Subjective Reader Response Theory

In stark contrast to affective stylistics and to all forms of transactional reader response theory, subjective reader-response theory does not call for the analysis of textual cues. For subjective reader-response critics, led by the work of David Bleich, readers’ responses are the text, both in the sense that there is no literary text beyond the meanings created by readers’ interpretations and in the sense that the text the critic analyzes is not the literary work but the written responses of readers. Let’s look at each of these two claims more closely.

To understand how there is no literary text beyond the meanings created by readers’ interpretations, we need to understand how Bleich defines the literary text. Like many other reader-response critics, he differentiates between what he calls real objects and symbolic objects. Real objects are physical objects, such as tables, chairs, cars, books, and the like. The printed pages of a literary text are real objects. However, the experience created when someone reads those printed pages, like language itself, is a symbolic object because it occurs not in the physical world but in the conceptual world, that is, in the mind of the reader. This is why Bleich calls reading—the feelings, associations, and memories that occur as we react subjectively to the printed words on the page—symbolization: our perception and identification of our reading experience create a conceptual, or symbolic, world in our mind as we read. Therefore, when we interpret the meaning of the text, we are actually interpreting the meaning of our own symbolization: we are interpreting the meaning of the conceptual experience we created in response to the text. He thus calls the act of interpretation resymbolization. Resymbolization occurs when our experience of the text produces in us a desire for explanation. Our evaluation of the text’s quality is also an act of resymbolization: we don’t like or dislike a text; we like or dislike our symbolization of it. Thus, the text we talk about isn’t really the text on the page: it’s the text in our mind.

Because the only text is the text in the mind of the reader, this is the text analyzed by subjective reader-response critics, for whom the text is equated with the written responses of readers. Bleich, whose primary interest is pedagogical, offers us a method for teaching students how to use their responses to learn about literature or, more accurately, to learn about literary response. For contrary to popular opinion, subjective criticism isn’t an anything-goes free-for-all. It’s a coherent, purposeful methodology for helping our students and ourselves produce knowledge about the experience of reading.

Before we look at the specific steps in that methodology, we need to understand what Bleich means by producing knowledge. Subjective criticism and what he calls the subjective classroom are based on the belief that all knowledge is subjective— the perceived can’t be separated from the perceiver— which is a belief held today by many scientists and historians as well as by many critical theorists. What is called “objective” knowledge is simply whatever a given community believes to be objectively true. For example, Western science once accepted the “objective” knowledge that the earth is flat and the sun revolves around it. Since that time, Western science has accepted several different versions of “objective” knowledge about the earth and the sun. The most recent scientific thinking suggests that what we take to be objective knowledge is actually produced by the questions we ask and the instruments we use to find the answers. In other words, “truth” isn’t an “objective” reality waiting to be discovered; it’s constructed by communities of people to fulfill specific needs produced by specific historical, sociological, and psychological situations.

Treating the classroom as a community, Bleich’s method helps students learn how communities produce knowledge and how the individual member of the community can function as a part of that process. To summarize Bleich’s procedure, students are asked to respond to a literary text by writing a response statement and then by writing an analysis of their own response statement, both of which tasks are performed as efforts to contribute to the class’s production of knowledge about reading experiences. Let’s look at each of these two steps individually.

Although Bleich believes that, hypothetically, every response statement is valid within the context of some group of readers for whose purpose it is useful, he stresses that, in order to be useful to the classroom community, a response statement must be negotiable into knowledge about reading experiences. By this he means that it must contribute to the group’s production of knowledge about the experience of reading a specific literary text, not about the reader or the reality outside the reader. Response statements that are reader oriented substitute talk about oneself for talk about one’s reading experience. They are confined largely to comments about the reader’s memories, interests, personal experiences, and the like, with little or no reference to the relationship between these comments and the experience of reading the text. Reader-oriented response statements lead to group discussions of personalities and personal problems that may be useful in a psychologist’s office but, for Bleich, do not contribute to the group’s understanding of the reading experience at hand.

Analogously, response statements that are reality oriented substitute talk about issues in the world for talk about one’s reading experience. They are confined largely to the expression of one’s opinions about politics, religion, gender issues, and the like, with little or no reference to the relationship between these opinions and the experience of reading the text. Reality-oriented response statements lead to group discussions of moral or social issues, which members claim the text is about, but such response statements do not contribute to the group’s understanding of the reading experience at hand. In contrast, the response statements Bleich promotes are experience oriented. They discuss the reader’s reactions to the text, describing exactly how specific passages made the reader feel, think, or associate. Such response statements include judgments about specific characters, events, passages, and even words in the text. The personal associations and memories of personal relationships that are woven throughout these judgments allow others to see what aspects of the text affected the reader in what ways and for what reasons. Bleich cites one student’s description of the ways in which particular characters and events in a text reminded her of her sexuality as a young girl. Her response statement moved back and forth between her reactions to specific scenes in the text and the specific experiences they recalled in her adolescence.

A group discussion produced by this student’s subjective response could go in any number of directions, some of them quite traditional. For example, the group might discuss whether or not one’s opinion of this particular text depends on feelings one has left over from one’s adolescent experiences. Or the group might discuss whether or not the text is an expression of the author’s adolescent feelings or of the repressive sexual mores of the culture in which the author lived. Even in the case of these last two examples, for which students would have to seek biographical and historical data, the questions themselves would have been raised by a reader’s response and by the group’s reaction to that response, so there probably would be a higher degree of personal engagement than would occur ordinarily for students on whom such an assignment had been imposed. The point is that response statements are used within a context determined by the group. The group decides, based on the issues that emerge from experience oriented response statements, what questions they want answered and what topics they want to pursue.

In addition, the experience-oriented response statement is analyzed by the reader in a response-analysis statement. Here the reader (1) characterizes his or her response to the text as a whole; (2) identifies the various responses prompted by different aspects of the text, which, of course, ultimately led to the student’s response to the text as a whole; and (3) determines why these responses occurred. Responses may be characterized, for example, as enjoyment, discomfort, fascination, disappointment, relief, or satisfaction, and may involve any number of emotions, such as fear, joy, and anger. A student’s response-analysis statement might reveal that certain responses resulted, for example, from identification with a particular character, from the vicarious fulfillment of a desire, from the relief of (or increase of) a guilty feeling, or the like. The goal here is for students to understand their responses, not merely report them or make excuses for them. Thus, a response-analysis statement is a thorough, detailed explanation of the relationship among specific textual elements, specific personal responses, and the meaning the text has for the student as a result of his or her personal encounter with it.

It is interesting to note that, as Bleich points out, students using the subjective approach probably focus on the same elements of the text they would select if they were writing a traditional “objective” essay. To test this hypothesis, Bleich had his students respond to a literary text, not by writing a response statement and a response-analysis statement but by writing a meaning statement and a response statement. The meaning statement explained what the student thought was the meaning of the text, without reference to the student’s personal responses. In contrast, the response statement, just like the one discussed above, recorded how the text produced specific personal reactions and memories of personal relationships and experiences. Bleich found that students’ response statements clearly revealed the personal sources of their meaning statements, whether or not students were aware of the relationship between the two. In other words, even when we think we’re writing traditional “objective” interpretations of literary texts, the sources of those interpretations lie in the personal responses evoked by the text. One of the virtues of the subjective approach is that it allows students to understand why they choose to focus on the elements they do and to take responsibility for their choices.

In addition, by writing detailed response statements, students often learn that more was going on for them during their reading experience than they realized. Some students discover that they benefited from a reading experience that they would have considered unpleasant or worthless had they not put forth the effort to think carefully and write down their responses. Students can also learn, by comparing their response statements to those of classmates or by contrasting their current response to a text with a response they remember having at an earlier age, how diverse and variable people’s perceptions are, how various motives influence our likes and dislikes, and how adult reading preferences are shaped by childhood reading experiences.

From group discussions of response statements and from their own response analysis statements, students can also learn how their own tastes and the tastes of others operate. As Bleich notes, one’s announcement that one likes or dislikes a text, character, or passage is not enough to articulate taste. Rather, students must analyze the psychological pay-offs or costs the text creates for them and  describe how these factors create their likes and dislikes. There’s a big difference between knowing what you like and understanding your taste, and it is the latter goal that is, for Bleich, the appropriate goal for the classroom. Indeed, he believes that the organized examination of taste promoted in the subjective classroom is a natural place for students to begin their study of language and literature. The focus on self-understanding is extremely motivating for most students, and Bleich’s subjective method fosters a kind of critical thinking that should prove useful to students throughout their lives because it shows that knowledge is created collaboratively, not just “handed down,” and that its creation is motivated by personal and group concerns.

Source: Critical Theory Today:A User-Friendly Guide, Loistyson Second Edition, Routledge.

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