the fact that interpretation of written texts, and perhaps of the world, is a problematic endeavor from which we should not expect to achieve certainty.

Thematic evidence from the text itself is also usually provided to show that the text is about the experience of reading. For example, the reader-response critic shows how the experiences of characters and descriptions of settings mirror the reader’s experience reading the text. If I were to claim that Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902) provides a reading experience that keeps the reader off balance, unsure of how to interpret the characters and events unfolded by the plot, I would start, as we’ve just seen, by analyzing the reading activities that produce the uncertainty. Then I would show that the reader’s experience of uncertainty is mirrored in Marlow’s uncertainty—his inability to interpret Kurtz—and in the recurring references to darkness and obscurity (which are metaphors for uncertainty) that occur in the descriptions of the jungle, the company headquarters in Europe, and the deck of the ship on which Marlow tells his story. I would also look for images described in the text that serve as emblems of the reading experience I’ve described. Of course, reading materials or acts of reading described in the story work especially well for this purpose. For example, the tattered book that Marlow finds abandoned in the jungle, which he is unable to read, is emblematic of his, and our, inability to decipher what we see before us. Marlow doesn’t even know what language the book is written in: he thinks it’s some form of code language; he later learns that it’s written in Russian.

As noted above, the textual evidence at this point is thematic: the critic shows that the theme of the text is a particular kind of reading experience, such as the difficulties involved in reading, the processes involved in making sense of the text, or the inevitability of misreading. Although many practitioners of  affective stylistics believe that the text, as an independent object, disappears in their analysis and becomes what it really is—an experience that occurs within the reader—their use of thematic evidence, as we’ve just seen, underscores the important role played by the text in establishing what the reader’s experience is.

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